Skip to main content

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.
Paperback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…