Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Leaving Earth – Robert Zimmerman ***

There have been some excellent books on manned space missions, such as Deborah Cadbury’s Space Race and my own, more recent Final Frontier, and Robert Zimmerman has found an obvious gap in the coverage of the space stations that have been planned as stepping stones to exploration of the solar system, or made real as flying laboratories. There is a good coverage of the Russian side of the story, often slightly overlooked, but so important when it comes to space stations. Zimmerman gets across the mix of professionalism and make-do that characterized these missions.
Mostly the book is very readable, but it is a little too obsessed with detail in covering every mission and every small modification made to space stations, and this is occasionally a touch tedious, but shouldn’t detract from what is a book that anyone interested in the real significance of manned exploration of space should read.
Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 14 September 2007

Vanity, Vitality and Virility – John Emsely ***

This is one of those “seemed like a good idea at the time” titles. It’s a glance behind the scenes at all those chemicals that influence our appearance and health, from the materials that make lipstick shimmer to the mechanism behind Viagra. In principle this should be fascinating, and Emsley does his usual good job of putting the message across in an approachable way – but the whole package looks dull and simply doesn’t entice the reader in.
It should be a good book – it’s by a good writer on a potentially interesting topic – but there’s just something about the topic that makes it less than a sum of its parts.
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Atom – Piers Bizony ****

Sometimes the simplest ideas make for the best popular science books – quite possibly because one of the wonders of science is that many of apparently simple ideas are anything but simple when examined closely. Atoms are the building blocks of all matter – a substantial part of the universe, and decidedly significant to us in our atom-constructed bodies – so they prove a substantial topic, and yet one that brings in plenty of history, intriguing characters and weird science, once the quantum age is reached.
It’s worth contrasting this book with Marcus Chown’s The Quantum Zoo, which so elegantly explains quantum theory (and general relativity for good measure). Where Chown’s book wins hands down is the effectiveness with which it explains quantum theory in surprising depth, yet in a way that is comprehensible to the general reader. Piers Bizony takes a different approach in Atom, rather more skimming the technical side, but including more historical context and details of the human beings who have made contributions to our understanding of atoms over the years. This makes it an easier read than Chown’s, though ultimately not as rewarding if you really want to grasp what quantum theory (inseparable from understanding atoms) is all about. Similarly for a much more in-depth exploration of how atoms were formed in stars, and how this discovery was made, see Chown’s The Magic Furnace, which has significant similarities in content, but considerably more richness.
A really good popular science book that takes a history of science approach will immerse the reader in the characters and the lives of those making the discoveries, so the science is almost absorbed by osmosis as you go. Atom doesn’t quite achieve this. I think the fault, perhaps, is not so much Bizony’s writing, which is effective and enjoyable, but the fact that this is a book of a TV series (to be precise, according to the cover “a major television series” – have you ever seen the book of “an insignificant television series”?). This must to some extent shape the structure and level to which Bizony can go down to, though I would guess (I’m afraid I haven’t seen the BBC series) the book manages to get in much more detail than was shown on screen.
The result is that there is more biographical information than you need to set the context, but not quite enough to really become immersed in the individuals. One example – Richard Feynman gets a lot of biographical coverage, yet his second marriage, an important reflection of his character at the time, is never even mentioned, as if it never existed. There’s often a feeling that Bizony is holding back, not giving us the colour that will make the person come alive, and so the biographical parts can seem a little detached.
The only other moan about this book is the final chapter, which seems to be a tacked on collection of little essays, and doesn’t really fit with the structure or feel of the rest of the book. I would rather have lost it, and gained more insights into the individuals involved in what is, without doubt, a fascinating exploration of one of the most fundamental aspects of nature, and one that Bizony brings alive in an effective way. A good popular science book for those who are taking their first, tentative steps into the genre.
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

The Equation that Couldn’t be Solved – Mario Livio *****

A book we recently reviewed (Unknown Quantity by John Derbyshire) claimed to provide an engaging history of algebra, but failed to deliver. This book, by contrast, does much more than it claims. Not only does provide a genuinely readable history of algebra, but this is just a precursor to the development of group theory, its link to symmetry, and the importance of symmetry in the natural world. (If you are wondering what this has to do with an equation that couldn’t be solved, along the way it describes how it was eventually proved that you can’t produce a simple formula to predict the solutions to quintic equations – if that sounds painful, don’t worry, it isn’t in this book.)
I can’t remember when I last read a mathematics book that was so much of a page turner. Mario Livio has just the right touch in bringing in the lives and personalities of the mathematicians involved, and though he isn’t condescending in his approach, and occasionally readers may find what’s thrown at them a little hard to get their mind around, provided you are prepared to go with the flow and not worry too much if you understand every nuance, it is superb. Just an example of the throw-away brilliance – I’ve read a good number of books on string theory, but this is the first time I’ve seen it made clear how the mathematical basis of the theory is put together. Just occasionally it’s possible that Livio is skimming over a point in a little too summary a fashion – but that’s rare.
If you have read any other maths histories, you may already have come across some biographical detail of Abel and Galois, two very significant men in this story, who have the added biographical mystique of dying young. However, I really felt that Livio has added something to what has been said before, especially in his exploration of Galois’ mysterious death, and also in the way he sets the scene in France at the time, entirely necessary for those of us who haven’t studied history.
The one disappointment with the book is its final chapter, in which Livio tries to examine what creativity is and why some people are creative mathematicians. It sits uncomfortably, not fitting with the flow of the rest of the contents, and it’s clearly a subject the author knows less about than maths and physics. He makes a classic error (which may be one that mathematicians are particularly prone to) of assuming there is a single right answer to a real world problem. Livio challenges us with this problem: “You are given six matches of equal length, and the objective is to use them to form exactly four triangles, in which all the sides of all the four problems are equal.” He then shows us “the solution” in an appendix. The fact is that almost all real world problems, outside the pristine unreality of maths, have more than one solution. In this case, his solution (to form a 3D tetrahedron) is not the only solution, and arguably is not even the best solution.*
However, despite the aberration of this chapter, the rest of the book is a tonic – absolutely one of the best popular maths books we’ve ever seen. Highly recommended.
* Here’s one other solution. For four equilateral triangles, you need 12 identical length sides. So cut each matchstick in half. You now have 12 identical length pieces and can make the four triangles. This is arguably a better solution because it is freestanding – Livio’s solution has to be held in place – and because it is more mathematically pleasing. If you take one triangle away from this solution (4-1=3) you end up with 3 triangles. if you take one triangle away from Livio’s solution, you end up with 0 triangles. (4-1=0). We can think of at least one other solution, and there are almost certainly more.
Review by Brian Clegg