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Q&A: Cosmic Conundrums and Everyday Mysteries of Science – Robert Matthews *****

This is a little cracker – not what you’d call heavy duty popular science, but a wonderful bit of light reading that throws in some genuinely fascinating facts.
This is what you could call Last Word Lite. New Scientist magazine has for a number of years had a Last Word page at the back where individuals write in with questions and readers come up with sensible answers. (Though they’ve always resisted our half-humorous question, if black is defined by a lack of reflection of any colour, what colour is shiny black.) The trouble with Last Word is that the answers tend to be a touch tedious, not generally being written by professional writers, and can be over-technical. Robert Matthews does the same job, but his responses are pithy, light and enjoyable.
The book is divided into a number of sections, but to be honest they don’t make much difference. Each is just packed with those sort of questions that we all ask ourselves, but lacking the straightforwardness of children, we don’t actually bother to say aloud. Many that have occurred to me over the years – why don’t mosquitoes spread HIV/AIDS and why don’t people get injured when idiots fire guns into the air (they do) for instance – are in there, along with many others that I’m sure I would have thought of at some point. Sometimes the answer is “we don’t really know”, but often Matthews can bring a light and effective insight to play.
Just occasionally the questions seem a bit hackneyed or childish (how do they get the stripes into toothpaste?) – but I’m pretty sure anyone will find plenty to surprise here. For the know-it-all, there will be some distinct surprises. Bicycles probably don’t stay up the way you thought they did, and those of us who have always impressed people by telling them that glass is really a very stiff liquid, and so old glass tends to be thicker at the bottom, need to think again. Apparently it would take 10 million years for a window pane to get 5% thicker at the base, and the effect we see in old glass is just because medieval glaziers used to put the unevenly manufactured glass of the day thick end down (it makes sense). Oh and Eskimos/Inuit don’t have lots of words for different types of snow, it’s a myth. Sigh.
If there is any complaint about this book, it’s just that the format of lots of little question and answer sections, typically ranging from half a page to a page in length, doesn’t make for an entirely smooth read – it could get rather irritating after a while. However this makes it even better as a dip-in book (dare we say it’s a great one to keep in the bathroom), and most of the content is so fascinating that it’s hard to stop reading once you start. Excellent stuff.

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Review by Martin O'Brien

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