Skip to main content

The Element in the Room - Helen Arney and Steve Mould *****

Two thirds of the excellent science performance group Festival of the Spoken Nerd have produced an extremely entertaining 'find out more about science by messing around with stuff' book. (The remaining member of the group, Matt Parker, has his own book.)

This is a fun, rambling, joy of a title - Helen Arney and Steve Mould are present as distinct characters, writing individual segments (they even have their own, differently labelled footnotes) which take us through everyday experiences of science in our lives, from the mystery of noodles turning turmeric red, to optical illusions, to a whole host of experiments you can do yourself, including their infamous (and risky) rotating wastebasket vortex inferno.

Although not specifically a book for teenagers, it will certainly go down well with that market as well as adults who like science as entertainment. If it had been too heavily 'Gee, whiz, wow, BANG!' - always a danger with a science show approach to writing books - it could have trivialised the content too much, but there is always enough explanation to give us a feel for the science behind the phenomena that we experience in the book.

I found the humour a little relentless - it works on stage with an audience, but when reading a book, you perhaps want to be treated a little more gently. There were also a couple of factual oddities: in talking about compact fluorescents we are told 'there is no alternative for energy-saving bulbs' - erm, how about the LED bulbs that are making them redundant? And we're told Henry Ford invented the motor car. Really? Plus the very final segment is a bit odd and didn't quite work. But these are minor issues.

What we're left with is a highly entertaining book that provides page-turning science fun - although there are lots of experiments to do, you can still enjoy it by simply reading it. It would be great to dip into while commuting, or to brighten up a rainy Sunday afternoon. Whether you are reading an exploration of the natural radiation we encounter using units of bananas (apparently bananas are slightly radioactive), seeing striking optical illusions or discovering the names that some chemical elements nearly got but missed, you are likely to find out something new and have a better time than ought to be possible from a popular science book.



Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Superior - Angela Saini *****

It was always going to be difficult to follow Angela Saini's hugely popular Inferior, but with Superior she has pulled it off, not just in the content but by upping the quality of the writing to a whole new level. Where Inferior looked at the misuse of science in supporting sexism (and the existence of sexism in science), Superior examines the way that racism has been given a totally unfounded pseudo-scientific basis in the past - and how, remarkably, despite absolute evidence to the contrary, this still turns up today.

At the heart of the book is the scientific fact that 'race' simply does not exist biologically - it is nothing more than an outdated social label. As Saini points out, there are far larger genetic variations within a so-called race than there are between individuals supposedly of different races. She shows how, pre-genetics, racial prejudice was given a pseudo-scientific veneer by dreaming up fictitious physical differences over and above the tiny distinct…

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 

An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

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 …