Thirty-four writers present a short essay, typically four or five pages long, each on their specialist subject or subjects. Many of them succeed brilliantly and repay respectful re-readings.
However, this is a difficult book to review since, as the title suggests, it is both broad and ambitious. Although there is no real danger of acquiring a full 'science toolkit for the mind', there is a splendid amount of well-presented science herein, and the best parts really do what the title suggests, and will teach you how to critique the not-so-good parts if you are persistent enough, which is even more entertaining than watching Star Wars and Lord of the Rings back-to-back. To score the book as a whole I gave each essay a mark in the range from one to five. The mean essay score is 3.2, but ten of the essays scored 5/5, so I give it an easy 5 stars on a value-for-money basis. (The modal mark is 5, the median 3. Six essays scored 1, six scored 2, eight scored 3, four scored 4. The essay on quarks by Alan H. Guth baffles me, so that might well be a five too for all I know, but I gave it a one on the basis that he should not be so out of step with the others - I understood the other three or four physics essays well enough.)
My top ten essays are:
1. 'What Happened Before the Big Bang?', by Paul Davies (physics).
2. 'The Joy of Water', by P.W. Atkins (physical chemistry).
3. 'Who Do We Blame For What We Are?', Jack Cohen (genetics: how DNA really works and why Jurassic Park cannot happen).
4. 'The Puzzle of Averages', by Michael S. Gazzaniga (danger in calculating averages from raw data and assigning meaning to results. Cases studies from psychology of language development in children, and physiology of human brain asymmetry. This essay does explicitly demonstrate the use of a tool for scientific reasoning.)
5. 'Ceteris Paribus (All Else Being Equal)', by Pascal Boyer (how to construct a hypothesis and move it towards a theory. Demonstrates use of simple coherent generalizations to separate the wheat from the chaff yet still recognise the weight of 'an embarrassing, unexplained fact'. Wonder stuff, an indispensible tool for the mind, you don't have to agree with his psychology of religion.)
6. 'Minds, Brains, and Rosetta Stones', by Steven Rose (philosophy meets psychophysiology: the mind-body problem and anti-reductionism, ie, levels of meaning and explanation in the various sciences. Sends B.F. Skinner, E.O. Wilson, and Jim Watson packing with a frog's leg.)
7. 'Study Talmud', by David Gelernter. (Computer science. Wow - any propeller-head who can explain the usefulness of Talmud study for the precision use of language in science and make me want to read up on the programming language specification for ALGOL60 and the supplementaries by D.E. Knuth as exemplars should get a prize. Supplies references with essay. Amusing sideswipe at the sociobabble of multiculturalism in postscript.)
8. 'What Is Time?', by Lee Smolin (physics).
9. 'Special Relativity: why you can't go faster than light', by W. Daniel Hillis (physics). Not as complicated as I thought, to my relief.
10. 'How Long Will The Human Species Last? An argument with Robert Malthus and Richard Gott', by Freeman Dyson. (On the right selection of a priori probabilities and assumptions in forming theory, cf Pascal Boyer. An elegant deconstruction of Robert 'Gloomy Science' Malthus' famous work on population growth, and Gott's similarly pessimistic and overly simple mathematical model of Man's not-special place in the universe.)