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Make, Think, Imagine - John Browne ***

When you read a politician's memoirs you know that, nine times out of ten, it won't really quite work, because the message can't carry a whole book. It's reminiscent of the old literary agent's cry of 'Is it a book, or is it an article?' It's not that there aren't a lot of words in such tomes. It's almost obligatory for these books to be quite chunky. But it's a fair amount of work getting through them, and you don't feel entirely satisfied afterwards. Unfortunately, that's rather how John Browne (former head of oil giant BP)'s book comes across.

It's not that the central thread is unimportant. It used to be the case, certainly in the UK, that science, with its roots in philosophy and the pursuit of knowledge, was considered far loftier than engineering, growing out of mechanical work and the pursuit of profit. There is, perhaps, still a whiff of this around in some circles - so Browne's message that engineering has been crucial to human development and to our vast improvements in living standards is an important one.

However, the way that Make, Think, Imagine goes about expanding that article-sized content into a full book doesn't feel entirely effective. We get some interesting history, but it can sometime feel like going around a museum gallery - lots of information but often quite dull. To be fair, the book isn't all like this. A few parts shine, notably Browne's exploration of the history of our use of energy. With an oil background, he can't help come across a little defensive in places, but he can say proudly that he was in the (very small) vanguard of oil executives recognising that climate change is real, even if did make him something of a pariah amongst his peers. To some extent here and, for example, in a section covering artificial intelligence he takes on the negative impact of the products of engineering, but more often the book is a paean to the wonders of engineering achievement.

That being the case, a natural comparison is Bronowski's The Ascent of Man, but Make, Think, Imagine lacks Bronwski's humanity and writing style - and Bronowski's wider scope when examining human achievement. A part of the problem takes us back to the political biographies. It's hard to find one that doesn't (subtly or blatantly) underline the author's position as a 'great person' in history. Lord John Browne (the 'L' word is diplomatically largely missing from the book) can't help but do a bit of the same thing, whether it's casually dropping in his apartment in Venice, his former trusteeship of the British Museum or his calling in to see various places and engineering developments around the world in what feel more like royal visits than a writer investigating. Bronowski gives us a picture of human achievement from a position of humility - Browne from that of a leading oil man.

That all sounds a little negative - but I would say this book should be essential reading for politicians, who all too often have an arts background or in some cases anti-capitalist views. Browne does give us plenty of evidence for the dramatic benefits we've received from engineering. But it's more a matter of doing your homework than a highly engaging read.

Review by Brian Clegg 


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