Friday, 25 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 project, where the industrial machine of modern biology is portrayed.
Perhaps the two most fascinating segments are on Concorde, where there’s some excellent business history in the way the new-look BA turned around what had been a millstone round the government’s neck into a money-spinner, and one on the computer game Elite. It’s easy to forget this game now – but it single-handedly made the leap from the Space Invaders style trivia of the day to a modern, mission-based game, all crammed into a ridiculous 22K of memory. At the time we all marvelled at how such a huge game, with hundreds of planets to visit, could be crammed into such a space. Now we know.
Spufford’s style is smooth and easy to read. If there’s one slight criticism it’s that a number of his small facts are wrong. As an example, he mentions that Elite was launched at the Thorpe Park theme park in the UK where they had just built ‘the world’s first underground rollercoaster’. Thorpe Park never had an underground rollercoaster – the ride in question was a rather feeble space-themed coaster that was indoors and in the dark, but came long after Space Mountain, and was so small scale that the machinery (now outside and fish themed) is now regarded as a smaller children’s ride. These little errors (there are several more) never get in the way of the story, though. (The subject of the last section is also unexpectedly depressing, but you’ll have to read the book to find out why.)
The book isn’t available in the US, because they’re all UK stories – but that’s a shame. It doesn’t detract from the universal appeal of people working ridiculous hours in an underfunded environment to crack some techno-problem. In this it is just as fascinating as stories of the early days at Microsoft. It’s a great book, that only loses its fifth star because it isn’t really popular science.
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 22 June 2004

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 faults? He does have a tendency to repeat small blocks of text (one quote three times), and though he’s great at describing what happened and the people, it’s not the best book to get an understanding of what DNA sequencing really is – but these are quibbles.
The book works so well because the author isn’t afraid to uncover the sometimes rather unpleasant human traits that seem to accompany great achievement is science as much as any other field. You might not love Brown’s subjects as you get to know them (that’s both the worms and the scientists), but you can hardly fail to be fascinated by them.
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 15 June 2004

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 schoolboy/schoolgirl ‘humour’. This isn’t a book aimed at children, but the supposedly funny stuff grates after a while on an adult. To make matters worse, a lot of the humour would be lost on readers who haven’t a UK background (which I suspect is why the book isn’t available in the US). For instance in the cloning section, the ‘recipe’ for human cloning starts ‘One human egg (check it’s not past its sell-by date, and look for the lion mark)’. The lion mark? Even half the UK population probably can’t remember that.
It’s not that popular science can’t be entertaining – the best certainly is – but we need to acknowledge that adults can cope with more sophisticated funnies.
Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 13 June 2004

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 relevant reminder that scientists may attempt to be objective in their work, but remain human.
Now newly republished in an updated edition, this book was nominated the prestigious Rhone Poulenc prize for science writing (now the Royal Society Prize).
Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 11 June 2004

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 comes through a little in this book (and more so in the works of some other writers like Daniel Dennett) is the idea that evolution is not only a very important theory, but actually is MORE important than everything else. Dawkins opens the book by saying “If superior creatures from space ever visit earth [sic], the first question they will ask, in order to assess the level of our civilization, is ‘Have they discovered evolution yet?'” This is just plain silly. But don’t let it put you off the rest of the book, because it is superb.
The only part of the book that is open to significant question is the chapter or memes – Dawkins’ idea of a conceptual equivalent of genes that allow anything from ideas to advertising jingles spread through society. It was a nice thought, but has been too often taken as scientific fact in popular science writing, where it is anything but a proven concept. But that’s a minor part of the book.
Anyone who has any doubts that “evolution is just a theory” needs to read this. And I stress to read it. All too often, people have just come across the title, or heard it being talked about and assumed that Dawkins is literally suggesting that genes have conscious will, and act in order to make things better for themselves. In fact, Dawkins is master of metaphor, and that’s all it was ever intended to be. As he points out, there is no suggestion that we are puppets to our genes, and have to act in a manner that furthers the benefit of our genes. Many of us choose to act differently. But there is equally no doubt of the power of genetic evolutionary pressure. Also, a lot of the problem is that most people have a very poor grasp of probability and statistics, and find it difficult to see evolution, and its impact on genetic action in these terms. Some will always struggle against the concepts here, but everyone should have this book on their reading list.
The Selfish Gene is now in a third edition, also known as the 30th anniversary edition, which has extra prefaces in the front, but unless you are particularly interested in the development of the attitude to evolution and genetics, our advice is to skip these and get onto the main text.
Review by Jo Reed