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Magic Universe – Nigel Calder ****

On the whole we haven’t much time for big, fat, everything you ever wanted to know about science in alphabetical order books. A dictionary or encyclopaedia of science may be useful, but it’s hard to see it as popular science.
Nigel Calder’s book is quite different. Admittedly, it does still have a structure that’s based on the alphabetic order of the articles, but that apart each is readable in its own right, providing an engaging and enthusiastic introduction to that particular topic. You might have to be an übergeek to sit in bed and read an encyclopaedia article each night, but it would be very easy to use these as effective bedtime stories for adults, or something to take in on the train to work (provided your wrists can cope with the hefty 756 pages – seriously this is a heavy book, even in the paperback version).
Wherever you look there’s something that little bit different. The entry on the The Big Bang, for instance, begins with a comment from the late science fiction writer Douglas Adams on Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto number 3. Why? You’ll have to read it to find out. Dipping in randomly I can see articles on Biodiversity, DNA Fingerprinting, Hopeful Monsters, Prions, Speech and Starbursts. Where to start? It might be dull, but why not at the beginning.
Whether you are a total beginner to the science business or a season reader of popular science, you’ll find something to interest you here. Calder has done an impossibly good job in undertaking the impossible task of surveying modern science. The only reason it doesn’t get the full five stars is that its very nature makes it too long and lacking in flow to be a real popular science book. However, for anyone with an interest in science who perhaps wants some ideas on new directions to read more deeply, it’s a great primer. There’s a lot to be said for a book that eases you into areas you don’t normally bother with. And whatever your interest or expertise, the breadth of content of this book pretty well guarantees you’ll get some enjoyable surprises.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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