Friday, 4 January 2013

Book review: The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science

The Where, The Why, and the How, compiled by Jenny Volvovski, Julia Rothman and Matt Lamothe, is an exciting project bringing together artists and working research scientists to match fantastically quirky art with descriptions of 75 currently unsolved scientific questions.

The ‘wondrous mysteries of science’ explored fall largely within the realms of physics and astronomy, geology, and plant and animal biology; the choices of topic feel a little obscure, but that just adds to the chances that you won’t have come across it all before.

The book starts with a genuine ‘wondrous mystery’: What came before the Big Bang (or should it be just the Bang?), the answers to which will fundamentally change the way we understand ourselves and the universe around us. The book moves on to comparatively trivial questions (and not really ‘wondrous mysteries’ if you ask me), like why pigeons’ heads bob when they walk (answer: it's actually their bodies  that moves backwards and forwards, this stabilises their heads to compensate for their inability to move their heads and eyes side to side and their lack of real binocular vision, which then allows them to detect the motion of things around them) and ends on the smallest scale with a discussion of the potential health effects of nanoparticles.

Artist Alex Eben Meyer's piece for "Why do pigeons bob their heads when they walk?"
For what is essentially a coffee table pop-science book, there are one too many ‘posits’ scattered around for my liking, but using no more than a couple of hundred words, the problems currently puzzling scientists are snappily and engagingly described.

The science is only half the fun of the book, however. The illustrations accompanying each mini essay range from the literal to the very obtuse, and whilst the scientific themes occasionally overlap, each piece of art, be it modern print, comic strip, cartoon or traditional Japanese style, playfully captures some essence of the problem being discussed. It’s just as much fun trying to get inside the mind of the artists as much as the scientists and if ever the artwork is released as full-size I will certainly be the first in the queue to snap them up.

Whilst some phenomena, such as with the pigeon, are on the verge of being explained by scientists, many of the answers lie on the exciting (and frustrating, if you’re the research scientist) ‘we have no idea’-end of the scientific knowledge scale.

Artist Lauren Nassef's illustration of "What is the origin of the moon?"
The purpose of the book is to inject a little more wonder into our lives and remind us that we don’t have all the answers – yet. The editors’ advice in the book’s introduction are certainly worth following: 'Remember that before you do a quick online search for the purpose of the horned owls horns, you should give yourself some time to wonder.'

The Where, the Why, and the How is one of the most accessible, and definitely one of the prettiest, science books that I’ve read in a good long while.

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