Friday, 30 June 2006

If Dogs Could Talk – Vilmos Csányi ****

Sometimes a truth is so close under our nose it’s difficult to spot. We are so used to dogs and their behaviour that we don’t really notice just how remarkable they are. Vilmos Csányi challenges us to think about the canine mind. Once you do, it’s obvious that dogs are quite remarkable.
This is an animal which, with human help, has become so modified from its natural form that it prefers the company of another species – humans – to its own. We are familiar with the concept of the dog as “man’s best friend”, but this book challenges us to think more about the mental processes required to enable a dog to do the remarkable things it does.
Remarkable, dogs? Surely all they do is mess on the pavement and bark a lot? Hardly. Csányi, a confessed dog lover, shows us with a combination of personal anecdote and the outcome of a wide range of experiments just how flexible the dog’s mind can be, giving it capabilities that no animals other than humans – not even the other primates in some cases – are capable of. This isn’t so much about the impressive ability of dogs to follow commands, but rather the way they can communicate with humans, appear to have a model of the mind to make deductions, and generally share a surprising amount of our nature, when isolated from the heavy duty thinking we alone can do.
If you are a cat lover and don’t particularly like dogs, by now you might be cringing a bit. There isn’t going to be a lot of solace for you here. You can argue as much as you like about what good pets cats make, but they simply aren’t capable of most of the actions and thoughts that make dogs unique. If there’s any doubt, ask a cat to fetch your slippers, see how excited it gets at just the mention of walkies, or ask a cat “where?” when it shows the intention of doing something and see how much intelligent response you get. The fact is, cats may be loveable, but by comparison they are practically brainless, and lack the unique cross-species bond of the dog.
If it weren’t for a few practical irritations, this would be a solid, five star, best of breed book. Firstly it’s a translation, and there’s a slightly unnatural feel about the language, especially when Csányi is being humorous. Translated jokes always creak. Then there’s a large section that seems to forget dogs altogether, talking about apes and people. I think this is supposed to be so we can relate the dog’s mind to a better understanding of the human, but it’s too far off track and loses the whole impetus of the book. Oh, and throughout the word “ethology” is used (on practically every page) as if it’s a word we’re all familiar with. Sorry, never heard of it. I don’t even know if it’s pronounced ee-thology (as in ethos) or eth-ology (as in ethnic). Even the OED isn’t awfully helpful, as it could be the portrayal of character by mimic gestures, the science of character formation, or the branch of Natural History that deals with the actions and habits of animals. With this topic, it could be any of these that was meant, though I suspect it was the third. At the very least the word should have been explained – better still, it should have been avoided. (One last moan – the chapter on “how to be a dog owner” at the end seems weak and out of place.)
Never mind that, though. What’s certainly true is you won’t look at dogs the same way again. This is a truly fascinating book on the unnatural canine minds behind a unique inter-species relationship. Good boy, Vilmos! Good boy!
Hardback:  
Review by Peter Spitz

The Future of Food – Brian J. Ford ****

Anyone who attempts to keep on top of what we’re supposed to eat, what’s important in our diet, the debate on natural versus processed foods, infections from foodstuffs, and how trends are developing into the future, is liable to be confused. This slim volume from Professor Brian Ford aims to put us all straight.
What’s good about the book is that Ford pulls no punches and makes it clear just how spurious the whole “natural food” sales approach is, given that familiar “wholesome” foods like bread and butter are anything but natural, but the result of long-term human interference with nature. He is particularly unnerving on the subject of the various bacteria that can be found in food, and how the move away from cooking ourselves to ready meals and eating out puts us more at risk from the dangers of food poisoning. He also spends a fair amount of the content on an essential consideration for everyone with a conscience – feeding the world. As Ford points out, it is entirely practical to feed the world if we had the collective will and the systems in place. The food is increasingly there. He points out that during terrible famine in Ethopia it was a net exporter of grain. There’s something very unsettling about this.
The book isn’t without problems. Firstly it’s a little dated, being produced in 2000. So, for instance, though he refers to the health promoting bacteria of the gut, there’s no comment on the claims of pro-biotic drinks and yoghurts to make much difference there. Secondly it’s difficult to follow a structure through the book – it’s rather piecemeal, and often we hear what’s wrong with things without a clear suggestion of how to do anything different. (A certain resemblance to the TV show, Grumpy Old Men, here.) Where there is a solution, such as to feeding the world by setting up an international Food Force, it can be simplistic – how would such a force deal, for example, with the problems of a country where the ruling minority have no interest in relieving starvation of the masses, and resent outside interference (pick the dictatorship of your choice)?
Finally, when Ford looks to the future – this is part of a series designed to get the reader thinking about the future – he does so in powerful polemic form. We keep getting told we “will do this” and “will do that”, yet these bits of the book are the least convincing. Oddly, Ford himself points out the difficulty of making scientific predictions, but then charges in and does so wholesale. We are told we will probably witness the death of domestic cookery. “Old fashioned food will become a special treat. Today’s junk food will disappear…” Hmm. With a vigour that seems more wishful thinking than realistic he predicts that supermarkets will lose their stranglehold. “In the future, individual shops, friendly, warm and welcoming, will begin to reappear.” Why? What evidence is this based on? He’s on firmer ground when predicting there will be more food delivered to the home, but again imagines the cosy world of the little local greengrocer’s van, where actually it’s the supermarket’s massive distribution network that extends to most of our houses.
However, don’t get the impression that this is a bad book – it doesn’t get four stars for nothing. Firstly Ford highlights the stupidity of our anti-science backlash, and our irrational approach to (for instance) GM, reinforced by the heavy handed money-mindedness of the companies that make GM crops. Secondly he makes us aware of uncomfortable facts. And thirdly he makes us think – never a bad move. You are unlikely to agree with all this book, whatever your personal viewpoint. You may even be irritated by it. But I challenge you not to be stimulated by it.
Paperback:  
Review by Jo Reed

Friday, 16 June 2006

The God Effect – Brian Clegg *****

We are used to hearing about “Einstein’s greatest mistake” being his throwing in the cosmological constant to explain the expansion of the universe. These days this seems less of a mistake than it was first thought. But there’s one thing he definitely didn’t get right – that’s quantum entanglement, a concept so bizarre, that Einstein used it as an example of why quantum theory had to be wrong.
In fact it was Einstein who for once was mistaken, and entanglement has proved, as Brian Clegg’s subtitle suggests, to be one of science’s strangest phenomena. Imagine a link between two particles that is so low level that you can separate them to either side of the universe and a change in one particle will be instantly reflected in the other. Forget special relativity – the spooky connection of entanglement doesn’t know about the light speed barrier.
The God Effect (the title is a reference to the Higgs boson, also known as the God Particle, which it has been suggested requires entanglement to function) begins with an excellent background to where entanglement came from – Einstein’s original “entanglement busting” paper EPR, early attempts to show whether or not entanglement existed and the definitive experiments that demonstrated it in action. Although we’re dealing here with quantum physics at its most mindboggling, Clegg makes a great job of explaining what was going on in layman’s terms, and bringing alive the major characters not widely known outside this field, such as John Bell and Alain Aspect.
Where the book really triumphs, though, is when he moves onto the remarkable applications of entanglement that have started to be developed over the last few years. Unbreakable encryption, computers that can crack problems that would take conventional computers longer than the lifetime of the universe to cope with, even Star Trek-style matter transmitters. It’s great stuff. I particularly liked the chapter on why entanglement doesn’t allow us to send faster than light messages. Most of the books I’ve read on the subject just dismiss this as obvious, but it isn’t – in fact it’s what most people think of as soon as they hear about entanglement: surely it could be used to send faster than light messages. Clegg explains just what the implications would be – why faster than light messages would allow us to send information back in time – then shows how entanglement entices, but can never actually deliver on this promise.
There’s also some fun speculation from top scientists on what else entanglement could do – not just providing a mechanism for the Higgs boson, but also the existence of life, telepathy and more. The only criticism I have is that the chapter on quantum computers told me rather more than I wanted to know about different ways to make quantum computers work – it was still interesting, but I didn’t need that much detail.
Overall this is a superb exploration of this weird and wonderful physical phenomenon and the ways it could change our lives. It’s well written and approachable without any technical background, though I think it may also appeal to undergraduates, as entanglement tends to get very limited coverage on physics courses. Recommended.
Paperback:  
Review by Martin O'Brien

Monday, 12 June 2006

Viruses vs Superbugs – Thomas Häusler ****

If ever there was a book that wasn’t for the faint hearted, it’s this one. I don’t mean that it’s painful to read. Despite being a translation (I’ll come back to this), it’s fluent and easy to get through the words – it’s just the contents that are nerve wracking.
We’ve all heard the news stories about “superbugs” – bacteria like MRSA (originally short for methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus, but now, in sinister fashion, the MR means multi-resistant) that stalk hospitals and elsewhere, killing patients and refusing to respond to antibiotics. The first part of Thomas Häusler’s book concentrates firmly on scaring us to death about just how unstoppable these simple, but deadly bacteria, always around ready to take on a suitable wound, are becoming. The trouble is that bacteria breed very quickly. That means it doesn’t take long for a variant to occur that happens to be able to resist an antibiotic, and once the mutation crops up, natural selection means it may well have a better chance of surviving. Especially if antibiotics are sprayed around heavy-handedly by doctors and the livestock industry as Häusler makes it very clear they have been.
Is all lost? Are we to return to the bad old days, pre-antibiotics, where deaths from these killer bacteria were rife? Luckily, before we all go away and end it all, we are offered an alternative. Bacteria have a natural enemy – specialist viruses that prey on bacteria called phages (great word – and it doesn’t do any harm that they under an electron microscope they bear a distinct visual resemblance to the lunar lander – very sci-fi). This proves to be one of those “told you so” things, where those who get all snotty about modern science can say “we knew better in the old days”. Phages were popular as a weapon against bacteria before antibiotics were introduced, particularly in Eastern Europe, and have continued to be used there but not elsewhere. Since the earlier part of the twentieth century, there has been a lot of doubt about the effectiveness of phages – not helped by a period when they were marketed like patent medicine. What Häusler does is to show how phages offer hope when combined with modern techniques, if the antibiotics give up.
Of course there is a long and chequered history of using natural predators to dispose of an unwanted infestation. Ladybirds (ladybugs) are popular environmentally friendly solutions to aphids, for instance. But the “chequered” part refers to the habit of many predators, when let loose, of doing unexpected damage. While phages are very targeted, so unlikely to stray, there is always the concern that something might go wrong – viruses can mutate too. Also enough isn’t known about phages. Some are effectively symbiotic, and instead of killing a bacterium, these “temperate phages” can turn a low risk infector into a killer. And then it’s not always easy to get the right phages to the right place to kill the bacteria as they’re relatively big compared with the chemical molecules of a drug, and the body has a tendency to break them down. That makes it a more balanced, more interesting story than simply “hey, here’s a new cure, no need to worry.”
If you can cope with the content, there’s not that much to criticize, though the book does slightly lose impetus after a while (I found, for instance, the story of Georgiy Eliava, a phage pioneer’s struggle against the Soviet machine took me too far off track). It does also occasionally slip into tabloid language – I know MRSA is often labelled a “superbug”, but the use of “bug” as an alternative for bacterium grates.
On the whole, despite the very depressing content, this was a good book. Many translations feel lumpy, somehow, like a loaf that hasn’t risen properly – this is very readable, and it would be impossible to tell it was a translation if the reader hadn’t been told. The story is told well, and strikingly too. There’s excellent use of the stories of real people involved in the fight against bacteria – both medics and patients. It’s just… I think now I’ve read it, I want to wash my hands. In fact, I’ll go and do it now…
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 5 June 2006

No Two Alike – Judith Rich Harris *****

This is an absolute stunner of a popular science book – without doubt one of the best of 2006. The author does a brilliant job of demolishing the academic psychology establishment, by questioning a fundamental assumption that was made without properly checking it – that nurture would influence personality. She does all this in a very personal, human fashion, with as much reference to the way traditional crime fiction works as to scientific research. This side of the book is handled superbly well.
The key point that Judith Rich Harris makes is that while it can be shown that a percentage of our behaviour and personality comes from heredity, once you eliminate that genetic portion (just under half), it is very difficult to explain the rest. Specifically, she lays into those who just assume that this as a result of the way that our parents/carers mould our personality, pointing out that this bears no resemblance to reality – the reality for instance of identical twins, or even conjoined twins, brought up in the same environment having very different personalities.
Early on Harris likens her job to a fictional detective. A particularly apt comparison she makes is with the 1950s novel The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. In this, the hero, detective Alan Grant, is laid up in hospital throughout the book, and as a challenge takes on the task of exploring a historical mystery – the character of Richard III, and who killed the princes in the Tower. He shows how the “facts” that “everyone knows” are in truth based largely on propaganda and don’t necessarily bear in resemblance to reality. Harris too is working indirectly, but equally powerfully. Similarly, Harris suggests, the “facts” we know about how parenting shapes personality are more wishful thinking on the part of those with a vested interest in selling parenting books than necessarily anything with a scientific basis.
After casting aside five “red herrings” – potential explanations for the development of individual personality that she shows to be spurious, Harris is ready to present her own thesis. Influenced strongly by Steven Pinker’s description of the different functional modules of the brain, Harris suggests that there are three modules that, sometimes in contradictory fashion, shape our personality. A relationship module that deals with our information base on other people, a socialization module that helps us to fit in with groups by providing the ability to average across a wide range of inputs, and a status module that enables us to establish our position in the pecking order and to work on bettering ourselves. This isn’t in any sense proved – Harris would be the first to emphasize this – but her argument generally reads very well.
Perhaps the only point that isn’t totally clear is that while she says one of the reasons for difference between identical twins is different inputs to the socialization module, it’s not clear how this explains why, for instance, conjoined twins can be so different, as presumably their socialization experiences can’t be hugely different. Harris says they have different social experiences as people see that they are individuals, so distinguish – but that seems to be a bit of an assumption itself, that they aren’t in the style of Lord of the Flies seen as a single “Samneric” rather than Sam and Eric as separate entities, and also that such a distinction being made is enough to produce radically different socialization. Don’t most of us assume identical twins are very similar?
The only minor snag with the writing, is that Harris can be repetitive. This is particularly noticeable in the first chapter where she presents the message over and over again, so get through that chapter as soon as possible. You will find this tendency to repeat recurs, but at a significantly lower level. It’s also true that some won’t like her very personal style. This is very much the story of Ms Harris’s efforts, not a matter of pure scientific reporting. For this reviewer, though, that makes it much more approachable and fascinating – it’s a real page turner, and highly recommended.
Paperback:  
Review by Martin O'Brien