‘Why Can’t Elephants Jump?’ offers answers, lacks explanations

Robert Starr

While scientists are out there working on the big questions like the nature of matter, the meaning of time and what dark energy is, they’re not working on the truly important questions that affect average everyday people. Questions like, “Why does shaking a martini make it taste better than stirring it?” or “How long of a line could you draw with a single pencil?” The editors of New Scientist have put together a collection of such questions along with the best answers submitted to them in “Why Can’t Elephants Jump?” and the result is delightful, if insignificant.

The book is divided into eight chapters, each composed of questions submitted by readers related to a given subject, along with some possible answers submitted by other readers. Sometimes the answers conflict, but that’s part of what science is: heated debate over trivial questions.

As such, these aren’t necessarily definitive answers and more than a few may leave readers scratching their heads thinking, “That can’t be right,” which again, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

However, what’s bad is the unsatisfactory explanations of how we know. Most answers are provided with authority as the only reason to believe them, rather than descriptions of experiments that someone’s performed. Science’s explanatory power is its most valuable element, but that rests — sometimes teetering on — its experimental backbone.

As a result, there’s no real insight that one takes away from the book. It’s entertaining enough, and while one will close its final pages having learned factoids, there’s no big picture to take away from it.

Still, that’s not that big of a deal when you consider that you will now know what would happen if you jumped into a pool of jelly. “Why Can’t Elephants Jump?” may not be a classic of the science genre like “The Selfish Gene” or “The Demon Haunted World,” but it is a fun read and will provide hours of coffee shop discussions about things that science can answer, but usually doesn’t take the time to.

Printed on Monday, November 14, 2011 as: New Scientist collection answers trivial questions