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Suffers from lack of an expert editor
on August 7, 2011
This book is worthwhile, interesting overall, and fascinating in places. I think it offers a good read to intelligent persons of almost any background. However, there are a number of glib misstatements, mis-characterizations, bumbled explanations, misspellings, and outright howlers that could have been caught and corrected by an editor with an ear for inelegant phrasing and a decent breadth of general scientific knowledge (i.e., the kind of knowledge that a popular-science-book editor ought to have). A few examples:
The author writes, "The body will rid itself of any poison, mercury included", as the explanation for the efficacy of a mercuric chloride laxative pill. This is both glib and inaccurate. It smacks of that kind of knowing, breezy folk wisdom that sounds right but is misleading or false. There are many noxious substances that elicit no gastrointestinal reaction at all when ingested, as well as many substances that elicit a reaction without being poisonous. In fact, the diarrheal action of mercuric chloride does not depend on its being a compound of a poisonous element.
The enzyme tryptophan synthetase is referred to as "a relative of [tryptophan]". It is not. Tryptophan synthetase is a protein and therefore a string of amino acid molecules, while tryptophan is simply one of many amino acids . Tryptophan synthetase catalyzes some of the reactions by which tryptophan is synthesized. Although tryptophan is by coincidence a component of tryptophan synthetase, the enzyme is not "related to" tryptophan any more than to any other of its constituent amino acids.
A real howler is the description of the collision of Comet Shoemaker-Levy with Jupiter as "the first intergalactic collision humans ever witnessed." Wrong on two counts: The location was not intergalactic (occurring in the space between the galaxies, or involving more than one galaxy), but within not only our own galaxy but of course our Solar System; it should have been described as an "extraterrestrial" collision. And intergalactic collisions, those occurring between two galaxies, have been well known for decades and are easily observable, though we cannot see the action, as it were, since the movement is too slow on so vast a scale to be apparent on time scales of human history.
The author refers to Jupiter's prominent atmospheric feature informally and unconventionally as its "giant red spot" and "giant red eye", but nowhere by its common and widely recognized name, the Great Red Spot, which is how laymen, amateur astronomers, and professionals alike all know it. Using other terms in order to avoid being repetitive would be OK if he'd first referred to the feature by its universally known proper name.
In the discussion of atomic weights as given in the Periodic Table, he states that because of differing isotopic abundances, "in a different galaxy" the average atomic weights could be different. True, but not BECAUSE it's a different galaxy, as the usage implies. It would have been better to say "in a different location in space" or "in a different location in our galaxy". If, let's say, the point of a discussion is how the frost in Florida is affecting the price of the oranges we bring home from week to week, it wouldn't be relevant to say, "They cost 99 cents a pound at the market down the street, but in Australia the price might be higher or lower."
The phrase "Most solar systems probably formed from supernovae" is awkward and misleading. In the mind's eye, the phrase conjures the image of the debris clearing after a supernova explosion, revealing a star and its newborn dust cloud, ready to start forming a planetary system, or alternatively the idea that debris from a given supernova can condense somewhere else to form a planetary system. Neither of these, of course, is the case. The discussion would be improved by describing how supernovae actually do contribute to the formation of planetary systems: By synthesizing higher elements and blowing them off to enrich (but not to actually create) the interstellar medium (which consists of remnant hydrogen and helium from the formation of the galaxy), they provide the heavier material that will enable the later formation of solid stuff like planets; and their shock waves propagating through the interstellar medium trigger the condensation of areas of higher density, leading to formation of a star and its system. And, strictly speaking, the term "solar system" should be reserved for our own planetary system, the Solar System.
The author refers to the hypothesized dim star "Nemesis" as the Sun's "roaming companion star, around which the Earth circled too slowly for us to notice". This utterly baffling phraseology is partly incorrect and partly quite misleading. Nemesis would not "roam", implying a sort of meandering or wandering, but rather would move in a rigidly defined, highly eccentric (elongated) elliptical orbit around the Sun (or, rather, both would orbit their common center of mass in highly eccentric elliptical orbits). And the Earth would not orbit ("to circle", as a verb describing the Earth's motion, is neither accurate nor informally preferable to the correct verb "to orbit") the star Nemesis, of course, since Earth manifestly orbits the Sun. What would happen is that Nemesis and the Sun would orbit each other too slowly for us to notice any periodic irregularity in the path or motion of the Sun; and that (the very dim) Nemesis would spend so much of its orbital period far away from the Sun and the Earth that its existence has escaped our notice, while its 26-million-year close approaches to the Sun are what trigger disruptions in the orbits of asteroids, resulting in bombardment of Earth.
And that's only the first few chapters; I could go on, but won't.
This may seem like nitpicking, but a science book, in order to be fully worthwhile, needs to have its statements and claims factually correct and its language smooth and elegant. This book is worthwhile, and a second printing should first be reviewed and corrected by a broadly knowledgeable science-book editor with an ear for fumbled explanations and inelegant language.