Skip to main content

The Science Magpie – Simon Flynn ****

I have a list of popular science book ideas that I occasionally revisit – things I quite fancy writing in the future. Now I have to cross one of them off the list, because Simon Flynn has written it for me. My list describes it as a popular science version of Schott’s Miscellany, but Flynn has called it by the (to me, rather clumsy) title The Science Magpie.
At least, that’s what I assume it is, because I have to confess, I’ve never read Schott’s Miscellany, so I don’t know what it contains – I merely assume it’s this kind of kaleidoscopic mix of all manner of facts, from the quite interesting to the downright weird. It’s the sort of book you can imagine Stephen Fry curling up with of an evening before hosting QI.
Inevitably in such an inspired hotch-potch there will always be some entries that inspire more than most. I loved, for instance, real molecules with silly names, the 1858 Cambridge University exam questions and the curly snail periodic table. Other parts are more ‘Hmm’ moments, like a whole page of digits of pi, while still others simply get a little dull. Often this is a transcription of a historical document – I have fallen for this one myself. They fascinate if you are researching the particular topic, but to the general reader they can fall a little flat.
The nice thing though is that, even if there’s a topic that doesn’t really grab you, you know that in the next page or two there will be something completely different. There is no order to all this, it is just stuff accumulated at random, like one of those wonderful old fashioned museums where you get a Victorian vacuum cleaner alongside an Egyptian mummy. Delicious.
If anyone ought to know what grabs the science reading public’s attention it’s Flynn, who used to be MD of Icon Books and is now training as a science teacher. I know this is going to be a book that will find its way into many science loving people’s present piles.

Hardback 

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The World According to Physics - Jim Al-Khalili *****

There is a temptation on seeing this book to think it's another one of those physics titles that is thin on content, so they put it in an odd format small hardback and hope to win over those who don't usually buy science books. But that couldn't be further from the truth. In Jim Al-Khalili's The World According to Physics, we've got the best beginners' overview of what physics is all about that I've ever had the pleasure to read.

The language is straightforward and approachable. Rather than take the more common historical approach that builds up physics the way it was discovered, Al-Khalili starts with the 'three pillars' of physics: relativity, quantum theory and thermodynamics. In simple language with never an equation nor even a diagram in sight, the book lays out what physics is all about, what it has achieved and what it still needs to do.

That bit about no diagrams is an important indicator of how approachable the text is. Personally, I'm no…

Outbreaks and Epidemics - Meera Senthilingam ****

This book was written before the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, though it has been updated to include it: it's certainly not any kind of attempt to cash in, but rather a sober reflection on how outbreaks and epidemics work, what process the world has in place to deal with them and how a changing, globalised world has magnified risk.

If I'm honest, I'm not a great fan of medical books, but Meera Senthilingam gives an important introduction to disease outbreaks and epidemics, giving enough detail to make sense of them without ever being too technical for the general reader. This is careful journalism, which can sometimes come across as rather dry, but that's not necessarily a bad thing given the topic.

The book starts by plunging us into the beginnings of the 2003 SARS epidemic, then brings in COVID-19 (as of, by the look of it, around the start of March 2020) and measles before plunging back to smallpox and the origins of vaccination. There is a strong section on disea…

Jim Al-Khalili - Four Way Interview

Jim Al-Khalili hosts The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4 and has presented numerous BBC television documentaries. He is Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey, a New York Times bestselling author, and a fellow of the Royal Society. He is the author of numerous books, including Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed; The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance; and Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology. The paperback of his novel Sunfall is published in March 2020 by Transworld. His latest book is The World According to Physics.


Why physics?

I fell in love with physics when I was 13 or 14, when I realised not only that I was pretty good at it at school – basically common sense and puzzle solving – but because it was the subject that answered the big questions I had started contemplating, like whether the stars in the night sky went on for ever, what they were ma…