Saturday, 24 July 2010

Stepping Stones to the Stars – Terry C. Treadwell ***

This is the kind of book I would have loved as a ten-year-old. I’m not saying it’s aimed at children, but at the time the whole manned space travel thing was big news, I was happily building plastic models of spacecraft, and I absolutely hoovered up collections of facts about space and space travel.
The book is subtitled ‘a history of manned spaceflight’, but I would make a subtle alteration – I would say it’s a chronicle of manned spaceflight. In a history, I would expect interpretation, comments on the politics, more about the key individuals involved. But what we get here is a bit of historical background, then for many of the US and Soviet manned spaceflight we get details of who went, what experiments they did, what went wrong (something almost always seemed to go wrong), and one or two nice little details picked up from the flight log, or some such source.
The exception is the Shuttle flights, where a whole chunk of them get run through in a few lines, presumably because they were so routine. And that’s the problem, really. This is a book about routine. Of course it covers the big stuff in more detail – Apollo 11, for example, Apollo 13 and the two Shuttle disasters. But the whole exercise gets rather tedious, unless you are a fan of exhaustive detail.
In the end, there are too many basic facts and not enough interpretation. We get little feel for the politics behind the Moon race, or the science of space flight, or the pros and cons of manned spaceflight versus unmanned. Although there a couple of points where Terry Treadwell emphasizes the benefits of having humans on board when something goes wrong, he doesn’t go into the way the Russians had unmanned vehicles ferrying material back from the Moon – or look at the real disadvantages of manned flight in terms of huge extra cost and risk to life.
You might think from the title that there’d be a big section on ‘where do we go from here’, but there’s actually just a page or so. Overall, unless you want a fact book about manned spaceflights, this isn’t a title that is likely to appeal.
ADDED March 2015:
I had totally forgotten this title when I wrote my own book on this topic, Final Frontier, but that is very much aimed at the problem areas described above, with much more interpretation and commentary, and a lot on the future - in essence, what this book should have been for a modern audience.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Why Does E=mc2? – Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw ****

Brian Cox is a dream for any publisher (sorry, Jeff Forshaw, but we haven’t heard of you). The media’s darling physicist at the moment, Cox is sometimes described as the popstar physicist, partly because he looks like one, but even more remarkably, because he was one. Although now Professor of Particle Physics at Manchester University (though confusingly, according to the bumf, he lives in London – that’s quite a commute), he was once part of the band D:Ream. He’s also a nice guy – I’ve done couple of gigs with him (speaking engagements, not music), and though a little over-enthusiastic about the movie world at the time, he was very friendly.
You might expect, with Cox on board, that this would follow the approach of TV science – lots of ‘gee, wow, amazing!’ but light on nuts and bolts science. But not a bit of it. In fact, if Cox and Forshaw had taken the same advice about equations as Stephen Hawking, the chances are they would have expected to have around 2 readers.
This is primarily a book about the origins of the world’s most famous equation, but rather than just give fun background, some special relativity and some handwaving, this pair plunge in and really do explain how E=mc2 is derived, something that isn’t generally done in popular science because, frankly, it’s pretty hard going. They don’t stop there either. They go into the master equation of the standard model of particle physics, explaining how it is derived from gauge symmetry, exploring the different components of the equation and giving by far the best explanation of the Higgs field/Higgs boson that I have ever seen. In this, the book is absolutely masterful.
What I was a little disappointed with, having heard Cox’s eloquent speaking, is the rather stiff writing style. Although it tries to be friendly, I felt a bit like I was… well, being talked to by a couple of professors. There’s a lovely example of this where they quote Kurt Mendelssohn’s book on Lavoisier’s widow where she is said to have led Count Rumford “a hell of a life.” Cox and Forshaw then comment: ‘the book was written in 1966, hence the quaint turn of phrase.’) You can almost see the pursed professorial lips.
I loved this book, which perhaps makes it rather surprising that I only gave it four stars. If you’ve at least a physics A level and are about to set out on a physics degree (or, like me, you’ve got a rusty physics degree), it’s phrased at just the right level. But I felt it would be hard going for a general reader without that background. I had to re-read several bits to be sure what the writers intended, and in the end there’s a reason most popular science books don’t have this level of technical detail.
So, not quite the perfect popular science book, yet certainly one of 2009’s gems.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Shadows on the Cave Wall: a new theory of evolution – Keith Skene ***

Anyone claiming to have a new theory of evolution had better have good credentials, field experience, and a thorough knowledge of biology. Otherwise they are probably a crackpot. Keith Skene has these qualities, and Shadows on the Cave Wall is not the work of a crackpot. Indeed, for breadth, thoughtfulness, and a kind of happy-go-lucky charm, the book is a real treasure. But its aspirations – to replace evolution by natural selection with a new theory grounded in physics – are well beyond its powers of persuasion.
Skene’s key idea is that the long- and short-term dynamics of living things can be best understood in terms of the flow of energy into, out of, and within different levels of biological organisation. The levels of organisation that interest Skene are proteins, individuals, populations, communities, and biomes. Notably absent from this list are genes and species, which Skene rejects along with evolution by natural selection.
Drawing on Plato’s metaphor of the cave, Skene argues that energy is the “sun” that lies behind all of the biological activity we see in the world, while everything from the gene to the biosphere are merely “shadows on the cave wall”, the outward effects of energy. It may seem that Skene’s focus on physics is reductionist. Banish the thought. By focusing on physics, Skene does not mean that biological phenomena are simply consequences of atom-level laws. He means that they are driven by the macroscopic laws of thermodynamics. Once we have seen this, he argues, we can see that no level of organisation – proteins no more than populations – is more “basic” than the others.
The payoff for this theory, says Skene, is closure on some key issues in evolutionary biology, including altruism, life on other planets, and the social behaviour of animals. But the “most radical implication” of the theory is a new way to save the environment from human exploitation – a path to salvation that, as Skene puts it, “has nothing to do with carbon.”
It turns out that the solution is not as new or radical as the 250-page build-up suggests. Skene points out that the problem underlying climate change is our excessive reliance on energy, especially in the food sector. He describes the environmental damage caused by artificial fertilisers and lists some ways to minimise this damage – from eating less meat to planting a border of nutrient-loving plants around crop fields. Not everyone would agree with these ideas, but no-one would call them ground-breaking.
For this reader, Skene’s energy-based theory also ended in anticlimax. Few people would deny that biological processes obey the laws of thermodynamics (otherwise they would be shoddy laws). So the big question is whether Skene can use those laws can enrich our knowledge of biological phenomena. Skene undoubtedly gives rich accounts of biological phenomena, notably an account of how different levels of organisation interact with one another. But it is unclear just how much these accounts owe to the Skene’s overarching energy theory. For example, one does not need Skene’s theory of energy to understand why an excess of nutrients in an ecosystem can harm the community. At other times, Skene seems to use “energy” to refer simply to the common notion of biological resources, as in: “it is the resource distribution that determines how many organisms can live in a given area, and, therefore, what kind of social group can form.”
Fortunately, many of the ideas in the book do not rely on the energy theory to be interesting. For example, Skene draws together a range of objections to orthodox evolution by natural selection: the fact that most organisms through history have acquired new genes not by random mutation but by horizontal gene transfer (HGT, the absorption of genes from other organisms); the notion that empty niches, rather than competition for an occupied niche, is the main driver of speciation; and others. The case against Darwinian evolution could certainly be more tightly argued. It is not clear, for example, whether HGT provides a real alternative to natural selection, or just a new source of genetic variation upon which natural selection can act. And there is not enough room in one volume for Skene to do justice to his other arguments, or (just as importantly) to address objections to those arguments.
Shadows is best read not as an argument but as an adventure, a fast-paced ride through key ideas in evolution and ecology. Skene has an unusual style, mixing anecdotes and chirpy asides with earnest contemplation of the big questions. Here he is describing a species of wildebeest that breeds only in December and January: “if a wildebeest set up a greetings card shop, the business would only run for a very limited time: extremely seasonal employment when Christmas cards and birthday cards would be for sale for only one month of the year!” The effect is bizarre but disarming.
On the whole, the Shadows experience is less like reading a book than watching a lecture by a keen and knowledgeable, but slightly eccentric, professor: personal, chaotic, insightful, and unfailingly fun.
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Review by Michael Bycroft

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Diagnosis – Lisa Sanders ****

In the class system of popular science books, Diagnosis has all the marks of good breeding. It is authored by an experienced medical professional, is based on a popular New York Times column, is backed by a hugely successful TV series (House, M. D.), and bears a cover endorsement from a household name in the UK and US (Hugh Laurie). With such a background, what could possibly go wrong? The answer, not surprisingly, is “not much.” Lisa Sanders — the technical adviser to House – gives a frank and engaging tour of the modern diagnostic process, packed with real-life case studies.
The brevity and variety of the case studies means it is hard to get bored with this book; even if one loses track of the argument, there is always another medical mystery to latch on to. Some of these mysteries are bizarre, from the patient who has turned highlighter yellow to the computer programmer who suddenly loses his memory. Others are less colourful but no less difficult or telling: the patient with a tell-tale rash that has been overlooked among his more dramatic symptoms; the enlarged prostate gland, incapacitating an old man’s kidneys, that is discovered by chance in the rush to get him to surgery. All cases are chosen to make a point about medical diagnoses.
Saunder’s main points are: doctors should listen to everything the patient tells them, not just the bare facts; doctors should translate medical diagnoses into a language patients can understand; high-tech testing procedures are no substitute for a sensitive physical exam using at least three of the doctor’s five senses; an uncertain diagnosis is better than a false one; and doctors are not immune to cognitive errors.
In and around these key ideas, Sanders weaves a narrative about modern medical education, drawing from research studies and her own experience. In this regard it is especially interesting to read about the informality of the learning process, with interns thrust unsupervised into physical exams, medical lore passed from doctor to doctor in the corridors, and senior doctors drawing regularly on more experienced staff for help on tough cases. Sanders brings to life the awkwardness of her first physical exam, conducted on a topless patient-trainer; the embarrassment of making basic errors in a field where mishaps can be fatal; the eeriness of her first autopsy and various other medical rites of passage. Another recurring theme is the reasoning process that is involved in making a diagnosis. In this respect, a highlight is Sander’s fond portrayal of a “stump the professor” meeting in which student medics challenge a guest professor with a difficult case, the point being less to get the right answer than to learn from the professor’s approach to the problem. There is also a too-brief section on the cognitive science of medical decision-making, where Sanders does little more than distinguish between intuitive and analytical thought processes.
Occasionally the broader argument of the book gets lost in the details of the case studies. Or rather, it is not clear what the overall argument is meant to be. Over half of the book is devoted to aspects of the physical exam – seeing, hearing, and touching the patient to make a diagnosis – and Sanders clearly wishes to argue for a reversal of the trend towards hands-off medical training and practice. But if that is her argument it is not stated in the introduction or in the non-existent conclusion. And other parts of the book, though interesting in themselves, do not obviously fit into the back-to-basics theme. These include sections on attempts to automate diagnosis with computers, the use of Google as a diagnostic tool, and the curious and unsettling case of the phantom illness “chronic Lyme disease.” This ambiguity of aim is not helped by the book’s odd structure: it is divided into three parts of wildly different lengths.
Diagnosis could have been more carefully planned, but it holds the reader’s attention all the way through and gives colour to some pressing issues in modern medicine.
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Review by Michael Bycroft

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

A Closer Look: Deceptions & Discoveries – Marjorie E. Wieseman ***

It’s rather unusual for this site to feature a book about art – but the topic of this compact National Galleries/Yale University Press book is the way we can find out more about art works using scientific techniques to delve into just who painted them and how.
The sheer volume of technology leading galleries have up their sleeves is quite mind-boggling. While suspicions are still often roused by an expert idea, we then get all sorts of specialist X-rays, infra-red scans (good for detecting the drawing underneath paint), gas chromatography (identifying the makeup of the paint)… even using tree ring dating in the wood that many old paintings were produced on. The result is a remarkable armoury set up against would-be forgers and simple misunderstandings about a painting’s origins.
A guided tour of the technology is then followed up by 16 ‘case studies’ each taking an individual painting where the original dating or attribution were wrong, or where new discoveries have been made about how the painter went about their art, thanks to the technology.
This is all excellent stuff, and well illustrated as you would expect, but it is a very dry presentation of fact. To be frank, it takes a fascinating subject and makes it a bit dull. Even the case studies, which have buried in them fascinating stories don’t exactly draw the reader in. So, great on content, fascinating and not something those outside the art world often appreciate – but could have been made more appealing to the general reader.
One particular oddity in a book about overpaintings and such – the image shown here isn’t the same one as on the copy of the book I have. Mine has a picture of a Christmas tree on it. More deception?
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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 12 July 2010

Physics of the Impossible – Michio Kaku *****

One of the first books we ever reviewed on www.popularscience.co.uk was The Physics of Star Trek by Lawrence Krauss. There were to be many ‘Physics of…’ and ‘Science of…’ books to follow from different authors, and now Physics of Star Trek seems rather dated. But there’s no need to worry, as Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Impossible brings it all up to date and goes much further, pulling in pretty well every imagining from science fiction. So, yes, we have phasers and transporters, antimatter energy and warp drives… but we also delve into space elevators, time travel, robots, the Death Star and much more.
Kaku, a physics professor at the City University of New York and a popular science broadcaster, doesn’t explicitly set this as ideas from science fiction, though he uses many SF examples in the book. Instead he is looking at degrees of impossibility. Each of the improbable applications of science is classified at one of three levels. Class I impossibilities have no problems with today’s science but present significant engineering challenges. We can’t do them today, but could well be able 100-200 years. Class II impossibilities sit on the edge of our current knowledge of physics. They may be possible in the far future, but getting there would require a big breakthrough. Class III impossibilities actually break the laws of physics. This doesn’t totally rule them out, as our understanding of physics can go through major shifts (Kuhn’s ‘paradigm shifts’), and it could be that we see things sufficiently differently in the future that they could become possible – but for now they are no-nos.
All the way through Kaku has a light, highly approachable style. This is no Brief History of Time – it’s not the sort of book you are going to start on and then give up because it becomes impenetrable. (To be fair, Brief History isn’t really like this, but it has the reputation.) Instead we get superb insights into just why the technology in question needs to be labelled impossible, and what the potential ways around the difficulties are. It is always entertaining and in terms of the sheer volume of content that is fitted in without ever seeming heavy going it’s a tour de force. There are so many examples it’s difficult to pick out favourites, but I liked the way we discover that force fields, seemingly so straightforward in Sci-Fi, would actually be ludicrously complex, while robot fans (and supporters of the Singularity) idea might be shocked at just how difficult it is to produce true artificial intelligence.
No book is absolutely perfect. If I had to pick out issues, there are just two small ones. I do think that there’s a slight tendency to over-simplify. It’s always hugely difficult to describe complex physics like quantum theory in a few lines, and the simplification that is essential to be able to do this occasionally makes a point slightly inaccurate. There’s also a slight oddity in the way time travel is a Class II impossibility, but precognition is Class III impossibility. Unless you are only accepting a parallel worlds interpretation, where time travel means involuntarily moving to alternative universes, then travelling into the past (or even sending a message into the past) implies a form of precognition. There seems to be a consistency issue here.
These are very minor points, though (and the simplification is almost a necessity in a book that has the huge scope of this one). Overall it’s one of my favourite popular science reads in a good while and works wonderfully both as an addition to an existing popular science shelf or as a book to encourage a first toe in the water for someone who has never strayed beyond watching Star Trek or Dr Who before. Recommended.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Not Exactly – Kees van Deemter ***

Not Exactly is a brave book in two ways. Its subject matter – vagueness in language, logic, computing and everyday life – does not fit well into standard categories of popular science writing. And its treatment of vagueness is often highly abstract, dealing with abstruse questions of logic that are usually discussed only in specialised philosophy journals. I’ve given it 3 stars and not 4 because for a popular science audience its concerns may be too abstract and its prose too plain. Also, its three parts do not fit together as well as they might. But – in the spirit of vagueness and its frequent companion, context-dependence – it must be said that, for clarity and originality, quite a few readers would be compelled to give it 4 stars.
For van Deemter, a computer scientist at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, vague objects and concepts are those that admit of boundary cases. The first part of the book describes cases of vagueness in the everyday world, and is probably the weakest of the three parts. Here van Deemter discusses the vagueness in concepts such as obesity, poverty, intelligence, and scientific measurements, as well as the difficulty of keeping track of the identity of objects over time (where objects include everything from cars to human beings).
It turns out that many things are vague. But so what? We all know that politicians, journalists, and marketers use vague terms to their advantage; and the idea that human identity is ill-defined is straight out of Philosophy 101. In a book about vagueness it is useful to see examples of the phenomenon. But if the aim of the first 60 pages of the book is just to identify vagueness-related problems (rather than, say, to help solve those problems) then the point could perhaps be better made in a 10-page introduction. A possible exception is the chapter on the concept of a biological species, which Deemter dismantles in a convincing fashion.
The second part describes attempts by linguists and logicians to model the role of vagueness in language and reasoning. This is the most abstract section, and will not be everyone’s cup of tea. For sheer popular science audacity, the chapters on the sorites paradox deserve special mention. Also known as the “paradox of the heap”, the sorites paradox uses the fact that a series of imperceptibly small changes can give rise to perceptible changes. For example, the addition of a single pebble should not turn a mere collection of pebbles into a heap of pebbles; a single pebble is just too small to make such a big difference. But it follows that one can never make a heap of pebbles just by adding (say) 1000 single pebbles to mere collection, since none of those 1000 pebbles can turn the collection into a heap. This is paradoxical, since if anything makes a heap then 1000 pebbles must do so.
It turns out that the best answer to the paradox (according to van Deemter) is, roughly speaking, that the addition of each pebble makes a small but non-negligible difference to whether or not the collection becomes a heap. But the audacious part is not van Deemter’s answer but the fact that he describes in tortuous detail the different logical systems that philosophers have used to ground their various answers to the paradox – along with the arguments for and against those systems. Not many science writers would have the courage to cover such abstract material in such detail. Whether van Deemter pulls it off will depend on the reader’s tastes. But with his clear prose, vivid examples, and some engaging “dialogues intermezzo”, he gives himself every chance of being read and understood.
The third and last part, on the practical applications of vagueness, is the most appealing in conventional popular science terms. It is intriguing without being technically challenging, and describes attempts to automate such tasks as the translation of weather data into human terms, the process of making medical diagnoses, and reference (the act of drawing someone’s attention to an object).
Deemter shows why these tasks are important and why they are exasperatingly difficult to perform, largely due to the difficulty of dealing systematically with vagueness. Less successfully, he shows how game theory can be used to show why politicians make vague commitments. The game theory explanation is convincing, but it is also so obvious that it makes game theory look trivial rather than powerful. The other drawback of the third part is that it does not draw very often on the insights from the formal models that the reader has struggled through in part two.
As for the game theory case, so with many of the examples in this book: their value depends on whether the reader shares van Deemter’s enthusiasm for finding formal models of arguments or explanations that we can describe, to some extent, in an informal, intuitive way. With his dialogue intermezzos, bullet-pointed chapter summaries, and a summary of the book’s “lessons learnt”, van Deemter makes every effort to present his subject in clear, accessible terms. None of these devices disguise the main purpose of the book, which is to be very precise about vagueness. There is nothing inconsistent about this approach to the topic, but it may not be to everyone’s taste.
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Review by Michael Bycroft

Monday, 5 July 2010

The Big Questions: The Universe – Stuart Clark ***

The idea of this rather stylish series of books – hardbacks with no dustcover, but with a ‘hold it closed’ elastic band, like a pocket notebook – is to present a series of key questions about an area of philosophy or science and provide answers to them. Like its companion in the series The Big Questions: Physics, this title takes on the whole of a major topic, cosmology, providing a take on the subject that doesn’t go hugely into the people and history of science, sticking instead to the facts of the matter.
This doesn’t make for great popular science. The whole point of popular science is to put science into context, to talk about how the discoveries were made (and by whom) as well as the science itself. Otherwise, what you end up with is a textbook. In this case it is a very readable introductory textbook – a wide range of topics on the nature of the universe are well covered and presented in a non-technical manner – but it still lacks that fascination that good popular science brings to the topics. Thankfully Stuart Clark does bring a few details into the areas he covers, but this is done quite inconsistently. So, for instance, we get a nice little vignette on Frank Drake and SETI, but very little on major individuals from Newton through Hubble to Einstein who are hugely involved in the story of the discoveries listed.
Generally speaking the broad spectrum of cosmology, with a fair amount of astronomy and astrophysics (with a smattering of related physics) is well covered. What I found slightly odd, though, was the inconsistency in revealing what is and isn’t speculative. So, for instance, we are offered an alternative to dark matter to explain its impact, but the big bang theory is stated as being ‘definitively proved’ – which is just not true. It is by far and away the best supported theory, but it has its problems, and there are alternatives that fit the data. The way the book is divided into questions like ‘How old is the universe?’ and ‘How did the universe form?’ means that the information is structured rather oddly. The first of these questions comes a good way before the other (with ‘What is a black hole?’ amongst those in between) which means Clark has to explain the age of the universe, our best ideas of which are wholly dependent on the model of how the universe was formed, without covering the latter.
As with the Physics book my biggest problem here is knowing who this book is aimed at. It’s too lightweight for students of the subject, but hasn’t enough context for popular science. It’s entirely readable, but rarely captures the imagination. It’s perfectly likeable, has good information and is well presented – it is, in principle, a very useful summary – but I’m not sure who it will appeal to.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Why Evolution is True – Jerry A. Coyne ****

There is no shortage of books about evolution, but few of them tackle the question of proof as directly as this one, and perhaps none of their authors do so in such an accessible way as Jerry Coyne. The result is a thorough, even-tempered and plain-spoken summary of the evidence for evolution by natural selection. Some glitches appear when Coyne strays from a simple catalogue of the material evidence for evolution, but on the whole the book is convincing.
Coyne sets a clear target in the first 40 pages. The problem, as he puts it, is a “simple lack of awareness of the weight and variety of evidence” in favour of evolution. Next he distinguishes six tenets of evolutionary theory: change of species over time, gradualism, speciation, common ancestry, natural selection, and mechanisms other than natural selection.
Readers may find it awkward that this six-fold distinction is not reflected in the structure of the rest of the book: the chapters are organised by the source of evidence for evolution (fossil record, biogeography, embryology, human evolution, and so on) rather than the six hypotheses that are the target of this evidence. But with his six tenets Coyne does a good job of untangling some of the conceptual knots surrounding Darwinian evolution.
The meat of the book is seven chapters on the evidence for evolution. For each of Coyne’s arguments and case studies, there will be many readers who, with a solid interest in evolution but no formal training, have seen those arguments and case studies before. But there will be few lay readers who will be familiar with all or even most of them. The value of the book is that it collects a wide range of standard pieces of evidence in one place.
Structure-wise, some neat work is Coyne’s chapter entitled “Remnants”, which deals in one blow with vestigial traits, atavistic traits, embryology, and bad design. This is a smart way to package an array of evidence that could easily be confusing, or rendered overly complex, if it were scattered through the book. The decision to devote a chapter to human evolution is also a good one, since it addresses a psychologically compelling objection to Darwinism – that it seems impossible that humans in all their complexity evolved from the ancestors of monkeys.
Argument-wise, Coyne knows that a single example is rarely convincing, and leaves readers in no doubt about the quantity of evidence that supports each of the many lines of argument. To take just one case: as evidence for evolution by natural selection, the example of the peacocks tail is striking; but the fact that 232 experiments in 186 species indicate sexual selection is overwhelming.
The book’s main drawback is that Coyne spends so much time describing the evidence for evolution that he sometimes forgets to check whether that evidence distinguishes between evolutionary theory and alternative theories, especially creationism. A common pattern of argument in the book is that creationism can only accommodate the facts by arguing that God has arranged the facts to make it look as if evolutionary theory is true – an accommodation which, as Coyne argues, would be absurdly ad-hoc.
This argument works well with embryology, vestigial organs, and the fossil record, but less so in other cases. Evolution has a good explanation for the existence of different species, with the same survival functions, in different parts of the world. Creationism doesn’t have a built-in explanation for this, but it is not much of a stretch to suppose that the Creator just happened to make things this way. Likewise for the existence of fibrinogen – a protein used in blood-clotting – before it was deployed to help clot blood (in sea cucumbers). Evolution predicts this, Coyne argues, since it cannot build a complex process like blood-clotting from scratch. But it is not asking too much to suppose that the Creator used fibrinogen more than once in evolutionary history.
One conceptual quibble is that Coyne insists on calling evolution a “fact”, despite the common distinction between “facts” as directly observable states of affairs in the world, and “theories” as general statements that are inferred from the facts. Coyne implies that evolutionary theory is not a “fact” in this standard sense when he describes how the theory is confirmed – it is confirmed not by checking its truth against nature but by deducing predictions from it, and then checking the truth of those predictions against nature. This may just be a linguistic issue, but it’s better not to add fuel to the sceptic’s fire, however spurious the fuel might be. Why not just call evolution a “true theory”?
Another weakness is that Coyne ignores debates within biology about the nature and status of natural selection. He notes that debates exist about the details of how evolution occurred, and the relative roles of various evolutionary mechanisms (especially genetic drift). But the claim that biologists disagree about evolution is such a common one among sceptics that a few more pages – even a chapter – on the significance of these disagreements would have been useful.
Lastly there is the book’s jacket-cover claim that evolution is “a fact we should embrace without fear.” In the last chapter Coyne argues against the view that accepting evolution means endorsing immoral behaviour in present-day humans. He rolls out some standard arguments: the theory of evolution has no moral consequences because it is a scientific theory; many European countries embrace evolution but have not slipped morally; moral codes are stricter now than they have ever been; and we have other sources of meaning such as work, family, literature and science. All promising arguments, but they are too briefly delivered to convince anyone who does not already agree with Coyne on the issue.
Coyne writes that “every fact that has something to do with evolution confirms its truth.” This is surely an exaggeration, but Coyne summarises many of the facts that do confirm the theory of evolution, and does so in a way that any reader – whether or not they have a prior interest in biology – can grasp. Not all of his arguments work against creationism, but most of them do. Any evolution sceptic who reads this book, and is not tempted to change their view, is either dishonest or has not read the book properly.
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Review by Michael Bycroft