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Everyday Practice of Science – Frederick Grinnell ***

This isn’t going to be a normal review. We try to review as many books as we can from those that make the Royal Society Prize for Science Writing longlist. According to the Society, this ‘aims to encourage the writing, publishing and reading of good and accessible popular science books’. On the whole this seems to be their aim. But sometimes, their academic leanings take over and they select a book that, while very good in its own sphere, simply doesn’t fit with that description ‘good and accessible popular science books.’ Such is Everyday Practice of Science.
Taken as what I believe it was intended to be – as a book for the academic audience to appreciate the realities of the scientific method (perhaps as an introductory text for a philosophy of science course) – this is a superb book. It’s concise, it really uncovers the difference between the theoretical scientific method and what actually happens. It has good examples from the real life experience of the author. It says what every working scientist knows – real science only bears a passing resemblance to the idealised ‘scientific method.’
However, taken as a ‘good and accessible popular science book’ it fails spectacularly. The style is mostly dull and lacks any ability to excite the reader. The examples (and I admit this is a personal bias) are almost all from biology, which I personally find less interesting than most subjects. And chapter after chapter there’s a feeling of ‘when is that popular science book going to begin?’ It’s like the whole thing is one of those prefaces by an academic that no one reads before they get onto the real popular science book.
The one exception is the chapter on science and religion. This does have more of a popular science feel, though even here the writing does get a little bogged down.
The fault here is absolutely that of the Royal Society’s committee – the author is blameless, as I’m sure he never thought he was writing a popular science book. The conclusion is simple. If you are starting on a history/philosophy of science course, or have an academic interest in the nature of scientific study, this is a great book you must have. If you are expecting something that the general audience can read with enjoyment, look elsewhere.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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