Skip to main content

Question Everything - Mick O'Hare (Ed.) ***

I am very fond of these New Scientist books that bring together question and answer sessions from the weekly magazine's Last Word column. The idea is simple - readers send in questions, other readers provide answers (which I assume are only used if they are reasonably correct (or funny)). The series has been very popular, but inevitably some books in the series stand out, and for me this wasn't one of the better ones.

It's not that there isn't good material. I enjoyed, for instance, entries on the spinning of cricket balls (and I hate sport), the long life of fruit cakes, skimming stones and the reason animals don't need toilet paper. But there were just too many questions and answers that didn't really give me anything new and exciting. Perhaps all the really mind boggling questions have already been dealt with.

The final question also illustrated the limitations of this approach. Someone asked how the UK TV audience figures are calculated. They clearly don't ask every viewer what they watched - so how do we know that 9 million people watched programme X? The answer about a sample of viewers whose viewing is recorded was fine, but the problem is that in a 'real' popular science book, the writer would be likely to think through what more would people want to discover? A writer would develop the question. But this 'crowd sourced' approach means there isn't that opportunity to dive in. So here, for instance, the really interesting question is how do they deal with the fact that many us now hardly watch any TV at the time of broadcast, but instead watch a mix of programmes time shifted with a PVR, catch-up TV and streamed shows? That's where the questioning should have gone, but the format doesn't allow for it unless someone happens to write in with the follow-up question.

So, overall, definitely still an interesting book to dip into and makes a great gift (the timing of the publication before Christmas is hardly coincidental) - but it wasn't one of my favourites in the series.
Paperback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…