Skip to main content

The Rough Guide to the Future – Jon Turney ***

This is a really interesting book, which is why I feel I need to explain up front why it only has three stars. In part it’s because this is a science website, and there is an awful lot of this book that isn’t science. ‘Futurology’ itself certainly isn’t a science – it’s collection of opinion. As the saying goes, the plural of anecdote is not data, and collecting together opinions is not science. It’s also notable that the chapter on ‘science futures’ is practically all about technology. Nothing about future discoveries in physics, cosmology, chemistry or even biology (as opposed to biotech and medicine).
The other reason I can’t give the book too high a score is that it’s not always great to read. This says nothing about Jon Turney’s writing, which is great, wonderfully readable and well crafted. It’s all down to the topic and the format. The problem with the topic is that, frankly, when you get down to looking at the future (future of economics, future of politics, future of food supply…) it starts reading like a government ministry checklist. It’s only likely to really excite a civil servant. We want the future to be all about ray guns and jet packs, not supply and demand curves.
As for the format, it’s a case of boxitis. I don’t know why, but some publishers love having little boxes on the page with separate bits of text. I started writing business books before I got into popular science and business publishers absolutely insist on boxes, as, apparently, do the Rough Guide people – I can’t imagine Turney wanted it. Boxes work fine in a traditional Dorling Kindersley style two page spread, where the main body text is complete in itself on the two pages. But in a normal book, where the body text flows from page to page, as it does here, when are you supposed to read the boxes? If you do it at the start or end of the page, you often have to stop reading midsentence. It’s just irritating.
There’s a lot to be interested by and enjoy in this book. I particularly liked it when Turney invoked science fiction and made comparisons with the more way-out ideas of the future from the past. We find out a lot about important topics like climate change, energy problems, water problems and more in a very approachable way. I really, really wanted to like this book. But I didn’t. I would have liked to have seen more comparison of old futurology with what really happened (for example Tofler’s fascinating but almost entirely disastrously wrong ideas in Future Shock). And I’m disappointed that the book tells us that the world’s first maglev train runs from Shanghai Airport. (What about Birmingham Airport’s maglev from last century?) But on the whole the coverage is fine – it’s just the problems detailed above that prevented me from enjoying this ride into the future.

Paperback:  

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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Wonderworks - Angus Fletcher *****

If you are interested in both writing and science this is an unmissable book. Reading can not just impart information, but can influence the way that we feel. Angus Fletcher describes 25 literary techniques (many also applicable to film and TV), ranging from those known to the Ancient Greeks to modern innovations, that can have a particular influence on our feelings and state of mind. Interestingly Fletcher describes this as technology - devices to make something happen. But rather than being a purely philosophical exploration, what lifts the book significantly is that for each of these techniques, Fletcher describes how studies of the impact on the brain show the physical effects occurring in different parts of the brain as a result. The chapters (one for each technique) end with a faintly self-help feeling bit - for instance, how you can use the 'clear your head' technique by reading certain texts, but that really isn't the point. This isn't a self-help book, it's

Life is Simple - Johnjoe McFadden ***

This is a really hard book to review, because it has two quite distinct parts and the chances are that if you are interested in one of these parts, you may well find the other part less engaging. The first section concerns the development of Occam's razor - the idea of keeping your explanation of something as simple as possible while it still works - and the impact this would have on philosophy (and proto-science) in the Middle Ages. The second part treads very familiar ground in taking us through some of the major developments in science from Galileo onwards, occasionally tying back to Occam's razor to show that the impact of the idea continued. As it happens, I love the first bit as I find the medieval development of science and its intertwining with religion and philosophy fascinating. Jonjoe McFadden brought in a lot of material I wasn't familiar with. Of course I was aware of Occam's razor itself, but I knew nothing about William of Occam as a person, or the way hi

Being You - Anil Seth ***

The trouble with experts is they often don't know how to explain their subject well to ordinary readers. Reading Anil Seth's book took me back to my undergraduate physics lectures, where some of the lecturers were pretty much incomprehensible. For all Seth's reader-friendly personal observations and stories, time after time I got bogged down in his inability to clearly explain what he was writing about. It doesn't help that the subject of consciousness is itself inherently difficult to get your head around - but I've read plenty of other books on consciousness without feeling this instant return to undergraduate confusion. There are two underlying problems I had with the book. One was when complex (and, frankly, rather waffly) theories like IIT (Integration Information Theory) were being discussed. As the kind of theory that it's not currently possible to provide evidence to support, this is something that in other fields might be suggested not to be science at