Tuesday, 22 November 2005

The Double Helix – James D. Watson *****

This is the daddy of them all. There have been attempts at popularising science for many a year, but James Watson’s very personal account of the discovery of the structure of DNA started the trend for popular science bestsellers, books on science that would be read by “ordinary people” not just science enthusiasts.
In some quarters it is popular to denigrate Watson’s book – but this entirely misses the point. Yes it has sexist elements, yes it supports a particular version of history that puts a Watson and Crick’s efforts in a good light – but that’s hardly surprising given that it was written in the 1950s by one of the protagonists.
But if you can see past the inevitable fact that the book doesn’t have a 21st century outlook, it’s wonderful. Firstly, it really doesn’t show its age, thanks to Watson’s excellent, personal narrative style, featuring none of the stiffness of most of the writing of the period. Secondly, Watson may give us a biased picture, but it gives a feel for the reality of scientific endeavour, as opposed to the glossy Hollywood view. Thirdly, Watson is honest about his relative ignorance of much of science, and a certain laziness in not wanting to put too much effort into reading things up that will reassure and delight anyone who enjoys science but finds some of the detailed work boring. Scientists in Watson’s world – including himself – aren’t geniuses who immediately understand what other scientists are saying. Instead they have very limited understanding outside their own little sphere of knowledge. Finally, Watson doesn’t stint from giving us some detail that a modern popularizer would shy away from. The information on molecular structures might be too much for some readers, but it’s easy enough to skip over without losing the flow.
Perhaps the biggest potential criticism of the book is over Watson’s treatment of the crystalographer Rosalind Franklin, whose case for being more prominent in the discovery of DNA has been well argued and is generally taken for granted today. (Franklin didn’t share in the Nobel Prize, which some complain about, but to be fair it was awarded after her death, and the Nobel Prize is never awarded posthumously.) It’s certainly true that Watson is, for most of the book, patronising towards Franklin, and he plays down the rather dubious way the Cambridge team obtained her X-ray photographs that would inspire them to come up with the familiar double helix structure. Nonetheless, it would be revisionist not to accept that Franklin was a prickly character and difficult to work with – very probably because of the way women were treated at the time – and Watson’s response to her was unfortunate but honest. He does at the end of the book, written a few years later after Franklin’s death, reassess her contribution and paints a more positive picture of her work.
Overall, though this is a gem of a popular science book that has stayed in print for many years for a reason. It’s a great read, plain and simple.
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 15 November 2005

Why the Toast Always Lands Butter Side Down – Richard Robinson ****

Richard Robinson’s delightful book is an exploration of the science behind Murphy’s Law (the truism that can be roughly stated as “if something can go wrong, it will”) – not just the simple probability tricks that fool our brains with such consistency – if we were any good at probabilities, there wouldn’t be a casino business – but also the many ways our brains can fool us.
Robinson begins by giving a little background to the brain itself, then moves onto our interactions with the world, and the misunderstandings that arise from them. We learn, for example, the way our eyes (and other senses) can so easily be fooled. Robinson misses one trick when talking about the way the moon appears so much bigger in the “real world” than it does on a photograph – the most amazing fact here is just how small the apparent size of the moon really is, about the same as the hole in a piece of punched paper, held at arms length (if you don’t believe it, try looking through such a hole at the moon) – but he still manages to point out just how easy our senses are to fool (and hence, sadly, why eye witnesses and anecdotes are pretty useless for either testimony in court, or scientific proof).
After taking on the senses, Robinson takes us through the faulty interference of memory, the way our natural tendency to look for patterns and connections can result in misunderstanding and “naive science”, often suggesting causality that doesn’t exist, emotional distortion (rather too much on this) and the impact of social context (it’s all “their” fault), which section would have been better if it didn’t perpetuate Richard Dawkins’ meme concept, popular with the general public, but largely ignored in scientific circles. A final section considers the “pure science” of Murphy’s law – that’s to say the maths, physics and more that mean that things go wrong in the real world even without a misunderstanding from our brains – for example, busses really do tend to bunch up and travel in small packs. All this is helped along by short quotes that reflect Murphy’s law in the particular arena under consideration.
The whole thing is neatly illustrated with a series of cartoons by Kate Charlesworth. These are fun, though both the illustrations and some of Robinson’s wording make it difficult to decide whether this book is aimed at adults or older children – we think it’s a great crossover title that can be appreciated by both.
Incidentally, the book cover illustrates a small subsection of Murphy’s Law that deals with publishers – if you go through several versions of the jacket illustration, you will almost inevitably end up with the wrong one on Amazon – both the covers shown here are supposedly for the same physical book. Both are wrong. The real book actually most closely resembles the bigger version, but the cat has disappeared leaving only the toast (could there have been complaints from the animal rights lobby?)
Overall, entertaining and painlessly educational – what more can you ask of popular science – it’s great as a present, or as a refreshing read to take away the pain of a hard day at work.
Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 11 November 2005

The Single Helix – Steve Jones ****

If you talk to fiction publishers, you’d get the impression that no one likes short stories. Short story collections, it seems, just don’t sell. Yet you would think with today’s hectic lifestyle, that they’d be ideal. You can slip one in on the tube/metro/subway. You can fit one into your lunch break. Or maybe read a couple at bedtime. And unlike working through a small section of a novel, you have the reward of completion and closure. I find the public’s reluctance to read short stories odd – I love them.
Similarly, in non-fiction, and popular science in particular, there’s a certain wariness of collections of short pieces. When they’re written by different people, this wariness can be justified, but in a book like The Single Helix, where Steve Jones has collected short pieces he wrote for a newspaper, the effect is very pleasing. Each piece is short enough to fit into that frantic lifestyle. Although there’s inevitably a slight bias towards the biological side, Jones manages to cover a whole swathe of different aspects of science, and the relationship of science to society, in these hundred brief explorations.
This reviewer once had an argument with the publishing director of a UK publisher over the nature of popular science. I believe good popular science should work as bedtime reading, while she thought it had to be hard enough that the reader should be forced to pore over it and make notes in the hope of understanding it. In this instance, it’s very much my school of popular science – each piece is light, highly readable, and informative without being hard work.
Perhaps the only criticism is that the quality of the content varies. This is almost inevitable when writing a regular column – sometimes you struggle to come up with anything of great import. In some of the pieces, there’s not an awful lot of science. Many are well provided with fascinating facts, but some have a very small scientific hook that enables Jones to go off on a bit of a rant on a personal hot topic. Occasionally, too, the brevity of the piece makes it a little frustrating. In one, for example, we’re told that “a single chimp social group in West Africa contains as much genetic diversity as the whole human population.” It would be great to know how that diversity is expressed (call me apeist, but visually chimps seem much less diverse than humans – where are the red haired chimps?)
Another example of variability of content is in tone. Mostly, Jones has a wonderfully approachable, warm style that makes what he is saying ideal for his audience. Now and again, though – most obviously when he has a dig at poor old Prince Charles – that most evil of academic sins is in evidence. Just briefly, his tone suggest that he despises the common herd, and specifically those who dare to have any form of mystical or religious belief. There’s something about academia that makes professors and the like all too aware of their own sense of superiority. To be fair to Steve Jones, he rarely does allow this to come through, but there’s just the occasional slip. That shouldn’t put you off, though (and you may even enjoy the odd sly dig) – these are delicious little written canap├ęs of popular science, just waiting to be eagerly consumed.
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 7 November 2005

The Rocketbelt Caper – Paul Brown ****

There’s something hypnotically attractive about the concept of a rocketbelt – a device to enable an individual to fly through the air. This aspect of flying without a plane seems to tie directly into our dreams. (UK readers may be familiar with comedian Paul Merton’s occasional rant about his desire for a jetpack, one of the many alternative names for this unusual technology.)
In this book, Paul Brown brings the topic alive. It has to be one of the most readable science/technology focussed books of the year. Brown has an excellent journalistic style, and pulls the reader on relentlessly through the tales of technical inspiration and human weakness that litter the history of the rocketbelt.
Starting with its science fiction origins, we learn how a practical rocketbelt was first constructed, how the most famous appearance of a belt – in the James Bond movie Thunderball – was real, even though most moviegoers assumed it was pure special effects, and the convoluted history of the rocketbelts themselves. Almost uniquely, it is possible to chart the existence of every belt ever built – fewer than there were Apollo spacecraft. This is the irony of the rocketbelt. Though the idea was often originally sold as a commercial wonder – everyone flying around the place in rocketbelts – or as a military vehicle, in practice they have proved hugely expensive to build, difficult and dangerous to fly, and are limited to totally impractical flight times of 20 to 30 seconds. Even so, the few rocketbelts that have had a commercial career have made a lot of money, because they have been in high demand for public demonstrations and publicity stunts.
When the book is charting the rise of the rocketbelt and the lives of those involved with the technology, it is truly fascinating. Things only fall down a little when Brown takes us into the murkiest part of the rocketbelt’s history, involving fraud, theft, kidnapping and murder. It sounds a writer’s dream, the icing on the cake that will make the story even more attractive, but after a while, because the main characters in this aspect of the story seem so unpleasant and difficult to identify with, it actually detracts from the overall impact of the book, and it might have been better to have had less pages on this human tragedy that is interwoven with the history of one particular rocketbelt.
Despite this, however, the book overall is a delight to read, and the sheer enthusiasm that rocketbelts have generated in those who have built and flown them is amazing. This is never going to be an everyday piece of technology, but the rocketbelt remains a remarkable achievement – the more so for being largely in semi-amateur hands – and the story is genuinely one where reality is stranger than fiction.
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 1 November 2005

Our Inner Ape – Frans de Waal ****

Here we go again, I thought, yet another “where did humanity come from” book, a subject that was very heavily covered in 2005 when this book was published. Luckily, I was wrong.
It’s true that Our Inner Ape, byleading primatologist Frans de Waal, does provide plenty of comparison between human beings and the apes, but the search for where we came from is not really the driving force. Instead, de Waal’s love for the apes comes through strongly in his warm, well written description of how different groups of chimpanzees and bonobos, our two closest relatives in the primates, behave, and what we can learn about our own behaviour from them.
One of the useful things about this book is bringing out the differences between chimps and bonobos. Because it was only realized that bonobos were a separate species in the 1920s, there has been much less written on them than other great apes, yet it is so important, as de Waal emphasizes, to compare the aggressive approach of the chimps with a more considerate, caring attitude that typifies the bonobo.
As de Waal also points out, we habitually think of our aggressive side as our “animal” side, yet there is plenty of evidence from the chimpanzees and bonobos that much of our loving, caring nature is also reflected in the behaviour of these closest of primates.
Whether he’s relating the sad story of the brutal killing of his favourite chimp by a pair of competitors, allying to take the alpha position, or the approaches to power politics taken by two very different sets of primates, de Waal tells a captivating and fascinating tale.
The book does regularly relate to the relationship between the behaviour of apes and of human beings, drawing parallels and exploring differences – and some sections have more about humans than others – but even so the US subtitle of the book, “A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are” remains a little misleading. (Is it also worryingly reminiscent of a typical 1960s ad – “A leading scientist explains why you should brush your teeth!”) The primary focus of the book isn’t really us but the chimpanzees and bonobos, and the writing is far and above at its best when de Waal is painting a picture of these wonderful animals in action.
Review by Brian Clegg