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Showing posts from June, 2004

Backroom Boys – Francis Spufford ****

Perhaps the least atypical popular science book we’ve ever come across – in part because it isn’t really popular science, but is rather a book that fits there better than any other category (much of it could just as easily be business/technology history). Spufford’s text comes across more as that of a pop historian – and very enjoyable it is too – as he catalogues the development of six quirky technological breakthroughs. Recently TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson mentioned he was writing a book about machines with a soul – and if you extend this concept to technology with a soul, you’ve got a good picture of what Spufford is about. They overlap in handling Concorde, that remarkably ahead-of-its-time machine that merged antiquated technology – its flight deck looked an antique many, many years before it went out of service – with the most stunning achievement – an airliner than flew like a Mach 2 fighter. This ‘machines with soul’ label is true even of the section on the human genome proje…

In the Beginning was the Worm – Andrew Brown *****

Although it’s not a biography, people are central to Andrew Brown’s delightful study of the lengthy struggle to sequence the genome of a small, common-or-garden worm. Not only do you get a feel for the science involved in generating the first ever complete genome sequencing by Sydney Brenner, Bob Horvitz and John Sulston, but also for the realities of modern scientific work – down to the remarkably simple proposal that won Brenner et al a grant that would eventually lead to the Nobel prize. The nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans isn’t much to look at, though Brown assures us that it is beautiful in the right light (and through the right microscope – it is only half a millimetre long), but proved the ideal subject for this task. The job wasn’t just about understanding the genetic mechanism, but required a total physical map of the worm and how its ‘circuits’ were wired. For this it provided the ideal balance of simplicity but with enough to it to make it worth investigating. Any faul…

How to Clone the Perfect Blonde – Sue Nelson & Richard Hollingham ****

It’s disappointing how close this is to a great popular science book. The premise is excellent. Subtitled ‘making fantasises come true with cutting-edge science’ it takes eight ‘how to’s and builds an interesting chapter around each. The title chapter, for example, is really about what cloning is, why it’s difficult to do, what was special about Dolly the sheep, why the claims of various people to have made human clones already is unlikely and more. The other topics are: how to build a domestic goddess (a humanoid robot)how to avoid commuting (teleportation)how to lose your love handles (dealing with fat)how to turn back time (time machines)how to upgrade your body (cyborgs)how to remove an eyesore (black holes)how to live for ever … and each chapter has lots of good information put across in a very effective way. (The authors claim this is popular science for people who couldn’t get past chapter 2 of Brief History of Time). But, and there is a but, it’s all rather let down by the scho…

Afterglow of Creation – Marcus Chown ****

This is the story of the cosmic background radiation – the ‘afterglow’ of the Big Bang in which the Universe was born – and how it was discovered. Chown brilliantly weaves a tale of the search for the origins of the Universe, from the early years of cosmology (remarkably less than 100 years ago) to the flight of the COBE satellite and its crucial discovery. This is the supreme detective story of cosmology. It begins in 1924 with Hubble’s discovery of galaxies and continues through to the 1992 discovery of extremely distant remnants of the Big Bang, ripples in space/time that provide a tantalising echo of the first beginnings. Like all the best popular science, the book is as much about the people involved as the science itself. Afterglow finishes with a description of the resulting publicity and wrangling among team members who felt that one team leader, George Smoot (who had described a “map” of the ripples as “like seeing the face of God”), was hogging the spotlight. It’s a very rel…

The Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins *****

Richard Dawkins is the doyen of the new evolutionary biologists, and puts his message across with masterly ease. The topic of evolution is not just one that causes controversies on the news, it is fundamentally important to us all, and when Dawkins wrote this book back in 1976, he was to have a huge impact on the general public. Dawkins writes very smoothly – this is not only a classic of popular science, it is one of the most beautiful examples. Evolution, and its impact on genetics is indeed crucial to us all, but it has also been fundamentally important to biologists and zoologists. Before evolution they were very much second class scientists, more concerned with collating information and categorizing species than applying any scientific theory to explain what was observed. Because of this, biologists were said to suffer from “physics envy”, because they felt inferior to the hard sciences. Evolution was to change all that – which is great, but the only irritating side effect that c…