Wednesday, 30 December 2009

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 it really does look like the other camp is putting philosophy ahead of the survival of animals.
The writing style is very light and personal. Some of it is almost as if it’s written by a very well-read ten-year-old. I don’t mean that to sound condescending – Goodall is certainly child-like in her joy in living creatures, but not childish. It’s just that this isn’t polished science writing, it’s more like reading a personal journal. I used to love Gerald Durrell’s books as a child, and I was reminded of that same personal enthusiasm and involvement.
I only had two small problems with this book. One was the sheer length of it. It’s 380 pages without the index, and to be honest, while there are obviously big differences between stories of black robins and of condors, there are just so many ‘bird being saved’ stories you can read without them getting a bit samey. I think there’s a bit of ‘famous author syndrome’ here – the editor didn’t dare suggest cutting down. I think the book would have been better with about half the case stories and a bit more depth to the science.
The other problem is that there was a touch of hypocrisy in the way we are encouraged not to destroy the world, yet Jane Goodall clearly flies thousands of miles each year, visiting many countries. This really isn’t justifiable, given the impact of that travel on the environment. (There’s even a section on the back that seems to encourage people to travel the world to see these creatures. No! Don’t! Just read about them, please.)
Despite those concerns, this is a really interesting book. I would have liked to see something about how we should make the decisions on which species to concentrate on. We see a lot of time, effort and money being spent on specific species – there’s no way we could afford to do this for (say) every insect in danger. How do we make those decisions? Even so it is good to know that some species have been hauled back from the brink – and good to see Goodall’s enthusiasm, shining through every page.
Also hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

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 communications slaughter. He rightly points out how scientists can bore people, and even worse can put them off by talking down to them. He points out how some science bloggers (and though he doesn’t mention him, the likes of Richard Dawkins) take an attitude that’s effectively ‘if you don’t agree with me, you are stupid.’ This isn’t any way to win people over to your argument.
In the main it’s a great book with lots of useful guidance. The only area I’d disagree is Olson’s assertion that the future is film, and that in the future we’ll see lots of scientists communicating via home made videos. I think video content will increase, but blogs and Twitter (for example) are, to me, much better ways to communicate science than amateurish videos. And realistically, most scientists aren’t going to do what Olson did and take time off from their careers to go to film school for several years.
So – highly recommended for all scientists and even science writers. We all could be better at the way we communicate science. Though Olson’s book isn’t a step-by-step guide to science communication – it’s much more broad brush – it will help get an understanding of where scientists get it wrong. which is more than half the battle. For the right audience, highly recommended.
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

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 you could dip in here and there as an introductory reference.
It’s frustrating, because this is a well-written book on an essential subject. I think it makes a really good background reading book for a school science student – it’s highly recommended for this – or an entertaining overview for the general reader. But with a different format it would have been even better.
Review by Jo Reed
Please note, this title is written by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion – and we could hardly omit the book – but do want to make the connection clear.

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 it fits into the body’s mechanisms, the senses, movement and control, emotions, social behaviour, language, memory, intelligence, creativity, consciousness and oddities of the brain. Although the illustrations are just too much for me, and can see many would appreciate the mix of powerful colour photographs and classy graphics. It’s often in the little details that Rita Carter triumphs, when she catches your attention with some little fact that entertains. And to balance out the heavier sections there are items, for instance, on cognitive illusions that provide a little extra fun.
The other problem from the point of view of this being a reading book, rather than a picture book is the sheer weight of the thing. After holding it five minutes my wrists were aching. It weighs in at a pretty massive 1.6 kilos. I also couldn’t really see the point of the section on disorders at the back – it was much too technical for the ordinary reader, but too simplistic for the professional. The blurb says it’s ‘an essential manual for students and healthcare professionals’ as well as being a reference for the family, but somehow I can’t see many healthcare professionals tucking into a Dorling Kindersley illustrated guide to their subject.
All-in-all, then, something of an oddity that works despite itself. If you want to know about the brain and how it works it’s highly recommended.
Review by Jo Reed

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 limits. The result is that there can be no unaided escape for many, many species. It should be obvious really. As climates have changed in the past, a species would move with its preferred climate. But if you’re cooped up in a national park in one part of the country and need to head north (say), what can you do when there’s a city and miles of concrete roads in the way?
Even if we don’t care about the at-risk species in isolation, Barnosky points out how much we benefit from having access to nature. There’s a risk here of using the Tefal ploy. This is the spurious argument for the space programme that says it’s worth spending all those billions on it because we get all the spinoffs. Like, er, non-stick frying pans. But there is a stronger argument for the benefits of nature, whether its in medicine or Barnosky’s example of the heat resistant bacteria, without which we would never have developed any of the DNA manipulation technology we use today, from DNA fingerprinting to medical applications of being able to slice and dice DNA. This still isn’t a great argument for saving the lesser spotted snark (or whatever), but it’s fair to say we don’t know what we need to save until we find the application.
One danger with such a book is that it’s all doom and gloom and there are no solutions. That isn’t the case here. While Barnosky’s suggestions for doing our own bits to save the planet (use low energy lightbulbs etc.) are fairly trivial he’s strong on suggestions for dealing with the impact of climate change on wildlife environments with a mantra of keep, connect, create that is persuasively argued. Whether it’s possible to find funding for this in a climate of recession is a different matter – but Barnosky certainly carries the day with his arguments.
My only concern about this book is the accuracy of one crucial piece of information. It repeatedly refers to the fact that recent global warming is much faster than any natural warming, saying that we could have a rise of up to 5 °C in as little as fifty years. This is compared with a similar rise between the last ice period and the current interglacial, which took hundreds of years to happen, allowing species to adapt. Contrast this with a comment by Australian climate change expert Will Steffen who said ‘Abrupt change seems to be the norm, not the exception.’ According to him, on 23 occasions during the last ice age, air temperatures went through massive climbs, pushing temperatures up by as much as 10 °C in around 40 years. Similarly Richard Alley, in a report for the US National Academy of Sciences, concluded ‘Recent scientific evidence shows that major and widespread climate changes have occurred with startling speed… this new thinking is little known and scarcely appreciated in the wider community of natural and social scientists and policymakers.’ While this contradiction doesn’t undermine all the other great stuff in Heatstroke, it is a rather worrying contrast of information.
All in all, this is a superb book with a powerful message that we ignore at our peril. There is much more at stake than the poster-animal polar bear. It’s something we ought to hear more about. Highly recommended.
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 23 November 2009

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 brain produces a conscious being. On evolution, Le Fanu seems to be putting forward something similar to Stephen Gould’s idea of punctuated equilibrium, but I have to say ‘seems to be’ because his approach is much more about knocking conventional evolutionary wisdom than it is about putting forward a coherent alternative.
Le Fanu rehearses some of the hoary old arguments about lack of transitional fossils between species and much more. The trouble is, he seems to be arguing against a popular science view of evolution, rather than the sort of thing a modern evolutionary biologist would recognize. Inevitably things are simplified for the general reader, and I’m not sure Le Fanu’s arguments hold up against the real science. In one sense his attack is useful. Most scientists are reluctant to challenge evolutionary theory because of fear that creationists will pounce on perfectly reasonable scientific doubt about the detail of the science and suggest that just because evolutionary theory isn’t perfect, then the creationist alternative must be true. There are flaws in evolutionary theory – but I’m not sure they’re as big or as significant as Le Fanu suggests. And even if they are killer blows for the current theory, I don’t think that they show, as Le Fanu seems to suggest, that we have to hold up our hands and say ‘Here’s something science can’t deal with.’ It just means we need a better theory.
I’ve a little more sympathy with his attack on the idea that the conscious human self is nothing more than chemical reactions and electrical impulses – unlike evolution, there really isn’t a good explanation for where our conscious minds come from, how they are produced by that electro-chemical mix. Here Le Fanu is on stronger ground, though again I’m not sure he doesn’t leap too far to say that this is something science will never address. Yes there is, as the subtitle puts it, a ‘mystery of ourselves’, but it might not remain so forever. Even so, it’s certainly true that all the detail biologists have studied on the brain and how our DNA maps out what we will be gives us no real clue as to the answer to this conundrum – it’s more like to come from a totally different direction, perhaps from physics rather than biology.
If I’m honest, there are a couple of things I don’t like here. One is the writing style. Throughout Le Fanu maintains the sort of flowery, hand-waving style that’s fine for introductions and conclusions, but not for the meat of a book. I would have liked the style to settle down a bit. Perhaps more importantly, he’s more than a touch cavalier with the facts to fit with that hand-waving style. Four quick examples. He describes the Big Bang as taking place 15 billion years ago – that’s over a billion years out from current estimates. Secondly, he makes it sound as if the Big Bang is definite, comparing it with the relationships between human precursors, which is based on theory with limited substantiation – in fact the Big Bang is very similar in its dependence on one possible theory among several.
And then there’s a bizarre statement about a stone age carving of a bison. ‘It is not a sculpture of a specific object, but rather a generalized image of a class of objects… It is the idea of a bison.’ How does he know this? You can imagine a writer 10,000 years in the future saying of Nelson’s column: ‘It is not a sculpture of a specific man, but rather a generalized image of a class of objects… It is the idea of a man.’ Really strange. Oddest of all is the statement ‘There are (to put it simply) three forces of order’ which he identifies as gravity, genes and the human mind. What about the other three fundamental forces of nature? Does he not think, for example, that the electromagnetic force, without which there would be no matter (and even if there was, objects would not be able to touch each other) is not an important force of order? This smacks of ignorance. He does make a reference to there being four forces later on, but it’s a throwaway line, as if the others are relatively insignificant, rather than being vastly more powerful than gravity.
All in all, what James Le Fanu sets out to do is not a bad thing, but this is a muddled book that doesn’t achieve that goal.
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 19 November 2009

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 reading a biography of a scientist, if you don’t find out about the science? It might as well be a biography of a shoemaker. (Nothing personal about shoemakers, here.)
Sadly, though it is, I am sure, a superbly researched tome, Hunter’s biography sits squarely in the first category. You can get a feel for the writer’s enthusiasm for all the minutiae and documentation on which it is based – which is fine – but the writing never captures the imagination. I don’t care about Robert Boyle as a result of this – it could just as well be an extremely long (beautifully documented) laundry list.
But the reason this book is, for me, an abject failure is that it skips over the science. Boyle is, of course, famous for Boyle’s Law, the gas law that tells us pressure times volume is constant. If you don’t concentrate hard you could miss Hunter’s reference to this altogether, it is so summarily covered, with no feeling for the context of the discovery and its implications. To give another example (there are many), we are given some details of an experiment that Boyle makes with nitre – but no attempt is made to even say what nitre is, let alone whether the experiment has any modern significance. We are just given a description of what was undertaken in Boyle’s own terminology. This isn’t good enough.
I’m not saying that I didn’t learn a lot from this book – I did. I vaguely knew that Boyle was Anglo-Irish, not in the sense of being half English and half Irish, but in the period sense of being of an English family with (extensive) landholdings in Ireland. But I didn’t know how rich he was, or about his life of celibacy, his relationship with the Royal Society, his extensive theological writings or his time spent in Oxford. Similarly I knew that Boyle stood at the crossroads where chemistry veered away from alchemy, but didn’t realize that (like Newton) his interest in alchemy was not an early concern to be discarded as he learned more, but rather something he got deeper into when his chemical ideas where already matured.
So, if you need to read up on Boyle, this is certainly a book worth consulting. But don’t expect either good writing on the science, or an enjoyable, readable text. Michael Hunter is a pure historian, not a historian of science, and an academic one at that. This isn’t a bad thing per se – but doesn’t make him the ideal choice if what you want is a popular scientific biography.
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

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 have seen a bit more of ‘the game of life’ and a bit less of ‘the life of games’ – there was too much concentration on games, which are fine to introduce probability, but it would have been good if we got more into practical applications as the book built.
What we end up with is a title that really is rather a good introductory probability book – I would recommend it, for instance, for science students – but is certainly not recommendable as popular science reading material.
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

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 practitioners of science in each major regime from 700AD to 1300AD. The story is long but compactly told. In the space of four chapters and seven centuries, Islamic science flowers in Damascus, Baghdad, and Egypt before being cut down by the Mongols and Tartars. Along the way Masood sketches some of the many colourful figures of the time, like the bird-man ibn-Firnas and the scientific advisor who is unable to build a dam on the Nile and feigns madness to avoid the wrath of his caliph.
Part 2 hones in on the science of this “staggering renaissance.” Masood covers medicine, astronomy, mathematics, chemistry, and engineering, in that order, with a post-script on evolution, optics, and Islamic universities. When describing the heroes of Islamic science and their remarkable work, Masood keeps one eye on their Greek heritage and another on their European successors. Comparisons are odious, but illuminating: Islamic scientists are all the more impressive when we learn that they questioned Galen on medicine, challenged Ptolemy on cosmology, and made direct contributions to the work of Copernicus, Kepler, Fermat, Newton, and the engineers of the industrial revolution.
Part 3 looks at Islamic science in the 19th and early 20th century, and draws some lessons for the future. This is not just an epilogue. It asks what the scientific revolutionaries of the 17th Century thought about Islamic science, whether the Ottomans were wise to borrow from Western science in the 19th Century, and whether imperialist science was a good thing for India. These are all delicate questions with ambiguous answers, and Masood gives a balanced survey. To end, he picks up a thread that runs right through the book, the violence of pro-science Islamic rulers. “If science is to return to the nations of Islam,” Masood concludes, “it must do so without interfering with people’s freedom to believe.”
This conclusion is wrong if taken too literally. Surely a belief in evolution (for example) will interfere with a person’s freedom to believe that the earth was created 6000 years ago – and rightly so. Still, Masood does well to remind us that dictatorial rule does not help the cause of science, even if the dictator is pro-science. This book also reminds us of another easy-to-forget truth: for most of its history, Islamic science flourished alongside the teachings of Muhammad, not in spite of them – and sometimes, as for medicine, it flourished because of those teachings.
Science and Islam has some gaps. Sometimes Masood left me hanging after skipping past what seemed to be key achievements in Islamic science. One is the passage quoted at the top of this review, which summarises not just evolution but also a mechanism for evolution that resembles evolution by inherited characteristics; another is the controlled clinical trial conducted by the medic al-Razi to test the theory of bloodletting. Clinical trials and evolution are such monuments of modern science that I expected Masood to say more about their role in Islamic science. Also, Islamic science from 1300 to 1800 gets little attention – which is fine for such a small book, but Masood does not explain the omission.
Topics that require equations or diagrams are not well-covered. When it comes to Islamic optics Masood gives 4 pages to theories of sight – which are easy to describe qualitatively – and only 2 paragraphs to refraction, reflection, and other theories of how light travels. The chapter on number gives a good survey of Islamic mathematicians but is light on algebra, perhaps their most important contribution in this field. A diagram or two in the chapter on astronomy may have clarified concepts such as the “Tusi couple”, a mathematical tool for simplifying Ptolemy’s model of the heavens. However, in place of technical detail the book has up-to-date scholarship, an asset for understanding the Islamic influence on Copernicus, the water clocks of al-Jazari, and numerous other topics.
Science and Islam faces the dual challenge of covering a technical subject (science) and a neglected period of history (the East during the Dark Ages). The book is aimed at a general audience, the majority of which will be unfamiliar with one or both of these topics. Masood answers both challenges well. His smooth prose and bite-sized format are easy on the novice palate (there is a new sub-chapter every 2 pages or so). All but the most learned readers will come away with their image of both science and Islam refreshed.
Review by Michael Bycroft

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

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 events in the intervening millennia have played havoc with the evidence. Turney does a great job of showing how scientific detective work can, against the odds, give a clear and convincing picture of some key events in the last 3/4 billion years of earth weather.
To give one example: how could we possibly know that the tropics were covered in ice between 580 and 710 million years ago? As Turney explains, certain kinds of rocks tell us that glaciers once appeared in, among other places, Namibia; and the magnetism of the rocks assures us that those glaciers did indeed form at tropical latitudes. You might object – as some scientists did – that the earth had a bigger tilt back then, so that Namibia once swung around the freezing poles. A study of ‘evaporites’ – salt deposits from drying lakes that only occur in hot dry areas – puts paid to that objection, as do ocean deposits of iridium. As this example hints, paleo-climatologists can get technical at times. But their work is as impressive as cosmologists probing into deep space or particle physics getting into the guts of an atom.
The instruments used to detect past climates have their own fascination. The ice cores of Greenland and Antarctica – pipes of ancient ice, kilometres in length, drawn from some of the world’s most inhospitable climates – make for a good story, and Turney tells it well. Because these ‘archives’ of past climate are so hard to read, paleo-climatology is also tale of wrong turns, misinterpretations and dead-ends. Where there is just not enough data for scientists to draw solid conclusions – about the effect of climate change on cyclones in the Western Atlantic, for example – Turney is not afraid to say so. Where multiple sets of data converge on the same conclusion, he drives the point home.
Turney’s chirpy prose is helped along by sketches of the charismatic pioneers and hard-bitten explorers in the science of weather. Extra spice comes from Turney’s taste for history, love of hands-on research, and nose for a big idea. The big ideas include some intriguing conjectures about the interaction of climate and early humans. For example, Turney argues that the concentration of diabetes in Nothern Europe could be explained as an evolutionary response to the Younger Dyas, a cold period in the North Atlantic that ended around 10,000 BC.
Turney is rock-solid on the science of past climates, but cracks start to appear when he draws conclusions about current climate change. The problem starts with the book’s structure. It is arranged as a chronology of past climate, not as an argument for the state of current climate. Turney tries to link past to present in a final conclusion, where he asks ‘What does this all mean for the future?’ But it’s all a bit vague and last-minute. He simply draws some general lessons from the preceding 192 pages of history: greenhouse gases can power massive changes in climate; feedback effects can amplify small changes; and human action can rearrange our land, sea and atmosphere on a large scale. Compared to the quantitative detail of the other chapters, this conclusion is just hand-waving.
There is no doubt that, in the past, human activity, high temperatures, and high levels of methane and carbon dioxide, all caused big – sometimes cataclysmic – changes to weather and geography. But is our current situation quantatively similar to those past changes? Turney does not give a clear case. When he asks the numbers question, his answer is a short account of the famous ‘hockey-stick’ study, a comparison of temperature changes in the last century with those over the previous millennium. One wonders what happened to the previous seven chapters and the previous 700 million years they cover. Do the most recent climates give the best lessons, after all?
A determined reader might dig through the chapters to see if Turney makes the link between past climate to present climate on the run. Such a reader will find a number of hearty calls to action, but little hard-and-fast argument. For example, Turney emphasises the role of CO2 in the warming that occurred during the Eemian period around 120,000 years ago. But he also emphasises that increases in carbon dioxide lagged behind the warming. And the evidence he cites for CO2-driven warming considers just one ice core and takes up one paragraph. On some topics – such as the dynamics of melting ice – Turney makes a stronger case, but only with the help of models and evidence drawn from studies of present-day climate.
Ice, mud and Blood could have been more streamlined and persuasive. As a call to action on climate change, it is a missed opportunity. But as a story of scientific ingenuity and the wonders of nature, it takes every chance – and succeeds.
Review by Michael Bycroft

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

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 Shapes and Flow). Ball often ‘reminds’ the reader of what they ‘learned’ in Book I or Book II. And the conclusion of Branches looks like it has been lifted straight from the 1999 volume, since it describes many ideas that do not appear in Branches. The promotional material on the back cover is also confused about the book’s identity. According to the blurb, Branches depicts nature as an ‘ever-changing, kaleidoscopic array of forms'; on the other hand, it is about the ‘deep elegance, simplicity, and unity of nature.’
So what is it, kaleidoscopic or simple and unified? The point is that it (nature) is both. And so is this book. On the one hand it deals with an impressive range of phenomena, from the natural (leaves, rocks, lightening) to the human (social networks, urban development); from the wondrous (snowflakes, lightening) to the mundane (opening an envelope, rain on a window, cracks on a mug); from the big (cities and rivers) to the small (bacteria and electric charges) and many things in between (trees, lungs, minerals in rocks). It does not deal with the very big (galaxies, black holes) or the very small (quarks, curled-up dimensions), but this is part of its charm: it finds pattern and excitement where we would not expect it, in the everyday world of middle-sized objects.
On the other hand Branches shows that each of these phenomena have something in common. As the book’s many illustrations tell us, they all look a bit like the branches of a tree, with a medium splitting repeatedly into two. And they also show (in Ball’s words) ‘a delicate balance of chance and determinism': rain falling randomly on a randomly rough surface gives rise to patterned river networks; weaknesses spread randomly through a piece of glass give rise to a predictable crack pattern. Many of them are also examples of fractals: each branch splits into two branches, which split again, and so on down the magnitudes. The shapes of many of the phenomena in the book can also be explained by a ‘minimization principle': a branching river network minimises the rate at which the water loses energy; the branch network on a tree minimises (according to some scientists) the length of each branch.
But these general ideas can only go so far. Ball is wary of becoming a fractal bore, someone who goes round collecting examples of fractals and putting them on display. The interesting phenomena are those that share a particular degree or kind of fractalling, and the remarkable thing is that the same degree or kind appears in completely different contexts: two different cities that show a different ‘fractal dimension’ are less alike than a city and a bacterial colony that have the same fractal dimension. As with fractals, so with the other general ideas in the book. The maximisation principle in animal veinous systems is different from that in the branches of a tree; chance and determinism have different roles in the formation of a glass fracture than in the formation of the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland. Branches is kaleidoscopic not just in its variety but also its intricate patterning.
Another unstated theme of the book is models. The main technical problem for the scientists in Branches is not detection and measurement but abstraction and simulation. A tree or crack scientist, unlike a quark or star scientist, does not have much problem getting in touch with their phenomena: trees and cracks are right here, and easily observed. The problem is that trees and cracks are devilishly complicated and disorderly phenomena, and the scientist wants to find two or three basic principles that explain how all the different kinds of trees and cracks form. Ball describes how scientists look for these principles using concrete models that slow down or scale down phenomena, like an artificial snow-flake that crystallises on a thread of rabbit hair, miniature mountains formed in the lab, and slow-motion cracks made by gradually lowering a plate of hot glass into hot water. But most of the models exist on computer programs or in equations, and these models are the real heroes of the book.
By giving us the essence of each model without writing down any programs or equations, Ball shows his own talent for abstraction. At one point (to take an example at random) he describes how models borrowed from physics can mimic the growth of cities. First he describes the model input, the basic picture a team of modellers used for a growing city: new developments appearing around a central hub, favouring areas have empty space nearby. Ball then gives the model outputs – pictures of cities generated by the model – and compares these outputs to present-day Cardiff. He describes how a new modelling team adds complexity to the model inputs, to account for the fact that new developments feed off existing, successful developments. The new model generates new outputs, which Ball again compares to a real-life example, Berlin this time. In this way Ball describes how a particular model works, and how model-based science works, without describing a single program or equation.
Ball’s prose is lively but sober, constrained by the gritty details of the science he writes about. But the phenomena are often vivid, and Ball has a sense of their poetry. Here he is describing how a sawtooth-shaped tear develops in a soft material like paper when a hard object is run through it:
‘So each crest of the cycloid, where the rip changes direction, corresponds to the switch from bending to stretching the strip. The crack swings constantly from side to side, at the same time surging ahead and then slowing down like the juddering stick-and-slip of a heavy object being pushed across a floor.’
Branches is at the serious end of popular science writing. You don’t need a physics degree to enjoy it, but you do need concentration. Ball (a physics PhD) has a practitioner’s interest in the details of science, and each chapter introduces a new crowd of scientists, models, and physical phenomena. Readers may find themselves flipping back to earlier chapters to understand ideas in the current chapter. They also may find themselves reading some chapters twice to retrace Ball’s zigzagging exploration of an idea, and the lack of clearly stated themes (or a working introduction or conclusion) makes it easy to get lost in the details. But if you are interested in science, nature, and how the former can explain the latter, this book is a superb study.
Review by Michael Bycroft

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

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 them more readable. And the book is rather light on the central topic. After all, the title suggests we are going to be reading about Neanderthals – and though one chapter is mostly on them, and they crop up repeatedly through the rest of the text, there was a real feeling of waiting for the Neanderthal bit to come, and never quite reaching it. The subtitle is more illuminating – ‘Why Neanderthals died out and we survived’ – with emphasis on ‘why we survived.’
It’s a real shame about those boring bits, because Finlayson can be very engaging, particularly when he relates a personal incident. However, it is worth ploughing through them for the good parts. Some of these are the bits where we do find out more about Neanderthals – now thought to be more like the picture on the cover than the shambling, heavy-browed monkey men we were brought up on. The other particularly powerful message is that Homo sapiens didn’t take over the world by pushing Neanderthals out through superior brain power. Instead it was more a case of the race whose way of life was more capable of fitting with the dominant climate, and able to be more flexible as climate changed, that survived. Finlayson emphasizes how much chance entered into this.
The result is a very different picture of the way modern human beings emerged from our ancestors to the one that has been the norm until recently, one that makes a lot of sense, emphasising how much this is a good popular science book of the second kind. And there are even lessons for the present, when climate change may again threaten the future of a particular human species. Our own.
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 12 October 2009

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 just what it says on the packet: a stimulating way into new subjects. But somehow I expected more from Nothing.
What is in the book for those who have already trotted through the basics with other science writers? Some old friends reappear – the falling muon to illustrate special relativity, the pencil-on-its-point to describe symmetry breaking. But Close also takes some new angles on the old topics. In general relativity, objects tend to take the shortest route between two points. Close compares this to the tradition of “shortest path” thinking in other fields, like optics. He notes how Einstein’s equations for special relativity are the same, mathematically, as those in Lorentz’s theory of the ether. And he has a good eye for historical details. It’s one thing to say how one might lay out a theory of special relativity. But how did Einstein himself do it, using what he knew at the time? Close has the question – if not the answer – at his fingertips.
But Close’s angles are sometimes too oblique. In explaining special relativity he starts out with the common-sense notion of simultaneity, and explains how it is defeated if we assume light is constant. He then jumps to the conclusion that objects must get longer, and clocks run slower, for observers of a moving object. It’s not clear how he made the jump. We see that Lorentz’s equations are the same as Einstein’s, but it’s not clear why they are the same. His chapter on the quantum vacuum is interesting, with some striking examples of experiments that cast light on the “infinite sea” of the vacuum. But the chapter has about three different arguments for different kinds of “infinite sea”, and it is not obvious how they link up.
Perhaps it was the small font or pocket-sized format, but I found it hard to get a proper grip on this book. It is a compact brainstorm. Close asks lots of questions, but it’s not clear when each one is answered. His no-fuss prose fits a lot in, but sometimes it’s too compressed. He throws out ideas – the anthropic principle, “emergence”, multiple worlds – that look promising but fall out of sight of the reader. By turns stimulating and frustrating, Nothing leaves you wanting to find out more about Basic Ideas in Modern Physics. Which is, after all, better than finding out about nothing.
Review by Michael Bycroft

Thursday, 8 October 2009

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, which uses the vehicle of working out the number of grains of sand it would take to fill the universe to show how the limited Greek number system can be expanded to handle vast numbers. There’s then a massive chunk – half the whole book – telling the story of the Archimedes palimpsest, where a number of Archimedes’ books, in Greek, some parts previous lost, were discovered under the pages of a prayer book.
This is a great detective story, but I think it’s better told in the book dedicated to it, The Archimedes Codex. Hirshfeld’s approach, as is much of the book, is a bit too breezy in tone and summary in feel.
If you want an overview of the significance of Archimedes’ work, and the context in which it was derived, this isn’t a bad book. And I have to emphasize again just how difficult it is to write biographically about a person that history has only left us legends about. Yet I was still disappointed.
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

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 more than just glorified sugar pills?
Some of the tough questions turn out to have simple answers. The reason everyone was duped by the chemical-imbalance theory of depression, says Kirsch, is that the theory itself was based mainly on the (supposed) effectiveness of chemicals in treating depression. Some answers rely on clever reasoning. Clinical trials show that antidepressants are actually more effective, by a small but significant amount, than placebos. Kirsch explains this deftly as an “enhanced placebo effect”: patients who detect the side-effects of antidepressants know that they are on active drugs, raising their expectations about the treatment and enhancing the placebo effect.
What all Kirsch’s answers have in common is thorough attention to the relevant data (published and unpublished) and a keen nose for interpretation. Kirsch marshals an impressive range of evidence to back his case: the bibliography runs to 25 pages and consists mainly in articles from top medical and psychology journals. If he does not have a study or meta-analysis to back up a claim, he says so. And he knows that a striking anecdote is just a striking anecdote, even if it punches for his own team.
The book a good first course in scientific method, and a key lesson in the Kirsch curriculum is that data alone does not put a hypothesis to the test. Data, plus a dose of careful interpretation, is the only real medicine in science. Drug companies did not falsify the reports of individual patients or doctors. Nor did they (usually) fudge individual studies. The devil was not in the details but in the grand design, the way they selected out negative studies and re-hashed positive ones. In lifting the lid on the cover-up, Kirsch gives a running response to those say that meta-analysis, as a scientific technique, is indefensible; nay, says Kirsch, it is indispensible.
The question every reader will have is partly an ethical question: given that antidepressants would no longer be effective if everyone knew they were only placebos, should the “dirty little secret” be made public? Kirsch, true to form, answers this question with a patient summary of studies and meta-studies. In doing this, he does not ignore the ethical core of the question. The aim is to cut through the empirical flesh to make the core issue as clear as possible. Kirsch shows that if you cut deftly enough, the core issue might not be ethical at all. This book asks: if we can show that psychotherapy is cheaper, safer, and more effective in the long run than anti-depressants, what ethical argument could possibly warrant the continued prescription of anti-depressants? Good question.
When it comes to writing clear prose, it is not always advantageous to be a scientist. But for Kirsch, it is so. He is no wordsmith (or doesn’t want to be), and if you are looking for blazing rhetoric then this not the book for you. But if you want to understand what a balanced-placebo test is and why it works, how neurotransmitters are meant to explain depression, and the difference between “response-rate” and “average improvement” in clinical trials, Kirsch is a lucid guide. His prose might read dryly for some. But the result is that if you can understand a bar graph, you can understand this book.
What Kirsch lacks in verbal charisma, he makes up for in arresting content. His chapters on the placebo effect make for fascinating reading. My favourite is the man who swallowed all his pills and collapsed in a heap on his GP’s floor – only to find, when he came round, that he had overdosed on fake pills. Equally striking are the basketball-players whose knee problems were fixed using placebo surgery, and the angina, dermatitis, and electro-shock victims who were all cured or assuaged by the power of belief. Kirsch describes lots of experiments designed to tease out the details of the placebo effect. The methods are clever, and the results run a skewer through our intuitions about physiological cause and effect. The results seem like voodoo, but the methods do not. As this book reminds us, implicitly but forcefully, it is the methods that matter.
Kirsch is sometimes not as methodical as he might be. One defence of anti-depressants is that they have both a placebo effect and a real chemical effect, but that these two effects are not additive. Kirsch describes how this hypothesis might be tested, but admits that no such tests have been done. He tells us that drug companies, who would otherwise sponsor such tests, are running scared. Fair enough; but the fact remains that the tests have not been done. Also, a bullet-point summary would be useful to tie up the threads of evidence against anti-depressants; sometimes the same thread turns up in widely separated chapters, making it hard to keep track.
Kirsch could do better to explain the weirdness of the placebo effect. How can the mind restore the cartilage in a bad knee just by expecting the knee to be cured? Kirsch suggests that this is easily explained as a purely physical causation, the brain acting on the knee. But it seems just as weird for the brain to cure cartilage as for the mind to do it. It also seems weird to say that the brain “expects” something. Lastly, it seems weird for positive expectations to have a positive effect. Why don’t positive expectations just make the brain more complacent, and therefore idle? Kirsch seems complacent about explaining the placebo effect, even if (or because) the evidence for its existence is overwhelming.
These quibbles do not threaten Kirsch’s argument. In the epilogue Kirsch says he enjoys “rocking the boat.” And the evidence suggests he has knocked antidepressants into the water. He reports a recent survey of UK clinicians showing that almost half will (or have) changed their practices because of Kirsch’s work. He has also made waves in the murky waters of drug regulation, helping to bring about proper tracking of drug trials. But he is a placid revolutionary, and his easy prose and wide knowledge make for a smooth ride – and a persuasive one.
Review by Michael Bycroft