Skip to main content

Posts

Showing posts from May, 2010

Through the Language Glass – Guy Deutscher *****

One of my colleagues reviewed a book a while ago which he had an immediate aversion to because it was recommended on the cover by Carol Vorderman. I felt a similar emotion but in the opposite direction when I saw the comment Jaw-droppingly wonderful on the cover attributed to Stephen Fry. Although Fry does have a tendency to over-exaggerate in his praise, anything our Stephen liked has to be worth a look. In fact, this book was a delight. It opens up an area of science I hadn’t really taken much notice of apart from a nod to Steven Pinker – linguistics. Guy Deutscher points out that this is one of those soft sciences that had a long struggle to really understand what is needed to be a science. He points out esteemed textbooks that made plonking statements like ‘All languages are equally complex.’ In fact this seems to be central dogma in linguistics, yet it turns out, as Deutscher reveals, there is no scientific basis for this assertion whatsoever: When it comes to the “central findin…

Microcosm – Carl Zimmer *****

In this book, Carl Zimmer explains how the bacterium Escherichia coli can be seen as a microcosm of life as a whole, and how, through studying E. coli, scientists have been able to learn a lot about the nature and evolution of all of life, including human beings. The book contains a surprising amount of material, given it is under 200 pages long, and turns out to be a model of great popular science writing. It is remarkable how much we have been able to learn from E. coli, and in the earlier parts of the book, Zimmer explains how observations of the bacterium have contributed to our understanding of all of life. He describes the experiments, for example, which showed that genes are made of DNA and not protein, as many had previously thought; which confirmed the structure of DNA; and which allowed us to choose between Darwin’s theory of evolution and Lamarck’s theory of inherited characteristics. And, because E. coli can reproduce in only 20 minutes, we have been able to watch evolutio…

Introducing Darwin – Jonathan Miller & Borin Van Loon ***

It is almost impossible to rate these relentlessly hip books – they are pure marmite*. The huge Introducing … series (about 80 books covering everything from Quantum Theory to Islam), previously known as … for Beginners, puts across the message in a style that owes as much to Terry Gilliam and pop art as it does to popular science. Many of the pages feature large graphics with speech bubbles that are supposed to emphasise a point. This contribution to the series is as much curate’s egg as marmite. Written by the then-famous (perhaps now rather less so) Jonathan Miller, it mostly does what it says on the tin, concentrating on Darwin with only a relatively small amount of context and post-Darwinian development of his ideas. It’s very old for a popular science book – written in 1982 (though this is a new edition). This means that evolutionary development doesn’t get the weight you would now expect in the post-Darwin coverage (there is a small amount of indirect reference to it at the end…

How it Ends – Chris Impey ***

There’s a feeling in the publishing business that books on subjects that are a bit of a downer (with the exception of misery memoirs) rarely do well. The subject of this title is about as miserable as they come – how everything from people to the universe ends. Your death. The Earth’s extinction. The end of the universe. Cheerful? Not exactly. To be fair to Chris Impey, he weaves in a lot of interesting stuff along the way. Despite the title, a lot of it isn’t about endings. Yes, he covers death, but also the nature of life and the Earth’s biosphere. You’ll learn about evolution, what stars are and how they come into being, the big bang and more along the way to the eventual demise of each and every subject. He covers the science with a light touch, but manages to pack in a good amount of information. It’s never difficult to absorb, which with such a big canvas is impressive. And yet it’s hard not to be depressed, especially when he starts off with personal death. It might be inevita…

Introducing Stephen Hawking – J. P. McEvoy & Oscar Zarate ***

It is almost impossible to rate these relentlessly hip books – they are pure marmite*. The huge Introducing … series (about 80 books covering everything from Quantum Theory to Islam), previously known as … for Beginners, puts across the message in a style that owes as much to Terry Gilliam and pop art as it does to popular science. Pretty well every page features large graphics with speech bubbles that are supposed to emphasise the point. This turned out to be rather more wordy than a typical book in the series – in fact quite a lot of the pages are more like an adult version of a Horrible Science book with quite a lot of text and a single illustration. However, there are still sections, such as one where Hawking appears to be floating in space being interrogated by Alice from Alice in Wonderland, where the surreal images take over. Bits of the book are very good. I like the biographical parts about Hawking, for example. But I’m not sure if he really merits a book in his right, becaus…

Peter Byrne – Four Way Interview

Northern California-based journalist Peter Byrne has an uncanny ability to mine reportable nuggets of graft and corruption out of mountains of government and corporate records — not to mention human sources. His recent book The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III: Multiple Universes, Mutual Assured Destruction, and the Meltdown of a Nuclear Family takes on a remarkable 20th century figure, his theories and his life. Why science? Science models the physical world, as based upon our experience, so that we can change the world with minimal effort. By that, I mean it is easier to draft engineering schematics for building a bridge, than to just start fitting pieces of steel together. Science is also explanatory. On the one hand, the engineering plans for the Golden Gate bridge (near where I live in San Francisco) can tell me how the bridge works, but if I want to know why it works, I must study calculus and physics and chemistry, etc. My scientific quest will lead me to more fundamental models,…

Ian Stewart – Four Way Interview

Ian Stewart recently retired as Professor of Mathematics at Warwick University and is a Fellow of the Royal Society. As an active research mathematician he published over 140 papers, but he is probably best known as a populariser of maths in a wide range of approachable books, and as co-author of the Science of Discworld books. His most recent title is Cows in the Maze. Why maths? Short answer: it’s what I do. Longer answer: although most people would probably deny it, maths is a fascinating subject and it’s very suited to popularisation. Because few of us realise this, there’s not as much competition as there would be in, say, cookery books. So the field is wide open to those few writers who can spot the right topics and put together something that non-specialists can understand. Yes, but: why do I think maths is fascinating and suited to popularisation? Maths is useful. It relates to so many different aspects of our lives and our world. Maths underlies almost every aspect of modern t…

Economyths – David Orrell *****

When I saw this book I was rather excited, because I loved Freakonomics and I rather hoped this was going to be more of the same. It wasn’t. It was so much more. This is without doubt the best book I’ve read this year, and probably one of the most important books I’ve ever read. In Economyths, David Orrell dramatically demonstrates that neo-classical economics, the basic economics still taught in our universities is absolute rubbish. It has always worried me that winners of the Nobel Prizeish Economics prize (not quite a real Nobel Prize) seemed to contradict each other from year to year. That shouldn’t happen in a science. Yes there will be shifts of direction, but not this random pulling too and fro. Orrell exposes the rotten heart of economics. What we have here is an ideology that pretends to be a science. What Orrell shows with some humour and powerful analytical precision is how the founders of economics suffered from physics envy. They wanted to be a real science too. So they t…

The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III – Peter Byrne ***

This is a book that made me check and see if it really was published by Oxford University Press. Yes, it had the physical feel of an OUP book – top quality, excellent paper and unusually heavy for its size – but as I started to read, the style was all wrong. OUP popular science books tend to the over-academic in writing style, but this had the feel of an American quality magazine. That was decidedly refreshing – the style had been over used in popular science books after coming into fashion with the likes of James Gleick’s Chaos, but it has become less common, so was encouragingly peppy. I ought to explain straight away why what I consider in many ways to be an excellent book has only got three stars. This is because the content simply doesn’t work for our measure of a reader with no qualifications in the subject. If you have a physics degree, or possibly if you are a student of philosophy, you will find much in here that is fascinating, and when Peter Byrne is sticking to the biograp…

Flow – Philip Ball ****

This is another of Philip Ball’s quirky, scholarly, illuminating studies of the patterns of nature, the second in a trilogy. The others deal with shapes and branches; this one deals with flow of all kinds, from convection in the sun to avalanches in a pile of rice. Ball has struck popular science gold with this trilogy, because he has a subject matter that is at the same time scientifically intriguing, visually engaging, and easy for the layperson to grasp. Fluid flow – the paradigm of flow in this book – is a typical case. Eddies and turbulence are interesting for scientists because they are horribly complicated. But because they are horribly complicated, the only hope of understanding many features of fluid flow is through a kind of simple qualitative modelling, the kind that is easy to explain to a popular audience. The Kelvin-Helmholtz instability, for example, is a mechanism by which flowing water forms wavy currents. It is a simple mechanism, communicable in a picture, and it cr…

The Rising Sea – Orrin H. Pilkey and Rob Young ****

In the 21st Century, rising global sea levels caused by human induced global warming will more than likely make many island nations and coastal areas around the world uninhabitable, will destroy important ecosystems, and will leave some of our major cities incredibly vulnerable to flooding, storm surges and infrastructure destruction. Yet, as geologists Orrin H. Pilkey and Rob Young explain in The Rising Sea, the general public is not aware of the seriousness and extent of these problems, and governments are ill prepared to deal with the challenges ahead. The aim of the book is to do something about this, and to provide the facts we need in order to cope with the consequences of sea level rise. After first covering the causes of sea level rise and how we measure current sea levels, the book goes over how we project future rises and how significant these are likely to be. Here, Pilkey and Young sensibly acknowledge the difficulties in making predictions: for instance, carbon dioxide em…

The Compassionate Instinct – Dacher Keltner, Jason Marsh, Jeremy Adam Smith (Ed.) ***

The social sciences have painted human nature as selfish and violent, and society is more unfriendly and atomistic than ever. But a new kind of social science has arrived, and it will correct this bleak picture of human nature and make society a kinder, more trusting place. So this anthology claims, and with the help of some big names in psychology, journalism, and world peace, it does a lively job of defending its premises. On close inspection, those premises are not crack-free. The book is as much a social manifesto as it is a summary of scientific findings; the evangelical spirit boosts the interest but not the integrity of its conclusions. The authors do not all share the same background assumptions, even if they all support in a general way the aims of Greater Good, the magazine at UC Berkeley from which the articles in this collection is drawn. And the book’s claims are not as revolutionary as some of the contributors make out. But for anyone interested in trends in the social s…