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Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mushroom.' I imagined a line-up of three mushrooms, of which I was the third. What it really means is 'You are one third mushroom' - about 1/3 of your DNA is shared with a mushroom. We then jump to 'Slime moulds have thirteen sexes' (boggle) and 'Babies are powered by rocket fuel.' (Really.) And that's just the first few in the 'biological things' section. 

Some of the factoids that Chown builds his pieces around are genuinely surprising. 'The body in the solar system that generates the most heat, pound for pound is not the Sun,' for instance. Others may be more familiar, but are still brilliant, such as 'Every breath you take contains an atom breathed out by Marilyn Monroe.' Chown is an astrophysicist by background, so there are a lot of items on space and cosmology. Some of these are perhaps weaker than most because they have a less direct connection to people, like 'Believe it or not we may all be living in a giant hologram.' Meh - no, we're not, it's just over-application of maths to reality. But others do still have the ability to surprise - for example, 'Everyone thinks that gravity sucks, but in most of the universe it blows.'

Of course, these little tweetable nuggets are not all there is to the book, fun though they are. For each of these tiny summaries we get a few pages of exploration and this is where Chown shows just what a good writer he is. Despite having a relatively short amount of text, he makes each essay a little narrative that informs and entertains. Their engaging nature makes it difficult to restrain yourself from sharing your new knowledge with anyone nearby.

If you're pedantic (like me), one slight issue arises. Although the overall points made are fine, in the detail Chown can prioritise keeping the storytelling simple over accuracy. For example, from the first few items: evolutionary theory recognising that organisms on Earth have common ancestors predates Charles Darwin. Hydrogen/oxygen isn't, as we're told, the fuel that 'pound for pound packs the biggest oomph' (think nuclear or antimatter). And there aren't 'around a billion ATP molecules in your body.' The best estimate for these energy storing molecules in an adult is a minimum of 0.1 moles - over 6,000 billion billion. Oh, and you can extract nutrients from your food without bacteria in your stomach (guinea pigs have been bred that do this) - though they're sickly and the process is far less efficient.

This isn't a major problem. The point of a book like this is to inspire the reader to find out more and to give a snappy story that captures the reader's interest. Chown does this brilliantly - there may not be room here to go into the kind of depth required to get a more accurate picture, but hopefully some readers will go on to do so.

The bitesized approach makes this an ideal book for those who might not normally consider reading about science, making a great present for a teenager or adult. Excellent stuff.



Review by Brian Clegg


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