Skip to main content

Undiluted Hocus-Pocus – Martin Gardner ***

I was delighted to see Martin Gardner’s autobiography, as he was a great science writer. I loved his mathematical columns (mostly encountered through collections like Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions) and his annotated versions of books by Lewis Carroll – and he wrote well on the matter of pseudoscience.
I ought to say straight away that the book was a bit of a disappointment. In part this is simply because Gardner had a very ordinary sort of life. I don’t say that disparagingly – it’s just like most of us. When you read a book about someone like Richard Feynman you have both the opportunity to read about his amazing work, and his remarkable life. Gardner’s work is its own tribute, while the life of a science writer is not all that exciting, certainly in this case.
The other problem I had is that a lot of what’s in the book doesn’t particularly resonate. There are long sections about subtle debates in obscure (and now mostly forgotten) versions of 20th century philosophy, plus the politics of the University of Chicago that is hard to get excited by. And there is also Gardner’s sense of humour, which seems to be very much of a different age. Whenever he recounts a ‘funny’ story, it’s a bit like looking at an old Punch cartoon – you can’t quite understand why it was considered humorous. This comes through strongly when Gardner spends several pages recounting the ‘hilarious’ exploits of a practical joker friend.
At one point we are told there are many examples of this practical joker at work, but Gardner is just picking out two, presumably the best. One of these involves writing to a paperclip manufacturer, complaining that the box of 100 clips only has 98 in it, and when he opened the box, it smelled funny. The punchline is that the manufacturer wrote back to say that numbers in the box varied, so it could be a couple under or over 100, and they didn’t know why it smelled funny. My, how we roared with laughter.
Attempts at humour aside, the book comes alive when Gardner talks about mathematical puzzles, magic and testing fraudulent pseudoscience – but it is a relatively small part of the content. Also of real interest is his honest explanation of why he was a deist, though no longer a Christian, and the entertainment he clearly got from winding up atheists who expected him to be one of them with his arguably irrational but very human arguments.
If, like me, you are are a Gardner fan, you will find material to interest you in here – but don’t expect it be a rip-roaring page turner of an autobiography. It is a gentle meander through a mostly unremarkable life story that produced some decidedly remarkable writing.

Hardback 

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 …

Make, Think, Imagine - John Browne ***

When you read a politician's memoirs you know that, nine times out of ten, it won't really quite work, because the message can't carry a whole book. It's reminiscent of the old literary agent's cry of 'Is it a book, or is it an article?' It's not that there aren't a lot of words in such tomes. It's almost obligatory for these books to be quite chunky. But it's a fair amount of work getting through them, and you don't feel entirely satisfied afterwards. Unfortunately, that's rather how John Browne (former head of oil giant BP)'s book comes across.

It's not that the central thread is unimportant. It used to be the case, certainly in the UK, that science, with its roots in philosophy and the pursuit of knowledge, was considered far loftier than engineering, growing out of mechanical work and the pursuit of profit. There is, perhaps, still a whiff of this around in some circles - so Browne's message that engineering has been…

Bloom - Ruth Kassinger ***

There is much fascinating material in this chunky book by Ruth Kassinger. It may be my total ignorance of biology and everyone else knows these things, but I learnt so much - for example that seaweed is algae and not a plant, about algae's role in the development of land plants, about the algae in lichen and its contribution to coral reefs.

The book is divided into four broad sections: on the origins and development of algae, on algae (and particularly seaweed) as food, on making use of algae, for example, for biofuel, and on algae and climate change, particularly the bleaching of coral and algal blooms. This is all done in a very approachable writing style, mixing descriptive material that is never over-technical with narrative often featuring visits to different locations and to talk to a range of experts from those who study to algae to those who cook them.

There are two problems though. Firstly, the book is too long at 380 pages. Each section could do with a trim, but this wa…