Monday, 26 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 might expect. (It’s just a shame this message isn’t properly understood by those charities who say ‘just give £2′ but then consistently pester you for more to the extent you never give to them again don’t have the same idea.)
There are two reasons that the book doesn’t make a full five stars. Firstly, the examples rather tail off. You get the ideas they set out to have 50 secrets first, then tried to fill the slots. They didn’t have enough great material, so padded it with ‘persuasionish’ stuff – so some of the ‘secrets’ feel a little flimsy. The other issue is that this is a business book that does science, rather than a science book covering business. There is rarely enough detail of the studies to know about how they really worked, and it’s rarely stated (for instance) how large the study was, or whether it was duplicated, which may mean that a fair number of the results lack true scientific validity.
However, these are relatively small issues in a book that manages to combine some very practical and effective lessons for business with some real insights into how people behave. If the writers were setting out to persuade me they knew their stuff and really could make a difference, they’ve succeeded.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 23 May 2008

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 long distance links, which drastically increase the chances of wide ranging connectivity. There isn’t a single style of these small world networks – some, for instance, have vast hubs with many spokes, while others are more democratic. (Interestingly, the internet, which was supposed to be democratic to avoid losing connectivity, as it was originally a military network that had to survive attack, has gone entirely the other way with huge hubs.)
What strikes me is the vagueness of it all. There seems to be an imprecision that’s most unusual for a mathematical discipline. This could be down to the way Buchanan is presenting things of course – his style is very readable but this does sometimes (not always!) bring a degree of smoothing over. Just as an example, we are told about Erdös in 1959 solving the puzzle of how many roads are required, placed randomly, to join 50 towns. Buchanan tells us ‘It turns out, the random placement of about 98 roads is adequate to ensure that the great majority of towns are linked.’ I’m sorry? What does about 98 mean? How about ensuring the vast majority are linked? That’s small consolation if you live in one of the towns that is isolated.
The other vagueness, in the ‘six degrees of separation’ model is what we really count as an acquaintance. It’s such a fuzzy concept, it’s hard to see just how it can be made to operate with the precision required by mathematics. I have nearly 1,000 people in my email address book. Are they all acquaintances? How about those lovely people on the Nature Network with whom I often exchange comments about blog entries, but none of whom have I ever met or spoken to, and only two have I ever emailed? For that matter, what about my ‘harvest’ emails? Is somebody an acquaintance because I’ve seen their email address? Probably not. How about when someone sends me an email and copies in lots of other people. Are those email addresses part of my contact circle? I don’t know – and I doubt if the people who play around with this interesting, but in some senses rather futile feeling, research do either.
Both these examples relate to why there’s an underlying lack of satisfaction. Like chaos theory, this is a concept where initially you feel ‘wow, this should give amazing insights’ because it’s so fascinating, but then it doesn’t. I’m reminded of Rutherford’s famous remark ‘All science is either physics or stamp collecting.’ Dare I say it – this feels a bit like stamp collecting.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 22 May 2008

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 tend to score significantly higher for agreeableness, which hints at the advantages of having a social network when raising children.
When Nettle uses real people to illustrate each characteristic the book zips along and you’re hooked. The quirks of those high in extraversion are fascinating as are the misfortunes that befall those who have high neuroticism. Unfortunately, the chapter on openness (creativity) does not include any examples of real people interviewed by the author for his research. Instead it relies on an analysis of Allen Ginsburg’s poem Howl, a poor substitute. Lack of real anecdotes left this section difficult to engage with and it reads like a theoretical exercise. Maybe Nettle couldn’t find any good examples – do creative people just not like filling in research questionnaires?
Nettle is a good explainer of the issues he discusses and the analogies he uses make his subject easy to understand. There is a great quiz at the back to find out your own personality type. The evolutionary perspective he takes is interesting and affirming – there is no such thing as a “good” or a “bad” personality, all have some evolutionary advantages. But his detailed detour into the variation of beaks of finches on the Galapagos Islands and evolution seems a bit out of place in a book whose main audience will be those interested in understanding their own personality. If you want a book simply about personality then this probably isn’t the one for you.
Hardback:  
Review by Maria Hodges

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

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 author of the introduction would have been aware of the overlap.
Generally the subjects are covered in a very approachable fashion. The first (the brief history of the universe one) suffers from occasional moments of wince-making whimsy – for example, the author Matt Visser says ‘These days, when your child wanders up to you and says, “Dear parental unit, why does the sun shine?”‘ Only the very desperate would find ‘dear parental unit’ anything other than cringe-worthy. The other section that is a little weak is the second by Hamish Campbell on the age of the earth. This lists the naming of the different periods at tedious length and is rather stodgy. But the rest of the pieces read very well.
I particularly enjoyed Paul Callaghan’s ‘Journey to the Heart of Matter’ section on the discovery of the nature of matter (inevitably, and why not, strongly featuring the work of New Zealand’s biggest scientific star, Ernest Rutherford) and the final section by John Stenhouse, called ‘Galileo’s Dilemma’. Stenhouse steers a careful course, identifying where (for instance) the Catholic church went very wrong with Galileo but also being clear that not all problems ascribed to religion (such as the fictional insistence on a flat earth in medieval times) really existed. It’s too easy for scientists who are very vocal against religion, like Richard Dawkins, to paint things just as black and white as any religious fundamentalist – this section gives a much more balanced view.
All in all, it’s an enjoyable little taster around aspects of the physical sciences that can be loosely tied in to Einstein. Each section then needs opening up further with a whole book on the subject – but it’s a good starting point.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

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 odd concept of a New Zealand book about a scientific study that initially took place in Lancashire, England.
I refer to the book as a confection as it is a collection of separate essays derived from a lecture series and suffers from all the weaknesses such books tend to have. There is no consistency, no attempt to provide any flowing narrative – so we get articles about early man and Stonehenge (yes, there is a tenuous connection), measuring the transit itself, Cook’s voyages and the future of science all squeezed together cheek by jowl. It also means that there is a fair amount of repetition. Most irritating is the fact that both the introduction and one of the articles goes into very similar details about the early transit observers Crabtree and Horrocks.
The weakest of the essays is the last one, which is a bit self-indulgent, making the valid point that science still has plenty to discover, but in an overly florid and hand-waving way. I was also a little thrown by the comment in Duncan Steel’s piece ‘To the Farthest Ends of the Earth’ that William Crabtree lived ‘in Salford, a city 30 miles away [from Liverpool] in Greater Manchester’. In Crabtree’s day, Salford was neither a city nor in Greater Manchester, which didn’t exist, so this seems rather anachronistic.
However there was plenty of good stuff too. I particularly enjoyed Richard Hall’s piece ‘The Road to Stonehenge’, leading eventually not to the expected location (though it does feature) but the modern Stonehenge Aotearoa in New Zealand. Equally readable and informative was the ‘Voyages with Cook’ section. And there’s no doubt that there’s plenty to find out here about transits of Venus and New Zealand’s often ignored place in the scientific world. But it’s a shame that these pieces weren’t woven into a seamless whole, and were left to stand alone.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg