Popular science

14th November 2003 at 00:00
How to Clone the Perfect Blonde: making fantasies come true with cutting-edge science. By Sue Nelson and Richard Hollingham. Ebury Press pound;12.99.

How to Dunk a Doughnut: the science of everyday life. By Len Fisher. Phoenix pound;6.99 pbk.

Both these books come with a stamp of quality assurance. The authors of How to Clone the Perfect Blonde are science presenters for BBC Radio and BBC News 24. BBC Radio science broadcasting is an adornment to our national life that too seldom receives its due acknowledgement. Even internally, the BBC hierarchy ignores the talent and expertise that ensures its radio science has world-leading status.

Len Fisher on the other hand, is a practising scientist - an honorary research fellow at Bristol University. He is a physicist with interests in biomedical research and in the science of gastronomy. Unusually for a scientist, he writes interestingly as well as authoritatively.

The books represent contrasting answers to the perennial question: how can science be made interesting to the non-scientist? Journalists, following their training and instincts, rush to the frontiers of science to report news of the latest discoveries. The premise of How to Clone the Perfect Blonde was to use eight "everyday" fantasies as the basis for explaining virtually all the big ideas in contemporary science, from cloning and genetics to black holes, time travel, teleportation, and the meaning of consciousness. For anyone who would like to keep up with the pace of scientific advance but who cannot quite manage to get through their New Scientist every week, this is a godsend: a quick and cheerful overview of the most significant recent discoveries and developments.

Yet if science is to appeal to a wider audience, it must lose its "anorak" image. So it is slightly disappointing that, despite more than 30 years of feminist consciousness-raising, and even though one of the authors is female, there is an excess of male fantasies in this book. After "How to clone the perfect blonde" and "How to build a domestic goddess", the illustration that opens the third chapter ("How to lose your love handles"), depicting a happy, slim woman emerging from the body of an unhappy, fat woman, is anything but a blow against sexist stereotyping.

Similarly, despite the many references to science fiction, one cannot help feeling that science as portrayed here is remote and detached, with little connection to our lives.

Fisher, in contrast, applies "old" science to quirky but workaday questions - what is the best method to stop a biscuit breaking off and dropping soggily into your cup when you dunk it in your tea? What is the best way to boil an egg? Why do chisels, hammers, and screwdrivers work? There is even a chapter on the physics of sex.

This erudite book carries its learning lightly. It is difficult not to be charmed by a passage reporting that "in 1869, several battalions of French troops in north Africa reported to their medical officer with gastric pains and permanent erections" (due to unwitting ingestion of cantharidin, or Spanish fly). It is, of course, irresistible stereotyping to note that it was the French army that suffered such a problem. What was the British answer to Spanish fly? Len Fisher tells us that too: cocoa.

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