Thursday, 31 May 2007

Why Aren’t They Here? – Surendra Verma ***

The universe is packed full of mysteries, but one of them has to be the question asked by Surendra Verma’s book – why aren’t they here? “They” in this case, is little green men, or at least aliens of some kind. Given the scale of the universe, it seems to some people that it’s inevitable that there are aliens out there somewhere… only you’d think they would be more obvious than they are.
Of course, UFO fans would say they are pretty obvious – yet we aren’t exactly overwhelmed with aliens landing on the White House lawn, science fiction movie style. Surendra Verma sets out to show just what the chances are of aliens being out there, whether they are like to visit us, and what we can make of claims that they already have.
Along the way, Verma neatly brings in snippets of information, giving historical context to some of the science behind the discussion of aliens existing, whether it’s Aristotle’s ideas of just what the universe is, or Gauss’s idea to use banks of mirrors to signal to the inhabitants of the moon.
It should be a really interesting book, and in places Verma injects a lot of enthusiasm and energy, but often it rather sags. I think in part this is because it doesn’t have a cohesive slant on the topic. It’s more a list of “this person says this, but that person says that”, so you get bombarded with opposing views without any real help in sorting it all out. There’s no doubting that there’s a lot in here, whether it’s Drake’s equation for working out the probability of alien life existing, or details of the (often worryingly obscure) messages we have sent into space in an attempt to catch an alien’s attention.
One particularly irritating thing is the way Verma tends to start his many (many) little sections with a statement that seems to be saying something is true, then he modifies this to be just someone else’s theory. So he says, for instance, “Extraterrestrial intelligent life is widespread. Their reluctance to interact with us can be explained by the hypothesis that they have set aside our planet as part of a wilderness area or zoo.” Our attention is grabbed. Is there some amazing new breakthrough about to be announced? No, because next we hear this is a “controversial and demoralizing hypothesis” posited way back in 1973. The result of this repeatedly using this technique is irritation for the reader.
Not a bad summary of many different theories of alien life, plus our attempts to communicate, with some often entertaining historical context thrown in – but not a particularly exciting read.
Review by Jo Reed

Sunday, 27 May 2007

How to Live Off-grid – Nick Rosen ***

I need to say straight away that I can only give this book a maximum of 3 stars however good I find it, because in all fairness it’s not a popular science book – not even one with a technology slant. But I think the subject will be of interest to Popular Science readers, and as such I’ve allowed it to slip in anyway.
The subtitle rather sums up what the story of this book is – “journeys outside the system.” In part because he owns a very isolated shack in Europe, Nick Rosen got interested in the idea of living off-grid – away from the grids that we generally rely on for support: electricity, gas, water (and in some respects the whole economic system). After a bit of soul searching, he buys himself an old camper van (technically a minibus converted into a camper) and sets off to find those leading an off-grid lifestyle, so he can learn lessons both to impart to the reader and for his own development.
To some extent, then, the “journey” bit is his physical journey in the bus, but it’s also the mental (and some would say spiritual) journey in his changing attitude to disconnecting from the country-wide support system. There are two quite separate things to review here – the content of the book, and Rosen’s position. Rosen proves an engaging storyteller, and really brings the reader into his journey, complete with the small disasters of the “we’ll look back and laugh, but right now there’s nothing funny about it” variety. It’s not at the Bill Bryson hilarity level, but there is some amusement in the account.
The centre chunk of the book, when Rosen is visiting the whole range of off-gridders from purest-green anti-capitalists to traditional farmers to eccentric aristocrats is often also enjoyable, though after a while, it gets a bit samey as he visits yet another yurt (or whatever the next person happens to be living in). Towards the end we get onto his conclusions, and some good, practical advice for those who fancy this kind of lifestyle (though occasionally the advice is a bit too personal, for example, “if you want to do this, then speak to Fred at Windfolly.” I paraphrase, but Fred’s real alter ego surely couldn’t cope with helping every reader of the book.)
So – a good travel guide round an interesting subject and some fascinating insights into the whys and wherefores of off-grid living. What is less comfortable is Rosen’s attitude to the whole thing, which comes across as irrationally romantic. One of the experts he speaks to says “all you do is move from one grid to another,” and given Rosen’s admitted dependence on his mobile phone and the internet, plus gas bottles (themselves forming nothing more than a virtual grid), and so on, there is a kind of feeling of seeing what you want to see. When you read about the complexities of providing your own electricity on a large scale – nothing less than running your own miniature power station – there does seem to be a minefield for all but the most technically ept.
I find this frustrating because I wholeheartedly agree with a lot of the reasoning behind being at least off-grid ready. I do think that there are going to problems with many of the grid-provided “essentials” and sensible people should be making sure they have alternatives to hand, but there seems no need to couple it with some of the trappings of alternative living that seem to pervade the spirit of the enterprise. You just know that Rosen would much rather have a clapped out old van rather than an efficient modern one, because it’s, like, the image man. (He doesn’t write like this, I ought to emphasize). You get the feeling the whole exercise has an element of conformity (if conformity to the anti-establishment mainstream) that is surely the entire opposite to what’s intended.
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 24 May 2007

Almost Human: Making Robots Think – Lee Gutkind ****

 In my youth I was very fond of business biographies, particularly the ones about the early personal computing world – Apple, Microsoft and the like. I was really inspired by the stories of all those young people, prepared to sleep under their desk so they could get back to the code, or to get the hardware right, burning to make something exciting. I had been a programmer, and I understood this feeling.
I don’t know if it’s because I’m older, or because the world has changed, but I find it difficult now not to be slightly cynical when Lee Gutkind gives us a similar heroic presentation of the all-in working of the young postgrads building robots at Carnegie Mellon University, the focus of his book on the state of robotics. It’s a kind of fly-on-the-wall documentary book – Gutkind spent a lot of time with them – and he’s obviously a bit of a fan. Perhaps part of the reason for the cynicism is that in those early days of Apple, Microsoft etc. the bosses were the same as the workers, while in the university context there’s inevitably a feeling of the older professor throwing the troops to the lions (if you’ll forgive a mixed metaphor), using cheap student labour (making up courses to fit round the things they want to build) because they can’t run to proper research grants.
The other thing that is frustrating to a reader with a business background is the shambolic nature of the operation. People moan about commercial software, but on the whole it works because it’s well planned and well tested – this stuff seems to be neither. There’s too much of an “invented here” syndrome. When I worked for a large company we tried to do a project in cooperation with a university computer science department. We needed some dumb terminals (this was before PCs were common) for the job. Their attitude was “first task is to build the terminal.” Ours was “we’ll buy a terminal off the shelf.” Brought up on one-offs and specials, they couldn’t understand the need to use standard technology – or the benefits in terms of reliability and time saving of using something off the shelf. While there is some off the shelf work in Almost Human, there is still that “build it from scratch” mentality.
The only sense this is a criticism of the book is that Gutkind could be more critical of his subjects – otherwise, it’s a great read. It’s often a page turner as you wait to discover what happened next (though on the whole the answer is the same: the robot broke), and Gutkind gives a great insight into the work of the roboticists, the state of robotics, the interface between the roboticists and scientists, and also the self feeding nature of academia, with two different groups spending all their time on a study of how the others do their work.
It’s certainly an eye-opener if you think the sort of indistinguishable-from-human robots we see on TV and in the movies are anywhere near possible. Just getting a vehicle to go for a drive across open desert on its own is fraught with problems. It’s fascinating and frustrating in equal measures, giving an excellent insight into the state of robot research Carnegie Mellon style.
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Freakonomics – Steven D. Levitt & Stephen L. Dubner *****

It has to be said that this book is little short of brilliant. Levitt, with the assistance of writer Dubner, turns a series of interesting statistics into a real page turner. (Which is why it’s here, despite being sometimes classified as a kind of business book.)
The way they do it is partly by taking statistics we’re really interested in – crime, education, all the things that push the button – and partially by be rigorous about the statistics, rather than the typical sloppy interpretative stuff we see every day on the TV news or coming from “experts” who might know their field but no nothing about statistics.
A great (and inevitably controversial) example is the big reduction in crime in the US from around 1990. Levitt shows how the usual suspects from increased police numbers to gun control may have had effects, but could not be responsible for this fall. Instead, he suggests and very convincingly demonstrates, it is due to the reduction in birth rate amongst poor and disadvantaged families a generation earlier due to a change in the law. It was the reduction in the likely potential criminal pool that had the biggest impact. It’s fascinating (and not all on such heavy subjects either). Everything from teachers cheating their children’s test results to real estate agents’ tricks come under the Levitt scrutiny.
Just a couple of small negative points. One is the use of the words “economics” and “economist” throughout the book. Levitt is an economist, but very little of what’s in the book is economics. It’s mostly statistics with a healthy chunk of operational research (that’s operations research in the US) thrown in. Just because economists use statistics (and probably get paid more than statisticians) doesn’t magically turn statistics into economics. It’s just plain wrong.
The other small problem is over an example of Levitt doing what he accuses “experts” of doing – stating something with confidence, but without the evidence to back it up. He tells us we’re fooling ourselves in being more afraid of flying than driving, because the “per hour” death rate of driving versus flying is equal. I’ve two problems with this. One is I think people are more interested in the per trip death rate than the per hour rate (i.e. “will I survive this journey?”) As car journeys are usually shorter in duration than plane journeys, his like-for-like comparison falls down. I did this calculation for my own book, The Complete Flyer’s Handbook and (based on UK rather US data) you were ten times more likely to be in a fatal air crash on any particular journey than you were of being in a fatal road crash (though it was a one in a million chance on the air crash, so not very likely).
Oh and I found the pages quoting newspapers on how wonderful Levitt it is that interleave each chapter rather irritating.
But none of these little negative should put you off from what is justifiably already a classic and a worthy bestseller. It’s entertaining, it’s informing, it makes you think and it will inspire you to consider what properly used statistics can do for your enterprise. Great stuff.
Kindle version:  

Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 18 May 2007

After Dolly: the uses and abuses of human cloning – Ian Wilmut and Roger Highfield *****

More often than not, the most famous individual of an animal species is fictional (think Bugs Bunny, Wiley Coyote and Lassie), but ask most people to name a well-known sheep and they are likely to come up with a very real example – Dolly.
The first artificially cloned animal (though as you will find when reading the book, in one sense, at least, Dolly wasn’t a true clone) was inevitably going to have a lot of publicity surrounding it, and who better to tell the true story of what really happened, and how the scientists got to that stage, than Ian Wilmut, one of the lead scientists at the Roslin Institute where Dolly was produced.
Along the way you will find out fair amount about Wilmut’s personal history, and the many other animals who were in their own way just as important in the chain of discovery as Dolly, but never got the same levels of attention.
If the book had been just this – the inside story of Dolly’s production, life, death and fame – it would have been worth buying, but there is a lot more to it, as the title suggests. In fact the main focus of the book is not on animal cloning but on the much more contentious field of human cloning. Wilmut explores the different types of human cloning, and spends a lot of time on the nature of an embryo when it only consists of a few cells and on the ethics of working with these active human cells. As well as really explaining and exploring the nature and importance of stem cell research, Wilmut gives us the true picture of what would be involved in reproductive cloning – if scientists did produce a true, cloned human being. Not only does he cover the ethical side, he also looks at the practical difficulties, and concludes with most governments that reproductive human cloning should never be attempted. He is, however, very positive and persuasive (some world leaders could do to read this book) about the importance and acceptability of stem cell research.
This book is a real treat to read, and that reflects the combination of Ian Wilmut’s on-the-spot expertise and Roger Highfield’s experience as a professional science writer. So often a book by a scientist can make dull reading, but that’s not the case here. With Highfield’s guidance, Wilmut tells the story in an approachable, personal way and manages to combine his own story, the real facts about Dolly (which are almost always wrong in the press) and some worthwhile thinking on the rights and wrongs of different aspects of human cloning to make this a definitive book in the genre. Highly recommended.
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

The Long Tomorrow – Michael R. Rose *****

A mixture of a book on the science of aging – gerentology (at least as applied to fruit flies) and an exploration of how a career in science develops, this title by Michael Rose joins the few really good books that give an idea of the realities of being a scientist.
The book starts at a conference discussing human aging, where Rose is shocked that some attendees wouldn’t want human lifespan increased, primarily for theological reasons – and this is very entertaining – but the really excellent part is when we get to follow his career. When he makes a start as a postgraduate, the last thing he wants to work in is aging. What’s interesting about aging to someone around the age of 20? But he takes up a post, primarily to be near his academic hero.
As often seems the case in true science, his progress is a mix of intended direction and re-focussing error as he begins what is to be a more than 30 year relationship with the fruit fly Drosophilia. Just occasionally Rose tends to lose the reader with his science – not that what he’s describing is hugely complex (he leaves out the messy maths), but there are one or two places you have to re-read to make sure what he intended. But these are rarities in what is generally both an enjoyable and very personal journey where you will discover as much about Rose himself as you will about fruit flies and about aging.
His great, and almost accidental, discovery is that it is possible to breed Methuselah flies with an unusually long lifespan, from which he hopes that it should be possible to get a bet understanding of the various genetic factors that make all animals age, and hence in the future to be able to do something about it. In the 1990s, he dabbled with biotechnology spinoffs, as everyone seemed to be at the time, and two or three times came close to being involved in a successful life extension company without ever quite making it. Somehow, the reader is glad about this – Rose keeps ending up back where he ought to be, with his fruit flies.
One of the most impressive revelations is when Rose is writing an article for a magazine, years after first starting working in the area of aging. The magazine asks him about relevance to the extension of human life, and genuinely isn’t until that point that he realizes that his work may be more than just a study of fruit flies. (It helps, as Rose points out, that by then he was getting to the sort of age when you first realize you really are going to die at some point.)
In a final chapter, Rose summarizes the position on the control of aging. We shouldn’t blindly go along with the likes of Ray Kurzweil who blithely assure us that people alive today have a chance of effectively living for ever, but even so he is very positive about the opportunities for understanding the different factors contributing to aging, and being able to do something about them, this century. A warm, highly recommended popular science book by a real scientist.
Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 4 May 2007

The Man Who Stopped Time – Brian Clegg ****

This is, to be honest, a borderline title when it comes to popular science. Eadweard Muybridge, the subject of the book, was a pioneer of the moving image and one of the great Victorian photographers, and Brian Clegg makes the point that Muybridge should be regarded as the father of the moving picture, just as Babbage is considered the father of the computer. In both of these pioneer’s cases, their technology was not the one that was finally used, but they each made the first practical steps.
If Muybridge did make a contribution to science, it was in his studies of motion at the University of Pennsylvania, when he took thousands of sequences of animals and of (often unclothed) human beings, and dissected their movement in a series of still images that he was later able to replay as primitive moving pictures. If you’ve ever seen grainy, slow motion footage of a galloping horse, it’s almost certain that it was Muybridge’s work.
Having said that, Muybridge’s life alone makes a great story, and Clegg tells it well, inevitably spending a considerable portion of the book on Muybridge’s arrest for the murder of his wife’s lover: a crime for which he was exonerated by the jury, as they felt it was a reasonable thing to do under the circumstances – how times change! Born in staid Kingston upon Thames in England, Muybridge travelled to the then still raw San Francisco, where he lived a dramatically different life from his Victorian contemporaries back home – the book brings this to life very effectively.
It would be unfair to say that science doesn’t come into the book at all. The science of different aspects of photography and of moving pictures is explored in some depth at the relevant points in the story – dispelling, for instance, the still widely held myth that cinema and TV work by persistence of vision – this approach works effectively and doesn’t get in the way of the flow of Muybridge’s story, in what is in the end a biography of a fascinating man. The final chapter explores why Muybridge is often disregarded in the early history of the cinema, and places him back in his rightful place.
Overall, then, a rather gripping biography, mixing (some) science, with a murder, and nicely placing it all within an effective historical context. However, it can’t really be awarded more than four stars because of the relative paucity of science.
Review by Peet Morris
Please note, this title is written by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion – and we could hardly omit the book – but do want to make the connection clear.