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Showing posts from 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 stag…

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 sha…

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…

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 mai…