Skip to main content

Why Icebergs Float - Andrew Morris ***

It is challenging to find a new way to present science to the general public, and I have to start off by congratulating Andrew Morris on his novel approach of exploring the science of everyday things by following the random flow of topics at a discussion group. To an extent this isn't new - Galileo, for example, made his science books more accessible by using an ancient approach of constructing a fake discussion between three individuals: the supporter of the status quo, the supporter of new ideas and the everyman to go 'Duh,' I don't understand this' (think Dr Who companion) giving the others a chance to explain.

Although Morris's discussion group is genuine, there is still something of a flavour of Galileo's approach coming through, especially as Morris admits that what he presents is edited to fit the desired approach. Nonetheless, the idea is genuinely attractive and novel. However, there is always a danger with novelty - that it wears off pretty quickly and I did find that the 'rambling conversation in a bar' approach made it quite easy to get lost and rapidly became a little irritating. It was interesting that the chapter on the significance of models in science, which opens with much less input from the discussion group, was a lot more coherent than the rest.

Another problem with that discussion group approach is that there is a danger of leaving huge gaps in the content because something doesn't happen to be brought up. So, for instance, the theme of the first chapter is 'Foods we love and hate'. That's a nice idea, but it only covered taste and smell where, for instance, many food dislikes are driven by texture. Even so, despite the scattergun approach, Morris is able to cover a whole host of topics from the nature of colour and pigments (from an observation about old masters losing colour) to the nature of electricity via the role of hormones, the whole business of bacteria, viruses and antibiotics and several chapters on energy, which when you start to think about it is rather a puzzling concept. There's no doubt that a reader will get plenty to get their teeth into as they go through this book.

One concern was that, perhaps due to the very general and informal nature of the discussions, some of the science was a little iffy. So, for example, the old myth that different areas of the tongue are associated with different taste sensations was regurgitated as if it were fact. The description of the mechanism of the tides fell down on the tide at the far side of the Earth from the Moon. And there is a fundamentally incorrect description of why objects appear to be a particular colour, making it sound as if all non-absorbed light is somehow magically reflected. Let's be clear: if a photon isn't absorbed by a material it will pass through. The question is whether or not and it what direction it is re-emitted.

A final moan is that a sampler book like this should always give the reader a good range of options to read further. Here there was a very limited and vague 'further resources' section at the end, which seemed like a pinned-on afterthought. It would have been much better if each chapter provided a handful of book suggestions to read further on the topics that chapter covered, should the appetite have been whetted.

So, what we have here is an innovative idea which doesn't quite come off. This isn't a bad thing. If we are going to be innovative, then it's necessary to take risks and not everything will succeed. And for that the author and publisher should be applauded. But in this particular case, it doesn't work for me.


Paperback:  

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lucy Jane Santos - Four Way Interview

Lucy Jane Santos is an expert in the history of 20th century leisure, health and beauty, with a particular interest in (some might say obsession with) the cultural history of radioactivity. Writes & talks (a lot) about cocktails and radium. Her debut book Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium was published by Icon Books in July 2020.

Why science?

I have always been fascinated by the idea of science especially our daily interactions with and understandings of science – especially in a beauty context. I could spend hours pondering the labels of things on my bathroom shelf. What is 4-t-butylcyclohexanol (as a random example)? Do I really understand what I am putting on my face and spending my money on? Would it change my purchase habits if I did?  

Why this book?

This book came from an accidental discovery – that there was a product called Tho Radia which contained radium and thorium. I found out about it because I actually bought a pot of it – along with a big batch of other produc…

Rewilding: Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe ****

Those who are enthusiastic about saving the environment often have a mixed relationship with science. They might for example, support organic farming or oppose nuclear power, despite organics having no nutritional benefit and requiring far more land to be used to raise the same amount of crops, while nuclear is a green energy source that should be seen as an essential support to renewables. This same confusion can extend to the concept of rewilding, which is one reason that the subtitle of this book uses the word 'radical'.

As Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe make clear, though, radical change is what is required if we are to encourage ecological recovery. To begin with, we need to provide environments for nature that take in the big picture - thinking not just of individual nature reserves but, for example, of corridors that link areas allowing safe species migration. And we also need to move away from an arbitrary approach to restricting to 'native' species, as sometimes…

Is Einstein Still Right? - Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes ***

If there's one thing that gets a touch tedious in science reporting it's the news headlines that some new observation or experiment 'proves Einstein right' - as if we're still not sure about relativity. At first glance that's what this book does too, but in reality Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes are celebrating the effectiveness of the general theory of relativity, while being conscious that there may still be situations where, for whatever reason, the general theory is not sufficient.

It's a genuinely interesting book - what Will and Yunes do is take experiments that are probably familiar to the regular popular science reader already and expand on the simplified view of them we are usually given. So, for example, one of the first things they mention is the tower experiments to show the effect of gravitational red shift. I was aware of these experiments, but what we get here goes beyond the basics of the conceptual experiment to deal with the realities of d…