Wednesday, 28 September 2005

What Do You Care What Other People Think? – Richard Feynman ****

Richard Feynman had an unexpected success with his superb collection of tales (some bearing a good resemblance to reality) told to Ralph Layton, Surely You Are Joking, Mr Feynman? This book is technically a sequel to that bestseller, but anyone expecting more of the same might feel a touch of the disappointment Lord of the Rings fans had when Tolkein’s next book, The Silmarillion came out. In both cases, the sequel had none of the order of the original, and was something of a collection of bits and bobs that didn’t fit elsewhere.
But there the similarity goes away – for most readers The Silmarillion was deadly dull, where What Do You Care is anything but. It’s just that compared with Surely You Are Joking, it is more of a grouping of disparate short pieces of writing, plus half a book. Even so, all come through strongly in Feynman’s unmistakable accents (if you’ve never heard him speak, imagine Tony Curtis reading the words aloud).
The first section contains a few interesting short memories – if you’ve read one of Feynman’s biographies, these will seem rather familiar, but this is the original, in Feyman’s own words. Then there are a number of letters, including his humorous first encounter with royalty. When this book was published, these were a great addition, though since his collected letters are now out as Don’t You Have Time to Think (or Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track, depending which side of the Atlantic you’re on), they are less valuable.
Then comes the absolute gem – Feynman’s description of the whole process of the investigation into the explosion of the shuttle Challenger. Again, this will be familiar to readers of a Feynman biography, but the real thing is much richer than any of the versions I have seen elsewhere. Of course there’s Feynman’s famous bit of theatre with the O-ring dipped in ice water, but that gets less coverage than the machinations and the battle between science and logic on the one hand and politics and expediency on the other – it’s gripping. Here we see Feynman doing what he does best – being the innocent in the land of the unnecessarily complex, cutting through the garbage with a sharp question or a quick idea. There’s no doubt at all that this was a knowingly projected image, a persona that Feynman used to get results – let’s face it, he was no fool – but it doesn’t make it any less effective.
Without doubt, the book is well worth buying for the Challenger section alone – and it’s more than a few articles, it’s half the whole contents – totally fascinating in its mix of science and politics.
Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 23 September 2005

The Age of Scurvy – Stephen R. Bown ****

We all know that scurvy was an unpleasant affliction, that particularly hit sailors in the 16th to 18th centuries, but it’s hard to be prepared for the sheer horror of this blight of the seas as presented graphically in Stephen Bown’s often gripping history of the disease and its cure.
Not only does Bown gives a vivid picture of the horrible nature of the disease itself, from rotting gums to the joints in old broken bones re-opening, but perhaps the biggest shock is the inhuman approach the authorities of the time took to seamen. We hear of Admiral Anson’s voyage in the 1740s where the crew of over 2,000 men on a flotilla of six ships was reduced to more like 200 on their return, largely by the impact of scurvy. In itself this was horrible, but at the time Anson set sail there were a shortage of able seamen – the solution? Just drag the elderly invalids from the Chelsea Hospital (for retired injured servicemen) and throw them on board. The practice at the time was to carry up to half as many men again as were required, on the assumption that a sizeable percentage would die en route.
These ships, Bown tells us, were riddled with disease. The food started off bad, and ended up inedible – the best tasting thing in the ship’s hold after a few months at sea were the rats. And though it was recognized what a cost scurvy presented to the navy (after all, if enough men died, the fleet might lose a valuable warship), the attempts at curing it were initially pitiful.
Bown leads us through some of the biggest scurvy disasters, the early attempts at curing it and the painful realization of what was required to prevent it. Along the way we meet characters like James Cook, and his unrivalled scurvy-free voyages, and see how Britain’s final realization of how to get scurvy under control influenced the aquatic defeat of Napoleon.
One of the most interesting reflections is the way that individuals realized that the fresh fruit and vegetables, and citrus juices, were helping, but the majority of “experts” didn’t notice, happier to go for odd (and non-functioning) cures like sea water, mostly because they were cheap and practical. There was even an early clinical trial in the 1700s, but the outcome was ignored. (To be fair, like many early attempts at science, it wasn’t a very good trial – see John Waller’s Leaps in the Dark for details of the flaws in early scientific experiments like this.) Time and time again it seems to us it should have been obvious to everyone what to do – but no, off they went again on some other peculiar and useless attempt.
Mostly Bown’s book is very readable, and brings the atmosphere of the time on ship alive in a way that can almost be cut with a knife. The only fault is a tendency to repeat the symptoms more than is needed – and a first few chapters before he settles into storytelling where he tells us once or twice what he’s then about to tell us again – but that’s bearable. In the end it’s the people and the story of the final realization of what’s happening, of a tiny outbreak of science in what had been a matter of habit and guesswork, that leads to Bown’s subtitle “How a Surgeon, a Mariner and a Gentleman helped Britain win the Battle of Trafalgar” – and when he’s showing us those people in action, Bown does a great job.
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 22 September 2005

E=mc2: A biography of the world’s most famous equation – David Bodanis *****

David Bodanis is a storyteller, and he fulfils this role with flair in E=mc2. The premise of the book is simple – Einstein himself has been biographed (biographised?) to death, but no one has picked out this most famous of equations, dusted it down and told us what it means, where it comes from and what it has delivered. Allegedly, Bodanis was inspired to write the book after hearing see an interview with actress Cameron Diaz in which she commented that she’d really like to know what that famous collection of letters was all about.
Although the book had been around for a while already when this review was written (September 2005), it seemed a very apt moment to cover it, as the equation is, as I write, exactly 100 years old. So when better to have a biography?
Bodanis starts off by telling us about the individual elements of the equation. What the different letters mean, where the equal sign comes from and so on. This is entertaining, though he seems to tire of the approach on the final straight, brushing aside the origins of the 2 for “squared” with the comment that it went through about as many permutations as “=”, without bothering to tells us what, where and when. But after this, the book settles down to a more people-driven history approach, first over the derivation of square laws, then taking us through Einstein’s formative period, then moving on to the first realization of the potential power of nuclear fission, to its wartime deployment and the role of E=mc2 in the heart of the sun.
What this book does exquisitely is find the details of history, the personal, individual quirky details, the make things so much more interesting. There’s been much written about the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb, but much less, for instance, about the raid on a Norwegian heavy water factory that was instrumental in slowing down the development of a German nuclear weapon during the Second World War. Similarly, Bodanis delights in finding historical characters, often women, who have been significant in science but rarely get the exposure of their more famous counterparts – for instance Lise Meitner and Cecilia Payne.
There is one concern here. Bodanis is so focussed on making the story easy to digest and flow effortlessly, that he can be a little cavalier with the facts, or over-simplify the science. When describing the evolution of the “squared” part of the equation, he is at his worst. He makes confusing statements, in one paragraph saying “If a five pound ball is going at 10 mph, it has 50 units of energy. Then in the next paragraph “If a five pound ball is going at 10 mph, it has 5 times 102, or 500 units of energy. While he goes on to describe the experimental proof of the latter, he slips from saying the energy “is mv2″ to a more accurate “is proportional to mv2″, without explaining this shift. He the effectively says that it’s c2 in E=mc2 because it’s similar in some hand-waving way, without explaining why.
The occasionally sketchy approach to the science is certainly a weakness, but it is more than adequately countered by the excellent historical storytelling, giving a freshness to what would otherwise be an over-told story. Well worth looking out. Happy birthday E=mc2
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 19 September 2005

Taking the Red Pill – Glenn Yeffeth (Ed.) ****

It’s an odd one, this. The book is a collection of essays inspired by the 1999 movie, The Matrix. It’s not going to be for everyone, but it can be appreciated by a much wider audience than just movie or science fiction fans. That’s because The Matrix itself is cleverer than the average SF action film, and is an ideal starting point for popular discussions of science and philosophy. Having said that, it’s pretty important to have seen the movie first before reading the book (see links for DVDs below).
As is usually the case with a collection of essays, it’s a mixed bag, so the impressive four star rating includes some 5 star gems, some 3 star so-so pieces and at least one dud. Even so, overall it’s a good mix. There are fascinating explorations of the different themes and inspirations that the writers very cleverly wove together in the The Matrix. Perhaps most interesting are the science/science fiction themes, particularly around artificial intelligence (don’t be put off if you don’t like science fiction – think of this as speculative science). A number of authors point out that the most obvious enormous hole in the science of the film (using human beings as living “batteries”, where actually the net energy flow would be in rather than out) could be interpreted as a misunderstanding – we are told this is what is happening by one of the characters, but he could have got it wrong, and the suggestions in the book are much more sensible. (Of course, what actually happened is the writers got their science wrong, but it doesn’t mean you can’t unpick the situation after the event.)
Also surprisingly effective are a couple of essays that go into the post-modernist influences of the movie. They are strongly present when explained, but won’t be noticed by most in the audience (this reviewer included) – but why should they? What’s great is the essays provide the first explanation of aspects of literary post-modernism that make sense, rather than the usual, much-mocked flow of meaningless jargon lifted from science with little comprehension. You may not agree with the ideas about modern society being obsessed with models of reality rather than reality itself, but it is understandable and interesting, and obviously of very direct relevance to The Matrix.
Perhaps less successful are a couple of religion-oriented essays. The Matrix certainly has strong religious overtones, both in the central figure as reluctant messiah, and many of the discussions that take place – but this is religion as story or myth, rather than driving force for living. Particularly weak is the Buddhist entry, partly because about half the long essay is just explaining Buddhism, and partly because the parallels drawn are so vague you could apply them to practically any movie. And there’s also a piece on the selfish gene (suggesting that our genes control us in the same way the Matrix controls its human inhabitants) that totally misunderstands genetics – perhaps because it’s written by an economist. But, of course, the great thing about an essay format is you can skip over a chapter and it makes no difference to the flow of the book.
Taking the Red Pill was published between The Matrix and its two sequels hitting the screen, so some of the speculation is a little out of date. For instance, it’s pointed out that one of the possible interpretations of the original movie is that even the “real” world outside the Matrix could be another computer simulation – how could they tell? This potential storyline comes up in the second film, where a strange event suggests it is true, but then the writers lose their bottle, and never make use of it. Similarly, there is a lot made in the book about parallels with messiah figures, but it isn’t obvious until the final movie that the writers were very strongly influenced by Frank Herbert’s Dune books, where the central “chosen one” figure suffers the same injury as Neo, the hero of The Matrix, an injury that should cripple him but in fact seems to make him stronger.
Despite this, though, it’s a fun collection of essays that help bring out aspects of a very cleverly constructed film and inspires thought on aspects of science, philosophy and morality – which can’t be a bad thing!
Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 11 September 2005

The Fellowship – John Gribbin ***

Not The Fellowship of the Ring, but of the Royal Society. This is a strange book. It starts with a section that reinforces John Gribbin’s assertion that there was no science before the time of Galileo or thereabouts (ignoring both the likes of Archimedes and medieval adherents of experimental verification like Roger Bacon and his superb Arab counterparts). We hear a condensed version of Galileo’s story, and rather more on William Gilbert (whose forays into science, and particularly magnetism, were quite remarkable for the time, on Francis Bacon with his much-trumpeted if totally impractical ideas of a scientific method, and on William Harvey with his early medical insights. This is quite interesting stuff, but there’s a feeling of “where’s it going?”, because this all predates the Royal Society, and though it is intended to lay the groundwork of where the RS came from, the content seems strangely detached.
Then comes an astonishingly tedious section around the founding of the society itself. This could have been quite exciting had it focussed on the way the RS came into being and the early science that stimulated it, but instead we get short and decidedly tedious biographies of each of the key founder members – it’s probably about ten of them, but it felt like 300 – who, Boyle apart, really hadn’t much to recommend them to scientific history. Even those with exciting lives came across like someone in a not particularly exciting history textbook – nothing came alive. Dull, dull, dull.
But The Fellowship does revive in a big way when Gribbin is covering Robert Hooke. All of a sudden we meet an interesting person, a Renaissance man who not only came up with some great scientific ideas, seemed to run the RS single-handed and did the experiments for practically everyone else, but was also a man who was an equal with Wren in the rebuilding of the City of London in the great fire, and produced the most exquisite drawings of his studies through a microscope. “Yes!” was the reader’s cry, like that scene in When Harry Met Sally, this is what the whole book should have been like. On the whole this positive feeling continues into the remainder of The Fellowship, largely taken up with Newton (admittedly with a slight feeling of “been there, read this” – Newton’s not exactly fresh ground) and Halley, though Hooke remains the high point.
It’s hard to make a consistent conclusion about this book. It is excellent in parts, but has deeply uninspiring sections too, and occasionally is downright infuriating. Gribbin has a habit of giving a little teaser about something, then saying “but we don’t need to cover that”. If you aren’t going to tell us about it, don’t give us a hint, it’s not nice! Often this is where the person in question got the science wrong, so, apparently, we don’t need to hear about it. But this misses the point of history of science – we get a much fuller picture if we understand what the wrong ideas of the time were and how they influenced thinking.
John Gribbin has been an astoundingly prolific science writer (The Fellowship is apparently his 100th book!), and looking back over at his output, he is at his best when he is describing complex science with a bit of people thrown in – for instance in his In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat. Failing that, he can do a fair job of a scientific biography of an individual if there’s plenty of their science to throw in – this comes across in the best part of The Fellowship, when he is dealing with Hooke, and particularly in his Einstein book, which benefited from Michael White’s stylistic guidance. But producing engaging history books isn’t his forte – here his approach is too summary to ever engage the interest and falls into the trap, particularly when recounting the details of the lesser founders of the Royal Society, to give a list of dull pocket biographies.
This isn’t a bad book on the formalization of the scientific method and the establishment of the Royal Society, but it’s certainly not Gribbin at his cutting edge.
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 8 September 2005

Climate Change Begins at Home – Dave Reay ****

There surely are fewer and fewer ordinary people who dismiss climate change, leaving the head-in-the-sand attitude largely to big business (and politicians under the business thumb), where short-termism is an inevitable consequence of focus on the share price. This wonderfully readable book by Dave Reay brings home just how real the problems of climate change are. But, as he points out, there’s no point waiting for governments to do something – we can, and should, take individual action to cut emissions. Much of the book then looks at the different ways we use energy, and gives simple suggestions on approaches to do something about it.
It would be easy for this turn into a knit-your-own-sandals-from-spare-beard-hair tract, but Reay manages to steer away from this as much as possible (even making jokes about people who wear sandals with socks). His language is down to earth, and easy to understand (at the start of the book he thanks his editor for steering him away from academic speak, and she’s done a great job). Instead Reay gives us a simple, frightening picture of the consequences of climate change, then pulls apart our lifestyle and looks at the practical possibilities of doing things differently.
Oddly, one of the few complaints here is that the style is just a bit too light. If there’s spectrum running from dull to flippant, this book comes somewhere between breezy and flippant. We’re always complaining about academic authors who can’t get away from jargon and dullness – there’s no sense of that, but if anything Reay has gone a bit too far the other way with his relentless jokiness.
The book also seems to occupy a strange land, somewhere in the mid-Atlantic. This is reminiscent of something that has happened in a few children’s films over the years. We’re not talking simple biological ignorance, as when the live action 101 Dalmatians gives us racoons and skunks in the UK, or when the Mary Poppins designers clearly had no idea what a British robin looks like, but the strange hybrid USengland of The Borrowers or the new Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, an intentional fantasy environment containing stereotypical elements of both cultures. In CCBaH, Reay makes a brave attempt to appeal to the US market by making his example family American, but the context usually reflects British lifestyle (for example in his description of a new housing estate).
Realistically despite Reay’s jokes, it’s impossible for a little worthiness not to creep into a book like this. Doing meaningful things for climate change is a bit like making careful decisions about pensions – very sensible, but not exactly thrilling. This is perhaps most obvious in the comments about cars, which a UK reader can imagine setting Jeremy Clarkson spinning in his chair – while Reay is right that a nice little hatchback is so much more sensible for most of us than a four wheel drive, cars really aren’t about being sensible for many people. And comments about the wonders of using LPG and similar fuels slickly avoid the practical difficulties and sometimes dangers of these alternative fuels. Reay’s solutions can be a bit too black and white – for example he suggests it’s better not to buy a new house due to the emissions that result from making materials, but if that new house was necessary to meet rising population, it would have been built anyway, so we can ignore that part of the equation.
BUT, whatever you do, don’t be put off. This is one of the most easily readable popular science books I’ve seen in several years, it’s practical rather than ridiculous, it puts the case without being preachy – it really is a wonderfully effective description of the realities of climate change, how it will effect us and our families, and what we as individuals can do about it. So go out and buy one. (In fact, buy two and send one to the world leader or large company CEO of your choice.)
Review by Brian Clegg