Monday, 30 August 2004

The Blind Watchmaker – Richard Dawkins ****

This is a superb answer to the old statement by Paley that (to paraphrase) he isn’t surprised when he finds a stone on the beach, but if he finds a watch on the beach then he reasonably deduces the existence of a watchmaker, because simple natural processes aren’t going to knock naturally available components into a functioning watch. That being the case, the argument goes, our own existence proves that there is a creator.
As Dawkins shows, this simply isn’t true. The assumption can only be made in ignorance of the sheer timescale available to evolutionary forces, and that small changes that do occur naturally can, over many generations, result in the development of something complex, provided those changes are advantageous.
Dawkins also superbly demolishes the “a partial eye is no use” argument that says we would never end up with eyes because all the intermediate steps don’t have value. It’s simply not true. There are plenty of creatures out there with almost every intermediate stage of eye. For that matter, if the eye was truly designed it has some very strange design faults, that seem natural in an evolutionary development, but not otherwise.
This is such an important book that it’s surprising in doesn’t have the full five stars – unfortunately, while the arguments are superb, there are some aspects of Dawkins himself that come through that make it a less than perfect book. Firstly there’s the aggressive style. At one point he moans about how the media, at every opportunity, lay into neo-Darwinists like him if there’s any sign of dissent. Can’t he see this is because they write the most unprofessional books? A cosmologist might write a book that challenges someone’s religious beliefs, but he would do so in a purely scientific fashion. The biologists (and Dawkins isn’t the worst) seem to delight in upsetting others by not just putting forward the facts but openly attacking religious beliefs in what is supposed to be a scientific book. They also attack each other – now all scientists do this, but other disciplines have less of a tendency to go for the jugular in such an unpleasant way.
The other problem is Dawkins’ writing style is a little old fashioned and pompous (you just know even before he does it that he is going to refer to pop music as ‘popular music’, including those quote marks. Some of the chapters are skip-makingly tedious, while others are a delight to read – he really would have done better with a co-author. Even so, this doesn’t take away the significance of the message – it’s just a shame that the way it’s done will put off those who could benefit most from it.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 28 August 2004

After the Ice: A global human history 20,000 to 5,000 BC – Steven Mithen ****

If the sole determining quality of a book was scope, this would come top of the charts – it attempts to take in the whole world between the end of the ice age and the neolithic. It’s a noble attempt and in many ways very successful. (That sounds like a sentence that is going to be followed by a “but” – and there is a “but” later on, but let’s concentrate on what’s in it and why it’s good first.)
First, though, we do need to ask “why is this book here (on the Popular Science site) at all?” It is an archaeological history, and though archaeology is a scientific discipline, it is not normally classified as science – in fact the publisher’s classification on the back of the book describes it as history. Yet it has a lot to say about the origins of modern man, and as such we can probably classify it under our “human science” biological categorization – I can only assume that’s why it got listed for the Aventis Prize. If it hadn’t, it wouldn’t have appeared here, which would have been a shame because it’s a book that will stay with me for a long time.
The cunning trick Steven Mithen uses to take us into the post ice-age world, is to put a virtual observer, John Lubbock (named after a Victorian writer on the subject), who experiences first hand what is going on at prehistoric sites at the time they were occupied. Then Mithen pulls back from Lubbock’s “experience” and tells us about the actual finds that it is based on. This works marvellously well, rather like a reconstructional TV documentary like Walking with Dinosaurs, without anywhere as much of the guesswork presented as fact in those shows. Occasionally Mithen varies the technique, at one point bringing Lubbock forward to the 1970s to witness a particular discovery being made.
The only problem with this approach is that Lubbock’s nature varies. He appears to be human and corporeal – he eats – and he takes part in helping the people of the period, yet it said elsewhere that he can’t be seen. Despite his apparent humanity, at one point he stands in one place for 1,000 years. Now Mithen might argue it doesn’t matter what Lubbock does, it’s a fictional concept. Lubbock travels backwards and forwards in time, for goodness sake. But once you give flesh to a character like this, the reader has every right to expect some consistency, and to be thrown by the opposite. Perhaps Lubbock should have been a robot, like Marvin in Hitchiker’s Guide, who at one point stays in the same place for millions of years.
The other problem with the book as a whole is that it’s so long! There are 511 pages in smallish print before reaching the notes. Just occasionally you feel, like Lubbock, that you seem to have been in there for a thousand years. Especially as, after a while, it all gets rather the same. And sometimes you want to know what happened after. It might not have done what Mithen inteded, but it would have made a more readable book if he had concentrated on two or three areas, and followed through all of prehistory, stopping at the point recorded history was available for that area.
The length doesn’t stop it being a magnificent work, though – and that it certainly is.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 24 August 2004

Sync: the emerging science of spontaneous order – Steven Strogatz ****

Every now and then I read a book written by a real scientist that makes me think “Wow! I remember why I wanted to work in science when I was at university.” This is one of them. Like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time it is a fascinating insight into the mind of a working scientist and mathematician, and that makes it a treasure.
In essence, the question Sync explores is “why (and how) do things synchronize?” Why do fireflies in some parts of the world flash in unison? How do the cells that control the rate of the heart work together? Why did the millennium bridge go all wobbly? What is a Josephson junction, and what does it show us about synchronization? What is happening when we talk about six degrees of separation or a [Kevin] Bacon number?
One of the great things about the book is its diversity. At times you will be in the lab with the author, seeing how a fundamental new piece of research got started. At others you will be looking with him at something completely different, like the moment when the then graduate student Brian Josephson stood up to a Nobel laureate and challenged him to think differently. [Strogatz has to be warmly applauded for remembering that Josephson has a remarkable mind - most of the scientific community has written Josephson off, despite his Nobel prize, for daring to consider possibilities that most scientists dismiss without thinking about. Josephson may not be right, but the attitude of his peers has been appalling.]
It’s interesting to compare this book with another recent title, Critical Mass by Philip Ball. Although on a different topic, there is strong overlap between the two books, and each is covering a broad-spanning (if rather diffuse) concept that pulls together a wide range of fields. Frankly, this book is streets ahead of Ball’s. Firstly it is concise – Strogatz does not fall for the lure of bloat. His book is half the length of Ball’s and has more content. Secondly it’s more of a popular science book, even though Strogatz has less writing credentials. This is because you get a much better feel for people – not just the people directly involved with Strogatz – in Sync.
Sync comes within a whisker of our coveted 5 stars. There are only a couple of small reasons it doesn’t quite make it. One is the topic itself – like many cross-functional topics, it is difficult to pin down. It’s harder to see the point of it than many scientific subjects. It’s not that there aren’t applications, but it still feels very diffuse. The second reason is that, though Strogatz does a good job, it is obvious he isn’t a professional writer. His analogies are sometimes quite hard to follow and his explanations of the more complex aspects of the theory not entirely satisfying.
This isn’t to say Strogatz is a bad writer. He comes into his own, strangely, when he’s off the technical (of course, making the technical accessible is the hardest part of popular science writing). When he’s dealing with anecdotes or a non technical discussion like that on six degrees of separation he’s brilliant. Perhaps the most obvious parallel is with Richard Feynman’s combination of (occasionally impenetrable but always exciting) technical excellence and ability to tell a story – and that can’t be bad!
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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 2 August 2004

The Autobiography – Charles Darwin ****

I have to confess to putting off reading this book until the last moment, as I expected it to be a typical piece of Victorian sentimental unreadable stodge. I was wrong.
Darwin’s little book (only 150 small pages with appendices) was originally written for his own children, and displays a very personal style of writing – though, as son Francis comments, his style was always more populist than was common then: “In writing he sometimes showed the same strong tendency to strong expressions that he did in conversation. Thus in the Origin, p440, there is a description of a larvel [sic] cirripede ‘with six pairs of beautifully constructed natatory legs, a pair of magnificent compound eyes and extremely complex antennae’. We used to laugh at him for this sentence, which we compared to an advertisement.”
The main book is delightful because it demonstrates Darwin’s self-depreciating modesty, and the fascinating path he took from enthusiastic shooter of game, to amateur geologist (still his main interest when he set out on the Beagle) and self-taught naturalist. He does not describe the voyage of the Beagle at all, leaving that to his published journal, but does describe how, on his return he attempted to apply the scientific rigour of Lyell in geology and Francis Bacon’s concept of collecting all the facts together without hypothesis before going any further, in the process of coming to his ideas on natural selection and evolution.
The main text is supported ably by a pair of appendices added by Francis (or Frank, as Darwin refers to him). The first is Francis’ recollections of life with Darwin, what Darwin was like (he as described as being so ruddy in the face that people thought him very healthy when he wasn’t), and what his days at Down involved.
The second appendix is equally fascinating as it deals with Darwin’s religious beliefs, which have been much misreported, and were important given the on-going clash between some churchgoers and those who support evolution. Early on Darwin was a Christian, but he ended up, in his own words, not an atheist but an agnostic. He says that he could not believe in a revealed religion like Christianity, but that religious beliefs were in no way incompatible with evolutionary theory – there was only a problem if you believed in direct divine design. He seemed to base his agnosticism more on the existence of human suffering than anything deduced from evolution – so creationists, please leave off!
All in all, a pleasant surprise.
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Review by Jo Reed