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Showing posts from 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 …

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…

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 …

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 …

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…

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…