Skip to main content

Posts

Showing posts from June, 2009

Wegener’s Jigsaw – Clare Dudman ****

Recently we’ve had something of a spate of books that present science or history of science through fiction, what with Arturo Sangalli’s Pythagoras’ Revenge and Douglas Richards’ The Prometheus Project. Clare Dudman sets out to provide a scientific biography of the man who devised the concept of continental drift, Alfred Wegener, but in fictional form. There are pros and cons to using ‘informative fiction’ this way. The good side is there is a natural narrative flow. There is no sense of a story being imposed on the information and not fitting well with it as can happen when a purely fictional story is melded with scientific fact. The downside is that the strongest parts of the story may well not be the ones that are about the individual’s life. (I had a similar problem with moving picture pioneer Eadweard Muybridge in my biography of him (admittedly non-fiction, but still strong on narrative). The most dramatic aspect of Muybridge’s life, the murder of his wife’s lover, occurs before…

Thank God for Evolution – Michael Dowd ***

This book is hard to review, because it’s the wrong book on the right subject. The thesis of the book is excellent, but unfortunately the way it’s written won’t easily get that thesis across – at least, not to the science book reading community. Michael Dowd achieves the remarkable feat of being able to quote Richard Dawkins in support of his religious idea. Dowd proposes an approach to religion that absolutely accepts evolution. More than that – he proposes that our starting point of religious revelation should be scientific data, rather than the sort of personal revelation that has shaped religions to date. Yet this is no ‘God of the gaps’ he proposes, dealing with the bits that scientific theory hasn’t rendered unnecessary. Instead, Dowd suggests that we should draw a parallel with the way complex and intelligent systems – like an ant colony or a human being – are built from small, simple structures which of themselves have no intelligence. God, he suggests, is the synergetic sum o…

Deciphering the Cosmic Number – Arthur I. Miller ***

Finding a new subject is increasingly difficult when looking at biographies of 20th century scientists. Arthur I. Miller has adopted the cunning approach of combining the life and work of physicist Wolfgang Pauli and psychotherapist Carl Jung, an apparently unlikely combination, but Pauli was analyzed by Jung and corresponded with him for many years, sharing an interest in mystical concepts and alchemy. I started off very enthusiastic about this book as Pauli is probably the famous physicist I know least about. (I say famous – it’s telling that Miller comments later on that in 2000, Physics World had a poll for the 10 most famous physicists of the 20th century, and Pauli didn’t get a single vote. He did make some very significant contributions, including the exclusion principle and predicting the existence of the neutrino, but he’s not exactly in Einstein or Feynman’s league.) I was also interested in Jung because I’d made use of the Myers Briggs Type Profile when working at British A…

The Prism and the Pendulum – Robert P. Crease ****

This book gives a vivid account of what the author considers to be the ten most beautiful experiments in science. Robert P. Crease is a philosopher and historian of science, and argues that science is, indeed, beautiful. Each chapter describes a specific experiment and is followed by an interlude where the author discusses different aspects of its beauty. Parts of this philosophical discussion may seem a bit detached from the subject—at least for a reader already convinced of the beauty of science—and I am left with the impression that the intended readership is found in what Richard Feynman called “the other culture”, the arts and humanities. The question is if it is possible to convey this message by logical arguments, but at least Crease makes a welcome attempt to do so. The contents cover a wide time span, from Eratosthenes’ measurement of the earth’s circumference in the third century BC to relatively recent discoveries of the inner workings of atoms. We see how the questions of …

Arturo Sangalli – Four Way Interview

Arturo Sangalli has a PhD in mathematics and is the author of The Importance of Being Fuzzy and Pythagoras’ Revenge. A freelance science journalist and writer, he has contributed many pieces to New Scientist. Why Maths? I’m a mathematician, so I’m familiar with the subject. Besides, I had written a number of pop maths (and related fields, such as computing) articles and a book. Why this book? My first book, The Importance of Being Fuzzy, was rather specialized (fuzzy logic, neural networks, and genetic algorithms). I wanted to reach a larger audience, so a fictional story with maths and some philosophy weaved into it seemed the way to go. The fact that I had no previous experience in fiction writing was an additional challenge, which I welcomed. What’s next? Another fictional story, with mathematics and statistics in it, this time applied to one of the social sciences. I don’t want to reveal too much. Ok, perhaps the tentative title: The Chronology Conspiracy. What’s exciting you at the m…

Buyology – Martin Lindstrom ****

Although there are some concerns about how this book is written – and worries too about the way the conclusions are drawn from the science – this is an engaging study of how modern imaging techniques can be used to start to answer that age-old worry about advertising and branding – we think it works, but we don’t know why, when or even if it really does. Brand guru Martin Lindstrom sets off on a voyage of discovery using an fMRI scanner and an SST (brainwaves) monitor to see how individuals react to advertising and branding in a systematic fashion that has never before been tried. Advertising has to be one of the most unscientific ventures that billions of dollars gets spent on. Everyone thinks it influences buyers – but no one is sure how much, or exactly what a particular advert will achieve. Much of it is probably a waste of time and money. The idea of neuromarketing is to more scientifically target advertising and promotion to achieve effects. Stated like that it sounds scary, lik…

The Earth Moves – Dan Hofstadter ***

There’s a question that has to be asked early on in a book on Galileo – and it’s a question that’s so obvious that the author explicitly asks it himself. ‘There are many books about Galileo,’ says Dan Hofstadter, ‘so the reader is entitled to ask how this one differs from any others that he or she might come across.’ It’s so true. Galileo is a well-ploughed furrow. There are two aspects that Hofstadter picks out in particular – the way Galileo improved on the telescope, making it significantly better than the devices already around when he made his first – and on some of the detail of his trial for upholding the Copernican ideas, detail that is rarely produced in most popular accounts of Galileo’s life. On the whole, Hofstadter does what he sets out to do. His observations on Galileo’s, erm, observations make it clear why what Galileo did was different to the work of his immediate predecessors and contemporaries. And there is much fascinating detail in the section on the trial. I hadn…

Pythagoras’ Revenge – Arturo Sangalli ***(*)

It’s unusual for us to feature a fiction book in our main reviews section. Pythagoras’ Revenge is a novel that is designed to get across mathematical ideas in a more approachable way. It scores the rather unusual 3.5 stars – because this is a book that is 2/3 good and 1/3 bad. Let’s start with the good. The concept really works. I read a lot of popular science books and have to read a fiction book about one every third title just to keep my enthusiasm up. Fiction usually grabs the attention better than an popular science book, however well written, and I found that I shot through Arturo Sangalli’s book significantly faster than I would a normal popular science title, because I wanted to read on. What’s more, the maths is fine – it’s pitched at the right sort of level to interest the general reader without being too painful. For those with a more heavy duty interest, there are one or two proofs in appendices. A lot of the maths is from ancient Greece, and as befits what can, with one h…

Beware Invisible Cows – Andy Martin ***

This is a remarkable book, taking a very original approach to popular science that has the potential to be great – and an equal potential to be dire. It’s what I’d define as the first Impressionist popular science book (with the possible exception of the disastrous Everything and More by David Foster Wallace). Just as the Impressionists in the art world moved away from a literal and accurate reflection of what was seen, instead trying to portray the impact of the visual on the senses, Andy Martin’s meandering book is much more about how the science he discovers along the way in his attempt to search for ‘the source of the universe’ impacts him, than about the science itself. The result has mixed value. Martin visits locations like the Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea in Hawaii and the LIGO gravitational wave observatory in Washington state – and there gives us a sub-Bill Bryson guided tour and interaction with some of the scientists he meets, and this can be quite interesting. It just ha…

Complexity: a guided tour – Melanie Mitchell ****

This book made me want to cheer, because with this title OUP has got it right. I dearly love Oxford University Press, and time after time they come up with popular science books that sound really interesting. Only, when you read them they can be dull and not very well written, often, I’m afraid, because the author is an academic. But this time, in this fascinating guide to complexity, emergent systems, networks and more, they’ve found an author with just the right tone who has the ability to make the subject interesting while still conveying her own interest and involvement in the field. You may have come across complexity as an adjunct to chaos theory – and chaos is covered in here, but there are so many other things too. In looking at the background, Melanie Mitchell includes the theory of information and computation, plus tying this theory into evolution. She introduces us to genetic algorithms and other computer-based mechanisms for systems to evolve, including the potential for u…

The Essential Einstein – Albert Einstein ****

His Greatest Works is a collection of Einstein’s writings spanning approximately 50 years, which Stephen Hawking edited and provided with commentary. What makes this collection so valuable is that it brings together short and long pieces by Einstein that focuses mainly on relativity. Hawking kicks off with a paper from 1905. One which revolutionized our understanding of space and time. The Second paper, only just three pages long, proposing the equivalence of mass and energy: E=mc2. For me this was the first time I really understand how this theory was developed and that it didn’t just fall out of the sky. I think this book is an excellent collection of important papers that certainly lives up to the title. However it is a very hard read and you would need a higher level of mathematics. Paperback:  Review by Berry den Hartog (Community review)