The Ladybird Expert Books, Vols 1-3, by various authors

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Review by Annabel

Ladybird, now owned by Penguin Random House, have been going from strength to strength recently with their series of satires on modern life for adults, tackling subjects like The Shed, The Meeting, The Sickie, The Mid-Life Crisis and many more – reusing original Ladybird illustrations paired with hilarious new text. No Christmas stocking was complete without one of them in!

Now they’ve come up with something completely different – a new series of serious ‘Expert’ books – Ladybird series 117(!), written for adults and featuring new artwork. The books retain the classic Ladybird structure of a page of text on the left and pictures on the right, and the artwork is gloriously retro, echoing the original Ladybird house style but containing completely up to date information.

This is a Ladybird Expert book, one of a series of titles for an adult readership. Written by some of the leading lights and outstanding communicators in their fields and published by one of the most trusted and well-loved names in books, the Ladybird Expert series provides clear, accessible and authoritative introductions, informed by expert opinion, to key subjects drawn from science, history and culture.

Now to the books themselves. The first three are all scientific titles, and in a publishing coup, Ladybird got HRH The Prince of Wales to co-author the first book on Climate Change

Climate Change by HRH The Prince of Wales, Tony Juniper and Emily Shuckburgh

Prince Charles tells us how the book came about and introduces his co-authors in a prologue. The following text goes on to explain the different factors that influence climate change, and the effect that they’re all having on the earth – from the melting ice caps to ocean acidification, floods and droughts to a decrease in biodiversity. The illustrative pictures often include simple diagrams and graphs – and the trends in all of them are clear. Whatever President T**** believes, the evidence is there to show that global warming is happening and that the 2015 Paris Agreement is a good thing. The final third of the book is devoted to offering solutions for energy, forests and more, plus the formation of more circular waste-free economies. The authors encourage us all, at every level to work together, before ending the text on a warning note:

If we look after the Earth, only then will the Earth be able to look after us.

The end papers contain another set of graphs which sadly all tell the same story. This little book is indeed a wake-up call and worthy launch title for the series.

Quantum Mechanics by Jim Al-Khalili

The end papers this time are full of little wiggly Feynman diagrams together with quotations by some of the most influential physicists involved in this tricky subject including Richard Feynman who said:

I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.

Feynman was one of the greatest science communicators there have ever been – but for my money, physicist and broadcaster, Jim Al-Khalili is not far behind. Reading the lucid text in this book, you’ll begin to believe that quantum physics has a simple beauty to it in the same way as nature does. The author takes us step by step through the history of the subject starting with Isaac Newton, whose classical theories explained the big stuff adequately for centuries – but once atoms and sub-atomic particles started to be discovered, from electrons to quarks to the Higg-Boson (the God particle) and anti-matter – we needed a whole new strand of physics to explain their behaviour. Al-Khalili introduces all the movers and shakers and their contributions to the science in turn, from Planck and Einstein to Stephen Hawking. Each gets just a single Ladybird page but Al-Khalili manages to distil the essence of their discoveries into simple text – and wait for it – there are NO equations!  He mentions them, but there is no need to write them down in a book of this kind.

Al-Khalili also gives some pages to discussing applications of quantum mechanics, from smart phones to smoke detectors. He also talks about some of his own favourite subjects, quantum entanglement, which Einstein called ‘spooky action’, quantum tunnelling and quantum biology in photosynthesis for example. I particularly enjoyed the joke he made talking about entanglement (in which two separated particles can still be ‘connected’…

A word of warning though: please do not think you can appeal to quantum entanglement to explain non-scientific ideas like telepathy. Like other quantum phenomena, it is constrained to the subatomic realm.

Al-Khalili’s book is a superb introduction to the subject for adults, and should be thrust into the hands of anyone aged 12 upwards too to encourage them in studying physics.

Evolution by Steve Jones

Steve Jones may be familiar to you from his many TV appearances talking about genetics and evolution. Breaking his subject up into page long topics for this book proves slightly trickier – for instance, apart from Darwin (pictured) and Wallace (just mentioned), there are few other major figures to introduce. Instead we have billions of years of the fossil record, and all those biological accidents and errors that caused evolutionary steps forward through natural selection. I was amazed to read that our middle ear evolved from the gills of fishes and jaws of reptiles though.

Jones describes evolution as ‘the grammar of biology’, bringing together people, plants and animals into a single science. Without it, this little book would have been more disjointed, as the page spreads tend to concentrate on a particular kind of animal or plant, and occasionally humanoid. We, as humans may not be evolving much these days, but there is a lot of exciting science going on in evolution’s offspring, genetics – now there’s another subject that might fit the Ladybird expert format well for Jones.

I applaud Ladybird for forging ahead with these new adult books and not stopping at the satire and pastiche. There is a niche for this micro-non-fiction (the OUP already having a successful ‘Very Short Introduction’ series). They’re also picture books for grown-ups and that is another large part of the attraction. I’m looking forward to the next titles already – The Battle of Britain by James Holland and Shackleton by Ben Saunders are due to be published in June.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny Editors, and still loves her stack of 1960s/70s Ladybird books.

Buy at Blackwell’s via our affiliate links (click on title below).

Climate Change; Quantum Mechanics; Evolution.