Skip to main content

The Ultimate Book of Saturday Science – Neil A. Downie ****

We get quite a lot of books in that are made up of ‘fun experiments’ to do, and often, if I am honest, they are trifle lame. Sanitised and safe,  they are the sort of ‘acid and baking powder’ experiment – of themselves entirely worthy, but not the sort of thing that would have interested me as teenager when I was blowing things up, making miniature rocket motors and trying to build a laser from scratch. This book, however, would have been right up my street.
Neil Downie does a lot of work with Saturday Morning science clubs, school science clubs and the like, and although they can be done in the home, these are often the sort of experiments that would benefit from that kind of environment. I could also, frankly, see grown up engineers doing this kind of thing in there spare time, just for a bit of fun.
It’s not that every experiment involves danger, although we do have a dramatic vacuum powered cannon, electrical explosives and more – but there isn’t the usual feel of restraint and ‘health and safety gone mad’, which is excellent. Each of the 72 experiments comes with detailed instructions, but also some learning information and perhaps best of all the opportunity to try things out. Downie doesn’t give you a rigid approach – often you are encouraged to experiment with different possibilities to make your experiment even better. This is wonderful – it is encouraging the real scientific/engineering spirit to get out there, get your hands dirty and try things out.
Obviously this doesn’t really work as a book to sit down and read cover to cover, but that’s not what it’s for. My only slight criticisms concern the writing style and the book’s cover. The writing style is a jarring cross-Atlantic combination, which feels a bit like an elderly school-teacher trying to be hip. Unless the photos are very old, Downie isn’t elderly, but he rather writes as if he is. As for the cover, the design looks very amateurish, and to make matters worse in a book that should have a reinforced (preferably blast-proof) plastic cover, it feels  very fragile – more paper than cardboard.
But don’t let the look put you off. If you either run a science club or are a teenager who likes getting your hands dirty experimentally, you are going to love this. I certainly would have in my youth.

Paperback 

Kindle 
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…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…