Skip to main content

Boffinology – Justin Pollard *****

If I’m honest I started off with two chips on my shoulder about this book. The first is that the publicity made a lot of author Justin Pollard’s connection with the TV show QI, which though enjoyable, always tends to come across as a little full of itself. The other was the writing style. The author adopts the sort of breezy near-humour that works well in children’s books, but can feel a little forced in an adult title.
However, as I began to read and enjoy myself, the chips fell away. This book is simply great fun – and the style settles down a bit (much as Douglas Adams had the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy do), so this doesn’t get in the way of the enjoyment. The title is probably a touch baffling, especially if you don’t know what a ‘boffin’ is (old fashion British term, roughly corresponding to a sort of middle aged proto-geek) – but in practice the book consists of a series of short and easily digested stories about scientists, their theories and their discoveries.
In a recent review for another publication, I commented that the book I was reviewing made A Brief History of Time look like bedtime reading. This book makes itself look like bedtime reading. It’s in short, digestible chunks and is highly entertaining. Some of the stories, featuring practically every historical name in science and a good few who really haven’t been remembered, cover typical QI-style surprising facts and things you didn’t expect, others are just simply excellent stories of achievement, wonder or stupidity.
I wanted to pick out a specific story that had delighted me, but there were so many to choose from, I was a little stumped. I think because it was the one I most wanted to tell the world about (and blogged about here), it was probably the story concerning Hans Selye and stress.
The only significant problem I had with the book is that it rather lost impetus in the final third. These later stories had less of a punch and we had quite a few that were only there because of an interesting bit of biography, rather than any real relevance to science. There were also one or two oddities. In describing the scientific paper ‘wittily’ ascribed to scientists Alpher, Bethe and Gamow, the book more than once refers to this using the relevant Greek letters – only instead of alpha, beta, gamma, they have actually put alpha, beta, chi. That’s just weird. Pollard also missed a trick in describing the story of the development of aspirin. Perhaps the best bit of the story is that for obscure reasons, aspirin was included in the treaty that ended the First World War, so it became a generic drug in the UK, while it remained a trademarked product in the rest of the world.
I am often asked for recommendations for a science book to give as a gift – and this is ideal. It has some surprising science, interesting people and plenty of entertainment. Excellent stuff.

Paperback:  

Kindle:  
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