Friday, 2 December 2016

Ecotopia 2121 - Alan Marshall ***

This is, without doubt, one of the the strangest books I have ever reviewed. Around 500 years ago, the cleric and politician Thomas More wrote a book called Utopia that brought a new, and much misused, word into the world. Now, Alan Marshall has used some of the concepts of utopia (which he points out combines the meanings 'good land' or 'nowhere land') to provide a vision of an ecologically minded future 100 or so years from now.

The title emphasises that ecological aspect (it has been used before), though for me it's too close to 'ectopic' to be comfortable. In the book, Marshall takes 100 world cities and gives us a vision of what they might be like in 2121. Each has a rather beautiful image, plus between one and five pages of text which typically combine a bit of historical context, an idea of why he has chosen the particular approach he has used for that city and some details on what the future city is like.

The choice of cities is quirky. The obvious world capitals are there but we also find, for example, Andorra la Vella (with a very retro feel and a banning of nanotechnology). Inevitably the urge is strong to pick out the cities in your country first. For the UK we get the fairly obvious London and Birmingham, combined with Bristol, Oxford, Plymouth and Wolverhampton. Inevitably, also, the first response is 'Why these? Where's Cambridge and Manchester? What happened outside of England?' but in the end, the choice is the author's.

The range of environmental futures awarded the cities is impressive - and like all good utopia stories, there are some darker reflections. Paris, for example, is portrayed with the Eiffel Tower collapsing as the remains of a space elevator collapses from the sky (Marshall doesn't like space travel) and Palo Alto (is that really a city?) is a monstrous hi-tech future environment. Many, though seem impossibly wonderful. Marshall's cities seem largely redesigned from the ground up - yet history suggests that this rarely happens, with evolutionary change more likely than revolutionary.

All in all, like most books where you get 100 anything, it's difficult to read from end to end - it's more of a dip in book. There are some interesting environmental ideas here - for example, the Bristol entry concentrates on a tidal barrier to Cardiff, which is wide enough to be a very narrow city in its own right - and I think the future cities will also prove a rich source of settings for science fiction writers. There's not a lot of science here, so I can't score it more than three stars - but at the very least it's a book that's worth taking a look at for its imaginative vision of a very unlikely but inspiring set of future possibilities. It is available on Kindle, but I'd go for the hardback to get a better feel for those illustrations.

Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 27 November 2016

What Colour is the Sun? - Brian Clegg ****

This is Brian Clegg's follow-up to How Many Moons Does the Earth Have? with the same format, but all new questions. As I may have mentioned before, science and fun go together like… well, like things that don’t often go together at all.  So it’s no mean feat to find that Brian Clegg has managed to combine the two so skilfully here.
Like its predecessor, the book is in the format of a pair of pub quizzes, but unless you’re drinking in a pub favoured by geeky academics in either Oxford or Cambridge, I would say that 99.99% of readers will just read the book through like I did, to entertain and test themselves.   
Each question is cleverly laid out, in that each is posed in the form of a puzzle, problem or brainteaser, augmented with a few related ‘while you wait’ fun facts on a single page; giving the reader the space to test themselves.  Once done, the reader then turns the page to find the answer - complete with a detailed explanation.  This makes each question an interesting standalone read in its own right.  For those who want to go further, each answer also has a ‘read more’ suggestion of a book that expands on the topic.
US readers needn't
The biggest problem with this book is being able to put it down, as each item is very short, it’s tempting to go for just one more… and another until you’re half-way through in a single sitting.  
The subjects are widespread, though all encompass science and technology; from the title question of the book (not as straightforward as it seems) to why your fingers go wrinkly in the bath (ditto) - there are also some great picture and puzzle sections.  In fact the majority of the questions have a little twist or surprise that mean they continue to delight all the way through, and I must say that I don’t believe that I’ve ever uttered ‘Well I never’ so many times and in such a short space of time before.
If you like QI or the New Scientist books like Why Don’t a Penguin’s Feet Freeze, you’ll just love this one!  It’s a great book for anyone with an interest in science and at a really good price that makes it an excellent stocking filler.  Once again, I am certainly going to be buying a whole stack as Christmas presents for my Oxford chums (who much appreciated the previous volume).

Review by Peet Morris
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.

Astrophotography - Rhodri Evans ****

This is a book that falls pretty firmly in the coffee table bracket, weighing in at over a kilo, and nearly 30 cm by 24. I'd usually be rather put off by this, but I was pleasantly surprised here.

We've seen plenty of photo-based books of space before, such as the even bigger Hubble books, but for me, Astrophotography probably has the best balance. It combines those gorgeous photographs we have come to know and love (partly because NASA and the ESA are so generous with making them freely available) with a good text by astronomer Rhodri Evans, which never dominates the images, but gives enough information to avoid this being a pure picture book. 

Even so, as the title suggests, it's the photographs that make it remarkable. Evans takes us an a tour, starting with the solar system, where as well as the inevitable planets we get some funky moons and comets (yes, it's up-to-date enough to include 67P and those great Pluto photos). 

From the limits of our solar system, we zoom out to our galaxy, the local group and the wider universe, ending with the most distant views, the cosmic microwave background and a good text on gravity wave astronomy (though obviously no photographs of the outcome here).

I'm always a little unsure what coffee table books are for, but there's no doubt this would make a great gift for an astronomical beginner, or simply someone who enjoys the remarkable photographs from space that are now available.

Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science - Nancy Cooke & Margaret Hilton (Eds.) ****

Editor's note: This book is not popular science in the usual sense and the primary audience is those working in science, but it gives insights that will prove valuable beyond the science community.

Research of biological, chemical or physical sciences in all their guises is increasingly the domain of large-scale, multi-centre, cross-disciplinary collaboration. Almost gone is the era when individual investigators secured funding to undertake narrowly defined projects, replaced by a ‘team science’ philosophy in which both practical and theoretical research, basic or applied, is performed by consortia of scientists with a range of skill sets who are brought together to address so-called grand challenges. As team members are typically in geographically distinct locations, often in different countries or continents, this provides logistical obstacles to project coordination, management and implementation. Knowing how a team-based approach can function optimally, as well as how universities and research institutions may best provide infrastructure and administrative support is critical to success in achieving scientific goals and translational outcomes.

It is in this context that Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science distils the collective thoughts of the research committees of the US National Academy of Sciences to proffer guidance on improving team effectiveness, facilitating virtual collaboration, enabling institutional backing and procuring funding. Individual sections focus on team composition, leadership and professional development of team members. How organisational research policies may help and not hinder collaborative research is also examined. This book offers robust recommendations to science research agencies and public policymakers, as well as valuable advice for university research managers, team science leaders and career researchers. It also debunks the clich├ęd myth that academics should be left alone in their ivory towers without any obligation to public accountability. We may prefer interacting with lab rats to engaging with the general public but society is a team effort and, for scientists, that starts with team bonding through research and research-led teaching.

A pdf version is free to download from the website of the publisher, The National Academies Press, while a hard copy book, excellent for libraries, is available for purchase.

Review by Andrew Taylor-Robinson

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the book to be a beautiful object in its own right.

Why this book?

I followed science to degree level, but have made several subsequent forays into more artistic territory. Fusing art and science has always intrigued me and remains a lodestar. I’ve enjoyed talking to non-scientists about science and trying to understand, explain and illuminate the wonder and beauty of the natural world and the cosmos and it’s inner workings. I’ve long wanted to create sort-of anti-textbooks.  For some years I amused my friends (I think!) by talking of wanting to create lyrical, poetic, beautiful books about science for non-science readers, without any real idea of how you would do that. I still think that might be impossible!  But it’s worth a detour…

What’s next?

I like the idea of tackling more bite-sized chunks of science.  This book’s conceit of moving from the Big Bang to Now gave me a crash course in finding about where we are.  And while it’s a very satisfying structure, I’d love to dwell in greater, but hopefully still eccentric (!), detail on particular areas of scientific interest as there is just so much there. I’d like to do a series of smaller books like this, perhaps for a slightly younger readership. I’m also planning a graphic book that looks at the key technologies of ancient civilizations and how they link scientific insight with cultural and social flowerings. Oh… and there is the sumptuous book on artichokes that is always there on the back burner… (Don’t ask!)

What’s exciting you at the moment?

Advances in astronomy (now, including gravitational waves), high-energy particle physics and the ability to crunch big-data seems to be taking us to the threshold of another paradigm shift in our view of the Universe … well, at least that’s how it feels to me. The extraordinary fact that 95% of the Universe seems to be missing and that gravity is by most accounts inexplicably weak by many orders of magnitude, is frustrating and scintillating by turns. I’m excited by the idea of the next ‘Einstein’ to turn on the light bulb. Wouldn’t it be absolutely amazing if it happened within our lifetimes? I favour brane cosmologies and multidimensional space as the deeper reality. I mean, otherwise, how on earth could the Universe have emerged from ‘nothing’ – really… c’mon! But, perhaps, like the humble bee, we are irrevocably imprisoned within the limits of our perceptual systems and we will never get to see what ‘lies beyond’.  But it's fun trying!

The Realization of Star Trek Technologies - Mark Lasbury ***

When a popular science writer takes on the science of Star Trek, the result is inevitably going to be held up against Lawrence Krauss's The Physics of Star Trek - an early popular science book and one of the first I ever read. I'm glad to say that Mark Lasbury manages to avoid the danger of rehashing Krauss's book. Where the earlier title took key Star Trek technologies and explored whether they could be made possible with actual physics, Lasbury gives us the Star Trek explanations and some thoughts on their feasibility, but concentrates primarily on situations where real life technology can provide some of the features of the Star Trek equivalent. In doing this, unlike Krauss, he omits aspects such as the warp drive, instant communication and time travel where the technology doesn't have a real-world parallel.

It quickly becomes clear that Lasbury really knows his stuff on what happens in different Star Trek episodes and the assorted 'technical manuals' that have sprung up around the series. If anything this aspect is over-done. There doesn't seem too much point labouring over why a technology is explained differently in a later episode than an earlier one - in the end it's because they had different writers and the later one couldn't be bothered to check. There's an element of 'this is fiction, get over it,' about this kind of detail.

The level of detail on the real world technologies is impressive - I think this book will strongly appeal to an audience that loves this kind of working through possibilities systematically - for example, looking at all the different ways we can do something roughly similar to phasers. Some parts such as lasers are likely to be familiar, but others, for example the idea of using a laser to ionise a path through air, then sending an electric charge along the path - so-called directed lightning - is fascinating. All too often, though, the result deteriorates into a list approach that makes more for completeness than reading pleasure.

The sections which proved most interesting to me were mostly those where we were closest to the real thing - I found the universal translator section particularly enjoyable - though the tricorder section spent too long on assorted medical add-ons for smartphones. The transporter section (something that was also covered by Krauss) also had plenty of absorbing content, though it's a shame Lasbury doesn't mention the no cloning theorem - or more entertainingly, the objection to the Star Trek transporter raised in that brilliant film Galaxy Quest of why such an incredibly sophisticated piece of technology requires its operator to smoothly push a pair of sliders.

Pretty well all popular science books have a few errors or points where a rather odd comment is made, and there were a number here. When talking about cloaking devices, the author says 'interesting, in both [Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings], the cloaking devices were actually cloaks; I wonder if this is the genesis of the term "cloaking device?"' The only problem is that Star Trek predates Harry Potter, and the main cloaking device in the Lord of the Rings is, erm, a ring. Not all the problems are about cultural context. We're told photon torpedoes involve matter/antimatter annihilation, so no light is involved. Remind me what is produced when, particles and antiparticles annihilate? Oh, yes - photons.  Strangest of all is the description of the orbit of comet 2015 TB145; Lasbury tells us its orbit is 'very oblong.' I've seen diagrams of its orbit and - not surprisingly - it isn't at all rectangular.

If you really like getting into the detail of this kind of tech, this is going to be an excellent read for you. I can't give it more than three stars for the general reader, because it is too much of a 'listing every possible technology and how it works' book, but there's no doubt there will be an enthusiastic audience for this material.
Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Why Icebergs Float - Andrew Morris ***

It is challenging to find a new way to present science to the general public, and I have to start off by congratulating Andrew Morris on his novel approach of exploring the science of everyday things by following the random flow of topics at a discussion group. To an extent this isn't new - Galileo, for example, made his science books more accessible by using an ancient approach of constructing a fake discussion between three individuals: the supporter of the status quo, the supporter of new ideas and the everyman to go 'Duh,' I don't understand this' (think Dr Who companion) giving the others a chance to explain.

Although Morris's discussion group is genuine, there is still something of a flavour of Galileo's approach coming through, especially as Morris admits that what he presents is edited to fit the desired approach. Nonetheless, the idea is genuinely attractive and novel. However, there is always a danger with novelty - that it wears off pretty quickly and I did find that the 'rambling conversation in a bar' approach made it quite easy to get lost and rapidly became a little irritating. It was interesting that the chapter on the significance of models in science, which opens with much less input from the discussion group, was a lot more coherent than the rest.

Another problem with that discussion group approach is that there is a danger of leaving huge gaps in the content because something doesn't happen to be brought up. So, for instance, the theme of the first chapter is 'Foods we love and hate'. That's a nice idea, but it only covered taste and smell where, for instance, many food dislikes are driven by texture. Even so, despite the scattergun approach, Morris is able to cover a whole host of topics from the nature of colour and pigments (from an observation about old masters losing colour) to the nature of electricity via the role of hormones, the whole business of bacteria, viruses and antibiotics and several chapters on energy, which when you start to think about it is rather a puzzling concept. There's no doubt that a reader will get plenty to get their teeth into as they go through this book.

One concern was that, perhaps due to the very general and informal nature of the discussions, some of the science was a little iffy. So, for example, the old myth that different areas of the tongue are associated with different taste sensations was regurgitated as if it were fact. The description of the mechanism of the tides fell down on the tide at the far side of the Earth from the Moon. And there is a fundamentally incorrect description of why objects appear to be a particular colour, making it sound as if all non-absorbed light is somehow magically reflected. Let's be clear: if a photon isn't absorbed by a material it will pass through. The question is whether or not and it what direction it is re-emitted.

A final moan is that a sampler book like this should always give the reader a good range of options to read further. Here there was a very limited and vague 'further resources' section at the end, which seemed like a pinned-on afterthought. It would have been much better if each chapter provided a handful of book suggestions to read further on the topics that chapter covered, should the appetite have been whetted.

So, what we have here is an innovative idea which doesn't quite come off. This isn't a bad thing. If we are going to be innovative, then it's necessary to take risks and not everything will succeed. And for that the author and publisher should be applauded. But in this particular case, it doesn't work for me.

Review by Brian Clegg