Monday, 26 April 2010

Sand – Michael Welland ****

I don’t know who the commissioning editor for this book was, but I want this person on my side. Imagine, going into a commissioning meeting saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got this proposal for a great book.’ ‘Really, what’s it about?’ ‘Erm, sand.’ And yet still (s)he managed to sell it. And that’s a good thing – because Michael Welland’s book is fascinating.
This is much more than a book about what sand is – though that’s covered in considerable depth – it’s about its physical nature, how it is made, how human beings have responded to it and much more. We plunge into the detail of a single sand grain and zoom out to take in vast deserts. Two chapters are titled ‘Sand and the Imagination’ and chronicle how sand has influenced our thinking, from Archimedes’ The Sand Reckoner to art and literature inspired by sand. This is sand for the sand enthusiast – but also sand for anyone who has sat on a beach and built sandcastles, or let dry sand drift through their fingers.
I am giving this book four stars because it’s well written, makes an apparently dull subject interesting and goes places you really wouldn’t imagine. But I do have one big problem with it. It’s not Welland’s writing. That’s just occasionally a touch flowery, but generally good. No, it’s the psychological impact of the topic.
The fact is, this book sat on my review shelf for months. I kept picking it up and looking at it – it’s a handsome book with a good heft – then putting it back on the shelf. I really couldn’t be bothered to read about sand. Even more surprising was my reaction once I started reading it. This took place over several days – it’s a fairly substantial book. Every time I came back to it, I tried to read something else instead. I just didn’t want to read about sand. When I forced myself to open it, I was quickly engrossed again. But the same would then happen again next time I was thinking of picking it up – I genuinely tried not to read it, over and over again.
This might just be a peculiarity I have – but if it’s not I do need to provide a health warning. Yes, it’s a good, readable book, but you might have trouble making yourself read it.
Paperback:  
Also in hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

The Martian Rice Pudding Programme and the Art of Why – Richard Lester ***

We get sent a lot of self-published books and few of them end up being reviewed, because frankly they are rarely worth it. This is an exception. Richard Lester’s book is a professionally bound hardback that looks better than some of the titles we get from mainstream publishers. There are a couple of clues inside for the initiated – the spaces between the lines of text are too big and there’s an inconsistency of use of inverted commas between single and double that you wouldn’t see in a professional title, but otherwise it’s excellently produced, and there are no more typos than I typically notice in a book from the big boys.
Lester sets himself the daunting task of covering all science, giving us the opportunity to see it in a new light – almost as another of the arts, something to be appreciated for its own sake. It partly works. He covers biology and chemistry in a fairly summary, but reasonably effective fashion (as far as content goes), but concentrates most of the book on physics – as a physicist I can only applaud this decision. Along the way he deals with practically all the key areas of physics from the relatively mundane like mechanics and thermodynamics, to the exotica of cosmology, relativity and quantum physics. With a couple of exceptions the science is fine, and pitched at the right level for the absolute beginner.
Perhaps I should get those technical errors out of the way. There’s a small one in cosmology, where he argues against the conventional Big Bang wisdom, saying ‘if it came from a point source, then by definition the universe has a centre we’re expanding away from.’ This would only be true if the universe were matter expanding within space. In fact it’s space itself that is expanding – so every point in the universe was once the centre. The Big Bang happened (if it happened at all) at the end of my nose – and your nose – and anywhere else you want to select.
More worrying was the relativity section, which was heavily flawed. Lester seems to confuse the relativity of simultaneity (the fact that relativity makes two events that are simultaneous stop being simultaneous if the locations are moving with respect to each other) with the time lag for light to cross big distances. He illustrates the fact that two events cease to be simultaneous if they don’t share a frame of reference by talking about the light from a distant star taking many years to arrive – but this would be equally true if you shared a frame of reference with the star. He gets special relativity wrong saying ‘the faster you travel, the slower time passes relative to those who are stationary in your frame of reference.’ But you are by definition stationary in your frame of reference. He doesn’t mention that time dilation is symmetrical: if you are on a spaceship blasting away from Earth, your time is slow as seen by the Earth – but it’s also true that the Earth’s time is slow as seen by you. (This is confusing because the twins paradox is often used to illustrate special relativity, but the asymmetry in the paradox is not a special relativity effect.) And he gets general relativity the wrong way round, saying ‘the further away from Earth’s gravity you get, the slower time passes relative to those on the surface.’ In fact, the weaker the gravitational field, the faster the time passes.
This needs clearing up, but doesn’t undo the good stuff in the rest of the book. However, I did find the style uncomfortable. Lester has tried to aim the book at everyone from young teenagers to adults – but it doesn’t quite work for either audience. The pace is much too slow and wordy for a young reader. You may have to read four lines of woffle to get one bit of substance. This can work for adults, but doesn’t for children. Many adults, though, will find the constant jokey tone too much. The humour is a mix of Douglas Adams pastiche (usually, unfortunately the bits of Adams where he is taking the mickey out of the Hitchiker’s Guide for being too overblown), the Beano and a curiously old fashioned use of words. Some of the language, though not very strong, would raise eyebrows in children’s book circles – there’s a lot of ‘bugger’s, for instance.
The other aspect I have a little problem with is the thesis that science is an art. Lester spends quite a lot of time on this, frequently referring to it in passing and dedicating a whole chapter to it. This is much more a matter of opinion that the scientific errors, but I can’t see it myself. If you take the original definitions, art was about stuff made by people, while nature was about the rest. Science is the study of nature, not of artifice. In a more modern sense, the problem seems to arise from confusing art with creativity. Both science and art require creativity. But just because something’s creative doesn’t make it art. As Koestler pointed out, there are very different types of creativity employed in the different fields. Yes, science requires creativity, but that doesn’t make it art. Sorry.
So all in all, the book has good intent and plenty of interesting content, but I find the ‘art’ theme unconvincing, and the presentation a little wearing.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Deep Down Things – Bruce A. Schumm ***

I was looking forward to reading this, as it’s difficult to find a treatment of the Standard Model of particle physics that is both thorough and accessible, and this is exactly what Bruce Schumm aims to provide in Deep Down Things. Unfortunately, it ends up being a little too technical in parts, and ultimately I don’t think I can justify giving it more than three stars. But I do like this book, and it’s definitely worth a look.
Schumm builds up to a long discussion of gauge theory, and since this is rarely touched on in popular science books, the coverage is useful. The amount of detail Schumm goes into here, however, makes it necessary for him to first give the reader a detailed grounding in the Schrödinger wave equation, internal symmetry spaces and Lie groups. Schumm is quite good in these earlier sections at defining the important ideas and concepts. But the level of understanding he then encourages the reader to reach means that it can be easy to get lost amongst the specialist language, and it’s sometimes difficult to follow the explanations. The chapter on group theory is the best example of this. It is intended to introduce the main aspects of the theory to those who haven’t come across it before, but unless the reader is already fairly familiar with the material, they are likely to have to read through everything twice or three times before being able to move on.
This is a shame, because there are other parts of the book where Schumm’s style of writing is incredibly approachable and where he is quite funny. At points, he gives the reader very useful analogies and exercises to carry out that give a good feel for some of the trickier concepts. And the Feynman diagrams used a lot are generally very useful and help clarify what’s being talked about.
Unfortunately, there’s little on the people involved in developing the ideas underpinning the Standard Model, and given that the science is often quite challenging, it would have been good to be able to have a break from it here and there. I would have liked to read a lot more about Emmy Noether, for instance, a German mathematician whose theorem is relevant to the section on symmetries. As Schumm explains, she ended up being one of the greatest mathematicians in history, but only after having to fight hard against the prejudices of her misogynistic contemporaries.
All in all, however, though this is probably best for physics undergraduates, it would be a shame if no-one else read it. If you like a challenge and you are willing to persevere with this, you’re likely to get a lot out of it and be rewarded with a good understanding of the Standard Model at the end. Just be aware that it can be a struggle in parts.
Hardback:  
Review by Matt Chorley

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Glen Murphy – Four Way Interview

Glenn Murphy received his masters in science communication from London’s Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine. He wrote his first book whilst managing the Explainer team at the Science Museum in London. In 2007 he moved to the United States. He now lives and works in North Carolina, with his wife Heather and an increasingly large and ill-tempered cat.
Why science?
It is without a doubt the best method we have for making useful sense of the world around us. And it delivers a sense of wonder unmatched by anything else you could ever hope to study. Once I’d figured that out as a teenager, there was no going back.
Why this book?
With the first two books, Why Is Snot Green? and How Loud Can You Burp?, I was responding to the random questions of visitors and e-mailers to the Science Museum in London. In doing so, I explored a wide range of scientific disciplines and theories, and achieved great success with the format. But I often felt that I was cutting my answers short, and wanted more freedom to explore each field in more detail, whilst keeping the same, light tone and voice.
So – after a brief digression with my third book, Stuff That Scares Your Pants Off – I returned to the whole question-and-answer book format with a whole new series of books in mind. (See Space, black holes and stuff and Evolution, nature and stuff) Each one would cover one area or field of science, fearlessly dipping into quite complex, higher-education level subjects without losing the target audience of kids and younger teenagers. My hope is that these books will give “half-interested” kids a glimpse of the excitement that could await them studying science at university level. Or at the very least, give them an appreciation for science that will hopefully stay with them as fully-educated adults. A lofty goal, perhaps. But one I’m wholly committed to as a “third-culture” science communicator and go-between.
What’s next?
I’m working on the next two books in the Science:Sorted series, focused – respectively – on human physiology and the historical evolution of technology. Expect more questions and answers, plus more fun, games, activities, and titles ending with the word “stuff”. I’m also working on a new book for under-5s with my sister, Lorna, who is a children’s illustrator based in the UK. It will be our first book together, and I’m very excited about it.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
Apart from the above? Well, I’m pretty fired up about recent developments in paleontology and evolutionary biology. We just discovered an entirely new hominid species – thousands of miles away from where anyone was looking for one, in Siberia. And not so long ago, an entirely new phylum was found living on the lips of lobsters. That we’re still making discoveries of this magnitude – in an age when we often think we’ve seen it all – makes me very excited for the future of biology, and of scientific inquiry in general.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

30 Second Theories – Paul Parsons (Ed.) ***

Books are pretty much of a muchness physically, so it’s really nice when a publisher comes up with something different, as is the case with 30 Second Theories. It’s shaped like a small coffee table book, and the dustcoverless outer cover is a textured brown stuff that makes this elegant hardback feel rather special. Inside, glossy pages pit a page of text against a full page of illustration – a sort of adult Dorling Kindersley format, except the pictures, though artistic, rarely convey a lot of information, which makes them a bit of a waste of space.
The challenging task the book sets out to fill is to cover all of science in 50 snippets that can be read in 30 seconds each. There are some worries about this format. One is that it just isn’t practical to do anything useful in that amount of text. My pocket Instant Egghead Physics covers physics alone in 100 rather longer snippets – to do the whole of science in 50 seems an unlikely possibility. There’s also the value for money argument. 50 lots of 30 seconds is 25 minutes. Is £12.99 an acceptable price for 25 minutes of reading?
When we get into the meat of it, there’s certainly some good stuff in here. The articles are written by a mix of authors, some better than others at capturing a subject in a few lines. The lesser contributions are vague woffly summaries, but some of the authors do really manage to raise interest in a topic – only, of course to leave you wanting a lot more. I think what would have transformed this book is if each page, as well as the totally useless snippets of information like dates of birth of key figures, also listed three or four books that concentrated on the specific topic, so someone interested could get into more depth, using this book as a taster. (In fact the publisher still could do this on a website, so you could click through and buy the other books. They would have to be brave enough to recommend other publishers’ books, but it would be really worthwhile.)
That way, if entanglement took your fancy (and it should), you could be pointed to my book The God Effect, or if you wanted to find out more about the woeful unscientific nature of complimentary and alternative medicine, you could be referred to Singh and Ernst’s excellent Trick or Treatment.
Mentioning complimentary and alternative medicine highlights one of the oddities of the book. There are at least two of the 50 articles on something that isn’t really science at all – the medicine one, which while mildly disparaging really doesn’t reflect how poor the basis of these treatments is – and one on psychoanalysis, which has pretty widely been discredited as any form of science. It’s doubly weird that Freud appears in one of the handful of biographies of key figures (just 7 in total). He wasn’t a scientist at all, and has contributed practically nothing of value. Almost as odd is having a biography of James Lovelock – definitely a scientist, but hardly in the Newton and Einstein class. This is just strange.
Occasionally the brevity required means that the articles comes close to not really getting it right. Some science simply can’t be described in this length of piece, and the contraction can only lead to confusion. There’s also the odd case where the illustration (I wonder who came up with the content of these?) simply doesn’t reflect reality. For instance, the illustration for natural selection describes it as a ‘knock-out punch for religion.’ Hardly. Some of the illustrations had if anything a negative benefit.
Overall, then, a curate’s egg. It’s a noble venture, and could have worked with a bit more content and recommended books for each topic. But as it stands I really can’t see who is going to benefit from it.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 17 April 2010

The Genius in All of Us – David Shenk **

I have to be totally up front and say I don’t like this book. From the very beginning, its attitude is negative. It keeps telling you over and over again, ‘This is what you thought – well, you were WRONG!’ What was I wrong about? Well, I thought, apparently that genius was hereditary. I thought that what we are is produced by either our genes or our environment. But I was WRONG! In fact, amazingly revealed for the first time, genes and environment work together. Environment influences the way the genes are expressed. Wow, I never knew that. Or rather, I did.
I suppose I ought to have a little sympathy for David Shenk, because you do still see books and articles blaming things uniquely on genes or environment, but I really don’t think it’s as much a fundamental shock as Shenk suggests. Or rather YELLS AT US.
He uses the expression GxE to indicate that it’s genes and environment operating on each other, rather than G+E – genes plus environment, operating separately. I don’t think this is his expression, but I found this irritating too. It implies a level of science that really isn’t there. There is nothing to multiply by something else – the formula is meaningless.
The other problem I have with the book is that most of the examples are sporting. He leads with a big story about a baseball player. Now frankly, outside the US, not many people are interested in baseball, so that turned me off straight away. In fact, rather a lot of the people who read about science don’t care at all about sport, me included, so it was all a big so what.
In fact this highlights the weakest parts of Shenk’s argument. He says all genius works in a certain way. But almost all his examples (apart from passing references to Einstein with no justification whatsoever) are from sport or the performance of music. Here his thesis that vast amounts of practice are the answer to almost anyone becoming great make sense. They are performance activities, not thought activities. Yet for me, genius is mostly about creativity and thought – and he really doesn’t properly address this.
So if you want to know how almost anyone can become a great sportsperson on performance musician, provided they are prepared to give up a normal life, then this is a great book. Otherwise I’m not impressed.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Cows in the Maze – Ian Stewart ****

When I was a teenager I delighted in Martin Gardner’s books like Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions, taken from his Scientific American columns. British mathematician Ian Stewart has taken over Gardner’s role and continues to amaze and boggle the mind with the possibilities of recreational maths in his latest collection.
For me it was rather a mixed bunch. The best were great fun – the worst would only really engage the sort of person who thinks calculating pi by hand is a form of entertainment. I think to some extent Stewart has a problem because Gardner had already picked off the really entertaining, truly amazing stuff, and Stewart is left with either more of the same, or things that aren’t so engaging. Even so it’s an enjoyable read for anyone who finds mathematical puzzles fun – just be prepared to skip over one or two bits.
In a few of the sections Stewart adopts a story-telling form, and these are the weakest, as he’s not a great fiction writer and the result is too whimsical and irritating. Having said that, his three part story approach to time travel is interesting, if rather limited, but would have been so much better without the H. G. Wells pastiche.
In many of his books, Stewart is excellent at explaining obscure maths to the general reader, but for this one I think he assumes just a bit too much knowledge, and his explanations (for example of the symmetry breaking in animal gaits) can be quite confusing. This was particularly unfortunate in his ‘interrogators fallacy’ section where he tries but fails to explain why some arguments used in trials don’t hold up statistically. This chapter needs totally re-writing.
Despite these concerns, there’s much to interest the recreational maths fan. I was delighted to see a piece on what he refers to as ‘bends’ but are what normal people call knots. He has to do this because it’s a classic case of mathematicians living in their own tiny and often irrelevant worlds – according to the standard mathematical definition, a knot is in an infinitely thin line and both ends of the line are joined up. That is not a knot, guys. But this piece by Stewart deals with the maths of real knots.
A mixed bag, then, but there’s enough really good stuff in here to allow it four stars and to suggest than any recreational maths enthusiasts would be mad not to add a copy to their bookshelves.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Collider – Paul Halpern ****

The Large Hadron Collider at CERN is set to give us deep insights into the nature of matter and the origins of the universe. It could provide evidence of extra dimensions, and give us an idea of whether string theorists are on the right track. This is fascinating stuff, and it is what Paul Halpern aims to explain in Collider, after first giving us a history of high energy physics and particle accelerators.
I wasn’t very optimistic about the book at first. It jumps straight into the Higgs mechanism and spontaneous symmetry breaking without explaining these concepts in much detail for the layperson. I was a little worried the book was going to turn out to be over-technical, and only fully understandable to those with a physics degree. Luckily, this wasn’t the case at all, and when the book gets on to talking about the LHC in detail, and how it works and what it will be looking for, the concepts are fleshed out clearly and simply. In fact, Halpern has a knack of explaining tricky ideas well for the general reader in the minimum of words. Where something isn’t entirely clear, the book still leaves the reader with a fairly good grasp of what’s being discussed.
Overall, the science of the LHC is covered quite well, and there’s an entertaining section on ‘Citizens Against the Large Hadron Collider’, a group concerned about world destroying scenarios at CERN, in which Halpern explains why there’s nothing to worry about. The most readable parts of the book, however, are in the middle, where it covers earlier high energy research and the people involved.
The best chapter is on the first particle accelerators, and contains a significant amount of biographical information about Ernest Rutherford, Ernest Walton, John Cockcroft, Ernest Lawrence, and Rolf Wideroe, someone I knew little about beforehand. Wideroe was a Norwegian engineer whose research provided a lot of the impetus for Rutherford’s team at the Canvendish Laboratory in Cambridge to build the linear accelerator they used to split the nucleus of lithium. He also inspired Lawrence to build the first cyclotron, a circular accelerator. Another highlight, which again shows the book is rather better on history and surrounding issues, is the account of what happened to the Superconducting Super Collider, intended for Texas but eventually never completed. The section contains a number of lessons to be borne in mind when future, similar projects are planned.
There’s one small point. The book costs £19.00 in the shops, which I think is a bit much; £15.00 would be more appropriate. Overall, though, this is an interesting book, great for anyone wanting to know what could happen at the LHC over the coming years and the context in which the project has been developed. This is definitely a solid four star book, and I got a lot from it.
Paperback:  
Review by Matt Chorley

Monday, 12 April 2010

The Origins of Meanings – James R. Hurford ***

This is unquestionably an academic book, more useful to the layperson as a reference than a bedtime read. But it is saved from 2 stars by the down-to-earth style of the author, which means that non-scientists can come to grips with its fascinating subject matter without too much effort.
The grand-sounding title shows just how ambitious is the task that Hurford sets himself in this volume. His aim is nothing less than to show how the ‘semantic’ and ‘pragmatic’ sides of human language – roughly, concepts and conversations – grew out of the non-linguistic abilities of our distant ancestors. But anyone who expects a blow-by-blow narrative of how this happened, with the dates of each key development, will be disappointed. Instead Hurford describes the cognitive and behavioral abilities of non-humans that stand out as precursors to language, and then describes the evolutionary mechanisms that could have transformed these primitive capacities into the rich array of concepts and conversational skills that humans have today.
The result is more flow-chart than timeline, a schematic account of how psychology, biology, and ecology combined to give modern-day linguistic meaning.
Hurford, Professor of General Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, cuts no corners in surveying the theory and evidence that decades of scientific research have brought to bear on his topic.
This makes the writing dense at times, as Hurford runs through studies, counter-studies, and rival interpretations of data. But it also makes the book an excellent starting point for anyone interested in exploring the topic further. Also, Hurford’s comprehensiveness means he covers not just the evolution of language but also some large areas of general interest, like animal cognition and the evolution of cooperation.
The book is driven by academic rather than popular aims, but Hurford’s prose makes it much more accessible than it could have been. The book covers an impressive range of specialty fields, from philosophy of mind to kin selection theory, so Hurford can’t afford to lapse into the jargon of any one of these specialities. And he does a good job of keeping all readers in the loop, spelling out the meanings of technical terms and describing in plain language how each chapter fits into the bigger picture.
While readable, the book will be dry to anyone used to popular science writing. But the reward for the patient reader is a steady flow of probing questions, clever experiments, and curious findings. In what way is language a cooperative exercise? If language evolved by sexual selection, why are human males and females equally competent at language? What happens in a monkey’s mind when it responds to an alarm call from a fellow monkey by running away? Is this behaviour hard-wired, or does the monkey form a concept of ‘predator’ in its mind and respond to that concept? What came first: pure speech acts that expressed sentences like ‘hello’ or ‘I’m here’, or descriptive statements like ‘That plant is poisonous?’ Scattered among the answers to these and many other questions are quirky phenomena such as mice who dream, humans who understand lip-pointing but not finger-pointing, and pigeons who can distinguish between works from the Picasso and Monet schools of painting.
The argument running through the book is that non-human animals have more mental capacities than previously thought, and hence that the gap between the language abilities of humans and non-humans is smaller than previously thought. For a lay reader this is probably the most engaging and surprising aspect of the book: from the multiple alarm calls of the ververt monkey to the idea of ‘opposite’ possessed by great apes, animal concepts and conversations are richer than we usually give them credit for. More rarely, examples of the limits of non-human communication in the book remind us of how special human language is – for example, even a basic communication device such as pointing to refer to an object is very rare among our closest relatives in the wild.
This book is gristly and unsweetened, not recommended as light reading. But digested slowly, over many sittings, it is a feast of insights into the nature of language, animal cognition, the social role of communication, and the evolution of all three.
Hardback:  
Review by Matt Chorley

Sunday, 11 April 2010

The Canon – Natalie Angier *****

In The Canon, Natalie Angier introduces some of the fundamentals of science she argues everyone should know. The book has in mind people who struggled with or lost interest in science when they were young, and is very accessible and readable. I’m incredibly enthusiastic about this book and have no hesitation in giving it five stars.
The book covers more than I thought would be possible. After outlining what science is and how it works, Angier takes in turn physics, chemistry, evolutionary biology, molecular biology, geology and astronomy, and explains in some detail four or five key ideas in each field. In the section on physics, for instance, she goes through the nature of atoms, the four fundamental forces, thermodynamics, and how electricity works.
The chapter on molecular biology is the best in the book, and here the role of DNA and how cells work are explained particularly well. Elsewhere, there is a very good section on the misunderstanding by some of the word ‘theory’ in ‘the theory of evolution'; it means a body of facts and principles which explain many things and make predictions, and not ‘hypothesis’.
Angier is so good in general in the book because she clearly appreciates why people are often put off by science, and she knows how to make it exciting. She stays clear of technical jargon and maths, which she shows are not necessary to get across what science is all about, and she is at times very funny. If there’s a small problem with the book, it’s that Angier occasionally writes quite long sentences with many sub-clauses, but this is a very minor point and does not stop the book being a great read.
Although best as a general overview for anyone coming back to science after having left it behind at school, the explanations in the book are so useful that regular readers of popular science will also get a great deal out of it. I’d highly recommend this to anyone.
Paperback:  
Review by Matt Chorley
I am afraid I disagree with your assessment of The Canon which I thought was dreadful. The little satisfactory explanation of science in the book was so deeply buried in irrelevant similes, unnecessary alliteration, silly puns and references to (no doubt popular) contemporaneous US culture with no meaning to a UK reader that I would have given up after the first couple of chapters if I had not been preparing for a group discussion of the book. By contrast, I got far more information from The Collapse of Chaos by Cohen and Stewart, a truly well written and still entertaining book – the sophisticated jokes at the start of each chapter were thought provoking as well as amusing. Admittedly a more challenging read for anyone without a technical bent but vastly more rewarding.
Community review by Keith Jeremiah

Monday, 5 April 2010

How Many Licks? – Aaron Santos ****

Author Aaron Santos takes on the rarely considered but entertaining job of solving Fermi problems: making back-of-an-envelope estimates of numbers that range from the trivial, like the number of licks need to reach the centre of the lolly in the title of the book, to questions like ‘How many babies are born every day?’ The full title is ‘How many licks, or how to estimate damn near anything.’
I thought this might prove a bit samey after a while – there are 69 problems in all, ending in estimating which uses more silicon in the USA, computer chips or silicone implants (I know silicone isn’t the same as silicon, but it does contain it). In fact, each time I wanted to turn on and get to the next one.
The more enthusiastic may want to try to work out some of these as they go along. I was happy to take Santos’ word for it and just enjoy the ride. I do occasionally do this sort of thing for real, but I didn’t particularly want to do so for the problems cited here.
If there’s any complaint it was a slight inconsistency in deciding whether or not to make the assumption that ‘the United States of America’ and ‘the world’ are the same thing (this is, if assumed, not a great piece of estimating on the author’s part). So, for instance, when answering ‘How much deforestation would result each year if people chopped down their (Christmas) trees from a forest rather than getting an artificial tree or getting one from a tree farm?’ the question appears to apply to the whole world, but Santos bases his estimate of ‘How many people get real Christmas trees each year?’ on a percentage of the US population.
That apart, it was fun all the way. The book appears to have been professionally published, though it does rather have the feel of a self-published volume – it’s a little flimsy and unusual in the layout – but seems to have been properly edited and the illustrations and formulae are neatly done.
All in all an enjoyable gift book, or some light reading if you like the idea of playing around with estimating… or just want to be surprised how relatively easy it is estimate some surprisingly obscure numbers.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 2 April 2010

The Lives of Ants – Laurent Keller and Elisabeth Gordon *****

We’re in the habit of moaning about OUP popular science because it’s often the case they have great subjects, but written by academics making the books often poor to read. The recommendation is that they get their academics to link up with a writer, and in effect that is what has happened here, as the book is a translation (probably from French) – and benefits hugely, because unlike many of its fellows it is a joy to read.
It would be ironic if that enhanced readability were coupled with a less than inspiring subject – but not here. The subject is, as it says on the tin, the lives of ants, and they are truly incredible. At risk of sounding like the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you may think you know about ants, but that’s nothing when you see the sheer variety and complexity of ant life. The different species indulge in all sorts of behaviours, from rearing insect ‘cattle’ to capturing slaves and invading others’ nests and pretending to be of that species. We discover a queen ant of one species that spends its life riding on the back of a bigger queen from a different species. And then there are the ants that grow crops, the different ways the queens operate, the unusual sexual practices – in one species the males clone themselves as well as the queens (the workers are more normally produced), the only known creature in which a male is capable of this.
It’s simply stunning. I was slightly puzzled there wasn’t more about the super-organism concept, something that books about bees like The Buzz about Bees and The Super-Organism cover in a lot of detail. If the authors don’t think ants are a super-organism – i.e. a nest is effectively one creature, with the different insects acting almost like cells in a human’s body – then they should say so, and why. If they do think ants are a super-organism it ought to have been given more coverage. There is a passing reference to ‘swarm intelligence’ which may be the same concept, but it only really comes in the section on robots with ant-like behaviour, in itself an interesting bit of work, but not the main theme of the book.
I only have two other slight moans. One is that too long is spent on something that’s clearly of more interest to the author than the reader. This looks at the percentage of genetic relationship two ants have to each other on how this effects the way the ants treat each other. It goes on a bit. The other complaint is a simple factual error. We are told that ten million billion ants averaging three milligrams per ant weights roughly the same as the whole human population. Some basic arithmetic shows this to be wrong. There are around 6 billion people in the world – let’s make it 5 for ease of calculation. So that’s 2 million ants per person. Two million lots of three milligrams is six kilos. Now I know there are a lot of babies in the world, but there’s no way the average human being weighs six kilos – this is almost an order of magnitude out.
These are minor gripes, though, in what is a riveting book about a fascinating subject.
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Review by Brian Clegg