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Review - The Shadow Club - Roberto Casati

 

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Everything looks promising about this book. The title sounds mysterious and inviting. The cover is attractive, and promises the book will tell us about "the greatest mystery in the universe". So it's a bit of a come-down to find out that it really is just a book about shadows. As becomes obvious when reading it, this would be a great topic for a study of the human psyche, but simply hasn't enough going for it as a popular science subject, because in the end shadows aren't terribly exciting.

The struggle Roberto Casati has is well illustrated by a list of shadow "brainteasers" with which he fills most of a chapter. Is night the same as shadow? Does a shadow survive when it is "swallowed" by another shadow, and so on. The whole series of questions is pointless, because a shadow isn't an entity, it's an absence of something. A shadow is an area where light isn't hitting, contrasted by adjacent areas where light is hitting. (The contrast part is important, something Casati ignores by asking bizarre questions like "is there a shadow inside a solid object?" Well, no, because there's no light to contrast it.)

Casati even points out the flaw in his topic by saying we could think of shadow as being like a hole - so true - but then he makes the strange argument that there's something significant about shadows (and holes), because they make description easier. It's much easier, he says, to describe a star-shaped hole than the cuts in the paper that form it. So what? Just because something makes description easier, doesn't give it mysterious properties. Imagine there's a school with 100 teachers and 1,500 students. You go into a classroom and it's empty. It's much easier to use the "hole" and say "there's no one here", than to say "Mrs Smith isn't here, and Paul Jones isn't here, and..." naming every single person that isn't there. Yet it's the people that are real, not "no one". In effect, this is a book about "no one". Now that would be fine for a poet, but not a science writer.

It's not all bad - and that's why it's got three stars, rather than the two that the subject demands. Casati writes with enthusiasm, and the translation from the Italian by Abigail Asher is superb in that there is no feel that this is a translated book: it reads very smoothly. There are parts of the book that fascinate. For instance, there's a bit early on about how babies perceive shadow that's delightful. (Though even this illustrates the problem of the topic - it would have worked just as well if it had been about how babies perceive anything else. The shadow is unimportant to the fascination.) And shadows have proved useful in astronomy (though if you're interested in eclipses, you'd be better off with Eclipse by Duncan Steel).

Shadows are interesting, but really this book should have been about the mind, how we perceive shadows, how they've been represented in fiction and movies and so on. For a wonderful example of the strangeness of shadow perception, see the checkerboard optical illusion. The aspects of shadow and the mind are touched on, but not given enough importance because it's still trying to be a popular science book, but that makes it a book about the absence of something - light. To find about more about light see Light Years by Brian Clegg.

Biggest brickbat has to go to whoever wrote the cover blurb - calling shadows "the greatest mystery in the universe" ought to be an arrestable offence.

Also in hardback (US version is hardback): Visit bookshop

Reviewed by Brian Clegg

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Last update 05 June 2007