Tuesday, 31 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 young man using black magic.
Sometimes, if you know more about the context of the little snippet of information, the approach can oversimplify things. There’s only so much you can put in a paragraph or two. (The goat transformation event, for instance, undertaken by the ghost hunter Harry Price, and probably not what many would regard as science at all, was more a publicity stunt than a serious scientific endeavour (and I seem to remember this unlikely event on the Brocken in Germany also featured a maiden in some role or other.))
There were many genuinely interesting facts here (and some rather prurient stuff too) – but my problem with this book is that it didn’t really work as something to sit down and read. You can only take so many factoids in one sitting. It would be ideal, I think, as one of those books kept in the bathroom to dip into for a few minutes – and as such would make an excellent gift book – but I can’t in all honestly call this a particularly effective book to sit down and read from end to end with the intention of learning more about science as well as being entertained. The Penguins Feet type books worked better in this regard as there tended to be considerably longer articles on any particular topic.
A good gift book, then, ideal for a few minutes here or there, but the difficulty of reading it from end to end means we have to mark it down a little in the specifics we are looking for on this site.
Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 29 August 2010

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 not been possible for astronomy before. As well as providing information that was expected, the Sloan was soon also making revelations that were never dreamed of when the survey was conceived. An astronomer could spend her entire career mining knowledge from the Sloan data without ever going near a telescope. Purists may wince at this – but in terms of our knowledge of the universe it is amazing.
However, as Finkbeiner shows us with excellent portraits of the people and processes involved, this huge success of a scientific project was no easy ride. There were difficult personalities and technical disasters. Mirrors cracked, one of the two telescopes proved totally unsuitable for the job (luckily they found a replacement in an existing telescope that wasn’t doing much as it was in a city and practically useless). To the outside observer who has any experience of project management is, frankly amateurism when it comes to getting the project together. There were lots of technical experts who knew exactly what they wanted – but no one making sure things happened at the right place in the right order to succeed.
It’s a dramatic story of a project that could easily have been cancelled, of remarkable feats of technology and ingenuity – and of the drive that makes people want to observe the universe. Finkbeiner really puts us in the heart of it. We live the experience with those astronomers and technicians. It’s a beautifully crafted book from an author who really knows how to tell a story.
Just three small gripes. Finkbeiner tends to switch between the past and present tense too often, sometimes mid-paragraph, and this can read a little oddly. The last couple of chapters seem a little rushed. They’ve done what they set out to do, now we’ll wrap it up – it feels slightly anti-climactic. And there are no pictures – none at all. I know what a pain it is to get illustrations together (and the poor author usually has to pay for them), but it seemed strange in a book so focussed on people and on producing images of the sky that we didn’t have photos of those people, the telescope or any of the output of the survey.
But these are minor niggles indeed. This is a brilliant book that captures the reality of getting a scientific project together. It’s hugely readable and highly recommended.
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

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 working scientist knows – real science only bears a passing resemblance to the idealised ‘scientific method.’
However, taken as a ‘good and accessible popular science book’ it fails spectacularly. The style is mostly dull and lacks any ability to excite the reader. The examples (and I admit this is a personal bias) are almost all from biology, which I personally find less interesting than most subjects. And chapter after chapter there’s a feeling of ‘when is that popular science book going to begin?’ It’s like the whole thing is one of those prefaces by an academic that no one reads before they get onto the real popular science book.
The one exception is the chapter on science and religion. This does have more of a popular science feel, though even here the writing does get a little bogged down.
The fault here is absolutely that of the Royal Society’s committee – the author is blameless, as I’m sure he never thought he was writing a popular science book. The conclusion is simple. If you are starting on a history/philosophy of science course, or have an academic interest in the nature of scientific study, this is a great book you must have. If you are expecting something that the general audience can read with enjoyment, look elsewhere.
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 12 August 2010

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 beguiles us with the many possibilities for multiverses. Sometimes he raises an idea just to dash it. He doesn’t like the ‘bouncing branes’ idea, because he wants more richness than just a single repeating collision. And he finds the idea of virtual ‘Matrix style’ universe running on a higher intelligence’s computers too unlikely. But throughout Gribbin presents us with an entertaining and mind-stretching collection of ideas.
I’m not totally comfortable with everything in the book. Gribbin is too loose with his approach to infinity, employing the concept in a way that is mathematically dubious. He is also prone to make giant leaps of logic that may have an underlying detail we don’t see – but without that detail they are baffling. So, for instance, he says when referring to the first, small examples of a quantum computer in action he says ‘This proved that quantum computing works, proved that Shor’s algorithm works, and makes it very difficult to doubt the existence of the Multiverse.’ That last part is a huge leap that really isn’t obvious to the reader.
I was also a little concerned by Gribbin’s explanation of entropy. He describes a block of ice melting and says there is then less order – which means less information and less complexity. Yet without more explanation, the ‘less information’ bit doesn’t make a lot of sense. You need a lot less information to describe a regular block of ice, which you can describe at a molecular level using some simple formulae, than you do a fluid, where you would have to describe the position and state of every single molecule. It’s not that he’s wrong, but the example is confusing.
So we could have done with a little more clarity in places -and that’s why the book gets four stars rather than five – yet this remains an engaging voyage around the manifold possibilities for the multiverse that many will enjoy.
Paperback (US edition is hardback):  
Also on Kindle:  

Saturday, 7 August 2010

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 about the outcomes – there could be more examination of chances of success. To take an example, the chapter on Jake Loveless and Amrut Baharambe looks at using evolutionary code to model a financial market and make successful trades. It says at the end that their genetic algorithm ‘worked’ – but what does this mean? Did it do better than random selection? Will it generally? All the evidence that markets really aren’t suitable for modelling and nothing can forecast crashes because they aren’t logical or following any kind of rule (other than occasional panic) – but there was no examination of how this problem was dealt with or why, if this algorithm ‘works’ it isn’t generating billionaires all over the place.
There were several other places where the enthusiasm rather plastered over what could be lack of real results, and it would have been nice to have been able to hold this work up against a more objective measure – but even so it is hugely fascinating for anyone with an interest in computing and how it can continue to change our world.
Review by Peter Spitz

Friday, 6 August 2010

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 the way the used it was mostly rubbish) and did come up with one scientific discovery in terms of the way musical harmonics work with doubling of the length of strings etc. (They also came up with less useful imaginings about the ‘music of the spheres’ but you can’t have everything.)
So what is Ferguson to do? She manages to make the subject interesting and relevant by following through the influence of Pythagorean ideas (or, for that matter, ideas that were probably incorrectly ascribed to Pythagoras and his followers) all the way to the twentieth century. So you are as likely to meet Bertrand Russell in these pages as an Ancient Greek.
On the whole this works well. There were times when the exhaustive pursuit of Pythagorean concepts (this is a fairly fat book at 330 pages plus notes, quite remarkable considering how little we know about Pythagoras and his school) gets a trifle tedious. There are many different names to handle and discussions of the subtlety of whether something is truly Pythagorean or just labelled this for various reasons. And I would have liked a bit more maths and a bit less woffle on the ‘music of the spheres’ a Pythagorean (probably) idea that is just silly.
However, that didn’t stop this being a noble effort to throw more light on a philosophy that is often referred to without really understanding what it is – and in the end we have to come back to that magnificent imaginative leap of linking physical reality and number. Unlike Ferguson’s earlier book Measuring the Universe, this one does sometimes capture the imagination and gives significant room for thought.
Paperback (US is hardback):  
Review by Brian Clegg

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 chimpanzees are active in chimps but are no longer active in humans; that identical genes are expressed differently in humans and chimps; and that some of the genes we share with chimps have been duplicated in human beings, increasing the effects of these genes in humans.
Added to this, we find out later in the book that there is no clear evidence that chimps possess a theory of mind like the human capability. This enables us to appreciate the hidden intentions, beliefs and desires of somebody else by merely observing their actions. We find, indeed, that crows are in many respects more cognitively advanced than chimps. All of these fascinating insights go to show how far we are set apart from chimps, and they mean that it is not difficult for us to account for unique traits in humans like artistic creativity and the ability to develop complex languages.
Throughout the book, Taylor presents the material in a way that is accessible to the general reader, and the amount of research he describes and brings together makes his arguments, by and large, very convincing, and means the book is likely to be appealing even to experienced primatologists.
There is one respect in which the book could have been a little stronger, and this is where the focus moves away from the science and on to the question of whether we should extend certain human rights to chimpanzees – the right to life and to protection from torture, for example – as some, like the philosopher Peter Singer, have suggested. Taylor criticises this view given the differences between the species mentioned above but, at times, gives the impression that people like Singer want us simply to view chimpanzees as fully human, which no one is suggesting. Ultimately, here, there is a slight tendency here not to appreciate the arguments and positions of the other side and to oversimplify the issues.
Only a small portion of the book is dedicated to that discussion, however, and Taylor’s clear and comprehensive coverage of the science more than makes up for any shortcomings elsewhere. There is much in the book we need to bear in mind when thinking about our relationship with chimpanzees and the rest of the animal kingdom, and I would recommend it.
Also in hardback:  
Review by Matt Chorley

Thursday, 5 August 2010

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 that had been passed through his body – and, on the whole, he was nowhere near as good a scientist as an engineer.
Specifically, he rejected both relativity and quantum theory for decades after they were widely accepted in the scientific community, and he had a strange hangup about radio. He believed that the ‘Hertzian waves’ used by the likes of Marconi were a piffling use of electromagnetism for communication, and that instead it was possible to use ‘Tesla waves’ – mysterious longitudinal waves (compression waves like sound) he believed also exhibited by electromagnetism, and which he believed could be pumped through the Earth, using the Earth’s resonant frequency is such a way that amplitude grew with distance rather than falling off. With a big enough tower and enough electricity he believed he could communicate to the whole world at once – or distribute power wirelessly through the same mechanism.
He was also given to lavish over-exaggeration of his inventions. So, for instance, he developed the first radio controlled boat – an excellent invention. But he claimed that this would soon be extended to be able to act on its own, thinking for itself. He did not distinguish between remote control and AI-driven robots – a bizarre exaggeration.
Although the historical context is great, this book needs to be read carefully as Seifer frequently shows that he doesn’t understand the science Tesla was using (or claimed to be using). So, for example, Seifer refers to 25,000 volts being ‘[stepped] down to usable frequencies when they reached the exposition’, clearly confusing voltage and frequency. He tells us that ‘Electricity in its natural state is alternating,’ whatever that means. He tells us that John Herschel discovered Uranus (it was actually his father, William). Most remarkably, we hear that Tesla was capable of something that would shock modern physicists: ‘Tesla also appears to have come close to the idea of breaking up the electron into subatomic particles.’ It’s hard to know where to begin on how wrong that statement is.
Tesla was a fascinating, wonderful, wild character. But we need to distinguish his very real engineering genius from his scientific flights of fancy. This is the best of the book about him – but really we need a Tesla bio from someone who understand physics.
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg