June 10, 2010


Any Body’s Guess! By Michael J. Rosen, Ben Kassoy, and M. Sweeney Lawless. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

Sneaky Science Tricks. By Cy Tymony. Andrews McMeel. $10.99.

     Here are a couple of offbeat, even quirky little books that are filled with small bits of information that will be great fun not only for trivia buffs but also – and this is what makes them special – for people with a serious interest in the way the human body works (Any Body’s Guess!) and the way science can be used to do some things that appear decidedly nonscientific (Sneaky Science Tricks). The “body” book asks a series of questions and, in giving the answers, reveals some surprising and often quite fascinating things about how our bodies are constructed and how (and why) they work the way they do. For example, one question provides a partial quotation for an advertisement for a depilatory – and uses the answer to discuss how it has happened that humans are the only hairless primates, and how the loss of our once-plentiful body hair led to a change in the habits of ticks, fleas and other bloodsuckers, which used to infest humans in great quantities (although the adaptable body louse simply moved along to infest clothing). A “bonus” section for this question offers methods of getting rid of unwanted body hair, in the process explaining that Roman soldiers plucked their beards. The whole book is like this, zipping along from pop culture to scientific inquiry to historical explanation, often all within a page or two. Another example: “In the 1940s, three quarters of all Americans could do this in their sleep. Today, just over a tenth of Americans do.” This turns out to refer to dreaming in black-and-white – and brings along a discussion about dreams and memory, including the fact that we have forgotten half a dream’s content within five minutes of its end, and 90% of the content 10 minutes later. The authors – Michael J. Rosen provides most of the material – really do a fine job of making this book stand out among the many trivia tomes out there. The presentations and questions often sound like standard “factoids,” but turn out not to be: “Currently, Americans spend about 847 million hours each year – an average of 70 minutes, every single week, for each of us adults – doing what?” The answer is “receiving medical care,” and that leads into observations about Americans fracturing 5.6 million bones per year and women spending 70% more time than men obtaining medical treatment. Like every book of miscellany – even one that rises above mere trivia – Any Body’s Guess! can be tiring to read straight through; and some parts of its information are more intriguing and thought-provoking than other parts. As a whole, though, this is a remarkably interesting book. Who would have guessed that, in the midst of a discussion of types of tears, there would be the historical note that mourners in ancient Greece used to bottle their tears and bury them with the dead, to prove their great grief?

     Sneaky Science Tricks is more a book to amaze and amuse your friends than one to read quietly while absorbing knowledge. Cy Tymony shows how to do science experiments – mostly simple ones – that demonstrate important principles and also show how science works in the real world. For example, the “Sneaky Rollback Toy,” made from a cardboard container, thick rubber band, bolts and a few other easy-to-find items, stores kinetic energy when you roll it and uses the stored energy to come back to you – even returning uphill if you roll it downhill. Real-world application: this is how hybrid cars work. Or you can make a “Sneaky Compass” with only a paper clip, magnet and pen cap, or can do “Sneaky Direction Finding” on a clear day by simply using an analog watch -- or a three-foot stick plus a rock or leaf. These can be very useful real-world applications in and of themselves (think of being lost in the woods while camping, for example); they also show how scientific theory works in practice. The most enjoyable section of Sneaky Science Tricks is the one called “Sneaky Magic Tricks,” in which the “magic” really is the application of scientific principles. For example, balancing a soda can on its edge on your finger looks like magic – but in fact all you need to do is be sure the can is one-third full, then place it on its edge. Or you can join two books together – without glue or any adhesives – in such a way that they cannot be pulled apart, simply by applying principles of friction and air pressure. The only irritating thing about this book is its insistence on everything being “sneaky,” when in fact there is very little sneaky here; the word is a marketing took along the lines of the “for dummies” books, which are intended for people who are anything but dumb (and “dummies” is even more irritating than “sneaky”). Get past the word itself, though, and you will find plenty of ideas here that, if undeserving of the adjective “sneaky,” are worthy of a far more positive one: “fascinating.”

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