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Boffinology – Justin Pollard *****

If I’m honest I started off with two chips on my shoulder about this book. The first is that the publicity made a lot of author Justin Pollard’s connection with the TV show QI, which though enjoyable, always tends to come across as a little full of itself. The other was the writing style. The author adopts the sort of breezy near-humour that works well in children’s books, but can feel a little forced in an adult title.
However, as I began to read and enjoy myself, the chips fell away. This book is simply great fun – and the style settles down a bit (much as Douglas Adams had the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy do), so this doesn’t get in the way of the enjoyment. The title is probably a touch baffling, especially if you don’t know what a ‘boffin’ is (old fashion British term, roughly corresponding to a sort of middle aged proto-geek) – but in practice the book consists of a series of short and easily digested stories about scientists, their theories and their discoveries.
In a recent review for another publication, I commented that the book I was reviewing made A Brief History of Time look like bedtime reading. This book makes itself look like bedtime reading. It’s in short, digestible chunks and is highly entertaining. Some of the stories, featuring practically every historical name in science and a good few who really haven’t been remembered, cover typical QI-style surprising facts and things you didn’t expect, others are just simply excellent stories of achievement, wonder or stupidity.
I wanted to pick out a specific story that had delighted me, but there were so many to choose from, I was a little stumped. I think because it was the one I most wanted to tell the world about (and blogged about here), it was probably the story concerning Hans Selye and stress.
The only significant problem I had with the book is that it rather lost impetus in the final third. These later stories had less of a punch and we had quite a few that were only there because of an interesting bit of biography, rather than any real relevance to science. There were also one or two oddities. In describing the scientific paper ‘wittily’ ascribed to scientists Alpher, Bethe and Gamow, the book more than once refers to this using the relevant Greek letters – only instead of alpha, beta, gamma, they have actually put alpha, beta, chi. That’s just weird. Pollard also missed a trick in describing the story of the development of aspirin. Perhaps the best bit of the story is that for obscure reasons, aspirin was included in the treaty that ended the First World War, so it became a generic drug in the UK, while it remained a trademarked product in the rest of the world.
I am often asked for recommendations for a science book to give as a gift – and this is ideal. It has some surprising science, interesting people and plenty of entertainment. Excellent stuff.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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