Thursday, 25 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 are still valid. And having understood these basics, readers would be in a good position to go on to something slightly more technical, like Russell Stannard’s Relativity: A Very Short Introduction or Bruce Bassett’s Introducing Relativity.
Review by Matt Chorley

Sunday, 21 March 2010

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.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

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, but we get a good feel for Priestley and the way he thought. Although it is self-published, the book is well produced on glossy paper and has been well edited – it hasn’t the sloppy feel of some self-publications.
Just occasionally I found the author’s approach a little over-fussy, or oddly worded. Speaking of a house Priestley rented in Calne he comments ‘This property is always supposed to have been that which is now 19, The Green, so-called “Priestley House.”‘ This sounds rather archaic, and it’s not quite clear from this whether or not Beale really believes this is the right house. Later on, in the chapter where Priestley makes his key discovery, we read: ‘Priestley did not discover oxygen. Since the one thing that most people can tell you about Priestley is that he did discover oxygen, this apparent nonsense needs careful explanation,’ (Author’s italics.) This is pedantry, pure and simple. It’s like saying Newton didn’t invent calculus, or Herschel didn’t discover Uranus, since neither of them called the thing they invented/discovered by those names. The fact that Priestley called oyxgen ‘dephlogisticated air’ doesn’t mean he didn’t discover it.
However, these are small niggles in what is generally an informative and enjoyable book. At 79 pages plus notes it won’t take long to read, but is well worth taking the time over. If you visit Bowood House in Wiltshire (where you can see Priestley’s laboratory), you can pick up a copy of the book there, as an alternative to Amazon.
Review by Brian Clegg

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 unique account of a key chapter in the history of science. Why update it? Well, since it was first published, our knowledge of the Universe has been revolutionised by the discovery of the mysterious “dark energy”, the major mass component of the Universe, and by the findings of NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy probe, whose space-based observations of the afterglow of creation are the source of all of our super-precise statements such as “The Universe is 13.7 billion years old”. I am so pleased to see the book out again. I especially like the Faber “retro” cover. And, on the 10th anniversary of his death, I got to write a Foreword about my dad, who had a quite ridiculous amount of faith in me, once insisting I should have won a particular book prize even though I had not entered a book for the prize – in fact, hadn’t even written a book that year! The Foreword meant a lot to me so I was very pleased when Scott Pack, former chief buyer of Waterstone’s said of the book: ‘The wonderful intro alone is worth the cover price. Witty and accessible science.’
What’s next?
The paperback of my book, We Need to Talk About Kelvin: What everyday things tell us about the Universe will be out in September 2010. I am currently writing a sequel to my children’s story, Felicity Frobisher and the Three-Headed Aldebaran Dust Devil, which I enjoyed writing more than anything else I have written, possibly because it was totally silly. My publisher is wanting me to write a new non-fiction book. I can’t say more about it, not because there’s any mystery but because I haven’t yet figured out how to do it!
What’s exciting you at the moment?
The thought that there is some very big idea missing in physics. I mean, we currently have no idea what 96% of the mass of the universe is. What’s more, the main component – the dark energy – has an energy which is 1 followed by 120 zeroes smaller than our best theory of physics predicts. This is the biggest discrepancy between a prediction and an observation in the history of science. I can’t help thinking that all accepted ideas about our universe and our place in it are on the brink of being blown out of the water.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

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 enough, but it’s the start of chapter that rapidly veers off into the technical) we get aspects of information theory, methods of approximation, sampling theory, even geometry (with an integral calculus feel). But unless you are the sort of person who can sit down and enjoy a maths text book, this isn’t for you.
In essence this is what we are dealing with – a text book, but rather than dealing with a specific topic, dealing with various interesting bits of maths. For that reason it’s impossible to give it more than three stars here. A simple flick through – most of the pages are at least half equations – will confirm that it really won’t work for the majority of the readers. But if you salivate at the thought of working those calculations, then run don’t walk to the bookshop –for once they’ve produced a book just for you.

Review by Peter Spitz

Saturday, 13 March 2010

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 a bit boring. Secondly, there’s the way Balcombe tries to argue we ought to treat animals better, because human beings don’t have a special position.
This is hard to take seriously. He employs the old ‘we haven’t evolved that much’ argument – clearly he hasn’t read my book Upgrade Me. It’s a painfully narrow biological view that suggest a creature that has gained the ability to fly, to ‘run’ continuously for hours at 70 miles per hour, to communicate almost instantly to the other side of the world and to receive (through books) communications from people who died thousands of years ago hasn’t evolved. We are a totally different kind of creature.
I think a useful way of looking at this is to think of human responsibilities instead of human rights. The outward looking concept of responsibilities is, I would say, a much more productive approach than the usual one of rights. We all ought to take our human responsibilities seriously. But if you think we are no different from the other animals, you ought to be able to apply the same thinking to them. Let’s take cats. When are they going to take seriously their responsibilities to the hundreds of millions of birds they terrify, torture and kill each year? (I notice that when Balcombe is going on and on about how caring animals are, he doesn’t mention this kind of behaviour.)
So, yes, we ought to respect that fact that animals are sentient and to treat them well. Yes, we ought to look at ways to reduce meat consumption. Yes, we ought to do away with sadistic activities like bull fighting and hunting for ‘sport’. But Balcombe is on a hiding to nothing when he tries to suggest there isn’t some sort of hierarchy. Not necessarily a biologically based one, but a hierarchy nonetheless. People are different from animals and need to be put higher in the chain of responsibilities. A dog is different from a fish, and again needs to be put higher. And so on. There’s no advantage to be gained from pretending otherwise, and it makes it difficult to take the important messages of this book seriously.
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 8 March 2010

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, reflections by Michie on how scientists work and the role of government in science, and thoughtful discussions of big topics in AI – such as the Turing test and the role of subconscious or “inarticulate” thought in cognition. Especially worthwhile are Michie’s thoughts on the difference between brute-force solutions to computing problems and truly intelligent solutions.
Michie was much more than a scientist, and some of the most witty and enjoyable writing in the book sees Michie as science administrator, social commentator, and popular science writer. Some of my favourites are his cutting comments on the Lighthill Report (the government report in the early 1970s that almost killed Britain’s nascent AI industry), his article about the reading habits of scientists (they do surprisingly little), and his account of a bizarre trek from London to Moscow that Michie undertook at the height of the Cold War.
“Machine Intelligence” is not a detailed or systematic treatment of Michie’s ideas – it’s a series of snapshots rather than a portrait. Articles on the same theme (like the difference between clever and intelligent computers) are sometimes scattered through the book rather than grouped together. And there are too many typographical errors. But “Machine Intelligence” succeeds as a readable tribute to a remarkable man, giving many glimpses of Michie’s insight, humour, and wide-ranging enthusiasm for science.
Review by Michael Bycroft