Skip to main content

Science: the definitive guide – Piers Bizony ***

Popular science books often seem to come in waves, and this is the second title we’ve had recently that attempts to cover all of science in one go, following the chunky Science 1001 by Paul Parsons. This is a massive undertaking and in this case the approach taken is to go for a massive format – a coffee table book 37 cm by 30 in size, and weighty enough to match at well over 2 kilos.
Inside are seven sections (Earth, climate, chemistry, biology, space, physics and cosmology), each of which consists of a series of Dorling-Kindersley style double page spreads on different topics, mixing lots of images (often including the background, which can make it a little difficult to read) with a fairly dry text. Each of these two page spreads is standalone – there is no feeling of flow from one to another, which means you don’t really get any sense of the significance of the subject or how the different aspects fit together. And given there relatively few spreads for each topic – chemistry, for instance, has 9 and physics 12) this means the coverage is patchy. Perhaps worst of all there is no feeling for the whole structure of science. Why is the most fundamental science, physics, left nearly until last? It’s a hotch-potch. If you happen to want to get a little background on one of the topics, then some of the spreads are like not-unreasonable illustrated encylopedia articles, but they could have been a lot better.
In the end, even if it were possible to give a good coverage of the whole of science in one book – something I’m personally doubtful of – the format acts against the effectiveness of this book. This format works well for what’s essentially a picture book, like the Hubble title from the same publisher, but for a book you want to actually read, this is just too big and too heavy. It’s not so much unputdownable and unpickupable. It’s not a bad attempt as an attempt at an adult version of a DK picture book, but it just doesn’t work for me.

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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty. The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science. Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a n

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under