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Showing posts from January, 2010

Radiation and Reason – Wade Allison ****

This is an important and useful book – the problem is going to be getting the right people to read it… but I’ll come back to that later. Wade Allison’s message is simple – we’ve got it wrong about nuclear power. We’ve over-reacted to the level of risk posed by low level radiation exposure, and because of that we make nuclear power ridiculously expensive. The arguments are very powerful. All the evidence is from the aftermath of large exposures like the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, or from the impact of long term, low level exposure that we have historically vastly overestimated the impact of a dose of radiation on the human body. Allison is not arguing that large doses aren’t dangerous, but that they have to be larger than we used to think to do permanent damage. A key confusing factor is the way that dosage is assumed to operate in a linear fashion, with the risk increasing steadily as the dose increases. This means you can do easy sums, adding up the dose across a population and ge…

Dazzled and Deceived – Peter Forbes *****

Subtitled ‘Mimicry and camouflage’, this is a fascinating exploration of the use of visual trickery to disguise the nature of objects both in the living world and in the military. Along the way we trace the gradual growth of understanding of how creatures in the wild use mimicry to pretend to be what they aren’t (for example, imitating a poisonous creature, or an insect pretending to be a plant), or camouflage to become less visible against a particular background. The two aspects of natural visual deceit that really struck me in reading it were the situations where something we all ‘know’ to be true isn’t – for instance, the chameleon uses its colour changing for display, not for camouflage – and in the incredible complexity of some butterfly mimicry where, for instance, the female of one species might look like any one of four very different nasty tasting butterflies. What is also very engaging is the way that Peter Forbes carefully dissects the over-simple evolutionary idea of ‘the…