Skip to main content

30 Second Theories – Paul Parsons (Ed.) ***

Books are pretty much of a muchness physically, so it’s really nice when a publisher comes up with something different, as is the case with 30 Second Theories. It’s shaped like a small coffee table book, and the dustcoverless outer cover is a textured brown stuff that makes this elegant hardback feel rather special. Inside, glossy pages pit a page of text against a full page of illustration – a sort of adult Dorling Kindersley format, except the pictures, though artistic, rarely convey a lot of information, which makes them a bit of a waste of space.
The challenging task the book sets out to fill is to cover all of science in 50 snippets that can be read in 30 seconds each. There are some worries about this format. One is that it just isn’t practical to do anything useful in that amount of text. My pocket Instant Egghead Physics covers physics alone in 100 rather longer snippets – to do the whole of science in 50 seems an unlikely possibility. There’s also the value for money argument. 50 lots of 30 seconds is 25 minutes. Is £12.99 an acceptable price for 25 minutes of reading?
When we get into the meat of it, there’s certainly some good stuff in here. The articles are written by a mix of authors, some better than others at capturing a subject in a few lines. The lesser contributions are vague woffly summaries, but some of the authors do really manage to raise interest in a topic – only, of course to leave you wanting a lot more. I think what would have transformed this book is if each page, as well as the totally useless snippets of information like dates of birth of key figures, also listed three or four books that concentrated on the specific topic, so someone interested could get into more depth, using this book as a taster. (In fact the publisher still could do this on a website, so you could click through and buy the other books. They would have to be brave enough to recommend other publishers’ books, but it would be really worthwhile.)
That way, if entanglement took your fancy (and it should), you could be pointed to my book The God Effect, or if you wanted to find out more about the woeful unscientific nature of complimentary and alternative medicine, you could be referred to Singh and Ernst’s excellent Trick or Treatment.
Mentioning complimentary and alternative medicine highlights one of the oddities of the book. There are at least two of the 50 articles on something that isn’t really science at all – the medicine one, which while mildly disparaging really doesn’t reflect how poor the basis of these treatments is – and one on psychoanalysis, which has pretty widely been discredited as any form of science. It’s doubly weird that Freud appears in one of the handful of biographies of key figures (just 7 in total). He wasn’t a scientist at all, and has contributed practically nothing of value. Almost as odd is having a biography of James Lovelock – definitely a scientist, but hardly in the Newton and Einstein class. This is just strange.
Occasionally the brevity required means that the articles comes close to not really getting it right. Some science simply can’t be described in this length of piece, and the contraction can only lead to confusion. There’s also the odd case where the illustration (I wonder who came up with the content of these?) simply doesn’t reflect reality. For instance, the illustration for natural selection describes it as a ‘knock-out punch for religion.’ Hardly. Some of the illustrations had if anything a negative benefit.
Overall, then, a curate’s egg. It’s a noble venture, and could have worked with a bit more content and recommended books for each topic. But as it stands I really can’t see who is going to benefit from it.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …

Six Impossible Things - John Gribbin *****

On first handling John Gribbin's book, it's impossible not to think of Carlo Rovelli's Seven Brief Lessons in Physics - both are very slim, elegant hardbacks with a numbered set of items within - yet Six Impossible Things is a far, far better book than its predecessor. Where Seven Brief Lessons uses purple prose and vagueness in what feels like a scientific taster menu, Gribbin gives us a feast of precision and clarity, with a phenomenal amount of information for such a compact space. It's a TARDIS of popular science books, and I loved it.

Like rather a lot of titles lately (notably Philip Ball's excellent Beyond Weird), what Gribbin is taking on is not the detail of quantum physics itself - although he does manage to get across its essence in two 'fits' (named after the sections of Hunting of the Snark - Gribbin includes Lewis Carroll's epic poem in his recommended reading, though it's such a shame that the superb version annotated by Martin Gardi…

Elizabeth Bear - Four Way Interview

Elizabeth Bear won the John W. Campbell award for Best New Writer in 2005 and has since published 15 novels and numerous short stories. She writes in both the SF and fantasy genres and has won critical acclaim in both. She has won the Hugo Award more than once. She lives in Massachusetts. Her latest title is Ancestral Night.

Why science fiction?

I've been a science fiction fan my entire life, and I feel like SF is the ideal framework for stories about humanity and how we can be better at it. Not just cautionary tales - though there's certainly also value in cautionary tales - but stories with some hope built in that we might, in fact, mature as a species and take some responsibility for things like reflexive bigotry and hate crimes (as I'm writing this, the heartbreaking news about the terrorist attack on Muslim worshipers in Christchurch is everywhere) and global climate destabilization. These are not intractable problems, but we need, as a species, the will to see that we …