The Science Magpie (Icon Magpie) Paperback – 12 Nov 2013
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'Simon Flynn's cornucopia of curious facts, anecdotes and quotations ... is sure to entertain and surprise.' -- New Scientist 'For anyone who likes science and is a fan of Schott's original miscellany, this book is a must. It is full of quirky, interesting scientific facts and anecdotes from across science and its history ... Quite frankly, I loved it. It's great fun and doesn't take itself too seriously.' -- Chemistry World '[A] lighthearted dash through science ... offering lots of curiosities that you will be itching to tell those around you.' -- The Biologist 'Simon Flynn's grab-bag of stories from all branches of science exudes enthusiasm, breathing fresh life into a venerable format.' -- Physics World 'This book is a cabinet of scientific curiosities ... [The Science Magpie] will stimulate good topics of conversation for the pub.' -- BBC Focus
About the Author
Simon Flynn was a publisher and is now training as science teacher. He has degrees in Chemistry and Philosophy.
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Each "article" is brief - the longest are five or six pages, covering things like Galileo's dispute with the Holy See, Darwin's impact or Einstein's ideas about Relativity. If you want a detailed examination of any of these things, this isn't the place to look, but for a really well-written, engaging summary of the important points with the odd interesting aside it's brilliant. For example, Flynn makes sure to mention Milton's visit to Galileo while he was under house arrest as well as giving a excellent summary of Galileo's dispute, complete with a translation of his famous Recantation - and all in four short pages. I have studied all this at university and have actually read quite a lot of Galileo's writing and I still found the section fresh and fascinating. Other bits are so varied it's impossible to give an overall flavour, but they include things like radioactive decay, a spoof of Shelley's Ozymandias, the meaning of the Richter Scale, and so on. There are even some good jokes scattered throughout the book.
Some other reviewers here have criticised the book for having too much literature and not enough hard science, and for jumping from one topic to another in a jumbled way. I think this is the whole point of the book: you never know what is coming next - a spoof analysis of the thermodynamics of Hell, a historical summary, a quirky fact, an explanation of the binary system - and this is a great part of the book's charm for me. The science is always spot on. The explanation of Schrodinger's Cat, for example, which is one of the most misunderstood notions in popular science, is accurate, readable and placed in its proper historical context. The only error I noticed in the whole book was Flynn's assertion that a solar eclipse was important in Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, when, as my adolescent memory reminded me, it is in fact a lunar eclipse. I think I can forgive him this single slip, and the only other fault I can find is that the book cries out for an index which is sadly lacking, if only so you can find that little bit you wanted to look at again.
I recommend this book very warmly - it's a huge pleasure to dip into and, because of it's haphazard structure, has kept me looking at "just one more section" well after I should have gone to sleep. It's neither a reference book nor a serious popular science book. It is a delightful compendium of fairly random bits and pieces by someone with an obvious love of science, and anyone with a curious mind who takes pleasure in scientific oddments as well as important ideas will almost certainly get great pleasure from it.
I would describe myself as fairly scientifically-illiterate: yes, the joke above made me giggle; yes, I can work out pretty swiftly what dihydrogen monoxide is - but e, laws of thermodynamics, and Einstein?... um, no. And yet I enjoyed this book.
I like that Flynn combines a scientific background with having studied philosophy, and we can sense that intellectual breadth in his approach. Indeed, there's a subtle plea in some of the pieces to precisely heal the cultural divide between `scientists' (a noun only coined, I learned, in 1833 amidst much disgust at the barbaric neologism) and `humanists'.
This isn't simply a collection of scientific `facts', though there are those here too, more a nicely random and eccentric gathering of things that are loosely connected to science in its broadest sense: stories, parodies, poems, mini-biographies and a host of other extracts.
My particular favourite is Babbage's response to Tennyson's lines `Every moment dies a man | Every moment one is born': Babbage, anxious that the maths doesn't work to reflect a constantly growing world population, writes to the poet helpfully suggesting he changes the poem in the next edition to `Every moment dies a man | And one and a sixteenth is born'. He goes on to add with care `the exact figures are 1.167, but something must, of course, be conceded to the laws of metre'!
I liked the chaotic arbitrariness of this collection and the quirky eccentricity of it. So not a book to necessarily read cover to cover, but an excellent one to dip into.
I liked it for the emphasis on the knowledge that isn't commonly known. I had no idea that Leicester Square was once a hub of scientific knowledge, but here it is, carefully chronicled.
There are bang-up-to-date entries with the lyrics of the 'Hadron Collider Rap' as well as Tom Lehrer's famous song 'The Elements'. Literature on science features quite heavily, with some lovely discoveries such as Siv Cedering's 'A Letter from Caroline Herschel (1750-1848).' As well as an excellent Bibliography, there's an interesting list of the best selling science books.
The blurb on this book tells us that the author, Simon Flynn, is currently training to be a science teacher. What wonderful news. With the enthusiasm for his subject that is demonstrated in this book, there are going to be some very fortunate science students out there in the future.
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