Monday, 30 June 2008

A Different Universe – Robert M. Laughlin ***

This rather quirky little book is certainly one of the most unique popular science books about physics I have read over the years. The basic argument that this title presents is that by taking a reductionist (i.e. nuts ‘n’ bolts) approach to understanding nature, physicists are not seeing the wood for the trees. Instead, Nobel Prize winner Robert Laughlin argues, physics should be concerned with emergent phenomena (i.e. what we get when the nuts ‘n’ bolts are put together) – the sort of things that chemists and biologists are typically concerned with.
Laughlin uses various examples such as: superconductivity, quantum computers, relativity, nanotechnology (of which he is incredibly dismissive) and the quantum Hall effect (the explanation of which Laughlin won his Nobel prize for) to make his case. Some of these examples don’t appear to be emergent at first glance – but as Laughlin points out this is often a case of misinterpretation of what is really going on.
The author makes effective use of humorous anecdotes and analogies to make his points. In some cases these work really well, but in some cases just serve to muddy the waters, and occasionally they verge on the completely irrelevant. There are also some fairly odd illustrations that don’t add anything at all to the book – why they have been included is a complete mystery!
Whether Laughlin succeeds in his argument is a moot point – the book certainly made me pause for thought – but I’m not sure that I was entirely convinced by the way that the science that was presented. I would argue that the book doesn’t reinvent physics as such – but it certainly does make a bold case for a new approach to the discipline.
I don’t think that this book would appeal to a general audience – you do need to have some grounding in the subject in order to really get to grips with the book’s ideas. Certainly physics lecturers/teachers, and students will find some interesting material in here, though.
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Review by Scotty_73

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Before the Fall-out – Diana Preston *****

This is a highly compelling, and in places positively gripping, account of the discovery of radioactivity and nuclear physics and its subsequent use in the first atomic bomb. The physics involved is described in a very clear and readable manner, but what really makes this book a page-turner is the fact that we get the human story behind the narrative of the scientific discoveries made.
Preston does an excellent job of relating the biographical details of the key scientists such as the Curies and Ernest Rutherford in the early days of the science of radioactivity. The work of Otto Hans and Lise Mietner, their struggles in Nazi Germany, their subsequent escape and gradual realization of the potential of nuclear energy are also vividly described.
As you might expect a fair proportion of the book is devoted to the Manhattan Project and the tension between Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller. Preston also does an excellent job of portraying everyday life at Los Alamos for the scientists and their families.
We also discover the thrilling details of how the German nuclear bomb programme was stopped in its tracks by a daring operation carried out by British forces to destroy a Norwegian heavy water plant. Preston also delves in to the ambiguity of how much Heisenberg actually knew about the manufacturing of nuclear weapons, and in her epilogue speculates as to what might have happened if the Nazi programme had succeeded.
Probably the most moving sections of the book concern the inhabitants of Hiroshima and the crew of the Enola Gay – Preston’s handling of this is particularly superb and she balances the two viewpoints on the dropping of the nuclear bomb supremely well. What makes this book a worthy addition to anyone’s library is not the details of the science as such, but the fact that we get the stories of the individuals involved in one of the most significant historical events of the twentieth century.
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Review by Scotty_73

Monday, 23 June 2008

The Undercover Scientist – Peter J. Bentley ***

I was very much looking forward to this book, I suspect in part because I had greatly enjoyed the book The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford, and was expecting something similar, point out the unexpected science that lurks behind our everyday lives. In a sense, that’s what Peter Bentley sets out to do, but it just doesn’t work the way Harford’s book does.
In part the problem is the context. Bentley has each section start with a running story of everyday disaster, told in the second person, where the protagonist suffers everything from slipping on a wet bathroom floor to breaking a tooth. This whole continuing story is very forced and feels rather amateurish. It is designed to fit his descriptions of how everyday science works into a framework, but that framework wasn’t necessary. Like Harford’s economist, there was no need to do anything more than pick up on the really revelatory bits of science in everyday life.
The other way that the book fails in comparison with Harford’s is that where the economics in Harford’s book was a surprise to everyone but an economist, here a lot of the science is so everyday and basic that it’s hard to get too excited about it. There are moments of ‘gosh, that’s interesting,’ but they tend to be overwhelmed by a sea of so-what. The same underwhelmedness, I’m afraid, goes for the cover. When I saw it, I thought it was a boiund-proof, one of the cheap and cheerful pre-books that are sometimes sent out for review, which often just have a cover quickly knocked together before the real one comes out. But, no, it’s the real thing.
In many ways this would be better positioned (if you lost the ghastly second person introductions and tuned it a little) as a children’s book, where it would really have some legs. There is, you see, nothing wrong with the content, it just doesn’t really work for an adult reader. Give it some good illustrations and much of what is in there would work excellently as a competitor to Horrid Science. Bentley is clearly enthusiastic about his science and communicates that well – but this just doesn’t work for me as an adult popular science book.
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Review by Brian Clegg
I have just finished reading the book and I thought it was just wonderful. I read the books where Terry Pratchett collaborated with popular science writers and hated them – awful stories compared to the normal Pratchett books and tedious science. But in Bentley’s book I liked the stories about accidents which made the science really stay with me and brought the explanations into my head at different times of the day when I got reminded of similar things that happened to me. The book is The Undercover Scientist, Investigating Mishaps of Everyday Life so that’s why mishaps are described at the start. They were great! Made me want to keep reading: a real page-turner. I don’t find the “normal” popular science books very interesting – as far as I can see they are just full of opinions and not real science. If I want opinions can I listen to the ladies gossip on the bus. This book used real science and explained everything to me and made the everyday truly fascinating. For the first time in my life I actually feel as though I understand the world around me better: I can imagine what atoms and molecules are doing and why things behave like they do and that feeling is just wonderful for a middle-aged woman who never any excitement from science at school. The book is written in super clear language in an entertaining way, and the cover is friendly and nice.
Community Review by Diane Clarkson

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Giant Leaps: Mankind’s Greatest Scientific Advances – John Perry & Jack Challoner ****

This is the only popular science book I know of that has been personally endorsed by Tony Blair (but don’t let that put you off it!) who after reading it said: ‘I wish there had been a book like this to awaken my interest in Science.’
This colourful and well-illustrated coffee table book is an unlikely collaboration between The Sun (one of the UK’s infamous tabloid newspapers), and the Science Museum that covers most of the major inventions and discoveries in scientific history, and even speculates on those that might yet be made. Each one is described in a two page spread: one page of which is written by the Science Museum and is purely factual, and the other being a mock up of what the front page of The Sun would have looked like if it had been reporting on the relevant discovery.
The fun here is of course that the tabloid reporting style is spoofed perfectly – leading to such gems as: ‘MONKEY NUTTER! Barmy Boffin Darwin Reckons We’re All Descend From Apes’ and the discovery of penicillin prompts ‘MOULD THE FRONT PAGE’. Whilst the invention of smelting metals gives us ‘ORESOME’.
I’m sure that anyone who reads this book will have his or her own favourite. The one that prompted the most chuckles from me was the invention of nylon and its use in stockings giving rise to the headline: ’THIGH PREDICT A RIOT’. You might think that the conceit would quickly get tiring – but the book is just the right length for it not to outstay its welcome. If anything it could do with covering a bit more ground than it actually does.
The factual pages are nice and clearly written; just don’t expect a tremendous amount of depth, as you might anticipate would be the case in a book of this sort.
Giant Leaps gets the balance just right between the factual and the humorous making it a very accessible read. Recommended to anyone who is interested in science and its popularisation.
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Review by Scotty_73

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

The Goldilocks Enigma – Paul Davies ****

The anthropic principle, depending on whom you believe, is either the most profound idea in cosmology or a load of old hokum. Essentially the principle says that the universe has to be the way that it is otherwise we would not be here to observe it in the first place. This may at first glance appear to stating the obvious – but this idea has very deep implications about our universe.
In particular, some cosmologists have appealed to the principle to help explain what is know as the fine tuning problem. The constants of nature such as Planck’s constant, the speed of light, the universal gravitational constant, etc. have very precise values, in fact if some of these constants were even slightly different (i.e. to the nth decimal place) then the physical nature of our universe would be radically different to what it is. Stars, galaxies and in fact life itself would not be able to exist in such conditions. The problem is, of course, why these constants should have values that have made our universe so hospitable to life.
This is a question that science authors have written about before, most notably Martin Rees’ two superb books: Just Six Numbers, and Our Cosmic Habitat. These two books put forward the hypothesis that we live in a multiverse – where the constants of nature have all possible values – leading to some universes being hospitable to life like ours, and others being completely unfriendly to life.
Davies’ book is far more ambitious and sweeping in providing an overview of the anthropic principle than Rees’ work. He considers several explanations including the possibility that we live in a computer simulation, an infinite sea of ‘habitable regions’ in a single universe as predicted by inflation theory, and the possibility of the universe obeying a self organizing principle. The most remarkable suggestion though is Davies own idea that revolves around the delayed choice experiment.
A thought experiment first proposed by John Wheeler, this is a variation of the famous double-slit experiment, except that the detector screen can be removed at the last moment, directing light into two remote telescopes, each focused on one of the slits. In a conventional double-slit experiment, the light acts as waves, causing interference patterns, if no check is made as to which slit a photon goes through, but acts as individual, non-interacting photons if the photons’ paths are checked. In Wheeler’s version there is a ‘delayed choice’ for the observer, not making the decision on which way to observe until after the light has passed the slits. Physicists are currently working on a real version of this experiment, and in fact Wheeler himself suggested an astronomical equivalent of his delayed choice set up – which may give observational weight to his idea.
Davies suggests that our universe may well operate in a similar ‘delayed choice’ manner and that the observations we make now have retroactively fixed into place the constants of nature which existed in a ‘fluid’ state shortly after the big bang.
Unfortunately the material that gets to the heart of the book’s subject matter only takes up its second half. The first half is a very readable account of the current state of big bang cosmology and how it leads to the anthropic principle, but readers who are familiar with these ideas may find the first half of the book a little long winded. Nevertheless this is an excellent read, though some might find Davies’ own ideas at the end of the book a bit impenetrable and improbable.
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Review by Scotty_73

Monday, 16 June 2008

It’s ONLY Rocket Science – Lucy Rogers ***

This is a book I’ve really mixed feelings about – it does what it sets out to do very well. And it does what it says on the tin. It’s a plain English introduction to rocket science. But it’s not really popular science, and so it can’t score very well here.
You can tell that the publisher isn’t aiming at the popular science market without even opening the covers. The cover is too thin for a commercial book – it feels like a textbook – the pages are glossy, again unusual in a commercial book unless it’s a picture book, and the price is too high for a popsci paperback. But it doesn’t take too much reading to reinforce this message.
I have no doubt whatsoever that Lucy Rogers knows her stuff and gives us quite detailed coverage of everything from propulsion systems to commercial space flight. But the text is a chewy concatenation of facts. It’s just fact, after fact, after fact. To open at random and summarise what I see – this is what a launch vehicle is, these are the design decisions when building a launch vehicle, this is the significance of thrust to the launch vehicle, successful launch vehicles get modified into different forms, numerous factors influence the choice of launch vehicle. (In case you hadn’t gathered, that was the section on launch vehicles).
There is hardly any narrative, no flow through the book, very little focus on individual human beings. Narrative is the essence of popular science. It is not a collection of facts – that’s a textbook – popular science is a story that imparts fact along the way, and unfortunately Rogers has not provided much of that at all. Just occasionally her writing comes to life, usually when describing the more human parts of the process – for example what people eat in space, but it really isn’t enough.
Don’t get me wrong – there is definitely a market for this book. It’s the sort of thing I would have loved at age 11. In fact, if it wasn’t so obviously not aimed at children, I’d put it in the kids’ section, because the right kind of children are more tolerant of a bundle of bare facts than a more discerning adult reader. But I think that to do so would be unfair to the author and the reader. I want to emphasize again, this isn’t a bad book, and I would highly recommend it if you want to absorb all the basic facts about rocketry and space travel. But don’t expect an enjoyable read.
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Review by Brian Clegg

The Last Man Who Knew Everything – Andrew Robinson ****

It may seem a rather grand claim to make, but this biography of polymath Thomas Young paints a picture of a remarkably talented man, who endeavored in fields as diverse as physics, Egyptology and physiology, making discoveries that are still being made use of today.
Young’s work in engineering and material sciences is a key part of any A-level physics course, the Young Modulus of a material determines how elastic it is and thus is a vital figure to know when building any sort of structure and what stresses it can withstand. Likewise Young’s famous double slit experiment proved conclusively that light behaved like a wave (and later allowed physicists to gain a greater understanding of how quantum theory worked), showing Newton’s ‘corpuscular’ theory of light to be wrong.
Young also made significant discoveries in the field of optics – and through a series of rather painful and slightly gruesome experiments on himself found out how the focusing mechanism of the eye works. In addition he was able to explain astigmatism, and most remarkably how the retina detects colour.
Young was also narrowly pipped to the post in deciphering the hieroglyphs of the Rosetta stone by a French rival, but nevertheless is still regarded as one of the fathers of Egyptology. As if this wasn’t enough Young wrote copious entries for encyclopedias, analyzed languages, and made contributions to carpentry, music and life insurance.
Young’s personal life is still a little shrouded in mystery. Very little remains of his letters and journals, though we know something of his Quaker upbringing from an autobiographical sketch which still exists. Robinson has done a very good job of trying to piece together what does remain of Young’s personal writing to give us a flavour of his remarkable life. Sadly Young was often mocked for dilettantism – his failure to settle on one field of study was seen as somehow circumspect by his contemporaries, possibly explaining why Young is not as celebrated as say Hooke, or Newton.
Robinson is only able to give us a tiny insight in to how Young managed to achieve so much – he includes a description of one of Young’s friends visiting him in the middle of the night, only to find him busily working on some problem, the conclusion being that Young burnt the candle at both ends for much of his life.
This is the first work on Young for nearly 50 years – so it’s a significant biography. I found it a thoroughly engrossing read; sadly a colleague of mine who is a historian found it somewhat dry when he read it! In all honesty the book probably falls somewhere between these two extremes.
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Review by Scotty_73

Friday, 13 June 2008

50 Physics Ideas you Really Need to Know – Joanne Baker ***

I am not sure exactly what audience this book is intended for, as it isn’t quite a coffee table book and yet neither is it a reference work, indeed it falls somewhere between the two.
The title is an accurate description of the book’s content (although it could be argued if anyone really does need know these ideas or not!) – the author describes within the space of two or three pages each, 50 diverse concepts in physics such as Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, the EPR paradox, chaos theory, the photoelectric effect, Hooke’s law, etc. Baker does a fairly good job of describing the relevant physics behind each idea, however there are some silly errors here and there that distract from the text. In places it would appear that tighter editing would have improved things no end. However, the range of physics covered is admirable and all the big physics ideas that you would expect to find in such a book are all present, and by and large correct.
Along with each idea covered there is a timeline along the bottom that shows how the idea originated and was developed. There are also the occasional box outs which contain interesting little snippets about the physicists involved in discovering each idea, or showing how one idea is connected to the others covered in the book. Accompanying most ideas covered are nice, straightforward black and white diagrams that help clarify the physics.
One aspect of this title which I found soon became mildly irritating was the one or two word ‘condensed idea’ summary at the end of each concept’s description. Rather than being a punchy or memorable way of summarising things, this actually comes across as rather glib and flippant – undermining what the book sets out to do.
If you approach this book as a physics dictionary – albeit with lengthy definitions – then you will get the most out of it. It is not a title that is really designed to be picked up and read in a single sitting, it is the sort of book that you dip in to now and then to refresh your memory and as such would be a useful addition to a school library as a revision aid. However because it is written in a very accessible style it may well be of interest to the general reader who wishes to learn a bit more about the fundamental laws and concepts of physics.
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Review by Scotty_73

Endless Universe – Neil Turok & Paul J. Steinhardt ****

The standard big bang inflationary model of cosmology describes our Universe as beginning as an infinitesimal point of infinite density, energy and mass known as a singularity, where all of the known laws of physics break down. For reasons we are still not certain about, this singularity started to expand. In order to explain certain features of the universe around us (mainly the smoothness of the cosmic background radiation), it has been proposed that our early universe went through an exponentially rapid period of expansion – this is dubbed ‘inflation’.
Although this is the conventional view that cosmology holds about the origins of our universe, it is not without its flaws. In particular some astrophysicists are unhappy about the proposed singularity at the start of our universe. Inflation theory has also had to be tinkered with in order to take in to account the existence of dark matter and more recently dark energy, driving our universe’s expansion to accelerate, contrary to the expectations from the original inflationary theory.
Turok and Stienhardt have been developing their repost to the inflationary model for a number of years. Known as the ekpyrotic (without fire) theory – in essence this puts forward the idea that instead of a singularity, our universe was created as the result of two branes colliding with each other and triggering a ‘big bang’ event. They take this idea further and propose that we live in a cyclic universe (this is not a new idea in itself) where the two branes move along higher dimensional space and regularly collide and separate over periods of billions of years. If they are correct their model could successfully explain the features of our universe that the inflationary model fails to cover.
This book describes in a highly accessible and readable manner the outline of Turok and Stienhardt’s new theory. Mercifully, in place of complex mathematics, diagrams are employed to get across the complex ideas featured. This is no mean feat given the fact that the book’s topic is at the cutting edge of 21st century cosmology.
After deftly describing inflationary theory and pointing out where its flaws lie, the authors give an account of how they developed their theory. Parts of this are auto-biographical, which really gives you a flavour of how cosmologists work.
At present there is little observational evidence to support the ekpyrotic model – as the authors themselves point out. This may be about to change within the next decade or so as gravitational wave detectors could detect the characteristic energy signature from gravity waves created in the brane collision.
The idea that there may well have been a universe before ours has also gained credence as some cosmologists have claimed as recently as this week to have detected imprints in the cosmic microwave background that suggest our universe may have ‘bubbled off’ from a previous universe.
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Review by Scotty_73

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

The Physics of Superheroes – James Kakalios ****

Would Superman really be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound in the real world? Could Ant Man shrink to insect size whenever he needed to? And what do Spiderman’s battles with his archenemy Electro teach us about electricity?
By combining his passions for comic books and physics, James Kakalios succeeds in writing a lively, humorous and entertaining book. As he explains in his prologue he uses the physics of comic book situations with his students in order to give them a better understanding of concepts such as mechanics, energy, electromagnetism, etc. by placing the science into an approachable context.
The author’s knowledge of numerous superheroes antics is certainly comprehensive – however don’t be put off by this as Kakalios does an excellent job of explaining the scenario the heroic protagonists face, often illustrated with the appropriate pages from the comic book in question. He then uses this to explore the relevant physics in a clear and very accessible fashion. So if you have never read a superhero comic in your entire life, this won’t mar your enjoyment.
The scope of this book doesn’t allow for a tremendous amount of depth within the physics covered – but you will gain a good solid understanding of many of the central ideas discussed. The most joyous aspect of this book for me was that in many cases the comic book authors got their physics right (admittedly more by luck than judgment!)
This mix of admittedly two exceptionally ‘nerdy’ subjects is not everyone’s cup of tea, and as with any book of this type, exploring the physics of some aspect of pop culture, it will probably be of most appeal to existing comic book fans. If you’ve ever watched the exploits of superheroes at the cinema, or have thrilled to their adventures in print and wondered how likely it all is, then this is the book for you.
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Review by Scotty_73

Monday, 9 June 2008

The Tao of Physics – Fritjof Capra ***

Currently enjoying its fourth revised edition (the UK version is the third edition), this book has been around for over 30 years – and indeed enjoys a bit of a cult status. It is not without its critics however! Sadly, physics (in particular quantum theory) has been subverted by new age mystics in order to make ridiculous claims – the atrocious film What The Bleep Do We Know? is a recent example. Capra’s work does not set out to do the same.
Capra draws out the parallels between quantum theory, relativity and Eastern mysticism and belief. Capra’s treatment of this is not as pseudo scientific as you may think, he does a very good job of describing what physics has to say about the nature of the universe and in particular our theories about space and time, and points out the similarities in how Shintoism, Buddhism etc. view the universe by comparison. As with most Westerners I was unaware of what Eastern religions had to say about the nature of the world around us, so this was a doubly enlightening read for me.
Niels Bohr famously adopted the t’ai chi t’u (better know as the yin-yang symbol) as his family coat of arms after a trip to China in the 1930s as he felt it symbolized the concept of wave-particle complementarity. Heisenberg was also another physicist who was well aware of what Eastern religions’ perceptions were about the universe. So Capra’s ideas are not without some precedent.
I would say that you have to take a work like this with a pinch of salt – Capra does do a very even-handed job of describing the parallels between modern day physics and Eastern religions, but there is a danger here that readers may interpret this as Capra claiming that such mysticism somehow has a deeper understanding of our universe than physicists have to offer. This as far as I am aware isn’t this fine book’s intention, as Capra himself says in his epilogue:
“Physicists do not need mysticism, and mystics do not need physics, but humanity needs both.”
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Review by Scotty_73

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Cosmic Imagery: key images in the history of science – John D. Barrow *****

This lavishly illustrated book is a must-have, not just for the beautiful pictures within it, but for Barrow’s spectacular commentary on the significance of the diagrams, images, and illustrations it contains, and how they have helped to shape science and mathematics over the centuries.
As you may expect there are many pictures in the book from the field of astronomy, which have given us significant insights in to how our Universe works – such as the Hubble Deep Field image of some of the earliest known galaxies. But what is slightly less obvious is the link that Barrow makes between the Earl of Rosse’s famous drawings of the Whirlpool Galaxy, which he made with the famous Leviathan telescope, and the way these drawings probably inspired the swirling night sky in Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’. This is where Barrow succeeds in making this an engrossing read in drawing out the boarder significance of the scientific discoveries he looks at.
The book is a mixture of the things you may well expect in a title of this sort; Crick and Watson’s first sketch of the structure of DNA, the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram of stellar evolution, Hooke’s drawing of a flea as seen under his microscope, etc. and the unexpected – a picture showing quantum entanglement, the first ever graph, the symbol for infinity and its religious connotations.
This is an extremely well written work. Barrow’s writing adds tremendously to the amazing images within the book making it eminently readable for expert and layman alike. I would say it is arguable that this is one of the best popular science books ever written.
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Review by Scotty_73

Saturday, 7 June 2008

The Trouble with Physics – Lee Smolin *****

This is the second book I have read recently which seeks to deconstruct string theory, and put in to question its validity as a scientific theory. (The other one is the more mathematical and technical Not Even Wrong by Peter Woit.) Smolin describes string theory in a very deft and readable fashion, but the real strength of the book is Smolin’s reflections on the flaws in the reasoning behind string theory, and how the way that the physics community works has helped to elevate string theory to the point where it is seen as a panacea to all of the big issues that remain for physicists to try to answer.
Smolin successfully argues the point that we need to reassess our understanding of space and time if we are ever to come up with a ‘theory of everything’, which string theory purports to be. As the author points out, if physicists are to do this then we need to encourage ‘seers’ (Smolin’s term), like Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, etc. who have the brilliance of thought to be able to understand the Universe at its most fundamental level and will not be caught up in the flow of current trends in physics which most physicists find themselves being swept along with. One of the reasons that Smolin wrote this book was to encourage his fellow physicists to start to think outside the limiting constraints of string theory, and the stranglehold it has on the physics community, effectively stifling any ideas or theories that are counter to it. The author illustrates very effectively how string theory has made physics go round in circles since the early 1980s, making no real progress at all.
It is a superb and absorbing read, it may be a little heavy going in places if you’re coming to string theory with no knowledge at all of what is about. There are several other books that describe string theory for the layman in a more accessible fashion. It could also be more comprehensively illustrated, but nonetheless this is a book I would highly recommend. An extremely readable and highly thought provoking work.
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Review by Scotty_73