Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Hope for Animals and Their World – Jane Goodall ****

Jane Goodall is one of those figures in science (or, at least, natural history) who is near mythical. I have to confess to a tendency to confuse her with Diane Fossey (not to be confused with Bob Fosse), so I was slightly surprised that she was English and lives in Bournemouth. However what is certainly not mythical is her enthusiasm for animals which in this book (co-written with Thane Maynard and Gail Hudson) she manages to put across in spades.
The idea is that we hear so much doom and gloom about animals being driven to extinction by climate change and human intervention, and this is a chance to hear the good news – the stories of animals we have managed to bring back from the brink. This works very well. It is heartening to hear. Also fascinating to see the in-fighting between those conservationists who believe animals should always be left in their natural habit and those who believe captive breeding is often essential. Goodall comes down on the side of the captive breeders, and it really does look like the other camp is putting philosophy ahead of the survival of animals.
The writing style is very light and personal. Some of it is almost as if it’s written by a very well-read ten-year-old. I don’t mean that to sound condescending – Goodall is certainly child-like in her joy in living creatures, but not childish. It’s just that this isn’t polished science writing, it’s more like reading a personal journal. I used to love Gerald Durrell’s books as a child, and I was reminded of that same personal enthusiasm and involvement.
I only had two small problems with this book. One was the sheer length of it. It’s 380 pages without the index, and to be honest, while there are obviously big differences between stories of black robins and of condors, there are just so many ‘bird being saved’ stories you can read without them getting a bit samey. I think there’s a bit of ‘famous author syndrome’ here – the editor didn’t dare suggest cutting down. I think the book would have been better with about half the case stories and a bit more depth to the science.
The other problem is that there was a touch of hypocrisy in the way we are encouraged not to destroy the world, yet Jane Goodall clearly flies thousands of miles each year, visiting many countries. This really isn’t justifiable, given the impact of that travel on the environment. (There’s even a section on the back that seems to encourage people to travel the world to see these creatures. No! Don’t! Just read about them, please.)
Despite those concerns, this is a really interesting book. I would have liked to see something about how we should make the decisions on which species to concentrate on. We see a lot of time, effort and money being spent on specific species – there’s no way we could afford to do this for (say) every insect in danger. How do we make those decisions? Even so it is good to know that some species have been hauled back from the brink – and good to see Goodall’s enthusiasm, shining through every page.
Also hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Don’t be Such a Scientist – Randy Olson ***

I have to admit up front that this book doesn’t score as well as it should because it’s not really popular science. I think it’s an excellent book – but the audience really is the science community, and though scientists do read popular science (often outside their own discipline), a true popular science book should appeal to non-scientists.
The reason it’s so targeted is that this book is designed to tell scientists how to communicate better. It’s rather strange that it’s subtitled ‘talking substance in an age of style,’ because what it really is about is teaching scientists how to add style and subtract substance. That might seem like heresy – but Randy Olson argues quite rightly that the scientist’s pernickety insistence on getting everything just right and not really worrying about how glossy the presentation is simply doesn’t wash in a mass media world.
Olson went from being a biology professor to Hollywood, so is ideally placed to gently lead the scientific lambs to the communications slaughter. He rightly points out how scientists can bore people, and even worse can put them off by talking down to them. He points out how some science bloggers (and though he doesn’t mention him, the likes of Richard Dawkins) take an attitude that’s effectively ‘if you don’t agree with me, you are stupid.’ This isn’t any way to win people over to your argument.
In the main it’s a great book with lots of useful guidance. The only area I’d disagree is Olson’s assertion that the future is film, and that in the future we’ll see lots of scientists communicating via home made videos. I think video content will increase, but blogs and Twitter (for example) are, to me, much better ways to communicate science than amateurish videos. And realistically, most scientists aren’t going to do what Olson did and take time off from their careers to go to film school for several years.
So – highly recommended for all scientists and even science writers. We all could be better at the way we communicate science. Though Olson’s book isn’t a step-by-step guide to science communication – it’s much more broad brush – it will help get an understanding of where scientists get it wrong. which is more than half the battle. For the right audience, highly recommended.
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Instant Egghead Guide: Physics – Brian Clegg ***

Physics is a strange subject. It should be exciting, but all too often it’s dull. This little book is an attempt to make physics interesting. I’m not quite clear whether it’s aimed at older children or adults – it would work for either, but it could have been clearer. The pocket-sized book is divided into sections on matter, quantum theory, light, relativity, forces and energy. What’s neat about it is that it doesn’t start with the boring stuff – it plunges in with modern physics, and only pulls in the classical where necessary.
The format is 100 short articles, each of which has ‘the basics’, ‘on the frontier’ and one or two ‘cocktail party tidbits’, which works quite well. They’re all very readable and presented in a breezy style that makes it easy to keep going.
However, just as I’m not sure who the book is aimed at, I’m not sure what it’s for either. You could read it through from beginning to end – it works better than most short article based books in this respect – but equally you could dip in here and there as an introductory reference.
It’s frustrating, because this is a well-written book on an essential subject. I think it makes a really good background reading book for a school science student – it’s highly recommended for this – or an entertaining overview for the general reader. But with a different format it would have been even better.
Review by Jo Reed
Please note, this title is written by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion – and we could hardly omit the book – but do want to make the connection clear.

The Brain Book – Rita Carter ****

This is a strange book, using a children’s book format for a serious subject. It has Dorling Kindersley’s usual format of splitting a topic up into two page spreads, which are highly illustrated and filled with little items – an approach that tends to be thought of as best for children – and applies it to the ‘structure, function and disorders’ of the brain.
Given that incongruity it really shouldn’t work as a serious adult title – but it is surprisingly good. It’s easy to get sucked in and just read one more page. The format is still highly inferior to a ‘proper’ book for the pure popular science delight of sitting down to a good read about a science subject. The book can’t flow the way it should with this layout, and the pictures and bitty structure just get in the way – but even so, the content is sufficiently good that it overcomes the format and still works as a popular science title.
As you move through the book you will pick up information on the structure of the brain and how it fits into the body’s mechanisms, the senses, movement and control, emotions, social behaviour, language, memory, intelligence, creativity, consciousness and oddities of the brain. Although the illustrations are just too much for me, and can see many would appreciate the mix of powerful colour photographs and classy graphics. It’s often in the little details that Rita Carter triumphs, when she catches your attention with some little fact that entertains. And to balance out the heavier sections there are items, for instance, on cognitive illusions that provide a little extra fun.
The other problem from the point of view of this being a reading book, rather than a picture book is the sheer weight of the thing. After holding it five minutes my wrists were aching. It weighs in at a pretty massive 1.6 kilos. I also couldn’t really see the point of the section on disorders at the back – it was much too technical for the ordinary reader, but too simplistic for the professional. The blurb says it’s ‘an essential manual for students and healthcare professionals’ as well as being a reference for the family, but somehow I can’t see many healthcare professionals tucking into a Dorling Kindersley illustrated guide to their subject.
All-in-all, then, something of an oddity that works despite itself. If you want to know about the brain and how it works it’s highly recommended.
Review by Jo Reed

Heatstroke – Anthony D. Barnosky *****

I thought I knew what this book would be about as soon as I saw that subtitle ‘nature in an age of global warming’. Save the polar bear, blah, blah… pity the poor furry creature. In fact it proved to be a wonderful surprise. What hits you first is Anthony Barnosky’s excellent writing style. It’s pitched at just the right level. It draws you in, keeps you interested and never gets stuffy. There’s enough of Barnosky’s voice in there to make it personal, and he really knows how put science across with enthusiasm and to great effect.
Then there’s the content. Barnosky carefully shows us how climate change has affected nature in the past – how some species adapt or move to cope while others will inevitably be wiped out. In that, the impact of global warming on nature is a perfectly normal occurrence. But, he argues, things are different now, in part because of the different pace of change, and in part because we have chopped up nature into small chunks and pushed species so close to their limits. The result is that there can be no unaided escape for many, many species. It should be obvious really. As climates have changed in the past, a species would move with its preferred climate. But if you’re cooped up in a national park in one part of the country and need to head north (say), what can you do when there’s a city and miles of concrete roads in the way?
Even if we don’t care about the at-risk species in isolation, Barnosky points out how much we benefit from having access to nature. There’s a risk here of using the Tefal ploy. This is the spurious argument for the space programme that says it’s worth spending all those billions on it because we get all the spinoffs. Like, er, non-stick frying pans. But there is a stronger argument for the benefits of nature, whether its in medicine or Barnosky’s example of the heat resistant bacteria, without which we would never have developed any of the DNA manipulation technology we use today, from DNA fingerprinting to medical applications of being able to slice and dice DNA. This still isn’t a great argument for saving the lesser spotted snark (or whatever), but it’s fair to say we don’t know what we need to save until we find the application.
One danger with such a book is that it’s all doom and gloom and there are no solutions. That isn’t the case here. While Barnosky’s suggestions for doing our own bits to save the planet (use low energy lightbulbs etc.) are fairly trivial he’s strong on suggestions for dealing with the impact of climate change on wildlife environments with a mantra of keep, connect, create that is persuasively argued. Whether it’s possible to find funding for this in a climate of recession is a different matter – but Barnosky certainly carries the day with his arguments.
My only concern about this book is the accuracy of one crucial piece of information. It repeatedly refers to the fact that recent global warming is much faster than any natural warming, saying that we could have a rise of up to 5 °C in as little as fifty years. This is compared with a similar rise between the last ice period and the current interglacial, which took hundreds of years to happen, allowing species to adapt. Contrast this with a comment by Australian climate change expert Will Steffen who said ‘Abrupt change seems to be the norm, not the exception.’ According to him, on 23 occasions during the last ice age, air temperatures went through massive climbs, pushing temperatures up by as much as 10 °C in around 40 years. Similarly Richard Alley, in a report for the US National Academy of Sciences, concluded ‘Recent scientific evidence shows that major and widespread climate changes have occurred with startling speed… this new thinking is little known and scarcely appreciated in the wider community of natural and social scientists and policymakers.’ While this contradiction doesn’t undermine all the other great stuff in Heatstroke, it is a rather worrying contrast of information.
All in all, this is a superb book with a powerful message that we ignore at our peril. There is much more at stake than the poster-animal polar bear. It’s something we ought to hear more about. Highly recommended.
Review by Brian Clegg