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

Infinity Plus: Quintet (SF) - Keith Brooke (Ed.) ****

When I was younger there was nothing I liked better than a good, deep, dark (frankly, often downright miserable) science fiction story, and this collection delivers excellent modern examples that would have fit easily into a thoughtful if downbeat 70s collection such as the 'New Writing in SF' or the Interzone magazine of the day (one was actually first published in Interzone, in 1987 - the rest date between 1989 and 2010).

If I'm honest, I prefer more upbeat fiction now, but that doesn't stop me appreciating the quality of these five stories, put together by the SF website and publisher Infinity Plus. I've rarely seen a better contradiction of Margaret Atwood's putdown of science fiction as being limited to 'talking squids in outer space.' What we have here is pure character-driven storytelling with not a mention of space, spaceships, ray guns or aliens. It's the inner world, not the outer trappings of sci fi tropes that interest these writers.

On…

The Lost Planets - John Wenz **

Reading the first few lines of the introduction to this book caused a raised eyebrow. In 1600, it tells us, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake 'for his radical views - that not only was the Sun just one of many stars, but those stars likely had planets around them as well.' Unfortunately, this bends the truth. Bruno was burned at the stake for holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith - for conventional heretical beliefs amongst which his ideas on cosmology were trivial. This was an unfortunate start.

What John Wenz gives us is a people-driven story of the apparent early discovery of a number of planets orbiting other stars, made by Peter van de Kamp and his colleagues at Swarthmore College in America, most notably connected to a relatively obscure star called Barnard's star. Wenz is at his best dealing with personal conflict. The book really comes alive in a middle section where van de Kamp's discoveries are starting to be challenged. This chapter works wel…

Bone Silence (SF) - Alastair Reynolds *****

Of all the best modern SF writers, Alastair Reynolds is arguably the supreme successor to the writers of the golden age. He gives us wide-ranging vision, clever concepts and rollicking adventure - never more so than with his concluding book of the Ness sisters trilogy.

Neatly, after the first title, Revenger was written from the viewpoint of one sister, Arafura and the second, Shadow Captain, had the other sister Adrana as narrator, this book is in the third person. It neatly ties up many of the loose ends from the previous books, but also leaves vast scope for revelations to cover in the future if Reynolds decides to revisit this world (he comments in his acknowledgements 'I am, for the time being, done with the Ness sisters. Whether they are done with me remains to be seen.')

As with the previous books, the feel here is in some ways reminiscent of the excellent TV series Firefly, but with pirates rather than cowboys transported into a space setting. Set millions of years in…