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Hope for Animals and Their World – Jane Goodall ****

Jane Goodall is one of those figures in science (or, at least, natural history) who is near mythical. I have to confess to a tendency to confuse her with Diane Fossey (not to be confused with Bob Fosse), so I was slightly surprised that she was English and lives in Bournemouth. However what is certainly not mythical is her enthusiasm for animals which in this book (co-written with Thane Maynard and Gail Hudson) she manages to put across in spades. The idea is that we hear so much doom and gloom about animals being driven to extinction by climate change and human intervention, and this is a chance to hear the good news – the stories of animals we have managed to bring back from the brink. This works very well. It is heartening to hear. Also fascinating to see the in-fighting between those conservationists who believe animals should always be left in their natural habit and those who believe captive breeding is often essential. Goodall comes down on the side of the captive breeders, and…

Don’t be Such a Scientist – Randy Olson ***

I have to admit up front that this book doesn’t score as well as it should because it’s not really popular science. I think it’s an excellent book – but the audience really is the science community, and though scientists do read popular science (often outside their own discipline), a true popular science book should appeal to non-scientists. The reason it’s so targeted is that this book is designed to tell scientists how to communicate better. It’s rather strange that it’s subtitled ‘talking substance in an age of style,’ because what it really is about is teaching scientists how to add style and subtract substance. That might seem like heresy – but Randy Olson argues quite rightly that the scientist’s pernickety insistence on getting everything just right and not really worrying about how glossy the presentation is simply doesn’t wash in a mass media world. Olson went from being a biology professor to Hollywood, so is ideally placed to gently lead the scientific lambs to the communic…

Instant Egghead Guide: Physics – Brian Clegg ***

Physics is a strange subject. It should be exciting, but all too often it’s dull. This little book is an attempt to make physics interesting. I’m not quite clear whether it’s aimed at older children or adults – it would work for either, but it could have been clearer. The pocket-sized book is divided into sections on matter, quantum theory, light, relativity, forces and energy. What’s neat about it is that it doesn’t start with the boring stuff – it plunges in with modern physics, and only pulls in the classical where necessary. The format is 100 short articles, each of which has ‘the basics’, ‘on the frontier’ and one or two ‘cocktail party tidbits’, which works quite well. They’re all very readable and presented in a breezy style that makes it easy to keep going. However, just as I’m not sure who the book is aimed at, I’m not sure what it’s for either. You could read it through from beginning to end – it works better than most short article based books in this respect – but equally …

The Brain Book – Rita Carter ****

This is a strange book, using a children’s book format for a serious subject. It has Dorling Kindersley’s usual format of splitting a topic up into two page spreads, which are highly illustrated and filled with little items – an approach that tends to be thought of as best for children – and applies it to the ‘structure, function and disorders’ of the brain. Given that incongruity it really shouldn’t work as a serious adult title – but it is surprisingly good. It’s easy to get sucked in and just read one more page. The format is still highly inferior to a ‘proper’ book for the pure popular science delight of sitting down to a good read about a science subject. The book can’t flow the way it should with this layout, and the pictures and bitty structure just get in the way – but even so, the content is sufficiently good that it overcomes the format and still works as a popular science title. As you move through the book you will pick up information on the structure of the brain and how …

Heatstroke – Anthony D. Barnosky *****

I thought I knew what this book would be about as soon as I saw that subtitle ‘nature in an age of global warming’. Save the polar bear, blah, blah… pity the poor furry creature. In fact it proved to be a wonderful surprise. What hits you first is Anthony Barnosky’s excellent writing style. It’s pitched at just the right level. It draws you in, keeps you interested and never gets stuffy. There’s enough of Barnosky’s voice in there to make it personal, and he really knows how put science across with enthusiasm and to great effect. Then there’s the content. Barnosky carefully shows us how climate change has affected nature in the past – how some species adapt or move to cope while others will inevitably be wiped out. In that, the impact of global warming on nature is a perfectly normal occurrence. But, he argues, things are different now, in part because of the different pace of change, and in part because we have chopped up nature into small chunks and pushed species so close to their …

Why Us? – James Le Fanu ***

Subtitled ‘how science rediscovered the mystery of ourselves’ this is a celebration of the fact that simple reductionist science, based on mapping genes to function and monitoring individual areas of the brain, has not been able to pin down just why humans are as they are and behave as they do – and that’s not a bad thing. Because science isn’t an infallible source of truth, as some seem to think. Not scientists, I hasten to add. They are usually well aware that science isn’t about finding ‘truth’ but the best model we can devise given current data. All scientific theories and models are subject to future revision and scrapping. Which is an important lesson to learn – but it’s not really what James Le Fanu is setting out to tell us. What Why Us sets out to do is to take on both the idea that evolution by natural selection can be responsible for the origin of species (as opposed to micro-evolutionary changes like Darwin’s famous finch bills), and the idea that we can understand how the…

Boyle: between God and Science – Michael Hunter ***

I was really looking forward to this book as Robert Boyle is one of the least written about of the important people in the history of science, and before picking up Michael Hunter’s book I knew very little about him. I now know a lot more – but not always the things I wanted to know. There are broadly three types of biography of a scientist. There’s the detailed historian’s biography, poring over every little document and providing an intensely detailed description of the individual’s life. The sort of biography that would make a great reference source, but frankly isn’t bedtime reading. Then there’s the populist biography, with all the rip-roaring personal details, but not enough about the science. Finally there’s the true popular science biography, which should combine the essentials about the person’s life – enough to get a feeling that you know the person without getting bored – with an exploration of the science this individual was responsible for. After all, what’s the point of …

Chance: the life of games & the game of life – J P Marques de Sa ***

Chance is a fascinating subject. Probability has a huge impact on our lives, but we have a very poor natural grasp of it (hence all the people entering lotteries). In this practically sized paperback, Engineering professor J P Marques de Sa sets out to explain probability from scratch. It’s a bit of a frustrating read because it could have been so much better. Marques de Sa is occasionally quite lyrical in his description of chance processes – but very soon this book settles down into being much more of a textbook than a popular science title. Despite the famous advice given to Stephen Hawking that every equation halves the readership of a book, I don’t mind a few equations in a popular science book, but they shouldn’t be a means of driving the argument forward – you should be able to get the point of the book while skipping over the equations, and that just isn’t the case here. They are fundamental from the beginning, and soon they are most of the argument. I would also have liked to…

Science and Islam: a history – Ehsan Masood ****

“Animals engage in a struggle for existence [and] for resources, to avoid being eaten and to breed…Environmental factors influence organisms to develop new characteristics to ensure survival, thus transforming into new species. Animals that survive to breed can pass on their successful characteristics to [their] offspring.” Is this Richard Dawkins writing in the 21st Century? Or Lamarck in the 19th? Or some godless renegade in 17th Century Europe? Not even close. The author is al-Jahiz, a science writer from 9th Century Baghdad. The surprising thing is not that an Islamic author could write such a thing so early, but that we are surprised to learn that he could – that’s what Ehsan Masood would say, at any rate. And readers of Science and Islam will probably agree with him by end of this lively and user-friendly book on Islamic science during the so-called Dark Ages and beyond. Part 1 of the book mixes a potted history of Islam with descriptions of the patrons, institutions and practit…

Ice, Mud and Blood – Chris Turney ****

Anyone new to the climate change debate is bound to wonder whether a 5-6 degree increase in temperatures is really all that bad – especially if the person is cold, English, and nostalgic for summer. A good reply to this wonderment is to say that the last time the globe was 5 or 6 degrees colder, there were glaciers in the South of England, and the melting ice caused Britain to split off from France. Chris Turney, a geologist at the University of Exeter, knows as well as anyone that climates past have lessons for climates present. In Ice, Mud and Blood, Turney’s humour and expertise make for a jaunty, fascinating account of how past climates worked and how scientists find out about them. But Turney spends little time linking past climate to present climate; so, as a contribution to the climate change debate, the book doesn’t live up to its promise. As Turney points out, it’s a wonder that we know anything about past climate at all. Natural climate change occurs over vast periods, and e…

Branches – Philip Ball ****

‘They are formed from chaos, from the random swirling of water vapour that condenses molecule by molecule, with no template to guide them. Whence this branchingness? Wherefore this sixness?’ This is Philip Ball, in his grand and mildly pompous style, describing how a snowflake forms. Branches (like this review) starts with concrete details rather than a general introduction. And the book (but not this review) starts as it means to go on: it has lots of examples and plenty of themes, but no thesis. But don’t let it put you off this rich, thoroughly-researched exploration of trees, rivers, bacteria, cracks, cities, and other kinds of branching growth. The reason Branches lacks an introduction is probably that it is one third of a trilogy that Ball published as one volume back in 1999, and Branches has not quite disentangled itself from the other two books (see also ShapesandFlow). Ball often ‘reminds’ the reader of what they ‘learned’ in Book I or Book II. And the conclusion of Branches…

The Humans who went Extinct – Clive Finlayson ****

There are two ways to write a really good popular science book. One, the more common of the two, is to be a good writer, who can take your reader into the story of the science, and to be able to portray complex scientific principles in a way that the general reader can understand. The other is to challenge long held beliefs about a scientific principle and make the reader think ‘Yes, this makes sense.’ This can feel really exciting for the reader, as if you are part of discovering something new. Clive Finlayson’s book falls into the second category, and unlike many challengers of scientific theories (for example, those who regularly take on Einstein), he has the authority to get away with it. It’s probably worth getting the two big hurdles to appreciating the book out of the way first. It’s quite often tedious in its ponderous plod through different environments and reactions of proto-humans and others to those environments. These parts could have done with some heavy pruning to make …

Nothing: a very short introduction – Frank Close ***

I came to this book for the title. Like “Zero”, “Symmetry”, or “Shapes”, “Nothing” is one of those concepts that seems to offer an intriguing cross-cutting view of science. A few pages into the book, I thought it would deliver on the promise of the title page. But after a couple of chapters I realised that this is a book about Something, not Nothing. A few chapters later it dawned on me that the Something was actually Basic Ideas in Modern Physics. Basic Ideas in Modern Physics is an interesting topic, but not nearly as novel and mind-bending as Nothing. It’s not Frank Close’s fault that modern physics is preoccupied with nothing-related issues: what happened at the beginning of the universe, when something turned into nothing; how the very smallest particles (or waves) behave; the geometry of space and time. And if you would like to trot through the basics of fields, waves, special and general relativity, quantum theory, the Big Bang, and the structure of the atom, then this book is …

Eureka Man – Alan Hirshfeld ***

I was really looking forward to reading this book – Archimedes is a fascinating character whose work is usually under-appreciated, and I wanted to know more about him. Unfortunately, after reading the book cover to cover, I still know little more. It’s not really Alan Hirshfeld’s fault. I had a similar problem when writing a biography of Roger Bacon – when looking back this far there is very little fact to be established about the life and personality of an individual. So you have to do something else. Give context. Talk about his work. Hirshfeld does this, but the way he approaches it didn’t work particularly well for me. Quite a lot of the context aspect is given over to a potted history of Sicily in the period leading up to Archimedes life. I like history – but this wasn’t the most inspiring historical text, rather old fashioned in its concentration on rulers and battles. We had bits and pieces of Archimedes work – quite a lot, for instance, on his quirky little The Sand Reckoner, …

The Emperor’s New Drugs – Irving Kirsch ****

They say that the Origin of Species is “one long argument.” Irving Kirsch may not share Darwin’s eloquence, but in The Emperor’s New Drugs he shares his passion for persuasion. Thanks to its wide scope, smooth delivery, and mastery of the data, this book is about as persuasive as a popular science book can be. “The belief that antidepressants can cure depression chemically is simply wrong.” So Kirsch claims. A claim like this raises a host of questions. Some are easy to answer: why would drug companies exaggerate the value of their pills in an anti-depressant market worth $19 billion a year? Why would regulatory agencies that are partly funded by drug companies play along with these exaggerations? Other questions are harder: if antidepressants do not cure depression chemically, how do they do so? And if the answer is “the placebo effect”, how can the placebo effect be so strong as to convince millions of patients, thousands of doctors, and dozens of editors, that antidepressants are m…