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The Universe Inside You by Brian Clegg
If you like QI you will love this book. Like the TV show, it takes a basic theme and then delights in finding all the strange and wonderful reality that can be discovered from that concept. Here the starting point is your body as a vehicle for exploring science. Some of what you will read is literally about the body, whether it's the voyage of red blood cells or the paradox of your hair being dead but still part of you. But at other times it will link your body to the bigger world of science - so, for instance, we follow a photon of light from a star in the constellation Orion to your eye, finding out about cosmology and quantum theory along the way.
The main chapter headings start us off from a human hair, a cell of your body, your eyes, your stomach, the dizziness you might feel after going on a theme park ride, sexual attraction and your brain. But each of these sections of the book contains so much more. On the theme park ride, for example, we find out more about the senses, seeing why there are many more than five (how do you know you are upside down if you have your eyes closed? Which of the traditional five detects heat on your skin?) - but also manage to find ourselves in the remarkable world of Einstein's relativity. Without over-simplifying, this all comes across at a level that would work for secondary school students as well as the general adult reader.
The book will inevitably be compared with Brian Clegg's very successful Inflight Science - I understand the attraction of that one - it's wonderful to have with you on a plane journey, or just to explore the science around a flight, not just flying itself. But for me, this one has the edge, because we've all got a body that is kind of important to us - and being a bigger book, there is much more room for extending into science and getting better insights. Like Inflight Science there are experiments scattered through the book - I very much liked the linked website which includes a number of experiments you can try online, whether watching a video, trying an optical illusion or interacting with an artificial analyst.
No book is perfect. Although the illustrations are mostly clearer than in Inflight Science one or two still suffer from the murkiness that comes from being reproduced in-page. Although I said Clegg doesn't over-simplify, at times I really wanted more. There is a good further reading section (enhanced in the website by being able to click through to the books), but on or two of the topics I felt that they had been crammed in because they ought to be there, but that the coverage was more summary than I would have liked. These were relatively few though - mostly they were pitched at the right level.
This is an Alice in Wonderland trip through science. The book starts and ends with looking at yourself in the mirror (typically, Clegg can't resist exploring why the mirror reverses left and right but not top and bottom). But where Alice encounters absurdity, on our trip through the looking glass, we discover and enjoy the wonders of science. Brilliant stuff.
Review by Jo Reed
Please note, this title is written by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion - and we could hardly omit the book - but do want to make the connection clear.
Featured Children's Book
Justin Thyme by Panama Oxridge age range 9-14
Review - Justin Thyme - Panama Oxridge
We don't usually review fiction here, but occasionally a fiction book comes along that has enough useful science content that it fits here: this is such a book.
If thereís one thing that pulls the reader into a book, itís a good mystery Ė and thatís exactly what happens with Justin Thyme. With the intriguing environment of Thyme Castle, really strong characters and a plot that thickens like the best gravy browning itís a very enjoyable read. It can be a touch whimsical Ė a character named W. S. Gilbert who always sings opera and a food store called Fortean & Mayhem for instance Ė but this isnít the end of the world.
I come to this book as a science writer. Iíve always felt that there is a great opportunity to write fiction, particularly for younger readers, that gets across some aspects of science, but it is hugely difficult to do. Often it results in poor fiction that is patronising and that labours to get the science message across. What I particularly liked about the Justin Thyme book that there is actually a lot of good science in it Ė but it never gets in the way of the action. Of course some of the science is a little unlikely, whether itís the talking gorilla or the practicalities of time travel, but there is still plenty of good material, both in the end-of-chapter notes and in many of the things the characters discuss.
A real pleasure to read, and a book that works wonderfully well at showing that science and having fun arenít mutually exclusive.
Reviewed by Brian Clegg
* Our age range recommendation is an estimated guide, but individual readers outside the range could still enjoy the book!
Looking for a different present, or a gift for someone who's difficult to buy for? Take a look at this:
Gift review - Starry Night Enthusiast
Ready for some Stargazing? You don't need Brian Cox. The night sky is a wonderful place, but it's easy enough to get lost - the Starry Night Enthusiast Version 6 software contains everything you need to find your way around, and find out some amazing new facts.
Starry Night is an excellent planetarium program that brings up on your PC or Mac a view of the night sky that is simply brilliant. It's a clear, crisp, image, the controls are mostly intuitive and some of the extras are a delight. Constellations can be brought up in stick form, or (for the major ones) with a very effective graphic image. Click on a star or planet and you will get extra information. You can even travel to one. This may be a bit over the top for a star, but the way you travel out to Mars or Saturn is quite magical, and in the new Version 2 pack, you can even control this spaceflight with a joystick. The program shows you the view from home (or anywhere else), and monitors real time to show you the view now (but of course you can move to another date and time at will). The secondary features are good too. You can find something in space, print off star maps to take outside and more. But in the end you have to come back to what is an excellent planetarium with 1 million stars and 28,000 galaxies.
Astronomers who are real enthusiasts will want to go for one of the more powerful Starry Night versions, but for the 95 per cent of us, adult and child who just want to peep out at the stars occasionally and know what we're seeing, and to find out more about space, this is excellent.
Reviewed by Brian Clegg
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