Skip to main content

Why Don't Spiders Stick to their Webs - Robert Matthews ***

Every publisher is on the look-out for a successful formula, and as New Scientist has discovered, its series based on the Last Word column, where readers' scientific queries are addressed by other readers, are big sellers. Another success in the 'quick answers to scientific questions' field is Robert Matthews' Why don't Spiders Stick to their own Webs, featuring columns originally published in the Sunday Telegraph. But the difference here is that, where Last Word answers tend to read like a lecture by a pernickety academic (or a scientifically inclined comedian), Matthews gives us his wisdom like a benificent and well-read uncle, entertaining his guests at the dinner table.

What is appealing here is the wide-ranging nature of the topics. On one page you might discover the best properties to buy on the Monopoly board, while elsewhere we are told (at least from Pascal's viewpoint) whether it is rational to believe in God. Matthews demolishes myths, like the suggestion there are more people alive now than ever lived before (probably wrong by a whopping factor of 10 to 15) to 'nobody really knows' questions like 'How big is the universe?' (Matthews fudges this a bit by giving a size for the visible universe, rather than the real thing, and in a later question contradicts himself by incorrectly saying 'the radius of the visible universe is 13.7 billion light years'.)

All in all, it's highly entertaining stuff. You will enjoy yourself, learn a bit, and gain several 'Did you know...?' stories to entertain friends and relations. The only problem with the book is that it is getting a trifle elderly and could do with an update. It was originally published in 2005 and doesn't seem to have been updated since. Specifically, this tends to impact on medical and dietary questions, where advice has moved on, including the strong evidence against homeopathy being anything but a placebo effect, which makes Matthews' support for it look rather odd. Perhaps the most obvious failing is when he answers the question 'Why does a magnet held near a television produce weird colours' and gives an answer that assumes everyone's TV and computer monitor is still a cathode ray tube. This is a book that predates flat screens.

Overall, then, good fun and plenty of enjoyable factoids, but it's a shame that it hasn't been updated. (Entertainingly, this does appear to be the same book another of our reviewers gave 5 stars back in 2005, but then, of course, the need for an update was less pressing.)


Paperback 

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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty. The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science. Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a n

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under