Skip to main content

Rain - Cynthia Barnett ***

This fairly chunky book, subtitled 'a natural and cultural history' takes on a subject that causes mixed emotions: rain. We all need it, however usually it's a case of 'but not now.' I think it's fair to say that Cynthia Barnett concentrates more on the cultural side than the natural history, but there is some science here in amongst the interesting stories of humanity's interaction with this very distinctive aspect of the weather.

Some sections are particularly interesting. I was fascinated by the attempts to make rain - even now, not wholly confirmed as a scientific possibility - from firing cannons into the sky to seeding clouds with dry ice and iodide crystals. There are strange rains (Fort's frogs and the like), monsoons and, of course, the whole business of clouds, intimately tied up with rain itself.

Overall, the book proved rather too US-centric for my taste, not only having a whole section dedicated to US weather, but also spending far too long reminiscing about TV weather forecasters who would hold no meaning to anyone outside North America. In the same section is the book's biggest blooper - we are told that the UK's Meteorological Office is universally known as 'the Met'. No, it's not. That would be the Metropolitan Police.

Although there are plenty of good stories, the book lacked an overall arc - and while a random jumble of information can be endearing, it is useful to have some helpful structure. Some parts contained genuinely interesting stories, but too often there were effectively extended lists which told far too much detail of rain event after rain event. Perhaps this came across worse in the chapter 'Writers on the storm' (get it?), which after a little more interesting wandering around the influence of Manchester and Washington State on Morrissey and Kurt Cobain respectively (both apparently less rainy locations than their reputation suggests), consists primarily of example after example of writers and artists using rain in their work.

The presentation overall also lacked the humour that tends to run through the best definitive cultural/natural history books, like Sjöberg's excellent The Fly Trap. Barnett has a light touch that wanders between poetic and everyday, but rarely captures the same warmth as the experts in this field.

I didn't dislike the book, but in the end, reading through chapter after chapter that was a collection of facts, rather than a piece of writing that took me somewhere, became a touch uninspiring.


Hardback 

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…