Skip to main content

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.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

De/Cipher - Mark Frary ****

I was a little doubtful when I first saw this book. Although it has the intriguing tagline 'The greatest codes ever invented and how to crack them' the combination of a small format hardback and gratuitous illustrations made me suspect it would be a lightweight, minimal content, Janet and John approach to codes and ciphers. Thankfully, in reality Mark Frary manages to pack a remarkable amount of content into De/Cipher's slim form.

Not only do we get some history on and instructions to use a whole range of ciphers, there are engaging little articles on historical codebreakers and useful guidance on techniques to break the simpler ciphers. The broadly historical structure takes the reader through basic alphabetic manipulation, keys, electronic cryptography, one time pads and so on, all the way up to modern public key encryption and a short section on quantum cryptography. 

We even get articles on some of the best known unsolved ciphers, such as the Dorabella and the Voynich ma…

Paul McAuley - Four Way Interview

Paul McAuley won the Philip K. Dick Award for his first novel and has gone on to win the Arthur C. Clarke, British Fantasy, Sidewise and John W. Campbell Awards. He gave up his position as a research biologist to write full-time. He lives in London. His latest novel is Austral.


Why science fiction?

For one thing, I fell in love with science fiction at an early age, and haven’t yet fallen out of love with it (although I have flirted with other genres). For another, we’re living in an increasingly science-fictional present. Every day brings headlines that could have been ripped from a science-fiction story. Giant robot battle: Who knew a duel between chainsaw-armed mech suits could be so boring? for instance. Or, Roy Orbison hologram to embark on UK tour in 2018. And looming above all this, like Hokusai’s famous wave, are the ongoing changes caused by global warming and climate change, which is just one consequence of human activity having become the dominant force of change on the planet…

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…