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Customer Review

11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars It's 42, 19 Oct. 2009
This review is from: Really Really Big Questions (Hardcover)
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As any parent of small children knows, kids have an alarming ability to catch you out with unanticipated questions at the most inopportune moment. I have had to cope with "Why don't girls have willies?", "What does the tooth fairy want my teeth for?" and "Why do you smell of potatoes?" These tend to be fired at you just after you have been woken out of a deep sleep at half past no civilised hour in the morning by a jab in the ribs, ie times when your brain is not at its sharpest. Of course these moments are chosen so that the kids can then justifiably call you an idiot for not being able to answer such a simple enquiry. I therefore decided to arm myself with this book in order to be ready when they start coming out with the heavy duty stuff. Aimed at key stages 2 and 3 (and don't ask me what this means, I would like a grown ups version of the book that answers this sort of thing, and others like What do management consultants actually do for all that money?), Really Really Big Questions addresses many of those deep thought issues that you used to grapple with when you were teenager but then you discovered beer/sex/box sets of interminable TV series to take your mind off such things.

The book is split into four themed sections, as follows:

The Great Big Universe Puzzle
(14 questions on the meaning of life, origins of universe, God, eg Where did everything come from? What is evolution? What is the meaning of life?)

Mysterious Minds and Robots that Think
(7 questions on problems of consciousness, perception, AI, psychic powers, eg Is my mind my brain? Could a robot think? Could you bend a spoon with your mind?)

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
(8 questions on ethics, moral issues, right and wrong, eg What makes stealing wrong? Is it OK to eat animals? Will money make me happy?)

Seeing and Believing
(14 questions on knowledge, scientific enquiry eg What is knowledge? Can scientists prove that dinosaurs walked the earth? Does astrology really work? Is time travel possible? Are there really miracles?)

The responses are, obviously, not conclusive or definitive but tend to be more like jumping off points for further investigation. The tone is chatty and informal, with various simple thought experiments used to illustrate key ideas or concepts. The core philosophy that the book is trying to encourage is that kids (and everyone) should approach all these questions with an open inquring mind, use their reasoning and challenge assumptions. Nevertheless, when it comes to astrology, psychic phenomena, the existence of fairies and the religious stuff, the author is firmly on the side of rational and enlightened humanism.

When it comes to questions of faith or religious belief, the approach is gently and empirically agnostic. So when it asks "Can I make something true by believing it?", the answer is "sometimes" (in situations where such belief can give you confidence which may help you to succeed) but not when it would mean ignoring the everyday laws of physics (so not if you believe you can fly and jump off a cliff relying on that belief to keep you aloft). Rather than posing the God question outright, the author tackles the issue via the query "Did someone design the Universe?" The answer starts off with Paley's Watch and ends up with Adam's Puddle (that's Douglas `Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' Adams who said that a puddle which has formed in a specific hole would be mistaken to believe that the hole had been designed just for that puddle). This seems an entirely satisfactory response to me, though no mention is made of Adam's other major contribution, his answer to the meaning of life, the universe and everything. (The answer's in the title of my review by the way, the only problem is in this instance we don't know what the question is.)

Some of the questions are a bit odd - What's it like to be a bat? Does bleeding people make them better? The latter especially seems out of place but perhaps these are meant to reflect the leftfield curveballs that occasionally come flying your way from your very own baby genius.

There is also a brief further reading' section comprising just 6 books, 3 of which happen to be by the same author, along with three websites and 5 thinking tips. There's a four page glossary which provides a bit more detail on various terms and people mentioned in the main text. But this is very random - the full list of people included in the glossary is: Charles Darwin, Democritus, Empedocles, Heraclitus and Rosa Parks. So, no Plato, Galileo, Newton, Planck, Einstein, Hawking, etc. But even on its own terms it is oddly selective. Rosa Parks is quoted in the main body of the the book so she's in the glossary, but there are equally prominent quotes from, er, Derren Brown and Jon Bon Jovi but they don't get glossed. All very odd.

So, as a primer for potential enquiries from kids it's quite helpful if a little lightweight even for the key stage 2s and 3s it's aimed at. From a design point of view, the book looks good, lots of bright colours and snappy illustrations in the style of UPA (you know, like Gerald McBoing Boing) on robust card like paper. However, most disappointingly of all, it doesn't answer that most vital question - Why do I smell of potatoes?
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 21 Oct 2009 11:17:16 BDT
Wynne Kelly says:
Excellent review!

Posted on 17 Nov 2009 15:49:07 GMT
What an entertaining and helpful review - many thanks!
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Review Details



Tony Floyd

Location: UK

Top Reviewer Ranking: 19,636