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The bad news and the good news
on 4 November 2006
The bad news is that this book deals with such a wide and varied set of topics, that it's impossible to categorise it. The good news is that Jones presents each subject so well and with such enthusiasm that it's a delightful read. You may read it front to back, the reverse, or purely at random. Such is the nature of a book of selected essays on the wonders of nature and the methods of studying them. Sifting through his columns in Britain's "Daily Telegraph" to select merely a hundred must have been a daunting task, but Jones managed it admirably. As the publisher's blurb declaims, it's "a hundred easy pieces about science". They fail to mention each one is a treat to encounter.
Jones has a string of excellent books to his credit: "Almost Like A Whale" ["Darwin's Ghost" in the US] and "Y-The Descent of Men" being among the better known. He knows how to write to an informed and interested audience. He's so good at it that he's won a medal for "increasing public knowledge of science". The title derives from his work on snails and the notoriety gained by James Watson's account of the revelation of DNA's structure. Although Jones' own field is biology, he's able to venture into other disciplines in this collection. Even history is probed for unusual information - the "Telemobiloskop" is certain to gain your attention at the next cocktail party. For a biologist - and a malacologist at that, it might seem out of place for Jones to dabble in astrophysics or physics itself, yet he manages it with panache. In today's world, however, genetics plays too significant a role to be passed over lightly, and Jones provides several excellent items on the topic.
Applying a sense of irony and humour throughout these pages, Jones easily dispels the image of the dour scientist. He's not above examining his own mistakes, even while depicting critics as "vultures drawn to carrion". Nobody "peer reviews" books on science aimed at the general public, and things slip by. His discussion of errors he made in "Almost Like a Whale" is accompanied by his views on evolutionary psychology. In the process, he reminds us that we're a social species, and must tread lightly in making generalisations about how that situation is manifested in science writing. It would have been nice if Jones had avoided the lure one scientist-essayist fell prey to. Instead of baseball, however, at one point Jones deals with the national sport of his own. The axes he has to grind are kept strictly associated with science. A highly readable, entertaining and useful book.