Skip to main content

The Little Book of Unscientific Propositions, Theories and Things – Surendra Verma ****

The two most striking things about this book are its convenient size and the fact that it’s great fun to read. The fact that it can be slipped in a jacket pocket made it ideal when being a dad’s taxi and having to have a quick coffee waiting to do a pick up – The Little Book of etc. just slipped into my jacket pocket and was there to fill in a few minutes. It’s particularly effective for this sort of use (or as a loo book) because it consists of 100 little items that can be dipped into at will. Unlike many such books, though, it feels fine to read on through, as well as in short bursts.
Sometimes when I have a book to read for review, I come back to it thinking ‘Here we go again,’ but the ‘fun to read’ part of this book was in evidence that I was, instead, thinking ‘Excellent, let’s see what else is in there.’ As a foil to his excellent Little Book of Scientific etc, Surendra Verma covers a wide range of topics on the fringes of science. To be more precise, he goes from good science that would be practically impossible to do anything with (such as quantum teleportation and time travel), through speculative science (like tachyons and mirror matter), unlikely but genuinely interesting near-science (like Bauval’s Orion/pyramids theory) to total loony tunes pseudo science (homeopathy to quantum healing).
These different ventures into the hinterland between science and fiction throw up some fascinating little stories. As a hoax, for instance, I was aware of Piltdown Man (who gets an entry), but not of the fake biography of a M. Litre after which the volumetric unit was named. It really is very entertaining.
I do have a couple of reservations. One is in tone. Verma can be very dismissive, which is fine in the extreme of the spectrum, but less so elsewhere. When talking about near-death experiences, he comments that after the ‘dying process': ‘What happens then? Obviously nothing, as death is the final frontier and we have simply ceased to exist.’ It’s true that a lot of scientists are atheists, but that doesn’t make it scientific to dismiss something like this as ‘obviously…’ At least one put-down rather backfires. Verma comments that people who believe that they have been abducted by aliens: ‘tend to believe not only in alien abduction, but also things like UFOs and ESP.’ This is intended to show how gullible they are. Yet surely they would be highly illogical if they believed in abduction, but didn’t believe in UFOs?
There are also a few errors in the science. Pretty well every book has the odd mistake (mine certainly do) – but in a book that is implicitly criticizing people for irrational beliefs, it’s important to get your facts right. As an example, when talking about time travel, the book says that a spaceship travelling near the speed of light on a return trip to [Proxima] Centauri, ‘on return to Earth the crew would find that many decades had gone by.’ Given the journey would take around 9 years according to Newtonian physics, it is not going to take longer when taking relativity into account.
However, these slips don’t detract from the fact that this is a highly enjoyable and informative little book, exploring some of the more unlikely terrain between science and fruit loopery.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

UFO Drawings from the National Archives - David Clarke ***

This is a lovely little book that, sadly, not every reader will see the point of. If somebody’s anecdotal account of a presumed alien encounter is obviously a misperception of a mundane occurrence, or else too vague – or too far-fetched – to be taken seriously, then it’s all too easy to dismiss it as worthless. But that’s missing the point. The fact that so many incidents are reported in these terms makes the witnesses’ testimony worthy of serious study – to teach us, not about extraterrestrial civilisations, but about our own culture.

That was the core message of David Clarke’s excellent How UFOs Conquered the World published a couple of years ago. Now Clarke is back with another take on the same basic theme.  His day job is Reader and Principal Lecturer in Journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, but for the last ten years he’s also acted as consultant for the National Archives project to release all of Britain’s official Ministry of Defence (MoD) files on UFOs. Throughout the Cold…

Crashing Heaven (SF) - Al Robertson ****

There's an engaging mix of powerful thriller and science fiction in this impressive novel. After the Earth has been rendered uninhabitable, human life is limited to vast space station. Our central character, Jack, has a symbiotic artificial intelligence, Hugo Fist, designed to destroy other AIs in a mysterious collective that is said to have committed an atrocity - but with a kick in the tail that because of an unbreakable contract, Fist will take over Jack's body in a few weeks' time.

Al Robertson packs remarkable technology concepts into the cyber side of this story, from AI corporations that act as a pantheon of gods to the 'puppet' that is Fist (he usually come across as a virtual cross between Mr Punch and an evil ventriloquist's dummy). Robertson does all the cyber stuff so well that it's easy to miss that this is, in effect, a myth in electronic clothing - you could substitute the myths of 'real' Greek gods and magic for what happens here. Alt…

The Science of Food - Marty Jopson ****

This is a tasty little volume, packed with kitchen-based science. I must admit, when I saw that the author was the One Show's science expert and Marty Jopson's author photo has that 'Hey, I'm a mad scientist, kids!' look, my heart fell - I was sure the book would be the written equivalent of a 'Wow, look, aren't I clever, I can make this go bang!' science show - but, in fact, it's packed full of (appropriately) meaty scientific content.

I was really pleased that Jopson didn't stick purely to the chemistry of cooking, but launched with the working of some familiar kitchen gadgets - there was genuinely fascinating reading to be had about apparently humdrum equipment in the form of the physics and materials science of a knife and chopping board. And Jopson took us into industrial kitchens too, to reveal, for example, the remarkable process required to make puffed wheat.

Inevitably, the chemistry of cooking - how, for example, proteins denature and em…