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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.


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Review by Brian Clegg


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