Skip to main content

The Address Book – Tim Radford ***

I have to admit, I opened this book to immediate disappointment. Our editor mentioned he’d got a book for review by Tim Harford, the undercover economist on the excellent More or Less radio programme. Expecting Harford’s light, bright style I ploughed into the dense, wordy first chapter like hitting a brick wall. Why had he changed his style so much? And then I realised the mistake – wrong Tim.
The Address Book has a lovely basis. Like many of us, Tim Radford felt the urge when at school to do one of those unconsciously set theory based addresses, starting with his street address, town, county, country, continent, hemisphere, planet, solar system, galaxy and, you guessed it, the universe. This book parallels his address structure with a chapter on each of these. And each of those chapters makes use of the particular subject to take us an a whole host of delightful side steps and deviations. So far so good.
But then we hit two big problems. One is that I really don’t like the verbose, heavy style he writes in. Some will, I know – it’s a personal thing. But I found the first chapter totally unreadable with its endless personal tales about his house – I’m afraid I don’t care about his house. After that, as the canvas broadened, things got a little easier, though I still found the writing much too flowery, and with a strong tendency to give us list after list. Radford can’t just tell us about an animal in the countryside, he has to list sixteen different examples of the local wildlife, as if all those rolling syllables somehow give the whole thing more gravitas. It’s the sort of approach they used to use in 1950s radio broadcasts – now it seems fusty and old fashioned.
The other problem, from the point of view of this website is that this isn’t really a science book. Radford says as much, commenting in his acknowledgments section ‘This is not intentionally a science book, although it draws on generations of scientific research’. For the first 100 pages or so there is hardly any science apart from a touch of geology. After that there is inevitably more, as the scope takes in the reaches of outer space, but we still get plenty that isn’t. Which makes it a bit of a joke that this book is on the long list for the Royal Society science book prize. It’s not a good fit with this genre.
So I’m afraid this really wasn’t a great experience for me. I do think those who enjoy the likes of a John Betjeman at his most verbose will enjoy the prose style, but I’m afraid it doesn’t work for me, and it’s much too hard work to dig out what nuggets of science are present.

Paperback 

Kindle 
Review by Peter Spitz

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Superior - Angela Saini *****

It was always going to be difficult to follow Angela Saini's hugely popular Inferior, but with Superior she has pulled it off, not just in the content but by upping the quality of the writing to a whole new level. Where Inferior looked at the misuse of science in supporting sexism (and the existence of sexism in science), Superior examines the way that racism has been given a totally unfounded pseudo-scientific basis in the past - and how, remarkably, despite absolute evidence to the contrary, this still turns up today.

At the heart of the book is the scientific fact that 'race' simply does not exist biologically - it is nothing more than an outdated social label. As Saini points out, there are far larger genetic variations within a so-called race than there are between individuals supposedly of different races. She shows how, pre-genetics, racial prejudice was given a pseudo-scientific veneer by dreaming up fictitious physical differences over and above the tiny distinct…

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 …

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …