Skip to main content

The Geek Guide to Life - Colin Stuart and Mun Keat Looi ***

There's no reason at all why good popular science should be heavy and loaded with leading edge theory. I've a lot of time for fun and/or practical science facts type books, which The Geek Guide to Life promises to be - the subtitle tells us its about 'science's solutions to life's little problems' with examples such as 'how to boil the perfect egg' and 'how to rock at rock, paper, scissors.'

The text by Colin Stuart and Mun Keat Looi does a solid job of covering a whole range of questions in two or four page spreads. Sometimes the titles of the articles overreach themselves - for example, there is one headed 'How to cure an hangover' which half way through, in response to 'But, I hear you cry, how do I get rid of my hangover?' remarks 'Sadly, science doesn't have a clear answer to that question.' Inevitably, that headline feels a bit overblown at this point. 

I was less enthusiastic about the illustrations - for no obvious reason other than the word 'geek' in the title of the book, the illustrator decided to provide us with highly pixellated illustrations as if they were being rendered in a 1980s video game. This probably seemed a good idea at the time... but makes for pretty poor graphics. Sometimes also there seemed to be limited coordination between the text and graphics. So, for instance, in a section labelled 'What's the best way to commute to work' the graphic is a bar chart showing relatively happiness of various commute times compared with a 1 to 15 minute travel time. There are several interesting features. People seem happier with a 31-45 minute commute that 16-30 minutes - and by far the best are working from home (not surprising) and a 3 hour or more commute (more surprising). None of this is referenced in the text, which just said the contradictory 'the longer someone's commute, the lower their level of life satisfaction.' Similarly in the 'How to Kick Ass at Monopoly' article, the text refers to the UK square names, while the illustration of the board shows the US names.

Having said that, I found the section on games (how to do better at the likes of Monopoly and Rock, Paper, Scissors) was probably the most fun part of the book. One of the problems of the more serious parts is that the short article approach is not always capable of providing effective guidance. So, if we look at 'how to save money at the supermarket' it's all about avoiding impulse buys and not buying stuff you don't need right now. The trouble is, if this is your sole tactic and you buy a product regularly with a long shelf life that is sometimes a lot cheaper than at other times, you will spend far more than if you buy extra when it is on sale.

Overall, there's no doubt the book is fun, but it does feel more than a little shallow. To be honest, I would rather Stuart and Looi had been allowed to write twice as much text and we lost the graphics. Nevertheless there were some genuine take home points here - and I expect to win at Monopoly next time I play, or I will be asking for my money back.


Hardback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The God Game (SF) - Danny Tobey *****

Wow. I'm not sure I've ever read a book that was quite such an adrenaline rush - certainly it has been a long time since I've read a science fiction title which has kept me wanting to get back to it and read more so fiercely. 

In some ways, what we have here is a cyber-SF equivalent of Stephen King's It. A bunch of misfit American high school students face a remarkably powerful evil adversary - though in this case, at the beginning, their foe appears to be able to transform their worlds for the better.

Rather than a supernatural evil, the students take on a rogue AI computer game that thinks it is a god - and has the powers to back its belief. Playing the game is a mix of a virtual reality adventure like Pokemon Go and a real world treasure hunt. Players can get rewards for carrying out tasks - delivering a parcel, for example, which can be used to buy favours, abilities in the game and real objects. But once you are in the game, it doesn't want to let you go and is …

Uncertainty - Kostas Kampourakis and Kevin McCain ***

This is intended as a follow-on to Stuart Firestein's two books, the excellent Ignorance and its sequel, Failure, which cut through some of the myths about the nature of science and how it's not so much about facts as about what we don't know and how we search for explanations. The authors of Uncertainty do pretty much what they set out to do in explaining the significance of uncertainty and why it can make it difficult to present scientific findings to the public, who expect black-and-white facts, not grey probabilities, which can seem to some like dithering.

However, I didn't get on awfully well with the book. A minor issue was the size - it was just too physically small to hold comfortably, which was irritating. More significantly, it felt like a magazine article that was inflated to make a book. There really was only one essential point made over and over again, with a handful of repeated examples. I want something more from a book - more context and depth - that …

The Ascent of Gravity - Marcus Chown ****

Marcus Chown is one of the UK's best writers on physics and astronomy - it's excellent to see him back on what he does best. Here we discover our gradual approach to understanding the nature of gravity - the 'ascent' of the title - which, though perhaps slightly overblown in the words 'the force that explains everything' (quantum physics does quite a lot too, for example), certainly makes us aware of the importance of this weakest of fundamental forces. Chown's approach to gravity is a game of three halves, as they say, broadly covering Newton, Einstein and where we go from general relativity.
As far as the first two sections go, with the exception of the 2015 gravitational waves detection, there's not much that's actually new - if you want a popular science exploration of these aspects of the topic with more depth see this reviewer's Gravity - but no one has covered the topic with such a light touch and joie de vivre as Chown. 
Although Chown doe…