Skip to main content

Eureka - Tom Cabot ****

I'm not the most visual person - words mostly work better for me - so I've never entirely understood the appeal of infographics at a gut level, though intellectually I can see that for many people they're a good way to get facts across. It doesn't help that they have a seedy image online, as they are often provided to blogs and websites as free clickbait. However, I couldn't resist the idea of a book that aims to make science more accessible via infographics.

Tom Cabot does not hold back on his topics, covering cosmology with a lot of physics thrown in, the Earth (which slightly oddly includes DNA), life and humans. By far the longest of these is life, with over 40 entries, each a two-page spread of infographics. Each section opens with a text spread and closes with an abstract graphic. When it comes to the infographics themselves, this was one of the rare examples of my thinking 'this book isn't big enough'. I'm not a great fan of the coffee table book, but that format might have been better here, as Cabot crams so much into each spread that the text has to be small and the pages crowded. In some cases - the antimatter sub-diagram, for example - the text was so small I literally couldn't read it.

When dealing with a relatively straightforward topic, this approach works beautifully. Take, for instance, the electromagnetic radiation page. We have a full width e/m spectrum across the page with all sorts of goodies pinging off it to tell us about everything from 'Whistlers' (very low frequency radio waves, apparently) through to gamma rays, plus a sideline in explaining blackbody radiation. With more complex topics it felt as if you had to know a little bit already to cope with the complexity of the graphic layout. Take, for instance, the spread on relativity. Sensibly this only really covered general relativity (though it didn't point out that the special version was missing). There's a lot going on here and its quite difficult to pick your way through it. There's a classic 'bowling ball/rubber sheet' illustration, a really interesting gravity wave spectrum diagram, Ligo outputs and many text boxes, but no clear structure for the reader to grasp. I think part of the problem is that the classic infographic has a clear reading direction - they're tall and thin and you read down them from top to bottom. The spreads here are a splatter of information and it's hard to know how to take them in.

For me, the life/human sections were where the book really succeeded. This is because the fundamentals of the science here are a lot simpler. This might not seem the case when you look at the beautiful graphics of enzyme molecules or the human metabolic pathways, but the thing is that the concepts - the building blocks for the infographic - are mostly simple, it's just the resultant constructs that aren't. In physics and cosmology, getting the far more complex concepts into an infographic form mean they either have to be highly simplified, or presented at too high a level for a beginner - or, in practise, both of these at the same time - which makes the spread a little less satisfying.

Some of the most effective spreads are amongst the simplest - because the impact really comes through best without getting overwhelmed. I loved, for example, the 'gills versus lungs' spread which compared the two ways of getting oxygen, comparing things like viscosity, density and oxygen content of air and water in graphic form. Similarly, the 'human anatomy' spread which takes a Vitruvian Man style skeleton and tells us when the various components (e.g. strong wrist, chin, large brain) evolved. I'm sure my paleontological friends would dispute some of the evolutionary history (they always do), but it provided one of many 'Hmm, that's interesting' moments. Having said this, there could, perhaps, have been a little more variety in the way data was presented graphically - the same styles were used repeatedly without some of the familiar infographic tricks of, for example, representing populations as arrays of representative images.

There is a Kindle version of the book, incidentally, but it's not going to work on a classic black and white e-ink Kindle - go for paper unless you have a good, high resolution colour screen.

Eureka is no substitute for a 'proper' popular science book because good writing always has a core of narrative, of story telling, where an infographic is a relentless collection of facts - more akin the Guinness Book of Records than a great non-fiction title. But there is a big market for fact books, and this is surely one of the best ways to present them. Using infographics this way is innovative and fun, and is likely to bring in readers who wouldn't touch conventional science writing, which surely has to be a good thing. I think maybe it could have been pitched for a slightly wider audience, but it's still a remarkable book and scores highly for taking an original approach.

Hardback:  

Kindle 

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …

The Case Against Reality - Donald Hoffman ***

It's not exactly news that our perception of the world around us can be a misleading confection of the brain, rather than a precise picture of reality - everything from optical illusions to the apparent motion of video confirms this - but professor of cognitive science Donald Hoffman goes far beyond this. He wants us to believe that spacetime and the objects in it are not real: that they only exist when we perceive them. It's not that he believes everything to be totally illusory, but suggests that the whole framework of the physical world is a construction of our minds.

To ease us into this viewpoint, Hoffman gives the example of the Necker cube - the clever two-dimensional drawing apparently of a cube which can be seen in two totally different orientations. Calling these orientations 'Cube A and Cube B' he remarks that our changing perceptions suggest that 'neither Cube A nor Cube B is there when no one looks, and there is no objective cube that exists unobserve…

The Body - Bill Bryson ****

I am a huge fan of Bill Bryson's travel books - he is a superb storyteller, and in the best parts of his science writing, this ability to provide fascinating facts and intriguing tales shines through.

After taking on the whole of science in his first book, here he focuses in on the physiology, anatomy and diseases of the human body. Bryson does so with his usual light, approachable style, peppering the plethora of facts (and 'don't know's - it's amazing how much we still don't know about the workings of the body) with the little nuggets you can't help but share and stories of some of the odd and, frankly, horrifying goings on in the history of medicine.

So, for example, Bryson throws in 'The chin is unique to humans and no one knows why we have one.' He speculates that it might be just that we 'find a good chin dashing' and quotes a Harvard professor as saying 'Testing this last hypothesis is especially difficult, but the reader is encoura…