Friday, 9 January 2009

Science Is Golden by Dr Karl Kruszelnicki

Lowdown: Science, easy reading style.
To many people in Australia, especially the younger, Dr Karl is the face and embodiment of science and the scientific approach. In this blog I have reviewed books from many an author who bear titles much more impressive than “Dr”, the likes of Asimov, Dawkins and Sagan; yet in none of these cases did I bother with the titles. Dr Karl’s case is different, though, because Dr Karl is a brand name.
Dr Karl has a yearly habit of consolidating his weekly articles from the Sydney Morning Herald into a book, and Science Is Golden is the latest of the lot. As expected from a collection of weekend articles in a widely distributed newspaper there is a lot of variety in the articles, but there is also the issue of a generally low level of discussion. The articles are discussing science and scientific issues, but we are talking about science for the masses here; a sort of a Woman’s Day for those seeking trivial interest in science.
I’ll explain what I am trying to say here with an example. Of the articles in the book, we have ourselves discussions on flight safety statistics, black holes, CERN’s new particle accelerator, and much much more; there is real variety. However, if we look at the article discussing the viability of idling your car when you start it on a cold morning in particular, we read Dr Karl advising us to avoid the habit and rather start driving away gently as the best way to warm the car up. The good doctor comes up with two reasons for that: First, fuel efficiency; you get very low mileage if you’re not going anywhere. Second, and more interestingly, it’s to do with engine reliability: apparently, when the engine is cold, not all the gasoline burns (or rather, more gasoline is unburnt than in a warm engine); the unburnt droplets go down through the cylinder walls and its rings to the oil sump, contaminate the oil, and in the process damage the cylinder wall’s fine construction. It’s all very interesting, but the extent of the explanation leaves me unsatisfied: why do these unburnt fuel droplets do these nasty things? How, exactly, do they damage the cylinder walls? What evidence does the book provide us with in support of this damage claim?
Dr Karl’s quest in writing his books is to dispel myths and promote the scientific approach instead. That is, show us what real life evidence indicates at as a way for us to get rid of our misconceptions. And that’s really great! The problem is that by not providing the full extent of explanations, the way you would get in, say, books by the previously mentioned more-than-doctors authors, you end up having to take Karl’s word for it. That is, you may replace one myth (the conventional myth) with Karl’s myth, under the assumption that Dr Karl is correct. One can argue that you always have to take someone’s word at one stage or another, and indeed I never got to personally verifying whether the earth is as round as they say it is; however, while the earth being round can explain why the sun disappears in the evening and reappears on the other side of the world in the morning, Dr Karl tends to discuss issues that come down to conventional wisdom or his word. The skeptic in me wants more.
Another example might emphasize that last point on skepticism. On page 32, Dr Karl says something along the lines of it being long known that women living together synchronize their periods. But do they? Recent research I have read challenges that famous assumption that everyone seems to be taking for granted and indicates it might be wrong. Now, I’m not here to argue whether women synchronize their periods or not, I’m only stating that there is too much ambiguity in this area and that a good scientific article should provide me with enough info so I can make my own mind up.
Science Is Golden is not such a book; it is designed to entertain more than to teach. When all is said and done, though, it’s better if people are entertained through Dr Karl than commercial TV. When all is said and done, Science Is Golden is a fairly interesting and easy read; for a start, it made me avoid idling my car and instead starting to drive right away (gently!). Yes, I took Dr Karl’s word for it; it’s not like there’s too much at stake here, and I fully intend to monitor my car for any signs of cold distress. Scientific experimentation is cool!
Overall: 3 out of 5 stars.

1 comment:

Moshe Reuveni said...

I think what I was trying to say is this:
In his attempts to deliver science to the masses, Dr Karl didn't do as well in conveying the scientific methodology. As I am of the opinion that in the case of science the methodology is more important than the findings themselves, I find the book lacking. Interesting to read, yet lacking.