Monday, 30 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 job of communicating his scientific work, but there are large gaps in Faraday’s personal story. His marriage was mentioned only in passing. I can’t help but feel that my knowledge of Faraday is cursory, that there is a lot missing. Hirshfeld’s writing style was comfortable; the story moves along at a good clip and is very compelling reading.
Hirshfeld does an admirable job of covering Faraday’s relationship with prominent British chemist Humphrey Davy and thoroughly explains the resistance (no pun intended) Faraday faced to his ideas because he had no formal education and was unable to couch his discoveries in mathematical terms. This was later done by James Clerk Maxwell, as explained in The Man Who Changed Everything: The Life of James Clerk Maxwell by Basil Mahon. I read these two books consecutively and it gave a great overview of 19th century British physics. I recommend that anyone interested in the history of science read both of these books and in historical order (Faraday first, then Maxwell).
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Review by Stephen Goldberg

Thursday, 26 March 2009

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 Big Bang could have result in mostly matter.
Even if you know a bit about antimatter, there are some surprises. And what’s lovely is the way the book really thinks about the practicalities of antimatter. You can’t store antiatoms, for instance, because they aren’t charged, so you can’t keep them in an electromagnetic container away from matter. But you can’t have billions of positrons or antiprotons in the same place either, because they repel each other. I wasn’t clear why you can’t use an anti-plasma – I wish that had been covered.
The presentation is just a touch dry – this is very obviously a book written by an academic who is trying hard to be populist but not quite making it – which is why it only gets four stars rather than five. And I don’t think he does any favours by suggesting that many people seriously think the Tunguska fireball was antimatter. But it’s a really interesting book that stretches the brain and that is packed with glowing little antimatter nuggets.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 23 March 2009

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 to demote Pluto from being a true planet. Personally I really can’t see what all the fuss is about – but a lot of people do, and Tyson brings this out neatly, starting with the pop culture associations of Pluto, going onto the details of its discovery, what little science there can be for such an uninteresting lump of real estate, and concluding with a long, breathless section on the de-planetization of Pluto.
The problem with this book is that the subject is, at best, quite interesting. That Tyson struggles to keep the attention reflects more about the subject matter than the writer. It doesn’t help that the book format is neither one thing nor another. At times it feels like a kids’ picture book – one of those books with fake pasted in documents and spy-type grid patterns. At others it’s more of a straight text excursion.
If you’re a solar system fan, this is a book you ought to have, without a doubt. It’s a great book on Pluto. The only question is whether most of want a great book on Pluto.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 20 March 2009

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 a civil service manual rather than a book for a general audience. Even the photographs are of dull people we don’t really identify. We don’t get any sense of characters here, just names on the ID badges.
This would make an excellent source book for anyone researching the attempts to keep America (and to some extent the rest of the world) safe from nuclear disaster, but it’s best use for the general reader is as a way to get to sleep very quickly.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 16 March 2009

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 physicists say’ type comments.
Secondly, the bumf on the back suggests that this book makes quantum physics understandable to the general reader. It doesn’t. I’d suggest you need a physics degree to get on top of what Little is saying. Although it’s not academic writing, it isn’t good quality popular science writing either.
Thirdly, there are some aspects of the physics that just seem wrong to me. I haven’t the qualifications to say this for certain, but when Little covers quantum entanglement, something I do know something of, his arguments drastically oversimplify reality. And elsewhere, for instance, he seems to be saying that ‘modern’ quantum physics relies on something that sounds to me like the old pilot wave theory, which I thought was long dead and buried. I know Richard Feynman is hardly up-to-date, but I always took his comments on QED as being still valid when he said ‘I want to emphasize that light comes in this form – particles. It is very important to know that light behaves like particles, especially for those of you who have gone to school, where you were probably told about light behaving like waves. I’m telling you the way it does behave – like particles.’ I know quantum theory involves waves – but these are probability distributions, not actual waves.
However -and this is why I have to give the book three stars instead of two, and why it is quite interesting – what Little does is to come up with a semi-plausible theory that explains some of the observed effects at the quantum level without resorting to all the oddities inherent in quantum theory. This doesn’t mean he is right – just because something is weird doesn’t make it wrong. And Little definitely does go astray with that assumption, because several times he says that because something is weird it’s impossible. That’s not science. However Little’s is an interesting theory.
I contacted a theoretical physicist who is quoted on the back of the book, and this was the broad thrust of his feeling. He in no way suggests that this theory is correct, but it’s interesting and worth considering.
And it’s in that spirit that you might want to look at this book. Science isn’t about consensus. Even well-established scientific theories like the Big Bang have good alternatives available which may eventually displace them. The same goes with quantum theory. I don’t think this is such a theory yet, but it has the possibility of being the seed of one – and as such is quite interesting. But definitely not one for the general reader who wants to find out more about quantum theory.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 9 March 2009

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 reflects the way that we see a lot more in the media about the dangers of terrorism than we do about car crashes – and how language like the ‘war on terror’ has given terrorism more weight than it truly deserves.
There are other aspects of fear here too, from medical fears and fears of paedophiles to the way fear is used to sell and to raise money for charity. Misuse of statistics is one of the common techniques here – there’s a wonderful example of the way such numbers are made up – so it was a little disappointing that Gardner himself seems to misuse statistics in making his point. He gives the annual risk of dying in a car accident as 1 in 6,000. Now this is very high – it’s actually closer to 1 in 15,000 (though that may reflect better safety in the UK than wherever he is looking at – he implies it’s the US, but doesn’t explicitly say this, which is another trick of misusing statistics). However even that is misleading in the way it’s compared with the risk of air travel, because we take a lot more car journeys than plane journeys. The chances of dying in this car trip, as opposed to this air flight (surely what more people are frightened of) is actually less by car than by air.
He also does some pretty fishy manipulation of probabilities. He says ‘The probability of the earth being walloped by a 300-metre asteroid in any given year is 1 in 50,000, which makes the odds 1 in 500 over the course of a century.’ No it doesn’t. That’s like saying ‘The odds of getting a head with one throw of a coin is 1 in 2, which makes the odds 1 in 1 over two throws.’ That’s not how probabilities combine. He also draws an illogical conclusion on the death penalty. He points out that people who are against the death penalty have their views strengthened when they read a balanced report on whether or not the death penalty deters crime. But his surprise at this is only valid if people are against the death penalty because it doesn’t deter crime. I’m against the death penalty because it’s morally indefensible, and because courts sometimes convict innocent people, and no one can justify killing an innocent victim. Gardner was confusing associated information with causality.
This might seem picky, but a book that is attacking the way that fear is misused to make a point shouldn’t get this kind of thing wrong itself. Even so – and despite it getting a bit repetitious (it’s what my agent calls a magazine article of a book), it’s an effective insight into human behaviour, and one that more of us should take account of.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 2 March 2009

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 idea how much time was left to do so.’ This perpetuates the myth that at a time when the average lifespan in the UK was probably less than 50, that 43 was old. But that average age reflects the huge infant mortality of the time. If a man of good means reached 43, he was pretty likely also to reach his late sixties – so Herschel was unlikely to have considered himself about to drop off his perch.
At risk of damning with faint praise, there’s nothing wrong with the book, but it’s not a biography to really get your teeth into. If you want a really good biography of Herschel, see Discoverers of the Universe.
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Review by Peter Spitz