Book Review: For Dummies®, the Advanced Series

The following is an article from The Annals of Improbable Research.

by Carmen J. Giunta
Department of Chemistry
Le Moyne College, Syracuse, New York

IDG Books Worldwide, publishers of the wildly successful for Dummies® series touted as "References for the Rest of Us®", has proved that it is possible to make money and insult one's own clientele at the same time. Imitators have sprung up in all areas, most notably the decidedly low-brow primers on percussion instruments, Cymbals for Simpletons, Maracas for Morons, and Woodblocks for Blockheads. The series' influence can even be seen, in reverse, in the Modern Language Association's recent collection of symposium proceedings, "Gilligan's Island" for Intellectuals. IDG itself has expanded its coverage from its original books on computing to topics such as cooking and music. non-advanced dummy image

Most recently IDG launched its Advanced Series of for Dummies® volumes. Its initial offerings in the series are Aeronautics and Astronautics for Dummies®, Brain Surgery for Dummies®, and Quantum Mechanics for Dummies®. Only the volume on astronautics gave the publishers pause: Of every other subject we could claim, 'Look this is not rocket science.'"

I was a skeptical reviewer, but I must admit that the Advanced books are quite well done, and not as difficult to fit in the for Dummies® mold as I would have guessed. In fact, the Uncertainty Principle may actually be easier to explain to the typical for Dummies® reader than to the average undergraduate at Caltech. The format also allowed the brain surgery volume to dwell in considerable detail on the various organic conditions that most of the series' readers share—conditions that would hardly elicit sympathy from the readers of a typical medical textbook.

Aeronautics and Astronautics for Dummies®
Aeronautics and Astronautics for Dummies® begins, as it should, with fundamental concepts such as gravity. The non-relativistic treatment of gravity is entirely appropriate here. After all, the author knows her readers are not Einsteins. Nor are they likely to design a craft to navigate at quasi-luminal velocities among black holes or other forms of degenerate matter. In addition to its simple and lucid explanation of abstract ideas, this volume abounds in memorable practical advice. For example, "Despite convincing proof that the practice actually prevents cancer, smoking near jet fuel is not advisable." Although it is generally both reliable and well-written, Aeronautics and Astronautics is not without flaws. To mention just one, its discussion of dilithium crystals fails to mention that this particular fuel is not likely to be available for another two centuries, if ever.

Brain Surgery for Dummies®
Brain Surgery for Dummies® is not just a "how to" manual. True, it contains detailed step-by-step recipes for the procedures one would expect: frontal lobotomy, craniotomy, etc., along with several classics from the golden age of barber-surgery. It also provides extensive background material on the brain, including its crucial importance even for Dummies®. And it is packed with interesting tips and tidbits ranging from advice to keep the scalpel sharp to a warning that most countries require some sort of licensure before permitting most of the procedures described within.

Quantum Mechanics for Dummies®
Quantum Mechanics for Dummies® is in some ways more ambitious than the other two, for it deals almost entirely with abstract matters. yet the task of explaining strange quantum phenomena to the for Dummies® audience is facilitated by their lack of classical physical preconceptions. For example, the reader who has no experience with precise measurements of position or momentum is not all all surprised by the impossibility of measure both simultaneously. Similarly, one who holds no strong opinions as to whether light is a particle or a wave will not resist being told that it is both. To the author's credit, he takes advantage of his audience's ignorance where he can, yet usually crafts lucid explanations of even analogies with unrelated topics. His elucidation of the Copenhagen interpretation makes sense even to someone who could not find Denmark on a map of Scandinavia, and the explanation of tunneling by analogy to socks lost in the laundry is pure genius! Occasionally he falters, though; the phrase "quantum calamari" in connection with Superconducting Quantum Interference Devices was utterly uninformative and just too cute.

Giunta's Verdict
I predict continued success for for Dummies® in general and for the advanced series in particular. I understand that there are plans for the latter to branch out into the humanities, with primers on Medieval Scholastic philosophy and Sanskrit already in the works, along with a tome (long overdue in my opinion) on Postmodern Semiotics. In the final analysis, however, anyone reading a journal which would publish my review is unlikely to have to recourse to any of the works in this series, advanced or otherwise. Still, any of these books could be an appropriate gift for that special someone. I would not recommend such an offering to someone who is in a position of professional influence over you—however appropriate the gesture might seem at the time.

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Cover images created here.

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This article is republished with permission from the September-October 1998 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can purchase back issues of the magazine or subscribe to receive future issues, in printed or in ebook form. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift! Visit their website for more research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK.


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