Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Johnny Ball – Four Way Interview

Johnny Ball has written a number of books on mathematics for younger readers. He has long been a British TV favourite with shows like Think of a Number, which have made maths, science and technology accessible and fun. His latest book is Mathemagicians.
Why Maths?
I had a disastrous secondary education in Bolton, leaving school at 16 with just 2 ‘O’ levels. However it was pretty certain that I got 100% in maths. I gained three more subjects and joined a business course with De Havilland Aircraft Corp, Lostock, Bolton, heading for Cost and Works Accountancy. I also trained myself to multiply double figures instantly and generally played around with maths concepts.
However, I joined the RAF for 3 years, which was in effect my University. All through this period, I had been collecting books on recreational maths and it has been my lifelong hobby. The main influence was Martin Gardner, who wrote for Scientific American. Incidentally, when he retired, the magazine’s circulation dropped by around 1/3rd.
After the RAF I joined Butlin’s as a Redcoat and developed as a stand up comedian, which had been my goal since age 11. During my 14 year comedy career, I joined BBC Children’s TV, ostensibly to learn about TV. I tried my hand at writing sit com, which nearly came off twice. I also wrote a comedy series Cabbages and Kings and most of the comedy for Playaway. Around 1978 they asked what I would do with my own show and I said “Recreational Maths” and watched their jaws drop. Think of a Number came from that and gained a BAFTA in it’s first year. The concept was that thinking of a number could lead anywhere. This allowed us to let maths ideas take us to all areas of science, technology and life itself. The show had a children’s audience, which limited the scope a little and so I wrote Think Again, where each show followed a theme. Shows on chairs, flight, doors and time all won accolades and awards.
Since then my life has been in conveying the joy and sheer scope of maths, without ever teaching the subject – that is the job of teachers.
Why this book?
Three years ago I wrote for Dorling Kindersley my second Think of a Number book, which is now in around 30 languages including Japanese, Korean, Greek, Russian and all the European Languages. The book simply demonstrated the many facets of maths, including fractals, chaos theory as well as a great deal on the history of maths.
Mathmagicians is a sister book to TOAN, which shows how we apply maths to measure and evaluate absolutely anything and everything. Once again we follow a historic path, developing towards the present day and trying to include every aspect of measuring, from navigating the Earth, to measuring temperatures in industry. In my research for the book, I could not find a single book for children that had attempted this, since Lancelot Hogben’s Man Must Measure which was produced in 1955. I feel this is a rather sad indictment of how we convey totally the wrong attitude and understanding of mathematics, where the quite dreadful modern curriculum is so strongly centred on numeracy in primary education and statistics in secondary. Even binary numbers, essential for understanding the technology of our digital age, were dropped from the British curriculum in 1996 – It is sheer lunacy.
What’s next?
With so much measuring to talk about in Mathmagicians, we found space for puzzles rather short. Now we realise that a strong book on puzzles with the primary aim of demonstrating their diversity and conveying the sheer scope and breadth of maths, would complete this mathematical trilogy, so hopefully that will be next.
I continue to talk to audiences of all ages on an ever wider range of maths and science subjects and that is both exhilarating and taxing on my time and energy, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I also want to write my auto-biography as I feel the way I have achieved in so many areas of communication, and have tackled self learning, could be an encouragement to the next generation. I also want to tell the many fans of my past TV shows that I am still alive and kicking and share with them the joys and pains, the laughs and frustrations that have coloured my incredibly varied life.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Froth – Mark Denny ***

This is, without doubt, one of the most curious popular science books I’ve ever read. Subtitled ‘the science of beer’, it sort of does what it says on the tin (or, rather, the bottle), but in the strangest way. I make no secret of the fact that I like beer (see this entry from my blog), so I opened the book with eager anticipation, and to begin with things went quite smoothly (a bit like some pints of beer). In the introduction and first chapter, Denny explains that he’s a physicist and home brewer, and proceeds to give us a very effective potted history of the making of beer in which I learned a lot.
Then, in the second chapter, things start going downhill. He tells us how to make beer. I don’t want to make beer. I want to learn about it, yes. I want to drink it, certainly. But I can’t be bothered with making the stuff. I skipped through that chapter, hoping to get back to the real thing… but then he goes all physics textbook on us. The remaining four chapters: Yeast Population Dynamics, Brewing Thermodynamics, Bubbles and Fluid Flow do contain some interesting snippets – particularly the chapter on beer bubbles (though this has been done better elsewhere) – but there’s way too much technical content for a popular science book.
The chapters are littered with equations and chemical formulae. I don’t particularly subscribe to the infamous advice given Stephen Hawking that every equation halves the readership, but if you are going to use equations in a popular science book, they need to be surrounded by more meat in the sense of historical and personal context, descriptive narrative and so on. This was all bone and gristle, sadly just like a textbook, and really not possible to recommend to anyone without a science degree or equivalent.
It’s a shame because it started off well. Admittedly, the first chapter is over-jokey, with an irritating little ‘intermission’ featuring a fable about someone drinking lots of gassy mass-produced beer and exploding, yet it is still readable and informative. The second chapter is unlikely to attract anyone but a beginner home brewer, while the rest just doesn’t work in the arena of popular science.
A real disappointment.
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 13 July 2009

The Selfish Genius – Fern Elsdon-Baker ****

Those who have only come across Richard Dawkins from his books or TV shows may not be aware just how much mixed feeling he generates in the scientific community. There is a respected scientific journal editor who refers to Dawkins as HWMNBN (he who must not be named), likening him to the scientific equivalent of Voldemort in the Harry Potter books.
The reason for these mixed feelings is that, while Dawkins is very good at writing accessibly on science, he sometimes presents his personal views on evolution as if they were the pure scientific truth, rather than one interpretation of the science, which isn’t held by everyone in the field. Equally, Dawkins tends to tie his loud and scathing attacks on religion into evolution and science, as if it were not possible to accept evolution and a scientific viewpoint without being an atheist.
What Fern Elsdon-Baker sets out to do – and does brilliantly – is to identify just how Dawkins’ views sit within the latest scientific theories on evolution, and to separate the science from the atheism in Dawkins’ rhetoric. She starts by emphasising that the title of the book is just a play on the name of Dawkins’ most famous title, The Selfish Gene – in practice she regards him as neither selfish nor a genius. She goes on to explore the development of evolutionary theory, and how Dawkins’ ideas don’t in fact reflect the best fit with Darwin’s own stance, showing how different theories around the mechanisms by which evolution operates have developed over time.
I ought to stress that this is in no sense an apologetic for creationism or intelligent design, both of which Elsdon-Baker has no truck with. Instead it’s an attack on taking the same fundamentalist approach in science that Dawkins so rightly despises in religion.
It’s not perfect. Elsdon-Baker is sometimes so enthusiastic to ensure she comes across as fair and even handed that she can spend rather too long explaining why she’s not supporting one thing or another. And she can get a trifle repetitious in her statements of what she’s suggesting, and perhaps over-technical on some of the fine points of evolutionary biology. Yet the book is far and above the best one I’ve seen that explains to the general reader just what is going on in the sort of intellectual battles we’ve seen the likes of Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Stephen Jay Gould engage in, and is particularly effective in its dissection and dismissal of Dawkins’ most extreme outpourings and anti-religious tracts.
This is much more than a book on Dawkins, it’s a good way to get a better understanding of the position of science in society and how Dawkins’ approach to enhancing the public understanding of science can be counter-productive. Thought provoking and engaging reading.
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Mathematicians – Mariana Cook ***

Oka-a-y… a book of pictures of mathematicians, right? I can just imagine the response at the commissioning meeting in the publishing house (though not how it got through). Stated baldly, the idea isn’t a winner. Like most people, I’ve been quite interested in pictures of Einstein (and with the geeks, I’m also interested in Richard Feynman). This is because they weren’t just great scientists, but celebrities too. But even then, I wouldn’t buy a book of their photos. When it comes to mathematical celebrities, erm, well, there’s, erm, Pierre de Fermat – but he predates photography – and, well, oh, I don’t know. So what are we to make of this coffee table format book, subtitled ‘an outer view of the inner world’?
When it came down to it, the reality was better than the anticipation. Apart from the inevitably pretentious introductions, the book is a series of Dorling Kindersley-style two page spreads. On the right is a black and white portrait, on the left a page full (with a lot of white space) of pondering by the mathematician in question, often trying to explain how they came to maths or why it’s interesting.
My first inclination was to jump to the list and see if I recognized any names among the 92 mathematicians. Well, there was Roger Penrose (a physicist, I would have said) and our very own British mathematical media star Marcus du Sautoy, Isadore Singer and Andrew Wiles but that was about it. (No Greg Chaitin, by the way – how did you miss him, guys?), but after that I wasn’t really sure what to do with it. I flicked through the portraits – arty without being over-silly, so not bad – then read a few of the texts. They were fine, but after four or five they got a trifle samey.
If I’m honest, this seems to me to be a very large lavatory book. The sort of thing you keep in the loo for an occasional dip into it, but not a book you’d want to read from cover to cover. If anyone remembers the little pocket Observer’s books (I particularly loved the Observer’s Book of Pond Life – no, really), it’s a bit like a huge version of one of these. The Observer’s Book of Mathematicians. Useful for spotting them in the wild.
For me, this is an ‘it seemed a good idea at the time‘ book. But, hey, it’s art I suppose, so what do I know?
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Living with Enza – Mark Honigsbaum ****

There was something chilling about reading Mark Honigsbaum’s account of the 1918 flu pandemic at a time when the world is threatened with another pandemic, of a similar type of influenza (at the time of writing, the 2009 swine flu outbreak has recently been declared a pandemic). There are distinct parallels – in 1918 there was a mild early outbreak before a crushing attack in the winter that killed millions worldwide.
What’s fascinating in Honigsbaum’s account is the way he intertwines the story of the flu pandemic with the story of the First World War, an era in history that for my generation was largely forgotten (we studied the Second World War in school, but not the first). It’s essential to make this link as it has, at least in part, to explain why the flu pandemic was given such scant regard at the time – there is very little written up about it – and it also adds pathos as we see these two terrible killers side by side. It also seems to be the case that, despite being called Spanish Flu back then, that the outbreak may well have come to Europe from the USA along with troops fighting in the war.
There is now a certain amount of irony about the last part of the book, which looks at how things might develop with a future pandemic, basing it on the bird flu scare that was prevalent when the book was written. Oddly, one thing Honigsbaum didn’t foresee was that we would have a mild outbreak first, paralleling the 1918 situation, and so giving the authorities more breathing space than he thought we would get.
Even so, the book, with its vivid descriptions of the impact of flu and the associated bacterial infections that tend to piggy-back on it makes grim and worrying reading. If the book has a fault, it’s a touch dry and does perhaps labour some of the details, but it is, nonetheless, a timely warning of what could be around the corner. It’s difficult to encourage people to buy books that are going to depress them – but this should be the exception to the rule.
Review by Brian Clegg