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Showing posts from December, 2008

Experimental Heart (SF) - Jennifer Rohn ****

I've just read a novel with science at its heart that claims not to be science fiction. It's Experimental Heart by Jennifer Rohn.

It's kind of a romance, with a dark subplot, taking place in a laboratory setting. There's lots of realistic sounding science, and as far as I can gather (never having been a practising scientist) a strong sense of the atmosphere in a real lab. (If this is the case, I'd hate to work in a lab as they always seem to have a CD on, and I can't concentrate with music playing.)

It was a delight, as is often the case when I read a book of a kind I wouldn't normally pick up. Although to begin with not much happens, it's written well enough that you are sucked into the story and want to know more. Later on, things get positively page turning as the plot thickens.

But what of Lab Lit, the term Dr Rohn gives to this style of book? Does it work as a genre? I didn't find the quite heavy dose of scientific content to the story a problem, …

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 book…

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, inferenc…

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 Café, 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, ple…

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. Fo…

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 i…