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The Undercover Scientist – Peter J. Bentley ***
I was very much looking forward to this book, I suspect in part because I had greatly enjoyed the book The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford, and was expecting something similar, point out the unexpected science that lurks behind our everyday lives. In a sense, that’s what Peter Bentley sets out to do, but it just doesn’t work the way Harford’s book does.
In part the problem is the context. Bentley has each section start with a running story of everyday disaster, told in the second person, where the protagonist suffers everything from slipping on a wet bathroom floor to breaking a tooth. This whole continuing story is very forced and feels rather amateurish. It is designed to fit his descriptions of how everyday science works into a framework, but that framework wasn’t necessary. Like Harford’s economist, there was no need to do anything more than pick up on the really revelatory bits of science in everyday life.
The other way that the book fails in comparison with Harford’s is that where the economics in Harford’s book was a surprise to everyone but an economist, here a lot of the science is so everyday and basic that it’s hard to get too excited about it. There are moments of ‘gosh, that’s interesting,’ but they tend to be overwhelmed by a sea of so-what. The same underwhelmedness, I’m afraid, goes for the cover. When I saw it, I thought it was a boiund-proof, one of the cheap and cheerful pre-books that are sometimes sent out for review, which often just have a cover quickly knocked together before the real one comes out. But, no, it’s the real thing.
In many ways this would be better positioned (if you lost the ghastly second person introductions and tuned it a little) as a children’s book, where it would really have some legs. There is, you see, nothing wrong with the content, it just doesn’t really work for an adult reader. Give it some good illustrations and much of what is in there would work excellently as a competitor to Horrid Science. Bentley is clearly enthusiastic about his science and communicates that well – but this just doesn’t work for me as an adult popular science book.
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Review by Brian Clegg
I have just finished reading the book and I thought it was just wonderful. I read the books where Terry Pratchett collaborated with popular science writers and hated them – awful stories compared to the normal Pratchett books and tedious science. But in Bentley’s book I liked the stories about accidents which made the science really stay with me and brought the explanations into my head at different times of the day when I got reminded of similar things that happened to me. The book is The Undercover Scientist, Investigating Mishaps of Everyday Life so that’s why mishaps are described at the start. They were great! Made me want to keep reading: a real page-turner. I don’t find the “normal” popular science books very interesting – as far as I can see they are just full of opinions and not real science. If I want opinions can I listen to the ladies gossip on the bus. This book used real science and explained everything to me and made the everyday truly fascinating. For the first time in my life I actually feel as though I understand the world around me better: I can imagine what atoms and molecules are doing and why things behave like they do and that feeling is just wonderful for a middle-aged woman who never any excitement from science at school. The book is written in super clear language in an entertaining way, and the cover is friendly and nice.
There is a temptation on seeing this book to think it's another one of those physics titles that is thin on content, so they put it in an odd format small hardback and hope to win over those who don't usually buy science books. But that couldn't be further from the truth. In Jim Al-Khalili's The World According to Physics, we've got the best beginners' overview of what physics is all about that I've ever had the pleasure to read.
The language is straightforward and approachable. Rather than take the more common historical approach that builds up physics the way it was discovered, Al-Khalili starts with the 'three pillars' of physics: relativity, quantum theory and thermodynamics. In simple language with never an equation nor even a diagram in sight, the book lays out what physics is all about, what it has achieved and what it still needs to do.
That bit about no diagrams is an important indicator of how approachable the text is. Personally, I'm no…
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…
Jim Al-Khalili hosts The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4 and has presented numerous BBC television documentaries. He is Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey, a New York Times bestselling author, and a fellow of the Royal Society. He is the author of numerous books, including Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed; The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance; and Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology. The paperback of his novel Sunfall is published in March 2020 by Transworld. His latest book is The World According to Physics.
I fell in love with physics when I was 13 or 14, when I realised not only that I was pretty good at it at school – basically common sense and puzzle solving – but because it was the subject that answered the big questions I had started contemplating, like whether the stars in the night sky went on for ever, what they were ma…