Let’s say you set out to put together a summary of the basic science you need to know in the first couple of years of secondary school, but wanted to make it more
approachable than a typical textbook. That’s pretty much what Usborne has done here. It’s really three books in one with totally separate sections for biology, chemistry and physics, each with its own contents pages, each starting out with a quick summary of what the subject is, what people working in this field do, and what it has done for us.
Overall it works well – the illustrations are fun and useful, and the text mixes snippets of history, little stories and factoids with the more straightforward stuff. So, for instance, you’ll find the kind of biology terms, chemical equations and physics laws you’d find in a textbook, but approached much more accessibly with lots more context. For all this, the book has to get a real pat on the back – and you certainly get plenty for your money. This is over 250 pages of fairly small print, it’s not your typical children’s summary.
There are some things I find hard to like about it. It doesn’t have the authors’ names on the cover, just the publisher – as an author, I find this rather disenfranchising, and not very pleasant. When it comes to the contents, much of it is great, but one thing jumps out as weird – rather than the obvious order of physics, chemistry and biology, the sections are reversed. This means that you keep hitting bits of physics (say) in the chemistry section that you haven’t covered yet. It’s idiotic not to have it the other way round so each subject builds on the next.
I also have to have my usual moan, which is more about the curriculum this book is fitted to than necessarily the authors’ intentions. The science is solidly Victorian. There is nothing about quantum theory (photons don’t even get a mention in the light section) and only a tiny mention of special relativity, with no general relativity. When will the people setting the curriculum understand that quantum theory and relativity are essential, they’re more fun than ‘old physics’ and should come first? Argghhh! There are a couple of small errors in the physics (I haven’t checked the other sections as thoroughly). The planetary model is used for atoms, while in the gravity section we are told ‘Gravity in space is non-existent,’ using astronauts as an example. Sorry, the gravity on ISS is around 0.9g. Free fall is a matter of falling under gravity and missing, it is not zero gravity. There’s also a sad lack of explanation in some parts of the physics. When talking about floating it’s all about density – nothing about forces or why there is upthrust – rather disappointing.
I can’t blame Usborne for the curriculum, though, and given those constraints this is a very useful and full book to make the textbook topics more approachable.
Review by Brian Clegg