Saturday, 13 December 2008

The Super-Organism – Bert Holldobler and E. O. Wilson ****

There’s something about super-organisms – the collective creature made up of insects like bees or ants – that seem to bring out the glossy in a book publisher. The Buzz about Beeswas all on glossy paper with piles of colour illustrations – so is The Super-Organism, though here the format is coffee table and the beautiful photographs crop up more frequently. Don’t be fooled by the format, though, this is no coffee table picture book.
We absolutely loved The Buzz about Bees, so it was interesting to see what the approach would be here. First it’s broader. Not only covering the bee super-organism, we also get ants and leaf cutters. It’s also in more technical depth than the bee book. Sometimes this is useful, giving more insights into these complex living mechanisms, at others the result is more complex than it needs to be. In The Super-Organism there’s more depth, more about the origins of the super-organism, more details of experiments to determine just what’s going on.
Of the two books we do marginally prefer The Buzz about Bees – it comes across as more friendly and more excited about the bees, and the text is more easily understood. The Super-Organism is just too big, both physically (my arms were aching when I finished reading it) and also has too much information, sometimes at an unnecessarily technical level. However it is well written by this very literate pair of scientists and certainly repays the effort of reading it. Perhaps biased by having read the bee book, the bees were my favourite part of this, mostly because they were old friends, but also because of their synergy with human society.
So not a book for you if you’ve weak arms or a fear of being bombarded with Latin tags and words like eusociality – but a massive gem if you really want to get into the workings of these bizarre multi-creature organisms.
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Statistics: a very short introduction – David J. Hand ****

These little pocket guides are inevitably quite variable in quality. Some just pack in the facts but aren’t at all readable – they’re fine as a quick introduction for students, but they get short shrift as popular science. On the whole, though, David J. Hand’s introduction to statistics succeeds in being very readable. I think he rather over-reached himself with his stated aim of proving that statistics is ‘the most exciting of disciplines’ – but he does make it clear why statisticians find it exciting, and what a powerful and ubiquitous field it is. Very few of the sciences, soft or hard, could manage without probability and statistics.
The first half of the book, where he lays the ground, is probably the best. Once he gets into probability, with its potential to be mind-boggling fun, he rather gets bogged down, in part because he introduces rather more technicalities, and gives us less real world examples, than he should. Things get rather worse when we get onto estimation, inference and modelling, with a slightly uncomfortable parallel line describing the Bayesian approach and the classical approach.
Despite this, if you are prepared to travel a little lightly through the second half, the book is the best simple introduction to statistics I’ve come across. it doesn’t tell you how to use the various techniques and tools it mentions, but at least gives a good picture of some of the toolkit available and how the choices involved are made. With my Operational Research background, I would have liked to see the book expanding into a few OR techniques, but that’s a minor consideration. Overall, a good addition to the series.
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

What does the Moon Smell Like? – Eva Everything ***

Trivia is ever-popular and this book combines science and trivia in a quiz-like format, written by the exotically named presenter of Discovery Channel’s Brain CafĂ©, Eva Everything. There are lots of fun science facts, put across in 151 quizzes which range from a single question to a handful on topics ranging from Einstein’s brain to mad scientists. Each question has four possible answers and, as you might guess, wherever possible, the real answer is not the most obvious one.
This isn’t a bad book by any means, but it’s difficult to know quite what to do with it. It’s not easy to read through, in part because of the idiotic decision to print the answer pages upside down. It’s idiotic because they’re always on the back of the question page, so you can never accidentally see the answer until you’re ready anyway – and it just makes the book almost impossible to read through for pleasure. On the other hand, only the desperate geeks are really going to use this as an actual ‘Please sir, please! I know the answer!’ quiz.
To make matters worse, I found the subjects often a relatively little interest. Maybe they were chosen just because the answers were strange, but I don’t really care that much about the founding of Mercedes cars or when astronauts played ball on the Moon (well that was worth a few billions dollars, then).
In the end, this feels like a good idea that hasn’t quite worked in practice. However, don’t despair. Good gift books are hard to come by, and the advantage of a gift book is you don’t actually have to try to read it, just to have something that sounds intriguing, which this book does. Genuinely would make a good gift, but I probably wouldn’t buy it for myself.
Oh, and the answer to the book’s title? Apparently burned gunpowder according to astronauts, but nothing much at all back here on Earth.
Review by Jo Reed

Friday, 5 December 2008

The Atom and the Apple – Sebastien Balibar ****

At the heart of this slim hardback are a series of personal stories. In the very acceptable translation from Sebastien Balibar’s original French (it’s perhaps ironic that one of the chapters is about the importance of the French running international conferences and journals in English), these are charming and really give a sense of having a chat with this engaging physicist.
The book starts very strong with the chapters titled ‘Black Night’, ‘My Cousin the Leek’ and ‘I am radioactive’, sags a bit n the middle, and recovers strongly at the end. Based on those first few chapters I had been going to give it a five star rating, but it didn’t quite keep up the impetus. Balibar works in low temperature physics, and it’s good to see some exposure for this rarely described aspect of science, though he also covers many different topics along the way.
There are a few minor flaws. Balibar’s knowledge of history of science might not be quite as polished as his expertise in the science itself. For instance, he says ‘What made Hubble come up with the idea that the Universe had been flying off in all directions since the initial explosion?’ Hubble didn’t – he very explicitly didn’t speculate as to why the universe was expanding, merely presented the data. It’s also the case that because he’s flitting about quite quickly between different subjects, he can sometimes be rather summary – but I only found this frustrating in topics which I already knew quite a lot about, so this may be less of a problem if the whole works is new to you.
Overall, then, a pleasantly personal view on some key scientific issues, life, the universe and everything.
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 1 December 2008

How to Dunk a Doughnut – Len Fisher ***

The principle behind this book is an excellent one. To use the science of everyday things to explore sophisticated science and the scientific method. This is the kind of work that earned the author the iGNobel Prize – but not in a bad way.
Where it works well, it works very well. The section on cooking food, for example, is really interesting. But sometimes it all gets very anorak, so that (for example) the title chapter (which is actually more about dunking biscuits than doughnuts) is, frankly, rather dull, as is the section on the physics of tools – though even this has occasional bursts of interest.
The chapters stray from the useful if scientifically trivial aspect of estimating (enabling you to guess an approximate total for your supermarket bill in case, erm, the till added it up wrong I suppose) to the nature of taste (another good chapter) and what happens when you throw a boomerang.
To its credit, this is another ‘silly scientific questions answered in a page’ book. Instead it goes into some depth on each topic, and Len Fisher brings in various experts to add their knowledge on subjects they never thought of addressing. So the idea is excellent. But somehow the execution doesn’t quite live up to the promise.
Review by Jo Reed