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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
HALL OF FAMEon 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.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 23 February 2008
I was disappointed with this collection of reprinted articles. One of the themes that runs through the book is that artists, writers, printers, TV shows etc regularly misinterpret science either through ignorance or to further their own purposes, much to the chagrin of the good professor.

I don't know very much about science but I do know that the author of Frankenstein was Shelley's wife, not his sister (page 41). On page 213 we are told that "Peter the Great detested facial hair so much he shaved his nobles himself". Here a historical fact is taken and distorted to such an extent that its real meaning is lost, merely to serve the journalistic interests of the author. On the same page you find the ancient Egyptian Queen Matshrpdont. Try putting her into Google and see how many results you get.

The problem for me was that I spotted enough inaccuracies about the things I knew, to start to doubt the things that I was being told of which I didn't know.

He is an easy read though, and just needs a better editor
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 19 September 2007
This book should be seen as opinions rather than facts. While it does present many concepts in digestible 3 page format for the layman, the author is tripped up by his own misunderstandings. The most glaring error is his presentation of an April Fool Hoax as fact (changing the value of pi to 3). More subtle, but equally inaccurate, was his analysis of cat genetics. For someone apparently trying to debunk false beliefs and demystify scientific ideas, Jones manages to propagate a few false beliefs himself.

When scientists write outside of their usual field they should seek expert reviewers. While an interesting book, it's the mistakes and the laughable perpetuation of urban legend/hoax that spoil it for me.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on 26 December 2005
The single helix is hard to put down and often very funny. Each chapter is a brief article of only 3 pages. The book’s theme is to have no fixed subject. It dips into a wide range of subjects shining a brief, but very illuminating, light on each.
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VINE VOICEon 21 May 2010
The Single Helix is Steve Jones's attempt at popularising science. It's shaped by his frustration with the strictures of producing the academic article which he considers is now "more and more on the margins". His purpose is "to escape from the arcane language of research and to translate it into plain English; to take the ideas of science into the wider world of words." Most of the easy to read pieces originally appeared in the Daily Telegraph but their connection to society as a whole are comedic rather than enlightening.

Jones is no presenter of science he's an antagonist of creationism describing the claim that evolution and creationism are faith positions as "garbage" and suggesting anyone not accepting the prevailing claims for evolution are feeding youngsters "subsidised lies about science." He calls creationists "Educational Taleban" but seems not to recognise the definitive Federal legal decision in the Dover case, nor to have heard of the Lemon test both of which effectively exclude the teaching of Intelligent Design from US Schools. Whatever his expertise in biology Jones appears to have forgotten the two basic rules of scientific research. Firstly, present evidence not prejudice and secondly, treat all ideas with skepticism.

In mitigation Jones isn't writing about science he's doing a turn. In addition to dismissing creationism he seeks to ridicule it and a number of other viewpoints held by a minority of American fundamentalists. Jones has made up his mind about everything and has lost the desire to question the intellectual foundations of his knowledge. In that sense Jones's view is essentially a faith position which nothing will undermine because he believes he knows the truth which, at any moment in time, he equates with what he knows. One does not have to be a Young Earth Creationist to question some of the claims made by scientists on behalf of evolution by natural selection. Once scientists such as Jones stop questioning their own assumptions they translate into propagandists.

Not that this book is a propaganda piece. It's certainly opinionated on a variety of issues (some of which I agree with) and parts of the humour are funny, although the Spice Girls may not agree with his comment about their hits. In expounding the merits of vivisection he opines, "an ability to lie to yourself is the first requirement when your case rests only on denmial of truth" which sits oddly with Jones's suggestion that he doesn't claim to have expertise outside his own subject. Dissension from what science demands is labelled "anti-science characterised by fixed untruths". Jones's world is far too simplistic to be credited as intelligent by design.

Jones's focus is not solely on the creationist movement (which is not as powerful as he imagines). He also attacks evolutionary psychology in terms which he fails to apply to his own specialism. "The attempt to explain the modern world in terms of the sex life of the Stone Age is the biggest load of hogwash ever foisted on to an unsuspecting public". If the world of ants does not provide the meat for the sociobiological sandwich might not the same be said about other aspects of science which depend on assumptions masquerading as facts? As has been noted elsewhere Jones is not above perpetuating urban myths as fact.

Awarding Jones four stars neither endorses nor condemns his output. The stars are awarded for the brevity of the articles, the easy to read format and the (not altogether successful) attempt at humour. The layman (and I include myself) may not learn much new but the articles can be read as single pieces or collectively with equal regard. Whether nature or nurture has given me a preference an alternative kind of knowledge is moot, but - not to put too fine a point on it - Robert Winston does it so much better.
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This is a strangely dissatisfying read, which is a real shame as Jones is an excellent author and i've enjoyed many of his other books. The problem with this book is that each essay is adapted from his newspaper column and therefore the topics are varied, but are not explored in any real depth. You find yourself just getting interested and the essay has finished. Also, each essay is very aimless, the facts that make it up are fascinating and leave you marveling at nature and the wonder of science, but they don't lead anywhere and very few essays seems to make a worthy/satisfactory point. All of this is a real shame, as this book is written in Jones usual clear and entertaining style, but I'd say this is a book for popular science beginners and not one for those who have read and enjoyed past Jones books, or other popular science books. A great premise, but it could've delivered so much more.

Feel free to check out my blog which can be found on my profile page.
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The idea of simply collecting and transferring Steve Jones' newspaper column into a book doesn't work and is pretty lazy. Because of the space constraints placed on newspaper articles, most end just as they are getting interesting. The format could have been improved, I feel, by taking fewer articles and using the extra room afforded by a book to expand and investigate them in more detail.
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