Friday, May 21, 2010

30-second book review

This review is published in the latest Fortean Times (issue 263).

30-Second Theories: The 50 most thought-provoking theories in science
Paul Parsons (Editor)
Icon Books, 2010
Hb,160pp, illos, index, £12.99, ISBN 978-1-1848311-29-9

30-second review:
As the name suggests, this is a potted collection of some key ideas in science, each presented in a few hundred words, plus an even briefer summary, and some point for further consideration. This review's taking the same structure.
The 50 theories are presented under seven categories, each of which also has a brief biography of some key figure. Each entry also has a full-page illustration which generally look nice rather than illuminate. The text is written by some well-known pop science hacks, including Jim Al-Khalili, Susan Blackmore, John Gribbin and Robert Matthews. It's edited by Paul Parsons, formerly of Focus magazine and author of 'The Science of Doctor Who'. Like those, it's a very light introduction to some heavy subjects.
Despite Parsons' introductory explaination of why a scientific theory is distinct from the 'pet theory' of many a green-ink or caps-locked email correspondent, not all the 'theories' here would qualify. As well as genuine scientific theories like relativity or natural selection, many entries would be better classed as hypotheses (the selfish gene, the anthropic principle, Rare Earth theory), while others are on topics that have been discredited or which would barely qualify as science (Lamarckism, complementary medicine, Freudian psychoanalysis). That might be admirable from a fortean perspective, but it's not quite what's promised.

3-second thrash:
A lavatory book for your laboratory.

3-minute thought:
Who is this actually aimed at? As an introduction to key ideas in modern science, it's undercut by some rather bizarre entries. And anyone who needs Newton's laws of motion explained in very simple language probably won't be up to, say, ekpyrotic theory quite yet.

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