Monday, 23 November 2009

Why Us? – James Le Fanu ***

Subtitled ‘how science rediscovered the mystery of ourselves’ this is a celebration of the fact that simple reductionist science, based on mapping genes to function and monitoring individual areas of the brain, has not been able to pin down just why humans are as they are and behave as they do – and that’s not a bad thing. Because science isn’t an infallible source of truth, as some seem to think. Not scientists, I hasten to add. They are usually well aware that science isn’t about finding ‘truth’ but the best model we can devise given current data. All scientific theories and models are subject to future revision and scrapping. Which is an important lesson to learn – but it’s not really what James Le Fanu is setting out to tell us.
What Why Us sets out to do is to take on both the idea that evolution by natural selection can be responsible for the origin of species (as opposed to micro-evolutionary changes like Darwin’s famous finch bills), and the idea that we can understand how the brain produces a conscious being. On evolution, Le Fanu seems to be putting forward something similar to Stephen Gould’s idea of punctuated equilibrium, but I have to say ‘seems to be’ because his approach is much more about knocking conventional evolutionary wisdom than it is about putting forward a coherent alternative.
Le Fanu rehearses some of the hoary old arguments about lack of transitional fossils between species and much more. The trouble is, he seems to be arguing against a popular science view of evolution, rather than the sort of thing a modern evolutionary biologist would recognize. Inevitably things are simplified for the general reader, and I’m not sure Le Fanu’s arguments hold up against the real science. In one sense his attack is useful. Most scientists are reluctant to challenge evolutionary theory because of fear that creationists will pounce on perfectly reasonable scientific doubt about the detail of the science and suggest that just because evolutionary theory isn’t perfect, then the creationist alternative must be true. There are flaws in evolutionary theory – but I’m not sure they’re as big or as significant as Le Fanu suggests. And even if they are killer blows for the current theory, I don’t think that they show, as Le Fanu seems to suggest, that we have to hold up our hands and say ‘Here’s something science can’t deal with.’ It just means we need a better theory.
I’ve a little more sympathy with his attack on the idea that the conscious human self is nothing more than chemical reactions and electrical impulses – unlike evolution, there really isn’t a good explanation for where our conscious minds come from, how they are produced by that electro-chemical mix. Here Le Fanu is on stronger ground, though again I’m not sure he doesn’t leap too far to say that this is something science will never address. Yes there is, as the subtitle puts it, a ‘mystery of ourselves’, but it might not remain so forever. Even so, it’s certainly true that all the detail biologists have studied on the brain and how our DNA maps out what we will be gives us no real clue as to the answer to this conundrum – it’s more like to come from a totally different direction, perhaps from physics rather than biology.
If I’m honest, there are a couple of things I don’t like here. One is the writing style. Throughout Le Fanu maintains the sort of flowery, hand-waving style that’s fine for introductions and conclusions, but not for the meat of a book. I would have liked the style to settle down a bit. Perhaps more importantly, he’s more than a touch cavalier with the facts to fit with that hand-waving style. Four quick examples. He describes the Big Bang as taking place 15 billion years ago – that’s over a billion years out from current estimates. Secondly, he makes it sound as if the Big Bang is definite, comparing it with the relationships between human precursors, which is based on theory with limited substantiation – in fact the Big Bang is very similar in its dependence on one possible theory among several.
And then there’s a bizarre statement about a stone age carving of a bison. ‘It is not a sculpture of a specific object, but rather a generalized image of a class of objects… It is the idea of a bison.’ How does he know this? You can imagine a writer 10,000 years in the future saying of Nelson’s column: ‘It is not a sculpture of a specific man, but rather a generalized image of a class of objects… It is the idea of a man.’ Really strange. Oddest of all is the statement ‘There are (to put it simply) three forces of order’ which he identifies as gravity, genes and the human mind. What about the other three fundamental forces of nature? Does he not think, for example, that the electromagnetic force, without which there would be no matter (and even if there was, objects would not be able to touch each other) is not an important force of order? This smacks of ignorance. He does make a reference to there being four forces later on, but it’s a throwaway line, as if the others are relatively insignificant, rather than being vastly more powerful than gravity.
All in all, what James Le Fanu sets out to do is not a bad thing, but this is a muddled book that doesn’t achieve that goal.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Boyle: between God and Science – Michael Hunter ***

I was really looking forward to this book as Robert Boyle is one of the least written about of the important people in the history of science, and before picking up Michael Hunter’s book I knew very little about him. I now know a lot more – but not always the things I wanted to know.
There are broadly three types of biography of a scientist. There’s the detailed historian’s biography, poring over every little document and providing an intensely detailed description of the individual’s life. The sort of biography that would make a great reference source, but frankly isn’t bedtime reading. Then there’s the populist biography, with all the rip-roaring personal details, but not enough about the science. Finally there’s the true popular science biography, which should combine the essentials about the person’s life – enough to get a feeling that you know the person without getting bored – with an exploration of the science this individual was responsible for. After all, what’s the point of reading a biography of a scientist, if you don’t find out about the science? It might as well be a biography of a shoemaker. (Nothing personal about shoemakers, here.)
Sadly, though it is, I am sure, a superbly researched tome, Hunter’s biography sits squarely in the first category. You can get a feel for the writer’s enthusiasm for all the minutiae and documentation on which it is based – which is fine – but the writing never captures the imagination. I don’t care about Robert Boyle as a result of this – it could just as well be an extremely long (beautifully documented) laundry list.
But the reason this book is, for me, an abject failure is that it skips over the science. Boyle is, of course, famous for Boyle’s Law, the gas law that tells us pressure times volume is constant. If you don’t concentrate hard you could miss Hunter’s reference to this altogether, it is so summarily covered, with no feeling for the context of the discovery and its implications. To give another example (there are many), we are given some details of an experiment that Boyle makes with nitre – but no attempt is made to even say what nitre is, let alone whether the experiment has any modern significance. We are just given a description of what was undertaken in Boyle’s own terminology. This isn’t good enough.
I’m not saying that I didn’t learn a lot from this book – I did. I vaguely knew that Boyle was Anglo-Irish, not in the sense of being half English and half Irish, but in the period sense of being of an English family with (extensive) landholdings in Ireland. But I didn’t know how rich he was, or about his life of celibacy, his relationship with the Royal Society, his extensive theological writings or his time spent in Oxford. Similarly I knew that Boyle stood at the crossroads where chemistry veered away from alchemy, but didn’t realize that (like Newton) his interest in alchemy was not an early concern to be discarded as he learned more, but rather something he got deeper into when his chemical ideas where already matured.
So, if you need to read up on Boyle, this is certainly a book worth consulting. But don’t expect either good writing on the science, or an enjoyable, readable text. Michael Hunter is a pure historian, not a historian of science, and an academic one at that. This isn’t a bad thing per se – but doesn’t make him the ideal choice if what you want is a popular scientific biography.
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Chance: the life of games & the game of life – J P Marques de Sa ***

Chance is a fascinating subject. Probability has a huge impact on our lives, but we have a very poor natural grasp of it (hence all the people entering lotteries). In this practically sized paperback, Engineering professor J P Marques de Sa sets out to explain probability from scratch.
It’s a bit of a frustrating read because it could have been so much better. Marques de Sa is occasionally quite lyrical in his description of chance processes – but very soon this book settles down into being much more of a textbook than a popular science title. Despite the famous advice given to Stephen Hawking that every equation halves the readership of a book, I don’t mind a few equations in a popular science book, but they shouldn’t be a means of driving the argument forward – you should be able to get the point of the book while skipping over the equations, and that just isn’t the case here. They are fundamental from the beginning, and soon they are most of the argument.
I would also have liked to have seen a bit more of ‘the game of life’ and a bit less of ‘the life of games’ – there was too much concentration on games, which are fine to introduce probability, but it would have been good if we got more into practical applications as the book built.
What we end up with is a title that really is rather a good introductory probability book – I would recommend it, for instance, for science students – but is certainly not recommendable as popular science reading material.
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Science and Islam: a history – Ehsan Masood ****

“Animals engage in a struggle for existence [and] for resources, to avoid being eaten and to breed…Environmental factors influence organisms to develop new characteristics to ensure survival, thus transforming into new species. Animals that survive to breed can pass on their successful characteristics to [their] offspring.”
Is this Richard Dawkins writing in the 21st Century? Or Lamarck in the 19th? Or some godless renegade in 17th Century Europe? Not even close. The author is al-Jahiz, a science writer from 9th Century Baghdad. The surprising thing is not that an Islamic author could write such a thing so early, but that we are surprised to learn that he could – that’s what Ehsan Masood would say, at any rate. And readers of Science and Islam will probably agree with him by end of this lively and user-friendly book on Islamic science during the so-called Dark Ages and beyond.
Part 1 of the book mixes a potted history of Islam with descriptions of the patrons, institutions and practitioners of science in each major regime from 700AD to 1300AD. The story is long but compactly told. In the space of four chapters and seven centuries, Islamic science flowers in Damascus, Baghdad, and Egypt before being cut down by the Mongols and Tartars. Along the way Masood sketches some of the many colourful figures of the time, like the bird-man ibn-Firnas and the scientific advisor who is unable to build a dam on the Nile and feigns madness to avoid the wrath of his caliph.
Part 2 hones in on the science of this “staggering renaissance.” Masood covers medicine, astronomy, mathematics, chemistry, and engineering, in that order, with a post-script on evolution, optics, and Islamic universities. When describing the heroes of Islamic science and their remarkable work, Masood keeps one eye on their Greek heritage and another on their European successors. Comparisons are odious, but illuminating: Islamic scientists are all the more impressive when we learn that they questioned Galen on medicine, challenged Ptolemy on cosmology, and made direct contributions to the work of Copernicus, Kepler, Fermat, Newton, and the engineers of the industrial revolution.
Part 3 looks at Islamic science in the 19th and early 20th century, and draws some lessons for the future. This is not just an epilogue. It asks what the scientific revolutionaries of the 17th Century thought about Islamic science, whether the Ottomans were wise to borrow from Western science in the 19th Century, and whether imperialist science was a good thing for India. These are all delicate questions with ambiguous answers, and Masood gives a balanced survey. To end, he picks up a thread that runs right through the book, the violence of pro-science Islamic rulers. “If science is to return to the nations of Islam,” Masood concludes, “it must do so without interfering with people’s freedom to believe.”
This conclusion is wrong if taken too literally. Surely a belief in evolution (for example) will interfere with a person’s freedom to believe that the earth was created 6000 years ago – and rightly so. Still, Masood does well to remind us that dictatorial rule does not help the cause of science, even if the dictator is pro-science. This book also reminds us of another easy-to-forget truth: for most of its history, Islamic science flourished alongside the teachings of Muhammad, not in spite of them – and sometimes, as for medicine, it flourished because of those teachings.
Science and Islam has some gaps. Sometimes Masood left me hanging after skipping past what seemed to be key achievements in Islamic science. One is the passage quoted at the top of this review, which summarises not just evolution but also a mechanism for evolution that resembles evolution by inherited characteristics; another is the controlled clinical trial conducted by the medic al-Razi to test the theory of bloodletting. Clinical trials and evolution are such monuments of modern science that I expected Masood to say more about their role in Islamic science. Also, Islamic science from 1300 to 1800 gets little attention – which is fine for such a small book, but Masood does not explain the omission.
Topics that require equations or diagrams are not well-covered. When it comes to Islamic optics Masood gives 4 pages to theories of sight – which are easy to describe qualitatively – and only 2 paragraphs to refraction, reflection, and other theories of how light travels. The chapter on number gives a good survey of Islamic mathematicians but is light on algebra, perhaps their most important contribution in this field. A diagram or two in the chapter on astronomy may have clarified concepts such as the “Tusi couple”, a mathematical tool for simplifying Ptolemy’s model of the heavens. However, in place of technical detail the book has up-to-date scholarship, an asset for understanding the Islamic influence on Copernicus, the water clocks of al-Jazari, and numerous other topics.
Science and Islam faces the dual challenge of covering a technical subject (science) and a neglected period of history (the East during the Dark Ages). The book is aimed at a general audience, the majority of which will be unfamiliar with one or both of these topics. Masood answers both challenges well. His smooth prose and bite-sized format are easy on the novice palate (there is a new sub-chapter every 2 pages or so). All but the most learned readers will come away with their image of both science and Islam refreshed.
Review by Michael Bycroft

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Ice, Mud and Blood – Chris Turney ****

Anyone new to the climate change debate is bound to wonder whether a 5-6 degree increase in temperatures is really all that bad – especially if the person is cold, English, and nostalgic for summer. A good reply to this wonderment is to say that the last time the globe was 5 or 6 degrees colder, there were glaciers in the South of England, and the melting ice caused Britain to split off from France.
Chris Turney, a geologist at the University of Exeter, knows as well as anyone that climates past have lessons for climates present. In Ice, Mud and Blood, Turney’s humour and expertise make for a jaunty, fascinating account of how past climates worked and how scientists find out about them. But Turney spends little time linking past climate to present climate; so, as a contribution to the climate change debate, the book doesn’t live up to its promise.
As Turney points out, it’s a wonder that we know anything about past climate at all. Natural climate change occurs over vast periods, and events in the intervening millennia have played havoc with the evidence. Turney does a great job of showing how scientific detective work can, against the odds, give a clear and convincing picture of some key events in the last 3/4 billion years of earth weather.
To give one example: how could we possibly know that the tropics were covered in ice between 580 and 710 million years ago? As Turney explains, certain kinds of rocks tell us that glaciers once appeared in, among other places, Namibia; and the magnetism of the rocks assures us that those glaciers did indeed form at tropical latitudes. You might object – as some scientists did – that the earth had a bigger tilt back then, so that Namibia once swung around the freezing poles. A study of ‘evaporites’ – salt deposits from drying lakes that only occur in hot dry areas – puts paid to that objection, as do ocean deposits of iridium. As this example hints, paleo-climatologists can get technical at times. But their work is as impressive as cosmologists probing into deep space or particle physics getting into the guts of an atom.
The instruments used to detect past climates have their own fascination. The ice cores of Greenland and Antarctica – pipes of ancient ice, kilometres in length, drawn from some of the world’s most inhospitable climates – make for a good story, and Turney tells it well. Because these ‘archives’ of past climate are so hard to read, paleo-climatology is also tale of wrong turns, misinterpretations and dead-ends. Where there is just not enough data for scientists to draw solid conclusions – about the effect of climate change on cyclones in the Western Atlantic, for example – Turney is not afraid to say so. Where multiple sets of data converge on the same conclusion, he drives the point home.
Turney’s chirpy prose is helped along by sketches of the charismatic pioneers and hard-bitten explorers in the science of weather. Extra spice comes from Turney’s taste for history, love of hands-on research, and nose for a big idea. The big ideas include some intriguing conjectures about the interaction of climate and early humans. For example, Turney argues that the concentration of diabetes in Nothern Europe could be explained as an evolutionary response to the Younger Dyas, a cold period in the North Atlantic that ended around 10,000 BC.
Turney is rock-solid on the science of past climates, but cracks start to appear when he draws conclusions about current climate change. The problem starts with the book’s structure. It is arranged as a chronology of past climate, not as an argument for the state of current climate. Turney tries to link past to present in a final conclusion, where he asks ‘What does this all mean for the future?’ But it’s all a bit vague and last-minute. He simply draws some general lessons from the preceding 192 pages of history: greenhouse gases can power massive changes in climate; feedback effects can amplify small changes; and human action can rearrange our land, sea and atmosphere on a large scale. Compared to the quantitative detail of the other chapters, this conclusion is just hand-waving.
There is no doubt that, in the past, human activity, high temperatures, and high levels of methane and carbon dioxide, all caused big – sometimes cataclysmic – changes to weather and geography. But is our current situation quantatively similar to those past changes? Turney does not give a clear case. When he asks the numbers question, his answer is a short account of the famous ‘hockey-stick’ study, a comparison of temperature changes in the last century with those over the previous millennium. One wonders what happened to the previous seven chapters and the previous 700 million years they cover. Do the most recent climates give the best lessons, after all?
A determined reader might dig through the chapters to see if Turney makes the link between past climate to present climate on the run. Such a reader will find a number of hearty calls to action, but little hard-and-fast argument. For example, Turney emphasises the role of CO2 in the warming that occurred during the Eemian period around 120,000 years ago. But he also emphasises that increases in carbon dioxide lagged behind the warming. And the evidence he cites for CO2-driven warming considers just one ice core and takes up one paragraph. On some topics – such as the dynamics of melting ice – Turney makes a stronger case, but only with the help of models and evidence drawn from studies of present-day climate.
Ice, mud and Blood could have been more streamlined and persuasive. As a call to action on climate change, it is a missed opportunity. But as a story of scientific ingenuity and the wonders of nature, it takes every chance – and succeeds.
Review by Michael Bycroft