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Water - Jack Challoner ***

The MIT Press is unusual amongst academic publishers in putting out a fair number of 'packaged' books. These are often highly illustrated titles that are relatively light on content but provide an attractive introduction to a subject. Although Jack Challoner's Water looks like such a book - and it has some very pretty full colour illustrations (though I don't get the point of the final one at the back of the book) - but in reality its content is very different from what's suggested by the highly illustrated format. In some ways that's good, in others it definitely isn't.

Let's do the good bit first. Despite the look, Challoner often goes into a lot more depth than you would expect in such a book. I'm not talking about delving into the mathematics behind what's going on, but when covering, say, phase changes or transient structures in water we get far more detail than might be expected. In several places there were 'Wow, I never knew that!' moments. On the areas Challoner covers - and these somehow don't feel like they give the full picture of water, though I'm struggling to point out an obvious omission, there is distinctly more detail here than the format suggests.

Unfortunately, though, this approach somewhat alienates the book from the readership that the format indicates. If you want depth, you don't usually buy a full colour, heavily illustrated book - this is a flag that we're going to get a fun, lightweight overview. There was so much detail here that, even as someone who enjoys a popular science title that really dives into the depths, I felt overload with facts. The reader is bombarded with information, almost to the extent that parts feel like lists of bullet points. There are a few stories, but as a whole, the book lacks a sense of narrative. The facts may have been true, but all too often I felt 'Why do I need to know this? You aren't telling me why.'

One minor grump, also - the units are universally Imperial. Even temperatures are only given in Fahrenheit. This really doesn't work in a book that's expected to be read outside the US.

Overall, then, an oddity. It looks good. There are some really interesting points. But the way the information is presented is both at odds with the format and often too obscure to add anything without more context and narrative.



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Review by Brian Clegg


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