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Showing posts from March, 2010

Einstein’s Universe: the layperson’s guide – Nigel Calder ****

Einstein’s Universe is a short and useful book which outlines special and general relativity, and how Einstein’s framework for understanding space and time has remained intact and been continually confirmed since he first gave it to us. This would be a good start for anyone knowing very little about relativity. Nigel Calder goes through the main aspects and predictions of the special and general theories in short, readable sections, and at the beginning of each chapter there are a few helpful sentences that state plainly what’s going to be talked about. The only equation in the book is E = mc2, and the explanation of the origin of this is better than in most places. The section on how gravity affects time is particularly good for those new to the concept. The book was originally written in 1979 and, apart from a new afterword, everything remains the same in the 2005 edition now available. This is not really a problem, however, for a book which explains the basics of its subject that a…

Peter Forbes – Four Way Interview

Peter Forbes trained as a chemist and worked in pharmaceutical and natural history publishing. He became editor of the Poetry Society’s Poetry Review and has often worked on the crossover of art and science, mostly recently on bio-inspired materials and on camouflage. His most recent book is Dazzled and Deceived. Why Science? Because it’s the most intricately structured body of knowledge we have (besides music, that is). Why this book? The patterns of nature are thrilling in themselves as art and to find that many creatures copy other creatures’ patterns has always blown my mind. What’s next? No idea. I follow my nose but it hasn’t picked up a scent yet. What’s exciting you at the moment? It’s the harmonic progressions of jazz composers such as Horace Silver and Charles Mingus – flattened 5ths and 13th chords etc. That’s also science.

Joseph Priestley in Calne – Norman Beale ***

Of all the well-known names in the history of science, Joseph Priestley is probably amongst the least well served in terms of popular biography. There is a chunky, detailed academic biography, but very little for the general reader about the man who discovered oxygen. This slim volume fills in a considerable amount of the story in a dry but readable fashion. Author Norman Beale, a retired GP who has made a study of Priestley and his work, concentrates particularly on Priestley’s time in the Wiltshire town of Calne, when his most significant discoveries were made at the nearby Bowood House, home of Priestley’s sponsor the Marquis of Lansdowne. The book does cover the rest of his life, before and after Calne, but in brief form, where there is much more detail for the period that Beale highlights. The book gives us a detailed and insightful feel for Priestley’s life and work in the period. I would have preferred a little more of the science and perhaps a touch less of the domestic detail…

Marcus Chown – Four Way Interview

Marcus Chown has recently published Afterglow of Creation, a radical update of a book he wrote in the 1990s about the relic heat of the big bang fireball, which incredibly still permeates the Universe 13.7 billion years after the event. Why science? It blows my mind. I’m constantly amazed by how much stranger it is than anything we could have made up. Why this book? It was my first popular science book and all sorts of wonderful thing happened when it was first published. It was runner-up for the Science Book Prize and the magazine Focus bought about 200,000 copies to give away to its readers as a subscription promotion. The book is about the heat afterglow of the big bang fireball, which, incredibly, still permeates all of space 13.7 billion years after the event, accounting for 99.9 per cent of all the photons in the Universe. For the book, I drove around America, talking to all the people who had been involved in the discovery. Many of them are now dead so the book, I think, is a uni…

Strange Curves, Counting Rabbits and other Mathematical Explorations – Keith Ball ***

There is an immediate concern on glancing at the back of this book. It’s labelled ‘Popular Mathematics’, but the blurb blithely comments ‘Accessible to anyone familiar with basic calculus.’ Whoa, recreational maths this ain’t. You’ve immediately knocked out 90% of the market. But really it’s worse than that. I’d say the level of maths you need to understand the book is a little higher than that suggested – perhaps a first year maths or science undergraduate. But the level of maths you need to enjoy the book is considerably higher. This is a book for maths geeks, people who get a thrill out of working mathematical proofs themselves, as ably demonstrated by all the problems set for the reader, which are often of the form ‘prove the formula…’ It’s a shame that this isn’t for the general reader because there are some great topics. Apart from the familiar old thing about how many people you need in a room to have a 50:50 chance of two having the same birthday (I know this sounds populist e…

Second Nature – Jonathan Balcombe ****

That four star rating is a compromise – this is a book with a five star theme and important messages, but it’s just not very well written, so that drags the rating down. The first key part of the message is that animals feel much more than we credit them with – the whole gamut of emotions – and because of that we should treat them better than we often do. The second part is that we ought to consider eating less meat, for our own health, because of the impact on global warming of meat production, and because of animal welfare (though as Jonathan Balcombe himself points out, this is often better in Europe than the US – there is a movement in the right direction). The problem with the book is the way this message is put across. Firstly, a huge proportion of the book consists of repetitious examples. How this animal, after this animal, after this animal all demonstrate feeling this way. It often comes across as a massive attempt to persuade by anecdote, anecdotes which after the 100th get…

Donald Mitchie: on Machine Intelligence, Biology & More – Ashwin Srinivasan (ed.) ****

This is an eclectic collection of writings by and about Donald Michie, the Scottish-born scientist whose career spanned over half a century and covered many topics, most notably computer science and reproductive biology. Michie died in a car accident in 2007, aged 84, and “Machine Intelligence” is a tribute to his life and work compiled by the eminent computer scientist Ashwin Srinivasan. The book varies widely in style and subject matter, but it is interesting and readable throughout. It comes in three parts, “Machine Intelligence,” “Biology,” and “Science and Society.” Each section is divided into chapters containing 3-5 pieces, with helpful introductions to the chapters by Srinivasan. The writing is aimed at the non-specialist reader, and specialists may be disappointed by the absence of any of Michie’s many ground-breaking scientific papers. The upside is that experts and novices alike are treated to insider accounts of Michie’s code-breaking at Bletchley Park during WWII, reflect…