Skip to main content

I Used to Know That: General Science – Marianne Taylor ***

This pocket-sized book grew out of a more general I Used to Know That title, published in 2008, which covered the basics of maths, science, geography, history and English that you were taught at school but may have forgotten since. The aim is to revisit roughly GCSE-level science in an accessible way, and it turns out to be a handy and entertaining refresher course.
The book is in the format in which most people will have studied science at school – it is split up into three sections on physics, biology and chemistry. There were certain parts that particularly reminded me of being in the classroom – the graph showing the population fluctuations over time of a predator and its prey in the biology section, for example. And there’s occasionally a little on subjects there wasn’t time for at school – remarkably, for instance, quantum mechanics is covered briefly.
Author Marianne Taylor’s writing is light-hearted and approachable, making it easy to get through (I read it in one sitting over an hour and a half) and she makes science exciting – if your only memory of science from school is that it is dull and uninspiring, then this book will change your mind. There are one or two occasions where a subject is discussed a touch too quickly (the difference between meiosis and meitosis comes to mind), but this doesn’t take much away from the book as a whole.
I have a couple of small criticisms. At the very beginning of the book, Taylor explains (a little too briefly) what the scientific method is all about, and what the difference between science and pseudoscience is. My problem here is that the book’s one and only example of pseudoscience is a belief in God. I would just have avoided that and mentioned something else instead – there are plenty of examples to choose from, and the passage reads like it could end up alienating some readers before the main sections of the book have even begun.
I also think the author missed a good opportunity to give the reader good guidance about further reading. On the very last page of the book six titles are suggested, but it would have been more useful to list a few more books after the relevant chapters. And of the books suggested, Steven Rose’s The Chemistry of Life – which is very heavy going – and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time may not be the best books to go on to if you are returning to science after many years.
I don’t want to be too critical, however, as this is ultimately a fun book which by and large does a good job at reintroducing and making exciting the fundamentals of science.
Hardback:  
Review by Matt Chorley

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Logic - Eugenia Cheng ***

This is an important book, though I'm not sure Eugenia Cheng would agree with my logic in saying so. 

Going on the marketing, what we have here is a counter to fake news and dodgy argumentation in the form of mathematical logic. The back cover tells us 'Newspaper headlines and social media use emotions to warp the facts. Politicians and companies master rhetoric to mislead us. What one book could help us make sense of it all?' Admittedly they don't answer their rhetorical question, but I assume the answer is intended to be The Art of Logic. (Did the company behind this book realise it was using rhetoric, though presumably not to mislead us?) 

What we actually have is a combination of a lucid and interesting explanation of the basics of logic with the mathematical equivalent of those books such as Algorithms to Live By that were so popular a couple of years ago. They used the logic of algorithms (differently worded, and, to me, easier to understand), the heart of computer…

Quantum Economics - David Orrell ****

David Orrell's earlier title Economyths is one of my favourite popular science books of all time. Or, perhaps, I should say popular non-science, as Orrell shows just how devastatingly traditional economics uses the tools of science without having a scientific basis. I was, therefore, really looking forward to reading Orrell's new book - until I saw the title. As anyone involved with physics can tell you, there's nothing more irritating than the business of sticking the word 'quantum' onto something to give a pseudo-scientific boost to waffle and woo. Was Orrell doing the same thing? Thankfully, his introduction put my fears aside.

Orrell, a mathematician with a physics background quickly makes it clear that the way he is using quantum theory is not just employing magic words, but involves making use of strong parallels between the nature of quantum objects and concepts like money (more on money in a moment). Yes, this is to some extent a metaphorical use of quantum …

The Ashtray - Errol Morris *****

Wow. When someone suggested I read a book called The Ashtray, written by a documentary film-maker, it didn't strike me that it would be a book that gave deep insights into the history and philosophy of science - while also being a remarkable reading experience. In fact, I almost didn't bother with it, but I'm glad that I did.

The titular ashtray was thrown at the author when he was a grad student - thrown by one of the two best known names in the philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn, he of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the concept of paradigm shifts. Kuhn didn't like the young Errol Morris daring to challenge his ideas and reacted with what some would regard as a less than philosophical reply by hurling a heavy glass ashtray at him.

Part of the reason that reading The Ashtray is a remarkable experience is because it's a book that feels in some ways like watching a documentary. I have to confess I've never seen any of Morris's work, but he uses vis…