Thursday, 19 October 2006

The Cosmic Verses – James Muirden ****

To be honest, the thought of a science book entirely in rhyme filled me with dread – it seemed like a cross breed between William McGonagall and John Gribbin, a terrifying thought. In practice the reality is much better. The Cosmic Verses is a charming read in which James Muirden manages to pack a surprisingly broad view of the history of our ideas on the universe into verse form. The style is a loose rhyming structure, though occasionally he has a little section in a different form, such as limerick. There are also short side notes where a point needs a little more explanation – where these are more than a couple of words, they too rhyme.
The book is largely chronological, only having major hiccups by ignoring the timing of the Judeo-Christian inputs to ideas on creation and slotting them in to later interpretations, and in a decidedly unbalanced portrayal of religious impact on science that conveniently forgets, for example, who was responsible for the final destruction of the library at Alexandria. Muirden is also a little harsh on medieval science, which had more ideas about (for instance) the shape and size of the universe than he represents, although he does brings out some partially forgotten names like Grosseteste.
Wisely, Muirden makes strong use of personalities along the way. There are the expected figures like Copernicus and Kepler, but it’s good to see him bringing in other, perhaps less known, individuals like Annie Jump Cannon and Henrietta Swan Leavitt, whose undoubted contribution to scaling the universe is sometimes forgotten. Amazingly, and it’s a real mark of just how good Muirden is, some of the text explains the science better than any other book I’ve come across. For instance, Muirden’s explanation of Ole Romer’s method for calculating the speed of light is the best I’ve seen.
If I have a moan it’s the gratuitous use of Stephen Hawking who only seems to be in there for the sake of mentioning him – and if you really want to be picky, Muirden is over-dismissive of Fred Hoyle and the steady state theory: “He called his scheme the Steady State… support for it was never great.” This is something of a misrepresentation: there was real uncertainty between big bang and steady state for years, and for a period of time the evidence seemed if anything to favour the latter.
This is a lovely little book – it doesn’t take too long to read, the verse is charming, and the content is surprisingly thorough. As a portrait of the universe, I have suffered many worse…
Review by Jo Reed

Coincidences, Chaos and all that Math Jazz – Edward B. Burger & Michael Starbird ****

It’s not often someone manages to write a book on the topic of maths and makes it light, easy going and fun – yet Edward Burger and Michael Starbird have done just that.
In a relatively slim volume, the authors manage to cover a whole host of topics, without ever becoming terrifying. It’s not just the probability and chaos theory suggested by the title – though of course they make an appearance – but much more. Often, without resorting to formulae, there are simple, clear examples – for example, when dealing with chaos there is a demonstration of how easily number sequences can deviate that uses Excel as the generator of the chaotic sequence.
Again, series are illustrated using a wonderful physical example involving stacking playing cards that seems absolutely impossible if seen through the eyes of common sense – as often is the case with good popular maths, common sense, which is hopeless at maths, takes a battering. There’s a good section on topology too, a subject that is rarely well explained in popular books which tend to make confusing statements like telling the reader that a doughnut is the same topologically as a tea cup without explaining why, or spotting that this is only true of some doughnuts and some cups. Burger & Starbird manage to get the message across while maintaining the precision required for maths.
I do have one hesitation about this book. Because it has such a breezy manner, and speeds through topics so lightly, it can sometimes oversimplify. Sometimes surprising mathematical results are just stated plonkingly, without explaining why it’s the case. Elsewhere, the high speed delivery results in information that is only partially true. Take the example of airline safety. After pointing out how easy it is to misuse statistics, this is arguably what the authors proceed to do. They compare deaths per passenger mile by plane and deaths per passenger mile by car. But this overlooks the fact that more fatal crashes take place in the take off/climb and descent/landing parts of the journey than do in the cruise segment – distance isn’t the issue with airline crashes, it’s number of take-offs and landings.
If, instead, you make a comparison of the chance of being killed on a single journey in a plane with the chance of being killed on a single journey in a car (and most people want to know “will I survive this journey?”), then the car is actually safer. Taken over a year, of course, there are many more car journeys, so the plane becomes safer – but the difference between the two modes of transport is much less significant than basing the comparison on deaths per mile. The authors also take a rather parochial view, arguing that if people didn’t fly they would drive. This may be true in the US, but in most of the world, the long distance alternative is likely to be don’t go at all, or go by train. Try driving from London to New York. This, then, was an unfortunate example to use, because it hides a huge can of worms.
Such problems, though, are few and far between. This a great across-the-board intro to the fun of maths. Having read it, I would then recommend the reader to find a good popular book to get more depth on any topics of interest (for instance, my own A Brief History of Infinity inevitably goes into a lot more than is possible in this book’s short dabble with infinity) – but do start here.
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 18 October 2006

The Egypt Code – Robert Bauval *****

When this book dropped onto the doormat, my first inclination was to dump it in the bin labelled “new age garbage.” But I am very glad I didn’t. Robert Bauval came to fame over 10 years ago with the theory that the great pyramids represent the three stars of Orion’s belt, and that shafts in the pyramids align with historical star positions – that the function of these incredible structures was very much as part of a star and sun oriented religion rather than simply as fancy tombs. Now he takes his ideas much further.
One quick consideration – should this book even be on a popular science website? In a word, yes. Although archaeology studies historical subjects, it is itself a science – doubly so here, where both archaeology and astronomy come into play.
I have to confess to a weakness for books of this kind. I have had on my shelves since my late teens two books of absolute rubbish which are nonetheless delightful because they have the same sort of appeal. They are The Old Straight Track by Alfred Watkins, the man who came up with the idea of ley lines, and The Pattern of the Past by Guy Underwood, an exploration of a thesis that ancient monuments in the UK are oriented to underground springs and other sources detectable by dowsing. I don’t accept for a minute either of the premises. Although Watkins thought of ley lines as old pathways, not giving them the mystical surroundings of the modern new age approach, his ideas mostly reflect the inevitable coincidences that will build up when you consider so many points on a map. It would be much stranger if there weren’t alignments of places on a map. And Underwood’s book is based purely on subjective responses, rather than science. Yet both are very appealing.
The reason they are enjoyable is that both books come up with a hidden theory of the past, something that links us with our ancestors, but is testable in the modern day. The Egypt Code has that same attraction. Here is an exploration of an ancient pattern that has been sitting under our noses, but we haven’t seen, with the big advantage over my old books that Bauval has based his theory on proper science and practical observation, not coincidence or something as lacking in rigour as dowsing. It’s exactly the same attraction that something like The Da Vinci Code has (does the similarity of the title surprise anyone?) – ancient secrets uncovered as a sort of large scale puzzle – all the more exciting because this is for real, not Dan Brown’s overblown fictional world.
In The Egypt Code, Bauval takes his original theory and makes it part of an epic concept – that a whole sweeping set of construction is a reflection of the sky on Earth, and that the locations of the various major religious sites reflect the positioning of various celestial events at certain times in history. Although this is reminiscent of Gerald Hawkins’ largely discredit attempt to suggest that Stonehenge was a complex astronomical calculator, not just having the accepted handful of sun and moon alignments, it actually makes a lot more sense than the Stonehenge theory, given the Ancient Egyptian obsession with the sun and the stars. Bauval’s arguments are very convincing.
It was fascinating reading this book shortly after Nancy Abrams and Joel R. Primack’s book The View from the Centre of the Universe with its stress on the importance of having a cosmology as a way to establish your place in the universe. The Ancient Egyptian world that Bauval describes shows just how much a cosmology contribute. The Egyptian cosmology seems strange now, but it served its function at the time as way of incorporating the best “scientific” view into everyday life, and as Bauval points out, this is an interesting lesson for us today.
Bauval may or may not be right, but it certainly would be wrong to dismiss his ideas out of hand. They are practical, scientific views and they explain a lot that is otherwise difficult to understand. Most of all, this book is imbued with the sense of wonder that is essential for good science, plus the intrigue of a good thriller. Everyone is familiar with the pin-ups of the egyptology world – the great pyramids and Sphinx, the temples of Karnak and Abu Simbel and Tutankhamen’s tomb, but The Egypt Code reveals a whole cluster of structures that are less well known, including the totally bizarre tilted observational “bunker” (my words) at Saqqara. It makes it clear that egyptology has been unwise to ignore astronomy as much as it has to date.
Bauval is an outsider – but the best ideas generally do come from outsiders. After all, experts are great at telling us what’s not possible. Outsiders can often make silly mistakes, but they can also stumble upon original ideas that wouldn’t occur to those who are blinkered by accepted wisdom. You may find Bauval’s sometimes rather self-congratulatory style a little irritating, but I would still highly recommend this book.
Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 6 October 2006

The View from the Centre of the Universe – Nancy Ellen Abrams & Joel R. Primack ****

Not another book on cosmology, you might be inclined to cry – don’t worry it’s not. That’s to say, it is about cosmology, but it’s certainly not just another book. You may or may not agree with Nancy Ellen Abrams and Joel R. Primack’s thesis, but there’s no doubt it’s a topic worth reading about and discussing.
We’ve got a problem, they tell us. For most of civilization, humanity has had creation myths that link to the human race’s best understanding of where the cosmos came from, and that fixes for us, as human beings, a place in that cosmos. The myth in this sense isn’t just a fairy story – it’s a folk understanding of a complex concept, supported by metaphor and imagery. But here’s the strange thing. We believe we are now the closest we’ve ever been to an understanding of how the universe really works – yet we have no mythos to match the scientific theory. Abrams and Primack believe that (just as it always was) it’s important we have a myth to cling on to, and we need one that is integrated with the best modern science.
One of the most effective parts of the book is the way it helps put things into scale, to help us as humans establish our place in the universe as something different from Douglas Adams’ idea of driving people mad by showing them what an insignificant speck they were. I particularly liked the scaling comparison that we are as much bigger than one of the cells in our body, as the Earth is bigger than us. (Though the warm glow was slightly cooled when reading in John Allen Paulos’s highly respected book Innumeracy that the ratio was actually the same as that of a human body to Rhode Island – not quite as impressive as the Earth.)
Overall we get the picture that we are, once more at the centre of the universe – only no longer on a static Earth, but rather at the centre of the universal range from the largest to the smallest. And Abrams and Primack show how our material connection to the Big Bang and ancient supernova as the source of the atoms that makes us up also gives us that cosmic anchoring.
One concern about this book is that it’s too gung ho about how wonderful scientists are, and that it describes something like dark matter/ dark energy as if it were fact, rather than current best accepted (and still seriously challenged) theory. The authors comment “There is a popular idea that scientists get stuck in a paradigm and persist in their favorite (even if wrong) theories until the die. This has convinced many people that once scientists begin to think about something in a certain way, they won’t change… Today getting stuck in a paradigm is actually more likely among non-scientists.” This seems hugely over-optimistic. Take, for instance, the whole superstring/M-theory business – there is increasing concern that this is a classic case of scientists being stuck with an incorrect paradigm, and books like Not Even Wrong eloquently explain why this is likely to happen – because once a scientist has invested the first 10 years of his/her working life into a theory, they can’t afford to start again from scratch.
Despite this real concern about the over-enthusiasm of the authors, though, this is without doubt a stonking idea. (That’s a good thing, for non-UK readers.) Reading about our lack of a position in the universe makes a lot of sense, and with the dark matter proviso, the authors’ suggestion for a new cosmological myth works well. This proved to be nearly our second ever unrateable book, because it is based on such a great idea, but isn’t very well written. It’s much too long, repetitive and rambling. But don’t let that put you off a superb central theme.
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 2 October 2006

Being Me – Pete Moore *****

Doing something really different with a popular science book is both difficult and risky. Pete Moore has largely pulled this off in this unusual and personal exploration of what it means to be human.
The book is divided into sections, each addressing a different aspect of our human nature – embodied, conscious, genetic, historic, related, material, spiritual and so on. In each, Moore gives us a view of a different part of the complex mix that is a human being. If the content had just been Moore’s thoughts, the book would not have been particularly inspiring (not a criticism of the author’s ability to think, just the limitation of one person’s view), but what makes it so successful is that each of the sections is developed around one or more interviews with people who Moore sees as embodying the particular component (though, of course, like all of us, they have the other components as well).
Mostly this works remarkably effectively. Moore gives us a mix of scientific and philosophical theory, the interviews, and his personal view, including enough detail from his viewpoint of the interviews to make them more than a sterile set of quotes. The section that works least well, emphasizing the importance of the real people featured in the book, is the one on “the conscious being” which piles in too many pages of theory and isn’t so strongly based around the interviews.
This is a very personal book. The chances are you won’t agree with everything. But that’s not a bad thing with a topic like this. The section that most raised my eyebrows in this respect was the “social being” one, where a lot of focus is put on how modern society is lacking the social thread that is part of human nature, and that this isn’t good for us. Moore contrasts this with the African concept of ubuntu, which describes an intertwining of a human being with his fellow men and the environment, which Moore suggests leads to a much better support mechanism. This may be true, but makes a doubtful example. Moore does point out the paradox of the sometimes endemic violence in the same communities, but brushes this aside. I’m not sure this is wise. If part of the requirement for ubuntu is tribalism (which seems highly likely – it’s much easier to have strong social loyalty when it’s “us versus them”), then it comes at too high a price, as Rwanda and many other strife-torn nations can testify. This isn’t an ideal contrast to the isolation of the Western individual.
Inevitably – and Moore notes this – the book can’t be comprehensive. There are plenty of defining characteristics (Moore mentions language; I would think of creativity) that aren’t covered. That doesn’t really matter, though. The fact is that Moore has managed to paint a superb picture of the human being, using a scientific perspective, but admitting that science alone isn’t enough. If you thought you had seen it all when it comes to popular science, think again.
Review by Brian Clegg