Ruth Francis, Nature’s Head of Press, is reviewing all the entries shortlisted for the Royal Society’s science book prize. She’ll be reading one a week and posting her thoughts on the news blog every Tuesday between now and the prize ceremony on 17 November
Maybe you’ve sat by the sea and watched waves lapping up onto the beach, or showering rocks with their foamy spray. Pleasant as these contemplative or dramatic moments are, most of us will up sticks, walk home and not give waves an extra thought.
Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s The Wavewatcher’s Companion will take you deeper into the world of waves than you imagined possible. As I set sail I was uncertain his one central theme could sustain my interest across ten chapters, but my fears were unfounded.
Each chapter has a theme weaving through it. On the topic of information waves we may meander past hippos calling to one another and starlings flocking above the Roman rooftops. With a lovely symmetry this chapter opens with the euphoria induced by Mexican waves in football stadia and closes with waves of panic caused by H1N1 swine flu that originated in Mexico.
Whether the focus is sound waves or shock waves, Pretor-Pinney litters the text with pithy asides and quirky thoughts, and the author’s analogies are often humorous and always elucidate. I shall not forget the image of a line of terrified aliens running across the desert, hitting tarmac and refracting — or changing direction as the change of surface means they change speed. He uses excerpts of poetry and images too for context.
If I had one bugbear it is the variable quality of some of the images. The diagrams are hugely helpful in explaining sometimes complex ideas; a description of two moths fluttering their wings and creating overlapping waves in a paddling pool is accompanied with an illustration that ensures the concept is crystal clear. But the black and white printing does an injustice to some of the photographs and this seemed a shame. Much better to reduce these in number and use the colour printed insert in the centre of the book for these.
The laid-back tone of the founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society makes this a gentle but informative read. And it made me want to go surfing!
Previously on Ruth’s Reviews