Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Bad Science – Ben Goldacre *****

Ben Goldacre, the author of this book, gave a keynote address at a science blogging conference I attended recently. He was funny, brash and acerbic in his attacks on poorly conducted and reported science (particularly medical science) just as he is on his excellent blog Bad Science. What remained to be seen was whether he could translate this rip-roaring success as scourge of the pseudo-scientists into the full length book form. With a few small quibbles the answer is a very loud ‘yes’. It’s excellent.
Goldacre takes on the likes of Brain Gym, homeopathy, exotic claims from the cosmetics industry, Gillian McKeith, Patrick Holford and more. It’s remarkable just how many are taken in by this pseudo-science, and Goldacre roundly and accurately criticizes the media for their wide-eyed ignorance. In his talk, he seemed to say that professional writers are rubbish and we should rely solely on real scientists’ communications. In practice this doesn’t work well as a sole approach, and in the book he is much more careful to point out that science journalists often know what they are doing, but are sometimes pushed aside by editors and generalist journalists and their opinions ignored where scientific truth is likely to get in the way of a good story.
This is a rollicking good read, blisteringly putting the likes of McKeith in their place and explaining why otherwise clever people are fooled by really very stupid things.
So to those quibbles. One is that the tone so relentlessly emphasizes ‘don’t believe them when they tell you something without detailed scientific backup’ that it means the reader gets a little irritated when Goldacre falls into the same trap himself, commenting, for instance, ‘there are forty-year-old O-level papers which are harder than the current A-level syllabus’ without offering any evidence to back up this assertion. I’m not saying it’s not true, but after he has pounded it into us, surely we shouldn’t take it from Goldacre himself without appropriate peer reviewed quality research to back the assertion up.
The other slight quibble is that Goldacre isn’t a professional writer, and though his enthusiasm and verve makes for a great speech or column, he really hasn’t quite got the hang of keeping your interest through a full book and just occasionally it gets a trifle dull. Lots of it is brilliant, but not everything is explained particularly well, and it could do with a professional polish – but the content is so superb that this really doesn’t matter.
This is definitely one of the best popular science books of the year. (And as this is a subjective review I can say that, even though I have no double blind tested, peer reviewed trials of the hypothesis to back it up.)
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 17 October 2008

Quantum – Manjit Kumar ***

The first thing that strikes you about this book it’s big. It’s a chunky tome. It looks suspiciously like the sort of book that assumes you’ve written a ‘big’ book if you have written a long one, and sadly the contents don’t do anything to counter this opinion. It goes on too long, it’s often dull and I couldn’t really find any new ground being covered here – it has all been done before, better and more readably.
For example, the early chapters on Planck and Einstein feel very samey with all the other material I’ve read on them (though it’s particularly plodding here). The trouble is, you feel you have to put all this stuff in, but there’s no doubt that it’s going over old ground with a will. Things do live up a little when we get onto Bohr, who has relatively little biographical information written about him. However, even here things aren’t all sweetness and light. The problem with this section is the author’s poor structuring. We keep diving back and forth in time. Part way through Bohr we jump back to JJ Thomson’s mini biography, before we can really get any progress we then jump out again for Rutherford’s biography, part way through which (nest jumps!) we pop out for Roentgen’s biography and so on.
Later on, when we get onto the massed brigade of young quantum turks, there are just too many being thrown at us, the biographies get very dull and samey. It’s not so much unputdownable at this point as unpickupable.
All the way through it’s a touch too technical for the general reader. There are unnecessary formulae and units are rarely explained. The science is often it bit too close to what I remember from first year physics lectures at university.
All in all, this would make a good textbook to give some context to those studying quantum physics, but it’s a poor attempt at a popular science book on the topic. Take a look at Marcus Chown’s Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You for a much better general introduction.
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 6 October 2008

Einstein’s Mistakes – Hans C. Ohanian ****

This is, without doubt, one of the most fascinating popular science books I have ever read. When I first saw the title, I was filled with dread, because the bookshelves are filled with crank titles that try to take on Einstein and prove him wrong. But this is quite different. It’s a carefully constructed exploration of Einstein’s life and scientific work, built around the errors in his work that are often glossed over in presenting the triumph of his great ideas.
The only slight concern about the approach is that this does result in a rather smug feel to the book, a sort of ‘aren’t I clever, I can tell you where Einstein went wrong’ aura that isn’t helped by occasional descents into loose language (apparently Van Gogh became a great artist ‘when he went bonkers.’) Building the book around Einstein’s mistakes is an excellent idea, but sometimes it results in excessive weight being put on a relatively small point, such as an assertion in the original Special Relativity paper that allegedly drove a lone yachtsman mad.
However there certainly is a wealth of material here that I have never seen before, or not seen presented anywhere near so well. We see some historical examples of error that don’t get enough mention, such as Galileo’s strange idea that the tides were caused by the rotation of the Earth, or Newton’s fudged experimental values which somehow managed to match his theoretical predictions exactly, even when he got those predictions wrong.
Perhaps the best example from Einstein himself was a wonderful mistake called the Principle of Equivalence. This was the idea that started him on the stunning ideas about curved spacetime that lie beneath general relativity. I have often seen this principle, stating that a gravitational field and acceleration are equivalent, so in a closed box you couldn’t tell if you were feeling gravity or being accelerated (say by a rocket), used to introduce general relativity, just as Einstein did. Unfortunately this principle is flawed. It was the inspiration behind general relativity, but it happens to be wrong. Now that is interesting!
My biggest worry about the book is that in the one aspect of Einstein’s work I do know in a lot of detail, the EPR paper of 1935, Hans Ohanian gets things horribly wrong. He seems to think that the paper’s arguments against quantum theory are based on the uncertainty principle, a common mistake because the paper mentions both position and momentum. But mistake it is. In fact Einstein later emphasized this, commenting that his attitude to the use of position and momentum was ‘Ist mir Wurst’, literally ‘is sausage to me’, or approximately ‘I couldn’t care less.’ Either of the measurements was sufficient, because the argument is nothing to do with uncertainty. Now it’s an easy enough mistake to make, as it has been made by several other books – but it does throw some doubt on whether any of the other assertions about Einstein’s mistakes are equally flawed. I’m inclined to give Ohanian the benefit of the doubt.
Whatever, it is an intriguing book. It’s probably best left to those with some previous experience of physics, at least to high school level, because the details of the errors can be quite subtle – but it’s well worth the effort. Recommended.
Review by Brian Clegg