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The Big Ideas in Science - Jon Evans ***

The starting point of a review like this has to be to congratulate the author on his achievement, Jon Evans, because getting all of science into one relatively short book is a massive (and thankless) task. Although inevitably the result is a fairly hectic dash through the material, with limited space for subtleness, Evans manages to make the experience readable and has a light touch that is effective without becoming too simplistic.

There is only one reason this book doesn't get four stars - it's not the quality of the writing but rather the selection of the contents. Of course, there is bound to be plenty of stuff missed out - how else could you get all of science into 269 pages? But the balance is strangely skewed. Chemistry is pretty much omitted, though aspects of chemistry occur under other headings. But for me, the real problem is that physics is really under-represented. It's interesting to use Jim Al-Khalili's recent excellent physics summary title The World According to Physics as a guide. Al-Khalili rightly identifies three pillars of physics: relativity, quantum theory and thermodynamics. In Evans' book, quantum theory gets two pages (in a section labelled 'When Science Goes Bad'), thermodynamics gets three lines and there is no mention of relativity at all. That's like doing biology without mentioning genetics.

If we overlook this oddity, many other topics get good coverage. The book starts with cosmology, astronomy, the beginnings of life and evolution. We then get plenty on DNA and genetics, cell biology, the immune system and the nervous system. Then there's a whole section on Earth science - geology and weather get an impressive 45 pages (which is why that physics and chemistry gap is so depressing). The final three sections are less science per se as meta-science, including some of the most interesting material on, for example, technology and materials (particularly graphene and nanomaterials), fraud in science, climate change (including why some doubt it) and future science and technology (mostly technology). We do get some physics in the technology section with subsections on energy and waves - but that doesn't make up for lacking those three pillars.

It's not that there's anything much wrong with anything that's here - it's just that there are 50 to 100 pages missing. Okay, there is the occasional error, but every book has one or two - and it's particularly difficult when trying to cover everything. The one that stood out to me was that LUCA (the 'last universal common ancestor') is described as 'the very first life form' - in fact that 'last' bit means it's the most recent lifeform that is ancestor to all of us, not the very first. I'd also comment on the cover, which is decidedly mean to the author - his name doesn't appear on the spine at all, and you really have to search for it on the front.

All in all, Evans has done an admirable job in what's here. I just wish there had been a bit more. It makes the subtitle somewhat ironic.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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