Saturday, 30 June 2007

Digging Up the Dead – Druin Burch *****

There is a rather good British TV drama called Waking the Dead that follows the work of a fictional cold case squad, which made the title of this book instantly attractive to me, and though it’s not the same subject – this is a biography of the great surgeon from the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, Astley Cooper – the book is just as engaging as the drama. If the name of this surgical superstar of the day means nothing to you (I’d never heard of him), don’t worry – Druin Burch does a wonderful job of bringing the times alive in sometimes stomach churning, but always enticing fashion. There’s a brightness about his writing – the brightness of fresh arterial blood. Burch really makes this story vibrate with energy.
Admittedly he is helped by the fact that Cooper’s early life story is almost too good to be true. Leading a charmed life as a boy, nearly dying half a dozen times, he was a terrible student when first sent to London as an apprentice to his surgeon uncle (in those days, surgeons were practical people, already separated from barbers, but yet to be put on the same educational level as physicians, so required no university training). Switched to another surgeon as mentor because his uncle was fed up of him, Cooper found the new man a better psychologist – he brought home a human arm and dumped it in front of Cooper, asking him to dissect it on the dining table. The young man was hooked.
The description of the dissection rooms where Cooper received much of his training is gruesome, really giving an impression of what it was like at the time. Not only were all the corpses obtained illegally – a bizarre juxtaposition with the establishment nature of a teaching hospital, the place reeked, and quite frequently killed a student as they caught an infection from receiving a cut. We also hear how the composer Berlioz in his medical training fed human lungs to the birds that fluttered around the dissecting rooms, and threw bones to rats to gnaw on. Strong stuff.
What is also fascinating about this book is the background detail of life in Britain at a time that rarely gets through in modern history teaching. It has some striking parallels for the present day. The government was facing threats from terrorists (democrats, like those responsible for the French terror) and clamped down by increasing the length of time people could be held without charge and otherwise reducing civil liberties. Of course it was very different too – democracy was in short supply in a Britain where only a small section of the population had the vote.
Astley Cooper’s journey through the political upheavals of the time is almost as interesting as his medical career. Soon after getting married, he and his wife, fervent democrats, travelled to Paris, only to be caught up in the less uplifting aspects of the revolution. Eventually, Cooper was to have to choose between his politics and his career, and put his career and his family’s well being first – which might seem a weak decision, but he helped a lot more people this way than he ever would have done as a lightweight political figure. Over the years he moved away from his rebelliousness, ending up a staunch Tory and royalist – but still a fascinating character. Burch does well at bringing out the complexity of the man. He doesn’t whitewash over, for instance, the way Cooper managed to be both an animal lover and someone who was happy to cut pretty well any animal up alive to understand better how it worked.
Altogether a fascinating book, giving excellent insights into this transitional period when surgery was beginning to do so some good and becoming a respectable part of medicine. Highly recommended.
Review by Martin O'Brien

Scientists Confront Intelligent Design and Creationism – Andrew J. Petto & Laurie R. Godfrey (Eds.) ***

When I get a book to review that is a collection of essays by academic authors, I have to confess it tends to sink to the bottom of the review pile. Often this is the mark of a cheaply assembled book in the sense that there is no attempt to avoid overlaps, so there’s lots of repetition, and frankly the writing standard (even from well established authors) can be a trifle dull. So it was a very pleasant surprise to discover that this book, which is in that worrying format, is in fact well edited to avoid overlaps, and is almost entirely very readable.
I have really agonized over the rating to give this book. Considering the topic, it is relatively easy going, and I think everyone should be interested in understanding just what is going on when creationists and their intelligent design offspring take on evolution. So from those two points the book was really deserving of 5 stars. Yet in the end, it is an academic assault on creationism and intelligent design – which isn’t a bad thing, but doesn’t make for true popular science. I am really interested in the subject, and so found in fascinating, but I don’t think it’s ever going to appeal to the kind of person who will buy, say, Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything – and it’s for that reason alone that it gets the three stars.
The book is divided into three sections. The essays in the first section look at what intelligent design and creationism are, in the second the different scientific tacks taken by these two movements in attacking evolution and “Darwinism” are covered, and in the third, aspects of the theory of science itself that are relevant to the argument are covered. What we see time and time again is the false logic that is used in trying to attack evolution. It’s quite frustrating when the arguments veer off into something that’s more a matter of philosophy than science. Somehow, the advocates of creationism feel they can blame everything from socialism and communism (both arguably influenced by early Christian ideas like owning goods in common) to the breakdown of society on evolution. Part of the book is dedicated to explaining why this apparently bizarre connection is made.
A lot more is concerned with how the idea that the Bible is inerrant leads to various strange scientific beliefs, which are put above the observed reality – plus the remarkably solid peer-reviewed support for the various mechanisms of evolution (as the book points out, the creationists and ID supporters tend to attack “Darwinism”, an approximation to the 100+ year old idea of evolution, rather than modern scientific detail), compared with the almost non-existent academic science in “creation science” and intelligent design.
Anyone with a real interest in the subject who has heard a little about intelligent design, which sounds quite rational when described by one of its supporters, will find this is a valuable tool for understanding what is really happening, and the difference between science and the attempts to attack science. I ought to stress this isn’t an anti-religious book like Dawkins’ The God Delusion, which we haven’t reviewed as it’s technically theology rather than science. Most Christians would find nothing in here to be uncomfortable with. Instead they would have a better understanding of why some of their fellow Christians mistakenly attack one of the most elegant and effective theories in science.
Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 22 June 2007

The Cosmos: A Beginner’s Guide – Adam Hart-Davis and Paul Bader ****

Is it book? Is it a TV show? No, it’s very obviously the book of a TV show – in this case, a BBC series of six parts looking at the way we explore the cosmos, presented by the UK’s one time favourite science presenter before Brian Cox came on the scene, one of a long tradition of eccentrics who have graced the British screen, Adam Hart-Davis. This is a man who thinks nothing of wearing clothes that would only be considered fashionable by a demented boy scout leader. (You may wonder what Mr H-D’s dress sense has to do with the book – his photograph does appear in it rather a lot, and his name is much bigger on the front than co-author Paul Bader’s (see the image) – this is, to some extent, a celebrity propelled vehicle.)
Once you get a big disappointment out of the way, which is down to the way it has been lifted from the TV show, it’s actually quite a good book. The disappointment is that it doesn’t do what it says on the tin. It’s not really about the cosmos, it’s mostly about the machines we use to explore the cosmos – so there’s a lot more, for instance, about satellites and telescopes than there is about dark matter, multiverses or the inner workings of stars. This is probably because of the TV show origins – it’s a lot easier to show our heroes exploring telescopes and space station mock-ups than it is to show ideas about the nature of the universe, which are inevitably rather hands-off. But if you do take it for what it is, there’s some beautiful photography of the equipment and the stars, and it provides real insights into the latest work in telescopes, exploratory satellites and space-based telescopes. While Hart-Davis’s jolly and enthusiastic style isn’t for everyone, it does make for a pleasant reading experience.
One or two quibbles. From the price, the book seems to be aimed at adults, yet a number of the visual design elements in it are irritatingly childish. Occasional diagrams, made to look like photographs of documents have fake coffee cup rings on them, the sort of visual effect I thought went out with the Monty Python books – and mini-biographies are displayed in little “biog file” boxes, presented like something a nine year old would collect in bubblegum wrappers. The “biogs” are also painfully summary, and in at least one case, poorly researched. We are told that Einstein renounced his German citizenship “After Hitler came to power in 1933.” In fact it was nothing to do with Hitler coming to power – it was at age 16 in 1895 that he began the process of giving up his German citizenship, and he became a Swiss citizen in 1901 – so this is not just a tiny slip, it’s monumentally wrong. We also see a rather adolescent approach in the attempts to give context. When describing the debate over whether nebulae were island universes, we are told “In previous years the debate would have been accompanied by a glass of wine. But in America the era of prohibition had just begun, so alcohol was out.” We are left asking “So?”
If you want a basic primer (and it doesn’t claim to be anything else) on how we explore the universe without ever leaving our solar system, and can cope with the style, this is an excellent introduction. It would probably sit best with younger high school students, but in principle could be enjoyed by any age from 10 to 100.
Review by Brian Clegg

The Man Who Ran the Moon – Piers Bizony ***

I have to confess, on picking up this book, there was a slight feeling of “oh no, not another book about the history of manned space flight.” We had already had the definitive look at the conflict between the US and the USSR in Deborah Cadbury’s Space Race, and an interesting political history of the race to get to the moon in Gerard deGroot’s Dark Side of the Moon. In fact, at first glance there seems to be a strong overlap with de Groot’s book, and for the same reason that title only got 3 stars, we can only give 3 stars to this. It doesn’t mean it’s not a very readable book – it’s a real page turner – but there’s hardly any science in it (as, cynics would say, there was very little science but plenty of politics in the race to the moon).
I ought to stress, by the way, that there is no suggestion that this book or de Groot’s is a “me too” title. It’s very easy for two books to come out on a similar topic at the same time – I’ve had this happen to me as an author, and it’s highly frustrating! There just seem to be moments when the same ideas bubble up, either because new information is released or the topic is timely. Incidentally, Bizony’s book actually predates de Groot’s – we just got the review copy later.
However, this is no matter anyway, because there is no conflict between the two – in fact The Man Who Ran the Moon sits very well alongside de Groot’s book. Where Dark Sidewas looking at the moon project from the government viewpoint, Bizony’s book is very much seen from the NASA side of the project. It’s rather like one of those “two sides of the coin” dramas, where you experience the same scene from two different personal views. In particularly, this book concentrates on the work of James Webb, the NASA leader who took things almost, but not quite all the way to the moon landing (he resigned after the painful investigation into the Apollo 1 fire), though it does cover the moon landings, and NASA post-Apollo (the latter in a rather summary fashion).
The result is a truly fascinating view of the attempt to develop and pull together this huge, rambling organization, fragmented across the country, split into many units not from any good business or technical reasons, but in order to placate various senators who would then support NASA’s budgetary requirements. There are plenty of twists and turns along the way. Webb rarely seems to have seen eye-to-eye with all his subordinates at any one time, and his relationship with presidents Kennedy and Johnson was always lively.
Perhaps the strongest feeling the reader gets from this book is amazement that the NASA venture to the moon ever succeeded. This is partly because of the sheer challenge of managing such a complex engineering project across so many locations, and partly the point made strongly in de Groot’s book that the whole thing was a pointless exercise with no great scientific value. Yet most of all, the striking revelation from Bizony is how deeply un-American the whole idea is. After all, US culture is strongly against big central funding and control – yet NASA was asking for billions of dollars for a federal project managed from Washington that had very few quantifiable benefits.
An excellent insight into this dramatic period in NASA’s history.
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Beyond UFOs – Jeffrey Bennett ***

Jeffrey Bennett does a lot of public talks, and admits that he often has to let people down gently that he isn’t talking about UFOs and little green men. The important point here is the word ‘Beyond’. The book is about whether extra-terrestrial life exists, and where it’s like to be found, not about visiting aliens. (He also tells a sad but smile-raising story of giving a public talk where he expected a few tens of people to turn up and in fact the hall was packed out. It seems the advertisements had promised a talk on astrology rather than astronomy – but Bennett kept the audience anyway, and gave them something to interest them.)
It’s entirely understandable that he kept that audience. Bennett is clearly a good, engaging speaker, because a lot of his text comes across just like that, and it’s not a bad thing. It feels personal, warm and interesting. The book spends quite a while on how the Earth came into being and how life was formed, so we can extrapolate to the rest of the universe. It then gives us a tour first of the solar system and possible homes for life there, and then considers what we know or can speculate about planets and moons around other stars. This is well done, although to be honest, when you’ve heard about one moon of a gas giant, they all get rather the same – it’s a bit like being taken on an architectural tour of a modern housing estate.
Leaving aside that things do get a little dull in those middle chapters, the other problem is that however excited Bennett can get about bacterial life, it’s not so thrilling for many of us, and I have a bit of sympathy for those who do hope for something a bit more Star Trek. He does spend some time on why any aliens advanced enough to have interstellar travel wouldn’t need to do the sort of things UFO owners are supposed to do – and this is good – but there’s still a slight feeling of over promising. This also comes through in his arguments for why we should be establishing a base on the moon and sending manned expeditions to Mars, which are unconvincing when you consider what other things science could do with that kind of money.
The subtitle here is The Search for Extraterrestrial Life and Its Astonishing Implications for Our Future. In the end, this emphasizes why the book was a bit of a let-down despite being well written. I just didn’t get the feel of any astonishing implications for our future. Bennett’s enthusiasm is obvious and delightful – saying anything negative about this book feels a bit like kicking a puppy. The topic is covered reasonably well. But I didn’t feel this added anything to the other ‘search for alien life’ type books that have been around for a while.
Review by Jo Reed

Friday, 1 June 2007

Ten Questions Science Can’t Answer (Yet) – Michael Hanlon *****

At first glance, a book of questions that science can’t answer is a pretty dull read. Questions alone aren’t enough – we need answers as well. Yet Michael Hanlon makes this topic a voyage of discovery into the unknown. Once you get started, it’s hard to put it down.
Each of the first eight topics (yes, I know there are ten – I’ll come back to this) is a surprising and engaging excursion into a subject that you may not have thought about before, but you certainly will be thinking about once you’ve read the book. It starts with the exploration of whether or not animals are conscious. Next up is the whole matter of time – a strange phenomenon, once you start to think about it. Then after a section on aging and whether we can live forever comes one of the big surprises – a fascinating discussion entitled “what are we going to do with the stupid.” Hanlon points out that where in past centuries we used to happily mock the disabled, or those of different race, now it’s only politically correct to mock those who are at the low end of normal intelligence. That, he argues, is the reason reality TV shows are so popular. And with the job market constantly changing, with less and less “brute force” and more “brain” jobs, there is a real issue of how to give everyone the best chances – a really thought provoking section.
From there he goes on to dark matter and dark energy, life in the universe, whether we remain the same person when every cell in our body changes, and the widespread nature of obesity and fatness, which proves under his scrutiny much less straightforward than you might think.
The only let down is the last two chapters. The ninth is entitled “can we really be sure the paranormal is bunkum”, which sounded very promising, but Hanlon changes from a rather laid back style to downright aggressive here, and it’s both a little unpleasant and confusing. The confusion arises out of a mixed message – in one breath he’s saying “everything paranormal (including organized religion) is rubbish” and in another “though it’s mostly rubbish, there are elements that could be worth investigating.” The unpleasantness comes from the vigour with which he puts down the supernatural. Despite statistics to the contrary, Hanlon suggests that most rational people consider all supernatural concerns (including religious beliefs) to be “gibberish”. Clearly this is historically untrue, and arguably is also untrue of the present day world. He even contradicts himself, saying later in the piece that a 1979 survey found that the majority of American professors surveyed were prepared to accept that ESP was a possibility worth studying.
He makes matters worse in his attack on “intercessory prayer.” Now I have to confess I don’t believe in that praying over someone results in a supernatural intervention to make them better, but I still have problems with his remark “It never seems to be the case, puzzlingly, that the volunteers are asked to pray for a worsening of the patients’ condition…” Setting aside whether or not intercession for harming might work, if you translate this question into a medical equivalent, it’s a bit like asking why conventional medical trials don’t attempt to give intentional overdoses to see how badly the patients are hurt. It just doesn’t quite make sense.
The tenth chapter, which is a brief exploration of how we can be sure anything is real hasn’t got the same problems, it’s just a touch flimsy. Despite my concerns about chapter nine, though, I still have no doubts in awarding this book five stars – it’s well worth it for those first eight, thought provoking and fascinating chapters.
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg