Sunday, 24 October 2004

Brainwashing – Kathleen Taylor ****

Here we see a prime example of that rarest of species – a book that is both academic and readable. It makes no concessions on content, yet Kathleen Taylor writes well enough to keep the attention of the interested lay person.
The topic is a controversial one. “Does brainwashing even exist?” is a legitimate question – but you’ll have to read the book to find the answer.
This isn’t a “true crimes”, “revel in real human horror stories” type book, but the first section does contain a few rather unsettling case studies as it reveals examples that could be labelled brainwashing. Taylor is catholic in her coverage, though – as well as explicit attempts to brainwash by totalitarian military regimes you will find religious cults, advertising and even the apparently innocent activity of education.
The book is in three sections. The first examines the different activities that could be and/or are described as brainwashing, the second examines the brain itself, its surprising fluidity and the different activities and mechanisms that could be the subject of attempts at thought control, and the final section looks at the possible future developments in brainwashing, and whether it is possible to have strategies for resistance.
Few criticisms can be raised here. Surprisingly, one of these might be that Taylor is too scrupulously fair – so a lot of statements are bordered around by qualifications and “excepts” and “despites”, which is honest but breaks up the flow of a good read. It’s also a long book – only around 300 pages, but of tight-packed, smallish text – and for the lay reader she probably goes into too much detail on the workings of the brain. That’s really all that comes between this book and a five star rating.
One of the best things about reading Brainwashing is Taylor’s light touch with language – she really does write as if a real person is sharing with you something that fascinates her, and she knows you will be interested in too. It’s a delight. Also Taylor is quite happy to take on some heavyweights for their oversimplifying – you might even say brainwashing – approach in putting across a scientific message. So for example, she points out how Richard Dawkins and Susan Blackmore misinterpret the idea of faith by associating its dangers with religion, thus blundering into blaming religion for most of the world’s woes without considering how totally religion-free inter-human disasters from the Chinese cultural revolution to Nazi Germany have been even more destructive. Taylor isn’t supporting religion, but rather pointing out the over-dependence on simplistic views that is a common feature of brainwashing, and that is being incorrectly used to put down religion here – her standpoint should be obvious, but it takes guts to oppose names like Dawkins and Blackmore.
Altogether a thoughtful, insightful and thoroughly well-written book on a subject that is often mentioned but rarely understood.
Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 15 October 2004

In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat – John Gribbin *****

This has to be one of John Gribbin’s best pure science (as opposed to science/biography) books, and has stood the test of time surprisingly well since being written in 1984. Although some of the implications and developments of quantum theory, notably quantum entanglement, have moved on a lot in more recent years, the basics of quantum theory, which this book covers, still apply, as does the historical context which Gribbin does well here.
The cat in question is the one used by German physicist Erwin Schrödinger as an illustration of just how strange (and unlikely) the whole idea of quantum theory was. Because of the way quantum particles that can be in two states simultaneously until they are observed and randomly become one or the other, Schrödinger envisaged a cat in a box that would live or die dependent on a random quantum event. The suggestion was that, until the box was opened, the cat would be both dead and alive at the same time.
It’s probably the best known image from the quantum world, which is rather a pity, as it was intended to demonstrate the inadequacy of the theory, but in practice misrepresents it at anything more than a trivial level. Though there may be arguments about the workings and interpretation of quantum theory, it stubbornly refuses to be dismissed, matching observed effects with impressive consistency.
Quantum theory isn’t easy to explain in a way that is accessible to any reader, and Gribbin isn’t always the world’s best populariser because he does have a tendency to descend into supposedly helpful examples that can be rather baffling, but this book general avoids that trap remains one of the best attempts at getting across the whole astounding business. Liable to leave your head spinning, but that’s not a bad thing.
It might seem a rather petty complaint, but the Black Swan (UK) paperback reviewed was physically decidely poor – coarse paper and printing (with too little space between the lines of text) – it doesn’t change the content, but does detract something from the reading experience!
Gribbin wrote a sequel, Schrödinger’s Kittens, in 1994 which attempts to bring the picture up-to-date. This is rather less successful, in part as up-to-dateness doesn’t last, and in part because it’s not so well structured. Still some interesting points, though.
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 5 October 2004

The Third Man of the Double Helix – Maurice Wilkins ****

This is a stunningly powerful insight into the workings of real science, and particularly of the discovery of the structure of DNA – the only reason it doesn’t have our ultimate five star accolade is that Wilkins is at best a pedestrian writer, and would have benefited hugely from a co-author.
If you ignore the preface, the worst written part of the book, and skip quickly through Wilkins early life, which has little in the way of useful insights and has all the stilted lack of humanity of a 1950s newsreel (for example “Their gramophone filled their home with humorous songs, such as George Formby, with his banjo, singing (with amusing innuendo) When I’m Cleaning Windows.”), you have a chance to see the very gradual, mistake-ridden, back-biting ride that is the reality of scientific discovery.
Inevitably most fascinating is the relationship between Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin, the less lionised half of the DNA quartet. Mention the discovery of the structure of DNA and two names immediately spring to mind – Crick and Watson. This is forgetting (hence the title of the book) the fact that Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize, and made the essential that would lead to that famous double helix first.
After Crick and Watson, the next name likely to occur to anyone is that Rosalind Franklin. She has in recent years been picked out as the victim of the male-dominated world’s attempts to suppress the work of a female scientist. As Wilkins says himself: “one side effect was that Rosalind’s male colleagues were to some extent demonised.” It certainly is unfortunate that the Nobel rules only allow a maximum of three recipients for the prize – showing it to be totally out-of-date when applied to modern science – and Franklin would have made a worthy fourth, but it seems quite likely that fourth is the correct position to put her in, and given the rules there was little other choice.
Wilkins’ book exposes a flawed three-way relationship that almost inevitably brought about confusion and resentment. Wilkins’ boss, Professor John Randall loomed over much of his career, helping Wilkins ahead, but at the same time often seeming jealous of any possibility that Wilkins could succeed independently. When Randall brought Franklin in, he told her that Wilkins was going to stop X-ray diffraction work (X-ray photography was Franklin’s speciality) and go back to using microscopes – only no one seems to have told Wilkins this. This set Wilkins and Franklin off on the wrong foot, as she felt that he was trespassing on her territory (never mind that he had made a significant discovery using X-rays before she even started work on DNA). Add to this Wilkins’ obvious difficulty with interacting with women and Franklin’s unusually strong sense of individual ownership in what should have been a shared project and the inevitable outcome was a human conflict that makes the story of DNA so much more entertaining and gripping.
We’ve had this story from about every direction now. It’s good that Maurice Wilkins has weighed in with his version, if only to balance the one-sidedness of some of the books that take Rosalind Franklin’s side. As much as Feynman writing about the atomic bomb project, this is an essential piece of first person observation from the heart of one of the greatest scientific discoveries ever. Hopefully it’s less fictional than Feynman’s tales, even if lacking his prose style – either way it is history from the coal face.
Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 1 October 2004

Big Bang – Simon Singh *****

The cover of this big book is rather disconcerting. It looks like a pack of washing powder. And like all the best washing powder, it is splashed with a remarkable claim: “The most important scientific discovery of all time and why you need to know about it.”
All I can say about that is don’t be put off by it! It’s very hard to see anything in cosmology could ever be “the most important discovery”, as to be honest it’s not going to do an awful lot to change anyone’s life. It may well be the most fundamental discovery – and it’s certainly one of the most fascinating, but surely not most important. And for that matter, do we really need to know about it? Well, no. But that’s not the point of popular science. It’s about the delight of discovery, the wonder of a very wonderful universe – in terms of need-to-know it’s in the “doesn’t amount to a hill of beans” class.
HOWEVER this is all the packaging, and I stress that you shouldn’t let it put you off the contents, because this is one of the best popular science books of the year. It’s page-turning readable, it’s enjoyable and it is pitched just right to provide plenty of knowledge and that essential wonder without baffling. Simon Singh has confirmed his position as one of the top science popularisers alive.
The aim of the book is to help us understand what the Big Bang is all about. Singh takes the reader back to the earliest theories of the universe and gradually builds to the present day with plenty of enjoyable excursions. Just occasionally the historical ventures don’t feel quite right – Galileo, for instance, is so well documented that a pocket biography feels uncomfortably restrictive and there’s something odd about the description of how Einstein came to conceive of Special Relativity, but these are tiny niggles. It looks like it’s going to be too long as well, but this is an illusion. They’ve used quite big print, unusually well spaced, perhaps because a “big” subject needed a big book or even (God help us) because the success of Bryson’s doorstop of a book has started a trend towards big fat popular science.
It’s a delight to find out more about the renegade cosmologist Fred Hoyle, both as a person and as a genius. Hoyle’s outspoken views (a Yorkshireman – need we say more) and refreshing tendency to come out with original and exciting ideas without too much concern about whether or not they are right have tended to obscure what a big contribution he made to the understanding of stellar formation of the elements and cosmology, despite backing the wrong horse on the Big Bang versus Steady State controversy.
Singh leads us beautifully through the Big Bang’s transit from vague theory to one that was almost universally (sorry) accepted, finishing with the impact of the cosmic background radiation studies, particularly the results from the COBE satellite. The supporters of the alternative Steady State theory would throw up one last alternative, but there was little enthusiasm for it: Big Bang had won.
One last thought – if you’re reading it in public, you might like to reassure everyone in a loud voice “it’s about the origin of the universe” – or the title might make them suspect you of reading something a little less salubrious. But whatever you do, read it – this is a great popular science book from a master of the craft. If it whets your appetite and you want to read further on the origins of the universe and matter, consider going on to Marcus Chown’s excellent cosmological duo, Afterglow of Creation and the Magic Furnace.
Review by Brian Clegg

Magic Universe – Nigel Calder ****

On the whole we haven’t much time for big, fat, everything you ever wanted to know about science in alphabetical order books. A dictionary or encyclopaedia of science may be useful, but it’s hard to see it as popular science.
Nigel Calder’s book is quite different. Admittedly, it does still have a structure that’s based on the alphabetic order of the articles, but that apart each is readable in its own right, providing an engaging and enthusiastic introduction to that particular topic. You might have to be an übergeek to sit in bed and read an encyclopaedia article each night, but it would be very easy to use these as effective bedtime stories for adults, or something to take in on the train to work (provided your wrists can cope with the hefty 756 pages – seriously this is a heavy book, even in the paperback version).
Wherever you look there’s something that little bit different. The entry on the The Big Bang, for instance, begins with a comment from the late science fiction writer Douglas Adams on Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto number 3. Why? You’ll have to read it to find out. Dipping in randomly I can see articles on Biodiversity, DNA Fingerprinting, Hopeful Monsters, Prions, Speech and Starbursts. Where to start? It might be dull, but why not at the beginning.
Whether you are a total beginner to the science business or a season reader of popular science, you’ll find something to interest you here. Calder has done an impossibly good job in undertaking the impossible task of surveying modern science. The only reason it doesn’t get the full five stars is that its very nature makes it too long and lacking in flow to be a real popular science book. However, for anyone with an interest in science who perhaps wants some ideas on new directions to read more deeply, it’s a great primer. There’s a lot to be said for a book that eases you into areas you don’t normally bother with. And whatever your interest or expertise, the breadth of content of this book pretty well guarantees you’ll get some enjoyable surprises.
Review by Brian Clegg