Review: Why Icebergs Float

In addition to reading (and writing) fiction, I spend a fair chunk of time reading (and yep, writing) non-fiction. Most of my non-fiction is work-related and very focussed on my specialist area. You can see my teaching blog if you’re curious about that.

But sometimes it’s fun and educational to read more widely. A couple of years ago, I was delighted to see UCL Press making PDFs of their academic books available for download free of charge. The books are also available for conventional puchase in print or as ePubs, should the reader wish an easier format to read. Personally, I find PDFs of more than a few pages a bit tiring on the eyes, as well as mobile-unfriendly. So the open access policy feels like a fair compromise between accessibility (anyone can read for free) and the need for the enterprise to be profitable.

The book I’m reviewing today is Why Icebergs Float: Exploring Science in Everyday Life, by Andrew Morris. It’s based around a series of discussions where non-specialist participants, often with little or no background knowledge about the topic, raised questions and sought answers to questions that might occur out of curiosity. In contrast to a typical scientific seminar, the discussions didn’t seek to provide a comprehensive overview of the topics, but rather flowed in the direction of the participants’ curiosity.

Morris has ably distilled the contents of hundreds—or more probably thousands—of hours of discussions into comprehensible, digestible chunks without assumptions about the reader’s prior knowledge. There are 18 chapters, each with a different jumping-off point, and they can be read in any order. Questions raised include:

What is actually happening when we see a colour, as opposed to something colourless or plain white or black?

We depend on our eyes and brain to perceive colours

Is the iron in our blood the same as in a railway track?

Iron gets everywhere!

What are the three holes in an electrical plug all about?

Don’t try this at home!

I think my favourite chapter was 5. Models, where Morris addresses the relationship between a scientific representation of a phenomenon, and the phenomenon itself. It can be easy to forget that they are not the same thing, which can lead to ambiguity—especially when communicating with people outside the subject area. There is also the issue that a simplified, inaccurate model might be deliberately used to give learners and introduction to a concept before then replacing it with something closer to “the real model”. This very much reminds me of the “lies-to-children” concept I first read about in The Science of Discworld, although it’s been around longer than that.

Overall, I had fun reading this book. If it makes science more accessible to more people, that’s surely a good thing. You can get it here. You can find other UCL Press open access books here.

If you’ve come across any open access non-fiction books you enjoyed or found useful, I’d love to see your recommendations.

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