Monday, 21 March 2011

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.
Review by Brian Clegg

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