Skip to main content

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.
Also in Hardback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Bits to Bitcoin - Mark Stuart Day ***

When I saw the title of this book, I got all excited - at last we were going to get an explanation of bitcoin for the rest of us, who struggle to understand what the heck it really involves. There certainly is an explanation of bitcoin, but it comes in chapter 26 - in practice, the book contains far more. Almost every popular computer science title I've read has effectively been history of computer science - this is one of the first examples I've ever come across that is actually trying to make the 'science' part of computer science accessible to the general reader.

I don't mean by this that it's an equivalent of Programming for Dummies. Instead, Bits to Bitcoin takes the reader through the concepts lying behind programming. If we think of programming as engineering, this is the physics that the engineering depends on. This is a really interesting proposition. Many years ago, I was a professional programmer, but I never studied computer science, so I was only fa…

Through Two Doors at Once - Anil Ananthaswamy *****

It's sometimes hard to imagine that there's anything new to say about the basics of quantum physics, yet Anil Ananthaswamy manages this in a twofold manner (appropriately, given the title). Through Two Doors at Once does so by using the double slit experiment as a constant reference point throughout the book, and by bringing in a number of the more modern variants on the experiment which rarely feature in popular accounts of quantum theory.

Strictly, the book should probably be called 'Through Two Doors at Once and Spooky Action at a Distance plus Things That Have a Similar Effect', as it uses both the double slit experiment and the EPR entanglement thought experiment, plus modern experiments which don't, for example, involve slits but rather beam splitters that are their logical equivalent - but I have to admit, that would be a clumsy title.

Ananthaswamy gives us a good overview of the development of quantum physics - sometimes quite summary - but by making repea…

By the Pricking of Her Thumb (SF) - Adam Roberts *****

Sometimes a sequel betters the original - think Terminator 2 - and Adam Roberts has done this with his follow-up to The Real-Town Murders. (It's sensible to read the first book before this: while it's not essential, there are plenty of references you will miss otherwise.)

Ostensibly this is a murder mystery, or, as Roberts tells us, a combination of a howdunnit and a whodunnit-to, as the central character Alma is called on to work out how someone found with a needle stuck through her thumb was killed and which of a group of four super-rich individuals is dead when all claim to still be alive - though one of the group who hires Alma is convinced that the death has occurred. 

However, this is anything but a conventional murder mystery - far more so than the strange crimes suggest. Alma and her partner Marguerite (the latter still trapped by an engineered polyvalent illness that requires treatment every 4 hours and 4 minutes) don't do a lot of detecting. In fact Marguerite hard…