Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Seven Wonders of the Universe – C. Renée James ***

There is a certain approach to writing popular science that I come across a lot in reviewing children’s science books. They belong to what I think of as the ‘Hey isn’t the universe wonderful!’ bright and breezy style. This often works well for children, but in a book for adults I can find it a bit wearing. If not pitched just right, it can feel rather condescending, as if the readers are being treated like children. Whether or not it’s condescending we will discover, but ‘Hey, wow, gee whiz!’ is certainly the style of this book.
We start with a little trip out into the backyard, doing a mundane task (putting out the trash), but Renée James reveals to us that there is nothing mundane about the experience when you really take in what’s going on. This is rather nice. From it, she derives seven ‘wonders of the universe’ which will form the structure of the book. The division into these seven topics is sometimes a bit arbitrary, so the section on Night (not exactly much of a science concept) ends up skating around gravity ( which is another section) when talking about tides (no, I don’t know what tides have to do with night either).
What is certainly true is that despite the breezy approach, the author manages to pack a lot in, and doesn’t shy away from relativity and quantum theory and all those good things, even though she also tackles the more mundane aspects of science. In this respect it’s excellent (although there have been so many ‘all of science’ books recently that it’s perhaps time we got back to focussing in on a bit more detail). However to do this in the book’s style does tend to result in over simplification. So, for example, she blithely says that because of the expanding universe all galaxies are moving away from ours, which isn’t really factually accurate.
To help make it more approachable and cuddly it is scattered with rather strange illustrations by Lee Jamison. These are full page sketches in a sort of comic form, often anthropomorphising physical objects like particles, giving them rather hideous faces. I’m not sure there is a lot of benefit from the illustrations, which don’t really add much, other that to emphasize that this is an ‘approachable’ view on science.
There seems to have been limited communication between the writer and the illustrator. I deduce this because on a little section on ‘Why is the sky blue?’, James gives the correct explanation – because the light is scattered by the air molecules, and blue light is scattered more than red. (It’s a good illustration of the writing style that we are told: ‘Because of its longer wavelength and easy-going personality, red light tends to be bothered less… than more energetic, hyperactive blue light… Blue light [...] has a panic attack when it hits molecules in the air…’ Easy-going personality?? But on the whole, apart from one slip, the main text correctly ascribes the blue sky to interaction with air molecules. But the illustration says that ‘Longer wavelength photons, like red are disturbed less by dust in the air.’ It is reverting to the incorrect Victorian explanation that the blue sky is caused by dust. (The main text mentions dust once, but seems to have been corrected to air molecules elsewhere.) Practically every book has a few mistakes, but this is made more glaring by the illustration.
Overall, in terms of the information that’s put across there really is a lot going for this book, but the style is one that you will love or hate, and it tends to be too summary in many aspects of what it’s covering (an almost inevitable side effect of trying to cover everything). It’s not a bad book by any means, but I find it difficult to be enthusiastic about it. I would much of preferred with half the content and more detail, or reworked as a children’s book.
Also in hardback:  
Review by Jo Reed

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