Tuesday, 21 September 2010

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.
Review by Matt Chorley

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