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

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Five Photons - James Geach ****

It is generally acknowledged that Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time is one of the most common books to be bought but not read beyond the first few pages. If you are the kind of popular science reader who found Hawking hard going, you can stop now - Five Photons is not for you. If, on the other hand, you found A Brief History of Time a piece of cake and wished you could get into more depth without resorting to heavy mathematics or a tedious textbook style, Five Photons could be just up your street.

Astrophysicist James Geach starts of fairly gently with a chapter on the nature of light that mostly sets aside quantum physics, leading up to the observation that light is our vehicle for for stripping back the history of the universe to its earliest times (or, at least, the point where the universe became transparent). From here on, the five photons of the title take us on different journeys, from the oldest surviving light of the cosmic microwave background radiation to that fr…

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…