Wednesday, 19 January 2011

How to Live Forever – Alok Jha ***

I admit, I am bit of sucker for the ‘wild and wonderful’ style of popular science book, so I was salivating as I sat down in Starbucks* to make a start on How to Live Forever, which is subtitled ‘and 34 other really interesting uses of science.’ What I found, I am afraid, was a bit of a disappointment. There’s nothing much wrong with the book – it’s one of the ‘summary of most of science’ books that seem all the rage at the moment, but the staid contents simply didn’t reflect the sell on the cover, nor the sense of fun and excitement the approach seems to suggest.
There is the feeling here of a book that has been forced into a format that it wasn’t designed for. Each of the 35 sections is headed ‘How to…’ like the title one, so we read, for instance, such intriguing possibilities as ‘How to create a universe’ and ‘How to split the atom’, but we then get solid but not quite connected sections on big bang theory or nuclear bombs (though notably not how nuclear bombs are constructed). Even ‘How to live forever’ doesn’t really come close to a guide for doing this.
Most of the science in there is good and well presented, if rather uninspiringly written, with very little that was a surprise (or, to be honest, new). Perhaps the best bit for me, just because it broke out of the mould of the ‘everything you always wanted to know about science’ book was a section entitled ‘How to spot a pseudoscientist’, though even this missed the chance to give more practical guidance on telling the difference between pseudoscience and science – and also could have done more to show how it’s sometimes the case that a properly accepted scientific theory is held onto long after its sell by date.
I did have a couple of specific problems with the content. It was bizarre that the ‘What is light?’ subsection of ‘How to become invisible’ totally ignores photons. (These are then mentioned out of the blue later in the book, which makes for a real disconnect.) It’s straight Victorian wave theory of light. I was expecting to turn the page and come across phlogiston theory. I was also puzzled by the comment on the periodic table that ‘Mendeleev’s original table did not contain space for isotopes of the elements’ – I think I know what is meant, but it suggests that current tables have several entries for each element, showing the different isotopes, which isn’t the case.
Overall, it’s not a bad book, but it lacks that spark that makes for great popular science.
* The good news for the author is that while I sat in Starbucks, the cover was interesting enough to get someone at an adjacent table to ask me what the answer was. The bad news is that the book didn’t enable me to tell him.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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