Thursday, 3 March 2011

The Instant Physicist – Richard A. Muller ***

Richard Muller is the author of one of my favourite popular science books of all time, Physics for Future Presidents. That book is such a neat idea, the physics you need to know about if you want to run the country. So I looked forward to his new title with interest. The Instant Physicist takes an illustrated take on getting the key points in physics across.
It’s a pocket sized hardback, set up as a series of two page spreads. On the right is a colour cartoon, very professionally done by Joey Manfre, illustrating a surprising observation that forms its caption. So, for example, we have ‘If not for the notorious greenhouse effect, the entire surface of the Earth would currently be frozen solid.’ or ‘The world’s first uranium reactor is 1.7 billion years old.’ Then on the left hand page there’s a simple explanation of the surprising fact, giving the basic science behind it. It’s a glossy book throughout.
The result kind of works, but there are a couple of problems. The format means there really isn’t a lot of text in there. Compared to my equivalent sized Instant Egghead Guide to Physics, for instance, there is only a tiny amount of content. Not everything essential can be driven by wow-amazing-facts, so it cherry picks, and there’s rather too much about radioactivity, I suspect Prof. Muller’s speciality, and not enough (say) quantum theory. The other thing is the layout is just wrong! You have to read the caption – on the right hand side of the spread – before you read the main text – on the left hand side. We have this fairly well known convention of reading left to right. Making the reader take in the right hand page before the left is silly and unnecessary.
So, not an entirely satisfactory experience, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that this is a fun idea, and it’s well produced. It might be best pressed into service as one of those books people keep in the toilet, where you dip into it and pick out just one article or two, then put it away for next time. And it would make an entertaining gift. But it could have been better.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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