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Showing posts from March, 2009

The Electric Life of Michael Faraday – Alan Hirshfeld ****

This book is a fascinating look at the scientific life of Michael Faraday, the man whose major discoveries made possible electrical generators and transformers. Interestingly Faraday had no formal scientific training yet became one of the all-time great experimentalists. Not only was he an accomplished scientist, but from Alan Hirshfeld’s description, he was an amazing man as well. He had the foresight to know that future generations might prove his scientific work incorrect. Although this did not really happen, it demonstrated his great belief in the scientific method. He was indeed the ultimate experimental physicist and he truly cared for the accuracy of data. Although he was highly religious, he was able to separate his scientific self from his religious self and did not allow his beliefs to taint his scientific conclusions. The book is titled The Electric Life of Michael Faraday but Hirshfeld is very selective when it comes to describing Faraday’s life. He does a very credible jo…

Antimatter – Frank Close ****

I like this little book. Regular readers of my reviews will know that ‘little’ isn’t an insult – there’s nothing worse than a bloated, over-inflated popular science book. This one delivers the goods on the subject without resorting to endless padding. The subject in question is antimatter, which Frank Close covers with just enough context – particular the US Air Force’s interest in antimatter weapons, and Dan Brown’s awful antimatter-based thriller Angels and Demons – to keep the reader interested. It’s a bit of a Brief History of Time kind of book. Before Dr Close gets all excited and waits for the royalties to come crashing in, I don’t really mean that I expect it to have the same kind of popularity of ABHoT, but rather it has the same tendency to plunge into just a bit too much depth and not necessarily to explain the science in a way that comes across well to the uninitiated. Having said that, there is some good writing here explaining why antimatter is so important and how the Bi…

The Pluto Files – Neil deGrasse Tyson ***

There’s something not right feeling about the assertion in the subtitle of this book that Pluto is ‘America’s favorite planet’. It may be true, as astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson suggests, that Pluto is the children’s favourite because of the association with the Disney character of the same name, but I find it hard to believe that, as he suggests, it’s America’s favourite because it was discovered by an American (even if it was named by British eleven-year-old girl). I doubt if many people know this to be the case, and my suspicion is that Mars, Jupiter and Saturn would all be more popular if properly assessed. Mind you, I have real doubts about Mr Tyson’s ability to judge people, when he says ‘among all planet names… Pluto sounds the most like the punch line to a hilarious joke.’ Is this really an astronomer who has never heard a Uranus joke? This is a fairly lighthearted book, a compendium of items about Pluto from a man who was apparently vilified as one of the early astronomers t…

Defusing Armageddon – Jeffrey T. Richelson ***

If I had to choose a two word phrase to sum up this book, it would be ‘wasted opportunity.’ So often in the popular science field, a good writer can take a subject that really has little relevance to the world around us (Fermat’s Last Theorem, for instance) and turn it into a cracking read. Here Jeffrey Richelson has taken what should have been a real page-turner of a subject – the story of the semi-secret US meta-organization tasked with dealing with nuclear threats, from accidents to terrorist attacks – and made it dull as the proverbial ditchwater. (Why is ditchwater dull? I bet it’s teeming with pond life.) Okay, there is one thing Richelson is working against. The vast majority of occasions that NEST (said meta-organization) has swung into action have been hoaxes, false alarms and drills – for which we should all be truly thankful. But that’s not enough to explain why this book is so dull. Richelson insists on listing every mission, every piece of equipment, as if he were writing…

The Theory of Elementary Waves – Lewis E. Little ***

This has to be one of the hardest books to review I’ve ever seen. It has some genuine interest, but there are a whole lot of caveats to get out of the way first. The immediately obvious problem with the book is that has several of the hallmarks of a piece of crank science. We get sent crank books all the time and don’t usually review them. They’re by someone who believes he has disproved some fundamental piece of science (often relativity) and wants to show just how clever he is. Because he’s so excited by his genius, the book tends to be filled with an aggressive language, saying how stupid all those other physicists are, with their ‘so-called’ theories. Not only is The Theory of Elementary Waves a book that attempts to overthrow one of the central aspects of physics – quantum theory – it has exactly these ‘crank’ markers: often using emotional terms, referring to ‘concepts’ in inverted commas as if to discredit them, and peppering the text with ‘so-called’ and disparaging ‘modern p…

Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear – Dan Gardner ****

For me, the title of this book is somewhat misleading. ‘Risk’ suggests probabilities, but what this is really about, as the subtitle suggests, is fear. Our unnatural fear of things going wrong, and how that fear is manipulated by those who want to encourage us to buy things or to follow certain political lines. Dan Gardner makes the distinction between two types of thinking -what once would have been called head and heart, but he rather more crudely calls head and gut, as in gut reaction. In reality, of course, this is all going on in the brain – but it does seem to be the case that once we slip into ‘gut’ thinking we lose control of our ability to assess a danger and overreact. Gardner shows eloquently how we can be persuaded that something is more frightening than it really is by the way we hear about it all the time. For example, many more people are killed in car accidents than terrorism – yet most people are a lot more scared of terrorism. He makes the point that this in part re…

The Georgian Star – Michael D. Lemonick ***

The eighteenth century astronomer William Herschel is best known for discovering the planet Uranus, but as this compact biography brings out, Herschel did much more, particularly in his theories on the nature and scale of the cosmos. Michael Lemonick does a workman like job of telling Herschel’s life story, from military band member to leading astronomer, and the book is probably most interesting when exploring the character of Herschel’s long suffering (though some of it was self-inflicted) sister Caroline. There’s nothing wrong with this book, but it doesn’t really present anything new about Herschel, nor does it really bring a spark of excitement to what should be quite a remarkable life story. There’s one point when the author veers completely off-beam. We are told that ‘William Herschel was now forty-three years old at a time when long life was uncommon, if not unheard of. He was determined to understand nothing less than the structure of the universe and its contents, and had no…