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the Complete Review
the complete review - science

The Science of Illusions

Jacques Ninio

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To purchase The Science of Illusions

Title: The Science of Illusions
Author: Jacques Ninio
Genre: Science
Written: 1998 (Eng. 2001)
Length: 191 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Science of Illusions - US
The Science of Illusions - UK
The Science of Illusions - Canada
La science des illusions - Canada
La science des illusions - France
Macht Schwarz schlank ? - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B : neat survey of illusions and (mis)perceptions -- but without enough exposition

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Illusions come in many forms, and Jacques Ninio begins his book with an Inventory of variations on the theme, from "the illusion of always being right" to "Don Quixote's windmills, Lady Macbeth's bloodstains, the emperor's new clothes" to "a room emptied of its furniture looks smaller". These, and the others he lists, are very different sorts of illusions -- and Ninio does not cover them all. He focusses on those that can readily be replicated, and that are basically physiological (rather than psychological): Lady Macbeth's bloody hands are a fairly unique "illusion" (and the product of a warped mind dealing with great pressures), while seeing a room as smaller when the furniture has been removed is a common (and easily testable) experience.
       Illusions have to do with perception -- or misperception. We know something to be a certain way -- a room remains the same size, with or without furniture -- but our perception suggest something different.
       Visual illusions seem the most plentiful and, being easy to illustrate, also dominate this book. But Ninio also considers other illusions -- especially touch (cross your index and middle finger and roll a marble with the tips: it feels like two marbles) and hearing (for example the Doppler effect).
       In his sixteen chapters Ninio considers all sorts of illusions, from all sorts of vantage points. He offers some personal commentary -- and many, many examples. From magic tricks to the most familiar visual illusions he presents an impressive catalogue.
       Dozens of illustrations (and ten colour plates) are offered as examples, usefully presenting the illusions. Ninio does a good job of explaining what the illusions are, as well as offering some historic background, where applicable. He also offers some "explanations" as to why we perceive these illusions as we do.
       This -- the "science of illusions" -- should, perhaps, be of most interest. In discussing, for example, the blind spot (discovered in 1666 by Edme Mariotte) he provides the (simple) physiological explanation behind it. Elsewhere, unfortunately, he is not as thorough. He does mention that there are various approaches and theories about numerous illusions, but he generally doesn't commit himself strongly to any particular point of view -- and often he doesn't consider the possible explanations at all.
       It's a broad and complex field, a lot to tackle. Ninio does offer some explanations and discuss some of the theories, but this part of the book is a decidedly uneven effort.

       The Science of Illusions is an entertaining book to peruse. Merely by collecting (and nicely presenting) so many, mainly visual, illusions it is a worthwhile volume. Unfortunately, it does not quite live up to its title. There is some discussion of the science to these illusions -- a fair and interesting amount, but less than one might have hoped for. Still, as an introduction to the subject it is certainly a more than adequate text.

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Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Jacques Ninio works at the Centre National des Recherches Scientifiques in Paris.

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