Skip to main content

The Element in the Room - Helen Arney and Steve Mould *****

Two thirds of the excellent science performance group Festival of the Spoken Nerd have produced an extremely entertaining 'find out more about science by messing around with stuff' book. (The remaining member of the group, Matt Parker, has his own book.)

This is a fun, rambling, joy of a title - Helen Arney and Steve Mould are present as distinct characters, writing individual segments (they even have their own, differently labelled footnotes) which take us through everyday experiences of science in our lives, from the mystery of noodles turning turmeric red, to optical illusions, to a whole host of experiments you can do yourself, including their infamous (and risky) rotating wastebasket vortex inferno.

Although not specifically a book for teenagers, it will certainly go down well with that market as well as adults who like science as entertainment. If it had been too heavily 'Gee, whiz, wow, BANG!' - always a danger with a science show approach to writing books - it could have trivialised the content too much, but there is always enough explanation to give us a feel for the science behind the phenomena that we experience in the book.

I found the humour a little relentless - it works on stage with an audience, but when reading a book, you perhaps want to be treated a little more gently. There were also a couple of factual oddities: in talking about compact fluorescents we are told 'there is no alternative for energy-saving bulbs' - erm, how about the LED bulbs that are making them redundant? And we're told Henry Ford invented the motor car. Really? Plus the very final segment is a bit odd and didn't quite work. But these are minor issues.

What we're left with is a highly entertaining book that provides page-turning science fun - although there are lots of experiments to do, you can still enjoy it by simply reading it. It would be great to dip into while commuting, or to brighten up a rainy Sunday afternoon. Whether you are reading an exploration of the natural radiation we encounter using units of bananas (apparently bananas are slightly radioactive), seeing striking optical illusions or discovering the names that some chemical elements nearly got but missed, you are likely to find out something new and have a better time than ought to be possible from a popular science book.



Hardback:  

Kindle:  
 Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

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

Grace Lindsay - Four Way Interview

Grace Lindsay is a computational neuroscientist currently based at University College, London. She completed her PhD at the Centre for Theoretical Neuroscience at Columbia University, where her research focused on building mathematical models of how the brain controls its own sensory processing. Before that, she earned a bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience from the University of Pittsburgh and received a research fellowship to study at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Freiburg, Germany. She was awarded a Google PhD Fellowship in Computational Neuroscience in 2016 and has spoken at several international conferences. She is also the producer and co-host of Unsupervised Thinking , a podcast covering topics in neuroscience and artificial intelligence. Her first book is Models of the Mind . Why science? I started my undergraduate degree as a neuroscience and philosophy double major and I think what drew me to both topics was the idea that if we just think rigorously enou