Thursday, 23 April 2009

Einstein’s Telescope – Evalyn Gates ***

Subtitled ‘the hunt for dark matter and dark energy in the universe’, this is a book that doesn’t fulfil its promise. It does have a quite reasonable explanation of general relativity, but that’s just a sideline for the main topic of dark matter and dark energy, and the problem here, I think, is that it is, as yet, a failed hunt. It’s a bit like a true crime book about a murder that was never solved – tantalizing, but never delivering.
Because we don’t know what dark matter and dark energy are, it’s a difficult one to carry forward. This isn’t helped by a certain fixedness of viewpoint. It would have been more interesting if Evalyn Gates had opened up some of the many uncertainties in cosmology, but she presents the Big Bang as effectively certain, telling us ‘[the cosmic microwave background] effectively nailed the case for the Big Bang model’, when it equally supports pretty well all the main alternative theories, and though she briefly opens up the MOND ideas of variations in gravity being responsible for the effect seen as dark matter, then dismisses this in rather summary fashion.
It’s a shame she didn’t spend more time on the alternatives, because this means she is left repeating herself over and over again on the amazing way dark matter and dark energy make up so much of the universe. Take out all this repetition and what’s left verges on an extended magazine article. I personally was not overwhelmed by her style, either. In an attempt to be populist, Gates uses some weak metaphors. For example, she likens the slowing down of light when passing through a material to the slowing down of a politician as she passes through a crowd, glad-handing the people – which I just found embarrassing.
And a final moan – surely it’s time for more imagination in book titles. We’ve had Einstein’s Moon, Einstein’s Refrigerator (two different books of the same name), Einstein’s Heroes, Einstein’s Mistakes, now Einstein’s Telescope… Einstein’s had enough.
A lost cause? No. Not entirely. If you specifically want a good summary of the search for dark matter and the effect of gravitational lensing particularly, plus one of the better attempts I’ve seen at explaining general relativity, it’s hard to criticize. But it’s really only for those with a particular interest in the subject, not for the casual reader.
Review by Peter Spitz

Monday, 20 April 2009

Science: a four thousand year history – Patricia Fara *****

This is the rare case of a weighty tome (literally – at over a kilo, my wrists were like jelly by the end) that’s also a page turner. Patricia Fara has managed the near-impossible: a history of all of science. It has been tried before. John Gribbin, for instance, made an attempt with Science: A History – but his book limited itself to Galileo onwards, was 600+ pages long and frankly not all that readable as popular science. Fara’s, despite the weight, slips in at a more manageable 384 pages, covers the whole span of science and was a delight to read.
I have elsewhere been a little heavy on academic authors, which Fara is. All too often, their books read like a transcript of a lecture – and a dull one at that. They never use three syllables when they can get away with four. The writing here isn’t like that. It’s modern, easy to digest and superbly informative. But that’s not to say that the book is simplistic in its approach to science. It’s not just a catalogue of scientific breakthroughs. Not only does Fara do away mostly with Kuhn-style revolutions and individual scientific heroes, she ensures that the science is placed in its essential political and social context. It’s easy to pretend that science is something separate from society – Fara makes it clear that this isn’t the case, and never has been.
It’s hard to pick out any specific examples that stand out, because this is such a magnificent, well-woven sweep through history. From the Babylonian origins of the early precursors to science to the latest genetic research, it’s all there. Yet there’s not a feeling of hasty summary. Fara lingers long enough on key people to get a true popular science feeling of engagement. And she includes the institutions like the Royal Society that have had an impact as much as individuals.
Inevitably there are going to be some small issues. Anything trying to be everything to everyone will stumble occasionally. Being a little biased on the subject of Roger Bacon, I think Fara underplays his significance. Perhaps because the structure of the book leaves ‘experiment’ as a concept until later in the chronology, she makes no mention, for instance, of the way Bacon devotes a whole section of his Opus Majus to the significance of experiment. There’s also the occasional factual oddity. For example, she comments that when Marconi sent a radio message across the Atlantic ‘for the first time, the two sides of the Atlantic were in virtually instantaneous contact,’ which really isn’t true. The difference in speed between radio and the transatlantic cable was relatively slight. She also perpetuates the myth that the term ‘bug’ in computing came from insects shorting out circuits, when the term had been in use in engineering for many years before.
Most seriously, her personal politics are more apparent than is, perhaps, desirable in a book like this. But these are all minor concerns in what is a brilliant undertaking. I hope that the publisher rushes out an affordable mass market paperback version of this book, as it deserves the widest audience possible.
Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Pavlov’s dogs and Schrödinger’s cat – Rom Harré ***

Sometimes the subject of a book suggests itself immediately to the writer, but at others you struggle to find a hook to hang it on. This has a feeling of a book with a manufactured hook – subtitled scenes from the living laboratory, it’s about the rather contrived concept of experiments involving living things – but not in the sense of experiments on living things, but rather those where the living things (animals or plants) act as an instrument or apparatus.
The opening chapter is intensely dull, and I urge you to skip through it as quickly as possible – once Rom Harré gets onto actual examples, his writing style lightens up a bit. While never more than pedestrian, it at least ceases to put you to sleep every few lines.
Each of the chapters then looks at a different way that living things have been used as experimental instruments or equipment. Some of these are quite indirect, such as the use of the remains of ancient creatures in sediment to study the temperature of the period – others are all too direct. Readers with a squeamish disposition may find themselves skipping over some of the chapter on blood circulation, for instance. Similarly, though we tend to remember Pavlov for his salivating dogs, he got his Nobel prize for, and we see much more here of, the way he reassembled the innards of dogs to be able to study what was happening in the digestive processes from the outside. (In Pavlov’s defence, he did then try to fix the dogs, rather than just killing them).
Harré intentionally avoids any moral consideration of whether it is right to experiment on animals, and whether an experiment needs to have a certain potential for payback before it’s justified – probably rightly he argues this is mostly outside the scope of the book, though he does occasionally touch on it, particularly in and end note. Before this comes a chapter on Schrödinger’s cat, which is on the use of animals in thought experiments, and on Dawkin’s pseudo evolutionary electronic ‘lifeforms’. Unfortunately, Harré’s explanation of the quantum physics is not the best, so this chapter isn’t great.
Overall, it’s not a bad effort. Harré does try to give some feel for the people involved as well as their work, and this is probably where the book is most effective, but it remains too dry and struggles too hard to justify itself.
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 13 April 2009

Atomic: the first war of physics – Jim Baggott *****

The best popular science book of the year to date by far (April 2009), this is an epic journey through the development of atomic power and the atom bomb during the second world war.
It’s a seriously chunky tome at nearly 500 pages, but for once this length is justified. It isn’t padded out by repetition and rhetoric, this really is such a big story that it needs this kind of length.
It might seem there really isn’t much of a story left to tell. What with Richard Feynman’s superb reminiscences of the Manhattan Project and many, many books on that first real example of big science, you might be inclined to say ‘what’s new?’ – but Jim Baggott more than pulls it off by covering not one, but four stories of the development of the terrifying power of the atom – in Germany, the US, the UK and the USSR.
He takes us back to the first concept that fission could produce a chain reaction and leads us through the gradually realization in the UK and then the US, that Germany could be building atomic weapons and this posed a huge threat. There’s the dramatic raids on the heavy water plant in Norway, and lying underneath all the developments the growing network of spies, feeding information from the West to Russia. It’s surprising how slow the US was to realize what was going on, and fascinating to see the political machinations across the Atlantic.
That’s not all. We see the two pictures of what was going on in Germany, never totally rationalized. Were Werner Heisenberg and his fellow scientists just not up to the job, but trying hard to give the fatherland a super weapon, or (as they later rationalized), were they intentionally going slow on the development of a bomb? What’s also amazing is how early the idea of deterrence came along – the great Danish physicist Niels Bohr suggesting the idea of the concept of atomic weapons being enough for deterrence well before they were built. Most remarkable of all, the way we nearly had a world organization giving everyone access to atomic power and with no one having nuclear weapons, an idea that came out of the US administration, but was scuppered by the more hawkish wing of the same group of people.
If the book has a weakness, it’s the sheer volume of people involved. I lost track of some of the names and couldn’t really care about many of them. As Baggott switches from location to location, I was sometimes a bit confused about where I was. One chapter, for instance, begins ‘The work of the MAUD committee had proceeded apace through the last few months of 1940.’ I was desperately trying to remember whose committee this was, in which country, and didn’t discover until a couple of paragraphs later. There just is a huge amount of detail, and sometimes you need to let this flow over you and not worry too much about total comprehension.
This is an unparalleled book that should be on the shelf of anyone with an interest in the development of nuclear power, or how the Second World War was won. It really brings home how much this was the war of science. Here we see the nuclear weapons, but there was also the code cracking, particularly the Bletchley Park work, radar and the development of operational research all coming from science and playing their part. I’m not an enthusiast for books on the Second World War, but this one had me enthralled. Highly recommended.

Review by Brian Clegg