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Showing posts from July, 2010

Stepping Stones to the Stars – Terry C. Treadwell ***

This is the kind of book I would have loved as a ten-year-old. I’m not saying it’s aimed at children, but at the time the whole manned space travel thing was big news, I was happily building plastic models of spacecraft, and I absolutely hoovered up collections of facts about space and space travel. The book is subtitled ‘a history of manned spaceflight’, but I would make a subtle alteration – I would say it’s a chronicle of manned spaceflight. In a history, I would expect interpretation, comments on the politics, more about the key individuals involved. But what we get here is a bit of historical background, then for many of the US and Soviet manned spaceflight we get details of who went, what experiments they did, what went wrong (something almost always seemed to go wrong), and one or two nice little details picked up from the flight log, or some such source. The exception is the Shuttle flights, where a whole chunk of them get run through in a few lines, presumably because they we…

Why Does E=mc2? – Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw ****

Brian Cox is a dream for any publisher (sorry, Jeff Forshaw, but we haven’t heard of you). The media’s darling physicist at the moment, Cox is sometimes described as the popstar physicist, partly because he looks like one, but even more remarkably, because he was one. Although now Professor of Particle Physics at Manchester University (though confusingly, according to the bumf, he lives in London – that’s quite a commute), he was once part of the band D:Ream. He’s also a nice guy – I’ve done couple of gigs with him (speaking engagements, not music), and though a little over-enthusiastic about the movie world at the time, he was very friendly. You might expect, with Cox on board, that this would follow the approach of TV science – lots of ‘gee, wow, amazing!’ but light on nuts and bolts science. But not a bit of it. In fact, if Cox and Forshaw had taken the same advice about equations as Stephen Hawking, the chances are they would have expected to have around 2 readers. This is primari…

Shadows on the Cave Wall: a new theory of evolution – Keith Skene ***

Anyone claiming to have a new theory of evolution had better have good credentials, field experience, and a thorough knowledge of biology. Otherwise they are probably a crackpot. Keith Skene has these qualities, and Shadows on the Cave Wall is not the work of a crackpot. Indeed, for breadth, thoughtfulness, and a kind of happy-go-lucky charm, the book is a real treasure. But its aspirations – to replace evolution by natural selection with a new theory grounded in physics – are well beyond its powers of persuasion. Skene’s key idea is that the long- and short-term dynamics of living things can be best understood in terms of the flow of energy into, out of, and within different levels of biological organisation. The levels of organisation that interest Skene are proteins, individuals, populations, communities, and biomes. Notably absent from this list are genes and species, which Skene rejects along with evolution by natural selection. Drawing on Plato’s metaphor of the cave, Skene argu…

Diagnosis – Lisa Sanders ****

In the class system of popular science books, Diagnosis has all the marks of good breeding. It is authored by an experienced medical professional, is based on a popular New York Times column, is backed by a hugely successful TV series (House, M. D.), and bears a cover endorsement from a household name in the UK and US (Hugh Laurie). With such a background, what could possibly go wrong? The answer, not surprisingly, is “not much.” Lisa Sanders — the technical adviser to House – gives a frank and engaging tour of the modern diagnostic process, packed with real-life case studies. The brevity and variety of the case studies means it is hard to get bored with this book; even if one loses track of the argument, there is always another medical mystery to latch on to. Some of these mysteries are bizarre, from the patient who has turned highlighter yellow to the computer programmer who suddenly loses his memory. Others are less colourful but no less difficult or telling: the patient with a tel…

A Closer Look: Deceptions & Discoveries – Marjorie E. Wieseman ***

It’s rather unusual for this site to feature a book about art – but the topic of this compact National Galleries/Yale University Press book is the way we can find out more about art works using scientific techniques to delve into just who painted them and how. The sheer volume of technology leading galleries have up their sleeves is quite mind-boggling. While suspicions are still often roused by an expert idea, we then get all sorts of specialist X-rays, infra-red scans (good for detecting the drawing underneath paint), gas chromatography (identifying the makeup of the paint)… even using tree ring dating in the wood that many old paintings were produced on. The result is a remarkable armoury set up against would-be forgers and simple misunderstandings about a painting’s origins. A guided tour of the technology is then followed up by 16 ‘case studies’ each taking an individual painting where the original dating or attribution were wrong, or where new discoveries have been made about ho…

Physics of the Impossible – Michio Kaku *****

One of the first books we ever reviewed on www.popularscience.co.uk was The Physics of Star Trek by Lawrence Krauss. There were to be many ‘Physics of…’ and ‘Science of…’ books to follow from different authors, and now Physics of Star Trek seems rather dated. But there’s no need to worry, as Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Impossible brings it all up to date and goes much further, pulling in pretty well every imagining from science fiction. So, yes, we have phasers and transporters, antimatter energy and warp drives… but we also delve into space elevators, time travel, robots, the Death Star and much more. Kaku, a physics professor at the City University of New York and a popular science broadcaster, doesn’t explicitly set this as ideas from science fiction, though he uses many SF examples in the book. Instead he is looking at degrees of impossibility. Each of the improbable applications of science is classified at one of three levels. Class I impossibilities have no problems with today’…

Not Exactly – Kees van Deemter ***

Not Exactly is a brave book in two ways. Its subject matter – vagueness in language, logic, computing and everyday life – does not fit well into standard categories of popular science writing. And its treatment of vagueness is often highly abstract, dealing with abstruse questions of logic that are usually discussed only in specialised philosophy journals. I’ve given it 3 stars and not 4 because for a popular science audience its concerns may be too abstract and its prose too plain. Also, its three parts do not fit together as well as they might. But – in the spirit of vagueness and its frequent companion, context-dependence – it must be said that, for clarity and originality, quite a few readers would be compelled to give it 4 stars. For van Deemter, a computer scientist at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, vague objects and concepts are those that admit of boundary cases. The first part of the book describes cases of vagueness in the everyday world, and is probably the weakest…

The Big Questions: The Universe – Stuart Clark ***

The idea of this rather stylish series of books – hardbacks with no dustcover, but with a ‘hold it closed’ elastic band, like a pocket notebook – is to present a series of key questions about an area of philosophy or science and provide answers to them. Like its companion in the series The Big Questions: Physics, this title takes on the whole of a major topic, cosmology, providing a take on the subject that doesn’t go hugely into the people and history of science, sticking instead to the facts of the matter. This doesn’t make for great popular science. The whole point of popular science is to put science into context, to talk about how the discoveries were made (and by whom) as well as the science itself. Otherwise, what you end up with is a textbook. In this case it is a very readable introductory textbook – a wide range of topics on the nature of the universe are well covered and presented in a non-technical manner – but it still lacks that fascination that good popular science brin…

Why Evolution is True – Jerry A. Coyne ****

There is no shortage of books about evolution, but few of them tackle the question of proof as directly as this one, and perhaps none of their authors do so in such an accessible way as Jerry Coyne. The result is a thorough, even-tempered and plain-spoken summary of the evidence for evolution by natural selection. Some glitches appear when Coyne strays from a simple catalogue of the material evidence for evolution, but on the whole the book is convincing. Coyne sets a clear target in the first 40 pages. The problem, as he puts it, is a “simple lack of awareness of the weight and variety of evidence” in favour of evolution. Next he distinguishes six tenets of evolutionary theory: change of species over time, gradualism, speciation, common ancestry, natural selection, and mechanisms other than natural selection. Readers may find it awkward that this six-fold distinction is not reflected in the structure of the rest of the book: the chapters are organised by the source of evidence for ev…