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

Conjuring the Universe - Peter Atkins *****

It's rare that I'd use the term 'tour de force' when describing a popular science book, but it sprang to mind when I read Conjuring the Universe. It's not that the book's without flaws, but it does something truly original in a delightful way. What's more, the very British Peter Atkins hasn't fallen into the trap that particularly seems to influence US scientists when writing science books for the public of assuming that more is better. Instead of being an unwieldy brick of a book, this is a compact 168 pages that delivers splendidly on the question of where the natural laws came from.

The most obvious comparison is Richard Feynman's (equally compact) The Character of Physical Law - but despite being a great fan of Feynman's, this is the better book. Atkins begins by envisaging a universe emerging from absolutely nothing. While admitting he can't explain how that happened, his newly created universe still bears many resemblances to  nothing a…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Big Bang (Ladybird Expert) - Marcus Chown ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Marcus Chown does a remarkable job at packing in information on the big bang, given only around 25 sides of small format paper to work with. He gives us the concepts, plenty about the cosmic microwave background, plus the likes of dark energy, dark matter, inflation and the multiverse. To be honest, the illustrations were largely pointless, apart from maintaining the format, and it might have been better to have had more text - but I felt …