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Why Can’t Elephants Jump? – Mick O’ Hare (Ed.) ***

Here we go again with another collection of 114 questions (there’s a title to the next book: Why 114 Questions in these Books?) that first appeared in the ‘Last Word’ section of New Scientist magazine. The format is simple – readers write in with questions, other readers provide answers, the best of which are published. The books contain the question, selected good answers and sometimes editorial comment.
I loved the earlier Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze?, and still got a lot out of the experiment-oriented How to Fossilize your Hamster. But I did comment in the Hamster review: ‘These books have been great but they aren’t really decent popular science books as they don’t have any narrative flow. The approach has been milked to death now – let’s see something different.’ I unfortunately did get a sense of diminishing returns this time around. Enough, already.
I’m not saying that some of the questions and answers weren’t good. I quite enjoyed, for instance, the title question, which was actually significantly better than the title of the book as ‘Is it true that elephants are the only quadrupeds that cannot jump’. I liked the attempt to work out how long it would take the Earth to freeze if the Sun went out, ‘Is it possible to be too cold to light a fire?’ and ‘Do mosquitoes get malaria?’ But I still had a slight feeling that the barrel was being scraped with many of the items, and increasingly found the replies irritating in their know-it-all way.
Don’t get me wrong, this remains an excellent present for those difficult-to-buy-for people (not for me, thanks, I’ve already got one. And it’s definitely interesting if you haven’t got the previous books (though if you haven’t, I’d go for Penguins’ Feet), but I couldn’t get as excited about this title as the earlier entries in the series.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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