Monday, 29 September 2008

Coral – Steve Jones ***

I was thrown off kilter from the start by the quote on the front of this book. Jones is the Alan Bennett of science writing. What could this possibly mean? That he writes with a Yorkshire accent? That he has tendency to ruminative monologues? That he can be very funny and poignant at the same time? None of these really seemed to apply. In the end, all I could think of was that Bennett is the voice of the spoken word Winnie the Pooh books, and Steve Jones sometimes comes across a bit like Eeyore.
When you get past the cover, you discover a subject that has just been crying out for good popular science coverage. Just as The Buzz About Bees transformed our view of the humble bee, here was a chance to reveal the sheer depth, complexity and interest of corals. And to an extent the book does it. There’s a lot to enjoy and be amazed by – but it’s all rather summary, because it only comprises about half the content of the book, the rest being huge asides that meander off on loosely related topics. So, for instance, there’s a great swathe of information about cancer, sparked off by the ‘ageless’ nature of hydra cells. This travels too far away from the core topic – it’s fine to have brief asides, but if I’d wanted a book about cancer, I would have got one.
The other danger in the asides is that Jones is straying from his field of expertise, and occasionally it shows. At one point he comments that glass is a liquid (at room temperature, I presume). I have to confess to repeating this old chestnut myself in one of my early books, but this is no longer thought to be the case. (It used to be argued that the liquid nature could be seen in very old window panes, as they tend to be thicker towards the bottom, caused, it was thought, by the glass running down very, very slowly. Actually they are like that because medieval glaziers couldn’t make glass of a consistent thickness, so they put the thicker part of the sheet at the bottom, making the pane more stable.) Also, unless I’m misreading his text, he seems to repeat the climate change myth that global warming in the interglacial periods was caused by rising carbon dioxide levels, rather than the correct analysis that rising carbon dioxide levels were caused by the warming (a totally different mechanism to modern manmade warming).
I’ll finish off with artistic symmetry by checking out another quote from the cover. It is surprising, exciting and so much more interesting than the mechanical simplification that usually passes for popular science. Leaving aside the sheer affront to so many wonderful popular science writers (mechanical simplification is more, in my experience, the lifeblood of newspaper book reviewers), it’s just not true. Jones can write well, but sometimes his prose is stodgy, and it’s not uncommon to have to read a sentence two or three times to get the meaning. Not because it’s too technical, but because the English is too tangled.
So, a real curate’s egg. A fascinating subject, but not enough on the core topic with too devoted to asides that travel far from the subject.
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 22 September 2008

Sacred Mathematics – Fukagawa Hidetoshi & Tony Rothman ***

This is a heavy, lushly produced looking book with a glossy golden cover and glossy pages throughout. When the introduction said it could be read as an art book ‘that delights simply by the perusal of it’ I expected it to be a collection of beautiful colour illustrations, but rather light on the ‘Japanese temple geometry’ promised in the subtitle. In fact it’s the other way round. There are a few colour plates in the middle, but all the rest of those glossy pages are used to display black and white that would have worked equally well on much cheaper ordinary paper.
Overall it’s a strange book. The idea is to display the (mostly) geometrical problems, hung up by ordinary people on boards called sangaku in temples across Japan between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. It’s a wonderful and bizarre concept. After a bit of interesting history, page after page of the book – the vast bulk of it – is filled with these problems for the reader to solve (there are solutions later on).
The result is something like the result of breeding a coffee table art book with a geometry text book – it doesn’t work very satisfactorily as either. Many of the geometry problems aren’t particularly mathematically significant, and it’s hard not to wonder why one should bother after a while, unless the reader happens to be the sort of person who likes solving geometric problems just for the fun of it. You can see why the idea behind this book originated from the same culture as sudoku. Just like that irritating number game, it’s a very clever concept that is ultimately entirely pointless.
Review by Jo Reed

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Physics for Future Presidents – Richard A. Muller *****

Sometimes I see a book title that is so brilliant that I can’t help feel (as a writer) ‘I wish I’d thought of that.’ This is just such a title. It’s a brilliant concept – the physics any decent US president really ought to know to be able to make the decisions that face him or her.
What’s more, the contents live up to the title. Physics professor Richard A. Muller delivers some real surprises, separating what many of us think we know from reality. In five sections, handling terrorism, energy, ‘nukes’, space and global warming he delivers some devastating truths, putting across information that it’s hard to believe any president has really grasped – yet it’s so important that they do.
I don’t want to go into too much detail – read the book – but, for example, in the terrorism section he points out that petrol (and aviation fuel) has more energy per tonne than TNT. This was why the Twin Towers came down on 9/11 – not because of the impact of the planes, but the energy released by the burning fuel. Each section uses the main theme as a starting point, but then pulls in other ideas. So, for example, while the space theme has plenty about the fact that manned spaceflight is not undertaken for scientific reasons (he argues strongly against it, encouraging much more unmanned space work), he also covers the use of gravity for remote detection, and the use of non-visible light (infra-red, radar etc.) in intelligence gathering.
One small gripe and one big one. The small gripe is that it’s a shame there isn’t a European edition of the book. Muller has used US units throughout, rather than scientific units (Fahrenheit temperatures instead of Celsius, for instance), which is ideal for the target audience of would-be US presidents, but less helpful over here. The big one is I think there is one big section missing – pure physics. It doesn’t really come through that there’s any need to do physics without an immediate application. In the past this has meant passing the crown for nuclear physics from the US, with the cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider, to Europe with the Large Hadron Collider (due to go live days after this review was written) – future presidents should understand the implications of not putting money into such valuable research.
All in all, without doubt, both the best concept I’ve seen in ages and an excellent fulfilment of the promise of the title.
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Future Proof [You Call This the Future] – Nick Sagan ***

There’s something about future-gazing that is simultaneously fascinating and frustrating. You just know it’s going to go horribly wrong. Although very little science fiction is really about predicting the future, science fiction writers are often portrayed as future visionaries – so, for instance, Arthur C. Clarke gets lots of brownie points for predicting the geostationary satellite. Sadly he gets less for 2001 A Space Odyssey. I’m not talking about the storyline, but more the technology in the Clarke/Kubrick film. Remember this was set in 2001, a good few years in the past. Not only do we have a talking computer with apparent consciousness we have full screen video phones, a manned mission to Jupiter’s moons and – best of all – PanAm operating a routine shuttle flight to a huge space station. Hands up who remembers PanAm?
In this glossy, well illustrated little book, Nick Sagan (yes, son of Carl) looks at some of the predictions of the future, giving references to science fiction occurrences, and shows how on the whole they haven’t come true. It’s a neat idea (not the first book to do this by any means), and well executed with some fun and interesting bits of technology as well as the yawn-makers like flying cars, but for some reason it doesn’t excite me. It probably would have appealed more to me when I was a teenager, but I did get a slight feeling of ‘yes, and?’ as I read.
There were one or two oddities in the contents too. The travel section inevitably included those iconic jet packs, but didn’t make reference to the juicy material provided by The Rocketbelt Caper. There were also one or two points where the facts got a bit wobbly. The section on teleportation got the whole business of quantum teleportation rather tangled up, commenting that quantum teleportation is only possible if the original is destroyed and that ‘This problem has not yet been resolved.’ This problem never could be resolved – leaving aside the no cloning requirement in quantum theory, there are only really two choices. Either you destroy the original, or you end up with two versions of the person – Nick Sagan seems to miss the entire point of teleportation. Similarly, the section on space tourism is hopelessly optimistic – Sagan seems not to have picked up the main theme of the book. As Richard Muller points out in Physics for Future Presidents, space travel with rocket technology is never going to be suitable for tourism – it’s just too dangerous.
Overall, then, a little frustrating. It is a good idea, but this book seems to going through the motions, rather than really delivering. There is some good stuff in there, it will appeal to geeky teenagers, but it doesn’t quite make the grade.
Review by Brian Clegg