MG Mason

Book Review: The Universe Inside You by Brian Clegg


Following on from my review of In-flight Science by the same author, I moved into this one with interest. Have you ever thought about what a remarkable machine the human body is? Why does a mirror reflect an image left to right but not upside down? This book addresses some questions you might have about how you can see, the bacteria in our bodies and many more questions besides.

Like the previous book, Clegg looks at the body by showing us examples how they pertain outside the body – for example, in showing us how light reaches the eye and it’s interpreted by our brain, he takes us on a journey around the local star cluster, talking about the planets, our solar system and atmospheric interference. He points to the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe but reminds us that our current range for realistic communication is just 20 light years, a mere stone’s throw in real terms covering just a handful of stars. When talking about the digestive system, he delves into chemistry and geology of all things.

This might seem a little odd at first, and I have to admit that this book feels a little less coherent than In-flight Science because of the examples he uses (largely because they feel slightly less relevant or tangible), but on reflection it makes perfect sense for why he chooses to do it this way. Animated, vivid examples can be the best way to explain to the uninitiated how things work and how they relate to the real world. This writing style then is a matter of personal taste. Couple this with the use of simple experiments so people can see for themselves how these things work, and you have a great formula of popular science writing.

Therein lies the problem though, theses books are largely aimed at a virgin audience – somebody who has had little interest in science until now and looking for an accessible way in. I applaud Clegg for writing in a style that is very easy on the eye; it’s great and we undoubtedly need more writers of popular science who know how to talk on a real level that most people can understand. Unfortunately, and this is unavoidable, you’re going to lose an audience who may be familiar with the content and looking to learn something new and really get their teeth into it. I skipped parts of this, not because I was bored (because I wasn’t), but because it all felt just a little too familiar. If anything, the science level here is slightly lower than it was in In-Flight Science, because most of it I remember doing in GCSE science when I was a teenager.

Good stuff, but unlikely to rock the worlds of science geeks.