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Showing posts from June, 2010

Tesla: Man out of Time – Margaret Cheney ***

It’s hard to imagine a better subject for a scientific biography than Nikola Tesla. You only have to take in the cameo appearance of Tesla as a character in the movie The Prestige – the sense of mystery, the weird electrical experiments, the larger-than-life character… and yet someone who simply doesn’t register on the modern mind the way, for instance, Edison still does. This biography of Tesla is strong on his emotional life (as much as can be known – very little seems to be sure about him), his involvement in the New York social scene at the start of the 20th century and his strange mix of master engineer and showman. What seems quite remarkable to modern eyes is that financially Tesla’s fortunes were often rather low, yet he continued as much as possible to live the high life, expecting the hotels he spent his life in to provide 14 napkins per meal and to put up with his habit of bringing stray pigeons into his room. Unfortunately, where Margaret Cheney struggles is the science. S…

Elegance in Science – Ian Glynn ***

Here we have a study of elegance, which author Ian Glynn explains is characteristic of the best science, and has the capacity to provide scientists with a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction. Although difficult to define exactly, elegance here has to do with a kind of simplicity or conciseness, a perhaps surprising ability to illuminate and explain, ingenuity, and creativity. Throughout the book, Glynn takes some of the most successful theories, explanations and experiments in the history of science, with the aim of explaining the elegance in each. One of the longer sections, for instance, looks at Newton’s laws of motion and his theory of gravitation. The elegance of these taken together, the book explains, lay in the fact that, whilst being remarkably simple, they were able to account for an astonishing amount of phenomena, and provided a basis from which both Kepler’s laws of planetary motion and Galileo’s laws of freefall and projectile motion, discovered beforehand, could be …

The Climate Files – Fred Pearce *****

Books take a long time in production. A typical book will take at least a year to write, then another year from being submitted to the publisher to hitting the shops. So when a book comes out much quicker than this, you have to be a little suspicious of the quality of the content. The Climate Files has, without doubt, been rushed out. It tells the story of the leak of emails and other materials from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (CRU) that has proved such fruitful fodder for those who want to attack the idea of a human contribution to global warming. The leak itself happened in November 2009 and we see references to events in March 2010 – but the book came out in June 2010. Quick work indeed. But to be fair to Fred Pearce, a lot of the content is derived from material he had already amassed for the much quicker turnround of newspaper coverage (this is a Guardian Books title, and the newspaper the Guardian is central to Pearce’s work on this story). More importan…

Anthill (SF) – Edward O. Wilson ***

It was a struggle to decide whether or not to include this book in our reviews, as it’s a novel. If we’re just dealing with a novel by a science writer we tend to cover it in our SF section, but here the novel has the obvious intent of educating about scientific issues, so falls into that rare and hugely difficult-to-write category of a popular science book in novel form. Like pretty well every other one we’ve encountered so far, Anthill is interesting but very flawed. The book broadly divides into three sections. In the first we hear of the upbringing of young, would-be-naturalist Raphael ‘Raff’ Cody. This is very old fashioned, and frankly rather amateurish novel writing. It’s episodic, nothing much happens apart from an encounter with a gun-totin’ madman (this is, after all, Alabama) and frankly it’s a touch dull. If it wasn’t for the promise of better things to come, I would probably have given up half way though this. The second section describes the life of a couple of ant colo…

Killer Wallpaper by Andrew Meharg

This article on the amazing use of deadly arsenic in Victorian wallpapers first appeared in Spectroscopy Europe and is reproduced with permission. Aniline dyes, developed by William Perkin in the 1850s, were the beginning of the end for a host of mineral pigments widely used in interior décor. Chromium, cadmium, mercury, lead, cyanide, antimony and arsenic salts were once commonplace as paint, wallpaper, food and fabric pigments. The arsenic pigments Scheele’s green and Emerald green, the mercurial vermilion, green lead chromate, cadmium yellow, arsenical Naples ’s yellow, the cyanide salt Prussian blue, were the staple colours used to brighten up the Georgian and Victorian home. Whites were often lead white or arsenic trioxide. In the early days aniline dyes were far from safe with arsenious acid, used as a reductant in the dye manufac- ture,often present in high concentrations. What were the health consequences of these metal pigments? There is little direct systematic evidence coll…

Massive – Ian Sample ****

This is a book of three halves. ‘Three halves?’ I hear you say. ‘Has the man gone mad?’ I defend this assertion because we are dealing with quantum physics and specifically particle physics, where the concept of something having three halves seems entirely plausible. The first of those halves is primarily introductory. We get the obligatory (and now a touch tedious) novelesque opening with its unnecessary personal details (do we really care about Peter Higgs’ baby son who doesn’t play any part in the story?), and then we’re into background, both on particle physics and the concept of the Higgs field and the Higgs boson (aka the God Particle, a term the author is rather snooty about, despite happily using it in his book’s subtitle). This is by far the weakest of the three parts. The physics is skipped over in a very summary fashion – you get the impression the author doesn’t really understand it himself, and wants to get on to the people bits. This is exactly what happens in the second…