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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Mercury - William Sheehan ****

Driving to work one morning several years ago, I spotted a tiny white dot close to the rising sun. ‘That’s Venus,’ I said to myself. Almost immediately I saw another, much brighter dot a few degrees away. ‘No, that’s Venus – the first one must be, um ... Mercury.’ Even with a lifelong interest in astronomy, I always manage to forget Mercury.

With eight planets in the Solar System, one of them has to be the least interesting – and Mercury got the short straw. That’s a relative statement, though, and a diligent author could still dig up enough fascinating facts about that tiny dot by the Sun to fill a short book. William Sheehan has done a brilliant job of doing just that.

One of the reasons Mercury is so easy to forget is that it’s almost impossible to get a good view of it from Earth. Even after the invention of the telescope, which turned planets like Mars and Jupiter into explorable worlds, Mercury remained a mystery – and the subject of some pretty wild speculations. In 1686, for exa…

Everything You Know About Planet Earth is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

This is the latest of a series of 'Everything You Know About... is Wrong' books from Matt Brown. Although I always feel slightly hard done by as a result of the assertion in the title, as there are certainly things here I know that aren't wrong (I mean, come on, the first corrected piece of 'knowledge' is that 'The Earth is only 6,000 years old' and I can't imagine many readers will 'know' that), it's a handy format to provide what are often surprisingly little snippets of information that are very handy for 'did you know' conversations down the pub (or showing up your parents if you're a younger reader).

Some of the incorrect statements that head each article are well-covered, if often still believed (for example, people thought that world was flat before Columbus), some are a little tricksy in the wording (such as seas have to wash up against land) and some are just pleasantly surprising (countering the idea that gold is a rar…