Wednesday, 30 September 2009

As Far as We Know – Paul Callaghan & Kim Hill ****

We don’t often associate science with conversations. Science interviews are usually short media exercises, and science seems too serious and rigorous to be approached by unstructured dialogue. “As Far as We Know”, a series of radio discussions about science between a distinguished broadcaster (Kim Hill) and equally distinguished scientist (Paul Callaghan), is not a work of science. But it does have a serious aim: to answer the question “What is science?” It may not answer the question to everyone’s satisfaction. But it does show the power of conversation to illuminate – and lighten up – science.
So what is science, according to this book? It is, says Callaghan, a “means of looking at the world to try to understand natural phenomena and their causes in a way that is self-consistent and corresponds to reality.” Callaghan sees a sharp line between what is science and what is not, and doesn’t miss many opportunities to draw it. In this book, creationism, homeopathy, and phone cancer all get a dose of Popperian medicine. Some of Callaghan’s prescriptions have a dogmatic odour. “Doubt is at the very heart of science,” he says. Granted, scientists are trained to doubt. But surely they are also trained to find the most rigorous demonstrations possible for any given claim? “[Scientists] never hold on to some cherished belief in the face of evidence to the contrary.” As Callaghan must know, scientists do this often – and often with good reason. But to his credit, Callaghan readily admits that science means not having all the answers – not yet, anyway – and that scientists are no better than non-scientists when it comes to sorting through the ethical implications of science.
So far, so many platitudes. But the stand-out feature of this book is not what Callaghan and Kim Hill say about science but what they do with it, their patient question-and-answer probing at some basic puzzles of science. After decades of live interviews, Hill can be puzzled and probing with equal success, sometimes pulling Callaghan back to the level of the lay listener (“Hang on, you’re losing me”; “Is heat a synonym for energy?”) and sometimes pushing him into a more exact or convincing account of one or other area of science (“Have you already answered my question then?”; “For example?”; “How do you know that?”; “Is that a metaphor?”; “Is that what he [Newton] intended to do?”). She has clearly done her homework: she knows about Dirac’s coincidence, the medieval warming period, and the difference between chaos and complexity; and she has read Simon Singh, Matt Ridley, and Martin Rees, and is not afraid to quote them.
For his part, Callaghan “wears his learning lightly,” as Martin Rees puts it in his glowing preface. He covers Archimedes, William Gilbert, Karl Popper, J.J. Thompson, and the impact of refrigeration on New Zealand real estate, as easily as he covers thermodynamics, sexual selection, and the physics of colour. His explications a clear and crisp, and he laces the science with stories, histories, and popular references – like his experience with colour therapy, a Dire Straights CD, and the story of the man who ate polonium-210. He likes the poetry of science, its “beautiful words” and “lovely thoughts.” One can imagine Professor Callaghan lecturing to a large audience. But one can also imagine calling him “Paul” (as Hill does) and inviting him round for dinner (as Hill would like to, judging by her happy banter in these conversations).
The conversation is worthy of the conversationalists. The topics are the ingenious designs of nature and the ingenious attempts by scientists to find and exploit them, and both speakers have a real fascination for their subject matter. Why are there two human genders and why is there a 50/50 split between them? Why are there two human genders at all? Why is the ratio of smallest things to the largest things the same as the ratio of the smallest forces to the largest forces? Why is a digital signal more reliable than an analogue signal? Why is the shape of a protein so important and how does it take on that shape? What evidence do we have for the Big Bang, evolution, and the existence of atoms? These questions are primarily chosen not for their sex appeal, God appeal, or news value, but for their scientific interest. Questions like these, and speakers like Hill and Callaghan, make for a fine popular conversation about science: spontaneous, topical, relaxed, witty, and penetrating.
Paperback:  
Review by Michael Bycroft

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Shapes – Philip Ball ***

This is a bit of an oddity, in that Philip Ball has taken an earlier book (The Self-Made Tapestry), split it into three, of which this is one part, and updated it – but going on what’s in this book it was a good move, as there’s plenty to be going on with. (The other parts are Branches and Flow.)
A lot of the content is driven by an early twentieth century work, On Growth and Form by the Scottish zoologist D’Arcy Thompson. Thompson’s thesis was that the new-fangled Darwinian thinking was all very well, and not incorrect, but it wasn’t the right explanation for many of the natural forms of things, which were more driven by the physics and chemistry of the processes that made them than any evolutionary adaptation. Ball doesn’t always agree with Thompson, but primarily demonstrates this again and again from the shape of beehive cells to the patterns on animals’ fur.
There’s a lot to like here. This whole aspect of why, for instance, a snail’s shell is a particular shape, with a certain pattern on it is not something many of us think of, but it needs explaining once you it occurs to you. I particularly liked the strange way that some cicadas seem to benefit from a very strange pattern, finding survival benefit from having a life cycle that is a prime number of years. We also see quite a lot on the strange oscillating chemical reactions that change colour or produce shifting patterns time and again.
Unfortunately, though the subject is excellent, Ball’s prose, which starts off very approachable, gets a bit bogged down and stuffy in later parts of the book. There’s too much technical detail on some of the processes and the whole thing gets a trifle dull and textbook like. This is a shame after an excellent opening. It will, however, make an excellent introduction for any one hoping to study more on the subject.
Hardback:  
Review by Peter Spitz

Biohazard – Ken Alibek with Stephen Handelman ***

In places this well-crafted bit of cold war history reads like a spy thriller, so much so that I was convinced after a few pages that I was not reading a personal story, but rather the hand of a ghost writer, as a quick glance at the cover makes it clear. It’s not a bad thing, but the structure of these things, often put together by a staff writer on the big American magazines, is so formulaic that you come to expect ‘now they’re going to jump back in time’ or ‘now they’re going to slot in a surprise.’
Don’t let that put you off, though, the first person narrator Ken Alibek, a former Soviet manager in the biological weapons programme, has a fascinating and chilling story to tell. We see his growing involvement in the industrial scale sites producing the likes of anthrax and smallpox, with plenty of scares and terrifying achievements along the way. Right from the beginning of the book, where (in a classic ghost-written jump forward) he is given the challenge of providing enough anthrax to fill multi-warhead ICBMs it’s a tense story, especially bearing in mind this was taking place in an increasingly unstable country that supposedly had given up biological weapons years before.
It’s very readable, and emphasizes just what a level of threat biological weapons were and may still be. The only reason it doesn’t score better is that, though there is a scientific context, which is why it’s here at all, it is relatively minor. We do seem some of the science of the biological agents, but primarily this is a book about politics, management and technology. Even so well worth checking out.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 24 September 2009

We need to talk about Kelvin – Marcus Chown *****

The things we react to first about a book are its cover, its title and its author. This one has an eye-popping cover in a very 2008/9 comic style, a title that really grabs the attention (even if the pun is a bit wince-making) and an author that immediately gives you the reassurance that you are going to have a good time – Marcus Chown is one the most consistently entertaining popular science writers in the business.
For entertainment value, and driving pace, Kelvin never lets the reader down. From the start we are bombarded with amazing facts, driven by Chown’s very effective idea of taking everyday aspects of human existence and exploring the exciting science that lies behind them. So, for instance, the partial reflection through a night-time window leads on to the consideration of the quantum theory of light and much more. Later on, we discover more about the nature of atoms and heat, thermodynamics and cosmology.
Chown’s great strength is that he can counter the QI glaze effect. On the TV show QI, when they occasionally have a panellist with a science background, the other competitors start to glaze over whenever that person starts on about a science subject. They visibly drop off and lose interest. It’s very easy to present something like the Pauli exclusion principle that is at the heart of subatomic physics in a way that would put the reader to sleep as well – but Chown makes it interesting and makes it seem very logical.
A lot of the content is fairly familiar ground if you regularly read popular science books, but that doesn’t stop it being interesting even if it is familiar – and for many readers there will be much that is new. Even for the popular science enthusiasts there will be some surprises, for example the shock revelation that 99 per cent of astronomers get the answer to Olber’s paradox -why is the night sky black, rather than full of stars? – wrong. And I rather like the way he finishes the book on a very open topic – why we aren’t being constantly visited by aliens.
Inevitably there are a few small gripes. The book doesn’t have any illustrations or diagrams – this is usually fine, and Chown does a great job of painting a picture with his words. But there were a couple of occasions, particularly when describing the difference between fermions and bosons, when a diagram or two really would have helped untangle what was being said. Another problem I had is that to make the material approachable he is very definitive. You would think there was no possibility of alternative theories to some of the concepts mentioned. And very occasionally his cracking pace gets in the way of understanding. When he says that light being produced by an electron is a bit like a 40 tonne truck emerging from a matchbox, I want to know a bit more – but he’s already on to the next thing. But these are all very minor worries.
All in all, a great idea for a book, a very enjoyable read and a strong addition to the Chown oeuvre.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 21 September 2009

The Demon and the Quantum – Robert J. Scully and Marlan O. Scully ***

It’s one of the inherent oddities of quantum theory that a quantum particle can be in more than one state at once – and for me, this must be a quantum book, because it manages to be both excellent and not-so-good at the same time.
Let’s start with the excellent. Robert Scully, with help from his physicist father Marlan, weaves a fascinating fabric of ideas from ancient Greece and quantum physics to provide an introduction to an exploration of the overlaps between thermodynamics and quantum theory. This leads on to the description of the concept of a ‘quantum eraser’ that may (there’s some dispute among physicists) be a demonstration of the ultimate quantum strangeness – that you can change the outcome of a quantum effect after it has, in effect, already been committed.
Scully starts in a gentle fashion and provides a solid introduction to thermodynamics, a subject that has rarely been given an effective popular science treatment. By using the clever conceit of a heat engine powered by a single molecule, he enables the reader to get a good grasp of engine efficiency from a modern viewpoint, encapsulating the wisdom of the steam age, but bringing it into a modern context.
So far, so good. However, the more than half of the book that is primarily about quantum phenomena has real problems. One is a tentative introduction of God into the equation. I don’t know if Robert Scully is explicitly saying that God is a necessary part of his thesis – it’s never stated quite that strongly – but the subject is touched upon several times without making it clear what his (Scully’s, not God’s) intentions are. This could be lived with. But the problem that brings the rating of this book down to three stars is that the quantum chapters aren’t well enough explained for a general reader.
There are too many assumptions about what people know, and the description of both the single atom quantum heat engine and the quantum eraser are likely to be baffling to anyone without a degree in physics. There are also big gaps in what’s presented. There’s a section that claims that the concept of the quantum eraser takes away the paradoxical nature of the EPR paradox that first introduced the concept of quantum entanglement. I was excited by this, having written a book about entanglement, but despite that background I couldn’t understand what it was saying about EPR, or how what was said took away the paradox. It’s frustrating, because the intention here is excellent, but the science writing isn’t at a level that will work for a reader of popular science.
I would highly recommend this for physics and engineering undergrads and above, however. There are some excellent challenges to aspects of physics you are likely to get in your course – and good insights into the way a real scientific theory is developed from the description of the discussions between different groups over the quantum eraser. But, sadly, I can’t recommend it for anyone else.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Are Angels OK? – Bill Manhire & Paul Callaghan (Eds.) ****

This brave and playful book is a collection of stories and poems with a scientific theme. It contains some science fiction, some popular science, and some lab lit, but strictly speaking it is not any of these. The writers are bright stars of New Zealand literature who have been copiously praised for work that has nothing to do with science. And their scientist collaborators are equally luminous members of the NZ science community. The outcome, like the contributors, is mixed but brilliant. As a commentary on science, on its methods and spirit and motivations, the book is interesting but not ground-breaking. As literature, it has some fine moments and some awkward ones, where the science jars. But as an experiment in a new genre it is marvellous. It is as an attempt to answer the question: in what ways can science contribute to literature? The answer may be: not many ways. But this collection is a courageous attempt to find as many ways as possible, with varied and charming results. The results also tell us something about the strengths and limits of literary tools.
So how does science contribute to literature in the collection? The answer is as varied as the book’s genres, which range from poems to cartoons to short stories. Some of these pieces take an idea from science, interpret it loosely in human terms, and make a story out of it. In others, wormholes, proteins and equations are living characters in the story. For these authors science also serves as a setting, a source of metaphors, as material for history lessons, and as an entity to be explained or described. The second of these (science as a source of metaphors) is probably the most common in these stories, and it shows the lop-sidedness of the collection: by and large, the authors mine science for gems that can illuminate a literary work, and not the other way around. And how do the authors feel towards their handmaiden scientists? The title of the book does well to capture the mood of the collaboration: tentative, but friendly and respectful.
Lloyd Jones’ short story, Elsewhen, is a good example of the book’s main accomplishment: a work that combines science and literature while dodging the usual science-story genres. Jones takes his cue from a lecture on time cones — those diagrams, like sharp-edged hourglasses, that physicists use to describe where an object can and cannot move through space-time. The story gets its title from a lecturer’s whimsical reference to “Elsewhen”, the points in space-time where an object cannot go (because it would have to travel faster than the speed of light to get there). Jones interprets Elsewhen as a kind of limbo or side-line, a diversion from the events that usually hold our attention. But he quickly veers away from physics in an attempt to “find this place in the everyday transactions of life.” Traffic jams; moments of death, when “time stops, then kicks on”; the intermission of a film; the life-histories of inanimate objects, like letter-boxes; the man who glances up at the window, while going to play table-tennis, and sees his future wife: these are all snapshots of Elsewhen, and the challenge to the reader is to make a film out of this flow of still images. Jones’ fine metaphor for a jumble of images, and for human memory, is the tip-face, “where the bits of life circulate,” discarded but full of significance.
What does all this have to do with space-time and world-lines? Not much, you might say, except in a loose metaphorical way. The story would convey the same theme, with the same lyricism, if Jones cut out his references to Demeritus, Gödel and a physics lecture. Moreover, Jones’ notion of Elsewhen as a special kind of moment, where things stand still and accidents happen, may be based on a misunderstanding of physics. Physically, Elsewhen consists in all points in space-time that cannot be reached from a given point in space-time. So what counts as Elsewhen is relative to the given point. By choosing the right reference points, you can make anywhere an Elsewhen — Elsewhen is not a special location, but every location.
Nevertheless, “Elsewhen” shows that, whatever else they have in common, writers and scientists are interested in some common topics, like time. What else do writers and scientists share, according to this collection? The use of the imagination, the use of “compact forms of language” (as Glen Colquhoun puts it), the “hunt for metaphors” (another Colquhoun phrase), and an interest in paradox, are some answers given by the editors and contributors. And Callaghan says that physics and novel-writing both require “constrained creativity”: innovation guided by pre-existing standards.
Going by the stories and poems themselves, science is also a fruitful source of metaphors for writers. Lloyd Jones plays loose with his analogy to light-cones. Margaret Mahy does for space what Jones does for time, linking the thoughts of a dying man, his decrepitude and longing for freedom and a “way out”, to a downward scale of physical objects — from the skin to blood cells to atoms to quarks. Catherine Chidgey’s story about a precocious weight-lifter is less explicit about its physics analogies, but just as reliant on them. “Pressure, load, weight, force, how much a person can bear,” Chidgey writes in her end-note. “Thinking about the meanings of these terms told me about my main character’s nature and relationships as well as his special physical talent.”
But there are dangers in fishing for connections between science and writing, and some of them come to the surface in this book. One danger is to cast the net too widely, and draw in too much. Margaret Mahy writes that science and literature “are not closed-off compounds, but in their various ways are part of the human flow of conjecture.” But it is hard to think of any mental activity that is *not* part of the “human flow of conjecture”. Another danger is to focus on aspects of science (or writing) that are present in, but not distinctive of or essential to, the disciplines in question. Manhire writes about the “resonant power of words” in both science and literature. Paul Callaghan’s response to this is a gentle rebuke, noting that words and their poetry are not the “nub” of science. “Scattering amplitudes” and “temporal sunrise” may be loaded with rhythm, significance, and other forms of literary cash. But the scientist trades in a different currency.
In some places the authors overestimate the compatibility of science and literature, with awkward results. Literature encourages a distinctive style of thought, as does science. In Are Angels OK?, friction between the two styles tells us something about the value as well as the shortcomings of the literary style. Consider first a shortcoming: the kinds of associations that writers make are not always helpful in framing rigorous arguments. Ignoring this can lead authors to use literary tools to do a non-literary job. And a case in point is an essay by playwright and comedian Jo Randerson, called “Everything We Know.”
Randerson’s theme is “relationships”, and her goal is to find a pattern in relationships in nature and apply the pattern to human affairs. Randerson takes the “sandpile phenomenon” as her natural pattern. If you drop sand into a pile and measure the size of each sandslide that occurs, you find that the frequency of sandslides of any given size is inversely proportional to the size of the sandslides: there are lots of small sandslides, a few medium-sized ones, and very few large ones. Crucially, it is hard to predict the size and timing of each sandslide. For Randerson, the sandpile phenomenon is a launching-pad for a meditation on the fundamental interrelatedness of all things. “Everything is connected in life”, so connectedness is good, her reasoning goes. Therefore conflict is bad.
And it follows (somehow) that hierarchies are bad. Boundaries are bad too. After all, “when you put a wall in a body, you get a clot. Blood gathers together in a thickened lump, which would then move fatally through the body.” What follows from this Paracelsean logic? According to Randerson, “my testing disproves the hypothesis.” This is not a form of testing that any scientist would recognise. Perhaps we should share Randerson’s spirit of tolerance and affection for the diversity of things. But if the aim is to come up with sound political and ethical principles, we should not be convinced by Randerson’s style of argument, which is rich in imagery but poor in critical reflection. In a different context, her movement from sandpiles to blood clots to human wars would strike us as the light step of an accomplished writer. In this case it looks like a wobbly polemic.
It pays to compare Randerson’s piece with “Elseswhen.” “This lecture is like a flock of pigeons,” Randerson writes, “and my goal, rather than caging them, is to liberate them and observe the patterns as they flutter out of sight.” This captures Jones’ piece (“Elsewhen”) nicely. There, an idea from science releases a flock of images, memories, jokes, phrases, incidents, and other literary things. Randerson tries to do the same thing, but the result is unconvincing. Why? Because they have different goals: Jones to explore an area of human experience, Randerson to justify a political position. There’s nothing wrong with doing either of those, but only the former can be done well with just the tools of literature. The flipside is that literary tools are good at dealing with concrete human situations: the “everyday transactions of life”, in Jones’ terms. Study the human voice in this collection and the special power of writers becomes clear. Even Margaret Mahy’s story, with its rich descriptions of subcutaneous life, is at its best when describing human life. For all the detail in this story about lipids and unfolding proteins, the details that catch in my mind are about human gestures and instincts and mannerisms, carefully observed by the author: “The old man’s slow fingers were pinching a fold in his bed cover, and rubbing it slowly backwards and forwards. His eyes opened.”
In Elizabeth Knox’s short story “Unobtanium”, the details of time travel in her story are interesting and valuable. But the real talent of the story is to take human foibles and eccentricities and give them colour. For example, Mark is the gifted but wayward brother of Knox’s narrator. Here, in the hospital just before his mother’s death, Mark argues with a doctor. The passage neatly captures his misdirected brilliance. “Mark flinched and snatched is arm back. He began to tremble, but he kept on talking. He had dredged up the name of the new drug. His voice cranked up a notch and in it, just detectable, was a hint of a boast about his recall, about what he knew — an eagerness completely out of keeping with the deathbed.
The doctor said, plainly, that the drug wasn’t suitable in these kinds of cases.
Mark went on as though he hadn’t heard.”
It is no surprise that the authors appeal to human psychology in their descriptions of natural phenomena. Scientists, as scientists, have no interest in making nature vivid or easy to grasp to ordinary readers. But this is just what the likes of Knox and Jones are good at. Here is Lloyd Jones writing on time: “I never knew that time could bend like sheet metal. I sort of accepted that time came packaged in clocks and watches. I never realised that there was such a thing as big time and little time. Little time belongs to us. It sits on our shoulder from the time we are born and rides us all the way to the grave. Big time belongs to the cosmos. Big time is showtime — space is a fat boy who just gets fatter.”
This sort of writing is useless as science. And insofar as it lacks rigour or precision, it falls short of communicating science. True, it describes natural phenomena in terms that people can understand — we all know what a “fat boy” is, and the metaphor of “riding to the grave” will move most of us. But the “fat boy” metaphor conveys nothing of scientific substance except the notion of perpetual expansion. All the other associations of “fat boy”, rich as they may be, don’t help us to understand the nature of the cosmos. In the trade-off between rigor and accessibility, Jones puts all his money on accessibility.
Is the literary style necessarily at odds with communicating science, with its precise concepts and detailed arguments? Is it better able to communicate science than, say, Richard Dawkins’ style of writing? Whatever the answers, Are Angels OK? reminds us that the literary style gives us something that science does not: a feeling for human psychology, how it plays out in real life and how it responds to words and images. To conclude, here are a few lines from one of Vincent O’Sullivan’s poems in the collection:
I like the stories, although the stories
are not what it’s about…
..Rutherford as a boy when his mother
tells him, through a storm, what makes
lightening strike, he answers politely,
‘No, no it doesn’t, mum’
But that
is like liking the wrapping wrapped around
the gift, the gift as much in the dark
as the famous cat…
O’Sullivan is quite right that stories are not what science is about.
Focus on the stories and you miss out on the real gift of science. But nor is science the nub of a story. Focus on the science in a story and you miss out on the real gift of literature. A stern critic would say that Are Angels OK? fails because it does not give us the best of science and the best of literature in one shot. But if the collection fails in that respect it is because the natures of science and writing do not allow it, not because of any weakness in the authors. Where the collection succeeds is in exploring the various ways in science can sit side-by-side with literature. In doing so it traces out the limits of that project, and tells us something about the strength and weaknesses of the people on both sides of the lab door. The collaborative spirit wins out, even if some of the combinations look clunky. Scientists and writers may not be close neighbours, this book says, but they can make excellent friends.
Paperback:  
Review by Michael Bycroft

Monday, 14 September 2009

God’s Philosophers – James Hannam ****

If you read many histories of European science, you would think that the Greeks did some interesting thinking about natural phenomena (even if they mostly got it wrong), then there was a 1500-or-so-year gap, and then in the Renaissance, the scientific baton was picked up again. The medieval period is considered an intellectual desert. Worse, one where opinions on nature were actively suppressed by the religious authorities.
James Hannam sets out to fill in clearer picture of what really happened in science (or, more accurately, natural philosophy) in this period. He takes us through some fascinating stories of characters you might not expect to find in a history of science – Abelard of the Abelard and Heloise love story, for instance – and puts paid to many myths about the way the church suppressed the study of nature, or that medieval thinkers had limited ideas of reality, such as the assumption that the Earth was flat (an idea never held by the educated since the time of the Ancient Greeks).
I was interested to see how Hannam would deal with Roger Bacon, having written a book on Bacon – inevitably he is decidedly summary, but gets most of the main points across. Bacon comes across in Hannam’s picture as a man who was taken with magic, which seems odd at first when Bacon wrote specifically denying the existence of magic – but this is due rather different ideas between the two of them on what magic was considered to be. Hannam misses a lot of the drama of Bacon’s story – slightly strange when he includes plenty on some of the other characters – and quite a lot of his achievements, but still does as well as you could expect in a book that has a lot of ground to cover, and this bodes well for the effectiveness of the rest of the content.
I don’t have any problem with the considerable portion of the book applied to religious ideas of the period, because it’s impossible to separate science and theology in the period – if you are going to look into the scientific ideas of this period there is no way to avoid it. Nor was I worried about the way much of it felt as much history as history of science, as it filled some real gaps in my knowledge. What I have slightly more trouble with is Hannam’s sometimes rather smug attitude to others who haven’t got his insight, or who dirty their hands writing popular science. At one point, for instance, he says of Galileo’s book on Copernican theory: ‘The modern genre it most resembles is popular science of the sort that tries to convince lay readers that they can understand relativity or string theory while glossing over the difficult points.’ This comment is at best insulting to the writers and condescending to the readers of popular science.
But if you are prepared to overlook the occasional fault, this is a very useful book for filling in the gaps that most of us have in our awareness of the development of scientific thinking, and as such it’s an essential for the student of the history of science.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Doomsday Men – P. D. Smith ***

Subtitled ‘The Real Doctor Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon’, there’s an interesting mix here of history, science and fiction in tracing the origins and reality of the atomic bomb, the hydrogen bomb and the like. It’s hard to pin down what it does cover – for example it has relatively little on the Manhattan Project. Science probably takes third place of these, in a book that sometimes is hung around a biography of Leo Szilard, one of the pioneers of atomic bomb theory, and sometimes heads off in totally different directions.
There’s a lot to interest in this story of an obsession with weapons of mass destruction, neatly underlined by one of the diversions into the gas attacks of the first world war. The science is there, but fairly quickly skimmed over – this is much more a history/biography than a popular science book.
Smith’s style is sometimes a little grating – he tend to throw in lots of little quotes that can leave the reader reeling a little. Something that didn’t really appeal to me as much as the rest of the book was the way that he often made long references to fiction. Sometimes it wasn’t at all clear whether what was being described was fiction or fact, and though it was interesting to have some bits of fiction referenced – a lot of the paranoia about these weapons seems to have come from the fictional side – there was far too much here, unless you are a sci-fi buff.
Oddly, with this title, it wasn’t really clear who Smith sees as ‘the real Dr Strangelove’ – or rather, there isn’t one individual, though inevitably Teller and von Neumann come into the equation.
Paperback:  
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Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 4 September 2009

Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing – Richard Dawkins (ed.) ****

While it’s possible to quibble about the ‘modern’ in the title (it seems to mean twentieth century, with a bit of truly modern thrown in), this an excellent opportunity to dip a toe into the writings of a wide range of science writers, which is truly welcome.
All too often a collection like this has a few stars and the rest are also-rans, but here there is a truly stellar set of names. There are great names of science itself – Einstein, Feynman, Crick and Watson, Gamow, Turing and Hawking to skim but a few – and some of the best popularizers too. Richard Dawkins himself doesn’t have a contribution, arguably a mistake, as whatever you think of his ideas on science and religion, he is a good science writer. However, we don’t entirely miss out on the Dawkins wit and wisdom, as he contributes pithy prefaces to each extract – and extracts from books they are mostly, rather than short pieces in their own right.
It is very difficult to pick out favourites from such a rich collection. It isn’t always the obvious. I liked the rather humble and insight giving views of Freeman Dyson’s memory of a particular part of his early career. Ian Stewart’s exploration of infinity was elegant and enjoyable. And I was delighted to find a short piece by Fred Hoyle that explored a biological theme, rather than his usual cosmology. I could go on almost indefinitely.
Of course, as is always the case with lists and favourites, I can’t agree with all the choices. I wasn’t particularly thrilled or informed by Richard Gregory’s piece on why mirrors seem to reverse left and right but not top and bottom – an effect that can be much better and less pompously explored – and I have to admit reluctantly that Einstein’s piece is more there to get Einstein in than because it’s particularly interesting.
I’m not sure this a book many people would read cover to cover, but it’s great to dip into, to find science writing that intrigues you, and to follow up that author or book to get into some fascinating reading.
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Also in hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Before the Big Bang – Brian Clegg *****

It's always a bit of a struggle to know how to review books written by our editor, Brian Clegg. For this book we’ve gone for a summary of what it’s about and a few quotes from an independent review in Kirkus Reviews.
This is the thesis of the book:
Since astrophysicist Fred Hoyle coined “Big Bang” as a term of abuse for a theory that he despised, it has become everyday usage. Although few of us really understand what the Big Bang was, it is now accepted wisdom that this was how the universe began. But the idea of Big Bang doesn’t so much answer questions as raise new ones. If the universe as we know it originated in the Big Bang, what came before? And the Big Bang is not set in stone. It’s just the current favorite of a number of theories that explain the origins of the universe. At one time a taboo subject, science is now prepared to look back past the beginning – to answer the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything with something more satisfying than Douglas Adams’ cryptic 42.
It includes:
  • Why there is more doubt about the Big Bang theory than is often stated
  • How our current best ideas on the origins of the universe came into being
  • How the universe could have been started by a collision of membranes in multidimensional space
  • Why the Matrix isn’t necessarily all fantasy
  • How the universe could be in a black hole or a hologram
  • How ‘before’ is meaningless in the standard Big Bang theory

… and much more
And here’s part of the review:
Excellent popular history of how humans understand the universe…
British science writer Clegg (Upgrade Me: Our Amazing Journey to Human 2.0, 2008, etc.) excels in recounting the struggle over our universe’s origin, which most—but not all—agree lies in a vast primeval expansion known as the Big Bang. Readers may roll their eyes as brilliant scientists propose explanations of how the Bang led to the universe we see today, only to confront new, unsettling astronomical phenomena—dark energy, dark matter—that create questions faster than they can be answered. The author emphasizes that, unlike relativity or evolution, Big Bang cosmology is not a coherent system backed by overwhelming evidence but a clumsy, ad hoc premise whose gaps are plugged with theoretical band-aids or simply left open to frustrate scientists. Clegg follows the footsteps of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, Steven Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and Timothy Ferris’s Coming of Age in the Milky Way. He shares his predecessors’ enthusiasm, eloquence and ability to explain complex ideas but provides a bonus by covering startling developments of the past decade…
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Review by Kirkus