Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Different Engines – Mark L. Brake & Neil Hook ***

I looked forward to this book with great anticipation. In my younger days I was a great fan of science fiction, and am fascinated by the overlap and influence that flows between ‘real’ science and fiction that uses science as its backdrop, its hook or its foil.
I think, for this reason – the intense anticipation – and one other reason, I was rather disappointed, so I want to get that negative part out of the way first. One problem was the style. Books about science fiction are usually written in a very approachable fashion, as is good popular science. This felt a bit too much like an academic work, rather than an engaging read. (This might have been the authors’ intent, but Macmillan Science is supposed to be a popular science imprint.) I found myself skipping bits where I was getting bored, never a good indicator.
The trouble with the anticipation is that there is so much key science fiction missing. This falls out of the structure of the book, which looks at a particular era in science, then matches up science fiction to that science. But the trouble with this is that many of the SF greats don’t fit that timetable well, and so aren’t really featured. The 1950s/early 1960s were a rich period in SF greats, but we’re limited because this has been labelled as the ‘atomic age’, so it’s all about the rather dull post-apocalyptic writing of the period. I could moan, for instance, about the lack of coverage of Blish or Pohl or Wyndham, but I really only need to point out that Isaac Asimov gets only two tangential references to say enough.
Given this worrying start, it might seem that three stars is a generous rating. Yet the book has some likeable features. It takes science fiction seriously, it provides a lot of detail on the often overlooked pre-H.G. Wells proto SF, and it brings out the relationship between fiction and science well.
A final amusing thought. Although actually published in 2007, the book claims to be published in 2008 – could it be the authors have access to that stalwart science fiction prop, the time machine?
Review by Martin O'Brien

Friday, 16 November 2007

The Void – Frank Close ***

It’s tempting to wonder why anyone would want to write a book about nothing. It would, I presume, be a short book. This is certainly a slim volume, but packs plenty in, because ‘the void’ is a more subtle and complex concept than mere nothingness. Even so, as an author, this is a title that smacks to me of ‘edge hunting’. Any popular science book needs a special something to hang the book on, whether it’s a person, an event or some special aspect of the science itself. It’s easy to imagine Frank Close having a eureka moment when he hit on the void as that special edge for his book, though as we will see, it’s one of those subjects that sounds great as an initial idea, but is hard to provide with much substance.
As a topic, the void isn’t quite as empty as it seems – at the quantum level, a vacuum is anything but empty – but there really isn’t enough in it to support a whole book, and in practice, though there are bits about vacuum and the void, this is really a book about the development of quantum theory, including the evolution of ideas about the nature of matter and light, using the idea of the void as a hook.
Sadly, it doesn’t work awfully well. Frank Close does not provide enough detail to allow the history of science in the book to be anything other than fleeting, nor does it make it possible to really explain the physics, with too much jargon for a true popular science book. Strangest of all, this is a book that seems to sit solidly in the ‘light is a wave’ historical camp. Although Close makes a passing mention of photons, nearly all the book operates on the assumption not that light has wave-like behaviour, but that it truly is a wave, presumably because Close feels this is easier for the non-technical reader to deal with. This is an unhelpful image, especially when getting into quantum theory – it’s almost as if quantum electrodynamics, describing light’s interaction with matter, and all of Feynman’s work showing how all the wave-like properties could be explained using photons, had never happened. I know we often still speak as if light were a wave for convenience, but a book operating at this level should leave the reader with a less classical view.
Overall a book that failed to satisfy, in part because what seemed like a very interesting hook proved, ironically, to have very little to it.
Review by Brian Clegg

Max Perutz and the Secret of Life – Georgina Ferry *****

There are some books that, when they arrive on the reviewing shelf, tend to get pushed to one side because, frankly, they don’t seem very interesting. After a spate of DNA-related titles, it was very easy to think ‘oh, yes, another molecular biologist, but they’ve done the famous ones and now they’re scraping the barrel.’ I don’t mean that in any way disrespectfully of Perutz – he was, after all, a Nobel prize winner – but there are plenty of Nobel laureates out there and they certainly aren’t all in the Feynman class when it comes to science-changing achievements or having an interesting life. However, in this reaction I was reckoning without two things – there was more to Max Perutz than meets the eye, and Georgina Ferry does a riveting job, producing a biography that is a joy to read.
It’s hard not to like Perutz if you’re British – because we all love people who come from another country but prefer ours – and this is doubly amazing considering the way he was treated during the Second World War, when as an enemy alien he was imprisoned and packed off to Canada (nothing against Canada, it was just not where he wanted to be, especially in a prison camp). Although he had his failings, he comes across as a likeable person without the ego problems that some Nobel prize winners have suffered from.
One of the strengths of Ferry’s book is the way that she doesn’t whitewash over Perutz’s failings – in fact he could be quite obtuse, and is never portrayed in the sort of quixotic genius mode we are used to with the Nobel greats, but rather as a systematic (you might even say plodding) but tenacious follower of his lines of inquiry. Once he goes off the rails in a fairly big way in pursuing those who disagree with him, but you never lose sympathy with Perutz as a character.
The other strength of this book is that though there is enough of his sometimes abstruse branch of science, concentrating on haemoglobin and aspects of protein structure for most of his working life to get a good understanding of what his work was about, Ferry never makes it obscure, always keeping the subject approachable to the non-biologist. Fascinating also for its description of the life of a top scientific laboratory from the 30s onwards, including a touch of the politics involved, and some larger than life characters, this is one of 2007’s better surprise finds.
Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 10 November 2007

The Myth of Mars and Venus – Deborah Cameron ***

We all know that men and women communicate differently, and that’s why they don’t understand each other. That’s why there’s the battle between the sexes and all those occasions where men have to think of their ‘feminine side’ and so on. But do we really know this in a scientific sense, or is it more a myth? Deborah Cameron believes it is.
As she begins to dig into the literature, broadly divided between the populist self-help books like the one referred to in the title of this, and popular science books like those by Steven Pinker and Simon Baron Cohen, Cameron finds a surprising amount of ‘fact’ that it has no scientific basis. She finds that all the key ‘facts’ that these books build theories on – that women talk more men, that women are more verbally skilled than men, that men talk more about things and women about feelings, that men’s language is competitive and women’s language cooperative, and that men and women misunderstand what their partners mean in relationships causing stress – are all either entirely false or only partially true, in certain circumstances.
This is a real revelation and fascinating, but unfortunately, this is what I’ve heard called an ‘article book’. Its content is really more suited to a good magazine or newspaper article, rather than a whole book. Once Cameron has got this key point across, the rest of what is anyway a slim volume (something we normally applaud) is taken up mostly by repeating the same thing in many different ways. This lack of substance isn’t helped by the fact that the author seems rather ambivalent as to whether these theories help suppress women or are supportive and enlightening.
Great idea, then, and one that should (but won’t) kick the whole “men are from Mars, women from Venus” industry into touch (while also encouraging those more scientific authors to think twice) – but not enough to make a whole book out of.
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

The Tiger that Isn't - Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot *****

Leaving aside the fact that the authors of this book sound like a location from Doctor Who ("I stared across the barren waste of the Dilnot Blastland"), reading it is a great experience. The premise is simple, but effective. All the time we are bombarded with numbers, with statistics, that we tend to take as gospel. But both the numbers themselves and the way they are used should always be subject to a little light questioning.

The authors point out how easy it is to bamboozled by very large numbers, that can be checked out with only a few moments thought. Often what is required is to put the numbers into terms we can better understand. For example, if you heard that £3.12 billion was being spent on the UK population, it sounds an immense amount. But as the authors point out, when you take around 60 million people in the UK and 52 weeks in a year, this amounts to spending £1 a week on each person - not quite as dramatic as it seems.

I've found myself being a little bit more thoughtful about the headline figures I see in the media since reading the book. The same day I saw a newspaper headline telling how some serious crime was up 50% - a huge increase. But when you looked at the actual numbers, there were only 20 more cases. Tragedies, each one, for the people involved, but still a very unlikely occurrence, blown out of proportion by the power of percentages.

Averages, too, come in for a good deal of stick. After all, the average person has less than 2 feet (think about it), so should we change the way we sell shoes in pairs? Probably not.

Very readable, always informative and often entertaining, this is a book that every politician, civil servant and ... well, everyone... should read. It is unashamedly UK-based in its examples, which I guess explains why there isn't a US edition - but that shouldn't put anyone off. The message is universal.


Review by Brian Clegg