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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.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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