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Showing posts from July, 2006

The Long Tail – Chris Anderson *****

I ought to explain why something that some would see as a business book is turning up on a science site. Like a number of “crossover” titles (take Gladwell’s Tipping Pointfor instance), this is a book on the application of science to a business topic – in this case the science is a combination of economics and statistics, while the topic is the way we buy and sell things. Like all the best such books, the style is fluent, readable and packed with people and real examples (though it’s rather sad for a book on a subject where the global market is such an important component, that Chris Anderson takes such a parochial, almost purely US approach). The message, like all the best big ideas, is very simple. Until very recently our whole approach to business has been to aim for the small number of big sellers and really push them. In fact we’ve seen a strong trend in that direction. It used to be you bought books in a bookstore with thousands of different titles. Now you are just as likely to…

The New Killer Germs – Pete Moore ****

There is a real danger with a book like this. The message is stark. Bacteria and viruses (oh, and funguses too) are very good at damaging us, and though we briefly won the bacterial battle with antibiotics, there’s every chance that things are going to worse rather than better, because the more we ladle out the antibiotics, the more bacteria develop resistance. (And viruses don’t care anyway as antibiotics don’t affect them.) It’s the sort of message that is in danger of encouraging the reader to give up hope and go into a monastery. This sort of thing is okay in a newspaper or a magazine article, but in a book like this, we need more. Not just the dire warning – some practical conclusion. In the recent Viruses vs Superbugs, that “something more” was the use of phages, bacteria killing viruses. So what will Pete Moore offer us? Let’s keep you in suspense. The book is certainly not a dull collection of facts. Moore has an engaging journalistic style that carries the reader along, despi…

Chloroform: the quest for oblivion – Linda Stratmann ****

Before there was anaesthetic, there was suffering. Surgery was a gruelling experience of agonizing pain that the surgeon had to hurry through at such speed that there was little time for making the best job of it. Linda Stratmann gives us an in-depth view of the rise and fall of chloroform, once touted as the perfect and safe anaesthetic, only to kill thousands of people. Along the way, we hear of the various parallel discoveries of chloroform, initial confusion over just what it was and what it would do, and a whole host of examples of chloroform being used – well and badly, in surgery and for pleasure, in crime and in war. Mostly it is a real pleasure, over and above anything that might be expected from a book on a relatively obscure aspect of medicine. The reason is that Stratmann does a wonderful job of capturing the feel of the time. She is at her best when relating a juicy chloroform story in full, such as the remarkable story of Adelaide Barrett’s murder of her husband with chl…

Broken Genius – Joel Shurkin *****

We are used to tales of the billionaire geniuses of Silicon Valley – this gripping scientific biography gives a balanced picture of the most bizarre and atypical of the great names of electronics, William Shockley. Still widely thought of as the “father of the transistor”, Shockley’s role in the nascent electronics industry was much more complex. Consider two simplistic and frequently parroted versions of the Shockley myth. William Shockley was the man who invented the transistor. Wrong. Alternatively, Shockley had nothing to do with the invention of the transistor, but managed to bulldoze his way into the limelight, refusing to allow the real inventors to get visibility and muscling in on their Nobel prize. Also wrong. Joel Shurkin, with access to a huge archive of material, takes us back through Shockley’s coldly administered childhood to his discovery of the joys of quantum mechanics, and the possibility of practical application of the theory to solid state electronics to replace …