Friday, 9 December 2005

Q&A: Cosmic Conundrums and Everyday Mysteries of Science – Robert Matthews *****

This is a little cracker – not what you’d call heavy duty popular science, but a wonderful bit of light reading that throws in some genuinely fascinating facts.
This is what you could call Last Word Lite. New Scientist magazine has for a number of years had a Last Word page at the back where individuals write in with questions and readers come up with sensible answers. (Though they’ve always resisted our half-humorous question, if black is defined by a lack of reflection of any colour, what colour is shiny black.) The trouble with Last Word is that the answers tend to be a touch tedious, not generally being written by professional writers, and can be over-technical. Robert Matthews does the same job, but his responses are pithy, light and enjoyable.
The book is divided into a number of sections, but to be honest they don’t make much difference. Each is just packed with those sort of questions that we all ask ourselves, but lacking the straightforwardness of children, we don’t actually bother to say aloud. Many that have occurred to me over the years – why don’t mosquitoes spread HIV/AIDS and why don’t people get injured when idiots fire guns into the air (they do) for instance – are in there, along with many others that I’m sure I would have thought of at some point. Sometimes the answer is “we don’t really know”, but often Matthews can bring a light and effective insight to play.
Just occasionally the questions seem a bit hackneyed or childish (how do they get the stripes into toothpaste?) – but I’m pretty sure anyone will find plenty to surprise here. For the know-it-all, there will be some distinct surprises. Bicycles probably don’t stay up the way you thought they did, and those of us who have always impressed people by telling them that glass is really a very stiff liquid, and so old glass tends to be thicker at the bottom, need to think again. Apparently it would take 10 million years for a window pane to get 5% thicker at the base, and the effect we see in old glass is just because medieval glaziers used to put the unevenly manufactured glass of the day thick end down (it makes sense). Oh and Eskimos/Inuit don’t have lots of words for different types of snow, it’s a myth. Sigh.
If there is any complaint about this book, it’s just that the format of lots of little question and answer sections, typically ranging from half a page to a page in length, doesn’t make for an entirely smooth read – it could get rather irritating after a while. However this makes it even better as a dip-in book (dare we say it’s a great one to keep in the bathroom), and most of the content is so fascinating that it’s hard to stop reading once you start. Excellent stuff.
Review by Martin O'Brien

Thursday, 8 December 2005

The Little Book of Scientific Principles, Theories & Things – Surendra Verma *****

This is an absolutely delightful little book. (I say “little” largely because that’s what the title says. It’s as wide as any normal paperback, and not overly slim at 222 pages. It’s just a little vertically challenged. The idea is simple, but effective. It contains 175 theories or key principles in science. Each gets one (or occasionally two) pages, stating what it is and giving some background.
Put as bluntly as that, it doesn’t sound very exciting – but Surendra Verma makes each little section a vignette that brightly illuminates both the idea itself and the people who were responsible for it. We get little glimpses into people’s lives – it’s an entertaining scientific peepshow that works wonderfully well.
At first sight, some of the entries are a bit scary. Unlike Stephen Hawking, Verma takes no notice of the infamous advice that every equation halves the numbers of readers. The introduction to each section, which says what the principle is before going on to put it in context and explain it, quite often does contain an equation or two. But this really shouldn’t put anyone off – there’s no need to understand what’s going on, and for those who want a little more depth it’s very useful.
The different topics come in chronological order. Many are familiar, but every now and then there’s a total left fielder that takes the reader by surprise. Although the book doesn’t read through with any continuity, it’s not just a dip-in book (though it works nicely this way), it’s easy to keep reading just one more… and just one more… and suddenly a half hour has passed by.
Occasionally the need to fit into a small space does compromise the value of the information. Take Galois’ Theory. It is described as “The study of solutions of some equations and how different solutions are related to each other”, which is so vague it could just as easily be a definition of algebra. We’re told it’s a brilliant and complex theory, and that it can be used to solve classical mathematical problems like “Which regular polygons can be constructed by ruler and compass?” (now there’s a problem we all meet every day), but unfortunately because Galois himself has such a dramatic story, the rest of the page is taken up with his (short) life, and we never really find out what his theory is, or what it can do that makes it worth including in the list. This is a rarity, though – most of the entries are concise, useful and easy to follow. (A couple don’t quite hit the mark. When describing Young’s work on light, Verma says that according to quantum theory, light is “transported in photons that are guided along their paths by waves”, which sounds more like the outdated pilot wave theory than modern quantum theory. But again, such moments are in the minority.)
I really do recommend buying this book and launching yourself into a sea of scientific wonder. Sometimes you will discover discredited ideas, like Lamarck’s theories of heredity, or Ptolemy’s earth-centred universe. At other times, you might find memories from school stimulated, as you revisit Boyle’s law or Newton’s laws of motion. Or you could come across something fresh and delightful (only you can say which these will be, but there are going to be some). This is a book that would be great for anyone studying science at school, to give some enjoyable background to what can be a boring procession of facts and figures, but equally it will provide amusement and entertainment for anyone with an interest in science. You won’t always agree with the choice of content – but that’s always part of the delight of such lists. Enjoy.
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 22 November 2005

The Double Helix – James D. Watson *****

This is the daddy of them all. There have been attempts at popularising science for many a year, but James Watson’s very personal account of the discovery of the structure of DNA started the trend for popular science bestsellers, books on science that would be read by “ordinary people” not just science enthusiasts.
In some quarters it is popular to denigrate Watson’s book – but this entirely misses the point. Yes it has sexist elements, yes it supports a particular version of history that puts a Watson and Crick’s efforts in a good light – but that’s hardly surprising given that it was written in the 1950s by one of the protagonists.
But if you can see past the inevitable fact that the book doesn’t have a 21st century outlook, it’s wonderful. Firstly, it really doesn’t show its age, thanks to Watson’s excellent, personal narrative style, featuring none of the stiffness of most of the writing of the period. Secondly, Watson may give us a biased picture, but it gives a feel for the reality of scientific endeavour, as opposed to the glossy Hollywood view. Thirdly, Watson is honest about his relative ignorance of much of science, and a certain laziness in not wanting to put too much effort into reading things up that will reassure and delight anyone who enjoys science but finds some of the detailed work boring. Scientists in Watson’s world – including himself – aren’t geniuses who immediately understand what other scientists are saying. Instead they have very limited understanding outside their own little sphere of knowledge. Finally, Watson doesn’t stint from giving us some detail that a modern popularizer would shy away from. The information on molecular structures might be too much for some readers, but it’s easy enough to skip over without losing the flow.
Perhaps the biggest potential criticism of the book is over Watson’s treatment of the crystalographer Rosalind Franklin, whose case for being more prominent in the discovery of DNA has been well argued and is generally taken for granted today. (Franklin didn’t share in the Nobel Prize, which some complain about, but to be fair it was awarded after her death, and the Nobel Prize is never awarded posthumously.) It’s certainly true that Watson is, for most of the book, patronising towards Franklin, and he plays down the rather dubious way the Cambridge team obtained her X-ray photographs that would inspire them to come up with the familiar double helix structure. Nonetheless, it would be revisionist not to accept that Franklin was a prickly character and difficult to work with – very probably because of the way women were treated at the time – and Watson’s response to her was unfortunate but honest. He does at the end of the book, written a few years later after Franklin’s death, reassess her contribution and paints a more positive picture of her work.
Overall, though this is a gem of a popular science book that has stayed in print for many years for a reason. It’s a great read, plain and simple.
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 15 November 2005

Why the Toast Always Lands Butter Side Down – Richard Robinson ****

Richard Robinson’s delightful book is an exploration of the science behind Murphy’s Law (the truism that can be roughly stated as “if something can go wrong, it will”) – not just the simple probability tricks that fool our brains with such consistency – if we were any good at probabilities, there wouldn’t be a casino business – but also the many ways our brains can fool us.
Robinson begins by giving a little background to the brain itself, then moves onto our interactions with the world, and the misunderstandings that arise from them. We learn, for example, the way our eyes (and other senses) can so easily be fooled. Robinson misses one trick when talking about the way the moon appears so much bigger in the “real world” than it does on a photograph – the most amazing fact here is just how small the apparent size of the moon really is, about the same as the hole in a piece of punched paper, held at arms length (if you don’t believe it, try looking through such a hole at the moon) – but he still manages to point out just how easy our senses are to fool (and hence, sadly, why eye witnesses and anecdotes are pretty useless for either testimony in court, or scientific proof).
After taking on the senses, Robinson takes us through the faulty interference of memory, the way our natural tendency to look for patterns and connections can result in misunderstanding and “naive science”, often suggesting causality that doesn’t exist, emotional distortion (rather too much on this) and the impact of social context (it’s all “their” fault), which section would have been better if it didn’t perpetuate Richard Dawkins’ meme concept, popular with the general public, but largely ignored in scientific circles. A final section considers the “pure science” of Murphy’s law – that’s to say the maths, physics and more that mean that things go wrong in the real world even without a misunderstanding from our brains – for example, busses really do tend to bunch up and travel in small packs. All this is helped along by short quotes that reflect Murphy’s law in the particular arena under consideration.
The whole thing is neatly illustrated with a series of cartoons by Kate Charlesworth. These are fun, though both the illustrations and some of Robinson’s wording make it difficult to decide whether this book is aimed at adults or older children – we think it’s a great crossover title that can be appreciated by both.
Incidentally, the book cover illustrates a small subsection of Murphy’s Law that deals with publishers – if you go through several versions of the jacket illustration, you will almost inevitably end up with the wrong one on Amazon – both the covers shown here are supposedly for the same physical book. Both are wrong. The real book actually most closely resembles the bigger version, but the cat has disappeared leaving only the toast (could there have been complaints from the animal rights lobby?)
Overall, entertaining and painlessly educational – what more can you ask of popular science – it’s great as a present, or as a refreshing read to take away the pain of a hard day at work.
Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 11 November 2005

The Single Helix – Steve Jones ****

If you talk to fiction publishers, you’d get the impression that no one likes short stories. Short story collections, it seems, just don’t sell. Yet you would think with today’s hectic lifestyle, that they’d be ideal. You can slip one in on the tube/metro/subway. You can fit one into your lunch break. Or maybe read a couple at bedtime. And unlike working through a small section of a novel, you have the reward of completion and closure. I find the public’s reluctance to read short stories odd – I love them.
Similarly, in non-fiction, and popular science in particular, there’s a certain wariness of collections of short pieces. When they’re written by different people, this wariness can be justified, but in a book like The Single Helix, where Steve Jones has collected short pieces he wrote for a newspaper, the effect is very pleasing. Each piece is short enough to fit into that frantic lifestyle. Although there’s inevitably a slight bias towards the biological side, Jones manages to cover a whole swathe of different aspects of science, and the relationship of science to society, in these hundred brief explorations.
This reviewer once had an argument with the publishing director of a UK publisher over the nature of popular science. I believe good popular science should work as bedtime reading, while she thought it had to be hard enough that the reader should be forced to pore over it and make notes in the hope of understanding it. In this instance, it’s very much my school of popular science – each piece is light, highly readable, and informative without being hard work.
Perhaps the only criticism is that the quality of the content varies. This is almost inevitable when writing a regular column – sometimes you struggle to come up with anything of great import. In some of the pieces, there’s not an awful lot of science. Many are well provided with fascinating facts, but some have a very small scientific hook that enables Jones to go off on a bit of a rant on a personal hot topic. Occasionally, too, the brevity of the piece makes it a little frustrating. In one, for example, we’re told that “a single chimp social group in West Africa contains as much genetic diversity as the whole human population.” It would be great to know how that diversity is expressed (call me apeist, but visually chimps seem much less diverse than humans – where are the red haired chimps?)
Another example of variability of content is in tone. Mostly, Jones has a wonderfully approachable, warm style that makes what he is saying ideal for his audience. Now and again, though – most obviously when he has a dig at poor old Prince Charles – that most evil of academic sins is in evidence. Just briefly, his tone suggest that he despises the common herd, and specifically those who dare to have any form of mystical or religious belief. There’s something about academia that makes professors and the like all too aware of their own sense of superiority. To be fair to Steve Jones, he rarely does allow this to come through, but there’s just the occasional slip. That shouldn’t put you off, though (and you may even enjoy the odd sly dig) – these are delicious little written canap├ęs of popular science, just waiting to be eagerly consumed.
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 7 November 2005

The Rocketbelt Caper – Paul Brown ****

There’s something hypnotically attractive about the concept of a rocketbelt – a device to enable an individual to fly through the air. This aspect of flying without a plane seems to tie directly into our dreams. (UK readers may be familiar with comedian Paul Merton’s occasional rant about his desire for a jetpack, one of the many alternative names for this unusual technology.)
In this book, Paul Brown brings the topic alive. It has to be one of the most readable science/technology focussed books of the year. Brown has an excellent journalistic style, and pulls the reader on relentlessly through the tales of technical inspiration and human weakness that litter the history of the rocketbelt.
Starting with its science fiction origins, we learn how a practical rocketbelt was first constructed, how the most famous appearance of a belt – in the James Bond movie Thunderball – was real, even though most moviegoers assumed it was pure special effects, and the convoluted history of the rocketbelts themselves. Almost uniquely, it is possible to chart the existence of every belt ever built – fewer than there were Apollo spacecraft. This is the irony of the rocketbelt. Though the idea was often originally sold as a commercial wonder – everyone flying around the place in rocketbelts – or as a military vehicle, in practice they have proved hugely expensive to build, difficult and dangerous to fly, and are limited to totally impractical flight times of 20 to 30 seconds. Even so, the few rocketbelts that have had a commercial career have made a lot of money, because they have been in high demand for public demonstrations and publicity stunts.
When the book is charting the rise of the rocketbelt and the lives of those involved with the technology, it is truly fascinating. Things only fall down a little when Brown takes us into the murkiest part of the rocketbelt’s history, involving fraud, theft, kidnapping and murder. It sounds a writer’s dream, the icing on the cake that will make the story even more attractive, but after a while, because the main characters in this aspect of the story seem so unpleasant and difficult to identify with, it actually detracts from the overall impact of the book, and it might have been better to have had less pages on this human tragedy that is interwoven with the history of one particular rocketbelt.
Despite this, however, the book overall is a delight to read, and the sheer enthusiasm that rocketbelts have generated in those who have built and flown them is amazing. This is never going to be an everyday piece of technology, but the rocketbelt remains a remarkable achievement – the more so for being largely in semi-amateur hands – and the story is genuinely one where reality is stranger than fiction.
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 1 November 2005

Our Inner Ape – Frans de Waal ****

Here we go again, I thought, yet another “where did humanity come from” book, a subject that was very heavily covered in 2005 when this book was published. Luckily, I was wrong.
It’s true that Our Inner Ape, byleading primatologist Frans de Waal, does provide plenty of comparison between human beings and the apes, but the search for where we came from is not really the driving force. Instead, de Waal’s love for the apes comes through strongly in his warm, well written description of how different groups of chimpanzees and bonobos, our two closest relatives in the primates, behave, and what we can learn about our own behaviour from them.
One of the useful things about this book is bringing out the differences between chimps and bonobos. Because it was only realized that bonobos were a separate species in the 1920s, there has been much less written on them than other great apes, yet it is so important, as de Waal emphasizes, to compare the aggressive approach of the chimps with a more considerate, caring attitude that typifies the bonobo.
As de Waal also points out, we habitually think of our aggressive side as our “animal” side, yet there is plenty of evidence from the chimpanzees and bonobos that much of our loving, caring nature is also reflected in the behaviour of these closest of primates.
Whether he’s relating the sad story of the brutal killing of his favourite chimp by a pair of competitors, allying to take the alpha position, or the approaches to power politics taken by two very different sets of primates, de Waal tells a captivating and fascinating tale.
The book does regularly relate to the relationship between the behaviour of apes and of human beings, drawing parallels and exploring differences – and some sections have more about humans than others – but even so the US subtitle of the book, “A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are” remains a little misleading. (Is it also worryingly reminiscent of a typical 1960s ad – “A leading scientist explains why you should brush your teeth!”) The primary focus of the book isn’t really us but the chimpanzees and bonobos, and the writing is far and above at its best when de Waal is painting a picture of these wonderful animals in action.
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 18 October 2005

Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life – Nick Lane ****

I am all in favour of giving popular science books titles that grab the attention – so three cheers to Nick Lane for the title of this book, even though it does make it distinctly embarrassing to read on the train to work, risks a review like this being banned by parental controls, and even in the bowdlerised version we put into Amazon’s search (Power Suicide Lane) has an ominous ring to it. Never mind, though – because I defy anyone (who doesn’t know about mitochondria in detail already) to read this book and not come out amazed by the incredible subtly, complexity and downright unlikeliness of the mechanisms of biological construction.
The subject at the heart of this fat book is a fascinating one: mitochondria, the energy source of the cells of animals and plants, a vital part of every one of us, yet far back in history, an invader from the outside – a once separate, symbiotic entity that has became an essential part of our cells’ functioning.
Unless you are already steeped in the details of how eukaryotic cells work, this book will open your eyes to the almost incredible processes going on. We’re used to mitochondria being referred to as the “powerhouses” of the cell, but exploring that process causes as much amazement now as it did for the scientists who discovered it – most of whom stubbornly refused to believe the man who worked out the fiendishly clever process by which energy is amassed by the mitochondria. Perhaps most wonderful of all is the way that the energy production machine doesn’t just work by chemical processes, or even chemical and electrical processes, but also has a literal molecular motor that turns on an axle as it makes (or breaks) the energy store ATP.
And that’s not all – Lane doesn’t just describe this aspect of the mitochondria’s impact on our lives and being, but shows how the mitochondria’s pivotal role results in ever-so-slightly significant results like the reason for ageing and death (the suicide in the title is cell death, not an ability of mitochondria to turn us into lemmings), and the existence of sex as a means of reproduction. Yes – mitochondria have effectively influenced multi-celled organisms in the direction of this form of reproduction. It somehow doesn’t seem so remarkable, once you’ve read this book, that children’s author Madeleine L’Engle once wrote a story where someone’s mitochondria are in danger of destroying their “host”.
The only bad thing about the book is the tendency to excessive length and the author’s desire to make breakthrough comments – it would have been shorter and more to the point if Lane had stuck to telling us the amazing story of mitochondria without dwelling on who is wrong about what. Of course there’s no definitive story, but he can’t resist having digs at biologists he disagrees with. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the fact that biology has only recently emerged from stamp collecting to become a science (to seriously mangle Rutherford’s famous remark, “all science is either physics or stamp collecting”) that those who write about biology can’t resist personal attacks in their books. To be fair, though, Lane avoids the vehemence of the likes of Daniel Dennett.
Without doubt, of all the essential aspects of life, mitochondria are the least well understood by the general public . This book opens up the secrets with an obvious delight from Lane that the readers are likely to share. Recommended.
Review by Jo Reed

Saturday, 15 October 2005

The Gecko’s Foot – Peter Forbes *****

The great thing about reviewing popular science is that there’s always something new coming along. Just when you begin to think that every book being published is about the origins of human beings or some aspect of human development, out pops a gem like The Gecko’s Foot. And it’s no ordinary gem, it’s a brilliant one.
Peter Forbes proves an excellent expositor of the science behind some of nature’s most remarkable capabilities and the efforts to produce technology that doesn’t so much mimic those capabilities as use an understanding of the physical effects involved to inspire wonderful technological possibilities. Most of these technologies are still to be fully developed, though two are fully commercial – the familiar Velcro and its imitators, inspired by the stickiness of a burr, and more amazing self-cleaning materials like paint and glass that dirt simply roll off – given a kickstart by the ability of lotus leaves to repel water and mud.
The gecko’s foot of the title is one of the most remarkable. There’s no gluey stickiness to the gecko’s foot, nor does it use suckers or some strange muscular ability – you can detach the part of the foot that gives it the ability to walk up plate glass (harmlessly to the creature – it re-grows like hair) and use it to make “gecko tape” that sticks to pretty well anything – instead it relies on a tiny force at the nano-level, multiplied up by the use of a vast number of tiny surface contacts. Joining attempts to produce an artificial gecko effect you’ll come across the possibility of making super spider silk (in one attempt from the milk of genetically modified goats), the amazing capabilities of photonic materials, inspired by natural irridescence and providing amazing optical capabilities from a net of nanoscopic holes, plus technology that attempts to reproduce a fly’s uncanny ability to move through the air any which way, and more. It’s mind boggling and brilliant.
The only problem with the book, which isn’t entirely trivial, but is overwhelmed by the delight of the content, is that Forbes can wax just a bit too lyrical about the wonders of nature’s “engineering”. The first, introductory chapter basically says “isn’t nature wonderful” with the odd nod in the direction of ancient Eastern wisdom for 28 pages, and is much too long. He’s fine when he’s talking about the science, but there is a distinct tendency to move into waffle mode when, for instance, referring to the capabilities of the lotus plant to shed water and dirt he says: “There is a school of thought that science has still to rediscover the greater wisdom of the Ancients. In the case of the lotus they are right. In ancient Eastern cultures the lotus’s immaculate emergence from muddy water was more than noticed: the plant became a symbol of the triumph of enlightenment over the dross of earthly life.”
Well, yes, but frankly, so what? How much science or practical engineering did said Ancients derive from the lotus’s self-cleaning capability? None. There’s no wisdom to rediscover here – delightful though the symbolism might be. You might as well try to derive science from the West’s symbolism of the dove as a sign of peace. There is no connection between the fact that we can use the amazing capabilities of the natural world to inspire new technology and pretty symbolism.
Luckily, though, this attempt to get in touch with one’s navel is largely limited to the introduction, and hence we can still honestly award the book a well-deserved five stars. When he sticks to the science and technology, the writing is excellent and the topic is wonderful. This has to be one of the best popular science books of 2005. Highly recommended.
Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 14 October 2005

A Briefer History of Time – Stephen Hawking (with Leonard Mlodinow) ****

When the original Brief History of Time came out in 1988 it caused a sensation. It was the book to have on your shelves (though there was a certain tendency to admit to not having read it). And it was, justifiably, a great popular science book – yes it got hard towards the end, but it was well worth the effort.
The idea of Briefer History is to repeat the success of the original, but to do it in a more painless way. It’s a mixed success.
In part it delivers. It’s a sprightly canter through modern cosmology and the associated science, and it does it largely with flair and in a highly approachable fashion. After telling us the goal of science is a unified theory of everything (rather a doubtful proposition, but we’ll overlook that), we take a rapid trip from Newton through relativity to the expanding universe, the big bang, black holes, wormholes and all the traditional menagerie of the modern cosmologist. Because the book comes 17 years after its predecessor there’s a whole lot of new material to encompass, which is great, though it does mean there’s not quite the opportunity there might have been to go through the fundamentals from the first book but explain them in a more gentle fashion.
So the good news is it’s an effective look at the whole cosmological picture today – quantum gravity, strings and all (though dark matter/dark energy are rather skimmed over), it has the very positive endorsement of coming from a scientific superstar (the man appeared on Star Trek TNG – what can you say?), and it’s glossy enough to impress the most selective coffee table book buyer. And that’s enough to gain it four stars. But…
But there are aspects of the desperate attempt to become reader-friendly that get in the way in practice. It’s just a bit too glossy (even literally – the pages are shiny picture book pages, which are a little hard on the eye after a while). Leonard Mlodinow was presumably thrown in as editor to reign back any tendency Hawking might have to go off on riffs most of the readers couldn’t follow, but he has also homogenised the quite personal approach that was one of the strengths of Hawking’s original book. And, for a simple guide, there’s the classic error Feynman was always railing against of using labels as if they explain something – so we hear about electromagnetic fields, for instance, with no attempt to conquer the (admittedly difficult) problem of explaining what a field is.
Perhaps worst of the negative side are the illustrations – they smack of an out of control art director. The illustration, for instance, for the idea that people thought the world was a sphere because ships on the horizon appear masts first, shows a ship on the horizon… all in view. It’s a flat earth picture.
Incidentally, Hawking & Mlodinow perpetuate the myth that historically “it was common to find people who thought the earth was flat”. In fact, educated people have known it was a sphere continuously since the Ancient Greeks – the myth of medieval flat earth belief was devised in the 19th century as anti-Christian propaganda. Of course most people through history haven’t had any opinion on the matter, they’ve been to busy staying alive.
Other pictures are less easy to understand than a simple diagram would have been because of all the extra unnecessary detail – a good example is a “ping pong balls on a train” illustration where it’s very difficult to see what the point is. One diagram even verges on the offensive, in a demonstration of the increased attraction from a doubly heavy body by showing a man (Hawking as it happens) “attracted” to a pair of Marilyn Monroes.
This isn’t by any means a bad book. We’ve awarded it four stars and put it in our “near best” category because it will reach more people than arguably better books like Simon Singh’s Big Bang – even so, it’s a disappointment partly because of the ├╝bergloss, and partly because Hawking’s personality doesn’t come through as well as it does in the original.
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 5 October 2005

Space Race – Deborah Cadbury *****

We have seen snippets of the story of the race to get people into space – and eventually to the moon – particularly about the way the US took in the Nazi scientist Wernher von Braun to kickstart its rocket programme – but this book provides a wonderful opportunity to see both sides of the story, and to uncover much more of the sometimes sordid details of what lay behind the race for space.
The first section opens up von Braun’s work in the Second World War. One small surprise is the deceitfulness of US intelligence, taking the essential information provided politely by the British, but failing to share anything in return and even rushing to grab documents from the British sector before their “allies” arrived. But the shocking impact comes from the realities of the slave labour camps used to build and man the secret factories for the V2 rocket weapons and the disgusting conditions the liberating armies found there.
Next comes the early days of the Russian side. Disadvantaged initially both by the rapid US removal of as much material as they could from what was about to become Russian controlled territory, and the Russians’ own terrible treatment of the man who would prove to be the driving force behind the Russian space programme, it’s quite amazing that they achieved as much as they did.
Once we get into the 1950s we are onto more familiar territory – but even so, this a wonderfully engaging telling of the US national shock that the Russians got there first with Sputnik, a Russian artificial satellite that seemed the equivalent of planting the red flag in space. Reinforced by being first to put a man (and woman) in orbit, it seemed only inevitable that Russia would also reach the moon first – and it’s real page turning stuff as we see just how close it was, and what a dramatic effort the US team put into getting the Apollo programme up and running. It’s nail biting all the way.
Although this is an excellent book, there was one small problem – it has been very shoddily proof read. A good number of pages have word break errors that cause irritation each time they come up. At one point two occur in sequential sentences: “The general was feeling benign for he had collected another important post: to his dis-tinguished list of titles had been added ‘General Commissioner for Turbojet Fighters.’ This required him to be away for a while he ex-plained, but von Braun was not to worry…”
But layout apart, this is a cracking story, well told. Those of us who can remember the excitement of the race for the moon can still recall that thrill – but we can now add a chilling context when we discover just how and where that expertise was born and bred. Recommended.
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 3 October 2005

Signor Marconi’s Magic Box – Gavin Weightman *****

Wireless communication is much more romantic than pumping information down a cable. There’s still something exciting about being able to access the internet from a wireless connection – and an even stronger thrill was felt towards the end of the nineteenth century when the shackles of wired telegraphy were removed to allow messages to fly through the ether thanks to Marconi’s work on radio.
All too rare in a popular science book, Gavin Weightman’s Signor Marconi’s Magic Box is a real page turner. It has all the right ingredients to become a Hollywood blockbuster. The young, dynamic Marconi, taking everyone by surprise both in his debonair looks and his command of English (though an Italian, Marconi had an Irish mother and did all his significant work in the UK and the USA). Then there’s the awesome impact of the new technology. The race to conquer huge technical barriers like getting a signal across the Atlantic. The fraudulent and dirty dealing companies that set up to make money out of the wireless boom without the capability of producing decent radio signals. And even a spot of love interest.
If you wanted to be really picky, there’s not a lot of science in the book – the story is driven by pure technology – but having said that, it’s almost a triumph of technology over the scientific knowledge of the day. From what everyone “knew” about “Hertzian waves”, the name at the time for radio waves, they should only be capable of transmission over a mile or two – yet Marconi was soon reaching a hundred and then thousands of miles, with the theory struggling to catch up with the reality that his experimental genius achieved.
What makes the book difficult to put down is the powerful draw of a race. This wasn’t a case of a sole inventor, tinkering away in his workshop. Many others were struggling to get wireless communication working, and Marconi knew it was only a matter of time before some other concern eclipsed his, putting immense pressure on him to achieve in a tight timescale. Though the earliest competitors missed the point, and tried to challenge his patents with devices that used induction to generate a current at the distance of a few yards, Marconi was under no illusion that he had the field to himself, and triumphed thanks to a combination of drive and personal initiative that would have made him a natural for Silicon Valley had he lived in the late twentieth century.
There is one slight moan. Michael Faraday is described as a chemist. Given that all the other remarks about Faraday concern his electrical and electromagnetic work, this seems an odd label. Faraday did make important contributions to chemistry, but it’s surely as a physical scientist that he is remembered.
However this is without doubt a book to treasure on a key development in the history of technology. Until recently Marconi was a well-known name, but as the companies he founded have all but disappeared, so too does Marconi himself fade away in the public consciousness – it’s a good thing this book is hear to keep his name alive.
Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 2 October 2005

Monkeyluv – Robert M. Sapolsky ****

There’s something delightfully sardonic about Robert Sapolsky’s writing – you can imagine him penning some of the phrases in this enjoyable collection of articles with an eyebrow firmly raised. This is evident whether he is commenting on the film star Sandra Bullock (“One needs merely to examine her work – for the example the scene in which she first takes the wheel of the bus in Speed – to detect the undercurrents of this radicalism in her oeuvre”), or pointing out in a footnote that the habit of referring to animals making a choice to maximize the survival chance of their offspring (or whatever) isn’t referring to a conscious action, but is just a convention for describing unconscious tendencies, “agreed upon to keep everyone from falling asleep at conferences”.
Like most collections of articles, there can be a degree of overlap. The first set of six, for example, could easily be summarized as “it’s not all in the genes; it’s not all down to environment; it depends on the outcome of the particular combination of genes in a particular environment” (whatever “it” may be). In other words, it’s not nature, nor nurture, but the nature+nurture combo – which hopefully most of us knew already. (If you don’t, read Matt Ridley’s excellent Nature via Nurture). But each article makes the point in a different way, or triggered by a different event or piece of research, and Sapolsky’s ebullient style prevents the repetition from grating.
Next he moves on in a second section to the links between the body and the mind, from dreaming to parasites in the brain. In this part, as in the third and final section, which looks at the linkages (both ways) between society and human biology, there’s a more diverse and perhaps more satisfying collection of articles. Some are quite tightly focussed on a specific scientific point. Others are very broad, like the article originally published in Men’ Health that explains why a woman arguing with her partner might be more likely to bring up past demeanours when the man thought that they had got over a problem and were back to a positive state. But whatever the topic, they are entertaining and insightful.
One minor criticism – the name of the book is not particularly helpful in giving a clue as to what it’s about (it’s also works badly in bookstore search engines, as they don’t find it looking for Monkey Luv).
Altogether a very worthwhile and elegantly written collection of articles that lives up to Sapolsky’s subtitle “lessons on our lives as animals”.
Review by Brian Clegg