Although I’ve read and enjoyed quite a few popular science books in my time, it’s not a sector I often delve into. Our household is one of two halves – my scientifically-minded husband, and my very unscientific, artsy self. (We like to think our daughter has the best of both worlds when it comes to help on homework!)
What is most likely to lure me into reading about science is a passionate, winsome and evangelical narrator, such as David Attenborough, Gerald Durrell or Steve Jones. I’m not sure that any of those three would recognise themselves in that description, but that’s how they come across to me.
I was therefore persuaded to read The Volatile Fickle Unpredictable Price of Oil by author Michelle Spaul’s sincere email containing the background behind her book and why she’d really like me to read it. Her email was very personable, and that writing style extended into her book as well.
Very often a book comes into me for review that has sounded great in principle but whose cover or title causes it to lurk in my “to-read” box for a while, either because it’s not very attractive or because the title’s a bit obscure. This book lurked for longer than it deserved because although the cover is pretty , it didn’t smack of the folksy writing inside, but sounded rather dry and more scientific than it is. Once I’d started reading the opening page, though, I was hooked.
An Unlikely Source of Inspiration: Blue Plastic Rope
A search for a rope in her garage, revealing only the blue plastic kind made from oil, catapults Michelle Spaul into a lively investigation of the significance and history of oil and future alternatives to wean us off our dependence on it.
This is an enthusiastic and passionate account by a non-scientist layman, written in an informal folksy style, with lots of “did you know?” moments that readers are likely to find themselves sharing aloud with whoever is nearby. I for one will never look at a simple piece of rope again in the same way!
Easy Style for the Unscientific Like Me
Michelle Spaul has an accessible, easy style, which will appeal to the non-scientific reader who is nonetheless concerned for the environment. That’s how I’d describe myself, by the way – serious science writing goes over my head, but I have solar panels on my house and the rest of my electricity is supplied by windpower from Ecotricity. She certainly made me read much more than I would have expected on the topic.
Her narrative is meandering, conversational in style, dipping back and forth from the body text to asides that are put into footnotes. I felt these asides would have been better placed in the main body of the text, leaving footnotes for citing sources in traditional scientific manner.
Scientific Sources Confined to Her Website
However, the scientific sources are omitted altogether, covered off only by a sentence on the final page of the book, saying that she’d put the 1,200 (!) referenced sources into a page on her website instead, because “Adding them to the book would push its size (and price) to the limits” – although it’s probably a bit underpriced as its current rate of £6.99.
I know this book is pitched as popular science rather than as an academic textbook, and is intended to appeal to non-scientists who otherwise find the topic deeply unsexy, and that’s fine and valid. But it’s also important to assure the reader that the facts cited are dependable and meaningful – not least because the author indicates on her website that her key source of research is to Google things. We all know that unreliable information abounds on the internet, and we have no way of knowing whether she is basing her conclusions on fact or fallacy. The sources really need to be included as footnotes to give credibility to the book. After all, it’s not just non-scientists like me who read popular science – serious scientists read them too, and they will dismiss this book if they see it contains no sources in footnotes. Should the author ever consider publishing a second edition, adding the sources would add credibility and authority to her work.
Three Constructive Criticisms
Three more constructive suggestions for a potential second editions:
1) a catchier, more appropriate and more memorable title containing keywords more relevant to the subject matter (I don’t think the VFUU words are very informative or alluring to readers like me; they make the title a bit of a mouthful – even the author abbreviates it after a while; and it’s not immediately apparent that she means “price” in the broadest terms, such as social and environmental, rather than just economic)
2) a cover that shouts “oil” at thumbnail size (this one just looks like a stylised flower, such as an image showing blue rope an other oil-based products that permeate 21st century life would be more eye-catching ad engaging)
3) an index to make the content more accessible
The Scientist’s Verdict
My husband, who has a science degree, and who spent his career in a scientific organisation, was also interested to see the book and added further observations from his more scientific perspective. He was perplexed by the presentation of some of the information e.g. the use of speech marks around “ions”, “isotopes” and “covalent bonds” in appendix four, when talking about the chemistry of carbon – but these are just normal scientific terms. She also diagrams molecules in an unusual way as a series of circles – why not just use conventional notation? Writing good popular science doesn’t require the abandonment of academic science conventions, and it comes across as patronising to readers who will have learned the conventional notation in high school.
Still Well Worth Reading
Overall, though, an interesting read, a real labour of love, written in an engaging style, that will encourage readers to make informed choices and take more responsibility for our future energy use as a society.
You can find out more about Michelle Spaul at her website: www.michellespaul.wordpress.com