Wednesday, 25 May 2005

The Elements of Murder – John Emsley ****

This darkly framed book is subtitled “a history of poison”, which on its own is a bit misleading, as it’s actually a history of elements that have been used as poisons, omitting many poisons that aren’t based on pure elements and some highly poisonous elements (such as plutonium) that haven’t been used as such (unless you count the TV show, Heart of Darkness).
In niggle mode, I was slightly surprised to be told that molten antimony has the unique property of expanding as it solidifies – the same is, of course, true of molten ice.
However, that shouldn’t distract from the fact that this is a very readable and intriguing plunge into the history of our relationship with these darkly dangerous chemicals.
John Emsley is at his best when he is plunging with gusto into a historical tale of poisoning and intrigue – for example the romantic if gruesome story of the lengthy (and eventually successful) attempts to poison Sir Thomas Overbury in the early 1600s, not for some Machiavellian political end but because he was interfering with the marital intentions of Frances, the daughter of Thomas Howard, Earl of Suffolk, and she was not a woman to be trifled with.
Sometimes a little less effective are the details of the poisons themselves and how they work, which can get a little repetitive, but Emsley brings us back to the stories with enough regularity that there’s always a little more you’d like to read.
It may seem that the detail of murder stories isn’t exactly in the best interests of popular science – but books like this have to be readable, and the inclusion of these stories makes this an even more effective book than still interesting but occasionally a little worthy study of the effects of arsenic, Venomous Earth.
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 19 May 2005

The Long Summer – Brian Fagan *****

Subtitled “how climate changed civilization”, The Long Summer is a fascinating trip into the past and the impact of the most recent periods of ice and global warming on the development of human civilization. Unlike Stephen Mithen’s huge After the Ice, Brian Fagan does not make the mistake of producing a book so long that it feels as if you have lived through an ice age. Fagan’s book is short enough to be readable, and though it covers a similar period in time, does so without going into so much mind-numbing detail that the reader loses the will to go on.
Although there’s plenty of scientific and historical fact in here, Fagan keeps us interested with an excellent narrative approach, whether he’s describing the experience of being tossed on a small boat in the Bay of Biscay, or of seeing the remarkable wall paintings of the Niaux caves in southern France.
Like Jared Diamond’s How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, Fagan explores the fragility of civilization, but the context here is much better – we get a feeling for the relationship of the the cycles of history with the those of global climate, a much richer interaction than is suggested by simplistic eco-knee jerk reactions to the human impact on the planet.
The Long Summer spans archeology, climatology and the more scientific aspects of that demi-science sociology and does it very well.
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 18 May 2005

Fred Hoyle’s Universe – Jane Gregory ****

Fred Hoyle, the theoretical astronomer who came to fame in the 1950s with both his theory of the production of the elements in stars (since widely adopted) and his collaboration in the steady state theory of the universe (since abandoned for the “big bang” that Hoyle himself named) is a natural for a science biography. It’s not amazing that there have been two in the past few months – it’s rather more amazing that it has taken so long.
In photographs, Hoyle looks solidly old fashioned, but his Yorkshire temperament, dramatic imagination and unparalleled ability to communicate scientific ideas to non-scientists broke the stuffy mould of 1950s science.
Like Simon Mitton’s competing Fred Hoyle: A Life in Science, this is a book that could have been a little better. Jane Gregory, like Mitton, is an academic, and Hoyle’s story needs a good journalist to make the most of it. Having said that, Gregory does a slightly better job. There’s more feeling for the personal tensions between the players, and a little more of the science (though yet again this is skipped over in a way that a Singh or Gribbin never would – we often get just a bald statement that (for instance) those who supported the Big Bang expected to find a low level of cosmic background radiation, without any explanation of why). Gregory also gives a more rounded picture. She discusses Hoyle’s fiction in some detail, which Mitton only gives a passing mention. This really is important, because Hoyle’s popular writing (both fiction and non-fiction) is a major part of what makes him different from most other scientists. The downside of her greater thoroughness is that she seems to relish the bureaucratic details of grant applications and departmental memos – sometimes a little judicious skipping is necessary.
The least appealing side of Gregory’s version is a rather cold approach to many of the events in Hoyle’s life. She may give more feeling for the venom felt by rival Martin Ryle, but when describing what Hoyle did in life, as opposed to his work, the text is rather hollow, reminiscent of a school essay rather than good biography.
Not a perfect book then, but if you are only going to buy one biography of Fred Hoyle, this is probably the best choice.
Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 15 May 2005

The Tipping Point – Malcolm Gladwell ****

This little book is highly entertaining. There’s frankly not a lot in it, and certainly nothing original. The concepts Gladwell puts across were being taught on my Operational Research masters in the 1970s. But what he is so good at (and did again in his second book Blink) is taking a very simple but powerful concept and transforming it into a great little book by providing very clear, engaging stories that put the idea into context. It’s the stories that are fresh and powerful.
In this book the idea is the mechanism for the spread of a concept, a fad, a virally marketed product is like an epidemic. The mathematical mechanisms are well understood, but because they aren’t ones that come naturally to us they take us by surprise time and time again.
Gladwell shows how different types of interconnects between people spread ideas, and finding a relatively small number of people with the right connections can make a huge difference. Covering everything from six degrees of connection to Sesame Street, it’s very well sewn together.
Frankly, the content doesn’t deserve those four stars, but it does have a scientific basis, and Gladwell’s excellent story telling makes it such a good read that it’s a light relief after much popular science.
What’s more, this is a book you can read on a wet afternoon, it won’t take weeks of study, which again isn’t a bad thing.
All in all, a great little book.
Review by Brian Clegg

Blink – Malcolm Gladwell ****

Malcolm Gladwell hit the big time with his previous book The Tipping Point. Now he’s done it again (though perhaps not to the same extent) with Blink. The premise of the book is very simple. We often make decisions very quickly – in a second or two. In some cases these decisions are good. In others they’re bad. And sometimes experts, after years of study, can become good at the ones the rest of us are bad at. Probably they do this by unconsciously selecting a small but significant part of the data we are presented with in any situation. That’s it. That’s the whole book, as far as significant content goes.
So how come it scores so highly? Because Gladwell does it so well. What makes the book are the stories, illustrating the different points. There’s no great wisdom here, nothing really new, but Gladwell’s presentation is so good that it’s an enjoyable book to read that feels as if it’s giving you something even when it does much. The stories that are used to illustrate the points are fresh and interesting, and that’s what makes all the difference. Oh, that and the fact that (like Tipping Point) it bucks the trend for ridiculously fat books that work better as doorstops than good reading (but seem to impress those who give out prizes – they must be good, they’re LONG). This book you can read on a rainy afternoon, and feel all the better for it.
There are a couple of omissions that are a shame. Gladwell doesn’t make enough about the fact, well known from creativity studies, that the assumptions we make get in the way of good instant decision making. It’s there in some of his examples, but not really brought out very well. We can train ourselves to watch out for assumptions and defuse them (this means slowing down, getting away from the instant, blink moment), but most of us plunge in with the assumptions.
The other, even more total omission is any reference to the fact that there are some types of decision we just aren’t programmed to handle, and which all of us are very bad at doing quickly. Most typical is any decision involving probability. Our brains just can’t cope with probability very well (this is why casinos and bookkeepers are so rich). If you have any doubts about this, check out the Ferraris & Goats problem, a snap decision that pretty well everyone gets wrong until they’ve applied lots of thought – even mathematical experts.
These omissions don’t get in the way of the fact this is a fun little book, driven largely by scientific research into the way we make quick decisions. Delightful reading.
Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 14 May 2005

Don’t You Have Time to Think? [Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track] – Richard Feynman ****

Richard Feynman is a unique figure in the history of science. One of the few physicists most are comfortable putting on a par with Einstein, he combined a superb intellect with a human touch. His lectures dismissed the stuffiness of academic tradition. Even the way he spoke was different. (This book contains a letter complaining that he had the temerity to say “you guys” on a TV broadcast.) If you haven’t heard a recording of Feynman lecturing, imagine how it would sound if Tony Curtis had been a physicist. Feynman has written some superb science books, but also was a great storyteller, with the best of his tales, edited by his friend Ralph Leyton recorded in the remarkable Surely you are joking, Mr Fenyman.
This book, a collection of Feynman’s letters edited by his daughter Michelle, makes a superb addition to the collected Feynman writings. If you decide to read it, don’t be put off by the first section, which is by far the worst. Many of Feynman’s early letters were during the development of the atomic bomb – because of this there was little he could write about his work, and few people could write to him. The result, though historically interesting, makes rather bland reading. But persevere and you will be greatly rewarded. After that early section it’s practically all fascinating. (The only other part that gets a bit tedious are the letters of congratulation for his Nobel Prize – I can understand why a proud daughter wants to show these off, but a dozen would have sufficed to get the point.)
There are so many good things in here. One is a demonstration of his surprising patience, responding to clearly confused writers in a self-deprecating and supportive way. There’s a wide exposure to his dismissal of status for the sake of it – refusing any honorary degrees and so forth. And there’s a chance to peek under the Feynman myth. His stories were better than reality. He enjoyed over-emphasising his own failings. His letters reveal that he had more interest in the arts, was less dismissive of culture (and even knew the language they spoke in Brazil, despite the story he told to the contrary). The real Richard Feynman can be seen so much more clearly through these letters, and any Feynman fan will be very grateful for that.
The obvious gap in the story is his second marriage. It isn’t even referred to in the linking text – if Fenynman himself hadn’t commented a couple of times about this being his third marriage, you wouldn’t have known he had more than two wives. Although you can understand why his daughter wouldn’t want to go into his second, disastrous marriage to a woman who allegedly once told him “some old bore called, but I sent him away” when Niels Bohr tried to visit Feynman. (Actually, this is a slight misquote on our part – she said that while he was out he had been invited to have dinner with “some old bore” – thanks to Peet Morris for highlighting this.) It may be that there just aren’t any letters from that period intact – but for completeness it’s a shame.
Normally we wouldn’t give a book like this more than 3 stars, because it’s only borderline popular science, but this is so good we’ve had to go for four.
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 3 May 2005

Science of Discworld III: Darwin’s Watch – Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen ****

When the whole “Science of…” or “Physics of…” business started off it all seemed pretty logical. Titles like Physics of Star Trek were eminently sensible. Star Trek may be fiction, but there’s a whole lot of science in there. Discworld, though, is a different kettle of kippers. This is fantasy – in fact such pure fantasy that the Discworld’s physical laws aren’t the same as ours.
It would see at first sight that this is a huge disadvantage – but the trio of Discworld originator Pratchett, and technical duo Stewart and Cohen turn the whole thing on its head and make it a great plus – so much so that this is the third volume in the series, and doesn’t suffer despite this.
The way the Science of Discworld books work is quite different from other members of the genre. The narrative alternates between fiction chapters, in which the magicians of Discworld merrily interfere with the workings of a toy universe they keep in little ball (it so happens to be our universe), and non-fiction chapters describing aspects of the real physical world that are brought out by the interference of the magicians. It’s a masterly conceit, and it works superbly.
This volume is largely dedicated to Darwin, both in the fiction (in which our world slips into a near alternative where Darwin is the Revd. Darwin, and writes Theology of Species, until all is stumblingly rescued by the wizards) and in the science chapters, which not only give a good explanation of evolution, and many of the ways it is misunderstood, but also include some highly enjoyable diversions, covering everything from steam engines to alternate universes.
To be honest, the book deserves five stars, were it not for an unfortunately vindictive chapter. More on that in a second. There were a couple of other minor moans (neither of which would lose the five stars, though). Pratchett fans will find the fictional parts just a little forced, as fiction always is when it’s being educational – it’s not as good as pure Pratchett by any stretch of the imagination, but is still highly entertaining. And though it’s hard to mention natural selection without criticising those who put forward intelligent design as an alternative, it wasn’t necessary to hammer this message home so unsubtly.
But the real disappointment is the chapter “secrets of life”, where, frankly, the authors come across as snotty and one-upmanish. They berate “popular science writers” for getting it wrong about evolution, portraying a wild misunderstanding of evolution that I’ve not seen in any decent popular science book written in the last 20 years. (They’re particularly hard on poor old Richard Dawkins, slightly more justified than most of their attack, but referring to something written a long time ago.) Admittedly their attack includes “popular science writers and TV journalists”, and sadly the time compression needed to get an explanation of genetics, DNA or evolution into 15 seconds does make some TV science fairly shaky, but even so there was no need for the rabid savaging. What particularly irritates is the way they give Martin Rees and two other astronomers a verbal kicking for daring to discuss a biological topic. Apart from falling into the common error of thinking the best explainers of science are specialists in an area – often they’re too close and are hopeless at explaining the topic to the general public – Pratchett, Stewart and Cohen (a fantasy writer, a mathematician and a biologist) have the cheek to do this, despite spending vast swathes of previous Science of Discworld books (and a fair amount of this one) on physics. Sauce for the goose, guys!
However, irritations with that chapter apart, this is a great book, and we’ll forgive them, even if they can’t forgive others, and say this is a must-have addition to any popular science collection. It’s rare for a popular science book to be a page turner, but this one truly is. Brilliant.
Review by Brian Clegg