Saturday, 13 December 2008

The Super-Organism – Bert Holldobler and E. O. Wilson ****

There’s something about super-organisms – the collective creature made up of insects like bees or ants – that seem to bring out the glossy in a book publisher. The Buzz about Beeswas all on glossy paper with piles of colour illustrations – so is The Super-Organism, though here the format is coffee table and the beautiful photographs crop up more frequently. Don’t be fooled by the format, though, this is no coffee table picture book.
We absolutely loved The Buzz about Bees, so it was interesting to see what the approach would be here. First it’s broader. Not only covering the bee super-organism, we also get ants and leaf cutters. It’s also in more technical depth than the bee book. Sometimes this is useful, giving more insights into these complex living mechanisms, at others the result is more complex than it needs to be. In The Super-Organism there’s more depth, more about the origins of the super-organism, more details of experiments to determine just what’s going on.
Of the two books we do marginally prefer The Buzz about Bees – it comes across as more friendly and more excited about the bees, and the text is more easily understood. The Super-Organism is just too big, both physically (my arms were aching when I finished reading it) and also has too much information, sometimes at an unnecessarily technical level. However it is well written by this very literate pair of scientists and certainly repays the effort of reading it. Perhaps biased by having read the bee book, the bees were my favourite part of this, mostly because they were old friends, but also because of their synergy with human society.
So not a book for you if you’ve weak arms or a fear of being bombarded with Latin tags and words like eusociality – but a massive gem if you really want to get into the workings of these bizarre multi-creature organisms.
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Statistics: a very short introduction – David J. Hand ****

These little pocket guides are inevitably quite variable in quality. Some just pack in the facts but aren’t at all readable – they’re fine as a quick introduction for students, but they get short shrift as popular science. On the whole, though, David J. Hand’s introduction to statistics succeeds in being very readable. I think he rather over-reached himself with his stated aim of proving that statistics is ‘the most exciting of disciplines’ – but he does make it clear why statisticians find it exciting, and what a powerful and ubiquitous field it is. Very few of the sciences, soft or hard, could manage without probability and statistics.
The first half of the book, where he lays the ground, is probably the best. Once he gets into probability, with its potential to be mind-boggling fun, he rather gets bogged down, in part because he introduces rather more technicalities, and gives us less real world examples, than he should. Things get rather worse when we get onto estimation, inference and modelling, with a slightly uncomfortable parallel line describing the Bayesian approach and the classical approach.
Despite this, if you are prepared to travel a little lightly through the second half, the book is the best simple introduction to statistics I’ve come across. it doesn’t tell you how to use the various techniques and tools it mentions, but at least gives a good picture of some of the toolkit available and how the choices involved are made. With my Operational Research background, I would have liked to see the book expanding into a few OR techniques, but that’s a minor consideration. Overall, a good addition to the series.
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

What does the Moon Smell Like? – Eva Everything ***

Trivia is ever-popular and this book combines science and trivia in a quiz-like format, written by the exotically named presenter of Discovery Channel’s Brain CafĂ©, Eva Everything. There are lots of fun science facts, put across in 151 quizzes which range from a single question to a handful on topics ranging from Einstein’s brain to mad scientists. Each question has four possible answers and, as you might guess, wherever possible, the real answer is not the most obvious one.
This isn’t a bad book by any means, but it’s difficult to know quite what to do with it. It’s not easy to read through, in part because of the idiotic decision to print the answer pages upside down. It’s idiotic because they’re always on the back of the question page, so you can never accidentally see the answer until you’re ready anyway – and it just makes the book almost impossible to read through for pleasure. On the other hand, only the desperate geeks are really going to use this as an actual ‘Please sir, please! I know the answer!’ quiz.
To make matters worse, I found the subjects often a relatively little interest. Maybe they were chosen just because the answers were strange, but I don’t really care that much about the founding of Mercedes cars or when astronauts played ball on the Moon (well that was worth a few billions dollars, then).
In the end, this feels like a good idea that hasn’t quite worked in practice. However, don’t despair. Good gift books are hard to come by, and the advantage of a gift book is you don’t actually have to try to read it, just to have something that sounds intriguing, which this book does. Genuinely would make a good gift, but I probably wouldn’t buy it for myself.
Oh, and the answer to the book’s title? Apparently burned gunpowder according to astronauts, but nothing much at all back here on Earth.
Review by Jo Reed

Friday, 5 December 2008

The Atom and the Apple – Sebastien Balibar ****

At the heart of this slim hardback are a series of personal stories. In the very acceptable translation from Sebastien Balibar’s original French (it’s perhaps ironic that one of the chapters is about the importance of the French running international conferences and journals in English), these are charming and really give a sense of having a chat with this engaging physicist.
The book starts very strong with the chapters titled ‘Black Night’, ‘My Cousin the Leek’ and ‘I am radioactive’, sags a bit n the middle, and recovers strongly at the end. Based on those first few chapters I had been going to give it a five star rating, but it didn’t quite keep up the impetus. Balibar works in low temperature physics, and it’s good to see some exposure for this rarely described aspect of science, though he also covers many different topics along the way.
There are a few minor flaws. Balibar’s knowledge of history of science might not be quite as polished as his expertise in the science itself. For instance, he says ‘What made Hubble come up with the idea that the Universe had been flying off in all directions since the initial explosion?’ Hubble didn’t – he very explicitly didn’t speculate as to why the universe was expanding, merely presented the data. It’s also the case that because he’s flitting about quite quickly between different subjects, he can sometimes be rather summary – but I only found this frustrating in topics which I already knew quite a lot about, so this may be less of a problem if the whole works is new to you.
Overall, then, a pleasantly personal view on some key scientific issues, life, the universe and everything.
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 1 December 2008

How to Dunk a Doughnut – Len Fisher ***

The principle behind this book is an excellent one. To use the science of everyday things to explore sophisticated science and the scientific method. This is the kind of work that earned the author the iGNobel Prize – but not in a bad way.
Where it works well, it works very well. The section on cooking food, for example, is really interesting. But sometimes it all gets very anorak, so that (for example) the title chapter (which is actually more about dunking biscuits than doughnuts) is, frankly, rather dull, as is the section on the physics of tools – though even this has occasional bursts of interest.
The chapters stray from the useful if scientifically trivial aspect of estimating (enabling you to guess an approximate total for your supermarket bill in case, erm, the till added it up wrong I suppose) to the nature of taste (another good chapter) and what happens when you throw a boomerang.
To its credit, this is another ‘silly scientific questions answered in a page’ book. Instead it goes into some depth on each topic, and Len Fisher brings in various experts to add their knowledge on subjects they never thought of addressing. So the idea is excellent. But somehow the execution doesn’t quite live up to the promise.
Review by Jo Reed

Monday, 24 November 2008

Polio: An American Story – David M. Oshinsky *****

Author David Oshinsky has done a masterful job of bringing to life the struggles to develop a vaccine against polio. I used the word struggles because it is not just a story of virus versus man. The story he weaves is exciting and compelling; it is so much more than the history of growing viruses and testing vaccines. The book is comprised of three intertwining storylines: the efforts of the March of Dimes campaign and the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to raise money for research and patient care, the development of the killed vaccine by Jonas Salk, and the competition between the supporters of the killed vaccine and the supporters of a live, weakened vaccine, represented most vividly by Albert Sabin.
The story was extremely well-written and easy to follow. When I picked up the book, I thought that this will be a chauvinistic attempt by the author to demonstrate how the mighty United States was able to conquer a deadly disease all by itself. But I’ve always found the story of the polio vaccine very interesting and I even remember my mother saying how happy she was that the vaccine had became available when I was a child. Oshinsky does clearly prove that it is truly an American story: an American fund-raising campaign, an American president (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) afflicted with the disease, and the American scientists striving to develop the first vaccine. But to Oshinsky’s credit, it is a very unbiased report. He points out the scare tactics used by the National Foundation and its then-novel method of fund-raising. He is also critical of the method of vaccine distribution and attributes vaccine shortages to industry and physicians’ desire to keep government out of medicine. He even contrasts this to Canada’s more successful policy of centralized distribution. And he is clear when there is a non-American connection, that is when studies of the live-weakened vaccine take place in the Soviet Union.
Oshinsky gives just the right amount of biographical information so that the reader understands why the main characters acted the way they did. He delves not only into the salient facts but also places events in the context of the personalities and the clashes that can occur among people of strong personalities. In order to understand the development of the vaccine, some understanding of the science is required and Oshinsky carefully leads the reader along. The politics of the development of the vaccine is also discussed. There wasn’t much that I didn’t like about the book and I would have no suggestions about how it could be improved. Indeed this book led me to another book about polio that I look forward to reading, The Cutter Incident: How America’s First Polio Vaccine Led to the Growing Vaccine Crisis, by P.A. Offit.
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Stephen Goldberg

Saturday, 22 November 2008

The Importance of Being Trivial – Mark Mason ****

Have you ever wondered what it is about trivia that is so appealing? Ever since the success of Schott’s Miscellany, we have been inundated with books of fascinating factoids. Even science has not been spared, thanks to the huge success of the like of Why Don’t Penguin’s Feet Freeze? Author Mark Mason is someone who is fascinated by trivia. But for him it’s not enough to know that you can hear Big Ben chime on the radio slightly ahead of the real thing, because the signal is being transmitted (live) at the speed of light, while you only hear it coming down from the tower at the speed of sound – he has to take a radio to the foot of the Westminster clock tower to try it out.
In this book, Mason attempts to uncover just why a good factoid grabs the attention – what makes trivia anything but trivial. We see trivia cropping up in quizzes, in pub conversations, in the shows of stand up comics – in a series of interviews with academics and professional trivia users, Mason gradually builds up a picture of what makes one factoid fascinating while another is everyday and explores the reason why some kinds of brain – those with more ‘male brains’ in Simon Baron-Cohen’s terminology (not all men, though the majority are) – are particularly suited to the joy of trivia.
The only tiny reasons this book doesn’t get five stars are that there’s probably a bit too much anecdote (essential for trivia) and not enough science for this site, and also because I found the section about QI unnecessary. It’s probably just me, but I find the whole QI phenomenon smug and nausea-inducing. (And they get things wrong more often than I’d expect – I’ve twice heard them say, for instance, that Galileo invented the telescope.)
I think there’s still more subtlety in there than Mason has uncovered. For example, I love trivia, the sense of wonder and the joy of sharing it (sometimes to the irritation of others) – but I have no interest in sport, and can’t remember numbers or dates. I love trivia, but like jokes I rarely remember any of it more than a few minutes. This type of trivia enthusiast, I’d suggest, is just as common if not more so than those who can remember all the obscure stuff.
However, that’s a very small negative -the book is charming, very well written and works like the best of such titles, taking us on a personal excursion around the world of non-trivial trivia. This is no simple collection of facts, although you will be amazed by the stuff you find out – it’s is much more than that, it’s an explanation of a fundamental human behaviour. Recommended.
Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 21 November 2008

Simon Singh – Four Way Interview

Dr Simon Singh is a freelance writer, science journalist, broadcaster, whose books include the phenomenally successful Fermat’s Last Theorem, The Code Book, Big Bang and most recently Trick or Treatment? on alternative medicine.
Why Science?
I have always loved science, so it is the only subject that I would ever want to write about.
Why this book?
I began to realise that there is a huge amount of misinformation about alternative medicine, and misinformation in the context of health is potentially dangerous. I teamed up with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine (Edzard Ernst) with the goal of setting the record straight about what works, what doesn’t work, what’s safe and what’s dangerous.
What’s next?
I have no idea. Sooner or later a new project will emerge, but there is nothing currently on my radar.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
I am being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association. For legal reasons I cannot say anything else at the moment.

Weird Science and Bizarre Beliefs – Gregory L. Reece ***

What can I say? It’s a subject I love. I’ve also enjoyed books on fringe science, why people believe strange things and science fiction, so this seemed an ideal book. So it’s a terrible disappointment to have to tell you it’s not very good. There are two big problems with this book. One is that the range of subject matter is rather random – bigfoots (bigfeet?), lost worlds and the hollow earth, ancient wonders and the alleged technology of genius/madman Nikola Tesla. Of these, far too much of the book – the first 100 pages of small print – is on bigfoot. The second problem is that the writing is simply not up to scratch. It’s more like the collection of notes for a book than a real book, and somehow Gregory Reece manages to take these fascinating subjects and make them, well, dull.
When I call the subjects fascinating, I ought to clarify that I don’t believe that, for example, the earth is hollow and mole men live inside it. But the people who do believe this have an interesting delusion, and there’s been plenty of science fiction based on the concept. Technically it’s mostly weird pseudo-science, rather than weird science – but that shouldn’t stop it being interesting in principle.
It’s just possible that my lack of interest in bigfoot put me of early on – but I’ve always been fascinated by Tesla and even this section failed to lift my enthusiasm. There’s good material in here, but the writer was sadly not up to turning it into an effective book.


Ben Goldacre - Four Way Interview

Ben Goldacre is an award winning writer, broadcaster, and medical doctor who has written the weekly Bad Science column in the Guardian since 2003. His Bad Science blog is an unparalleled source of information on dubious science, particularly in complementary medicine. His book, with the inspired title Bad Science, came out in November 2008.
Why Science?
More because it’s interesting than because it’s right.
Why this book?
Because I wanted to have everything in one place, the whole story of how we know if something does us good or harm, and the many ways that we can be misled by other people or, more interestingly, ourselves.
What’s next?
Golly, I don’t know. I might do a book for doctors and medical students on how to spot dodgy evidence from big pharma, expanding on the book chapter, since I do some teaching on that, and I think it’s a way to make teaching critical appraisal skills a bit more interesting. Epidemiology was called “epidemiholiday” when i was at medical school.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
The album by Au Revoir Simone (The Bird of Music),, a musical device designer called “the Harvestman”.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Trick or Treatment – Simon Singh & Edzard Ernst *****

It’s typical, isn’t it. You wait for years for a good book on bad medicine, and then two come out close together – Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science and this. Don’t worry, though, about choosing between them – every sensible person ought to get both.
Although Ben Goldacre comes from a medical background he takes a wider viewpoint than just bad medical science, where this book looks specifically at alternative medicine. The outcome is electrifying to everyone who thinks and has used or considered using anything like homeopathy or acupuncture. Singh and Ernst don’t set out with any malice – Ernst has worked for many years in alternative medicine – but they show devastatingly how proper trials have shown these alternative treatments to rarely be better than a placebo, and often to have negative or even life-threatening consequences.
It really is striking – the vast majority of alternative medical treatments are proved to be on a par with snake oil. Apart from anything else, this ought to be required reading for doctors -a surprising number encourage alternative treatment – for celebrities who endorse this kind of medication and particularly the media which all too often is wide-eyed and idiotic on the subject of alternative treatments. In the UK, Prince Charles who has bumbled on about the subject for many years, ought to be forced to copy this book out by hand until he gets the point.
All in all, one of the most important popular science books of the year, and what’s more it’s very readable too. By combining Ernst’s expertise on the subject and Singh’s superb science writing we have a book that is as entertaining as it is informative, and the emphasis on real testing will be a delight to anyone who enjoys the saying ‘data is not the plural of anecdote.’ More than recommended – essential.
Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 14 November 2008

Everyday Survival – Laurence Gonzales ***

This, like every game of football comes in two halves. The first is a delight. There was no doubt while reading this that Everyday Survival would be awarded five stars. The second gets into a bit of a mess that doesn’t really merit more than two stars – so the resultant rating is an average.
I absolutely loved Laurence Gonzales’ description of how we make mistakes and errors when the way we are programmed to react, allowing the older, lower segments of the brain to take control, fails to cope with a misunderstanding or unnoticed change in the situation. I won’t spoil his policeman after training to disarm someone with a gun anecdote here, but it is absolutely wonderful – I’ve been telling everyone I can think on ever since. I even experienced this sort of error myself this week. Every Thursday I have to go and switch on the heating in a hall where I will be running an event in the evening. This Thursday I went along and flicked the switch. However, when I came back later the hall was cold. I hadn’t noticed someone had left the heating on. I was just programmed to flick the switch and didn’t notice I was turning it off rather than on. For me this was just a mild irritation. Gonzales shows us how it can lead to people putting themselves at risk or losing their lives.
The book is also interesting in the way it ventures into an exploration of early man, and apes to see where this programmed ability and survival risk comes from. However, then the book wanders, drifting out into global warming, our impact on the planet, the nature of entropy and our role as energy conduits, which collectively results in a handful of chapters that have none of the appeal of the early chapters, which ramble and really give the reader very little more than a vague sense of unease.
The contrast I think is nicely summed up in a wonderful line Gonzales gives us. ‘Exactly how does the big bang, some 10 or 20 million years ago, go about producing Fruity Cheerios?’ A wonderful idea, ruined by substituting ‘million’ for ‘billion.’ A real shame.
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Decoding the Heavens – Jo Marchant *****

Just occasionally, as a science writer, I come across a subject that makes me think ‘Wow, that’s brilliant, it would make a great book! I must write it.’ About five seconds later I realize that it’s so obviously a good story that someone else will have beaten me to it. And sure enough, there’s the book. In this case I did think it, Jo Marchant has written it, and the result is excellent.
The subject is not, as you might think from the title, astronomy, but the Antikythera (anti-kith-era) Mechanism. Even that name is redolent with excitement – it’s like something Indiana Jones or Lara Croft might search for – and there were certainly some interesting characters involved in its decoding. Even Arthur C. Clarke and Richard Feynman were fascinated by this ancient puzzle. The Mechanism is a device found in 1900 amongst the wreckage of a Greek ship from the first century BC. It’s a complex geared structure, built hundreds of years before anyone knew such gearing was used.
Without giving too much away, the device has proved neither a clock nor an astrolabe (two of the early ideas) but a calculator that predicted the motion of bodies in the solar system and even seems to have acted as a combined calendar and Greek games locator. It was, in essence, an early computer – not a programmable computer, but one specifically designed around astronomical data. Marchant weaves an elegant tale of the gradual uncovering of the Mechanism’s function, drawing in many associated developments, from the use of diving equipment to the use of X-rays in uncovering details of the hidden mechanism.
If I have one slight complaint it’s that Marchant likes starting a chapter with a historical dramatization and this doesn’t always work. For instance, the first couple of pages of chapter 3 begin with a description of a historical ship setting sail. But we’ve already been introduced to the Mechanism, and I wanted to get on with that. Okay, this turns out to be a description of the ship the Mechanism was sunk with , but continuity was shattered. She also has a confusing tendency to switch in and out of the historical present tense mid-paragraph.
That’s a minor moan, though. It’s a wonderful subject and an entrancing book. Recommended.
Review by Brian Clegg

Venn That Tune - Andrew Viner ****

There is something delightful about a book that combines mathematical/graphical notation with the names of pop songs. This unashamed gift book has a series of pages, each illustrating one song title using a diagram. About a half are Venn diagrams with the rest being various forms of chart, some more obscure than others. This is much easier to see than understand from a description. Here’s the diagram that’s on the cover of the book a little more clearly:
The idea is to guess the tune from the diagram (I love this particular example). There are answers in the back, but for one like this you shouldn’t need to check it – it’s like a good crossword clue, when you get the answer, it’s obviously right.
One of the reason this particular one works well is that the song is well-known. With some of the more obscure numbers (for example It’s ‘Orrible Being in Love (When you’re 8½)) it’s not quite such a certain experience, so you are more likely to approximate to the answer than get it spot on, unless you have a passion for obscure song titles.
This is an ideal gift – especially for someone who’s mathematically or musically minded (or even both). I’ll certainly be buying a few. It’s one of those classic ‘books I probably wouldn’t buy myself, but I’d love to be given’ presents. It’s just a shame that it wasn’t available in the US until after Christmas 2008 – it’ll have to be a birthday present instead there.
Of course there are plenty of tunes missing – Andrew Viner admits he ran out of space (I wanted to see ‘Venn you walk all alone, keep your head up high’, which I know technically isn’t the title of the song, but hey) – but those that are there will keep anyone with an enquiring mind and a sense of fun amused and entertained. Recommended.
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 10 November 2008

New Theories of Everything – John D. Barrow ****

Could this be the only science book you will ever need to read? After all it is, in effect, trying to assemble an explanation for life, the universe and everything. Those who worry about unweaving the rainbow will perhaps gain some solace in Barrow’s penultimate sentence in the book. ‘No Theory of everything can ever provide total insight.’ I’ll leave you to read the book to discover the punchline.
This is a brave effort from Barrow to break of all of science down to universals, not in the sense of exploring current thinking in every branch of science, but rather pulling apart the tools that science uses – as he calls it, the eightfold way – and getting a better understanding of the insights that everything from an understanding of symmetry to the nature of universal constants brings us. Along the way, he merrily weaves in an impressive range of associations and concepts that will help in the big picture.
I confess I don’t agree entirely with one of the key axioms that leads to Barrow’s description. He says that … we recognize science to be the search for algorithmic compressions. We list sequences of observed data. We try to formulate algorithms that compactly repesent the information content of those sequences. Then we test the correctness of our hypothetical abbreviations by using them to predict the next terms in the string. These predictions can then be compared with the future direction of the data sequence. Without the development of algorithmic compressions of data, all science would be replaced by mindless stamp collecting – the indiscriminate accumulation of every available fact. While there is plenty of truth in this statement, it seems to miss the real big picture explanatory/sense of wonder aspects of science, limiting it to either stamp collecting (information gathering) or reducing numbers to rules that generate those numbers. It’s no surprise that Barrow is a proponent of the ‘it from bit’ concept that considers the whole universe as, in effect, a vast computer program.
The writing style is probably not for everyone. I was a little unnerved by Barrow’s use of the first person plural (‘it is our intention…’) and in general the feel is something between a university lecture and Radio Four’s ‘In our Time.’ Not a bad thing per se, but at the distancing end of popular science. Even so, this is a powerful book and one that repays the indubitable effort required to read it with some intriguing insights.
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 7 November 2008

The Living End – Guy Brown ***

Take a glance at the cover of Guy Brown’s book and what does it seem to be about? I have to confess I thought it was fishermen, and with a title like that, the collapse of the fishing industry. I don’t say this to complain about the book design, though I will be doing that shortly, but to highlight the way the true topic doesn’t really encourage the reader in, which is presumably why the cover doesn’t feature graves or something similar. It’s about death, ageing and immortality, but mostly death.
Let’s get that design moan out of the way. Apart from the misleading cover design, this little hardback doesn’t look unattractive, but open it up and there’s horror inside. The text is plastered across the page in a largish sans serif font, heading way into the gutters at the side with very small paragraph indentations. The result is such a big, undistinguished block of text that it’s very uncomfortable to read. I’ve seen (much) better page layout in books on Lulu.
There’s no doubt that there some interesting stuff in here. I was particularly fascinated that the ‘people only lived until their thirties in the middle ages’ myth was in fact a double inverted myth. People used to assume the fact that the average lifespan of an adult was (say) 35 meant that people mostly lived to 35. More educated books (like, I admit, a couple of mine) spot that this is not really a meaningful number, because there was so much child mortality. We also see quite a few well known individuals live to their 50s, 60s, and 70s. So the assumption is that lifespans weren’t vast different from now, if you survived to be an adult.
However Brown shows that, though child mortality was hugely dominant in (say) the 17th century, the commonest life expectancy of those surviving childhood was mid-thirties. Even this, however proves an over-simplification, because as many people died in their 50s 60s and 70s as died in their 30s and 40s. The reality was that the spread was a lot bigger than now, but it’s too simple to say that most people who survived adulthood reached at least 60.
Towards the end of the book, Brown treats the ideas of life extension, though I found this rather stodgy and miserable for such an interesting subject. And in the end, that’s the fatal (?!) flaw of this book. It’s just a miserable topic. I didn’t want to start it, and as I read it didn’t get any more encouraging. I know everything we read can’t be cheerful and upbeat, but I find it hard to recommend taking on what is clearly an important topic, but nonetheless is one that dampens the soul so thoroughly.
Review by Brian Clegg