Friday, 22 April 2005

The Future is Wild – Douglas Dixon & John Adams ****

Subtitled “a natural history of the future”, this book (and presumably the accompanying 12 part TV series that the book accompanies) is a fascinating reverse of all those books looking backwards in time at evolution. Here the authors have beautifully speculated on how things will go in the future.
The book is split into three broad sections. One, set 5 million years in the future finds a largely unchanged world in the grip of an ice age. Here the animals may be unfamiliar, but they are clearly derived from current forms. In the other two sections, looking 100 and 200 million years ahead, much bigger changes have occurred. Continental drift has resulted in a reshaping of the earth’s surface. Creatures are developing significantly, with some creatures leaving the sea (imagine a land-based giant squid), birds taking to the water, and descendents of fish flying. Highest in yuck factor is probably some of the insect life, while most striking are the envisaged developments from jellyfish, huge and beautiful floating cities of life.
It’s stunningly illustrated (if one or two of the creatures verge on the cartoon) and much of the speculation is fascinating – all in all, an excellent achievement.
There are a couple of quibbles. Humanity is dismissed rather summarily. We are assumed to die out in a few thousand years because of the “devastating effects of our energy consumption” and because of the return of the ice age. These are rather weak assumptions, given human flexibility. Certainly we wouldn’t be still living in the UK under a polar ice cap, but that hardly excludes the tropics. It’s not that we couldn’t be wiped out, but there’s no logic behind the assumption, which is mainly made to conveniently get us out of the way – that should have been explicitly stated. Also, all the animals have names. This is nice, but who is supposed to have given them the names? Okay, it’s a bit pedantic, but this just seems weird when you get a comment like “it is tracking a herd of scrofas and their young, called scroflets.” Called scroflets by whom?
Anyone familiar with DK’s very rigid format might be a bit surprised by this book. Not only do the authors get their names on the cover (something DK discourages), but inside the book flows from page to page rather than being in two page chunks – and there’s a lot more solid text than you would expect in a DK book. That’s because this isn’t really one of theirs. The older US edition is from a different publisher, and the pages look identical. Although the normal DK format is probably more young reader friendly, this topic does well from having the extra flow – perhaps we could see more DK books breaking the mould in the future.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 21 April 2005

Happiness – Daniel Nettle ****

At first glance this could be one of those infuriatingly smug books of uplifting sayings. It’s small (just 18cm by 13, smaller than a normal paperback [This refers to the original hardback edition - Ed.]), bright yellow and has a fun balloon on the front.
But resist the urge to yell “lead me to the sick bag” – this is not what it seems (though one has to wonder slightly why the highly respected academic publisher OUP has packaged it like this – hoping for some accidental crossover sales, perhaps?). The subtitle “the science behind your smile” is the first clue that this is, in fact, a serious scientific study of the nature of happiness.
As the author admits, this is quite a difficult concept to pin down, which has led many scientific studies to ignore it – but that’s a mistake. Happiness in its different forms plays a major part in our life, one way or another. Daniel Nettle identifies three kinds of happiness – the immediate, short-lived buzz of joy, the feeling of well being and satisfaction, and the least directly expressed but long term feeling of achieving your potential.
Once Nettle dives into to the surprisingly detailed information available it’s a delight. Important thought it is, happiness is something we rarely think about, and it’s both interesting and entertaining to see how the various epithets on the subject of happiness (like money not being able to buy it) match up to reality. What is particularly fascinating is how easily influenced our sense of happiness is. Although most people in most countries (with a few miserable exceptions) would agree that only the whole they’re more happy than not, an immediate response is strongly flavoured by everything from what the weather’s like to recent success in a game. And bizarrely, this small immediate stimulus tends to colour our imagined picture to our whole life’s happiness. When a teenage character on TV screams “my whole life is ruined” when they aren’t allowed to see the latest movie, it’s not so much an over-reaction as a more honest expression of the way we all feel in response to trivial issues. There’s plenty more too (for such a small book) on the influence of personality, illness, desires and more.
A couple of small gripes. Although Nettle mostly writes well and engagingly, he can occasionally slip into jargon without noticing. It’s a little unnerving to the general reader when he suddenly comments “each negative emotion is evoked by a particular situation type or schema, and each one potentiaties a particular class of remedy.” Potentiates? Pretentious much. But then he doesn’t raise a literary eyebrow at the existence of a trade publication called The Journal of Happiness Studies – UK readers may think this a contender for Have I Got News For You’s guest publication slot. And I was a little surprised by his apparent acceptance of the statement from some psychologists that, given the way happiness levels drop back down however they’re pushed up, nothing really matters much. This totally ignores the impact of memory, and the recollection of a happy moment that can be reused (admittedly at less extreme levels) time and again.
Overall, though, a very interesting little book.
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Review by Jo Reed

Perfect Copy – Nicholas Agar ****

To clone or not to clone, that is the question. Or at least, that’s the question addressed in Nicholas Agar’s clear and well written book.
He starts from the science of cloning. Pretty well all of us have opinions about the whole business without having a clue about what’s actually involved. The science isn’t as straightforward as you might think (so perhaps its no surprise it’s so difficult). For example, it’s not widely understood that the famous cloned sheep Dolly is actually less of a clone than a perfectly normal identical twin. The identical twins share the same DNA (apart from any mutations), but Dolly’s cloned material was her nuclear DNA – the DNA that normally comes half from each parent. The other, less frequently mentioned DNA, mitochondrial DNA came not from the sheep she was cloned from but from the donor of the egg. This DNA, which has proved valuable in the past for tracing the maternal line as it normally comes only from the mother, may not have much to do with the development of the embryo (and hence Dolly was to all intents and purposes a clone), but it does mean there is a distinction here.
With the science firmly established in some very readable text, Agar goes on to the ethics and the potential applications of cloning. Here, sometimes his line is a little less clear. While he picks up the point that the extreme supporters of abortion are also happy to kill newborn babies for convenience, because at this stage they are not yet people, and so argues that it’s possible to justify letting a cloned human be produced as most problems can be solved by destruction on detection, he doesn’t really follow through the reverse argument that most people are horrified with the concept of killing newborn babies for convenience, and so are unlikely to accept arguments derived from this premise.
What Agar makes clear is why cloning is difficult – a lot can go wrong in trying to switch back on all the genes that have been deactivated in an adult human. He also successfully destroys the idea of cloning as a means of living forever, makes therapeutic cloning seem eminently reasonable, and makes it clear that cloning as means of supplying babies for the infertile isn’t wrong in principle (though the current state of the technology makes it anything but desirable).
All in all a valuable addition to informed debate.
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Review by Martin O'Brien

Tuesday, 19 April 2005

Deep Simplicity – John Gribbin ***

There’s something infuriating about chaos theory. It’s a tease. It provokes you to excitement with all its promise of explaining all those complex (yet somehow simple)phenomena like weather and the stock exchange… then it fails to deliver because you can’t really do anything with it.
There are already two great popular science books on chaos. James Gleick’s book Chaos not only brought chaos theory to the popular audience in a powerfully gripping way, it almost defined the genre of crossover popular science books – books in a scientific topic that appealed outside the narrow group of science enthusiasts. The follow-up book, The Collapse of Chaos by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart goes beyond chaos theory to take in complexity, simplicity and the impact on the real world.
So what’s left? John Gribbin, I think, was lured by the siren song of chaos. It just seems so natural that there ought to be more “chaos and X” books – in this case, chaos, simplicity and life – that it’s easy to ignore the fact there really isn’t much more to say.
Even so, it starts well, and it seemed as if Gribbin was going to give us an enjoyable ride through chaos and the real world, but once he gets into mathematical explanations he gets bogged down and frankly doesn’t do himself justice in putting across what is going on to the general audience – in places it’s downright boring.
There are a few insights here, especially on the overlap between chaos, complexity and the formation of life – as many others have pointed out, DNA is much more a recipe than a blueprint, and the wonder of complexity is the way a very simple set of repeated instructions can result in a complex formation. And there’s some interesting bits towards the end about using complexity effects to detect life on remote planets. But the combination of rather poor exposition of the mathematical aspects of the theory and the feeling that there’s not a lot that’s new makes it difficult to get too enthusiastic.
There’s still something very frustrating about a theory that says “this is why things are like this” but then won’t let you predict anything based on the theory. And frustration is what readers may well end up with. Stick with the classics.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 12 April 2005

A Devil’s Chaplain – Richard Dawkins *****

The great thing about A Devil’s Chaplain – that makes it arguably Richard Dawkins’ best book – is that it’s a collection of essays. His full length books, clever though they indubitably are, have a tendency to fall off in quality in some chapters and can be a little repetitious. Here, every piece is a neatly crafted gem.
It isn’t necessary always to agree with Dawkins to admire this book. In places, as usual, he is rude, intolerant and unpleasant (though in an entertaining way – for UK readers, he’s the Jeremy Paxman of science). In others he carefully weaves his argument to produce a result that arguably isn’t justified. For example, in the essay Science, Genetics and Ethics he comments “you may be being inconsistent if you think that abortion is murder but killing chimpanzees is not.” He argues this because we are on an evolutionary continuum with the chimpanzee, just as the non-sentient foetus is on a continuum with the sentient adult. But this entirely misses the point. The time-based relationship is entirely different. Fail to kill a chimpanzee and it will continue to be a chimpanzee. Fail to kill a foetus and it will (on the whole) become a sentient adult, who presumably Dawkins does consider it murder to kill. Similarly he argues that because a placenta is a true clone of a baby it’s surprising that eating placentas isn’t covered by our cannibalism taboos – but again, however long you leave that placenta it won’t turn into a sentient human being – nothing is being excluded from existence.
Wonderfully, the fact that some of the writing here is possibly wrong and definitely irritating doesn’t detract from the readability of the book – rather the reverse, it’s fun to get involved enough to want to dispute. I’d much rather read a book that makes me want to have a debate with the author than one that I agree with totally, but can’t really get excited about.
Don’t get the impression that all the content is likely to cause concerns. Much of it is hard to disagree with from Dawkins’s distaste for postmodernism to his preference to education that is driven by exploration rather than the exam regime. It’s a great book with something for everyone who has an interest in our world. Inevitably there’s rather more of biology, Darwinism and genetics than other aspects of the sciences, and you might want to skip over one or two of the pieces like eulogies for people you may never have heard of, but it doesn’t spoil the overall effect.
If you like Dawkins you’ll definitely want this book – and amazingly if you don’t like Dawkins you’ll still enjoy it. What can I say – it’s an essential.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 11 April 2005

Fred Hoyle: A Life in Science – Simon Mitton ****

There can be few more ideal subjects for a biography than the late astronomer Fred Hoyle. He was a larger than life character who devised a whole swathe of theories – some right, some wrong – across the span of theoretical astronomy.
It’s somehow not surprising that Hoyle was from Yorkshire (the UK’s equivalent of Texas or Bavaria), but with ancestry from the neighbouring, perhaps a little more thoughtful county of Lancashire, producing a fiery but deep thinker.
In this book we see the familiar Hoyle to those who remember him – the passionate supporter of unlikely causes from the steady state universe (okay, it wasn’t unlikely when he first came up with it) to life from the stars, the superb presenter of science for the masses, the science fiction author and more. But there’s also the less well-known Hoyle – for instance in his radar work during the Second World War or coming up, almost as a throw-away, with ideas the possibility of there being massive black holes at the centre of galaxies. In some ways, Hoyle was to astronomy what Feynman was to physics – the boy from the poor background who never lost his regional accent becoming the man from which ideas poured like an uncontrollable fountain. His genius may not have been on quite the same scale as Feynman’s, but there’s no doubting their similarities.
So far this is a eulogy to Hoyle, but what of the book itself? Here’s where there are more reservations. Frankly, were it not for the subject, lifting it above the ordinary, it would not deserve four stars. Simon Mitton is a scientist, not a writer, and it shows. It’s not just the wording, at times strangely amateurish (I defy anyone to usefully apply the word “chomped” to a human being’s ordinary eating in anything other than a school essay). It’s not just the irritating structure, based on the categories of Hoyle’s achievements rather than chronology, so the timeline jumps back and forth in a confusing fashion. It’s not even the extremely weak title for the UK edition (come on, not another “Life in Science”!) The real problem is that Mitton misses so many opportunities. It’s too much a biography and not enough a scientific biography.
Surprisingly, Mitton skips over much of the science without really explaining what it’s about. We learn about Hoyle, but much less about the basis for his work. Hoyle’s achievements are described, but not in a way that lets the uninformed reader understand what’s really going on. Interestingly, the book comes to life when describing Hoyle’s political battles, but not when covering the science. This is the best book on Hoyle we’ve seen – hence the four stars – but it could have been so much better if had been written by a good science writer. What’s more, the main competitor also lacks that journalistic flair – still Jane Gregory’s Fred Hoyle’s Universe is probably marginally better than Mitton’s book.
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Review by Brian Clegg