Wednesday, 19 January 2005

The Velocity of Honey – Jay Ingram ****

Science isn’t just about fundamentals like quantum theory or how DNA works – there’s plenty of science in the oddities of everyday life, and that’s what Jay Ingram sets out to put in front of us in this enjoyable book. How does honey flow, why does toast land butter side down, and why do trees put a lot of effort into turning leaves red, only to have them fall off soon after? These and many other questions are Ingram’s delightful areas of investigation.
Some examples are rather better than others. Chapters about the way we “echo locate”, sensing the presence of objects in the dark by reflected sound like a poor cousin of a bat, and on what Ingram calls the “tourist illusion”, where a journey to a new place in a car always seems to take longer than the journey home, proved surprise hits. There’s also something particularly fascinating about the whole business of six degrees of separation – the idea that pretty well everyone on the planet is, on average, just a chain of six contacts away from everyone else. This has spawned all sorts of spin-offs, like the research on actors appearing in movies with other actors (or even the degrees of separation of superheroes in the Marvel comics), but the most fascinating aspect of Ingram’s exploration is that the initial premise is based on a small amount of very flawed research.
Among the other chapters that intrigued was one on the related concept of the surprising number of people each of us know, and surely no one can resist a piece on the ancient art of skipping stones on water (ducks and drakes)? Inevitably the book is a little episodic – in fact it feels more like a collection of articles stuck together than a true book. And, surprisingly, some of it is rather dull. All too often we get a string of “this team of scientists did this” and “that team of scientists did that” and “no one’s quite sure what it all means”, which can be a trifle yawn inspiring, rather than awe inspiring.
That said, most of the book reads very well and Ingram has a gentle, friendly style with a light touch of humour. It falls short of being a great popular science book as it lacks unputdownability – but it’s certainly a good one, better for reading a section at a time rather than end-to-end, making it ideal for bedtime reading.
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 18 January 2005

Parallel Worlds – Michio Kaku ****

Some have argued that our tendency to think of a single universe demonstrates, like the medieval idea of the Earth being at the centre of the universe, an over-inflated sense of our own importance. Others suggest that, given we really know nothing, Occam’s Razor should keep the single universe theory central until any better evidence comes along. In this fat book, Michio Kaku explores the possibilities that, in universe terms, we are not alone – and ventures into some of the wildest cosmological speculation that billions of years from now, faced with the death of “our” universe, intelligent life may travel to another one.
He starts very well with the WMAP satellite results of 2003, giving a remarkably accurate age for the universe, and with Alan Guth, the inventor of inflation theory, pointing out that if inflation is true, it’s very likely that the universe keeps blowing new bubbles, so different parts of the universe, well out of view, may be suddenly inflating into whole new universes in their own right. We then get the basics that have brought us to inflation, with a whistle-stop tour of Newton, Einstein and friends. Kaku gives us plenty on string theory and M-theory too (not entirely surprising, given his background in this field), and leads us joyfully through the essentials of black holes, wormholes, and all sorts of potential ways to time travel. It’s probably here that the book is at its best – towards the end, when he gets into pure speculation and makes rather pompous remarks about civilization, you realise why scientists rarely make good politicians.
It’s funny that Kaku comments early on how cosmology used to be mostly speculation with very little real science (he quotes “there’s speculation, and then there’s more speculation, and then there’s cosmology”), but new data from sources like WMAP have made it much more solid… when he then spends a lot of the book on exactly those areas of cosmology that are still in that wild and wonderful class. It’s inevitable, though, as data-driven science has only penetrated very small areas of the cosmological minefield.
That isn’t a problem – it’s the way cosmology is – but there are still a couple of concerns. Kaku is a physicist, not a science writer, and has a tendency to do best when he’s talking theories – when he delves into history his versions of what happened can seem like quotes from a children’s encyclopedia and are sometimes of dubious accuracy, like perpetuating the myth that the Earth was thought to be flat in medieval times, or saying that Einstein’s illegitimate first child was called “Lieseral”, where the German girl’s name is “Lieserl” and that’s what everyone else seems to think she was called.
It’s also the case that his explanations of the science, which are admirably simple, are sometimes so simple that they confuse instead of enlightening. Perhaps the best example is where he is describing how Einstein’s version of gravity differs from Newton’s. He rightly says that there was no need for the “magic”, action at a distance (though he never uses that term) attractive pull of gravity, when the effect is generated by the “push” given by the warping of space. But all his explanation does is leave the reader confusedly wondering why a pull is a force, but a push isn’t. Look at this: “To a relativist [..] it is obvious that there is no force at all. [..] Earth moves around the Sun not because of the pull of gravity but because the Sun warps the space around Earth, creating a push that forces Earth to move in a circle.” [My italics.] So relativity shows us there is no force, and that’s what forcing the Earth to move? Hmm.
Perhaps the worst example, combining rather poor writing and strange oversimplification is when Kaku makes the comment that without electromagnetism we would be in darkness, and cites the example of the “blackout of the North East in 2003.” In writing terms this is stunningly parochial – North East what? (Okay, I know what he means, but it’s still highly presumptuous.) And bearing in mind that the sudden disappearance of electromagnetism would not only mean no light, but a rapid fall of heat, no photosynthesis – not to mention that the whole basis of matter depends on electromagnetic exchange. So a blackout would be the least of our worries!
It’s important, thought that you don’t let the negatives get in the way of the fact that this is a very readable book that gives a lucid, simple explanation of strings, m-theory, blackholes and shuch, a great picture of the possibilities for parallel universes, and even some wild speculation on far future lifeboats to another universe. It’s not really a problem overlooking the fact that it’ sometimes let down a little by Kaku’s lack of science writing credentials and tendency to oversimplify. It’s still a fascinating story, largely well told.
Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 14 January 2005

Mathematics with Love – Mary Stopes-Roe *****

Admittedly it’s early days (this review is written in January), but this, for me, is the surprise hit of the year so far! I approached this book with trepidation, but found it absolutely delightful. It is described on the cover as the “courtship correspondence of Barnes Wallis, inventor of the bouncing bomb”, and contains a series of letters between Wallis and his cousin and eventual wife Molly Bloxham, along with some useful annotation by their daughter, Mary. The courtship itself is not without difficulties, as Wallis was 18 years older than the 17-year-old Molly at the start of the correspondence, and her father, not surprisingly, wasn’t too pleased about the interest of such an elderly suitor, but that isn’t the only reason the letters are interesting – it’s also because of maths, and Wallis’s position in the UK as the engineering hero of the Second World War. (Incidentally, it seemed very strange to see letters addressed to “Barnes” – I had always assumed Barnes Wallis was a bit like Fox Talbot, but Barnes was, in fact, his first name.)
The letters are reminiscent of a mix of three very different sources. The first is a series of letters written by the German mathematician, Leonhard Euler in the mid eighteenth century, a correspondence with the Princess d’Anhalt Dessau, one of the Prussian king’s nieces. Euler gave the princess a correspondence course in science – and in a similar way, Barnes Wallis gives Molly lessons in mathematics. It seems she needed it for her college course, but had been taught no science, and little useful maths at school (not right for a gel, you know). The second reflection are the letters of Lewis Carroll. There is often a similar nonsense humour, particularly to the letters from Wallis, that is very reminiscent of Carroll, as is the basic writing style, even though these letters were started in the 1920s, 60 years after Carroll’s Alice books were written. The third flavour here is pure Enid Blighton. This once hugely popular UK children’s author wrote books full of ripping adventures and jolly japes – and the language of our pair is pure Blighton.
Why is the book so good? It’s partially a glimpse into a world really not far away in time, yet far removed from our own. We are inclined to sympathise more with the German maid who doesn’t understand Wallis’s desire for a cold bath, that with Barnes and Molly who seem to think daily cold baths are a normal and desirable thing, and the maid’s incomprehension some strange foreign trait. It’s also interesting from the glimpses of Wallis’s work, on airships at this stage in his career, in a complex and difficult time for Europe. In the UK, at least, Barnes Wallis is remembered as an engineering genius for his invention of bombs that could bounce across the surface of water then hit and destroy a dam. In practice the bombs were of mixed value, and hardly used, but he is a name that resonates with anyone who was alive, or whose parents were alive, in the Second World War.
There are some snags. Although Wallis does a surprisingly good job, particularly on calculus and a smidgen of physics, the maths can be dull, especially trigonometry (he admits this himself) – though you can skip through much of this without losing the thread. And the illustrations aren’t very effective. Wallis included excellent hand-drawn diagrams, but as reproduced in the book they are faint and not always easy to read. Also the final quarter or so lacks content as both the maths and much discussion of Wallis’s work stops as he is given permission to express his love more explicitly by his future father-in-law. Finally, the sheer ever-so-reserved character of the period can get terribly (terribly, terribly, old thing) wearing. You can only take so much “I say, you must find my letters jolly boring because I really am not awfully good at this sort of thing, so I’d quite understand it if you decided you didn’t want me to write again” type of comment. But it’s bearable, and worth it for the overall effect.
I really, really don’t know why this book is so effective. It really shouldn’t be. No really. But it is.
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 11 January 2005

Venomous Earth – Andrew A. Meharg ****

“How arsenic caused the world’s worst mass poisoning” reads the subtitle – and this book is quite a shock when it comes to the way that this natural element has a habit of turning up in the wrong place, making people ill and all too often killing them.
To be honest, the first part of the book, on the aforementioned mass poisoning, isn’t the best bit, although there are some horrifying revelations, such as the way the “safe” level for chronic exposure to arsenic in Bangladesh is in fact the UK’s historical safe level for a short acute exposure. Despite the fact (or perhaps even because of the fact) that Andrew Meharg, Professor of Biogeochemistry at the University of Aberdeen, had a direct involvement in some of the testing of water from tube wells in coastal Bangladesh that had picked up horribly high levels of arsenic, his account of the disaster putting tens of thousands at risk doesn’t read like the first person input of someone who is active on the front line, but rather a measured and frankly slightly dull report for some parliamentary committee. The content is fine, if rarely coming up with anything that hasn’t been seen elsewhere, and it’s never actually boring, but it could read a lot better.
The saving grace of the book, though, is that it gets a lot better when Meharg plunges back into the history of humanity’s bumpy relationship with arsenic, which has been treated as a positive medicine at the same time as being known to be a powerful poison. Particularly effective is his discussion of the Victorians’ use of arsenic in wallpapers to give green (and other) colours. The expectation, if you aren’t familiar with the history, is that this was done with little knowledge of the potential dangers, and only many years later was it discovered that the arsenic in the wallpaper could cause problems.
In fact the problem was widely publicized at the time with newspapers running campaigns against it. What’s more the workers who made the paper and other goods with arsenic colouring were at a terrible risk. Not only was the public outcry ignored for many years, arsenic was even occasionally used as food colouring with the predictable deadly outcome. Meharg’s coverage of arsenic in wallpapers is fascinating, especially his consideration of the great William Morris, whose obsession with only using plant dyes in later years covered up a past of making heavy use of arsenic greens without ever admitting to it.
The book continues to be fascinating as it penetrates the quack medicinal use of arsenic and its gradual convergence with arsenic’s infamous poisoning role on an understanding of this deadly element. Because of that, Venomous Earth scrapes in with four stars, and is well worth reading, but it could do with a bit more work on the natural poisoning coverage.
Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 9 January 2005

The Elegant Universe – Brian Greene ****

The precursor to Brian Greene’s excellent The Fabric of the Cosmos, this is a good introduction to the current cosmological favourite, and attempt at linking general relativity and quantum theory, (super) string theory. Written it 1999, it has dated a little, but still gives a good laypersons view of string theory and its relationship to the two pillars of 20th century physics.
It’s a shame, in a way, that there’s so much overlap between this and Greene’s more recent book – so much so that unless you want to go into string theory in considerably more detail, you might as well go for The Fabric of the Cosmos, which has a lot more detail on those fundamental essentials, relativity and quantum theory, and does the job a little better.
However this shouldn’t undermine the fact that this is a very good book on the attempt to produce an overarching theory for the fundamentals of space, time and matter. Greene is always approachable (if occasionally irritatingly folksy) and makes a good effort of explaining complex concepts in a way that is still mind boggling (he can’t help that – it’s the nature of the beast), but possible to get your mind round.
Review by Brian Clegg