Skip to main content

Deceived Wisdom – David Bradley ****

One of the joys of reading popular science books is discovering little factoids that amaze you and that you can’t resist telling other people. But David Bradley’s Deceived Wisdom goes one step better. Here the factoids are ones that many people believe, but science shows to be false. Apart from the risk of coming across as a smartarse, what’s not to love?
This slim volume (I read the whole thing in one go on a 1.5 hour train journey) has a good mix of classic old wives tales and more modern surprises. It’s delightful to discover that so many of those things you were told off for as a child (‘Don’t wear your coat inside, you won’t feel the benefit!’ for instance) are simply not true. I similarly rather enjoyed the evidence that women are no better at multitasking then men, and that cats aren’t cleverer than dogs. (Bradley attempts balance, but he clearly demonstrates it’s the other way round.) If nothing else, every member of the government should be sent a copy of this book to persuade them they don’t need to put notices in petrol stations telling us not to use our phones. There is no risk of setting the petrol on fire.
It’s almost inevitable with a collection like this that there are some quibbles. Sometimes the wording could be a little clearer. I was confused, for instance, if letting red wine breathe (by decanting it) was a good idea or not. The structure of the entries is to have the myth up front and then disprove it. But when dispensing with ‘No two snowflakes are alike’, Bradley concludes ‘get a lot closer and it becomes clear that no two snow crystals could be exactly the same.’ He seems to have proved his myth. Actually it’s more complicated. At the level the statement was originally made, visually, it is a myth. A lot of snow crystals are simple hexagons. Not identical at the molecular level, but that was never intended.
Another example I could quibble with is that Bradley claims as a myth ‘The full moon looks bigger when it’s closer to the horizon.’ This is patently true. What he means is that it is no different optically, but ‘looks’ refers to what a human being perceives – and there it is true. The underlying reason is that we don’t see like a camera, but rather the brain detects shapes, shading etc. and constructs the image we ‘see’ – this isn’t really discussed. But these really are quibbles and don’t take away from the fun of reading this excellent collection of science surprises.
If you liken popular science books to food, Deceived Wisdom is simply not meaty enough to make it a three course meal. It is, however, a top notch box of chocolates – and who doesn’t like that? Recommended.

Hardback 

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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lucy Jane Santos - Four Way Interview

Lucy Jane Santos is an expert in the history of 20th century leisure, health and beauty, with a particular interest in (some might say obsession with) the cultural history of radioactivity. Writes & talks (a lot) about cocktails and radium. Her debut book Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium was published by Icon Books in July 2020.

Why science?

I have always been fascinated by the idea of science especially our daily interactions with and understandings of science – especially in a beauty context. I could spend hours pondering the labels of things on my bathroom shelf. What is 4-t-butylcyclohexanol (as a random example)? Do I really understand what I am putting on my face and spending my money on? Would it change my purchase habits if I did?  

Why this book?

This book came from an accidental discovery – that there was a product called Tho Radia which contained radium and thorium. I found out about it because I actually bought a pot of it – along with a big batch of other produc…

Rewilding: Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe ****

Those who are enthusiastic about saving the environment often have a mixed relationship with science. They might for example, support organic farming or oppose nuclear power, despite organics having no nutritional benefit and requiring far more land to be used to raise the same amount of crops, while nuclear is a green energy source that should be seen as an essential support to renewables. This same confusion can extend to the concept of rewilding, which is one reason that the subtitle of this book uses the word 'radical'.

As Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe make clear, though, radical change is what is required if we are to encourage ecological recovery. To begin with, we need to provide environments for nature that take in the big picture - thinking not just of individual nature reserves but, for example, of corridors that link areas allowing safe species migration. And we also need to move away from an arbitrary approach to restricting to 'native' species, as sometimes…

Is Einstein Still Right? - Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes ***

If there's one thing that gets a touch tedious in science reporting it's the news headlines that some new observation or experiment 'proves Einstein right' - as if we're still not sure about relativity. At first glance that's what this book does too, but in reality Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes are celebrating the effectiveness of the general theory of relativity, while being conscious that there may still be situations where, for whatever reason, the general theory is not sufficient.

It's a genuinely interesting book - what Will and Yunes do is take experiments that are probably familiar to the regular popular science reader already and expand on the simplified view of them we are usually given. So, for example, one of the first things they mention is the tower experiments to show the effect of gravitational red shift. I was aware of these experiments, but what we get here goes beyond the basics of the conceptual experiment to deal with the realities of d…