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.
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

Everything You Know About Space Is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

What we have here is a feast of assertions some people make about space that are satisfyingly incorrect, with pithy, entertaining explanations of what the true picture is. Matt Brown admits in his introduction that a lot of these incorrect facts are nitpicking - more on that in a moment - but it doesn't stop them being delightful. I particularly enjoyed the ones about animals in space and about the Moon.

Along the way, we take in space exploration, the Earth's place in space, the Moon, the solar system, the universe and a collection of random oddities, such as the fact that Mozart didn't write Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Sometimes the wrongness comes from a frequent misunderstanding. So, for example, Brown corrects the idea that Copernicus was the first to say that the Earth moves around the Sun. Sometimes there's some very careful wording. This is used when Brown challenges the idea that the Russian dog Laika was the first animal in space. What we discover is that, i…

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs - Lisa Randall ****

I did my PhD in galactic dynamics - which is an awkward subject when people want to know what its relevance to the 'real world' is. So I was excited when Clube and Napier's book The Cosmic Serpent came out, around the same time, because it provided me with a ready-made answer. It argued that the comets which occasionally crash into Earth with disastrous results - such as the extinction of the dinosaurs - are perturbed from their normal orbits by interactions with the large-scale structure of the galaxy.

I was reminded of this idea a few years ago when there was a flurry of media interest in Lisa Randall's "dark matter and the dinosaurs" conjecture. I was sufficiently enthusiastic about it to write an article on the subject for Fortean Times - though my enthusiasm didn't quite extend to purchasing her hardback book at the time. However, now that it's out in paperback I've remedied the situation - and I'm glad I did.

Dark matter is believed to exi…