Monday, 31 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 finding” about the equal complexity of languages, linguists never bother to reveal where, when, or how the discover was made. They are saying: “Just trust us, we know.” Well, don’t trust us. We have no idea!
As it happens, the dogma of equal complexity is based on no evidence whatsoever.
Through the book, Deutscher examines three key examples where language seems to have an influence on how we see the world. The first is through our perception of colour. Many will be aware that there was something rather different about the way the Ancient Greeks described colour – the ‘wine dark sea’ and all that. They really didn’t seem to have a grasp of the concept of blue at all, for example. We discover how many cultures seem to only distinguish black white and red, and the surprising implications of the way we decide to break up colours on the way we see the world.
The second example he uses is direction. This may seem straight forward, but even that remark is dubious – because the concept of ‘forward’ (along with ‘backward’, ‘left’ and ‘right’) are not consistently adopted across the world. A fair number of languages instead use absolute directions, (compass directions, for example) rather than those associated with our personal orientation. This has some fascinating implications for the link between language and our interaction with reality.
Finally, he examines the use of gender, and how the varying use of gender in language can flavour our attitude to things and particularly to poetry and literature. I have to confess I didn’t agree with Deutscher here. He says But if you native speakers of English are tempted to feel sorry for those of us who are shackled by the heavy load of an irrational gender system, then think again. I would never want to change places with you. He argues that the richness of language and symbolism that emerges makes it worth all the pain of learning what gender (say) a curling iron is. I’m sorry – this is garbage. The sooner languages dispose of this oddity, the better. But this is merely a disagreement on interpretation. The chapter on gender systems is still a great read.
If I’m honest, I hate the book’s title, but that apart, it’s hard to find anything negative to say. I perhaps would have liked to have seen more about the ‘Babel-17′ concept. This is the idea in Samuel R. Delany’s novel of the same name that some languages put a lot more information in a word than others. So, for example, you can call the place a fox lives a foxhole or a den. The first word has much more information (what animal lives there, what form the home takes) than the second. In the novel, Babel-17 is an artificial language where the name for something contains so much information that it enables you to construct it. Of course no real language goes this far, or ever could, but Deutscher only touches on the idea of some words containing more information than others (e.g. gender).
One of the reasons I liked this book so much is that Deutscher has such a wonderful way of getting his message across while remaining highly approachable. I’m reminded of what the great Richard Feynman did for physics – and there can be no greater accolade. You don’t have to be in the least interested in linguistics per se to enjoy this book. It’s a joy to read. Highly recommended.
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 27 May 2010

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 evolution in action, by placing colonies of E. coli under evolutionary pressure and observing useful mutations spreading throughout the colony.
The similarities between E. coli and ourselves and other species are emphasized throughout the book. Like us, for example, E. coli have sex and grow old, and the way they group together into what are called biofilms to perform specialist and complementary functions resembles the way cells in our bodies work together.
What struck me most, however, were not the similarities between E. coli and other species or even what it can tell us about life as a whole, but rather how interesting and complex E. coli is in its own right. I found it fascinating, for instance, how sophisticated E. coli’s mechanism is for controlling its temperature, and how E. coli navigate around the environment they find themselves in by using ‘microbial tongues’ as sensors. This complexity should not come as a surprise, however, Zimmer points out; E. coli are highly evolved and are just as modern as we are.
Zimmer aims to cover a lot in the book, and there are points where the content gets a little too technical for the nonspecialist. The section on genetic circuits in E. coli is quite challenging, for instance. But for the most part the explanations are wonderfully clear, and the fascinating nature of the subject matter would keep the interest of readers who may otherwise be tempted to skip the tricky parts.
In between the science the book gives us small insights into the lives of some of the scientists involved in studying the nature of E. coli, including Joshua Lederberg, Richard Lenski, Salvador Luria, and Jacques Monod, who famously said, ‘What is true for E. coli is true for the elephant,’ referring to E. coli’s ability to shed light on the rest of life. There are also useful discussions of some of the surrounding issues, like whether antibiotics will ever be manufactured which the harmful strains of E. coli and other bacteria will not be able to evolve resistance to; and how E. coli’s flagellum illustrates the power of natural selection, and does not suggest, as intelligent design’s supporters would argue, that there is ‘irreducible complexity’ in nature which required a designer.
The highlight of Microcosm, however, is at the end where Zimmer discusses the ethics of genetic engineering and the hybridization of species, especially where human tissue is involved, for the purposes of valuable research and drugs. In this thoughtful section, he suggests we should resist thinking that being human involves having an ‘inviolable essence’. He argues we should embrace perhaps the most important lesson E. coli can give us: like E. coli, we are already hybrids and, in an important sense, are not more than a combination of genes, some of which we have picked up from other species and even from viruses, shaped by our environmental influences.
All in all, then, a very entertaining read covering the science, the individuals behind it, and some of the wider debates and issues. I would definitely recommend it.
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Matt Chorley

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), nor does molecular biology. Even so, it isn’t as out-of-date as a physics book of the time would be.
For me, this was one of the less effective books in the series as far as the use of illustrations go. They rarely added much, and frequently seemed to refer to Alice in Wonderland for reasons that aren’t entirely obvious. Every drawing of Darwin’s face was different, sometimes almost unrecognizably so. Miller’s text was also variable. Some of the detail gone into in Darwin’s gradual development was a touch tedious, suggesting an over-scholarly approach – but then there were some surprising factual errors. For example William Paley, the ‘watch on the heath’ man, is referred to as a bishop, which he wasn’t, and there’s a very strange comment about the Lunar Society of Birmingham. It was called the Lunar Society because they met on the full moon so it could light them home. But Miller writes that they met on the ‘new moon’ (i.e. when the moon gives no light). This even contradicts the illustration, which shows a full moon.
Bits of the text seemed quite childlike in approach. For example ‘He worked much harder than most ordinary people, and enjoyed a happy life with his large family.’ is the sort of thing I’d expect to see in a children’s science book. But elsewhere it has a much more adult feel. There’s another contrast in style with the last 14 pages covering the post-Darwin new synthesis. Here the illustrations drop away to a negligible little bar at the bottom (up to here you can’t miss them, but you tend to ignore these), and the text flows much more like a conventional book.
This isn’t a bad book on Darwin and his work, but it’s not outstanding writing, and the visual approach doesn’t work particularly well, so it’s not a high point of the series.
*Marmite? If you are puzzled by this assessment, you probably aren’t from the UK. Marmite is a yeast-based product (originally derived from beer production waste) that is spread on bread/toast. It’s something people either love or hate, so much so that the company has run very successful TV ad campaigns showing people absolutely hating the stuff…
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

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 inevitable, but this is one subject I’m prepared to have my head in the sand about.
Apart from the subject, the other problem I have with the book is its style. It will appeal to some readers, so I can’t say this is a universal issue, but it doesn’t always work for me. There is an irritating attempt at trendiness that comes through sometimes. It’s interesting that the author is pictured on the back flap in a Hawaiian shirt. This is just the sort of stuff that would appear in the script of a TV show, presented by someone in a Hawaiian shirt to show he’s a ‘man of the people’ not a distant intellectual.
A good example of this is the way the author attributes the saying ‘Predictions can be very difficult – especially about the future,’ to ‘cartoonist Storm P.’ This sounds like someone very trendy, a sort of gangsta rapper of cartoonists. Unfortunately the image (and the attribution) is wrong. Many of us would think it was physicist Neils Bohr who first said this (I certainly did until I looked into it). A few might think it was baseball player Yogi Berra, though that has long been discredited. In fact Bohr did claim the quote was from the artist and writer Robert Storm Petersen (doesn’t sound quite so trendy when put like that, does he?) – but Bohr was wrong. The best information suggests it was first used in the Danish Parliament some time between 1935 and 1939. Even less trendy.
Here’s another example of this over-looseness: ‘[Fred Adams] has a counterculture vibe, like a surfer or a savvy drug user, and he doesn’t seem to take the serious business of the universe too seriously.’ Whoa, dude! Like, no way. Not my kind of popular science.
This isn’t a bad book. There’s lots of good information in it, and when Impey doesn’t get too carried away with being a man of the people it reads well. But the subject is one that doesn’t immediately make you want to read it, and I didn’t come across anything inside that made this feeling entirely go away.
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 24 May 2010

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, because a huge amount of the content, probably a good half of it, is not about Hawking or his work, but rather is context. So, for example, pages 11 to 63 (out of a total of 174) have nothing to do with Hawking.
What we do get, apart from the useful biographical bits, is an introduction to his ideas on black holes and singularities in general, his demonstration that the surface area of a black hole shouldn’t decrease and his invention of the concept of Hawking radiation to make the inconsistencies between black hole theory and the second law of thermodynamics go away. We also hear about the no boundary idea that the universe is finite in size but without boundaries (in the same way that the surface of the earth is finite in size but has no boundaries, but with more dimensions involved). But we don’t come across any of Hawking’s more recent ideas. There is a reason for this. The book was written in 1995, and this new edition hasn’t been updated (something that must be difficult to do with this format). Fifteen years is a long time in astrophysics. Trivial example – the big bang is shown as being 15 billion years ago, where the generally accepted guestimate has been 13.7 billion years for quite a while now.
Overall it’s interesting, though I don’t think the theoretical side is explained as well as quantum theory is in the series entry on that by the same author. But being so old, and being on a subject who is very high profile but really hasn’t developed huge new theories in the way of Einstein or even Feynman rather undermines its value.
*Marmite? If you are puzzled by this assessment, you probably aren’t from the UK. Marmite is a yeast-based product (originally derived from beer production waste) that is spread on bread/toast. It’s something people either love or hate, so much so that the company has run very successful TV ad campaigns showing people absolutely hating the stuff…
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 20 May 2010

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, such as the study of gravity (it keeps the bridge in place, eh?), and quantum mechanics (it binds the elements of the bridge together). And then I will find myself teetering on the edge of knowledge and speculation: looking for a theory of quantum gravity.
I am confident, by the way, that one day life forms (not necessarily humans) will construct a model of the universe that is as logical as the schematics for the Golden Gate Bridge. But it is unlikely that there will ever be an end to life’s quest for the ultimate model, simply because we (our senses, our brainpans) cannot interface with everything … and here is where philosophy intrudes.
Why this book?
As an investigative journalist (with a bent for the absurd), I initially began researching the material that became The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III: Multiple Universes, Mutual Assured Destruction, and the Meltdown of a Nuclear Family because I thought Rolling Stone would buy a story about a rock singer with a weird physicist dad, (Everett’s son, Mark of the band Eels). Rolling Stone turned me down (too much “science,” the editor said), as did about a dozen other newsy-cultural magazines. So, almost as a joke I pitched it to the editors of Scientific American, and, remarkably, they commissioned me to write a profile of Everett III (not caring much about his rock singer son, or so they said). It turned out, though, that what makes both the article and the book work for many people is the emotional connection between the rock singer and his strange, brilliant, dead father.
Anyway, I had to learn something about quantum mechanics (not being mathematical, I concentrated on its history and interpretation). And I found a lot of new material about the Cold War in various archives, research that was necessary because—Everett had made his living designing the targeting algorithms for World War Fini. And the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll parts wrote themselves.
One thing lead to another and one day, I had an actual science book weighing down my hands. Its shocking, really. Don’t quite understand how it happened. And, some days, if it happened at all.
What’s next?
I am curating Everett’s scientific papers, which I found in his son’s basement in some cardboard boxes. Princeton University Press has commissioned myself and Prof. Jeff Barrett, of the Dept. of Logic & the Philosophy of Science at the University of California, Irvine, to put together an annotated collection of Everett’s works. We are also putting scans of his work, including handwritten drafts of the original thesis about multiple universes on line, with support from the National Science Foundation. Perhaps some enterprising physicists will read the old drafts and figure out some of the loose ends in Everett’s theory.
I think the story about Everett will make a great feature film, too.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
I have been doing some investigative work, exposing corrupt practices in government, industry, academia etc. That pays the bills. But I am now hooked on the philosophy of science, mostly foundational physics, and I’d like to write a readable book on how the “furniture of the world” (as the philosophers say) is represented in science.
But, since you asked about “excitement,” I am excited to be alive and thriving in our world, even though that is dying carbon atom by carbon atom.
However, if I believed in the Many Worlds Theory (and I do not see any reason to demand the existence of only one universe!), then I would feel better about reality, since if everything that is physically possible occurs, as Everett maintained, then things are looking up … somewhere.

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 technology – without a huge amount of maths, we wouldn’t have the Internet, mobile phones, CDs, DVDs, special effects in movies, Sat-Nav, petrol, radio, TV, radar, space flight, fuel-efficient cars, whatever.
Maths is the main tool that scientists use to understand nature. Much of what we know about the planets, the interior of the Earth, the movement of the oceans, the weather, the patterns made by sand dunes, or the way animals walk, comes from maths.
Maths is – well, can be – beautiful. Utilitarian maths, which is a lot of what we are taught in school, isn’t the best place to appreciate the beauty, though. The most beautiful aspects are usually on the research frontiers of advanced mathematics, like topology, ‘rubber sheet geometry’, where shapes can be stretched and bent, but not torn. Topology deals with things like knots and links. Or group theory, the mathematics of symmetry, which tells us that there are precisely 17 fundamentally different types of wallpaper pattern. Or dynamics, with the wonders of fractal geometry and chaos.
Why this book?
When I was at school, I was a great fan of the American journalist Martin Gardner, who wrote a monthly column about Mathematical Games in Scientific American magazine. Each month he chose a new, usually slightly quirky topic, and explained it in very clear and simple terms. It opened my eyes, and those of many others, to the enormous breadth of mathematics. And it showed that maths can be fun.
In 1990 I became the fourth person to write the column, and continued in that role until 2001. And before that I wrote a similar column for the French edition of the magazine. I racked up over 140 articles in total, and it seemed a shame to let them decompose slowly in my filing cabinets. So over the years I’ve been putting together updated collections of the columns.
Cows in the Maze is the fifth such collection. Its main virtue is variety. There are 21 chapters. Three (on the maths of time travel) form a connected series. The others are free-standing, and can be read in any order. They cover unexpected applications of maths, surprising curiosities, games, puzzles, and whatever else I thought might prove interesting. What shape is a teardrop? (Hint: it’s not teardrop-shaped.)
I think the main message of the book is that maths has many more connections with the real world than we tend to imagine. It’s also easier to understand if you focus on the big story behind the maths, rather than on the nuts and bolts of how to do it. I’m not in the education business. I’m not exactly in the entertainment business either. I like to think I’m in the awareness business, which is somewhere in between – or a bit of both. 100% of each, perhaps.
What’s next?
Right now I’m about half way through writing a popular science book on mathematics in biology. The two subjects used to maintain a fairly distant relationship, but nowadays it’s become clear that many problems in biology need a lot of mathematical input. And the mathematicians are getting wonderful new problems from biology. For instance, mathematical models of the evolution of new species.
I’m also working on a sequel to Professor Stewart’s Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities and Professor Stewart’s Hoard of Mathematical Treasures. Three is a good number for a trilogy.
After that, there is enough material for three or four more books like Cows in the Maze…
…and I’d like to write a few more science fiction novels…
…and just possibly there might be another Science of Discworld book with Terry Pratchett and Jack Cohen. It will be fun if we can manage it.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
I retired in October 2009, which should have given me all sorts of extra spare time to do all the things I’ve always wanted to do. Actually, life seems very much as it was, mostly because I was already doing all the things I’ve always wanted to do. But now it’s voluntary. So I know I’m doing it because I really want to.
My wife Avril and I have been travelling – about one major trip a year plus a few smaller ones. We’re working our way through the list of places we’ve always wanted to visit. Easter Island, the Galapagos, Peru. Next on the agenda are Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.
I’m still doing maths research: right now, I’m finishing off two long papers about networks. I expected to spend about six months on one short paper; it’s taken four years so far and there are now two long ones. The problem proved to be far more challenging (therefore more interesting) than I’d expected.
One really exciting prospect is that one of my books might end up as a TV documentary. We’re discussing that right now. But for the usual reasons I can’t reveal which one.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

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 took the tools of science and applied them – without ever learning the scientific method. One of the fundamentals of the scientific method is that a theory is only good as long as it fits observation. When the data goes adrift of the theory, the theory gets thrown out. Economic theory consistently fails to effectively model the economy, yet the theory isn’t thrown away. Instead the data is cherry-picked, ignoring the bubbles and spikes that are inherently part of the economy, but that the theory can’t cope with.
Orrell shows dramatically how economic theory’s basis on the idea of the market being largely stable, rational and efficient is absolute baloney. Yet this is what every economics undergraduate is taught, and how the pathetically poor models and structures employed by banks and other financial institutions to manage risk work. And guess what? After messing things up, those same models and controls are back in place again.
It’s made clear that not all economists are tied to the neo-classical model. There are some specialists who do know more about dynamic systems and networks and other more appropriate ideas to match what’s really happening, but they seem to be in the minority, and certainly not in control of the economics academic hierarchy.
The book isn’t perfect. It’s rather repetitious on the key points, and I found the chapter on feminist economics less convincing than the rest. But this doesn’t undermine the fact that it’s very readable, takes a truly scientific view of economics and is absolutely essential reading. Forget the subtitle ‘ten ways that economics gets it wrong’ – that’s much too weak.
There are other books taking on economics, but I’ve not come across another that explains it so well for the layperson, takes in the credit crunch, totally destroys the validity of economics as we know it and should be required reading for every politician and banker. No, make that every voter in the land. This ought to be a real game changer of a book. Read it.
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

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 biographical side, it’s very approachable, but when he gets into the science, and particularly the interpretation of the science, the wording can be more than a touch impenetrable. This isn’t always because of the science itself – sometimes the wording gets overly heavy. Take these two example sentences:
The problem he pointed to is that in the objective formalism of quantum mechanics, nature proceeds causally, deterministically, but our perception of nature is subjective: macroscopic reality appears to emerge randomly, non-causally, from the microcosm.
Bohr’s philosophy of complimentarity can be viewed as an epistemological framework for holding mutually exclusive opposites: the quantum world is the inaccessible thing itself, the classical world reflects the quantum, bringing it into the realm of reason and knowledge as classically described phenomena.
There’s hardly any science to speak of in these sentences, it’s just that the vocabulary is hardly that of a general interest book.
Any biographer has a problem with the opening. The reader buys the book to read about the subject – (s)he doesn’t really care about the subject’s parents, but the author feels a need to introduce them too, as they are bound to havehad some influence. This is doubly hard in the particular case of Everett. As we don’t really know why we should care about Everett, we really don’t have any interest in, for example, his mother’s poetry. Things liven up when we get to Everett himself, but it takes a certain amount of determination to get through those first couple of chapters.
There’s no doubt that Everett was a fascinating man. Hugely intelligent, yet cold in his attitude to humanity – almost the classic mad scientist type. The sections of the book that are about Everett’s life grab the attention. But focus is likely to stray somewhat in the interwoven chapters about his work. The big problem here is that Byrne never really answers the idiot questions. He comes at Everett’s work as a scientist would. But the general reader wants to know more fundamental things.
So, for example, Everett’s many worlds theory is put forward to deal with the ‘measurement problem.’ Simply put, this asks why big objects like people, made of quantum particles, behave totally differently to the particles themselves. They don’t have the same apparently probabilistic nature. Why is it that measurement seems to pin down a particle where previously it just had a range of probabilities of being in different places, and why are real world sized objects permanently pinned down? Everett answered this by suggesting that everything acts in the spread-out quantum fashion, but each different possibility is in a different parallel world, and we only experience one of these. But the idiot question is why doesn’t the fact that all the particles in my body are always interacting with each other mean the probabilities are permanently collapsed, because that interaction is the equivalent of measurement? Why is there a problem at all? This is never properly explained in a way that the general reader can follow, and therefore the whole exercise seems futile.
The other issue for the non-specialist is how much they can bring themselves to care about Everett. With someone like Einstein or Richard Feynman we have both a remarkable character and someone whose work had a profound effect on science. Everett doesn’t seem to have been the kind of character many would like, and it’s hard to get excited about his achievements. They broadly seem to split between game theory and the multiple worlds idea. When in the late 1970s I started work in Operational Research (the UK equivalent of the Operations Research much mentioned in the book), game theory really had already been dismissed as useless. It was interesting, fun, thought provoking – but not practical for the real world. I never once saw game theory used either at university or in one of the biggest OR departments in the country.
As for the many worlds idea, in the end it’s an interpretation, not something of huge value. It hasn’t got broad support in the community and it certainly (dramatically!) fails Occam’s Razor. A clever idea, penetratingly thought through… but not one that has done a lot for real physics or applied science.
If this sounds negative, I’m not saying you shouldn’t read this book. There’s some in-depth detail on the startling decisions being made on whether or not to start a nuclear bombardment during the cold war. For those with the technical interest, the content is stimulating, and Everett seems to have been one of kind… but I can’t say this is the kind of scientific biography that will appeal to a wide readership.
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 17 May 2010

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 creates delicate plumed patterns in water that make great images. And like most of the patterns in this book, it crosses mediums easily – it is present in clouds as well as rivers.
It turns out, as Ball reveals in the last chapter of the book, that real turbulence is not susceptible to any simple models like the Kelvin-Helmholtz model. But this is a rare exception. And even with turbulence Ball finds a pretty way of illustrating the science: he concludes as he began the book, with a work of art. This artistic theme – the first chapter is about representations of fluid flow in Western and Eastern art, with a focus on Leonardo da Vinci – is typical of Ball’s playfulness in this trilogy, his fondness for interesting diversions. These are indeed diverting, but they can also be disorientating. In the case of this volume, I finished the first chapter without having much idea of what the book would be about.
This book is certainly about something, though, even if it that something is hard to pin it down. It’s about fluid motions, of course: aside from the relatively conventional topics of water flow and convection, we have intriguing chapters on the collective behaviour of grains (in dunes, piles, and sheets) and on the movement of flocks of animals, crowds of people, and lines of traffic. But it’s also about deeper themes, which Ball mentions now and then but never instructs us about systematically. It’s about trying to describe and understand a wide class of phenomena through a single parameter – whether it is Rayleigh’s number for describing the tendency of fluids to give convection patterns, or Reynold’s number for describing the eddy-forming habits of a liquid stream. In a vague way it is about self-organisation, the capacity of macroscopic entities to form complex patterns with no outside help except a steady influx of energy. And in a fleeting way it is also about self-organising criticality, the quality that some phenomena have of spontaneously entering highly unstable states – a quality that the now-legendary sand-pile is supposed to have.
Readers who are not interested in these themes, perhaps because they would rather see them treated front-on rather than in the occasional sidenote, will still find plenty to enjoy in this book. The simplest pleasure it offers is to witness similar patterns in disparate phenomena: lane-forming on human footpaths and in the trails of army ants; convection not just in boiling water but inside the earth, in clouds, in cereal packets, and in the regularly-spaced circular craters that shape some landscapes in Norway and Alaska. Another of the book’s pleasures is its narration of the process of science, the sequence of attacks by different scientists, using different methods, on the same problem. In Flow, Ball’s account of successive attempts to explain sand dunes is typical of his blow-by-blow coverage of the process of discovery.
The breadth and detail of Ball’s interests in this book means there are many other pleasures besides, from the historical (Faraday’s prescient thoughts on convection in grains) to the domestic (an explanation of why shaking a cereal packet drives the chunky bits to the top). The downsides are that the scientific detail is sometimes heavy-going, and that the underlying themes of the book (aside from the general idea of fluid motion) are nebulous. On a more specific note, Ball’s discussion of self-organising criticality did not ease much of my confusion about that topic. On the whole, however, Flow deserves its place in Ball’s trilogy – and that is high praise.
Review by Michael  Bycroft

Saturday, 15 May 2010

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 emissions over the coming years, which will help drive sea level rise, are unknown. But the trends we can find from looking at tide gauge data and satellite data are clear, the authors argue, and they conclude that we should work on the assumption that the mean tide level will have risen seven feet by the year 2100.
Later, the book moves on to what will happen as a result of this rise and what we need to do in response. It suggests, for instance, ways to better manage coastal wetlands so that marshes and mangroves, home to many species, are able to move in response to changes in water levels and salinity. And it argues we need to be more realistic about what we can do to prevent shoreline erosion and that we should accept that many communities at risk will need to be relocated. Mentioned in some detail is Carteret Atoll in the Pacific, a group of islands whose residents began to be evacuated in 1989; the authors rightly emphasise here that people are already having to leave their homelands as a result of sea level rise, and that this is not just a possible scenario for the future.
What struck me whilst reading the book was how often even concerned scientists seem to have underestimated the extent to which sea levels are likely to rise. For instance, as the book explains, in its 2007 fourth assessment report the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change did not fully consider the contributions to sea level rise of the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. And some global change researchers have assumed that sea levels will rise at a steady rate over the coming years, even though it is probable that the rate is likely to increase. This is very worrying, and anyone who believes scientists tend to over-exaggerate the dangers we face from global warming should read this.
Throughout the book, Pilkey and Young make their points in clear language and draw on a large amount of research to support what they are saying; by the end, it is difficult not to be convinced of the book’s arguments. And because we hear first hand from some of the communities most at risk from rising sea levels – like, for example, the people of Shishmaref, a shoreline village just south of the Arctic circle, where the authors visited – the need to act now on behalf of these communities is made plain.
It’s difficult to find much wrong with the book, and it generally succeeds in what it intends to do. There is one small point, however. In a chapter entitled A Sea of Denial, we are told to ‘ignore declarations from non-scientists’ about sea level rise and climate change and to get our information from trustworthy sources like, among other places, the journals Science and Nature. I would have preferred it if the book encouraged us only to be sceptical of what we’re told from non-specialists, and there are some good journalists – like Mark Lynas in the UK, for instance – who know their stuff.
Overall, though, the book does a much needed job of speaking up about a very important issue. I hope policymakers begin to take the book’s advice sooner rather than later.
Review by Matt Chorley

Monday, 10 May 2010

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 sciences this is a good read, and some of the results it reports are genuinely thought-provoking.
The title suggests that this is a work of evolutionary psychology, and indeed the contributors are keen to “uncover the deep roots of human compassion.” It is hard to see why this evolutionary glove fits the aims of the book (aside from increasing its sales). For one thing, it is a bit awkward to claim on the one hand that compassion is “hard-wired” into humans and on the other hand that we need expert interventions from social scientists to make us more compassionate. For another thing, evolutionary explanations for altruism have for years been used to undermine human compassion – to explain away our goodness as a selfish consequence of natural selection. This book does not say why the new findings about compassion – that our nervous system responds positively to good deeds, for example – should have the opposite effect of underlining human goodness.
That said, the book includes articles on some interesting primate studies. But the most striking of these shows how malleable the compassionate “instinct” is. In a study reported by the neurologist Robert Sapolsky, the aggressive and patriarchal rhesus monkey species, when mixed with the more passive stump-tailed species, quickly took on the more sociable habits of the latter; this cultural change persisted down the generations. Primates and humans might be capable of compassion, but calling this an “instinct” is asking for trouble.
The Sapolsky report on primates takes a popular view of human nature – that our evolutionary past makes us “killer apes” – and turns it on its head. Many of these articles pull the same trick, from Steven Pinker’s argument that Homo sapiens is much more peaceable now than ever before, to a series of studies showing that modest, empathetic people are more likely to gain power than ruthless Machiavellis. Other articles are less combative – some aim simply to cover topics that scientists have so far ignored, like trust, forgiveness and heroism. Some of the ideas are hardly new: Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, which prefigures a lot of the book’s ideas, came out in 1995. Some may even be outdated: the science of gratitude, a centrepiece of the collection, is not easily distinguishable from the long-established science of positive thinking, which has hit a few snags recently (chief among them Barbara Ehrenreich’s Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled American and the World).
The editors promise not to deny the violence and selfishness in the world but to “offer scientific evidence that another world is possible.” On average the book is true to this promise, mixing hard-nosed studies of war and violence with articles that verge on the Polyannaish. After effulgent reports of the healing power of gratitude and the wonders of forgiveness, it is a relief to find a psychologist admitting that “someone who is unrelentingly cheerful can be a pain in the ass” (this is in a mildly cynical and highly recommended article by the New York Times writer Catherine Price – the book mixes scientist’s reports on their work with journalism with interviews).
The second part of the book is unashamedly a work of self-help. It is a short course on “How to cultivate goodness in relationships with friends, family, co-workers and neighbours.” The third part also aims high, teaching us “how to cultivate goodness in society and politics.” There is some good stuff here, ranging from climate change to trust in parenting to the division of labour among couples; and Desmond Tutu’s piece on reconciliation is moving. Many of these studies left me with the nagging feeling that the “discoveries” were simply common-sense dressed up. Do we really need sociologists to tell us that we are less likely to help a person in distress when we are pushed for time, or psychologists to tell us that a good apology should include an admission of guilt? But this is less a problem with this book than with social science at large — and perhaps with the piecemeal format of the collection, which cramps the science somewhat.
On the whole this is a thorough, if impressionistic, survey of an interesting line of research that spans many of the social sciences. The book’s evolutionary pretensions are unconvincing, but most of its content does not rely on them; its findings are not dazzlingly novel, but they are food for thought nonetheless.
Review by Michael Bycroft