Skip to main content

Moonwalking with Einstein – Joshua Foer *****

There is a very particular style of popular science writing, often from America, that combines information on science with a personal voyage of discovery. On the whole they tend to be written either by quite young writers or by someone very well funded by a magazine or a TV company (book publishers rarely pay well enough) because they involve giving up maybe a year of your life to go on the road and follow up a high concept. The cream of these books are superbly enjoyable – and I think Joshua Foer’s is the best I’ve ever read, making it a classic of the genre.
In Moonwalking with Einstein he explores the world of competitive memory skills – a small, almost unknown cadre of (dare we say) rather weird individuals who spend the year practising to be able compete at tasks like memorizing the order of a pack of cards (allegedly very useful in casinos, though Foer doesn’t really explore this particular application), an unseen poem, a list of names and faces, and random binary digits.
Along the way – and here comes the science bit, as they say in all the best cosmetic adverts – he gives us a fair amount of information on the nature of memory and how the human brain processes it, though obviously this is not covered in as much detail as you would get in a ‘pure’ popular science book – it probably amounts to less than a quarter of the content. Even so, Foer gives us a good picture of current thinking on what is still an area of science requiring a lot more understanding.
The brain science is pretty well presented – though I’ve read a lot about the brain, I still learned a few things – but the captivating part of the book is Foer’s personal journey. Not only does he get to know the memory champions, and the larger-than-life ‘use your brain better’ guru Tony Buzan – he actually enters the US Memory Championships. It seems unlikely that an ‘amateur’ would do well, but apparently the US Championships are not in the same league as the Europeans, and Foer is guided by a UK master – so he has a fighting chance of getting placed (apart from an epilogue, the book peaks with his taking part – I won’t give the game away by saying how he does).
Perhaps the most fascinating chapter is when he is dealing with ‘savants’, people who have unusual and remarkable talents, often accompanied by mental disabilities. He talks to the man who was the inspiration of the movie Rain Man, but the best part of all is his interaction with the savant Daniel Tammet who Foer gives strong evidence for being not quite what he seems. It’s not that Tammet doesn’t have excellent memory and mental maths skills – but Foer clearly believes this originated from training rather than from any special mental capacity. And his argument is very persuasive.
Overall, then, a truly enjoyable book with a real surge of excitement as ‘our boy’ takes on the US Championships. You really do learn quite a lot about how memory works, and also plenty of excellent memory techniques. In the epilogue, Foer points out something I too have observed from dabbling in memory techniques. They really do work. It’s perfectly possible for pretty well anyone to remember names and lists and phone numbers. But the fact is it is actually harder work than just jotting down a note. These techniques work conceptually, but they rarely seem worth the effort in practice. Highly recommended.
Also on Kindle:  
Also in audio download: 
Also on CD:  
Also in hardback (UK is large print):  
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…