Skip to main content

Science in Seconds – Hazel Muir ***

I don’t know why it is, but publishers seem to love books that give you a whole host of bite-sized information on a subject. I can’t help but feel it’s a bit of a dinosaur as far as book styles go, because this is the kind of thing that the internet does so well. Books are better for narrative flow – no one wants to read 80,000 words from a web page – but if you just want a bite-sized intro to a subject, then the web is your oyster.
With that in mind, I really have nothing against Hazel Muir’s Science in Seconds. It is a well written collection of very short articles on all sorts of aspects of science. They are so short they tend to be more statement of facts than interesting stories, but they do the job well enough, with passable illustrations in a strange almost square pocket-sized shape. But I am stretched to see the point of it.
There are a couple of small moans. Inevitably when trying to cover all of science, some good bits will be missed out and others questioned – it’s the case with any ‘best of’ list. Interesting though hard drives, flash memory and optical storage are, I really don’t think they qualify to rank alongside the big bang, quantum theory and evolution. And if I’m going to be picky, there were a couple of small errors. The explanation of a how a plane’s wing generates lift is wrong in ascribing it primarily to the Bernoulli effect, and a piece on the planets tell us there are 8 in the text, but show 9 in the diagram – but mostly the content is absolutely fine, concise and factful. It’s just I keep coming back to ‘What’s the point’?
The press release tells us it is a ‘compact and portable format – a handy reference, ideal for students’. But would a student really buy this as a reference? It has far too little detail to help with a science course. And anyone with a smartphone can access much more detailed references at the touch of a button in an even better ‘compact and portable’ format. I feel like a real grouch here. Just call me Oscar. I genuinely think that Muir has done an excellent job. But to what end?
For those who like a bit of publishing speculation, it’s interesting that when I searched for the book on Amazon, this book came up – what appears to be exactly the same book, but written by a different author. What happened there, then?

Paperback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

Artificial Intelligence - Yorick Wilks ****

Artificial intelligence is one of those topics where it's very easy to spin off into speculation, whether it's about machine conciousness or AI taking over the world (and don't get me onto the relatively rare connection to robots - cover designer please note). All the experience of AI to date has been that it has been made feasible far slower than originally predicted, and that it faces dramatic limitations. So, for example, self-driving cars may be okay in limited circumstances, but are nowhere near ready for the commute home. Similarly, despite all the moves forward in AI technology, computers are so-so at recognising objects after learning from thousands of examples - sometimes fooled by apparently trivial surface patterning - where humans can recognise items from a handful of examples.

Even so, we can't deny that AI is having an influence on our lives and Yorick Wilks, emeritus professor of AI at the University of Sheffield, is ideally placed to give us a picture …

Apollo 11 - David Whitehouse *****

The problem with doing a book about the Apollo programme is that it's hard to find something that hasn't been said before - but with the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing just weeks away, the publication of this elegant book is extremely timely, and science-reporting veteran David Whitehouse manages to make the story feel fresh, even if you're one of the just 20 per cent of the world population who were alive on the remarkable day in 1969.

Although he has worked a lot with New Scientist, Whitehouse was for many years a TV journalist, and that comes through in his impressively engaging prose as he takes us back to the origins of the US/USSR space race that would lead to the moon landing. He passes through the wartime aspects relatively quickly, but once the two superpowers are flexing their space technology muscles, Whitehouse achieves a near perfect balance between the far less-heard USSR side of the story and the US. This is probably the best bit of the whole bo…