Sunday, 24 October 2010

Science: the definitive guide – Piers Bizony ***

Popular science books often seem to come in waves, and this is the second title we’ve had recently that attempts to cover all of science in one go, following the chunky Science 1001 by Paul Parsons. This is a massive undertaking and in this case the approach taken is to go for a massive format – a coffee table book 37 cm by 30 in size, and weighty enough to match at well over 2 kilos.
Inside are seven sections (Earth, climate, chemistry, biology, space, physics and cosmology), each of which consists of a series of Dorling-Kindersley style double page spreads on different topics, mixing lots of images (often including the background, which can make it a little difficult to read) with a fairly dry text. Each of these two page spreads is standalone – there is no feeling of flow from one to another, which means you don’t really get any sense of the significance of the subject or how the different aspects fit together. And given there relatively few spreads for each topic – chemistry, for instance, has 9 and physics 12) this means the coverage is patchy. Perhaps worst of all there is no feeling for the whole structure of science. Why is the most fundamental science, physics, left nearly until last? It’s a hotch-potch. If you happen to want to get a little background on one of the topics, then some of the spreads are like not-unreasonable illustrated encylopedia articles, but they could have been a lot better.
In the end, even if it were possible to give a good coverage of the whole of science in one book – something I’m personally doubtful of – the format acts against the effectiveness of this book. This format works well for what’s essentially a picture book, like the Hubble title from the same publisher, but for a book you want to actually read, this is just too big and too heavy. It’s not so much unputdownable and unpickupable. It’s not a bad attempt as an attempt at an adult version of a DK picture book, but it just doesn’t work for me.
Review by Brian Clegg

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