Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Einstein: His Life and Universe – Walter Isaacson *****

While it seems a statement of the obvious, this book is about Albert Einstein. It is not really about his famous equation E=mc2 although that is part of it. Neither is the book about Special or General Relativity, which is also part of it. This book is about the man, his youth, his family, his friendships and his relationships and not the least about his scientific genius and his discoveries. From his earliest childhood, to his miracle year of 1905 to his Nobel Prize to his political activism, Walter Isaacson discusses these diverse topics is an erudite yet thoroughly readable and entertaining book.
There are a few parts of the book that really stand out. Isaacson strives to explain those things that are most perplexing about Einstein. These include his statements about God and his stubbornness in refusing to accept quantum mechanics. He had been a steadfast believer that equations without physical meaning were not worthwhile yet in his later years; his struggle to develop a unified theory brought him away from physical meaning and more towards pure mathematics. Perhaps the most enjoyable parts of the book were those that discussed his relationships with his contemporaries such as Max Born and Niels Bohr.
Isaacson does a masterful job of being objective. Where Einstein’s brilliance in science shone through Isaacson described it yet where Einstein was incredibly na├»ve about politics, Isaacson described this too. And lest we think that the author idolized Einstein, his section on his failed relationships with women shows that the author saw Einstein as a mere mortal. Isaacson also has done the best job of any book I have read so far that explains the notion of curved space-time. He even takes a detour into non-Euclidean geometry, explaining how a triangle can have more than 180 degrees. No matter how much you suffered through high school or college physics, this book will open your eyes onto the brilliance that was Einstein. And for those of you who could deal with the physics here is another side of the man that you did not learn about in school
Some people might say that too much of his personal life is in the book but for these people I would say that there are a lot of books about Einstein’s science that might better serve them. One of these might be Kip Thorne’s Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy. I didn’t get a lot out of that book as the physics was too complicated so I recommend that one read Einstein’s biography first.
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Review by Stephen Goldberg

Monday, 25 August 2008

How to Fossilise Your Hamster – Mick O’Hare ****

After a couple of successful books such as Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze spun off from the Last Words column in New Scientist, editor Mick O’ Hare has now turned to the more practical aspects of the questions there, with a whole range of practical experiments to try using mostly household items, and explaining the science behind them. Just occasionally there’s a ‘no you can’t’ where the suggested experiment is an old wives’ tale, which adds to the fun. For me this works even better than Sean Connolly’s Wholly Irresponsible Experiments, because they are much more varied and more oriented to the adult reader (quite a lot seem to involve alcohol).
As for the title, yes, it does kind of tell you how to turn your hamster into a fossil… but the approach is a bit disappointing as it does involve waiting millions of years. There’s even that most famous of DIY experiments – the Mentos in cola fountain – very satisfying.
The only thing I would say is, enough, thank you. These books have been great but they aren’t really decent popular science books as they don’t have any narrative flow. The approach has been milked to death now – let’s see something different. (Oh, and I’m glad to see the US version spells fossilize correctly – shame on you, New Scientist.)
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Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Seven Years to Save the Planet – Bill McGuire ***

There are a lot of ‘how to combat global warming’ books out there, so to be worth reading, a book needs a new twist, and it’s fair to say that Bill McGuire has achieved this. Seven Years is divided into five parts – Where are we now? What will climate change mean for my children and their children? What can I do? What should others be doing? and Is it already too late? In each section there are a series of mini-chapters, each with a question, a little commentary and the answer, from ‘Will the Arctic Ocean soon be ice free?’ to ‘What is my carbon footprint?’
Of the main sections, the first two are far and above the best. McGuire is director of the Benfield UCL Hazard Research Centre, giving him ideal placement to be aware just what the threats are and their potential impact on our planet and our lives. He tells it straight, making it clear just how conservative the IPCC can be in its predictions, and how even relatively small changes can be enough to have a big impact for our children and our children’s children. This is scary stuff and deservedly so. We have a lot to do, and relatively little time to do it.
Where he is much weaker – and sadly, this is the bit we really need to hear – is on solutions. His ‘What can I do?’ section is full of the usual skim-the-surface changes we can make, adopting the standard knee-jerk solutions. About the only time he spots the dangers of over-simplification is when he mentions that Spanish tomatoes have less climate impact for UK buyers than the commercial home-grown greenhouse variety – but elsewhere his solutions are highly simplistic. On food, for instance, it’s organic, organic, organic – even though there are many circumstances where organic growing is worse for climate change (specific example, for instance, organic chickens, compared to conventional birds). Similarly, he emphasizes using the train for all long distance journeys, when coaches are greener, and a full car is also better than some diesel trains in the UK. He also pushes hybrid cars – fine for city dwellers like him, but there are much cleaner conventional small cars for country/motorway driving. Strangest of all he loves hydrogen cars, saying ‘Electric vehicles are becoming more attractive… but at the moment they are charged mainly with electricity generated by fossil fuels. Probably the best bet is renewably-generated hydrogen…’ But all hydrogen is, in effect, is an alternative to a battery. It’s used to store energy from electricity. And just like the electric cars, this electricity too would, for the moment, mainly come from fossil fuels. It doesn’t make sense.
In his urge to make us blame ourselves, he points out how we have stupidly not built lots more wind farms, the Severn barrage etc. – but nowhere does he point out that the biggest opposition to wind farms and the Severn barrage tends to come from green groups. He hasn’t bitten the bullet enough to tell people you’ve got to get over worrying about how pretty the country looks – this is about survival. He seems to think you can fix green issues but not deal with the politics. Oh, and he calls the G-Wiz cute. That’s really worrying.
All-in-all, then, half a great book, but in a book subtitled the questions… and answers, the answers don’t live up to the questions.
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Review by Brian Clegg

The Big Necessity – Rose George ****

Strictly, this book shouldn’t be here at all as there’s not a lot of science in it – but taking the original, wider definition of scientia, I certainly feel that I gained a fair amount of knowledge from Rose George’s excellent book, on a subject that certainly needs more exposure than it usually gets – the essential job of dealing with human waste.
Of course there is a lot of science in the subject, but George’s book concentrates on the practical – it’s more about the engineering and sociology than the pure science. She’s at her best when describing excursions down the sewers with the men who work there, or venturing into water treatment plants.
At the heart of the book is the horrendous statistic that 2.6 billion people don’t have sanitation – not even a trench latrine – terrible because there’s no point giving access to clean water if someone can’t get away from their faeces. Equally fascinating to western eyes was the amazing story of the Japanese ‘high function’ toilet with seated seat and wash and dry features.
If I have a complaint it’s that there was a bit too much on China and Africa, and that George over-emphasizes the solids. She spends ages on the flush toilet, but hardly mentions urinals – perhaps because she hasn’t been exposed to them in all their wondrous variety. This combination of little problems means surprisingly (given she apparently wrote the book there) she doesn’t mention France, with it’s slowly dying penchant for stand-up/squat toilets, and its lack of concern about screening urinals from view. We read a lot about the lack of cubicle doors in China, but nothing about a European nation that thinks nothing of sticking a urinal unshielded on the outside of a beach building.
Even so, it’s an excellent read with surprises at every turn – or should that be in every U-bend?
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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 4 August 2008

Middle World – Mark Haw ****

This is a classic case of judging a book by its cover. I have been putting off reviewing this book for ages, because, frankly it looks very dull and the title, sounding like a compromise between Tolkein and Middle England, is equally uninspiring. I should have followed the old adage, and not been too influenced by the cover, because it’s an excellent read.
In part it’s the subject. Mark Haw starts with Brownian motion and goes on to explore the nanoscale world of (mostly natural) objects too big to be quantum particles, but too small to be everyday macro world – they tend to be constantly in motion, buffeted around by the atoms that are hitting them, always in a random dance.
The two most interesting parts for me were getting some information about Robert Brown, who I’d come across but hadn’t really absorbed any details about, and the remarkable biological machines on this scale that make muscles work, do jobs in cells and much more. The way these make use of the random walk of the ‘middle world’ rather than fighting it is fascinating.
Mark Haw writes in a very approachable fashion – certainly without any of the problems many scientists writing on their topic have. If this book has any faults it’s that it is too short – very rarely a complaint from me, but it’s true here – and that he can try just a bit too hard to be a bit of lad and in touch, meaning that just occasionally we get the sort of sweeping generalization in a biographical/historical statement that’s typical of a cheap TV documentary – but that apart it’s excellent. It might be too late to recommend, but I hope it’s not – go for it, it’s excellent!
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Review by Brian Clegg