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.)


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


Popular posts from this blog

Models of the Mind - Grace Lindsay *****

This is a remarkable book. When Ernest Rutherford made his infamous remark about science being either physics or stamp collecting, it was, of course, an exaggeration. Yet it was based on a point - biology in particular was primarily about collecting information on what happened rather than explaining at a fundamental level why it happened. This book shows how biologists, in collaboration with physicists, mathematicians and computer scientists, have moved on the science of the brain to model some of its underlying mechanisms. Grace Lindsay is careful to emphasise the very real difference between physical and biological problems. Most systems studied by physics are a lot simpler than biological systems, making it easier to make effective mathematical and computational models. But despite this, huge progress has been made drawing on tools and techniques developed for physics and computing to get a better picture of the mechanisms of the brain. In the book we see this from two directions

The Ten Equations that Rule the World - David Sumpter ****

David Sumpter makes it clear in this book that a couple of handfuls of equations have a huge influence on our everyday lives. I needed an equation too to give this book a star rating - I’ve never had one where there was such a divergence of feeling about it. I wanted to give it five stars for the exposition of the power and importance of these equations and just two stars for an aspect of the way that Sumpter did it. The fact that the outcome of applying my star balancing equation was four stars emphasises how good the content is. What we have here is ten key equations from applied mathematics. (Strictly, nine, as the tenth isn’t really an equation, it’s the programmer’s favourite ‘If… then…’ - though as a programmer I was always more an ‘If… then… else…’ fan.) Those equations range from the magnificent one behind Bayesian statistics and the predictive power of logistic regression to the method of determining confidence intervals and the kind of influencer matrix so beloved of social m

How to Read Numbers - Tom Chivers and David Chivers *****

This is one of my favourite kinds of book - it takes on the way statistics are presented to us, points out flaws and pitfalls, and gives clear guidance on how to do it better. The Chivers brothers' book isn't particularly new in doing this - for example, Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot did something similar in the excellent 2007 title The Tiger that Isn't - but it's good to have an up-to-date take on the subject, and How to Read Numbers gives us both some excellent new examples and highlights errors that are more common now. The relatively slim title (and that's a good thing) takes the reader through a whole host of things that can go wrong. So, for example, they explore the dangers of anecdotal evidence, tell of study samples that are too small or badly selected, explore the easily misunderstood meaning of 'statistical significance', consider confounders, effect size, absolute versus relative risk, rankings, cherry picking and more. This is all done i