Skip to main content

Seeing Through Illusions – Richard Gregory ***

Oxford University Press has a long and distinguished history of producing popular science books that sound as if they are going to be brilliant, but turn out to disappoint. Often this is because the author is a scientist who knows his subject, but doesn’t really know how to communicate it to the general reader. Seeing Through Illusions is a classic case of this phenomenon. The premise is superb. Using optical illusions and what they reveal to explore the workings of human sight and perception. But sadly it is a wasted opportunity.
It’s revealing that the first actual optical illusion in the book doesn’t come to the colour plates have way through. There’s page after page of context and explanation without ever showing us an optical illusion – the reader is desperately wanting to see one and we just keep getting comments on them without the actual things. When they do crop up they are little more than listed, with plenty of jargon but little relevance to the structure of the text.
It would have been so much better to have built the structure around the illusions, allowing them to gradually reveal the theory and ideas, rather than piling in all the theory in text form first, then finally throwing in illusions.
A few specific issues. Richard Gregory can be a bit fuzzy when off his subject. He tells us that Einstein won his Nobel Prize for his paper on Brownian motion – in fact it was his paper on the photoelectric effect that won him the prize. And the text is often overladen with jargon. Take this caption for an illusion: ‘Ponzo illusion. The basic perspective illusion. The upper horizontal line appears expanded by constancy scaling, normally compensating shrinking of the retinol (sic) image with increased distance.’ Is that clear?
Just occasionally there are moments of real interest where something is revealed about the way our complex visual systems fool us in the way they produce an apparent image of what we see. But this could have been an absolutely wonderful book, and it is, in practice, hard to recommend it for the general reader. What a pity.

Hardback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you   
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

How to Drive a Nuclear Reactor - Colin Tucker ****

How To Drive A Nuclear Reactor does exactly what it says on the tin. The book is a general overview of nuclear reactors. From the basic principles that make them work through to what buttons to press in what order (and of course how and why they can go wrong).Nuclear power could be a good step on the path to a greener energy future, but there is a lot of understandable fear. This book can give some idea of what an incredible feat of both science and engineering one of these machines is and, hopefully, make anyone reading it feel far more comfortable about them.The book presents information about everything, almost down to the literal nuts and bolts, giving you a near complete understanding of how a nuclear works. From putting in the fuel to getting out the power and down from the control panel to the construction material. Everything you could ever want to know is here. By the end you'll likely feel ready to walk into a control room and get started (do not try doing this, nuclear …

Being Mortal - Atul Gawande ****

I heard recently that the local geriatric ward puts a photograph of the patient in his or her prime by each bed. The aim is to help staff to treat their patients as individuals, but it makes me uneasy. Do these people only matter because of what they were, not what they are? Because once they stood proud and handsome in their uniform, or looked lovely on their wedding day?

Professor Atul Gawande has the problem surgically excised and laid out for inspection in one of his unflinching but compassionate case studies:

‘What bothered Shelley was how little curiosity the staff members seemed to have about what Lou cared about in his life and what he had been forced to forfeit... They might have called the service they provided assisted living, but no-one seemed to think it was their job to actually assist him with living – to figure out how to sustain the connection and joys that most mattered to him.’

Gawande is an eminent surgeon. As a young resident he displayed little overt emotion when hi…

Twenty Worlds - Niall Deacon *****

This is a truly entertaining and informative book, but the reason I’m giving it the full five stars has as much to do with the refreshing novelty of the author’s style as anything else. There’s novelty in the subject-matter too – the wide variety of recently discovered exoplanets orbiting other stars – but even so this is the third book on the topic that I’ve read. The first two were a lot less fun to read, and (without naming and shaming the authors) it’s worth a brief diversion to explain why.The first author was a university professor with a vast knowledge of the subject, who seemed determined to convey the entirety of that knowledge without stopping to think whether it was interesting or necessary for a general audience. The second author – another academic – took a different but equally tedious approach, with a plodding chronological account that focused as much on the dull routine of the scientists involved as on their work.Niall Deacon doesn’t make either of those mistakes. He’…