Why?: Answers to Everyday Scientific Questions by Joel Levy | Book Review

29 November 2013 by GrrlScientist, posted in Book review

SUMMARY: This sweeping science book for young adults is just plain fun to read, being packed with interesting scientific facts that are clearly written and carefully researched.

If you're a parent or teacher, you probably are asked "why questions" by young people several dozen times each day. Why can't we hear dog whistles? Why does the wind blow? Why is there no life on Mars? Why does E=mc2? Why? Why? Why?

If you are dealing with such questions daily, then you'll be pleased to find some help in this recent reprint of Joel Levy's children's book, Why?: Answers to Everyday Scientific Questions [Zest Books; Reprint edition, 2013; Amazon UK; Amazon US]

This 192-page book contains 54 essays in three main scientific topics areas -- nature and the Earth (18), the human body and mind (17), and physics and space (19). The title of each essay is a deceptively simple "why question" that most people have either asked or wondered about at some point in their lives, and it is answered in one clearly written sentence. This concise answer is then followed by a longer article that more fully explores the question and some of its nuances. The essay, which ranges from several hundred words to perhaps as many as 2,000 words in length, is informative, educational and intellectually satisfying.

Several essays are particularly thought-provoking. For example, the essay, "Why are men bigger than women?" (Pp. 105-110), discusses several hypotheses, including the "women are smaller than men" hypothesis. This idea proposes that it's not men who are bigger than women, but rather, it's women who are smaller than men. According to this idea, since girls reach puberty earlier than boys, their growth is halted earlier. But reaching puberty earlier is evolutionarily selected because even though early-maturing women are physically smaller than men, they have more years of fertility than their taller sisters -- which translates into the tendency to produce more babies during their lifetimes.

I also enjoyed reading why time only moves forward (Pp. 151-153) -- an intriguing phenomenon based both in the laws of entropy and in the cosmological arrow of time. This essay also mentions that, if the universe ultimately contracts, time might actually move backwards. Of course, the essay about why ice floats (Pp. 163-166) was illuminating since it clearly explains how this rare but important characteristic of water makes life possible on Earth. But of all the essays I read, "Why did the dinosaurs die out?" (Pp. 38-41), was particularly impressive: although none of this was new information to me, the way it was packaged and described was riveting, making me wonder how anything survived.

Each article features unassuming prose and interesting titbits that pull the reader in and keep her interested throughout the entire book. Although this book could benefit from an update that reflects the newest discoveries (especially the essay about why we sleep [Pp. 80-81]), it includes a plethora of unusual and quirky facts, such as; tigers use infrasound to stun their prey; the oldest animal ever discovered was a quahog clam, which was over 405 years old when it was fished out of the ocean near Iceland; sea slugs that eat algae can assimilate their chlorophyll-containing plastids, which then allows sea slugs to survive for months via photosynthesis rather than by eating. This essay might cause the alert reader ask: "Why can't humans photosynthesise?" (Yes, this question is addressed also [Pp. 110-112]).

Of course, there's lots of offbeat facts about humans too, for example; humans and potatoes have the same number of chromosomes; human memory is estimated to be capable of holding around 2.5 gigabytes (which translates into 3 million hours of television programs -- more than even the average American views in a lifetime) and if the average person's mass was converted entirely into energy, it would yield more power than 30 nuclear bombs.

Most essays include a diagram or two that augment the written material without being overly complicated or burdensome. The book also includes two pages listing websites for selected references, another two pages for a bibliography of books, and a seven-page index (which I didn't find to be particularly useful).

Although the theme of this book is not original -- there are plenty of similar books out there -- it is well-researched and clearly written. Despite being targeted especially to children from 12 years of age and up, this book provides a fascinating initiation into science and the information serves as a platform for further discussion. For this reason, the essays could provide valuable supplemental readings for classroom settings. Further, it is my opinion that adults -- most of whom have forgotten so much from their years in school -- will also enjoy this engaging book, whether they read an essay or two whilst riding the subway or if they end up reading the entire book in one sitting.

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Joel Levy is a writer and journalist specializing in science and history. He is the author of over a dozen books and has also written features for The Independent on Sunday, Daily Express and Fortean Times. He resides in London, England.

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Disclaimer: This review is based on a PDF e-galley released through NetGalley and read using bluefire reader. GrrlScientist has no known connection to the book's author. No compensation in any form was received by GrrlScientist for this review. All images appear here by courtesy of the publisher.

NOTE: this piece is slightly edited from the original, which was written by GrrlScientist and published by the Guardian.

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Grrlscientist can also be found on on her eponymous Guardian blog, and she sometimes lurks on social media; facebook, G+, LinkedIn, Pinterest. She's quite active on twitter: @GrrlScientist

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