Skip to main content

Pavlov's Dog - Adam Hart-Davis ****

This was a book I was not expecting to like. Although books of this format with 50 heavily illustrated things you need to know about something, seem to sell well, they usually irritate me. However, a combination of the topic - 50 experiments that revolutionised psychology - and a slight variant of the format - Adam Hart-Davis was allowed significantly more text than is often the case in this type of book - meant that it was surprisingly effective.

There's plenty here that will be familiar to anyone who has grazed the surface of popular psychology, from Pavlov in the book's title and the infamous Milgram electric shock experiments, up to very late 20th century work (there are just two from the 21st). While it's fun to see familiar old friends, it's the ones that are a novelty that inevitably stand out. Which these are will vary from reader to reader - I lapped up the likes of 'can dogs get depressed?' and 'why can't you tickle yourself (and what's the connection with schizophrenia?)'.

Inevitably with this kind of format, the main drawback is that you really want the experiments to be critically analysed, not just described and accepted. Although Hart-Davis occasionally puts in a critical comment, often the outcome of the experiment is accepted without question - despite doubts about the sample size, relevance of sample (they often used university students, for example, an atypical population) and reproducibility of many classic psychology experiments. One, for example, looked at leadership styles and democracy - but the participants were children, and the format was starkly structured, so it's difficult to draw any conclusions about adult leadership and politics. Similarly, with the Milgram experiment, or later on the video-based Ganzfeld ESP experiment (and I'm sure it applies to many others) there's no mention of concerns about how the experiments were carried out.

Despite the desirability of more depth, Hart-Davis does an excellent job of giving us pithy summaries of the experiments and their conclusions. Arranged in chronological chunks, reflecting the changing attitudes to psychology, the book gives a useful picture of how experimental psychology has developed since the late nineteenth century. As is usual with this kind of book, the illustrations are still irritatingly pointless and a waste of space, but the bite-sized approach makes the book great for commutes and bedtime reading. It's always a good sign if, having read one topic, there's a strong urge to move onto the next one - and I got that here. 

If, like me, you struggled with Hart-Davis's presenting style when he was on TV, don't worry - Pavlov's Dog has a much less mannered writing style. It's light and approachable but with as much content as the format allows. As dogs go, it's best of breed.

Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you

Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The Magicians - Marcus Chown *****

The title may seem an odd one for a popular science book, but it refers to what Chown describes as ‘the central magic of science: its ability to predict the existence of things previously undreamt of which, when people went out and looked for them, turned out to actually exist in the real universe’. That may be true of all branches of science, but physics – which is what the book is about – is a special case, because its theories are rooted in mathematical equations rather than words. This makes the matter completely black-and-white: if the equations predict something you had no inkling of, then either the maths is wrong, or that thing really does exist. This book describes some remarkable instances where the maths was right.

Actually, I’m not sure the title is strictly accurate. It’s true that it centres on people – both the theoreticians who came up with the predictions and the experimentalists who proved them right – but in most cases the ‘magic’ is something the human players simpl…

Infinity Plus: Quintet (SF) - Keith Brooke (Ed.) ****

When I was younger there was nothing I liked better than a good, deep, dark (frankly, often downright miserable) science fiction story, and this collection delivers excellent modern examples that would have fit easily into a thoughtful if downbeat 70s collection such as the 'New Writing in SF' or the Interzone magazine of the day (one was actually first published in Interzone, in 1987 - the rest date between 1989 and 2010).

If I'm honest, I prefer more upbeat fiction now, but that doesn't stop me appreciating the quality of these five stories, put together by the SF website and publisher Infinity Plus. I've rarely seen a better contradiction of Margaret Atwood's putdown of science fiction as being limited to 'talking squids in outer space.' What we have here is pure character-driven storytelling with not a mention of space, spaceships, ray guns or aliens. It's the inner world, not the outer trappings of sci fi tropes that interest these writers.


Until the End of Time: Brian Greene ***

Things start well with this latest title from Brian Greene: after a bit of introductory woffle we get into an interesting introduction to entropy. As always with Greene's writing, this is readable, chatty and full of little side facts and stories. Unfortunately, for me, the book then suffers something of an increase in entropy itself as on the whole it then veers more into philosophy and the soft sciences than Greene's usual physics and cosmology.

So, we get chapters on consciousness, language, belief and religion, instinct and creativity, duration and impermanence, the ends of time and, most cringe-making as a title, 'the nobility of being'. Unlike the dazzling scientific presentation I expect, this mostly comes across as fairly shallow amateur philosophising.

Of course it's perfectly possible to write good science books on, say, consciousness or language - but though Greene touches on the science, there far too much that's more hand-waving. And good though he i…