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Showing posts from May, 2008

Yes! 50 Secrets from the Science of Persuasion – Noah J. Goldstein, Steve J. Martin, Robert B. Cialdini ****

This is a rarity I’ve only seen once before (Your Money and Your Brain) – a business/popular science crossover. It contains fifty examples of ways to persuade  your customers, co-workers or others to change their behaviour, but instead of being a typical business book, driven from experience, this is driven from experiment. It starts with the classic example of the use of our need to conform to what others do, looking at the little sign in a hotel that requests you re-use towels to save the environment. The sign is changed to say that most guests re-use towels to save the environment, resulting in significantly more re-use. The book goes on to catalogue the many ways that we can influence others, often with very subtle changes of approach. The way, for instance that adding ‘even a penny will help’ will increase giving to charity – recognizing that we don’t like to make large commitments, and that once we’ve overcome reluctance to act at all, we will go significantly further than you m…

Small World – Mark Buchanan ***

It’s entirely possible for something to be both fascinating and intensely unsatisfying – and that is how I felt about Small World and the topic it covers. The subject at the book’s heart is ‘small world networks’. This is the idea behind the famous (or infamous) concept of six degrees of separation. Based on an experiment by Stanley Milgram in 1970, the idea is that everyone in the world is connected to everyone else by no more than six links. The original experiment has been criticized for being limited to the US (hardly the whole world) and not taking in enough barriers of language, class and ethnicity – yet even when these are taken into account, there is a surprisingly small number of jumps required to get from most of us to most others. What’s even more fascinating is that this type of network occurs widely in self-organizing systems, whether it’s the structure of the internet or biological food chains. What tends to crop up are networks where there are local clusters with a few …

Personality – Daniel Nettle ***

High sexual appetite and compulsive promiscuity rule Erica’s life. Bill’s is governed by a drive to make money; he was worth several million pounds by the age of 40, he then blew it all but is now obsessed with rebuilding it. These two have one thing in common. They both have high scores for extraversion, one of five personality characteristics. Daniel Nettle, an academic psychologist, guides us through a key theory of psychology, that all human personalities can be accurately mapped by assessing five simple measures. The five-factor model scores people for their levels of extraversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness and openness. He then examines why such a range of personality should have been preserved through evolution, arguing that there are merits in all the traits. For example, having a low agreeableness score, which indicates a lack of empathy, might serve someone well in a society where a high-status goal-seeking approach is valued strongly. Conversely, women t…

The Elegant Universe of Albert Einstein – Tom Barnes et al ***

Like all books that are collections of essays – in this case, a series of talks given on New Zealand national radio – there is a certain degree of dislocation to this book – but it works better than many, as most of the sections are lucid and readable in their own right. The main disadvantage is a tendency to leap from topic to topic with the fragile linking theme of the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s great year 1905 (although the book didn’t come out until 2006). So we get topics from a brief history of the universe and the history of our knowledge of the age of the Earth, to relativity, quantum theory and more, including the often difficult interaction between science and religion. Some of these topics only have a very tangential link to Einstein – in fact only one strongly covers Einstein’s work, and includes a potted biography of the man. This is where the segmented nature of the book comes out strongest as there is also a mini-biography in the introduction – you’d think the auth…

The Transit of Venus – Peter Adds et al ***

Not the Shirley Hazzard novel, nor any one of a range of other science books that have picked on this title, but a strange confection from the New Zealand publisher Awa Press. The publisher’s location is relevant, as will become clear. Before I read anything about it, I was always a bit dubious about the significance of a transit. Marking when Venus crosses the face of the Sun as seen from Earth, it seemed to smack of the sort of planetary alignment that astrologers get so excited about – the sort of thing that will inevitably happen, but is very ‘so what’ish. However, the transit was to have great astronomical significance, as it enabled the first reasonably accurate measurement of the distance the Earth was from the Sun. Although the concept originated in the north of England with two fascinating amateurs, measurements would be taken around the world, and it would be a mission to time the transit by Captain Cook that led to the European discovery of New Zealand – hence the rather od…