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Showing posts from 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 rea…

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…

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 cove…

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 rocketbe…

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 c…