Sunday, 28 October 2007

Why People Believe Weird Things – Michael Shermer ****

Michael Shermer is probably best known as Scientific American’s resident sceptic – a man who has what seems the wickedly enjoyable job of going around finding fault with other people’s beliefs – a sort of modern day court jester without (presumably – I’ve never seen him) the funny costume and bells. In this classic, originally published in 1997 but reviewed in a new UK edition, he gives a powerful argument for taking the sceptical viewpoint.
Although along the same lines as Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World, this book works alongside Sagan’s masterpiece, rather than competing with it. It focuses more on why we believe strange things, and also very usefully expands out from the paranormal and pseudoscience to include pseudohistory, a topic I hadn’t even realized existed.
Shermer is something of a convert to scepticism, so has a convert’s fervour, but none of the unpleasant aggressiveness of the likes of Randi and Dawkins. Instead he gently shows us how strange beliefs come into being, and why they have such a strong hold. Inevitably strong on the paranormal and UFOs, he is particularly good when looking at the likes of modern accusations of satanic rituals, and the remarkable cult of Ayn Rand. The section on creationism is a little weaker, partly because it isn’t quite up-to-date enough, and also because there has been so much material going into this in more depth (see, for example, Scientists Confront…)
In some ways I was most impressed by the next section on pseudohistory, in part, I suspect, because of not having really thought about this as a concept before. The chapters on holocaust denial were fascinating, and perhaps even more surprising was the self-deception of the ‘all ideas originated in Africa’ movement (again new to me).
The only reason that this book doesn’t get 5 stars is that I found the last section before getting to the summaries, on a scientific idea that its originator says gives a mechanism for a form of eternal life, irritating. It just isn’t the same sort of problem as the other topics covered in the book. Here someone is speculating wildly based on extrapolating scientific theories to the extreme – but that’s a very different game to having an unshakable belief in concepts with no support in evidence, and I think Shermer does himself and the reader a disservice by confusing the two. However, the book doesn’t entirely end on this mistake, as there are a couple of short chapters pulling together the whys and wherefores of belief in weird things, so this small glitch doesn’t destroy the flow, and certainly shouldn’t detract from the fact that overall this is a book, alongside Sagan’s, that ought to be on every thinking person’s shelf.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Avoid Boring People – James D. Watson ***

An autobiography by as big a name in science as James Watson, one of the discoverers of the structure of DNA, is one of those rare moments that perhaps can be over-anticipated to the point of disappointment when it arrives. Sadly, this was the case with Avoid Boring People.
It covers the period from his birth to the mid 1970s, but does so in a strangely detached, rather affected style. You never get the feeling that you are seeing the real person, but rather a dim view into the past through fogged lenses. As is often the case the early family history is a bit dull, but things liven up when Watson gets to school – but rather than soaring from here, it’s only certain little areas, such as political battles at Harvard, that shine through with any great brilliance.
Perhaps most surprising is the almost summary approach to the DNA work. One suspects that Watson thinks it has all been done before – not least in his own The Double Helix, written when he was much younger, and with huge vigour. It’s easy to imagine that it seemed sensible to deal with this episode in a summary fashion – but then you’ve taken the heart out of why this isn’t a book about just any scientist – and the result is inevitably disappointment.
Watson’s social life is also skipped over rather – before meeting his wife, he mentions quite a few young women, but without giving any idea what their relationships were. A more detached biographer would probably have seen fit to point out that as Watson went from an undergraduate to the 40-year-old he was when he married, he mostly seemed interested in women around the undergraduate age, and perhaps to draw some conclusions.
Worst of all, though, is the approach to the science. There is no attempt to make this interesting to the general reader. There’s not enough explanation, and too much ready throwing in of jargon. In the end it provides little more than a teenage ‘we did this, they did that’ account of the scientific work he is describing. This is not how popular science should be undertaken.
The whole structure is not helped by ending each chapter with a series of trite aphorisms as ‘lessons from life’. One of these is the title of the book. Unfortunately, this is more a case of “avoid boring book.”
Hardback (US is Paperback):  
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 4 October 2007

A Certain Ambiguity – Gaurav Suri & Hartosh Singh Bal ***(**)

This is one of the very few books we have been unable to give a straightforward star rating. The reason is that it has been important to separate the idea and the execution. More on this later.
A Certain Ambiguity is a novel, but a novel with the explicit intention of putting across information about mathematics. This might seem a very new thing to do, but in fact has plenty of historical precedent. For example, when Galileo wrote his two great books, they were in the form of dialogues between fictional characters. Of course they weren’t novels – the novel form didn’t exist – but they did make use of human discussion to help get across complex points to a more general reader.
In A Certain Ambiguity we meet Ravi Kapoor who travels from India to America to further his education, and finds himself increasingly fascinated by both maths and his grandfather, who was a mathematician and had been in the US himself. The storyline interwines Ravi’s experience at college with a gradual uncovering of the reasons his grandfather was jailed for blasphemy, and how his grandfather discussed issues of maths and philosophy with a judge.
First the good stuff, the reason A Certain Ambiguity gets those bracketed five stars. It is a wonderful idea. Popular science is all about getting the joy and wonder of science across to general readers. This is easier with, say, physics or genetics than with maths, which many might find cold and off-putting. Yet Suri and Bal set out to show the genuine joy of discovery that can be there in mathematics, and how knowing about maths can help us understand how human beings understand everything. This is a truly noble aim. Anything that can be done to make science and maths more approachable is well worth the effort. And there are some very effective moments in this novel where Suri and Bal manage to get across mathematical intuitions in a fashion that’s better than anything I’ve seen elsewhere.
However, and there has to be a “however”, it’s a flawed enterprise. Firstly it just isn’t a very good novel. There’s no real feeling of identity with the protagonists – I don’t really care what happens to them – and there’s much too much fake quotation and concentration on jazz that is simply boring. Then there are one or two factual issues that are a little uncomfortable. We hear a Stanford professor say that Galileo invented the telescope – painfully wrong. A judge in the US finds it shocking to have music in church – unlikely unless he was a Quaker, which other comments he makes seems unlikely. The whole lengthy argument over religion gets in the way of both the plot and the maths. The fictional journal entries are both banal and boring. To have Spinoza say “Today I was excommunicated,” is just too like a school essay attempt at a historical character’s journal.
There’s also too much mathematical exposition – more than I would expect in a straight popular maths book, let alone a novel where it breaks the flow. And in the end, the premise that seems to take everyone by surprise – in effect that the “truth” of mathematical systems can’t necessarily be equated with how the physical world works, but stands as a construct in its own right, certainly shouldn’t be a shock to any scientist, and I would have thought wouldn’t take any of the characters in the book by surprise either.
I can’t, in all sincerity, recommend this book either as a novel or as a way to get an understanding of the maths it contains, but I can and do wholeheartedly celebrate the value of the authors’ attempt.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg