Friday, 30 July 2004

Mutants – Armand Leroi *****

A freak show. It’s not a nice term – not a nice concept, but something that has the terrible ability to fascinate at the same time as it horrifies.
This is a subject where academic detachment is inconceivable. The whole concept of being entertained by the deformed is so disgusting (and so appealing to many) that it would seem a good popular science book on the subject of human mutation is practically impossible. Yet Armand Leroi has achieved it.
It’s hard to believe that the accompanying TV series can manage this so well. However good Leroi’s intentions, TV can’t help but turn this topic into prurient viewing. And it doesn’t help that in the UK that the next programme in the broadcaster’s schedule is Big Brother – a show that is totally dependent on the voyeuristic enjoyment of the human condition and suffering of others. (A recent example of this was when the occupants of the Big Brother house had to sit on a roundabout that was spun until they vomited.) Arguably the TV version of Mutants should never have been made. But – an immense but – the book manages to walk the tightrope superbly.
Perhaps it would have been even better to emphasize this distinction without the illustrations, but that apart, the distancing brought by the printed word makes it possible to deal with this delicate topic with real humanity. What Leroi’s book is about is not the horrified delight of the peep show, nor the opportunistic exhibition of the likes of Joseph Merrick, but the biological causes of human mutation and the lessons we can learn about the way we are all put together. And it is remarkably brilliant at doing this.
Reading Leroi’s description of the minute complexities of our gradual construction in the womb, what is remarkable is not that there are mutants, but there are so few. Or at least seemingly so – for as Leroi points out we are all mutants, it’s just that some are more mutated than others.
If your idea of what mutants are is formed from watching the movie X-Men, it’s time for a radical re-think. We all know, as the portentous X-Men voiceover tells us, that mutation is an essential. Without it there would have been no evolution of the human race. But Leroi shows us both mutation’s dark side – the sad but essential cost of being able to develop in this way – and the lessons that modern biologists can learn, both from natural mutation and from the experimental modification (in animals, not humans) of genetic material. These experiments themselves can seem distastefully gruesome – but the balance of knowledge is one we have to weigh carefully.
If you had any doubt about getting this book because of the “freak factor” – and I have to confess I did – put that concern aside. Leroi is not a modern-day sideshow huckster, encouraging you in to see the two-headed calf and the bearded lady. Instead he brilliantly (and most of all, humanely and very readably) lays bare the realities of our human development. Highly recommended.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 28 July 2004

Introducing Time – Craig Callender & Ralph Edney *****

It is almost impossible to rate these relentlessly hip books – they are pure marmite*. The huge Introducing … series (about 80 books covering everything from Quantum Theory to Islam), previously known as … for Beginners, puts across the message in a style that owes as much to Terry Gilliam and pop art as it does to popular science. Many of the pages feature large graphics with speech bubbles that are supposed to emphasise a point.
If you scan the shelves on popular science it is surprisingly difficult to find a book on time, which is strange when you consider what a fundamental part of the physical world time is. Yes, you’ll discover books on time-keeping, on clocks and the measurement of time. Equally you’ll find books covering subjective time. Our personal experience of time, as opposed to time as a physical entity. But there’s very little on ‘real’ time.
It was a very pleasant surprise, then, to discover this entry in the ‘Introducing…’ series is a little cracker. Not only is it one of the better written members of the series, it really does explore the nature of time, far beyond a quick dip into St Augustine and Aristotle (even though these two worthies do get a look in).
There’s a powerful exploration of the difference between block time and the unfolding now – or as Callendar puts it, the detensers and the tensers – and plenty of reflections on the possibilities for time travel emerging from a wide range of physical concepts. Relativity, of course, gets a look in, as do the various paradoxes of time travel and some teasing possibilities that would emerge if, for example, spacetime were a Mobius strip.
While occasionally, and almost inevitably with what can be quite an esoteric subject, the author came close to losing me, most of the time he manages to make these mind boggling concepts surprisingly approachable. I wish I could say this was down to the illustrations, but to be honest I didn’t take them in all that much (though they are very well drawn). I was so engrossed with the text, I ignored much of the illustration (which is less obtrusive and more separate than in many of the series). Just occasionally you have to read the text in the illustration, which carries the narrative forward – this I found a bit irritating, as I had usually skipped it, realized it was missing and had to go back.
There’s just one point that seemed entirely wrong. When describing the use of the special relativity twins paradox to travel in time, the characters in the drawing say ‘It doesn’t bring us back to the past or forward to the future… it just enables our clock, at best, to age slower than clocks elsewhere.’ It’s certainly true that the twins paradox doesn’t enable travel into the past. But it does enable travel into the future. You might, for example, leave Earth in 2050, travel for 5 years (as far as you are concerned), and arrive back in 2100. In what way have you not travelled 45 years into the future? This just doesn’t make sense.
That apart, though, this is not only an excellent addition to the series but the best book on time I’ve read. Inevitably it’s very condensed to fit the format, but that’s somehow not inappropriate given the subject. Nice one.
*Marmite? If you are puzzled by this assessment, you probably aren’t from the UK. Marmite is a yeast-based product (originally derived from beer production waste) that is spread on bread/toast. It’s something people either love or hate, so much so that the company has run very successful TV ad campaigns showing people absolutely hating the stuff…
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Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 25 July 2004

The Earth: An Intimate History – Richard Fortey ****

It’s no surprise that this weighty geological exploration of the Earth carries an endorsement by Bill Bryson on the cover, because at times it seems more like a travel book than a work of popular science – and actually, that’s distinctly refreshing.
Fortey takes us to places where the Earth exposes its workings – such as Hawaii – and to key locations in the discoveries of Earth sciences, such as the Alpine location where the surprise discovery was made of a young layer of rock sitting beneath an older one, proving that dramatic folding had taken place. It often feels very like a book version of one of those TV documentaries that flies you all over the world to fill in a story. But Fortey is at his best when walking around a location and drifting between using “you” and “I” in a pleasantly unscientific fashion.
This is a much better approach than simply going into the mechanisms that make the Earth the way it is, and though occasionally (just as is the case with those TV documentaries) it’s hard not to feel “he only went there for the holiday, really”), such sour grapes are unfair. How better to get an insight into the Earth than by taking a tour of the geologically interesting bits? And in much of the book this works superbly well. There’s also the fascination of a huge detective story. If most rock looks to you like, well… rock, there’s wonder to be found in the cleverness of linking different locations across the world that once sat next to each other by the fossils they contain (Fortey’s speciality) or particular types of crystal embedded in them.
This is a very good book then. Why didn’t it make five stars? Just a few niggles. One is the price – at $21 in the US it’s not bad, but the £25 UK price is hard to justify. Then it’s simply too long. Where length is because there’s a huge amount to pack it’s fine, but here some of it is more down to extreme leisureliness, making it can be easy to lose concentration. For a popular science book it lacks a certain humanity. Key figures in geology are mentioned, but we don’t get any feel for what drove them, why they did what they did. And it tends to presume a little too much. Terms like plate tectonics are bandied around with little explanation for the first couple of hundred pages. But don’t be misled – these are genuinely just niggles.
This is about the best book around if you want to get a feel for how the Earth works. It’s one to be savoured slowly and warmly like a good port. Which can’t be a bad thing.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 24 July 2004

The Fly in the Cathedral – Brian Cathcart *****

The fly in question is the atomic nucleus, which Cathcart tells us was, in the early days of its discovery, compared in size with the whole atom as a fly compares to a cathedral.
This is the story of the race to split the atomic nucleus, not with any application of producing power or bombs in mind, but simply because very little was known about the nucleus, theory needed a lot of help (until quite a way through the book, for example, the neutron was just a crazy idea of Rutherford’s that hardly anyone believed in), and by battering the nucleus into bits more could be found out about it.
It’s terrific stuff. Centred on the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, the main players are John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton, two youngish researchers, with in the very near background the remarkable figure of Rutherford. As we follow the ups and downs of their progress in building bizarre equipment, there’s a terrific feeling of presence – it really is as if you have a view on what was happening. Many other scientists play a role – some, like the remarkable George Gamow coming up with crucial ideas, others challengers to split the atom first.
Part of what surprises is the nature of the challenges. These were still fairly crude pieces of equipment, and one of the hardest things proved to be turning the high voltage electricity used to accelerate the protons used to smash into nuclei from AC to DC – the team had to devise their own rectifiers to cope with the high voltages, initially held together with sealing wax or plasticine modelling clay. Then there is the Frankenstein movie reality of the apparatus. Great glass tubes that glowed, sparks crackling across air gaps, and a lab that was so dangerous that the researchers had to crawl along the ground the observing chamber to avoid being electrocuted.
The author is quite blunt about not having a scientific background, but this really doesn’t stand in the way of his telling a fascinating story superbly well. Perhaps the only surprising omission, that might be explained by this, is that he frequently mentions the British physicist P. A. M. Dirac, and also mentions the US experimental discovery of the positron from early accelerator experiments, but never links the two with Dirac’s earlier prediction of the existence of the positron. However, this has nothing to do with the main story, so is a very minor omission. On the workings of the worlds foremost physics laboratory in the early 1930s this book can’t be faulted, and is a must for anyone who enjoys popular science.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 23 July 2004

Eureka! The Birth of Science – Andrew Gregory *****

“Oh, no, not the ancient Greeks? Yawn, yawn, what a bore.” If this is your natural reaction to a book on the ancient Greek origins of science, hold on there. It’s easy enough to think of the Greeks as a bit of a bore because they tended to be long winded and philosophising (and they foisted geometry on us, for goodness sake) – but the fact is that their work, mostly wrong though it may be, is the foundation of all of science.
What’s more, Andrew Gregory makes the whole business interesting, without resorting to any fancy literary tricks – it’s a straightforward historical tour of the Greek prehistory of science that is simply bursting with insight. If you’ve ever wondered why it was such a big deal that Galileo and others should suggest that the Earth wasn’t at the centre of things, here is part of the explanation. It’s not just a matter of selfish assumption, but the entire Aristotelian physics depended on it. Without the Earth at the centre of things, his equivalent of gravity simply wouldn’t work.
Because so much of the actual detail is wrong, it’s also easy to dismiss the ancient Greeks’ input to science – but, as Gregory emphasizes, it was a huge leap to move from the assumption that the cause of natural events and objects was mythological and down to the intervention of gods, to a rule-based cosmos where it was possible to deduce a logical explanation for events. He contrasts, for instance, the Babylonians and Egyptians, who achieved great technological feats, and were quite capable of recording and predicting natural events, but who resolutely put the explanation of why down to supernatural intervention, and who consistently resorted to inconsistent myth to explain how the cause was working.
Some would argue that Gregory has been a little premature – that the ancient Greeks weren’t so much the earliest part of the history of science, but the prehistory of science. To make this distinction, what the Greeks did is often called natural philosophy, based on observation and argument, as opposed to science, based on observation, experiment and the development and refinement of theory from those observations and experiments. So it’s worth taking a look at least three other books that ascribe the birth of science to later midwifes:
  • Medieval friar Roger Bacon in my Roger Bacon: The First Scientist
  • Leonardo da Vinci in Michael White’s Leonardo, and
  • Galileo in John Gribbin’s Science: A History
but even they would agree with Gregory how significant the ancient Greeks foundations are, and the great thing is to get a very effective grounding in these Greek ideas in a single, compact and enjoyable book. Nice one.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 20 July 2004

Nature via Nuture – Matt Ridley ****

For pretty well as long as people have pondered just what a human being is, the debate has raged over the relative contributions of biological content versus how we’re brought up. At its most trivial, as the advert puts it, “maybe she’s born with it; maybe it’s Maybelline.”
Throughout history the pendulum has swung side to side on preference from nature to nurture and back again. In this exploration of a crucial human conundrum Ridley points out, for example, how the study of twins has over the years been trumpeted as a wonderful breakthrough in understanding while at other times attempts to discredit the approach have been so venomous that it would seem the researchers had made some vast politically incorrect faux pas.
In covering the subject, Ridley manages to combine industrial strength research with a superb style that seems effortless, yet works superbly. The only reason the book doesn’t win the accolade of five stars is that, in the end, fascinating though the debate is, the conclusion is almost inevitably, “well, it’s a bit of both,” or “with everything else equal it’s mostly genetics, but miss out on nurture in a big way and the whole thing falls apart.” (That’s a little over-simplified – it’s probably best summed up when Ridley says “you need nature to absorb nurture.” At some levels this is a truism. You need nature’s contribution of a digestive system to literally absorb nurture. But it also sums up the thesis.)
Because of this repeated conclusion, by about half way through it’s easy to get a little fed up of the repeated cry of “it’s not one thing or the other.” It might well be true, but like all middle-of-the-roadness it lacks danger and excitement.
One other warning. If you are averse to animal experimentation, this is a book you might find unsettling. Even an unbiased observer can’t help but feel a bit queasy at a statement like this: “[scientists] discovered how to stain these columns [in the brain] different colours by injecting dyed amino acids into one eye. They were then able to see what happens when one eye is sewn shut.” More might have been made of the cost/benefit balance in the experiments that are constantly reported throughout the book.
However, that apart, and given the limitations of reality that make “it’s not one thing or the other” an almost inevitable conclusion (which Ridley can hardly be blamed for – I guess we ought to take it up with Ridley’s concept of the “Genome Organizing Device” (GOD for short)) the book does a great job. Only other very slight niggle is the use of numbered notes, which isn’t necessary for a popular science book, simply breaking up the eyeline without adding any benefit. It’s often done elsewhere to try to demonstrate spurious academic gravitas, something Ridley has no need for.
Altogether a superb addition to any popular science library, and you don’t need to have any real interest in biology to get a lot of out. After all – there’s one topic that we’re all interested in, and that’s ourselves.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 15 July 2004

Constant Touch – John Agar *****

At first sight it might seem odd that this little book has been awarded our top, 5 star rating. A book about mobile phones? Not much science. Not all that exciting. But John Agar does all the right things. In a simply superb way he weaves together the technology, society, politics and business in a way that works wonderfully – and serves as a strong reminder that science never operates in a vacuum.
In this case, of course, it’s a remarkable technology, not so much from it’s scientific wonder as the speed with which it has become pervasive. Agar argues persuasively that the mobile (cell) phone wasn’t just technologically impossible 50 years ago, but sociologically as well.
He covers the phone’s introduction across the world, why the US lagged behind Europe in second generation phones and how mobile phones have even caused the overthrow of a dictator. Agar conjures up a parallel between the mobile phone and the pocket watch as a portable technology that changes our lives, though there are also strong links made with the automobile industry.
The only glaring omission is that there is no mention of the phone’s capability to act as a portable payment device. About ten years ago, the town of Swindon in the UK was home to a fascinating experiment called Mondex, where plastic cards replaced cash. Although a lot of people never really got the hang of it, those who really got into Mondex found a huge freedom from not having to fiddle around with change, drive to cash machines, and generally handle filthy lucre for transactions too small for a credit or debit card. Mobile phones could provide all of us with instant electronic payment, with the cash coming off your phone credits – but Agar doesn’t seem to have come across this concept.
Don’t let that put you off, though. It’s simply a great little book – as with many of the Icon science books it is very short, but this is an exception where that shortness never comes across as oversimplification.
Excellent.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 12 July 2004

The Mould in Dr Florey’s Coat – Eric Lax ****

The intriguingly enigmatic title of this book on the development of penicillin conceals two fascinating facts. The first is Dr Florey himself. For pretty well everyone, the name associated with penicillin’s use as an antibiotic is Alexander Fleming. While Fleming does feature in this book, it’s Florey, a practically unknown name in the wider world, who is the star.
Fleming was the first to notice the anti-bacterial action of penicillin, but it took the Australian Rhodes scholar and later professor of pathology at Oxford University, Howard Florey, along with co-workers, Norman Heatley (whose practical ideas made the isolation of the active material possible) and Ernst Chain, to turn it into a practical medical weapon.
The other intriguing surprise is the coat. Apparently there was concern that Florey’s work, peaking as it did during the second world war, would be captured by invading Germans. Heatley had the idea of rubbing the penicillin mould into the four key workers lab coats, so all evidence of their work could be destroyed in the event of an invasion without losing their anti-bacterial agent.
Lax writes confidently and dives into fascinating detail of the individuals involved. Fleming emerges as a quiet-spoken but quirky individual (he delighted in creating images out of the bacteria he was growing on agar plates by arranging the initial colonies so that they would grow to form a recognisable coloured picture). Florey, despite being described as having some bluff colonial traits, comes across as a very cold man, hardly ever addressing anyone by their first name, and mostly seeming to communicate with his wife through notes. Heatley, who has been practically ignored elsewhere, is recognized at last as an essential contributor to the effort.
This is a well crafted and enjoyably paced scientific biography. As if often the case with a medical or technological breakthrough, the science itself isn’t particularly thrilling – and Lax’s expertise is very much as biographer rather than in explaining any complexities of the biology – but the implications for us all certainly make this a significant book.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 6 July 2004

Einstein’s Refrigerator [A Matter of Degrees] – Gino Segre *****

Not to be confused with Steve Silverman’s book of the same name (at least, the same name as the UK version), this is an enjoyable meander through much of science using the linking theme of temperature, of heat and of cold.
The only slight concern about this approach is that, while Segre is excellent on his linking theme, some of the little sidelines are too short to give a full picture. For example, when exploring the measurement of temperature he puts the development of the thermometer alongside the invention of the telescope and the microscope. This is handed to Lippershey and his contemporaries, but ignores the near certain earilier development of a hybrid reflector by the Elizabethan Digges family. Similarly, Fred Hoyle gets no mention as 20th century champion of life from space.
But this concern aside (and in the end these side-references are only the garnish, not the main dish), it’s a lovely book. Starting with body heat and its implications, humanities attempts to measure temperature (a relatively modern concept), heat and cold on the earth and in the universe, the remarkable science of the extremes of temperature and much more.
All this is done in a chatty, informal way, yet without talking down to the reader. Segre is that rare find, a scientist who can make science accessible. He calls science his ‘family business’ – one of his uncles was a Nobel laureate – and it’s a business he clearly delights in.
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Review by Brian Clegg