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Showing posts from November, 2008

Polio: An American Story – David M. Oshinsky *****

Author David Oshinsky has done a masterful job of bringing to life the struggles to develop a vaccine against polio. I used the word struggles because it is not just a story of virus versus man. The story he weaves is exciting and compelling; it is so much more than the history of growing viruses and testing vaccines. The book is comprised of three intertwining storylines: the efforts of the March of Dimes campaign and the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to raise money for research and patient care, the development of the killed vaccine by Jonas Salk, and the competition between the supporters of the killed vaccine and the supporters of a live, weakened vaccine, represented most vividly by Albert Sabin. The story was extremely well-written and easy to follow. When I picked up the book, I thought that this will be a chauvinistic attempt by the author to demonstrate how the mighty United States was able to conquer a deadly disease all by itself. But I’ve always found the sto…

The Importance of Being Trivial – Mark Mason ****

Have you ever wondered what it is about trivia that is so appealing? Ever since the success of Schott’s Miscellany, we have been inundated with books of fascinating factoids. Even science has not been spared, thanks to the huge success of the like of Why Don’t Penguin’s Feet Freeze? Author Mark Mason is someone who is fascinated by trivia. But for him it’s not enough to know that you can hear Big Ben chime on the radio slightly ahead of the real thing, because the signal is being transmitted (live) at the speed of light, while you only hear it coming down from the tower at the speed of sound – he has to take a radio to the foot of the Westminster clock tower to try it out. In this book, Mason attempts to uncover just why a good factoid grabs the attention – what makes trivia anything but trivial. We see trivia cropping up in quizzes, in pub conversations, in the shows of stand up comics – in a series of interviews with academics and professional trivia users, Mason gradually builds up…

Simon Singh – Four Way Interview

Dr Simon Singh is a freelance writer, science journalist, broadcaster, whose books include the phenomenally successful Fermat’s Last Theorem, The Code Book, Big Bang and most recently Trick or Treatment? on alternative medicine. Why Science? I have always loved science, so it is the only subject that I would ever want to write about. Why this book? I began to realise that there is a huge amount of misinformation about alternative medicine, and misinformation in the context of health is potentially dangerous. I teamed up with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine (Edzard Ernst) with the goal of setting the record straight about what works, what doesn’t work, what’s safe and what’s dangerous. What’s next? I have no idea. Sooner or later a new project will emerge, but there is nothing currently on my radar. What’s exciting you at the moment? I am being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association. For legal reasons I cannot say anything else at the moment.

Weird Science and Bizarre Beliefs – Gregory L. Reece ***

What can I say? It’s a subject I love. I’ve also enjoyed books on fringe science, why people believe strange things and science fiction, so this seemed an ideal book. So it’s a terrible disappointment to have to tell you it’s not very good. There are two big problems with this book. One is that the range of subject matter is rather random – bigfoots (bigfeet?), lost worlds and the hollow earth, ancient wonders and the alleged technology of genius/madman Nikola Tesla. Of these, far too much of the book – the first 100 pages of small print – is on bigfoot. The second problem is that the writing is simply not up to scratch. It’s more like the collection of notes for a book than a real book, and somehow Gregory Reece manages to take these fascinating subjects and make them, well, dull. When I call the subjects fascinating, I ought to clarify that I don’t believe that, for example, the earth is hollow and mole men live inside it. But the people who do believe this have an interesting delus…

Ben Goldacre - Four Way Interview

Ben Goldacre is an award winning writer, broadcaster, and medical doctor who has written the weekly Bad Science column in the Guardian since 2003. His Bad Science blog is an unparalleled source of information on dubious science, particularly in complementary medicine. His book, with the inspired title Bad Science, came out in November 2008. Why Science? More because it’s interesting than because it’s right. Why this book? Because I wanted to have everything in one place, the whole story of how we know if something does us good or harm, and the many ways that we can be misled by other people or, more interestingly, ourselves. What’s next? Golly, I don’t know. I might do a book for doctors and medical students on how to spot dodgy evidence from big pharma, expanding on the book chapter, since I do some teaching on that, and I think it’s a way to make teaching critical appraisal skills a bit more interesting. Epidemiology was called “epidemiholiday” when i was at medical school. What’s excit…

Trick or Treatment – Simon Singh & Edzard Ernst *****

It’s typical, isn’t it. You wait for years for a good book on bad medicine, and then two come out close together – Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science and this. Don’t worry, though, about choosing between them – every sensible person ought to get both. Although Ben Goldacre comes from a medical background he takes a wider viewpoint than just bad medical science, where this book looks specifically at alternative medicine. The outcome is electrifying to everyone who thinks and has used or considered using anything like homeopathy or acupuncture. Singh and Ernst don’t set out with any malice – Ernst has worked for many years in alternative medicine – but they show devastatingly how proper trials have shown these alternative treatments to rarely be better than a placebo, and often to have negative or even life-threatening consequences. It really is striking – the vast majority of alternative medical treatments are proved to be on a par with snake oil. Apart from anything else, this ought to be re…

Everyday Survival – Laurence Gonzales ***

This, like every game of football comes in two halves. The first is a delight. There was no doubt while reading this that Everyday Survival would be awarded five stars. The second gets into a bit of a mess that doesn’t really merit more than two stars – so the resultant rating is an average. I absolutely loved Laurence Gonzales’ description of how we make mistakes and errors when the way we are programmed to react, allowing the older, lower segments of the brain to take control, fails to cope with a misunderstanding or unnoticed change in the situation. I won’t spoil his policeman after training to disarm someone with a gun anecdote here, but it is absolutely wonderful – I’ve been telling everyone I can think on ever since. I even experienced this sort of error myself this week. Every Thursday I have to go and switch on the heating in a hall where I will be running an event in the evening. This Thursday I went along and flicked the switch. However, when I came back later the hall was …

Decoding the Heavens – Jo Marchant *****

Just occasionally, as a science writer, I come across a subject that makes me think ‘Wow, that’s brilliant, it would make a great book! I must write it.’ About five seconds later I realize that it’s so obviously a good story that someone else will have beaten me to it. And sure enough, there’s the book. In this case I did think it, Jo Marchant has written it, and the result is excellent. The subject is not, as you might think from the title, astronomy, but the Antikythera (anti-kith-era) Mechanism. Even that name is redolent with excitement – it’s like something Indiana Jones or Lara Croft might search for – and there were certainly some interesting characters involved in its decoding. Even Arthur C. Clarke and Richard Feynman were fascinated by this ancient puzzle. The Mechanism is a device found in 1900 amongst the wreckage of a Greek ship from the first century BC. It’s a complex geared structure, built hundreds of years before anyone knew such gearing was used. Without giving too …

Venn That Tune - Andrew Viner ****

There is something delightful about a book that combines mathematical/graphical notation with the names of pop songs. This unashamed gift book has a series of pages, each illustrating one song title using a diagram. About a half are Venn diagrams with the rest being various forms of chart, some more obscure than others. This is much easier to see than understand from a description. Here’s the diagram that’s on the cover of the book a little more clearly:
The idea is to guess the tune from the diagram (I love this particular example). There are answers in the back, but for one like this you shouldn’t need to check it – it’s like a good crossword clue, when you get the answer, it’s obviously right. One of the reason this particular one works well is that the song is well-known. With some of the more obscure numbers (for example It’s ‘Orrible Being in Love (When you’re 8½)) it’s not quite such a certain experience, so you are more likely to approximate to the answer than get it spot on, …

New Theories of Everything – John D. Barrow ****

Could this be the only science book you will ever need to read? After all it is, in effect, trying to assemble an explanation for life, the universe and everything. Those who worry about unweaving the rainbow will perhaps gain some solace in Barrow’s penultimate sentence in the book. ‘No Theory of everything can ever provide total insight.’ I’ll leave you to read the book to discover the punchline. This is a brave effort from Barrow to break of all of science down to universals, not in the sense of exploring current thinking in every branch of science, but rather pulling apart the tools that science uses – as he calls it, the eightfold way – and getting a better understanding of the insights that everything from an understanding of symmetry to the nature of universal constants brings us. Along the way, he merrily weaves in an impressive range of associations and concepts that will help in the big picture. I confess I don’t agree entirely with one of the key axioms that leads to Barrow…

The Living End – Guy Brown ***

Take a glance at the cover of Guy Brown’s book and what does it seem to be about? I have to confess I thought it was fishermen, and with a title like that, the collapse of the fishing industry. I don’t say this to complain about the book design, though I will be doing that shortly, but to highlight the way the true topic doesn’t really encourage the reader in, which is presumably why the cover doesn’t feature graves or something similar. It’s about death, ageing and immortality, but mostly death. Let’s get that design moan out of the way. Apart from the misleading cover design, this little hardback doesn’t look unattractive, but open it up and there’s horror inside. The text is plastered across the page in a largish sans serif font, heading way into the gutters at the side with very small paragraph indentations. The result is such a big, undistinguished block of text that it’s very uncomfortable to read. I’ve seen (much) better page layout in books on Lulu. There’s no doubt that there…

Alien Volcanoes – Rosaly M. C. Lopes & Michael W. Carroll ***

I really don’t know what to make of this mid-sized coffee table book. (In practice, that ‘coffee table’ label is a bit unfair – the book is that size and has glossy pages with plenty of colour illustrations, but on most pages there is more text than there are photos.) The first chapter is on Earth’s prehistoric volcanoes, then a chapter on the different types of volcanoes before launching into the meat of the book – volcanoes on both Earth-like and gaseous worlds in the solar system, ending with a short and not particularly informative chapter on volcanoes in culture. The illustrations range from very clear photographs to good (sometimes indistinguishable) artists’ impressions, though some of the pictures – most of the ones of Iceland and a painting of Pompei, for instance – are strangely murky, more photo album snaps than glossy picture book illustrations. Overall it just didn’t work for me. It doesn’t give the in-depth exploration of volcanoes that I think could be made fascinating,…

Relativity: A Very Short Introduction – Russell Stannard ***

This little book does very much what it says on the tin – gives a clear, concise introduction to both special and general relativity. So why only three stars? I don’t think it quite makes it as a popular science book. It’s a tad too technical. There are too many equations, and too many parts where the general reader will probably get stuck. This is particularly obvious when Russell Stannard is using Minkowski diagrams, those plots of spacetime where time is the vertical axis and space the horizontal axis. These are particularly difficult to use without losing the reader (it’s one of the biggest faults of A Brief History of Time) and combining insufficient explanation with rather poor graphics, these really don’t do anything for the book. It’s by no means a (relativistic) train wreck, though. For an A-level physics student or someone just starting a first year degree course, it’s ideal as a quick introduction or refresher. It combines quite thoughtful content – it emphasizes that the e…