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Showing posts from August, 2010

Science without the Boring Bits – Ian Crofton ***

Writers of popular science books can have quite an uphill struggle on their hands in making science approachable. One technique that has proved attractive over the last few years is the bite-sized nugget approach, ideally taking on some whacky aspects of science, like the popular New Scientist inspired titles that include Why Do Penguins’ Feet not Freeze? Ian Crofton has taken this funny factoid approach and combined it with a timeline to take a varied pot-pourri of a journey through scientific history from 3750 BC (the first entry is 3929 BC, but that refers to a dating of the universe conjecture, not a bit of science) to the present day. Along the way, the reader encounters a wonderful cornucopia of strange scientific facts and unlikely but very wrong pseudo-scientific hypotheses and quack remedies. Picking a few at random we hear of how to avoid bookworms, why people can sit in an oven with steak that is cooking without being chargrilled, and how a goat failed to transmute into a y…

A Grand and Bold Thing – Ann Finkbeiner *****

Over the summer I tend to cut back on reading popular science so I can come back to the reviewing refreshed – and what a refreshing book to come back with. Ann Finkbeiner’s account of the making of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey was wonderful – without doubt the best popular science book I’ve read so far in 2010. It tells the story of the establishment of a scientific project – the mapping of a whole large section of sky in detail, providing digital information that would allow for pretty pictures like Google Sky, but more of interest to the scientists involved would enable comparison of galaxies, quasars, stars and more across a swathe of sky using digital data that including vast amounts of spectrographic analysis, images using different coloured filters and more. In effect, with the results of the survey – freely available to anyone – it’s possible for astronomers to work statistically, to make the sort of comparisons that ‘real’ scientists can do with repeated experiments, but has n…

Everyday Practice of Science – Frederick Grinnell ***

This isn’t going to be a normal review. We try to review as many books as we can from those that make the Royal Society Prize for Science Writing longlist. According to the Society, this ‘aims to encourage the writing, publishing and reading of good and accessible popular science books’. On the whole this seems to be their aim. But sometimes, their academic leanings take over and they select a book that, while very good in its own sphere, simply doesn’t fit with that description ‘good and accessible popular science books.’ Such is Everyday Practice of Science. Taken as what I believe it was intended to be – as a book for the academic audience to appreciate the realities of the scientific method (perhaps as an introductory text for a philosophy of science course) – this is a superb book. It’s concise, it really uncovers the difference between the theoretical scientific method and what actually happens. It has good examples from the real life experience of the author. It says what every…

In Search of the Multiverse – John Gribbin ****

There’s an old saying along the lines of ‘there’s speculation, then there’s more speculation, and then there’s cosmology.’ When it comes down to the likes of thebig bang, while there are alternative theories, it’s arguable that there’s a lot of evidence to make it likely. But what old statesman of science writing John Gribbin does here is launch off with a swallow dive into the deep end of the cosmology speculation pool. To be fair, this isn’t how Gribbin seems to see it. He argues that some aspects of the multiverse – the idea that there isn’t a single universe but multiple versions of it, whether in a quantum ‘many worlds’ form or through multiple bubbles of inflation happening in a wider multiverse of which our entire universe is just one bubble – are almost inevitably true. This isn’t, in fairness, a view held by all physicists, but he makes a good stab at persuading us that this is the right line to follow. What is beyond doubt is that Gribbin tells a fascinating story and beguil…

Natural Computing – Dennis Shasha & Cathy Lazere ****

Here we have a touch of brilliance; an exploration of computing on the edge. What the authors cover very engagingly is the different ways computer can develop, whether through the ‘natural’ route suggested by the title – using bacteria to compute with, for instance – or programming robots to be more like insects than a conventional rational individual. We see software being developed in evolutionary fashion and the attempts to harness quantum computers – reflecting on their capabilities and limitations. It’s all very readable, though because the book is split into 14 chapters, each based on one or more individuals and their work, I found the biographies that started each chapter a little tedious because, frankly I wasn’t very interested in these people. That didn’t stop their work being fascinating, and I know popular science thrives on context, but this was unnecessary information. The other slight hesitation I have about the book is that the authors are relentlessly enthusiastic abo…

Pythagoras – Kitty Ferguson ****

As an author of a biography of Roger Bacon, whose sole biographical details are limited to passing references in his books, I’ve a lot of sympathy with the plight of Kitty Ferguson in writing about Pythagoras. At least with Bacon I had his writing and science to call upon in The First Scientist, but Ferguson admits early on that everything there is to be said for certain about Pythagoras can be fitted in a paragraph. We don’t really know anything much about him, nor are there any books by him. To make matters worse, the Pythagoreans didn’t believe in sharing their wisdom with the common herd, so much of what they thought was kept secret. We discover that Pythagoras wasn’t even responsible for that famous theorem – the concept of a mathematical proof didn’t really exist in his time and the method of solving it was around well before Pythagoras. However what the Pythagoreans do seem responsible is the broad sweep of applying a mathematical approach to understanding the universe (even if…

Not a Chimp – Jeremy Taylor ****

Jeremy Taylor’s aim in this book is to show how a fashionable idea among scientists and science communicators – that the gap between human and chimpanzee cognition and behaviour is almost negligible – is in fact hugely mistaken. The belief that there is little difference between humans and chimpanzees in terms of cognition and behaviour is significantly based on genetic studies of recent years which have appeared to show that the human and chimpanzee genomes are roughly 98.4% identical. But as Taylor points out in the earlier sections of the book, genetic similarities don’t necessarily entail cognitive and behavioural similarities, especially when only a small handful of genes can have the ability to make one species dramatically different from another. In any case, these earlier sections explain, there is good reason to believe that the 98.4% figure is misleading: when we study more closely the two species’ genomes, we notice, for example, that many of the genes we share with chimpan…

Wizard – Marc J. Seifer ****

I’ve given this biography of Nikola Tesla four stars to distinguish it from Tesla: Man Out of Time, as this is without doubt the better biography. Mark Seifer gives us much more detail than the earlier book, having access to better sources, and really makes it possible to understand the complex financial situation in the US in which Tesla was trying to finance his mind-boggling ideas. But there is still a big problem with this book. Tesla wasn’t just a crackpot. One of the SI units is named after him – and for a good reason. He was a superb engineer and he single-handedly designed the AC system that we use today, including inventing the first serious AC motors, and the basis for practically every AC motor since. He also invented the fluorescent light (though never commercially developed it, as he had already moved onto his next excitement). However, and it’s a big however, Tesla also was an over-the-top showman, who delighted in showing off by lighting up fancy bulbs with electricity …