Skip to main content

The Address Book – Tim Radford ***

I have to admit, I opened this book to immediate disappointment. Our editor mentioned he’d got a book for review by Tim Harford, the undercover economist on the excellent More or Less radio programme. Expecting Harford’s light, bright style I ploughed into the dense, wordy first chapter like hitting a brick wall. Why had he changed his style so much? And then I realised the mistake – wrong Tim.
The Address Book has a lovely basis. Like many of us, Tim Radford felt the urge when at school to do one of those unconsciously set theory based addresses, starting with his street address, town, county, country, continent, hemisphere, planet, solar system, galaxy and, you guessed it, the universe. This book parallels his address structure with a chapter on each of these. And each of those chapters makes use of the particular subject to take us an a whole host of delightful side steps and deviations. So far so good.
But then we hit two big problems. One is that I really don’t like the verbose, heavy style he writes in. Some will, I know – it’s a personal thing. But I found the first chapter totally unreadable with its endless personal tales about his house – I’m afraid I don’t care about his house. After that, as the canvas broadened, things got a little easier, though I still found the writing much too flowery, and with a strong tendency to give us list after list. Radford can’t just tell us about an animal in the countryside, he has to list sixteen different examples of the local wildlife, as if all those rolling syllables somehow give the whole thing more gravitas. It’s the sort of approach they used to use in 1950s radio broadcasts – now it seems fusty and old fashioned.
The other problem, from the point of view of this website is that this isn’t really a science book. Radford says as much, commenting in his acknowledgments section ‘This is not intentionally a science book, although it draws on generations of scientific research’. For the first 100 pages or so there is hardly any science apart from a touch of geology. After that there is inevitably more, as the scope takes in the reaches of outer space, but we still get plenty that isn’t. Which makes it a bit of a joke that this book is on the long list for the Royal Society science book prize. It’s not a good fit with this genre.
So I’m afraid this really wasn’t a great experience for me. I do think those who enjoy the likes of a John Betjeman at his most verbose will enjoy the prose style, but I’m afraid it doesn’t work for me, and it’s much too hard work to dig out what nuggets of science are present.
Paperback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Peter Spitz

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Logic - Eugenia Cheng ***

This is an important book, though I'm not sure Eugenia Cheng would agree with my logic in saying so. 

Going on the marketing, what we have here is a counter to fake news and dodgy argumentation in the form of mathematical logic. The back cover tells us 'Newspaper headlines and social media use emotions to warp the facts. Politicians and companies master rhetoric to mislead us. What one book could help us make sense of it all?' Admittedly they don't answer their rhetorical question, but I assume the answer is intended to be The Art of Logic. (Did the company behind this book realise it was using rhetoric, though presumably not to mislead us?) 

What we actually have is a combination of a lucid and interesting explanation of the basics of logic with the mathematical equivalent of those books such as Algorithms to Live By that were so popular a couple of years ago. They used the logic of algorithms (differently worded, and, to me, easier to understand), the heart of computer…

Quantum Economics - David Orrell ****

David Orrell's earlier title Economyths is one of my favourite popular science books of all time. Or, perhaps, I should say popular non-science, as Orrell shows just how devastatingly traditional economics uses the tools of science without having a scientific basis. I was, therefore, really looking forward to reading Orrell's new book - until I saw the title. As anyone involved with physics can tell you, there's nothing more irritating than the business of sticking the word 'quantum' onto something to give a pseudo-scientific boost to waffle and woo. Was Orrell doing the same thing? Thankfully, his introduction put my fears aside.

Orrell, a mathematician with a physics background quickly makes it clear that the way he is using quantum theory is not just employing magic words, but involves making use of strong parallels between the nature of quantum objects and concepts like money (more on money in a moment). Yes, this is to some extent a metaphorical use of quantum …

The Ashtray - Errol Morris *****

Wow. When someone suggested I read a book called The Ashtray, written by a documentary film-maker, it didn't strike me that it would be a book that gave deep insights into the history and philosophy of science - while also being a remarkable reading experience. In fact, I almost didn't bother with it, but I'm glad that I did.

The titular ashtray was thrown at the author when he was a grad student - thrown by one of the two best known names in the philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn, he of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the concept of paradigm shifts. Kuhn didn't like the young Errol Morris daring to challenge his ideas and reacted with what some would regard as a less than philosophical reply by hurling a heavy glass ashtray at him.

Part of the reason that reading The Ashtray is a remarkable experience is because it's a book that feels in some ways like watching a documentary. I have to confess I've never seen any of Morris's work, but he uses vis…