The Wavewatcher’s Companion

This short review appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on 2 July 2010

Gavin Pretor-Pinney, The Wavewatcher’s Companion, Bloomsbury, £14.99.

On a bright February afternoon at the beach, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society and author of the bestselling Cloudspotter’s Guide, stared sadly up at the nephologist’s arch-enemy: an unseasonably cloudless sky. As a fellow cloud enthusiast, I know just how he felt, but as he gazed towards the empty horizon his interest was caught instead by the motion of the incoming waves. What exactly was a wave, he wondered; where had it come from, how did it get there, and what was it actually doing? By the time he left the beach the thwarted cloudspotter was a born-again wavewatcher, and this engaging book, which aims to do for waves what Pretor-Pinney’s earlier book did for clouds, sets out to tell the life story of every kind of wave imaginable, from ocean waves to radio waves, via seismic waves, brain waves, even Mexican waves.

The result is a witty and well-researched book, though its premiss is undermined by the fact that a number of Pretor-Pinney’s so-called waves are not really waves at all. Traffic waves, for example, are simple stop-and-go phenomena caused by fluctuations in driving speed, while a Mexican wave is just a scaled-up relay game in which members of a crowd wait their turn to raise their hands in the air. Lumping them in with true, energy-transferring waves such as ocean waves, seismic waves and electromagnetic waves, simply because they have the word ‘wave’ in their names, seems puzzlingly arbitrary, despite Pretor-Pinney’s jocular insistence that “everything is a wave”. Yet it’s this informality that makes the rest of the book so rewarding, its looping digressions taking us on a series of suitably non-linear journeys along wobbly bridges, earthquake zones, tidal bores and Neolithic burial sites. It ends with a long and rhapsodic account of the world’s most famous breakers at Banzai Pipeline, a treacherous reef off Hawaii’s north shore that happens to produce a regular wave known as a “cloudbreak”, due to its resemblance to a classic summer cumulus. It turns out this apprentice wavewatcher was looking out for clouds all along.

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