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 Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

The Bastard Legion (SF) - Gavin Smith *****

Science fiction has a long tradition of 'military in space' themes - and usually these books are uninspiring at best and verging on fascist at worst. From a serious SF viewpoint, it seemed that Joe Haldeman's magnificent The Forever War made the likes of Starship Troopers a mocked thing of the past, but sadly Hollywood seems to have rebooted the concept and we now see a lot of military SF on the shelves.

The bad news is that The Bastard Legion could not be classified as anything else - but the good news is that, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer subverted the vampire genre, The Bastard Legion has so many twists on a straightforward 'marines in space' title that it does a brilliant job of subversion too.

The basic scenario is instantly different. Miska is heading up a mercenary legion, except they're all hardened criminals on a stolen prison ship, taking part because she has stolen the ship and fitted them all with explosive collars. Oh, and helping her train her &…

Euler's Pioneering Equation - Robin Wilson ***

The concept of a 'beautiful equation' is a mystery to many, but it seems to combine a piece of mathematics that expresses something sophisticated in relatively few terms and something that looks satisfying. The equation that has proved standout amongst mathematicians, as by far the most beautiful (and is only placed second to Maxwell's equation amongst physicists) is Euler's remarkable eiπ+1 = 0. What seems remarkable to me about this is that it just seems bizarre that this combination of things produces such a neat result. (Incidentally, as far as I can see, the only reason for the 'pioneering' in the title was to enable the fancy graphic on the cover of the book.)

Getting popular maths books right is incredibly difficult. When I started reading this book, I really thought that Robin Wilson had cracked it. After an introduction, he gives us a chapter on each of the elements of the equation (except the plus and equals signs), from the more basic aspects like 1 a…