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Showing posts from 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 t…

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 a…

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…

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…

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 …

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 read…

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 stor…