Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Wegener’s Jigsaw – Clare Dudman ****

Recently we’ve had something of a spate of books that present science or history of science through fiction, what with Arturo Sangalli’s Pythagoras’ Revenge and Douglas Richards’ The Prometheus Project. Clare Dudman sets out to provide a scientific biography of the man who devised the concept of continental drift, Alfred Wegener, but in fictional form.
There are pros and cons to using ‘informative fiction’ this way. The good side is there is a natural narrative flow. There is no sense of a story being imposed on the information and not fitting well with it as can happen when a purely fictional story is melded with scientific fact. The downside is that the strongest parts of the story may well not be the ones that are about the individual’s life. (I had a similar problem with moving picture pioneer Eadweard Muybridge in my biography of him (admittedly non-fiction, but still strong on narrative). The most dramatic aspect of Muybridge’s life, the murder of his wife’s lover, occurs before any of his interesting work.)
In the case of Wegener, his life – and the story – really seemed to come alive when he was undertaking expeditions across Greenland. Here the story becomes truly gripping, in the style of a man-versus-the-elements novel. But there is no science of interest at all here. Wegener’s big ideas – continental drift (the precursor to plate tectonics) and the meteor theory of moon craters – come up in rather dull periods of university life.
There are two questions to be asked. Does this work as popular science, and does it work as a novel? I have no doubts about the former. It got across the story of Wegener’s life and work as well as any straight scientific biography would, if not better. As to the latter, Clare Dudman has great style, and really pulls you into the realities of life on the Greenland ice. The only slight concern I have about it as a novel is that the book is written as a first person historical reminiscence. Inevitably this means there is rather more ‘tell’ than ‘show’ in the way things are put across – it can seem a little disengaged from reality compared with a narrative that really puts you in there with the action.
I don’t know if it was the writer’s intent, but the other observation that came across strongly to me is how much expeditions to hostile places that involve sacrifice and suffering, like Wegener’s, are about the people, not about the place or science. They are, in effect, a form of showing off – in the end, the achievement is arbitrary and has very little value. It makes for a strange contrast between Wegener’s truly valuable scientific insights that were largely ignored at the time, and this terrible waste of life (Wegener’s own, not to mention all the dogs and ponies that get slaughtered) for little more than an ego trip. Fascinating.
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Thank God for Evolution – Michael Dowd ***

This book is hard to review, because it’s the wrong book on the right subject. The thesis of the book is excellent, but unfortunately the way it’s written won’t easily get that thesis across – at least, not to the science book reading community.
Michael Dowd achieves the remarkable feat of being able to quote Richard Dawkins in support of his religious idea. Dowd proposes an approach to religion that absolutely accepts evolution. More than that – he proposes that our starting point of religious revelation should be scientific data, rather than the sort of personal revelation that has shaped religions to date. Yet this is no ‘God of the gaps’ he proposes, dealing with the bits that scientific theory hasn’t rendered unnecessary. Instead, Dowd suggests that we should draw a parallel with the way complex and intelligent systems – like an ant colony or a human being – are built from small, simple structures which of themselves have no intelligence. God, he suggests, is the synergetic sum of the whole universe.
To an extent this sounds like pantheism, but Dowd takes it further, putting scientific theories at the heart of his religious exposition. However, he doesn’t suggest throwing away existing religions, suggesting that they give us the kind of metaphorical story-based understanding humans need – but that we should always be aware we are dealing with metaphor, rather than literal truth.
This is a version of religion that I suspect is more likely to appeal to those in (or interested in) science than creationists or other fundamentalist believers, as it requires them to throw away their belief that religious texts are literal – which is why I say it’s the wrong book, because it is written very much in the style of books aimed at religious believers. Dowd’s language veers between syrupy and overblown, and the whole feel is wrong for a title that should really appeal to the popular science audience if it were only written right. But because the ideas are so interesting, I would encourage the reader to persevere, even though it can be hard going.
Review by Brian Clegg

Deciphering the Cosmic Number – Arthur I. Miller ***

Finding a new subject is increasingly difficult when looking at biographies of 20th century scientists. Arthur I. Miller has adopted the cunning approach of combining the life and work of physicist Wolfgang Pauli and psychotherapist Carl Jung, an apparently unlikely combination, but Pauli was analyzed by Jung and corresponded with him for many years, sharing an interest in mystical concepts and alchemy.
I started off very enthusiastic about this book as Pauli is probably the famous physicist I know least about. (I say famous – it’s telling that Miller comments later on that in 2000, Physics World had a poll for the 10 most famous physicists of the 20th century, and Pauli didn’t get a single vote. He did make some very significant contributions, including the exclusion principle and predicting the existence of the neutrino, but he’s not exactly in Einstein or Feynman’s league.) I was also interested in Jung because I’d made use of the Myers Briggs Type Profile when working at British Airways, and, like much personality profiling, this is based on Jungian concepts.
Miller gives us a good crack at Pauli’s life history – and it’s an interesting life – plus explanations of Pauli’s work that are probably a little equation heavy for some readers, but worth persevering with as they don’t get too technical, with the probably exception of some of the material on the fine structure constant. Pauli made an essential contribution with the exclusion principle to our understanding of atomic structure – this is good stuff and deserves a wider audience.
I was less impressed by Jung – this isn’t Miller’s fault, however. Though Jung has probably been less slated of late than Freud, because his personality types seem to have some basis in reality, the fact is that almost all of Jung’s thinking now seems both extremely dated, and hand-wavingly vague with no real science attached. Although I’ve always found medieval ideas of science interesting, Jung (and to some extent Pauli)’s tendency to take all this stuff seriously, rather than treat it as interesting but no longer valid historical knowledge grates rather.
Worst of all, and here to some extent I do have to blame Miller, there are whole chunks of the book that go into Pauli’s dreams in excruciating detail. It’s a well-known fact, and Prof. Miller should have realized this, that other people’s dreams are the biggest turn-off in reading history. They are instant boredom. Unfortunately, Jung did a lot of dream analysis, and we get page after page of Pauli’s dreams and what they meant. This kills the middle section of the book, and it never really recovers its impetus.
So, an interesting idea to take a different approach, and plenty of good material on Pauli, but many readers may feel the urge to skip over large sections to avoid falling asleep and having their own dreams.
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 22 June 2009

The Prism and the Pendulum – Robert P. Crease ****

This book gives a vivid account of what the author considers to be the ten most beautiful experiments in science. Robert P. Crease is a philosopher and historian of science, and argues that science is, indeed, beautiful. Each chapter describes a specific experiment and is followed by an interlude where the author discusses different aspects of its beauty. Parts of this philosophical discussion may seem a bit detached from the subject—at least for a reader already convinced of the beauty of science—and I am left with the impression that the intended readership is found in what Richard Feynman called “the other culture”, the arts and humanities. The question is if it is possible to convey this message by logical arguments, but at least Crease makes a welcome attempt to do so.
The contents cover a wide time span, from Eratosthenes’ measurement of the earth’s circumference in the third century BC to relatively recent discoveries of the inner workings of atoms. We see how the questions of science have changed over the centuries, while a certain type of sharp-sighted curiosity seems to be shared by scientists of all times. All the experiments described has shown something deep about the world in a way that has transformed our understanding of it.
To be fastidious, the subtitle should perhaps have been ‘the ten most beautiful experiments in physics’, as the book doesn’t contain a single example outside of physics. A likely reason for this is that the experiments were selected by making a poll in Physics World magazine, where the author is a columnist, and choosing the ten most frequent candidates. The obvious difficulty in rating beauty is illustrated by comparison with a similar title, George Johnson’s The ten most beautiful experiments, where only three of the experiments on Crease’s list occur. Its one-sidedness aside, this is a pleasant book that brings some classical physics experiments to life. The scientists’ thoughts and struggles are described in their historical contexts and the result is, simply, interesting and enthralling stories.
Review by Öivind Andersson

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Arturo Sangalli – Four Way Interview

Arturo Sangalli has a PhD in mathematics and is the author of The Importance of Being Fuzzy and Pythagoras’ Revenge. A freelance science journalist and writer, he has contributed many pieces to New Scientist.
Why Maths?
I’m a mathematician, so I’m familiar with the subject. Besides, I had written a number of pop maths (and related fields, such as computing) articles and a book.
Why this book?
My first book, The Importance of Being Fuzzy, was rather specialized (fuzzy logic, neural networks, and genetic algorithms). I wanted to reach a larger audience, so a fictional story with maths and some philosophy weaved into it seemed the way to go. The fact that I had no previous experience in fiction writing was an additional challenge, which I welcomed.
What’s next?
Another fictional story, with mathematics and statistics in it, this time applied to one of the social sciences. I don’t want to reveal too much. Ok, perhaps the tentative title: The Chronology Conspiracy.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
Apart from promoting Pythagoras’ Revenge, I’m catching up with reading (teaching and writing having occupied most of my time for the past few years): from quantum computing and multiple universes, to various works of fiction and books on the financial crisis and the future of money.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Buyology – Martin Lindstrom ****

Although there are some concerns about how this book is written – and worries too about the way the conclusions are drawn from the science – this is an engaging study of how modern imaging techniques can be used to start to answer that age-old worry about advertising and branding – we think it works, but we don’t know why, when or even if it really does.
Brand guru Martin Lindstrom sets off on a voyage of discovery using an fMRI scanner and an SST (brainwaves) monitor to see how individuals react to advertising and branding in a systematic fashion that has never before been tried. Advertising has to be one of the most unscientific ventures that billions of dollars gets spent on. Everyone thinks it influences buyers – but no one is sure how much, or exactly what a particular advert will achieve. Much of it is probably a waste of time and money. The idea of neuromarketing is to more scientifically target advertising and promotion to achieve effects.
Stated like that it sounds scary, like something out of a dystopian science fiction movie – the reality is much less intrusive. It’s really just a more scientific extension of the focus group, a way of trying to get some idea how people react to advertising to fine tune it. Along the way we can learn some interesting lessons about ourselves and the way we make decisions.
But there are problems. I’d recommend not reading the foreword, which is sycophantic to the point of sick-making. And Lindstrom himself has something of a tendency to be irritating in his writing, which is very much of the ‘aren’t I clever, doing this, and look at all the money I’m spending on it,’ school. However, my main concern is with the science, or at least what we’re not told. In almost every example there are obvious questions, doubts raised, that don’t get answered.
Early on, for instance, we hear that when people see the nasty warnings on cigarette packets this triggers feeling of craving. We’re led to believe it’s the negative message that somehow does this – yet we aren’t told why the much more obvious explanation – that these warnings simply remind people of packets of cigarettes, because that’s where they see them, and it’s the cigarettes that cause the craving – isn’t considered.
Then we hear how before seeing the product placement in the American Idol TV show, people don’t have any particular memory for the products pushed in the show. But after seeing the show they did. Wow, it works. Yet, presumably these people had seen the show before. So the effect must be very short-lived, or they would already remember the products. Is it still valuable? Don’t know. (And can you really tell me no one already remembers Coca Cola?)
Next, Lindstrom goes onto mirror neurons, and how the firing of the neurons is associated with an action when we just see something. Fair enough. And there’s certainly some pretty obvious stuff in here – but no mention of recent research casting doubt on the way mirror neurons work, which makes the presentation of the data a touch selective. (To be fair, the research may have emerged after the book was written, so the author might not have known about it.)
All in all, a fascinating subject and one that influences all our lives, but the book itself isn’t great, and there seems to be too much selectivity (getting the message the author wanted) in the way the science is interpreted.
Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 14 June 2009

The Earth Moves – Dan Hofstadter ***

There’s a question that has to be asked early on in a book on Galileo – and it’s a question that’s so obvious that the author explicitly asks it himself. ‘There are many books about Galileo,’ says Dan Hofstadter, ‘so the reader is entitled to ask how this one differs from any others that he or she might come across.’ It’s so true. Galileo is a well-ploughed furrow. There are two aspects that Hofstadter picks out in particular – the way Galileo improved on the telescope, making it significantly better than the devices already around when he made his first – and on some of the detail of his trial for upholding the Copernican ideas, detail that is rarely produced in most popular accounts of Galileo’s life.
On the whole, Hofstadter does what he sets out to do. His observations on Galileo’s, erm, observations make it clear why what Galileo did was different to the work of his immediate predecessors and contemporaries. And there is much fascinating detail in the section on the trial. I hadn’t realized that Galileo very nearly got off with a pat on the head and an admonition to go away and be a good boy. There was a strong move to allow some quick plea bargaining, cutting short the trial and enabling Galileo to walk away free, having acknowledged and repented his alleged errors. However for whatever reason – Hofstadter suggests it might have been Jesuits that Galileo had wound up, or the pope in a fit of pique – this suggestion, accepted by a fair number of those making the inquiry into Galileo, was not carried through and the trial went ahead with the eventual life sentence ensuing.
On the whole, Hofstadter’s style makes for reasonably easy reading, and it’s quite a compact book, but there was a significant feeling of padding in places. It seemed that some of the statements about Galileo – the fact the trial wasn’t really a trial, and wasn’t really about Copernican science but more about compliance and control, for instance – were said over and over again until they became a little monotonous. It’s not Hofstadter’s fault but I also got a little confused by the many cardinals and others involved – you could see a sentence with three or four different names in it, and it was easy to lose track of the cast, not helped by Hofstadter’s reluctance to call the pope Urban, but instead calling him by his surname Barberini – confusing as there were at least two other Barberinis involved.
Without doubt this usefully adds to the information available on Galileo for the general reader, so the question that opens this review (and the book) can be satisfied. However, I suspect that only those with a particular interest in Galileo, the development of astronomy or the relationship between science and religion would recommended to add this to their shelves.
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Pythagoras’ Revenge – Arturo Sangalli ***(*)

It’s unusual for us to feature a fiction book in our main reviews section. Pythagoras’ Revenge is a novel that is designed to get across mathematical ideas in a more approachable way. It scores the rather unusual 3.5 stars – because this is a book that is 2/3 good and 1/3 bad.
Let’s start with the good. The concept really works. I read a lot of popular science books and have to read a fiction book about one every third title just to keep my enthusiasm up. Fiction usually grabs the attention better than an popular science book, however well written, and I found that I shot through Arturo Sangalli’s book significantly faster than I would a normal popular science title, because I wanted to read on.
What’s more, the maths is fine – it’s pitched at the right sort of level to interest the general reader without being too painful. For those with a more heavy duty interest, there are one or two proofs in appendices. A lot of the maths is from ancient Greece, and as befits what can, with one hat on, be seen as a popular maths book, there’s a good selection of history and context for the Pythagoreans as well.
But then we come to the 1/3 that’s bad. As a novel, I’m afraid, it’s pretty terrible. It’s not really possible to identify who the main protagonist(s) are, and we don’t care about any of the characters. Although there is a little Da Vinci Code style puzzle, it isn’t particularly interesting, and it’s very much presented as: ‘here’s a puzzle, oh, it could be that, okay, we’ve solved it.’ There’s no real tension. The central plot line involving possible reincarnation stretches disbelief without any real reward for doing so. And, perhaps worst of all, it doesn’t have the proper flow of a novel. There are several instances where the voice suddenly goes from historic narration to simple fact telling. So we hear about something happening in Pythagoras’ time… then suddenly there’s a few pages of pure maths exposition that could have come from any popular maths book, with no sense that the characters are saying or thinking what we’re told. It just plonks in.
However, I think it’s a very brave attempt, and shows that this really is a way of getting across science that can work – and would work even better if it was framed in a decently written novel. I said I’d hurried through because I wanted to read on. In part this was because I was rushing through some of the more excruciating storyline, but it also was because the story form gives a natural inclination to want to read more. Human beings are story making animals, and this book shows that there is an opportunity to make use of this approach in the field. A fascinating attempt.
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 8 June 2009

Beware Invisible Cows – Andy Martin ***

This is a remarkable book, taking a very original approach to popular science that has the potential to be great – and an equal potential to be dire. It’s what I’d define as the first Impressionist popular science book (with the possible exception of the disastrous Everything and More by David Foster Wallace).
Just as the Impressionists in the art world moved away from a literal and accurate reflection of what was seen, instead trying to portray the impact of the visual on the senses, Andy Martin’s meandering book is much more about how the science he discovers along the way in his attempt to search for ‘the source of the universe’ impacts him, than about the science itself.
The result has mixed value. Martin visits locations like the Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea in Hawaii and the LIGO gravitational wave observatory in Washington state – and there gives us a sub-Bill Bryson guided tour and interaction with some of the scientists he meets, and this can be quite interesting. It just hadn’t occurred to me that at 14,000 feet, working on the Keck Observatory means dealing with altitude problems (though most of the scientists work from remote stations without the need to undergo the rigours of high altitude). But at other times, Martin rambles on about things that really are of no interest.
Occasionally he seems not to get the point. This is most obvious when he refers to the reflection in a mirror. He goes on (and on) and about left and right being reversed. ‘This is the inescapable law of left-right reversal, built into the very process of reflection,’ he says. Well, no, it isn’t. Just a moment’s thought would show that there is nothing about reflection that inherently requires a left-right reversal (as opposed to top-bottom, for example). What in fact happens in a mirror is back-front reversal. It turns things inside out like a rubber mould. It’s just our interpretation of what is front and back, left and right, that makes us interpret the image the way we do.
There’s also some pretty ropy stuff about quantum entanglement, where we get the impression that his physicist brother is attempting to build an instantaneous communicator, only after the failure of which does he realize it’s not possible. Sadly this has been common knowledge in the field for a long time – the whole story feels like a myth. (For a more effective investigation of entanglement, see my book The God Effect.)
Overall, I found Beware Invisible Cows frustrating and often verging on the unreadable. The problem with interpreting the science through Andy Martin’s life is you have to be interested in Andy Martin – and I’m not. From my own viewpoint, I couldn’t give the book more than a two star rating, but I’ve actually rated it three as I believe that some people will enjoy the florid writing style and the endless deviations into personal history.
It’s a novel, and interesting attempt – but it’s not for me.
Review by Brian Clegg

Complexity: a guided tour – Melanie Mitchell ****

This book made me want to cheer, because with this title OUP has got it right. I dearly love Oxford University Press, and time after time they come up with popular science books that sound really interesting. Only, when you read them they can be dull and not very well written, often, I’m afraid, because the author is an academic. But this time, in this fascinating guide to complexity, emergent systems, networks and more, they’ve found an author with just the right tone who has the ability to make the subject interesting while still conveying her own interest and involvement in the field.
You may have come across complexity as an adjunct to chaos theory – and chaos is covered in here, but there are so many other things too. In looking at the background, Melanie Mitchell includes the theory of information and computation, plus tying this theory into evolution. She introduces us to genetic algorithms and other computer-based mechanisms for systems to evolve, including the potential for using these approaches in problem solving. We discover cellular automata and an attempt to get computers to understand analogy. And there’s a whole section on the hot topic of networks, from the World Wide Web to the human brain. Time and again we see how simple rules and structures can evolve into complex results that can be difficult to predict in their real world forms.
If I’m picky, Mitchell does occasionally give us too much detail, falling into the ‘boring lists’ trap – and some of the items she covers are presented in too technical a way. There’s also a statement at one point ‘Given a room full of air, at a given instant in time each molecule has a certain position and velocity,’ that would have a physicist cringing – for quantum particles, there aren’t values for the properties until a measurement is taken, and even then the uncertainty principle ensures we can’t know both with any accuracy. But the statement is made in the context of some classical statistical physics, so is almost forgivable.
The reader is probably left with a slight sense of doubt. There seems to be a lot of science here that’s fascinating, but can’t really be used for anything. But that’s not the author’s fault, it just reflects the nature of complexity – at least in our present level of understanding – and Melanie Mitchell’s book will certainly ensure that the reader has a good picture of what it’s all about.
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 1 June 2009

The Essential Einstein – Albert Einstein ****

His Greatest Works is a collection of Einstein’s writings spanning approximately 50 years, which Stephen Hawking edited and provided with commentary. What makes this collection so valuable is that it brings together short and long pieces by Einstein that focuses mainly on relativity.
Hawking kicks off with a paper from 1905. One which revolutionized our understanding of space and time. The Second paper, only just three pages long, proposing the equivalence of mass and energy: E=mc2.
For me this was the first time I really understand how this theory was developed and that it didn’t just fall out of the sky. I think this book is an excellent collection of important papers that certainly lives up to the title. However it is a very hard read and you would need a higher level of mathematics.
Review by Berry den Hartog (Community review)