Life, the universe and everything

25th December 1998 at 00:00
Jon Turney looks at three beautiful and beguiling books about the natural world

The Dorling Kindersley Nature Encyclopedia. Dorling Kindersley Pounds 25. To the Ends of the Universe: a voyage through life, space and time. By Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest. Dorling Kindersley Pounds 14.99. Stephen Biesty's Incredible Body. By Stephen Biesty and Richard Platt. Dorling Kindersley Pounds 12.99

Of these three variations on Dorling Kindersley's resoundingly successful style of information books, the Nature Encyclopedia follows their familiar formula most closely - masses of text, vetted by experts and broken up into homework-sized chunks; thousands of small and appealing images, most of them brand new; and meticulous organisation and design. It's a bit light on white space, but pretty easy to find your way around. Just what you need, in fact, to stuff the extraordinary diversity of life into a book.

The results are stunning, a combined encyclopedia and biology textbook that offers instant research answers and invites the casual browser to delve deeper. The CD-Rom version will have more bells and whistles, but this astonishingly rich printed assembly of colour photos and drawings has enormous appeal. Micro-organisms are given only a few pages, and plants have 25 or so, but if it walks, creeps, swims or flies, it's here.

The book covers everything from the origins of life to Dolly the cloned sheep. It perhaps downplays our own current efforts at mass extinction, but its display of living wonders will induce many readers to ponder the future of some of the species so artfully displayed here.

More wonders are found in To the Ends of the Universe. Nigel Henbest and Heather Couper's collaboration with Italian illustrator Luciano Corbella lays out the cosmic story so clearly it will be intelligible to almost everyone. It begins with the fairly solid science of the Big Bang and the origins of stars and planets. And, if it moves on to more speculative notions about time travel through wormholes and what kind of creatures might live on other planets, these are no less bizarre than some of the particle physics woven into the story of the very early universe. Above all, this brief history is science as story, the ingredient so often missing in schoolbooks. It is the one book here to read straight through.

In Stephen Biesty's latest co-production with writer Richard Platt, on the human body, the illustrator calls the shots. As readers (viewers?) of Biesty's earlier books will expect, the subject prompts some extraordinary composite images of body parts and systems variously unpeeled, disassembled, sectioned, blown apart, expanded and laid out for inspection. The result is certainly the body as never seen before, but some drawings are much easier to make sense of than others. The more linear systems, such as digestion, and the more mechanical ones, such as the skeleton, work best.

The four-page spread of the mouth and the gut, in particular, is a masterpiece of graphic design. Others, such as the brain, are harder to fathom. The myriad tiny figures explaining what is going on in equally tiny text force the reader to pull the page up close to see just where the fine rules linking words and images point. Fine though Biesty's drawings are, some need an overlay or key for the less patient.

Slow down, though, and you become more familiar with the conventions of his visual world, although you are still conscious of having to learn to read the images and to learn about the body.

This is the most abstract of Biesty's books, and certainly gives a lasting impression of the complexities we all share. But to draw you successfully into his latest inner world, Biesty demands a concentration the other books don't. Like all these books, Incredible Body is a beguiling, beautiful object. The Nature Encyclopedia, though, will probably come down from the shelf more often, and be more use to a child reading alone.

Jon Turney is a senior lecturer in science communication at University College London

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