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Showing posts from 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 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…