Sunday 8 March 2009

Book Review: "100 Things to Do Before You Die", edited by New Scientist

Want to make shimmering snow angels in water? Or find out how it feels to be a human comet with a bright tail? Then take a trip to a bioluminescent bay. There are only a few in the world, but one of the brightest and most pristine is Mosquito Bay in the small Carribean island of Vieques, off the coast of Puerto Rico.

Pick a moonless night and use a kayak if you can. Each stroke will light up the water and your boat will be surrounded by the most magnificent bright blue-green glow.

Dip your hand into the water and twirl it around - the more vigorous your movements, the more you'll shine. Cup your hands and reach in. As you lift, look closely at the water. There you'll see the culprits: microscopic organisms called dinoflagellates that release light when they are disturbed.

Nature's pixie dust is all around you.
These are the opening words of the book "100 Things to Do Before You Die (plus a few to do afterwards", which in late 2004 came free with a New Scientist magazine. Over four years on, I still read bits of it every so often. It's a very little volume, each "thing" with an opening title, catchy subheading, and the information rather neatly arranged, I think, by a loose formula. It seems to be an opening paragraph about the activity, followed by some of the science, a bit more detail, and ending with a cool, rather journalistic catchphrase. It's not the least bit rigid, though - the topics are wide-ranging to say the least, and it also has 12 "guest" entries from public science figures such as Sir Patrick Moore (from before he became a "sir" - and his suggestion is a mild surprise!).

I love this book and would give it five stars any day. I've done about seven of the activities, which range in ease from contemplating the size of the Universe to scenarios involving impressing NASA enough to get picked to do an experiment in space. I definitely mean to do more, such as spending all night in the garden to listen to the wildlife. There are some really little things whose value we don't think about until it's brought up short under our noses by books like these. For some reason, I often fall asleep while I'm reading it - not because I'm bored, but I guess because it's familiar, relaxing, and also makes me use my brain. Not with problems, but by making me picture the activities.

The book should really have been called "100 things, some of which you might be able to do before you die". I did a quick tally through the book the other day. 32 of them can be done with minimal money and travel; though it feels like fewer, probably because most of these are at the beginning, and their leaves me with an increasing slightly feeling of disgruntlement (is that a word?). 35 require major travel across the world, but all of them sound well worth it! Two involve becoming an astronaut; four depend entirely on luck; three demand you be rather a special person; and three are impossible if you're not a millionaire. Nine depend on a technology in the pipeline being launched and made widely available, four are not possible unless you have a high-up scientist for a friend, and one is medically not to be advised!

Just one guest entry really annoyed me: Anton Zeilinger on time travel:
My dream is to go back in time, say 200 years, and show people a CD player. How glorious to watch their reactions. Would they be shocked? Would they grab it from me and check if there are miniature people inside? Would some even be creative enough to guess that this is a future technology?
- which I can't help feeling is just pointless, as well as very patronising! If I went back in time, I'd want to see how these people lived, and the things they put up with that we're not tough enough to deal with now, and how they spoke (apparently people used to speak slower than they do now), and what skills I could learn from them.
And imagine explaining to these 19th century children how much longer we live today. And that many of today's 60, 70 and 80-year-olds are happier and more active than they are.
That's just cruel. Let's boast about our supermarkets to the starving, too. Anyway, I doubt it's true about more active - kids worked on farms and in factories well over 12 hours a day back then.

Rant aside, the activities are wonderful, involving food, travel, science, machines, books, thought, and simple appreciation . . . but none of these in excess. There's a great range of themes and locations and things to suit various personalities, and it's a great reminder that, as it points out in one entry, we are still animals. It also inspired and explained to me to make liquid nitrogen ice cream for my Chemistry class at Sussex University, and then as a demonstration for primary school children in Brighton!

I thoroughly recommend a read.

ISBN 1-86197-925-8

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