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The Science of Being Human - Marty Jopson *****

It might seem at first sight that a book titled 'The Science of Being Human' is about biology (or anthropology) - and certainly there's an element of that in Marty Jopson's entertaining collection of pretty-well freestanding articles on human science - but in reality a better clue comes from the subtitle 'why we behave, think and feel the way we do.'

What Jopson does is to pick out different aspects of the human experience - often quite small and very specific things - and take us through the science behind it. I often found that it was something I really wasn't expecting that really caught my fancy. The test with this kind of book is often what inspires the reader to tell someone else about it - the first thing I found myself telling the world was about why old 3D films used to give you a headache, but modern ones tend not to. (It's about the way that in the real world, your eyes swivel towards each other as things get closer to you.)

It's irresistible to pick out other enjoyable vignettes: the potential linkage between Alzheimer's and gum disease, why it's so hard to tell if someone else is lying, placebos and nocebos, the wobbly problems of the Millennium bridge, why the queue you're in is always slower and why phantom traffic jams occur on motorways. Very roughly, the first part of the book is more physiologically oriented and the second half more about psychology and the human environment - I tended to find the second half more engaging (but that may just reflect personal interest as anything even vaguely medical leaves me queasy). Even so, there's still some excellent material about human evolution, our species and our cells in that opening section.

The great thing about Jopson's writing is that he manages a perfect balance between lightness of touch and content. Sometimes, when science writing is light and chatty the result is content that is disappointingly lightweight. While everything remains accessible, there's no feeling here that the reader is being talked down to: there is enough meat in the content to leave the reader satisfied.

In his introduction, Jopson says 'I have taken an eclectic approach and poked around instances of science you may not have expected. I came across some interesting nuggets and quite a bit of maths.' That's exactly what you get - really engaging nuggets, easily readable in chunks that don't so much give the big picture of human science as dive into the nooks and crevices of the surprising bits of human existence. Fun!
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Review by Brian Clegg

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