Skip to main content

Everything You Know About Science is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

There's a bold claim in the title of Matt Brown's attractive little hardback - it firmly throws down a gauntlet. It doesn't tentatively say 'Quite a lot of things some people think they know about science are wrong.' (Admittedly that would make an awful title.) It says EVERYTHING and it says YOU. Now, I could accept 'Everything Your Aunty Knows About Science is Wrong' (though, of course, someone else's aunty could well be a scientist). But my initial reaction is for my hackles to rise - so let's see if Brown can smooth over this reaction inside.

The book is a short, easy read - I got through it on a mid-length train journey. It eases us in with some misapprehensions about what scientists and science are like, taking on the stereotypes and clichĂ©s, whether it's about appearance, gender or choice of workwear in the case of scientists or always being right in the case of science. (To be fair, in my experience some of the stereotypes, such as 'more likely to be socially inept than the average population' are true, which Brown doesn't mention.) This is something the profession has been hammering on at for years, but does need repeatedly reinforcing, particularly at the school level.

We then move on to a range of areas where Brown pulls apart some 'everyone knows that...' type statements on space travel, physics, chemistry, biology, earth sciences and human biology. Quite a few of them are now widely known, such as the inaccuracy of 'The Great Wall of China is the only man-made object visible from the Moon', while others, at Brown's admission, are nit-picking. So, for instance, one is 'Astronauts float in zero gravity.' If we are going to nit-pick, this is a perfectly true statement. What he really means is 'Just because astronauts float does not mean they are in zero gravity' - because, for example, the strength of the Earth's gravitational pull in orbit is still very strong, and they float on the International Space Station because they are in free fall, but missing the Earth. (If you really want to be a nit-picker, even there, because of the equivalence principle, you could describe this as zero(ish) gravity.) Other topics are likely to take even the seasoned reader of popular science by surprise. But the familiarity of some topics doesn't really matter, because they're still engaging and worth reading about, especially with Brown's chatty, informative style.

As an example of one that did pleasantly surprise me, we have 'Without a heat shield, spacecraft re-entering Earth's atmosphere will burn up from friction.' I expected the nit-pick that it's perfectly possible to land slowly under rocket control if you have enough fuel - and it came. But the big reveal was that it's not friction but compression of the air that is the primary problem causing heat on re-entry, something that should, perhaps, have been obvious, but that hadn't occurred to me.

Even when the topics were fairly familiar, then - such as pulling apart the assertion that glass is a liquid - I never felt that reading the book was dull, and there were always novelties to keep me turning the pages. I didn't want to put the book down. After the main text we get an 'A to Z' of pseudoscience, taking on everything from acupuncture to 'zoology (crypto)' - Brown admits this is a bit of cheat, and arbitrary to get one entry per letter. However, although short, these little nuggets are well worth reading. The same goes for short sections of myths about scientists and how we pronounce science words incorrectly - don't skip them as appendices, they're all excellent. (There's even a short section of intentionally made up 'false facts', somehow appropriate for the age of alternative fact, though the humour there didn't really work for me.)

In terms of content, my only other quibble is that Brown doesn't always have the courage of his convictions in picking out science myths, repeating some himself - not pointing out, for example, the doubtfulness of the facts behind the suggestion that Ada Lovelace can be considered 'the world's first programmer.'

So we come back to the book's title. I'll be honest, I don't like it - it feels like clickbait, like one of those headlines you see on social media that says 'Ten things you never knew about [Celebrity of your Choice]! You'll be amazed what happens next!' It can't sensibly deliver on its promise. But that doesn't stop it from being an interesting book of quirky science factoids and things that often are or used to be misrepresented. It's also nicely enough finished to be a good gift book - I can imagine it on the shelves in Urban Outfitters, say - with the one proviso that I'm not sure I can bring myself to give someone a book where the cover tells them they're ignorant. Joking apart, it's an enjoyable book that deserves to do well.



Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

Everything You Know About Space Is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

What we have here is a feast of assertions some people make about space that are satisfyingly incorrect, with pithy, entertaining explanations of what the true picture is. Matt Brown admits in his introduction that a lot of these incorrect facts are nitpicking - more on that in a moment - but it doesn't stop them being delightful. I particularly enjoyed the ones about animals in space and about the Moon.

Along the way, we take in space exploration, the Earth's place in space, the Moon, the solar system, the universe and a collection of random oddities, such as the fact that Mozart didn't write Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Sometimes the wrongness comes from a frequent misunderstanding. So, for example, Brown corrects the idea that Copernicus was the first to say that the Earth moves around the Sun. Sometimes there's some very careful wording. This is used when Brown challenges the idea that the Russian dog Laika was the first animal in space. What we discover is that, i…

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs - Lisa Randall ****

I did my PhD in galactic dynamics - which is an awkward subject when people want to know what its relevance to the 'real world' is. So I was excited when Clube and Napier's book The Cosmic Serpent came out, around the same time, because it provided me with a ready-made answer. It argued that the comets which occasionally crash into Earth with disastrous results - such as the extinction of the dinosaurs - are perturbed from their normal orbits by interactions with the large-scale structure of the galaxy.

I was reminded of this idea a few years ago when there was a flurry of media interest in Lisa Randall's "dark matter and the dinosaurs" conjecture. I was sufficiently enthusiastic about it to write an article on the subject for Fortean Times - though my enthusiasm didn't quite extend to purchasing her hardback book at the time. However, now that it's out in paperback I've remedied the situation - and I'm glad I did.

Dark matter is believed to exi…