Thursday, 27 January 2011

Quantify! – Göran Grimvall ***

There’s a class of book that isn’t really a popular science book, yet is likely to be to be of interest to many popular science readers. This is just such a book. It’s an excellent piece of work with lots of fascinating information inside, yet fairly large chunks of it are more of interest to those who study the workings of science, or who use numbers, than readers who are looking for entertaining reading.
The concept is simple. To look at how numbers are used in science and in presenting information to the public and to pull apart the disciplines involved to get a good understanding of what’s going on. The result is highly informative and sometimes fascinating. I loved, for example, the way he demonstrates that the 5,000 metre athletics record is effectively meaningless, because the times measured are much more accurate than the distance – to the extent that any measurement of time below half a second is worthless. I also was bowled over by the counter-intuitive section on how we get it wrong when we try to combine the speed of a plane with a wind on a return journey.
However there is an equal amount of information in here, in fact probably the majority of the little essays, where the response is either ‘Huh?’ or ‘So?’ I think a lot of the aspects of the application of number covered are a touch esoteric or downright boring, when seen as popular science. I also think the text can be a little dry.
Occasionally, also, the author is a touch sneery. For example he talks about what is sometimes called ‘the Baywatch principle’ (though he doesn’t use this term). This is the idea that if you see someone drowning in the sea and have to run across the beach and through the water, the fastest route is not towards them, but at an angle away from them initially, so you spend more time running on sand (fast) and less time running through the water (slow). He points out how this principle of least action – extremely useful in optics and quantum electrodynamics – makes relatively little difference on the beach rescue in a way that makes it seem like he is looking down his nose at people who make use of this approach.
I’d say there will be a real split on this book. If you like your popular science fun and light, this probably isn’t the one for you. But if you are the kind of person who actually works out the solutions at the end of a chapter in a book that has some ‘try it yourself’ problems, then you will find it wonderful. The decision is yours.
Review by Brian Clegg

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