Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Light Years - Brian Clegg ****


** UPDATED - new edition with Browsing section of classic light papers **
Light Years tells the story of light through the remarkable people who have been captivated by it. From Neolithic man’s worship of light at Stonehenge to the Impressionists’revolutionary observations of light in painting and the shattering conclusions of Einstein and Feynman, Light Years explores each stage of this extraordinary saga of discovery.
Brian Clegg weaves an entertaining history of humanity’s interaction with light, combining the gradual development of our understanding of what light is, insights into the lives of those who have tried to uncover light’s secrets, and the latest applications of light, with speculation on what light is likely to make possible in the future. Clegg asserts that light is at the very heart of our existence. Without a dancing web of photons knitting atoms together, there would be no matter, no universe. Without light-driven photosynthesis producing plant-life and oxygen there would be nothing to breathe, nothing to eat.
Clegg makes a good job of threading together the historical view of light, and showing how we have moved from Greek ideas of light pouring out of our eyes all the way through to quantum theory, but the best bits of the book are probably the remarkable ways that light is, or could be put to use. Whether it’s materials that can slow light to a crawl, the amazing power of quantum entanglement, or superluminal experiments, there’s fascinating stuff here.
According to Einstein nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. Of all the mind-bending theories in modern physics, that, at least, seemed a rule that the universe would abide by. Yet in 1994 at the University of Cologne, Professor G√ľnter Nimtz sent a recording of Mozart’s 40th Symphony through a physical barrier at four times the speed of light. Yet again, light had confounded those who had sought to understand it.
Light Years is a journey through time, telling the story of the individuals who were determined to unlock the secrets of this mysterious natural force. Appropriate, really, when light enables us to look back through time and take in the past of the universe, looking deeper into time as we see further in space.
Occasionally the pocket biographies of scientists become a little familiar. It’s fine with someone relatively unexplored like Roger Bacon, but there are too many books out there with summary lives of Newton or Galileo – however this isn’t a major flaw, as the lives are woven around the science, and are always presented in an effective fashion. This is a updated edition of the book with minor modifications throughout and an extra chapter delving into some of the quantum strangeness of light. There isn’t another book out there to compare with this on the subject – recommended (in fact, I would revise the star rating up from 4 to 5 with the new edition, but it isn’t allowed).
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Review by Martin O'Brien
Please note, this title is written by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion – and we could hardly omit the book – but do want to make the connection clear.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Eyes on the Sky - Francis Graham-Smith ***

There are broadly two types of popular science book - those that pretty well anyone would find interesting, and those where you have to be a bit of an enthusiast to enjoy it. Eyes on the Sky falls into the second category - there's nothing wrong with this, but it's just a rather different kind of book, one that concentrates on piling in the facts and not worrying too much about the narrative.

What we have here is an exploration of the uses of telescopes in astronomy, from Galileo through to some instruments that are still being built. The historical side is dealt with relatively quickly - we're on to the big telescopes of my youth by page 17 out of 230. The big era begins by inevitably highlighting what we always use to call in our ignorance the Mount Palomar telescope, but is now primly insistent in its old age on being the Hale 200 inch.

From there we go on to the bewildering array of modern telescopes, land and space based, covering every imaginable bit of the electromagnetic spectrum. (The book we written just too late to catch recent speculation that gravity waves might become the next generation of novel telescopy.) If, like me, you fall into the slightly nerdy second category, there are two aspects that are fascinating here - one is the sheer range of equipment out there. It's not just the big names like Hubble and Keck, but tens of telescopes you may never have heard of. The other bit that's even more interesting is finding out more about how these telescopes actually work. We're all pretty familiar with optical telescopes and radio telescopes (and good old Jodrell Bank, where the author worked, gets plenty of mentions), but may not be aware how an infra-red or X-ray telescope functions - yet these are now essential workhorses. With X-rays, and gamma rays for instance, you can't use a lens or a traditional mirror, and the methods employed are quite remarkable, especially the coded mask approach used, for example, in the Burst Alert Telescope that was mounted on the Swift satellite in use since 2005 (no, I hadn't heard of it, either). Used to spot gamma ray bursts, this looks like a vast jigsaw puzzle with about a quarter of the pieces missing.

Similarly interesting is the way that modern telescopes, particularly radio telescopes, often use a pair or an array of telescopes to either provide interference patterns or to simulate a vast telescope with a much wider reflector than could ever be built. I was aware of the concept, but the scale of something like the Square Kilometre Array is still remarkable.

Although the historical context was limited, it mostly seemed reasonable, though I'm not entirely sure of the statement that the telescope used by Penzias and Wilson to discover the cosmic microwave background radiation was built by Bell Labs to measure the radio brightness of the sky, as most sources suggest it was originally constructed for communications satellite/balloon experiments.

If you like to build your background knowledge and have an interest in how astronomy is undertaken, rather than just the results, this is the book for you. You probably won't consider this much of a holiday read, but if, like me, you have an interest in astronomy (and probably dabbled with small telescopes in your teens) it will be irresistible.


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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Restless Creatures - Matt Wilkinson ****

Matt Wilkinson makes the daring step for a biologist of quoting (or, rather, misquoting as we'll see later) Rutherford's famous put-down 'all science is either physics or stamp collecting'. But this risk fits well with Wilkinson's entertaining and bravura style in attempting and largely succeeding in persuading the reader that the biggest shaping factor of many living organisms, including humans, is the ability to move, with all the benefits and costs this brings.

One of the delights for the reader are the number of surprises along the way. In some cases it's something that really should be obvious, but probably never occurred to us - such as the way the basic shape of many organisms with, for example, a mouth at the front has been shaped by the nature of movement. Or the linkage of brain and movement. Wilkinson effortlessly takes us through the differences between walking and running in humans or the various ways that flying has evolved in different species, noting that there now seems reasonable evidence that even though birds mostly don't need to drop from a tree to start flight, their ancestors probably did.

In case we take too imperialistic a view of movement on land and in air as being what it's all about, we also are taken on an exploration of the various different forms of movement in water, and to see how animals that don't themselves move still make use of movement - plus one of the best explorations I've seen of a possible route from water to the land (noting how some land animals have very successfully made the move back to water again). And we are taken back to basics (though not at all mechanically so) with the movement of those most successful of organisms, bacteria

Let's get that misquote out of the way. Wilkinson has Rutherford say 'physics is the only science; all else is stamp collecting.' That change of wording makes it easy to misunderstand Rutherford's intent, which was to highlight that most of science outside of physics was about collecting and organising information, rather than using induction to derive laws and meaning. He didn't say the rest wasn't science, just that it was a different (and by implication lesser) part. Wilkinson goes on to suggest that Rutherford implied that nature was unruly and opaque to order - but that was clearly not Rutherford's intent; his comment was about what scientists did, not about the fields per se.

While we're in the negative, the only reason I didn't give Restless Creatures an effortless five stars was inconsistency. The best chapters are some of the most outstanding science writing I've read this year and I loved them. This comes out, perhaps not surprisingly, in a fascinating exploration of why we have our upright two-legged gait - but also, for example, in a wonderful chapter on a part of the natural world we tend not to associate with movement - plants. Yet as Wilkinson shows, not only are there exceptions like the venus fly trap, most plants make use of movement (sometimes with the motive power provided cunningly by other organisms) to spread their seed and avoid everything happening in the same place. However, there were a few places where the writing lost its impetus and became a little turgid. This tended to happen, funnily, when physics came into the story - the explanations of the mechanics of movement, for example with a bird's wing, were hard to digest, while the chapter 'A Winning Formula' on the detailed mechanisms involved in producing a biological form was by far the least readable.

Even if you feel the urge to skip those parts, though, the rest of the book is so well worth it that I very much enjoyed it. Wilkinson takes a new, refreshing look at the nature of living things, particularly animals, and convinces even the most sceptical reader of the importance of locomotion to both the form those animals take and their remarkable range and variety. For this reason, I can heartily recommend adding this book to your collection.


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Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 5 August 2016

Royal Society Science Books Prize 2016

The shortlist for The Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize has now been announced:

  • Cure - A journey into the science of mind over body - Jo Marchant
  • The Gene - an intimate history - Siddhartha Mukherjee
  • The Hunt for Vulcan - and how Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity and Deciphered the Universe - Thomas Levenson
  • The Invention of Nature - Alexander von Humboldt's New World - Andrew Wolf
  • The Most Perfect Thing - Inside (and Outside) a Bird's Egg - Tim Birkhead
  • The Planet Remade - The Challenge of Imagining Deliberate Climate Change - Oliver Morton


Once again they panel proved incapable of producing a longlist.

The judging panel for 2016 has been announced: chaired by bestselling author Bill Bryson, who won the Prize in 2004 with A Short History of Nearly Everything, and joined by four other judges this year: theoretical physicist Dr Clare Burrage, celebrated science fiction author Alastair Reynolds, ornithologist and science blogger GrrlScientist, and Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at The Science Museum.

More details from the Royal Society website.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Cracking Mathematics - Colin Beveridge ****

This kind of book is puzzling, though as we shall discover, Cracking Mathematics is a particularly effective example of the genre. Generally, it's difficult to be sure what a book like this is for, a bafflement not helped in this case by the Zen subtitle 'you, this book and 4,000 years of theories'.

The kind of book I'm talking about is a heavily illustrated summary of a big scientific subject - in this case the whole of mathematics - often covering each topic in as little as a pair of pages with sufficient pictures that the text can only ever be very summary. I can see this format would appeal as a gift book, something to give someone who is difficult to buy for, but I struggle to get a feel for why you would want to sit down and read a book like this from cover to cover - yet it's not a reference book either.

Such books are often big coffee table numbers, but the books in this particular series come in a virtually pocket-sized format - smart hardbacks just 17.5x15 centimetres, so they are far more manageable as, say, a loo book, or something to keep in your bag for boring journeys to keep yourself entertained. And perhaps that format is part of the reason why this particular example works so well - that and some genuinely interesting text from Colin Beveridge.

Along the way, Beveridge takes us on a journey through the origins of mathematics, the renaissance, with the introduction of negative and imaginary numbers, calculus and the infinitesimal, powers and logs, the infinite, codes and some of the more exotic modern ideas. Unlike some of the summary maths texts I've read, it isn't a collection of dull facts, but provides plenty of little gems along the way, from the 20,000 year old Ishango bone to the mysteries of elliptic curves and John Conway's Game of Life. Sometimes the format is a little forced - there's a section labelled 'The Curious Maths of Alice in Wonderland' which certainly does contain some Dodgson maths, but equally includes things like quaternions and non-Euclidian geometry, where the connection to Lewis Carroll, let alone Alice, is rather weak.

In other places, the attempt to make the discussion populist overstretches a little. There is some great material on games and probability, with, for instance, an really good description of the famous Monty Hall problem and the controversy it caused in Parade magazine - but quite why there is a double page spread on poker player Chris 'Jesus' Ferguson, even if he did apply game theory to poker, is a little baffling. My general feeling about this was 'So what?'

Maths is often portrayed as a very dry subject - a necessary evil, rather than something to enjoy - and when maths enthusiasts such as Ian Stewart try to make it seem that mathematics is pure fun they can often misunderstand what the general reader actually finds entertaining, or even faintly interesting. Beveridge does not fall into this trap, and consistently gives us interesting material - in part because the book focusses on the people involved and the history of maths as much as it does on the actual mathematics. Because of this, this title lifts itself above the other books of this type that I've read to make it feel that it really is worth popping into your bag to lighten your next wait at the station.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Who Cares About Particle Physics? - Pauline Gagnon ****

This could be a very short book, consisting only of the words 'I do' - but a more realistic title would be 'What has the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) ever done for us?' Pauline Gagnon takes us on a tour of the standard model of particle physics, introduces the clumsily-titled Brout-Englert-Higgs field (most of us give in and accept it is more practically called the Higgs field, while recognising the other contributors), investigates the role of particle accelerators and takes us through the success with the Higgs boson, and the less successful search for dark matter and supersymmetrical particles.

The later part of the book is a bit of hotchpotch of the author's pet topics (or at least I'm guessing this, as they don't really flow from the first six or seven chapters) on the likes of a rather meandering collection of what research does for us from cancer cures to nuclear fusion (eventually), an examination of the management model used at CERN, a discussion of the (lack of) diversity in physics and bizarrely the role of Mileva Maric in Einstein's work, before reverting to topic of the book with a final chapter looking at possible future discoveries at CERN.

What makes this book worth celebrating for me is getting a really good feel for what the scientists working at the LHC actually do, how they interpret those messy-looking blasts of data, how so many scientists can work together (perhaps ascribing rather more efficiency to the process than is strictly accurate) and why this kind of research is valuable. This kept me interested and wanting to discover more.

I am giving this book four stars for its interesting insider content and particularly its insight into the way that the LHC is used that I have never seen elsewhere. But it does have some issues. Gagnon's attempt to speak down to the general reader sometimes feels a little condescending, not least in the decision to use stuffed toys to represent fundamental particles - it feels like she's trying too hard. There's also a classic 'expert's issue' in explaining why the particle discovered was thought to be a Higgs boson. She explains how the standard model was flawed and patched up with the idea of the Higgs etc. field. This implied there should be Higgs bosons, but they didn't know the mass. So how do they know that the new particle is a Higgs boson, rather than just something else that was missing from the standard model? There is no convincing answer given for this.

The writing style was also a little too much like being lectured - a barrage of facts, lacking much in the way of narrative structure. And an oddly obvious error had crept in: a table showing the behaviour of dark matter claimed it was not influenced by gravity, which is rather odd since this is the only way it can be detected. Oh, and the author falls into the error of trying to justify the expenditure on CERN because it gave us the web - a particularly lame argument.

However, these negatives are more than overcome by the content in the sense that we get far more than the typical basic tour and explanation of the LHC - this is really insightful material on how the LHC experiments are used and how they might be extended in the search for dark matter and the (increasingly unlikely) supersymmetric particles. Because of this, it's a book that's well worth reading if you have interest in this most fundamental of physical explorations.


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Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Dragonflies - Pieter van Dokkum ***

I am immediately a touch suspicious of any book in a landscape format - it says 'I'm not really to be read, just to be flicked through' - it's a coffee table format at best. Sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised by the content, where far more is delivered that the format suggests - but here, I'm afraid the result is pretty, but only scratches the surface of what really should be inside.

Dragonflies are fascinating creatures and what Pieter van Dokkum - rather oddly an astronomy professor - does well is to capture their nymphs and mature forms in close up in every possible activity from metamorphosis to catching prey. However it's hard to escape that this is essentially a picture book without even the kind of text support you might get in something like a Dorling Kindersley book. 

In the past I've been pleasantly surprised by what I thought was going to be little more than a set of good illustrations with a book like The Buzz about Bees, because that contained lots of fascinating material about bees and their lives, and the nature of super organisms. Yes, I enjoyed the closeup pictures - but I learned a huge amount too. From the small amount I do know about dragonflies, they too are a topic that should have been rich in fascinating factoids and engrossing stories. But sadly Dragonflies does not deliver in this way.

Unless you are a dragonfly groupie, I think this is the kind of book you might want to borrow from a library and flick through, but not to buy to read from end to end. Perhaps it would even work as a loo book. But it could have been so much more.



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Review by Brian Clegg