Thursday, 26 February 2009

The Father of Forensics – Colin Evans ***

I have to state right away that this book was a cracking read – I really enjoyed it, even if the pleasure was something of a guilty one. The only reason it hasn’t got more stars is that, as we’ll see, there’s little science in it, and some really opportunities missed for that.
It’s the story of Sir Bernard Spilsbury, once Britain’s foremost forensic pathologist. As the subtitle says, it’s ‘how Sir Bernard Spilsbury invented modern CSI.’ In truth (and this is why the pleasure was a touch guilty) it’s mostly a true crime book, describing the key cases Spilsbury was involved in. Yes, we are told what Spilsbury did – but the real meat of each story is the lurid crime itself, starting with the one that launched Spilsbury as a superb expert witness, Crippen. I don’t know why, but there are some historical murder cases that stick in the collective consciousness, and Crippen’s crime in 1910 (followed by his capture after fleeing across the Atlantic) has stood the test of time.
So, plenty of great cases, and clever work from Sir Bernard. But hardly anything about the science of crime scene investigation and forensic work, which in the end is what I’d expect from a book being marketed as popular science. A couple of times we hear that Spilsbury really changed the scientific armoury of his profession – but there is hardly any detail about what was involved.
When it comes down to it, if I were a bookseller, and choosing where to put this book, it would go in true crime. not popular science. However, it doesn’t stop it being a compelling piece of writing. Evans dramatizes events with just enough details to carry the reader along. It’s factual, but has all the enticement of a crime novel.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 23 February 2009

The Telephone Gambit – Seth Shulman ****

If there’s one thing that common knowledge is particularly poor on, it’s who invented what. Edison, for instance, only shared joint honours on the light bulb, and didn’t invent the gramophone (yes, he did invent the phonograph, using a cylinder, but not the gramophone). But we all know Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone… didn’t he?
Seth Shulman’s book sets out to explore who really did invent it, and why after all these years, Bell still has the laurels. While Bell did win the patent battles (unlike Edison over the light bulb), there was already plenty of evidence back in the nineteenth century that Bell wasn’t the first to the telephone, and wasn’t even the first to submit his patent – but skulduggery and commercial manipulation seems to have triumphed.
It’s a good story, and well told here. It’s something of a meta history – rather than plunge us into Bell’s time, Shulman tells us the story of his own discovery of a key similarity between the diagram in Bell’s notebook and the (at the time supposedly secret) drawings of his competitor, already lodged with the patent office. It’s very much a story of detection and unweaving the tangled record, rather than straight history. I found this very interesting, though there is a slight danger of giving us too much archival content and not enough well-crafted narrative.
If you thought you knew the story of the telephone, think again. Seth Shulman will change you view (reluctantly, I suspect – Bell is something of a hero figure) on what really happened back in the 1870s.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

13 Things that Don’t Make Sense – Michael Brooks *****

There are two ways to cope with things science can’t get a handle on. One is Shakespeare’s. (There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.) The slightly snide dig at science. The other is to accept this is what makes science interesting, and to come at these anomalies (as Michael Brooks refers to them) with a scientific mind. Thankfully, this excellent book, subtitled The Most Intriguing Scientific Mysteries of our Time, takes the second approach.
Brooks is breezy and fun – always readable and never dull. In thirteen chapters we discover some remarkable oddities of science. Some are reasonably well-known like dark matter and dark energy. Others less so (at least to me), like the Pioneer anomaly, where the two old Pioneer spacecraft are taking a course out of the solar system that isn’t properly explained by our current understanding of gravity – and particularly in the case of the Mimivirus, a giant virus that has many of the mechanisms of a living organism, and which Brooks uses beautifully to uncover the relatively unknown area of the remarkable nature of viruses. We also get life, death, sex, extraterrestrials and cold fusion – all explored in ways that might surprise.
In the case of cold fusion, for example, Brooks usefully shows how the science community’s concern not to appear flaky has resulted in some positive results being suppressed. This is no conspiracy, just the science herd instinct coming to the fore. He makes it clear that there are significant doubts about the original results – but equally there is evidence that there is something happening in some of the cold fusion experiments.
An obvious comparison is Michael Hanlon’s earlier 10 Questions Science Can’t Answer(you don’t have to be called Michael to write these books, but it helps). Although there is a small overlap on dark matter/energy they take quite a different approach and would be better seen as companions than rivals.
If I have any problems with the book, the tone can be just a bit too breezy sometimes, and he seems slightly less effective on medical topics. On the placebo effect Brooks seems a little confused over whether it works or not – and with his chapter on homeopathy seems a little out of date after Singh and Ernst’s Trick or Treatment. In fact, it was a shame he ended with the homeopathy chapter, as it’s the weakest. It was fine, for instance to point out structures in water – but there was nothing about how long these last (or how well they stand up to percussion). There was also a spot of skimpy fact checking. We’re told astronomer Edwin Hubble was English. (Anglophile, yes, English? No, no, no.) And that water is the only liquid that expands on freezing. Sorry, silicon and acetic acid do, and I suspect there are others.
These are small problems, though. Apart from the last one, each chapter is a little vessel of delights. I can see the appeal of the ‘how to carbonize your ferret’ style of little factoid books, but one like this that can develop each topic is so much better. Deserves to be up there as one of the best popular science books of 2008/9. Recommended.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 15 February 2009

The Strangest Man – Graham Farmelo ****

Paul Dirac was arguably the greatest British physicist since Newton. Holder of the same chair as Newton (and Stephen Hawking) at Cambridge, he took an unwaveringly mathematical approach to physics despite his engineering background, always stressing the beauty of the equations as paramount. He tends to be remembered for having predicted anti-matter and specifically the positron, but his role in the development of quantum mechanics was much more significant than this alone.
That Dirac is almost unheard of (and seemingly hardly remembered in his home city of Bristol) is very sad – yet in some ways not surprising, given the unremitting lack of communication that seemed to typify his existence. Graham Farmelo’s book is full of examples of Dirac failing to communicate, whether with the general public or with other scientists – even those as great as Richard Feynman – though he does seem to have delivered some effective public lectures.
This is a big, beefy biography, running to 438 pages before you reach the extensive notes. There is plenty of opportunity to get immersed in the Dirac home life in what seems to have been a highly dysfunctional family. Despite his many years of marriage, Dirac never seems to have come to terms with the realities of family life. But family and friends inevitably come second to the man’s science – and Graham Farmelo manages well the difficult task of leading us through the mental minefields of the development of quantum theory, his excursions into relativity and cosmology, and his unremitting distaste for the the need to dispose of infinities in Quantum Electrodynamics, a field where theory managed irritatingly to predict reality more accurately than any other. If anything real opens a view on Dirac, it was his insistence that this match to reality was less important than the ugliness of the approach.
I do have two minor concerns about this book. One is the sheer length. It is too long. I’ve been taken to task before for complaining about fat books, but popular science should not require such sticking power to get the results. The reason for the length seems to be a case of I’ve-got-access-to-the-archives-itis. I know what this feels like. You get fascinated by all the little details in the primary material – and the result is putting much too much detail into the finished book. At least a third of the content could have been cut out with no loss of understanding.
The other slightly unnerving aspect is the way that Farmelo holds off until chapter 30 of 31 before speculating that Dirac could well have been on the autistic spectrum. This is such an obvious deduction that the reader is from early on wondering why it’s not mentioned. Of course we can never be 100 per cent certain looking back at a historical character, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen better indications, and it’s something that should have been more woven into the main text.
These remain small issues, though. This book should be cherished as one of the better scientific biographies -certainly the best of 2009 so far – and gives us an insight into what was the most secretive scientific life of the twentieth century.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist – Adrian Desmond & James Moore ****

“The full enigma of Darwin’s life has never been grasped.” In their biography of Darwin, this observation leads Desmond and Moore in two directions. One is to show that Darwin’s life really was enigmatic, that is was filled with confusion, conflict, and inconsistencies. The other is to make those enigmas less mysterious by relating them to his social and political environment. Their method fits their goal: they want to open up Darwin’s inner life by sorting through his voluminous personal writings, making use of recent volumes of his letters, manuscripts, commentaries, and memoranda. On the whole the book is a marvellous success, though its richness causes it to raise new enigmas as well as settling old ones.
What is the main enigma? It is Darwin’s ambiguous attitude towards evolution, especially his long delay in publicizing his ideas on the topic. And what is the main explanation, offered by this book? Darwin’s science drove him towards a radical and godless doctrine; but his upbringing, his wife’s faith, his Cambridge connections, and many of his scientific acquaintances, coupled with his “instinctive reverence for rank”, all forced him into secrecy.
The book uses Darwin’s “social context” as a framing device rather than a set of theories about Darwin’s life and work. It contains remarkably little analysis of its subject matter. Except for the introduction, authorial comments are thin on the ground, either in the form of moral or intellectual judgments, generalizations, or scrutiny of secondary sources. Insofar as the authors draw parallels between Darwin’s thought and political events (French uprisings, the Reform Bill, Chartism, the Vivisection Bill, the Crimean War…) they do so implicitly, by showing not by telling. Sometimes this lack of analysis is the opposite of enlightening. For example, we never get a clear explanation of why Darwin, the gentle white-supremist, could upbraid his own son about the evils of slavery. And we do not find out whether Darwin’s ill-health was primarily physical or psychological in origin.
The upside of the book’s narrative form is that it licenses the authors to explore every aspect of Darwin’s life in great detail, and to recall them in a fresh and vivid way. In this sense the book resembles Darwin himself, that “billionaire of bizarre facts.” We already know that Darwin dropped out of medical school: what this book tells us is what Darwin and his brother ate when they arrived in Edinburgh, and the stench and horror of Darwin’s first dissection. We know that Darwin disagreed with Owen: in this book we see Owen drilling with the Honourable Artillery Company, and Darwin, the closet transmutationist, breakfasting with the Owens in London. The writing helps a lot here. In this story, events move swiftly on the back of snappy prose.
Desmond and Moore reveal Darwin’s inner life indirectly, through his responses to outside events, so it is no surprise that the authors offer no summary assessment of Darwin’s character. Instead of a portrait we get a gallery of sketches: Darwin the heartbroken father, the calculating suitor; the grumpy recluse, the jolly companion; the impressionable youth, the grand old genius; the hater of Owen, the magnanimous rival of Wallace; the brave man of science, going forward alone; the timid Darwin, hanging on the approval of friends. Here are more enigmas. Desmond and Moore let them hang.
What of Darwin’s science? It is true that Desmond and Moore show (for example) Darwin developing the principle of “division of labour” by analogy with industrial workshops, and the bloody Crimean war informing his chapter on the Struggle for Existence. But the “enigma” that this book helps us to grasp is emotional and social, not intellectual. What “tortured” Darwin were not the implications of believing his theory of evolution (Lyell suffered the most from this kind of torture), but the implications of publicizing it. If this is what the authors want us to grasp then the book is an outstanding success, even if it leaves some of the interpretative work in the hands of the reader.
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Review by Michael Bycroft

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Cosmos – Carl Sagan *****

Carl Sagan’s Cosmos is one of the best popular scientific books that I have read. It was written in parallel with developing a TV series with the same name, first broadcast in 1980. Although both astronomy and the world in general have developed since then, the book is still a fascinating journey through the universe and our place in it. Cosmos has a wider span than most popular scientific books and gives a vivid introduction to astronomy as well as to evolutionary biology, geology, and the history of science.
The book starts, as did all of the episodes of the TV series, with a journey through the universe. Beginning on the grand scale of the universe as a whole, the journey converges towards its final destination – our Earth. Putting our small planet, and our existence on it, into this stupefying perspective, Sagan continues to ask if ours is the only world in the universe that has life on it. To be able to at least speculate about life elsewhere he explains the prerequisites for life on Earth and how it evolved. He also describes the geological development of our sister planets in the solar system, explaining why they do not have life. The chemistry of life is described, and how life’s building blocks are known to spontaneously form in different parts of the universe.
The question about life on other worlds remains unanswered, but exploring the problem is a fascinating journey in itself. Throughout the book are scattered pieces of science history, relating how we came to know the world around us and how we expanded our horizon further and further into the cosmos. The book is an inspiring mix of objective accounts of science and personal speculations. It is filled with beautiful artwork from observatories and museums, as well as of imaginary distant worlds. Sagan concludes the book with his personal view: We are a part of the development of the universe and, intriguingly, a way for the universe to know itself. We have, he says, a moral responsibility to continue our exploration of the grand world we live in so long as we can. This book is pure inspiration for anyone who wonders about the universe and our place in it.
The original TV series is also available as a DVD boxed set. I bought it out of nostalgia and found that, although video technology has moved forward during the last decades, the inspiration is still very much there. After each episode there are updates explaining how science has developed since the production of the series. Still, in most places, it is surprisingly up to date. For example, when Sagan explains how Venus is a dead world because its atmosphere makes it too hot to sustain life, he continues to explain the threat that our emissions of carbon dioxide is to our planet. It is difficult to imagine that this was produced in the late 1970’s! I have read the book at least three times in my life, beginning in my early teens, and it has had something new to offer every time I have read it. I will certainly share both the book and the DVD-box with my son when he is old enough read or to understand English. If I am to choose one episode to represent the spirit of this production it would be “the backbone of night” that explores the dawn of scientific thought in ancient Greece. I have used it as discussion material with my Ph.D. students and it still raises relevant questions, not only about what scientific thinking is, but also about the fragility of the fruits of rational thought.
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Review by Oivind Andersson

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Ecologic – Brian Clegg *****

We’ve thought long and hard in the past about how to review books written by our editor, Brian Clegg. There’s always the danger of seeming biased. So for this book we’ve instead gone for a summary of what it’s about and a few quotes from an independent review in BBC Focus Magazine.
This is the thesis of the book:
We aren’t well equipped to deal with green issues. Our natural tendency with such an emotive issue is to be swayed by feelings, rather than logic. And that’s fine to get us all excited – but it doesn’t make for good solutions to green problems. Ecologic uncovers the reality behind the greenwash and the eco-bogeymen.
Here’s part of the review:
This book crackles. Every paragraph pits your heart against your head. Those with green sensibilities and a nervous disposition may have a cardiac arrest. But the rest of us will have our synapses set alight…
He rails at ‘MMR madness’ and has the notorious Channel 4 programme The Great Global Warming Swindle bang to rights as an intellectual swindle itself. He is intelligent on fair trade and the “muck and mysticism” of organic farming and understanding about our unfortunate confusion over biodegradables…
A cracking read for anyone who cares about both their environmental footprint and their sanity in a world being flooded with greenwash and gobbledegook. (5 stars out of 5)

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Review by Fred Pearce
It was an admirable task for Brian to set about analysing the true “green-ness” of those claiming to be green on several broad spectrum environmental issues. However, I found the book more debilitating and exhilarating when it came to changing my own behaviour to be green. The approach was methodical indeed, the arguments well founded and certainly I learnt more in depth about several issues including a real look at the “organic” movement. And yet, while the author’s best intentions are to reveal why and how we should be green, and properly green at that, there is little hint of this motivation apart from in the dedications and on the final pages of the book. Taking a scalpel to the “irrational” side of science is fine and yet it somehow cut out my raison d’etre of reading the book. By the end the book I was still wondering if cutting my carbon emissions would make the blindest bit of difference to anyone if nitrous oxide is the true bogeyman we should be focusing on, as Brian had factually pointed out.
On the positive and rather academic side the book made me ask lots of questions.
The best question the book made me ask myself was “what organic and natural things am I deceiving myself with that are actually really poisons?” It has stimulated much label reading in the kitchen and bathroom and a reverence for coffee, one the most toxic things I had not really thought much about until reading this book.
Oh well. If you want to pass your university Msc. in Science Studies by arguing and critiquing the issues then buy this book. If you want a green fairytale or a local green operational manual to inspire yourself out of eco-inertia you need to look elsewhere.
I am still waiting for a popular science book that is clear and easy enough to read in the bath to relax!
Community Review by Pema