Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction - James Binney ****

For many readers, the very word ‘astrophysics’ is a daunting one. That’s ironic, because astronomy is one of the most popular of popular-science subjects, and it’s almost 100% applied physics. You can’t understand planetary orbits without invoking the theory of gravity; you can’t understand how stars shine without invoking nuclear fusion; you can’t understand a galaxy’s spiral arms without invoking the physics of waves. Yet apart from a few exotic topics like black holes and dark matter, the crucial role played by physics is all too often glossed over in popular astronomy books.

So this ‘Very Short Introduction’ is a welcome antidote to all that. It would be ideal for a reader who is already keen on astronomy, and has some basic school-level physics, who wants to see how the two fit together. Most amateur astronomers will have heard of ‘main sequence stars’ and the Hertzsprung–Russell diagram, but this book shows you how the mysteries of stellar evolution all have their roots in solid physical principles like gravitation, nuclear fusion, heat convection and black-body radiation. 

Another thing that comes across is that, although the universe is very big, there really aren’t that many laws of physics. So the same physics gets used over and over at different scales – with, for example, the same principle of ‘conservation of angular momentum’ shaping the structure of the solar system, black hole accretion discs and entire galaxies. Other areas of physics, which may not be very prominent here on Earth, really come into their own in an astronomical context. This applies most obviously to relativity – both the special and general theories – which can explain a whole range of phenomena from the stability of the solar system to cosmic rays and gravitational lenses.

A short, wide-ranging book like this is always going to lack depth, but that’s not a bad thing with a potentially heavy subject like this one – especially when, as in this case, the author is a professor of astrophysics. Fortunately James Binney doesn’t try to blind readers with science, but he doesn’t talk down to them either. That’s probably a good thing, too, since I suspect the very title of the book is going to have a self-selection effect on its readership. The sort of people who buy this book won’t want to be talked down to.

A few months ago it was mentioned to me that these OUP ‘Very Short Introduction’ books tend to be dry summaries rather than narrative-driven. That’s pretty much the case here. Essentially the author presents a long list of facts, rather than posing a series of rhetorical questions (of the sort the reader might have) and then answering them, or showing how they were tackled in a historical context. I think I might have liked that better, but I can’t mark the book down on that account because it’s obvious that it is simply sticking to the house style for the series. Even so, it’s an enjoyably easy read, and a long way from being a stodgy textbook – I mean, what textbook would tell you the Galaxy contains ‘zillions of dark-matter particles’?

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Review by Andrew May

Saturday, 7 January 2017

The Secret World of the Brain - Catherine Loveday ****

I tend to be a little wary of highly illustrated books like this, as often they can be a matter of style over substance, but The Secret World of the Brain has plenty of text content to accompany the detailed colour pictures, and Catherine Loveday packs in plenty of valuable and up-to-date information on the human brain, with a few 'users manual' elements (e.g. how to get to sleep) but mostly simply exploring and explaining what we know and don't know about the brain (and to some extent the nervous system too).

There are wide ranging sections, from very broad description to brain functions and memory through to very specific chapters on, for instance, the brain and music, why we cry at films and laugh at jokes and altered states of consciousness. If I have any criticism it's that some of these sections (for example the altered states one) felt a bit 'so what?', while I was disappointed that there wasn't a section on creativity, innovation and ideas, my personal specific interest in the brain - the closest we got was 'music in the brain', but this was all about the impact of music, rather than composing.

I particularly enjoyed the little 'myth buster' boxes, taking on the likes of the 10% used brain, people's belief that memories are accurate representations and the suggestion that women are less aggressive than men. (There's a whole section, in fact, on 'are female brains different from male brains?')

With the exception of the gap on creativity, I felt that Loveday got the balance just right - the book is detailed enough to give sufficient depth to get a working appreciation of what's going on with this immensely complex organ, but the text never feels as if it's overloaded with jargon. It's approachable without ever being condescending.

The full price is on the expensive side for what it is, but at the time of writing it has a good discount. If you want a good, modern primer on the human brain, we've now got an excellent recommendation.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life - Helen Czerski *****

As 2017 has just started it might seem presumptuous to claim that Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life will be one of the best books of the year, but I will be very surprised if it doesn’t end up high on a number of such lists over the next twelve months. 

Helen Czerski should be familiar to frequent watchers of science programmes on the BBC as she has hosted a few and has been a panel member on others. She is a lecturer in physics at University College London, specialising in the field of bubbles. 

The book aims to show the incredible amount of science that surrounds us on a daily basis and how that seemingly mundane science is an expression of far grander things on a terrestrial and cosmic level that follow the same basic principles. What I found excellent about this book was the adeptness with which Czerski moves from the physics of the everyday to a description of how a fundamental force works. An example of this is the section of the book discussing waves where she uses a toaster as a starting point for discussing the transformation of heat into light and how colour is a function of temperature. 

The book is chock full of interesting scientific explanations for everyday occurrences and ways to use science to overcome some of life’s little difficulties, such as why ketchup often gets stuck in bottles and how to get it to flow in controllable way. She also includes lots of easy and fun small experiments that one can do at home to demonstrate physical properties and why they work the way they do. An example of this is her tip of an easy way to tell a boiled egg from a raw egg. 

What makes the book stand out is that it is just as fun to read for a person who has read a lot of science literature or has a scientific background as it is for someone with limited experience of popular science. The book is full of interesting facts and examples that easily pull the reader further into well-written explanations of fundamental physics. 

It is very hard to say anything negative about Storm in a Teacup other than that the description of why a wave always lines up straight when coming into shore is a bit confusing, and possibly wrong, as I tried to diagram her description numerous times and constantly came to the opposite of her description - but I’m being very nitpicky here. 

I certainly hope that she plans to write more books about physics and science in general because she has a real knack for explaining the complex in very accessible and interesting ways, and she is an excellent writer. A great book with which to start off the new year.

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Review by Ian Bald

The Geek Guide to Life - Colin Stuart and Mun Keat Looi ***

There's no reason at all why good popular science should be heavy and loaded with leading edge theory. I've a lot of time for fun and/or practical science facts type books, which The Geek Guide to Life promises to be - the subtitle tells us its about 'science's solutions to life's little problems' with examples such as 'how to boil the perfect egg' and 'how to rock at rock, paper, scissors.'

The text by Colin Stuart and Mun Keat Looi does a solid job of covering a whole range of questions in two or four page spreads. Sometimes the titles of the articles overreach themselves - for example, there is one headed 'How to cure an hangover' which half way through, in response to 'But, I hear you cry, how do I get rid of my hangover?' remarks 'Sadly, science doesn't have a clear answer to that question.' Inevitably, that headline feels a bit overblown at this point. 

I was less enthusiastic about the illustrations - for no obvious reason other than the word 'geek' in the title of the book, the illustrator decided to provide us with highly pixellated illustrations as if they were being rendered in a 1980s video game. This probably seemed a good idea at the time... but makes for pretty poor graphics. Sometimes also there seemed to be limited coordination between the text and graphics. So, for instance, in a section labelled 'What's the best way to commute to work' the graphic is a bar chart showing relatively happiness of various commute times compared with a 1 to 15 minute travel time. There are several interesting features. People seem happier with a 31-45 minute commute that 16-30 minutes - and by far the best are working from home (not surprising) and a 3 hour or more commute (more surprising). None of this is referenced in the text, which just said the contradictory 'the longer someone's commute, the lower their level of life satisfaction.' Similarly in the 'How to Kick Ass at Monopoly' article, the text refers to the UK square names, while the illustration of the board shows the US names.

Having said that, I found the section on games (how to do better at the likes of Monopoly and Rock, Paper, Scissors) was probably the most fun part of the book. One of the problems of the more serious parts is that the short article approach is not always capable of providing effective guidance. So, if we look at 'how to save money at the supermarket' it's all about avoiding impulse buys and not buying stuff you don't need right now. The trouble is, if this is your sole tactic and you buy a product regularly with a long shelf life that is sometimes a lot cheaper than at other times, you will spend far more than if you buy extra when it is on sale.

Overall, there's no doubt the book is fun, but it does feel more than a little shallow. To be honest, I would rather Stuart and Looi had been allowed to write twice as much text and we lost the graphics. Nevertheless there were some genuine take home points here - and I expect to win at Monopoly next time I play, or I will be asking for my money back.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Murder on the Einstein Express - Harun Siljak **

I've seen a fair number of books that try to combine science fact with fiction, but fewer in the world of mathematics. This extremely slim collection of just four short stories attempts the maths/fiction crossover, and is one of the strangest collection of stories I have ever read. I am honestly not sure if this is a good or bad thing.

The collection begins with a conceit that can in some ways be compared to Edwin Abbott's Flatland. That book had geometric shapes as its main characters. In the first of Harun Siljak's stories it is equations and mathematical concepts that take the leading roles. But where Abbott uses mathematical concepts in a story that any reader can follow (if few can honestly enjoy, in one of the dullest pieces of fiction known to man), Siljak produces a story that only a mathematician can love (or for that matter understand). It's a bold move. And for most of us, that leaves just three readable stories.

These are certainly more interesting. We meet a collection of computers that write mathematical theorems, a confusing Arabian Nights-ish storytelling story and the title story, which as you might imagine by now is not so much a murder mystery as a series of nine mini-lectures that might be thought as a good way to put across physics concepts (we've definitely strayed into physics here), but are fairly impenetrable. It may seem that the later stories are more conventional than the one based on equations, but in practice it's difficult to get any feeling of identification with the characters and the plots seem very much designed to get the point across without necessarily giving a lot of thought to how the narrative should develop.

In the end, the biggest problem throughout is the quality of writing. It's very much at high school level, and even there, the author clearly hasn't grasped the English use of articles. The likes of Isaac Asimov have shown that you don't have to be a sophisticated writer to be a great science fiction writer, as sheer weight of ideas can carry the reader past cardboard characterisation and so on. And it's true that Siljak has some genuinely interesting ideas, particularly computers taking over the generation of mathematical proofs, but working on a flawed basis and so getting it wrong. However, the author clearly needs considerably more practice before his writing is publishable, so it's slightly strange that it appears in print.

In summary, interesting ideas, but dire fiction, and at over £3 a story, it's a no from me.


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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Reality Is Not What It Seems - Carlo Rovelli ***

I was no great fan of Carlo Rovelli's flowery, overpriced previous title, and the introduction to this book on loop quantum gravity has a similar style, but thankfully it settles down a little. However, there is still rather too much of the woffle, reverting to floral form on Lucretius and his atomist poem on nature. For those who remember How to be Topp, this is the Fotherington Thomas school of popular science - all 'Hullo clouds, hullo sky!'

We then get onto Galileo. At times, Rovelli's history of science goes wildly astray - he says, for example, that Galileo was the first experimenter -  what of William Gilbert or the medieval optical experiments, for example? Similarly, Rovelli tells us that no one from Newton to Faraday tried to come up with an explanation for action at a distance - which just isn't true. Not only did Newton himself have an idea, there were plenty of mechanisms proposed. This isn't a matter of obscure history, you can read about it in Wikipedia. Best then to move on from mangled recounting of the past and get on to the more recent physics.

Here, in a gallop through special and general relativity and quantum theory we get far more rigour, though oddly it often comes in ways that aren't always obvious - for example we jump into to general relativity with the idea that spacetime is a field, without any of Einstein's far more accessible route using the equivalence principle. It fits better with the model that Rovelli is using, but it doesn't help the reader understand what he is talking about.

The last part of the book takes in what has been its goal all along - loop quantum gravity. In his opening, Rovelli remarks that a book (for the public) on loop quantum gravity didn't exist which is why he had to write it. This isn't true, there was Martin Bojowald's Once Before Time - but that failed singularly to explain the theory in a comprehensible way. This is where I hoped I could finally get the point of Rovelli's writing. I desperately want to see a good, accessible introduction to loop quantum gravity.The good news is that Rovelli on the topic reads a lot more smoothly than anything I've so far read - but he still fails to bring the topic to a level the general reader can get his or her head around. The book should have had an editor brave enough to keep sending it back until Rovelli had got there, but it clearly didn't happen.

You may gather I had problems with this book, but I have to congratulate Rovelli for trying. What was most frustrating was that if loop quantum gravity were as obvious to physicists and as complete as it's presented, it would be quantum gravity solved and no one would be bothering about string theory (which Rovelli only gives a passing mention to). Tick. Next problem? We know it's not really like that. Also, like many physicists seem to do, Rovelli either doesn't realise a model isn't the same as reality, or forgets to explain this to his readers. Even so, it is an interesting book despite its problems.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 12 December 2016

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First there's a foreword. Then there's another foreword. Then there's a background preamble. Then there's an introduction. And then, finally, we get to the content. But once you've run this gauntlet, we discover the seven obscure scientists referred to in the title, each of whom arguably made a contribution to our understanding of atomic structure and its implications for chemical behaviour, but all of whom are pretty much forgotten.

Specifically, we are talking about John Nicholson, Anton Van de Broek (no, not that bloke off Strictly Come Dancing), Richard Abegg, Charles Bury, John D. Main Smith, Edmund Stoner and Charles Janet, only one of whom I'd heard of, and that was for his main body of work, not this. Although A Tale is only a slim book, we find out a lot about the theories each of these developed. Almost all of these theories could be described as 'wrong' - and yet each contributed with incremental changes to thinking on the subject, influencing the big names such as Bohr (whose own theories were also arguably 'wrong' for much of the time).

That's a book in its own right (if a very specialist one with limited appeal), but far more interesting is Scerri's motive for introducing these characters - not to suggest that we ought to add them to the familiar names, but rather to illustrate that our model of the nature of scientific discovery and theory building is wrong. Of course, one of the differences between science and philosophy is that in science it is less common to have several theories in constant contention - there's more of a tendency to settle for a 'best supported current theory'. And so we don't have a single widely accepted theory of scientific discovery - but Scerri is pushing here for a new one, or at least one that is less supported - specifically that scientific discovery is like biological evolution - a gradual development based on lots of small changes, where it isn't meaningful to identify a single owner of a theory.

In a sense, like biological evolution, there's an element of this that is so obvious it's a surprise anyone argues about it. Clearly no scientist works in isolation but is constantly influenced by what he or she learns of the work of others. Newton famously made his 'shoulders of giants' remark, and though it was probably intended as an insult to Robert Hooke, Newton nonetheless at least once had to admit that Hooke introduced a concept to him (the nature of orbits). However, since Thomas Kuhn's work on the philosophy of science about 50 years ago, there has been the idea of sudden revolutionary changes in science - so-called paradigm shifts - which Scerri suggests don't exist.

Part of the problem Scerri identifies is our tendency to label a theory 'right' or 'wrong' where this is rarely possible to do. This sounds like woffly philosophising of the 'What is truth?' variety - but it's not, because theories are very rarely about finding the truth. They are more about developing the best model to fit observation. All theories are probably 'wrong' in a sense - because they are just models. But some fit beautifully and so we hang onto them until something better comes along.

I understand why Scerri includes his seven scientists, but there is far too much detail on their work, which for me gets in the way of the far more important thinking on the nature of scientific discoveries. While I'm not sure Scerri is right in entirely dismissing revolutions - it's hard not to see, for example, the shift to the general theory of relativity as anything other than revolutionary - he surely has an important point in the evolutionary model, which could have been more interestingly developed at greater depth in the book. And that would also have given a chance to explore his plea to dismiss scientific heroes further.

There's no doubt that popular science in particular, in simplifying the picture, tends to pick out a handful of individuals as the greats of science. But I'm not sure this is a bad thing. Just as the Apollo missions couldn't have happened without a vast number of individuals we know nothing about - but it's still worth celebrating what the astronauts did. This doesn't mean we should ignore the others. Their stories can be interesting in their own right, as Margot Lee Shetterley shows in Hidden Figures - but we still need the scientific equivalent of the astronauts in figures like Bohr or Einstein or Newton to keep a narrative interesting. We just need to bear in mind that superstars, whether in movies or in science, aren't the whole story.

In A Tale of Seven Scientists, Eric Scerri has a genuinely interesting story to tell, but he also demonstrates why, on the whole, we focus on certain figures in popular history of science, because the work of his seven scientists is sufficiently incremental that only an expert could love them. I hope he considers writing another book for a general audience that concentrates on the evolutionary nature of scientific discovery more - and develops it further, as here the same assertions are repeated rather frequently. As it is, the current book is something of chimera, but rewards the effort of reading it with some real topics for thought, if you are interested in what science does and what it is.

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Review by Brian Clegg