Friday, 26 May 2006

Jurassic Mary – Patricia Pierce ****

We almost take fossils for granted now. The sight of a fossil might still be exciting, but we know just what we’re dealing with, and why they’re there. But Patricia Pierce takes us back to a different time, when the word “dinosaur” was yet to be coined, when fossils were much more mysterious finds. What’s more she takes us back to meet a very successful fossil hunter, who discovered several new species, or British firsts, who was an uneducated young woman – someone who therefore had to overcome a huge mountain of prejudice through sheer enthusiasm.
That’s enough to make Mary Anning’s story a delight – and Pierce tells it well, embroidering a little to set the scene, but never going over the top. We are taken into the world of Victorian Lyme Regis, getting a good feel for the place at the time and Mary Anning’s achievements that would put her alongside many of the great names of fossil discovery of the period, though she herself only once left Lyme for a brief visit to London, and never received the accolade arguably due to her – sadly this was pretty well always the way for the people who did the spadework at the time. I shouldn’t give the impression that Mary was just a humble digger, employed by the great and good, though. Self-taught, she had significant expertise as well as an unerring eye for a likely location and tons of location experience that made her opinions more important than many of the armchair theorists of the time. Pierce has done an important job in highlighting Mary’s contribution.
The only thing I’d take issue with is her statement that Mary was “born and bred in lowly circumstances”. While it’s true Mary’s family was not in the “educated classes”, her poor and lowly circumstances were certainly relative. Her family lived in a 3 story house with cellar and bow windows. When she and her brother found their first major fossil (when Mary was 12, the Annings “hired men to dig out the complete skeleton.” Compare these with the living conditions of, say a Lancashire cotton worker, crammed with maybe a dozen others in a two up, two down shack, and this is relative wealth. Mary’s father was a craftsman, not a humble labourer, and they could afford to hire men – this was certainly not a wealthy family, it was a family who had to work for their living, but by 19th century standards, certainly not as lowly as Pierce makes out. I don’t say this to take away from Mary’s achievement – or to knock Pierce’s book – but it is gilding the lily a touch. (Oh, and if we’re being very picky, look out for the page heading where the proof reading process failed to spot this enigmatic heading for one of the pages of notes that sounds like something out of the Da Vinci Code: THE CHAPNOTESTER TITLE… think about it.)
Altogether a fascinating book that reveals a lot about someone who for many is a total unknown in the human backdrop of the discovery of fossils, and the impact that they would have on everything from geology to theology.
Review by Martin O'Brien

The Devil’s Doctor – Philip Ball ****

It’s very easy to dismiss those who laboured in areas we now recognize as science in medieval times. Some historians of science, with a brief nod to the developments in the Arab world prior to 1200, jump straight from the ancient Greeks to Galileo. But to do so reflects a fundamental misunderstanding, an incomprehension that results from looking back at medieval thinkers with a modern agenda. Strip away that bias, and surprising steps were taken.
When this reviewer suggested that the 13th century friar Roger Bacon could be regarded as the first scientist, it was argued in reviews that I was over-enthusiastic about the subject and had over-played Bacon’s significance. After all, he wasn’t a very good scientist. Theology was central to his worldview and he tended to overvalue the wisdom of the ancients, even though he argued against relying on received wisdom, and in favour of the importance of experiment. But surely the point is that the first scientist would not be a good scientist – like the dog walking on its hind legs, what’s amazing is not that he did it well, but that he did it at all.
In Philip Ball’s bulging book we are introduced to Paracelsus, the medical equivalent of Roger Bacon, if operating somewhat later. Like Bacon, Paracelsus become legend, gaining plenty of fictional notoriety. Like Bacon also, he operated in a world where theology was the starting point of science, and like Bacon it’s easy to dismiss his contribution because he was an early worker – he did get things wrong, but then it would be very strange if he didn’t.
There is one fundamental difference, though. In one sense, Bacon, born more that 270 years before Paracelsus (more properly Philip Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim) was the more modern in his thought. Paracelsus thought that magic was a part of the natural world. Bacon despised magic, and made it clear that any “wonders” were the work of man’s hand or natural. Paracelsus was an outgoing, coarse, dramatic public performer – Bacon was an irascible Franciscan friar with little time for other people.
Philip Ball does a great job of putting us into Paracesus’ world. He gives lots of context and background, and makes it clear that, given where he started from, Paracelsus has been underrated. Yes, he believed many ridiculous things. Yes, he was more likely to kill a patient than help them. But his attitude, scorning the physicians who couldn’t be bothered to examine patients and believed it beneath them to touch a diseased person, and his approach showed that he was on the tipping point between magic and science. From Ball’s lucid text it becomes plain that it would be easy to see Paracelsus on either side of the magic/science divide. Of course life isn’t so neat – he was both.
The only criticism, one I’ve mentioned with Ball before, is that the book is unnecessarily long. If this is intended to be popular history of science, there was no need to drag it out to such length, and a little judicious editing could have made it much more approachable. Medieval science is never going to appeal to as many people as Newton or Einstein – but it is truly fascinating, a view into a very different world that gave birth to our own – and the more people who find out about it, the better, because it’s a part of history that has tended to be hidden. Full marks, then, to Ball for opening it up.
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 23 May 2006

Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You – Marcus Chown *****

Some while ago, one of’s readers asked for some advice. He’d read our dismissive review of The Dancing Wu Li Masters and wondered if we could recommend an alternative as a good introduction to the amazing world of quantum theory. To be honest, we struggled. There are some reasonable books around, but they’re mostly quite dated, and none of them are top notch popular science. Luckily, though, Marcus Chown has come to our aid with Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You, simply the best and most readable overview of the quantum world, with a great high level overview of general relativity thrown in as a bonus.
Right from the beginning you know that Chown is going to make this an interesting ride. He hits you between the eyes with some of the mind-boggling consequences of quantum physics and relativity, then takes the reader spiralling into the sub-atomic world to explore the nature of matter and the seemingly impossible behaviour of quantum particles that insist on being in more than one place at a time, in jumping over insuperable barriers and in making impossibly complex calculations trivial. All the half-familiar armoury of the quantum world, from Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, to superfluids, slots into place as step-by-step Chown builds a readily comprehensible picture of what is going on all around us, if only we could see into the world of individual atoms and photons of light.
Barely pausing for breath, Chown then does a Matrix-like blast into space, going from concentrating on the very small to the universal implications of relativity. Building steadily on the critical assumption of the unchangeable speed of light (in a vacuum), we find E=mc2 popping into place, and the rapid transition from the strange concepts of special relativity to the universal impact of general relativity and its implications for gravity. Chown eloquently demonstrates that “the force of gravity does not exist” in a similar way to the realization the centrifugal force does not exist. Each is just the tendency of objects to carry on moving the same way unless forced to do otherwise by being restricted by the environment about them, rather than a true force.
By the end of the book, quantum theory and relativity will no longer seem a mystery. You might not be an expert – inevitably some of the topics are glossed over with some of the subtlety slightly distorted, but the big picture is just right. It’s interesting that Chown manages this without using any of the over-fancy diagrams plaguing many recent books on these subjects – he uses great word pictures to do away with the need for illustrations.
If there’s any moan here it’s the bit of cosmology that seems rather tacked on in the last chapter. While relativity is relevant to theories of how the universe has expanded, cosmological concerns are something of a tangential topic, and we end up with very quick overviews of the big bang, dark matter, inflation etc. which don’t feel quite as superb as the rest of the book. I’d rather have lost these and had more detail on some of the more central topics. But that is a very small point.
Overall, anyone who is baffled by quantum theory or relativity – anyone who wants a guide that doesn’t assume you know anything, but doesn’t patronize – should run, not walk, to the bookstore and lay their hands on Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You.
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 18 May 2006

Patrick Moore: the autobiography – Patrick Moore ****

If you come from the UK, the late Patrick Moore will be very familiar as one of the first TV celebrities, even if you’ve never watched his astronomy show. A wonderful eccentric, complete with monocle, xylophone and huge enthusiasm, he presented the longest running TV show ever with a single presenter, the astronomy programme The Sky at Night, as well as writing a magnificent output of books on astronomy and juvenile science fiction.
His eccentricity comes through very quickly in the autobiography. Doing away with the convention that we need to learn of the upbringing to discover the person, he pretty well skips over everything before 1952, when at age 29, his first book was published. It’s as if this was when he was truly born. In the process he also dismisses something that would, in most autobiographies, be central to the “plot”. Moore lived with his mother until she died when he was in his late 50s. This might lead to suspicions about his emotional life – but these are dismissed by pointing out that Lorna, “the only girl for me” died in 1943. That same eccentricity is also reflected early on in his admitting to still using the same 1908 manual Woodstock typewriter he acquired at age 8. This reviewer treasurers a couple of letters written on that very same typewriter with Moore’s typical warmth in responding to a request from a total stranger. There’s even eccentricity in the review quote from the Times in the blurb of the book. “A bundle of oxymorons,” it says. Pardon?
What you find here is a fascinating mix of stories from Moore’s experience as probably the world’s leading professional amateur astronomer. (Confused? He calls himself an amateur because he’s not employed by an observatory or university, but he has made a living from his astronomy one way and another for most of his life – perhaps it would be better to call him a freelance.) There are tales of chasing eclipses around the world. The difficulties of running a conference with practically no resources. The sad story of the demise of the Royal Greenwich Observatory. Experiences in early, live TV trying to do an astronomy show with little more than a camera and cardboard. The struggle to get a planetarium (and for that matter a scout troop) operating in sectarian Northern Ireland. And much more. You won’t always get the depth you want – Moore will often shy away from detail saying it’s of no importance – but there’s no doubting the enjoyment in sharing what he does let us see.
To criticize Sir Patrick’s book seems a bit like kicking a favourite pet, but its main fault is a lack of tight editing. A couple of simple examples – the phrasing could often do with a little tightening up, and some of the facts bear checking. For example we hear that for his first radio broadcast “the subject was about Greenwich Observatory” – just dropping that “about” would have smoothed things over. And on the same page we’re told that flying saucers were called that because a pilot, Kenneth Arnold, after a 1947 sighting, described them as being “flat like pie pans”. But in fact Arnold said that the UFOs moved erratically “like a saucer if you skip it across the water”, and the term was coined incorrectly by newspaper headline writers.
Some readers will also find aspects of the book offensive. Moore is totally honest about his attitude to much of the rest of the world, which can be summed up as “English is best” – and his politics are anything but populist. But to object to this misses the point. He wouldn’t be the celebrated eccentric he is were it not for the overall package – and to be honest, after years of British misery, with the nation blaming itself for everything from empire to the slave trade, it’s refreshing to see some national pride, something that the US and many other countries find no shame in displaying.
So switch off your political correctness checker, and join me in warmly enjoying a book that gives an insight into a unique and often delightful astronomical life.
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 11 May 2006

Phantoms in the Brain – Sandra Blakeslee & V. S. Ramachandran ****

“What causes a wide range of strange mental behaviours?” asks the author at the start of the book. Traditionally many of these would have been put down as being “just madness”, but as we come to know more of how the brain works we can start to see physical reasons for the strange perceptions and behaviours.
I was a little uncertain about V. S. Ramachandran’s response to a question he says he often gets asked – “When are you brain scientists ever going to come up with a unified theory of how the mind works?” They are looking for a sort of brain version of general relativity and Newton’s laws, he suggests, and that won’t happen yet, as we are more at the descriptive Michael Faraday point in the history of brain science, rather than the Maxwell’s equations stage, where things get more quantified and tied down. Ramachandran has a point, but surely the real answer is because the brain isn’t a fundamental building block of nature – it’s a bit like asking when is there going to be a unified theory of the automobile engine, or the computer – it just doesn’t mean anything.
That aside, however, this is a totally fascinating exploration of the brain starting from different problems with the mind and linking them back to the technical problem in the brain. It’s fluently written and carries you forward all the time. I was a little concerned about a brief excursion into new ageism – finding that the mind can influence the body doesn’t mean that we have to abandon “Western thinking” or look for some new mystical union of science and Eastern philosophy – it just means that the mind can influence the body. But that apart it was great reading all the way.
I suspect Ramachandran was very wise in teaming up with science writer Sandra Blakeslee in producing this book. All too often scientists produce frustratingly impenetrable “popular” science books because they just don’t have the skill to get the message across well. The result here has been to make this book read extremely well – it’s just a pity, perhaps that Blakeslee has been so sidelined in the presentation of the book (you can hardly see her name on the cover). You expect this to happen when someone ghost authors a celebrity’s “autobiography”, but not in a science book.
Overall, then, a very successful exploration of the brain through its failings that might make those who find mental problems disturbing wince, but otherwise is packed with insight.
Review by Jo Reed

Tuesday, 9 May 2006

The Infinite Book – John D. Barrow ****

Authors are often asked to review books on a topic they’ve written on themselves. The reasoning is sensible – they ought to know something about the subject – but there’s always that uneasy suspicion that there’s going to be a bit of bias creeping in. So I think it’s only fair to admit up front that I have written a book on infinity (of which more later).
Infinity is a wonderful subject, because it’s intimately mind-bending (if the combination sounds paradoxical, that’s what infinity is all about) and gives you the chance to pull in all sorts of different concepts and assocations along the way, something Barrow does with great gusto. There’s a surprisingly large amount of coverage here for God, and for the universe, and the book jumps around from Aristotle to Hilbert’s Infinite Hotel (explained at great length), from the paradoxes of infinite sets to the paradoxes of time travel. Overall it’s an enjoyable journey that gives plenty of opportunity to be amazed and surprised.
The only trouble I have with this book is the balance of content. Barrow spends a good half of the book on cosmology, which seems a bit of a cheat. Okay, there are links, and his thoughts on “is the universe infinite” are well worth reading, but in the end this wasn’t supposed to be a cosmology title. Because there is so much on cosmology, this only being a finite book (despite the title), he misses out important swathes of the history of infinity. There’s nothing, for instance, on the development of calculus – the first mathematical tool dependent on infinity – and the magnificent battle between Newton, Leibniz and Berkeley. Similarly, though Barrow does fill in a little bit of biography on Cantor, the man who devised the mathematics of infinity, he does so without explaining what Cantor’s set theory is about – a fundamental to understanding what Cantor was doing – and without even touching on important numerical concepts like cardinals and ordinals.
In a sense, the moan is that this is a book about infinity that isn’t really about maths or about mathematicians. As well as lots on cosmology, it has rather too much vague philosophical material (not helped by the illustrations from an obscure play, or the groan-inducing section titles).
Don’t think I’m putting the book down though – it is very good, and I would recommend reading it, but only after reading my own A Brief History of Infinity to fill in some of those gaps. If I were asked to compare the two, I would say that A Brief History of Infinity is better at providing a historical context, more of a feel for the people involved and more of the amazing mathematical consequences and paradoxes, while Barrow’s book is better at showing how infinity sits alongside our present day physical theories.
Review by Brian Clegg