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Death on Earth - Jules Howard ****

I've never before come across a book that I found so likeable despite quite significant failings - most notably, the biggest scientific howler I've ever seen in a popular science title. It's like a friend whose company you enjoy, even though you know that you shouldn't. Underlying that likeability is Jules Howard's constant presence. Publishers like an author to put themselves into a book, to make it their own. Howard is so strongly part of the narrative that occasionally I wished he'd go out for a while.

In this respect, Death on Earth (are we laughing yet, Life on Earth fans?) reminds me of the remarkable books of Jon Ronson. Ronson's best books - the inspiration for the Louis Theroux style of knowing 'innocent abroad' first person TV documentaries - are marvellous. You are never quite sure how much what he writes is really what he feels and how much he is manipulating the reader, but Ronson takes you right into the world of psychopaths or psi abilities (to name but two of his books). In Death on Earth there is less of a sense of manipulation because Howard's progress is so bumbling that it's hard to believe it is anything other than the reality of life.

As yet I haven't really strayed onto the topic of the book - death. As Howard admits early on, many potential readers might consider this an off-putting topic. Yes, some strange individuals are obsessed with death, but most of us prefer not to think of it more than we have to. However, when it comes to it, the book doesn't exactly skirt around the subject, but equally doesn't push it in your face. It's not trying to present platitudes about death, but to examine behaviour and natural history linked to this inevitable eventual demise (or in the case of many living things, the early and tragic version).

In Howard's seemingly random meanderings he comes across a long-lived mollusc, ants dealing with death, frog and toad mortality, and plenty more. It's not that the book is without content. But somehow the content is always dominated, for good or ill, by his bizarre non-adventures - crossing half the country to bring home a dead magpie (used in a half-hearted failed attempt at an experiment in avian behaviour), suffering a frightening medical condition at a life-extension show at Olympia (oh, the irony) and haplessly confusing his very young daughter by trying to explain death to her.

I've put it off long enough - I need to detail the outstanding science fail. Howard writes: 'This understanding of states moving endlessly toward disorder (in a closed system) was first offered up by Newton: it was, famously, his Second Law of Thermodynamics.' If this doesn't leave you rolling around on the carpet guffawing, this is a confusion of Newton's second law of motion (in equation form, force = mass times acceleration) with the second law of thermodynamics, a totally different and hugely important nineteenth century development in physics. It is a bit like a literary expert referring to Shakespeare's novel War and Peace. Every book has a few mistakes, but this is in a class of its own.

It might seem difficult to reconcile giving this book four stars with the sometimes faint praise. But it is a tribute to the author that it remains enjoyable to read and it does have plenty of interesting content along the way. Getting there might be like taking part in a meandering conversation down at the pub - but sometimes that's exactly what you want out of a book. And after a few drinks, we might even forgive Newton's second law of thermodynamics. Perhaps.

Review by Brian Clegg


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