Thursday, 30 September 2004

Genius: the life and science of Richard Feynman – James Gleick ****

Richard Feynman was both one of the greatest scientists of the twentieth century (what the heck, one of the greatest scientists ever!) and was also a complex and not always likeable character.
This fat biography isn’t Gleick’s best book, but it does make a better job of integrating the story of Feyman’s life and scientific work than the competing volume by John and Mary Gribbin which tends to alternate chunks of history and chunks of science. Gleick makes you work harder to understand what’s going on, but on the whole it’s worth the work.
He’s less successful when he gets all philosophical – for instance the rather tedious section where he tries to analyse genius. (He will also get up the nose of plenty of readers by dismissing, for instance, Mozart’s genius. I’m not that fond of Mozart’s music myself, but can’t fail to recognise the genius of someone who could go to the Sistine Chapel and hear Allegri’s amazing Miserere (the chapel choir’s secret weapon at the time) once, then write it down later note perfect. Gleick misses the point that the man’s genius was about more than knocking up a good tune which might later fall out of fashion. But this book isn’t about music, so enough said.
What comes across superbly in this book is something that hasn’t really been shown in any of the other Feynman books we’ve covered – a real feeling for the slow (and sometimes frustrating) build of a theory, rather than being presented whole and complete.
As was the case with Gleick’s biography of Newton, this book really isn’t enough on its own. It’s well worth coupling it with at the very least Feyman’s superb tales (well improved though they may be in) in Surely You Must be Joking Mr Feynman – and if you’re feeling brave also Feynman’s book QED that will really explain one aspect of the science that Gleick can only hint at. It may also be worth reading the Gribbin book to get a rounder picture, but if you are only going to read one popular science biography of Feynman, this is the one.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 29 September 2004

Aspirin: The Remarkable Story of a Wonder Drug – Diarmuid Jeffreys ****

Sometimes the subject of a popular science book is obvious – a topic like the human genome or the big bang leaps out as something we will want to know about. But every now and then a book comes along on a topic that really isn’t something you’ve ever thought about, yet the treatment makes it fascinating. That’s the case with this book – which in one way is a shame, because it may not rush off the shelf. Who wants to read a book about aspirin, you might think. Answer: you do, it’s great!
Like all the best popular science, this isn’t so much a book about aspirin as a book about the people that made aspirin possible, the circumstances that led to aspirin and a whole lot of associated stuff that’s just fascinating. Along the way you will meet an Oxfordshire parson chewing tree bark (life can be quite boring in Oxfordshire) and a gifted New Zealander who brought modern advertising zest to selling aspirin, first in Australia, then around the world.
Some of the most fascinating aspects of the story aren’t about aspirin itself. It’s finding out that heroin was a trademark of the same company that named aspirin (and heroin was intended to be a cough medicine, safe even for infants), or the origins of some of the great contenders to the aspirin throne like paracetamol (acetaminophen) and ibruprufen.
At the heart of the book, though is aspirin’s rise and rise, from being seen as a cheap alternative to quinine, through its heyday as a painkiller to its modern use in countering heart disease.
Jeffreys gets the balance just right. You find out about the business struggles amongst the early pharmaceutical companies (when aspirin was first manufactured they hardly existed), about the scientific breakthroughs and the medical surprises. His style is enjoyable, the book a triumph on a subject that few would think worthy of covering.
Good stuff indeed. Don’t you feel the need to take an Aspirin (or at least to read one)?
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Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 25 September 2004

Electric Universe – David Bodanis ****

We need to admit straight up that the four star rating is a bit of a fudge. This is both a three star book and a five star book!
If we had a category for teen readers it would make five stars. As an adult book, it would only get three. Outcome – the fudged four.
The book is about electricity in various different forms and manifestations, with all kinds of ventures off into interesting snippets and side alleys.
Why’s it a great teen book? Because it communicates great enthusiasm for the subject. It really does make an exciting, page turning read. It never dives into any technical complication, it brings in fascinating characters and the presentation is high energy all the way. In fact it’s a natural successor to the best of the Horrid Science books and the like that we recommend in our children’s section for up to thirteen/fourteen-year-olds.
Why the hesitation for adults? There have been too many compromises made in order to give it that oomph. It’s more like the taster provided by a TV show than a good popular science book – it’s just too shallow. That energy is conveyed in an exhausting barrage of superlatives and emphatic words. Electric current doesn’t flow, it rushes, roars, rampages and generally thunders along the wire. The same problem applies to the people – the biographical sketches lack the depth of characterisation we expect in an adult book. Sometimes the simplicity is revealing; at other times it’s misleading. For instance Edison is wholly credited with the electric light bulb with no mention of the fact that Swann’s getting there first was proved in court when Edison sued Swann for breach of patent and ended up having to give Swann half his company.
The book is divided into five main parts that portray electricity through wires (around telegraphs, telephone and mains electricity), waves (Faraday’s work and jokily back to the telegraph for under the waves in the amazing transatlantic cable), wireless “electricity” (i.e. electromagnetism, and specifically radar), computing and the transistor, and bioelectricity. Each of these parts has fascinating insights and revelations to intrigue. The radar section was particularly enticing in its portrayal of a remarkable raid on a German radar station to discover how their version of the technology worked.
Some concerns remain. Bodanis tells us that there was no electronics before the transistor (many pages later he mentions valves, but only as a half way house) – that’s verging on lying to make a point. Valves are electronic devices. What he really means is that electronics had to be solid state to change the world, but that’s not the same thing. And the emphasis given to the electric field, while useful to counteract its frequent absence from simple descriptions, goes too far in the way it totally dominates. These concerns are real, but shouldn’t obscure the fact that this is a superbly approachable book.
It’s great, then, for younger readers – but it could have retained the energy and enthusiasm for the teens while also appealing more to discerning adults if Bodanis hadn’t doubted the ability of his readers to cope with a little more depth.
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Review by Brian Clegg