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March 2011



Published by: Quercus, 2010; ISBN: 978-1848660564 (hbk) 352pp. List price: £12.99 

CroftonThe ‘bitesize’ approach to popular science is becoming increasingly popular, as is telling the human stories behind accounts of theories and hypotheses that otherwise risk being dry and impersonal. One of the most important outcomes of books like Science Without the Boring Bits is to bring home the fact that science doesn’t always get it right – as any ‘Whiggish’ account of science, marching ever closer towards truth misleadingly suggests, ignoring all the strange cul-de-sacs and deviations that scientists have meandered through, on their way to finding the ideas that stuck.

Thus, we learn that even the great Charles Darwin had his ‘stupid moment’, investigating into the musicality of worms, while time and again scientists have confidently stated that we know nearly everything we need to – a highlight being the Linnean Society President who declared that “this year has not been marked by any striking discoveries”. He was speaking of 1859 – only a few months after the Linneans had heard Darwin and Wallace’s paper On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection.

Occasionally, mistaken ideas have had more serious consequences than wasted time spent in the company of worms, bassoons and whistles. The danger of signing up too early to a fledging theory is well illustrated by the craze for radium as cure and cosmetic (‘Let “Caradium” do for you what it has done for thousands across the world!”), and for lobotomy to alleviate the slightest mental difficulty.

The book is helpfully arranged in chronological order, giving a timeline of the humorous, bizarre and nonsensical antics of scientists from 3750BC to the present day. They are also categorised according to discipline – sometimes anachronistically, especially since these categories are applied to examples dating from eras before they were recognised. But the wide variety ensures there is something for everyone, as does the varying length of entries. This is a book to dip in and out of, rather than reading cover to cover. There are many similar offerings on the market already; but if they all serve to reinforce the point that scientists are not only fallible, but have a sense of humour, there will never be enough of them.

Reviewed by Sarah Day




Published by: Wiley-Blackwell Publication date: 2010. ISBN: 978-1-4051-9909-4 288pp. List price: £24.95 (pbk); £75.00 (hbk)

The title of Michael Leddra’s book may have seemed an incongruous choice of holiday reading during a time, last summer, when for me, time really didn’t matter! But I was far from disappointed. Time Matters takes the reader through a comprehensive synopsis of the topic; through rock dating and time scales, plutonism and neptunism, uniformitarianism and catastrophism, evolution and creationism, and onto continental drift and plate tectonics. Each concept, set into its own historical timescale, details the development and discoveries that have shaped our understanding of geological time, by the people most notably involved.

Time Matters is more than a textbook and reads with the accessibility of a novel. Clearly written by an educationalist, the reader’s own understanding is frequently challenged with appropriate use of “discussion point questions” which make the text much more interactive. The author also provides additional background to the topics discussed as well as further reading suggestions. Indeed, he frequently quotes from an extensive bibliography that further directs the reader to new ideas for study, and it is this synthesis of so many current books on this topic that makes Time Matters such a useful publication. Thus the book, which is liberally illustrated with black and white photos, maps and diagrams and a very good index, is an ideal introduction to a topic that is central to any study of the earth sciences.

This is certainly appropriate for the A-Level/first year university market and as a background to the development of understanding of the earth sciences for the educated layman. As the book covers so many important topics - remnant magnetism, geological principles, radiometric dating techniques and mountain building to name but a few - the A-Level student and Year 1 undergraduate will find it a particularly useful reference. Whilst the cost may be prohibitive for school class copies, this is certainly one for the departmental and main library. I thoroughly recommend the paperback version of the book to colleagues and students alike - you will not be disappointed.

Reviewed by Pete Loader, St Bede’s College, Manchester