Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Powering Up – Rebecca Mileham ****

This is one of a small series of books linked to the Dana Centre at the Science Museum in London. I’m a great fan of the Dana Centre – it’s a stylish cafe bar, where most evenings there is an informal and interactive session on once science topic or another. Like the Café Scientifique movement, it’s a great way of getting the science message across in a non-threatening way.
The point of the Dana Centre is to explore science and society and to get across aspects of science through the sort of thing that grabs people’s attention – and like it or not, computer games provide an excellent platform for such an analysis. Unlike the companion volume Being Virtual, which has very little science in its exploration of the online world, Rebecca Mileham’s book makes a point of going into the science behind different aspects of our relationship with computer games, from whether they effect your health and mood to their potential for helping us learn, and for changing our views on the world. (It was interesting that the latter part didn’t mention games with a religious message.)
These books are strong on design – I loved the cover (taken from the advertising material of a manufacturer), but the only trouble is the medium can sometimes conspire to obscure the message. I hated the big, multicoloured pull quotes, which just made the book harder to read, and some of the photographs seemed to be in there on a ‘we’ve got full colour on every page, we’d better get an image in’ basis. It’s also very difficult to write a book like this in a neutral way, and it’s very obvious that Mileham believes that computer games are wonderful, and whenever she receives negative evidence, it tends to be presented in a ‘yes, but…’ way that plays down its importance.
In the end, there’s a slight similarity between the desperate attempts to show how valuable computer games are to us with those who try to justify manned space missions by all the spin-off benefits. We’ve got teflon, guys, and er… er… pens that write upside down. I don’t say this as an anti-gamer. A good number of years ago I made my living from playing computer games – not (before my children collapse in an amused heap) as a prizewinning competitor but as a reviewer. But there is a dangerous road in attempting to imbue what is often just a bit of fun with high moral and functional aims.
A few small moans. It would have been nice to have had a bit more history to put this into context. And occasionally the ‘science’ lacks analysis. There’s wide-eyed description of a couple of devices for mental control of games that suggest that they work as effectively as traditional controllers, where in fact they’ve a long way to go yet. I’m also a bit doubtful about the final chapter where Mileham asks what the barriers are that ‘keep games from reaching into lives otherwise saturated with media.’ There’s an assumption that those people would benefit from having this happen, an assumption that isn’t really proved by the rest of the book. Arguably they would benefit a lot more from experiencing less media and more real life. Although briefly touched on, not enough is made in this chapter of the reason many one-time adult gamers like me don’t play any more. Family life doesn’t just take up gaming time – it’s more important.
That said, this a good and thoughtful book with some revealing exploration of the science behind our interaction with games that can shake the stereotypes of how games influence and entertain us. Play on.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Being Virtual – Davey Winder ***

This is one of a small series of books linked to the Dana Centre at the Science Museum in London. I’m a great fan of the Dana Centre – it’s a stylish cafe bar, where most evenings there is an informal and interactive session on once science topic or another. Like the Café Scientifique movement, it’s a great way of getting the science message across in a non-threatening way.
However, there is a problem with the Dana Centre – and it comes through to some extent in this book. When I look at the Centre’s programme, there’s rarely anything I would want to go to. There is very little hard science – although I’ve taken part in couple of excellent hard science events there, their brief is strongly around science and society, which means the topics are often so soft they are positively mushy.
That’s really why this book only scores three stars. It is highly enjoyable to read, but contains very little science, and doesn’t even, I would suggest, go to the heart of the topic it is covering – the online virtual world. Like the Dana Centre itself, there is an element of style over substance in the way the book is constructed. It has glossy pages with colour illustrations – which is great – but the pages are often dominated by really irritating multicoloured pull quotes, which make it harder to read and provide no benefit to the reader.
What we get is a very personal guide to this world by Davey Winder. It tells us a fair amount of history – though it tends to be limited to the aspects he has experience of. So we hear, for instance, about CiX but Compuserve, where I got my first experience of online networking, isn’t even mentioned. Perhaps there is just a bit too much of Davey himself in the book – interesting though he is – I’d rather the space had been used to fill out more of those missing details.
Although we hear very sensible concerns about the more dubious aspects of the virtual worlds and identity theft, the general tone is positive and supportive. In fact, if anything I’d suggest Winder over-sells virtual life. While he has a very valid point about the opportunities for those with some sort of disadvantage in the real world to overcome that virtually – the majority of his case studies are people who are, in one way or another, damaged goods – what’s less clear is the accuracy of the argument that many people aren’t wasting huge amounts of time in their virtual lives. It might be easier to stay virtual, but I found it difficult not to think how much better they would be putting all that time and effort into achieving something in the real world that will be more lasting and ultimately more fulfilling.
All in all, not a bad book at all – a good introduction to modern virtual worlds and what is possible (and not possible) there – but a little overloaded with feely stuff, and not enough science to back it up.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 26 April 2008

The Human Story – Charles Lockwood ***

It’s not totally clear at first glance just what kind of book this is. The combination of large format and a thin content (just over 100 pages) with lavish colour illustrations gives the impression of a children’s book, but the text isn’t particularly aimed at children. It reads well, but without the narrative drive of a good popular science book – in some ways it’s more like a good introductory text book – but don’t be put off by this, as it is readable, with good content.
Broadly, the book divides into five sections – the earliest hominins, Australopithecus, Paranthropus, Early Homo and Later Homo (including, of course, us). If this isn’t a subject you’ve followed, it’s interesting to see just what a range of pre-humans there are now, though inevitably there is still dispute over what’s what, especially when (for instance) you are trying to decide if a creature walked upright based solely on its skull. There’s plenty of absorbing detail to be got out of teeth, too – which might come as a surprise.
Some of the later homo stuff is particularly interesting – we’ve got the ‘hobbit’ Homo floresiensis in there, and suggestions that, for example, Neanderthals were much closer to Homo sapiens than many of us might think – perhaps just a variant rather than a truly separate species.
Just occasionally it can get a little samey, going through bone after bone – but I never found myself inclined to give up on a subject I really hadn’t read much about before. This is very much an introduction, so anyone who is well read in the subject won’t find a lot that’s new. I’m not sure it lives up to all of its subtitle Where we came from and how we evolved. It certainly does the first part, but the ‘how’ of our evolution isn’t as obvious, unless you interpret this to mean what stages our ancestors went through. Even so it largely does what it says on the cover in an effective and well-illustrated fashion.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments – George Johnson ****

I really like the premise of this book. When I studied experimental physics, I was put off staying in the discipline, in part because I wasn’t very good at it, but also because it was a bit of a let down. Real physics experiments all seemed to be about reading numbers off black boxes (later computers), rather than ever actually getting your hands on something truly tangible. George Johnson has identified what he regards as the ten most beautiful experiments in history, where these have to be ‘real’ old fashioned hands-on experiments that you could undertake without a team of 500 and a billion dollar budget. That’s great.
Of course, inevitably you could argue about the choice of that top ten – and, yes, he’s got it wrong in places. For example, Pavlov’s in there. If you really wanted to have a dog-oriented experiment, I’d go for the amazing experiment by Dimitri Belyaev, where over forty years he did to foxes what ancient man did to wolves, breeding them for characteristics that turned them into the fox equivalent of a dog. I also felt that two of the experiments – the Michelson/Morley ether one and Millikan’s oil drop were there largely out of national pride. The fact is that the US pre-eminence in experimental science has been in big science, and these were rare examples that fitted the required pattern, but weren’t as earth-shattering as many others, including of course Rutherford’s work on the atomic nucleus (as Johnson admits himself might be considered for the ‘eleventh’).
However, given that the choice is inevitably arbitrary, there’s no point making too big a deal of it. Johnson does a good job in explaining the experiments, though I felt the scene setting was a little basic. As he is only covering 10 experiments, he had plenty of room to really get us into the feel of the period and the individual’s character, but instead this aspect tends to be quite summary, and occasionally over-simplistic. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect in a book covering a big sweep of time – or a children’s book – but not in one with so tight a focus. Take the end of the Newton chapter. ‘The carping continued until 1678, when in exasperation he retreated into seclusion. He was thirty-five. There was much still to be done.’ This has the feel of a school essay, not great popular science writing.
There was also the odd case of journalistic extravagance. The Faraday chapter is begun with something on Lady Ada Lovelace (more properly Ada King, Lady Lovelace) – it suggests that she inspired Faraday to some aspects of his work. With all that’s known about Faraday, this sounds hugely out of character, and I’m not sure a few obscure diary comments really justify this deduction.
However, this is a relatively small complaint. Generally the experiments are well described and there is a feel for the significance of experiment that is often lacking from popular science. Although not strictly on topic, it was also interesting seeing the author’s own attempts to put together a Millikan oil drop experiment (though to the UK reader, his remark about replacing a ‘British sized bulb’ with an ordinary halogen lamp was a trifle parochial). All in all, a good addition that manages to be something noticeably different from the majority of books out there – difficult to achieve in a crowded genre like this.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Bright Earth: the invention of colour – Philip Ball ***

It might seem that colour is too much of a physical property to be invented – but this is very much a subject open to debate, as the concept of colour – as opposed to the wavelength or energy of light – is certainly to a degree subjective. However Philip Ball’s chunky volume is not concerned purely with colour in an abstract sense but very specifically with the colour used by artists throughout the ages.
There is some fascinating stuff in here. For example, that until the 19th century ‘pink’ was not a colour at all, but was a type of paint in the same sense a lake (crimson lake etc.) was a type of paint. You could have green pink! But most of the pinks died out, leaving us with rose pink which is, of course, pink. How did little girls manage in pre-Victorian times without pink?
It is also sobering to the non-artist to realize just how much care has to be taken in the selection of pigments – and the nasty surprises that awaited artists who were too quick to try some new colour without being sure of its properties.
As always with Ball, this is a very detailed, scrupulously researched book. As if often the case with Ball’s work, the only problem is it tends to be just a bit too detailed, leading to sections that can be a trifle dull. It is indicative of the nature of popular science that when he is talking purely about pigments it’s quite easy to lose concentration, while he holds the reader much better when he is talking about particular artists.
This is without doubt a classic work on the subject (it is a re-issue: the book has been around since 2001), bound to be of interest to anyone who wants to explore the borderline between science and art, but I can’t give it any higher rating because it hasn’t quite got that page-turning zip of the best popular science.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Your Money and Your Brain – Jason Zweig ****

It might seem a book about investing isn’t really suited to a popular science site, but hold on – Jason Zweig’s book is much more than a ‘how to make money on the stock market’ tome. Yes, it does give some lessons for would-be investors, but the subject of the book is much more interesting (with a scientific hat on). In fact the investment advice, when you come to it, is fairly bog standard stuff like the need to investigate a company before buying shares, not just relying on the shares’ track record on the stock exchange. This book is almost back to front. What it really is, is an in-depth exploration of why the way our brains work make us hideously unsuited to playing the stock market.
Before assessing the book as a whole, I do need to clarify one issue that nearly stopped me reading it. There’s an example on page 20 that just doesn’t make any sense. It is supposed to show how people make the wrong assumptions about the evidence they need to make a decision, but unfortunately the way the problem is stated makes the assumed ‘wrong answer’ correct. Zweig has attempted to correct this in the US paperback, but after discussing this with both the author and the academic on whose paper the example is based, it’s clear that the example would probably never be able to usefully show what was required here. So if you read the book and get hung up on the problem of the consultant who says the market rises every time after he predicts it, don’t. It doesn’t work – ignore it!
Once past that issue, the book has fascinating detail about the way different parts of the brain react to the types of stimuli presented to us by stock trading, whether it’s fear, risk, surprise, regret or prediction. By using MRI scans and other technology, Zweig takes us through how the brain reacts under those pressures, making the kinds of decision stock market players have to make and demonstrates not only what happens in the brain, but how our natural responses make us highly unsuited to the whole business. The aim is that we can be aware of these natural faults and overcome them, but the reality is it makes you feel that no one sane would ever have anything to do with these kinds of investments. It has always worried and irritated me when I hear on the news that a stock index has collapsed because traders were worried about something or panicking about something. The financial basis of our institutions shouldn’t be animal, reflexive reaction. Yet Zweig shows this is almost inevitable.
So whether, like me, the impact of the book is to make you think it’s time we did away with stocks and shares and introduced a more reasoned way of financing businesses, or, as Zweig intended, you use this as a book to get insight into the best possible way of investing, there can be no doubt that this is an interesting read and one that is much more about the brain and human response than it is about money. If you have an absolute aversion to matters financial you might find it a little hard going in places, but if, like me, you find business interesting and the human brain wonderful, this book will provide plenty of food for thought.
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Review by Brian Clegg