Review of The Element in the Room

Reviewing this week’s conundrum prize… science-y stuff staring you in the face!


As a fan of the Festival of the Spoken Nerd comedy troupe, I was keen to read this book written by two thirds of the nerds.  The stage show focusses on maths and physics, but the book is far wider in its scientific scope. Perhaps unsurprisingly given its title, the book includes a fair amount of chemistry, alongside biology, along with physics and a modest amount of maths.  All of the material is presented to be fun and easily accessible to a non-specialist, and in many cases there are experiments described that one could try at home.

Bananas can be dangerous. Image: photograph of author’s copy.

Chapter one is ‘body stuff’.  It includes the lyrics to the ‘Gastrointestinal elements’ song, which allows the reader to sing of the trillions of bacteria, fungi and archaea (well, 37 of them) which are found in the human gastrointestinal system, to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Modern Major-General’s Song’. It begins ‘There’s peptococcus, streptococcus, …’ The chapter also includes a ‘nerd’s guide to being a birth partner’ including invaluable advice to some, I imagine.

The next chapter is called ‘food stuff’ which shows the reader how to make instant coffee and explains how to do a number of experiments such as how to ‘put out a candle with an invisible blanket’ and a handy guide to the acidity or alkalinity of various household products and foodstuffs. Next comes ‘brain stuff’ which includes a personality test for the reader and a guide to making 2D glasses, which are designed to allow people who dislike 3D films to watch them in a more comfortable two dimensions.

We then arrive at the chapter ‘element stuff’ which explores the elements that make up the body of the reader. It introduces the ‘banana equivalent dose’ as a way of measuring radiation exposure (e.g. a dental x-ray exposes one to 50 banana equivalencies). A number of elements are explored, including their pros and cons. I particularly enjoyed ‘caesium the day’ and the exercise in spelling out one’s name in element symbols — a new party game perhaps?
There is an entire chapter devoted to ‘experiment stuff’ which explains, among other things, how to host a static electricity party, and how to use a CD to blow smoke rings.

Image: photograph of author’s copy.

The penultimate chapter is ‘universe stuff’ and kicks off with Mandelbrot’s approach to measuring a coastline and introduces the Koch snowflake and fractals. It also includes a tourist guide to a range of interstellar places.

The final chapter is ‘future stuff’ and this is where the nerds have gazed into their crystal ball to predict the future. This included self-driving cars, cryogenic preservation of humans and uses pies to posit a post-π world where mathematicians use τ (2π) as the circle constant and invites the reader to choose their own ending from a range of options.

The book has an amusing and engaging style. It would certainly provide lots of fodder for people trying to inspire others to engage with a broad range of sciences. The book, unsurprisingly, has a similar style (albeit with much greater breadth of material) to the Festival of the Spoken Nerd’s stage.

The Element in the Room by Helen Arney and Steve Mould is published by Octopus Books and retails at £16.99 or, enter our third Christmas Conundrum for a chance to win a copy!

Ed is a scientific civil servant. Outside work he is an enthusiastic promoter of mathematics, he volunteers with the Mathematics Teacher Training scheme and tutors sixth form and GCSE mathematicians. Ed is a fellow of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications and writes frequently in its ‘Mathematics Today’ magazine.

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