Complete Guide to Absolutely Everything * Abridged – Rutherford and Fry

I received this as a Christmas present and couldn’t be more pleased. I have been a fan of Adam Rutherford and Hannah Fry for several years after first hearing their Radio 4 and BBC World Service show ‘The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry’. Hannah Fry is an Associate Professor in the mathematics of cities from University College London whilst Adam Rutherford is a geneticist at the same university. Both of them have also done a significant amount of TV work and have written several books individually, this is the first time they have written together. For those not familiar with their radio programme they tackle a listener raised query each week with scientific rigour and a considerable amount of humour and this book reads like a continuation of their radio show. If you want to sample their programme, and I recommend you do so, then all the 115 episodes they have made in the five years since they started it are available here.

From the introduction of Complete Guide to Absolutely Everything – Abridged

At first the layout of the book is a little confusing, apart from the main text there are numerous ‘boxes’ that go into more detail on a point raised however these sometimes appear half way through not just paragraphs but often midway through a sentence so you have to read on and then go back to the box if you don’t want to lose your place. The boxes can be up to three pages long so leaping then back to where the main text was up to caused me to reread a few sections to make sure I was back up to speed, there are also numerous footnotes to keep up with. Once you get to grips with the odd layout though the book is great fun and bounces around the various scientific concepts that are covered with enough detail to provide an interesting learning experience without going too deep so that you feel the need to browse the internet to follow what is being said. This is very much like their radio show which is good as I tend to listen to that at half past two in the morning on the World Service when I can’t sleep but clearly am not about to get out of bed to check something.

The topics raised are definitely varied, from how you see things (touched on in two separate chapters) to a library that contains every piece of text ever, to does your dog love you, via how to calculate the circumference of the Earth and confirmation biases, with lots more besides those. You would think that with such a vast range of subjects it would just be a hodgepodge of ideas but instead it reads more as if the two authors were having a chat with you, in a pub maybe over a couple of drinks, now that would be fun. There is even a section which attempts to define the average reader of the book and I’m sorry to disappoint Rutherford and Fry but the only bit you got right for me was that I buy more than ten books a year (more like ten books a month). I would also have liked to be a bit more of Hannah Fry’s field of mathematics, there is definitely plenty from Adam Rutherford’s genetics although I appreciate that maths is a bit of a turn off for many readers so presumably that was deliberate.

The book was published by Bantam Press in October 2021 and as I write this it is currently on the Amazon UK lists 738 in Books, 2 in History of Science (Books), 3 in Biological Evolution and 3 in Cosmology so they definitely have a hit on their hands across multiple disciplines, and quite rightly so. Go buy the book you will definitely learn something new and via the comprehensive section on references you can then head off to go deeper into bits that catch your interest. I’m definitely going to be reading more about Jonathan Basilie’s version of Borge’s total library, the distortion of astronauts eyeballs, end of the world prophesies failing and dogs and their eyebrows. I knew nothing about Borge’s library or for that matter dog eyebrows before reading this book who knows what will strike you as interesting or at least odd enough to want to know more about.