I do a lot of talks about science in schools, and there’s nothing a young science enthusiast likes better than getting hands on, so Sean Connolly’s book offers a lot of promise, as it is subtitled ’50 experiments for daring young scientists.’ There is a stunning list of topics too: ‘Smashing atoms! Making gunpowder! Firing rockets! Using lasers! Raising the dead! G-forces, X-rays, black holes, DNA and much more!’ (Yes! There really are that many exclamation marks!) If Connolly really can deliver on this list, then he’s got my interest. The only danger with this kind of thing is the ‘X-ray specs’ effect. When I was young, American comics always had adverts for X-ray specs that let you see through people’s clothes and you just knew there were a lot of disappointed young customers out there.
Although the UK edition is technically a paperback, it’s a rather snazzy, wipe-clean version – ideal for when those messy experiments get out of hand. But how do the contents score? I think there are three tests that TBoPCS has to face up to. Are the experiments doable and fun? Is the science they are based on okay? And how did it live up to those extravagant promises on the cover?
A first observation is that there is a heck of a lot in this book. Connolly arranges it in 34 chapters, each of three sections: some historical context, a bit of science and one or more experiments around this area. The chapters run chronologically and are largely based on inventions from stone age tools to the Large Hadron Collider. The author gives us a surprising amount of historical context and science for a young person’s book. There’s a lot of content here.
When it comes to my tests, I’d say the experiments are indeed doable and mostly fun, though one or two (the elevator springs to mind) seem to involve an awful lot of work for not much result. Then there’s the science – mostly this is excellent, pitched at the right level and approachable but not trivial. I have a couple of small quibbles here. We are warned (in the ‘health and safety gone mad’ warnings about risk, which also include the wonderful ‘Slight risk of paper cut’) that a homemade battery has a ‘slight risk of static shock’, which sounds wrong when you think of the distinction between static and current electricity.
Then there’s the matter of how aeroplanes stay in the sky. We are given the old Bernoulli explanation of reduced pressure on the top of the wing as the air must move faster over the curved top to meet up with the air going across the flat bottom. Unfortunately, there is no reason why the air should feel an urge to catch up – there are Bernoulli pressure effects on aerofoils, but the main lift is due to a Newton’s third law effect where the air is pushed down and the wing is pushed up. The Bernoulli explanation is no longer the accepted one.
Finally, there is a weird comment that I have read several times and still can’t get to the bottom of. Connolly is writing about Einstein’s 1905 use of statistical methods to predict the random motion of atoms. He then says that this ability to apply statistical methods to the random motion of atoms… ‘led to his groundbreaking General Theory of Relativity published in 1916.’ I can’t see any connection between the two. Confused.
Finally we come to the third test – does it live up to the promise? I think the answer is sort-of. As you might expect, all the really dangerous sounding stuff promised doesn’t happen. The reader doesn’t end up doing experiments with X-rays or black holes, for example. Even the promise of making gunpowder (something I did do when the age of the readers of this book) comes down to dissolving iron wool in vinegar and observing a temperature increase (slow ‘burning’, hence considered a slowed-down version of gunpowder). I’ve nothing against keeping experiments to a safe level (my favourite is the last in the book, measuring the speed of light using marshmallows), but I don’t think you should make as explicit a promise as ‘making gunpowder’ when this just isn’t true.
Overall there is lots to like about this book. Connolly covers a whole lot of ground in both his potted histories and scientific explanations. The experiments are mostly fun and don’t require too much preparation. All in all, given its reasonable price, a bargain collection of bumper science fun.
Review by Brian Clegg