Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Science 1001 – Paul Parsons ***

Paul Parsons is a brilliant science writer – which, frankly, is just as well as he’s taken on a huge challenge here. Doubly so, in fact. The first hurdle is simply writing a book covering all of science in 1001 short articles. As he admits himself, it’s a huge paring down job to fit it all in. The second hurdle is making a book in this format readable. We’ll see how he does.
It’s a handsome, if rather heavy book, somewhere between a typical hardback and a small coffee table book in size (though with floppy covers). Inside, it’s divided into 10 main sections – from the obvious ones like physics and biology, through social science and ‘knowledge, information and computing’, to ‘the future’. Each section is split into topics – so in physics you might get ‘electricity and magnetism’ and within each topic there are around 12 entries.
In a sense, then, this is a mini-encyclopaedia of science, though arranged by subject, rather than alphabetically. But it’s nowhere near as dull as that sounds. Parsons manages to encapsulate many of the (sometimes complex) topics superbly in what is usually just a couple of paragraphs. Not only does he cram a lot in, but the text is always readable with minimal jargon. There have to be some technical terms, though – where possible he uses a kind of hypertext structure, highlighting keywords that have their own topic. Inevitably, good writer though Parsons is, some of these topics are extremely summary. It’s all very well to cover Schrödinger’s Cat in a couple of paragraphs (though I think it’s unfortunate he does – it’s hardly crucial to quantum physics), but less practical to cover, say, the whole of M-theory.
I really enjoyed many of the entries – they are mini-articles in their own right, and often left me wanting more. (In fact each one could do with a ‘if you want to read more, try this book’ line at the end).
Given the breadth of the scope I can’t be sure of the accuracy of all the entries. A handful in topics I know something about did raise an eyebrow. Right at the beginning we are told acceleration is the rate at which speed, rather than velocity, is changing. This isn’t just a case of the terminology – it does refer to the scalar speed rather than the vector velocity, and that is just wrong. Not wrong, but slightly confusing is the use of the term ‘equivalence principle’ in the Galilean sense of objects of different mass falling at the same speed in any particular gravitational field. It is more commonly used in the Einsteinean sense of the equivalence of gravity and acceleration, so could confuse people. Another entry that was very misleading was that on escape velocity. This explicitly states that a rocket has to travel at escape velocity to escape from Earth’s gravitational field. That is very wrong. A projectile, like a bullet, needs to travel at escape velocity – but a rocket can travel at 5 miles per hour and escape provided it remains under power. This section definitely needs revising.
However, these and any other errors are a tiny fraction of the entries, something you would expect in any book of this scale. I do have one other concern, though – what this book is for. It really isn’t the sort of book you sit down and read from cover to cover (which is why, despite liking it, I can only give it 3 stars, as a reference book is only borderline popular science). It’s much more something to dip in. In his introduction, the author says ‘My aim as a writer was to combine the breadth of a reference book – for example, a dictionary of science – with the accessibility and sense of fun that you get from a piece of popular science writing.’ This is fine, and the entries are very readable, but there is no way you can give much of the feel of good popular science writing in a couple of paragraphs. So in the end, it is really a reference book. And then we have a challenging thought.
Remember the way those keywords are highlighted like hypertext. How much better if they were hypertext. This arguably shouldn’t be a book, it should be a website. I sympathise with Paul Parsons, because as an author you get paid for writing a book, but it’s very difficult to get money out of a website – nonetheless, that’s what this is. And then you have to put it up against the likes of Wikipedia. Okay, Wikipedia entries aren’t anywhere near as readable as these, but the science entries are usually excellent, they often have a fair introductory couple of paragraphs, equivalent to these mini-articles, but then plunge into impressive depth if you want more. Wikipedia is nowhere near as consistent, but it is very powerful, and easy to access.
So this book is well written, covers a huge range and is a wonderful project. It would perhaps work well as a dip-in book to keep in the loo, or a waiting room, or another ‘five minutes to spare’ location. But it isn’t a read-through book, and it can’t compete as a reference. My own mini-article book on physics suffered from exactly the same criticism in its review. A lovely book, but perhaps a bit of a folly in today’s multimedia environment.
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 27 September 2010

Galileo: Watcher of the Skies – David Wootton ***

There have been a lot of biographies of Galileo. A LOT. To find this book in Amazon I had to scroll through over a page full of other titles. So David Wootton had to be able to put a different spin on things in some way – and I’m pleased to say he has. This is particularly surprising when you consider what limited material we have to investigate Galileo’s life outside of the big events like his trial.
Compared with many of the other titles, this is a weighty and serious academic biography. As such it can occasionally be rather dry reading, but repays the reader in the details of context that it gives. I’d say that Wootton’s real plus over the competition is his deep feel for the social and political times, so we get a much richer understanding of the interpersonal connections of Galileo and the nuances of the arguments between philosophers, proto-scientists and theologians.
One small example that particularly impressed me – apparently the concept of a ‘fact’ really didn’t exist until around this time, and it’s a term that Galileo explicitly uses (as he also does ‘science’). In particular, in his analysis of the disputes over Copernicanism and Galileo’s contribution, Wootton’s is by far the best Galileo book of the many that I have read.
If I have any concerns, I think they derive from the fact that the writer is a historian, rather than a scientist. I suspect for this reason, he tends to overplay the importance of Galileo’s support for the Copernican model and downplays his contributions to physics, where he was much more original and his work made much of a long-term difference. Galileo’s great book on Two New Sciences, which covers much on matter and motion is skimmed over in a short chapter. My other concern is that this grounding in history rather than science means that the writer is more interested in having a fresh interpretation of some part of Galileo’s history than he is of putting the science into context.
This is particularly obvious when it comes to Galileo’s religious beliefs, where Wootton draws some very speculative conclusions from very little evidence.
All in all, not a book to read for an entertaining tour of Galileo’s life and work, but an essential if you really want to get an understanding of the mind of Galileo, why he did what he did and what the context of his work was.
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Pathfinders – Jim Al-Khalili ****

It would be unfair to suggest that there is total ignorance of the debt we owe to what Jim Al-Khalili refers to as ‘Arabic science’ these days. Certainly when I wrote Light Years, it would have been impossible to ignore the contribution of the likes of Ibn al-Haytham, and we have seen a number of books covering science from the Arabic sphere of influence like Science and Islam. However, the general reader has probably not been exposed to enough detail on the subject, and in Pathfinders, Jim Al-Khalili sets out to put that right.
Three key areas were fascinating. One is that this is much more complex than ‘Arab science’ or ‘Muslim science’. We discover that many of the major contributors to science in the period weren’t Arab, but Persian. Similarly, a fair number were Jewish or Christian rather than Muslim. The point is, rather, this was science that developed within the rule of the Islamic states. This leads us into the second area of importance. We are given a very useful background to the political and religious context of these developments, as few in the West have much knowledge of the history of this area in this period (I certainly didn’t).
Most significant of those three areas, though, was the sheer breadth of the scientific effort that was under way. There were without doubt some superstar scientists, working in physics and astronomy, in maths and medicine. Al-Khalili takes us through their hugely significant work with a firm hand, providing an excellent guide to their thinking. In some cases the breakthroughs may seem minor, but in others – al-Khwarizmi’s development of algebra for instance – they must be seen as absolutely crucial to the development of modern science and maths. Sometimes they got things wrong. This is inevitable. You must expect the first people doing something to be necessarily not very good at it. So, for instance, the medical man al-Razi came up with the crucial concept of a trial against a control group. The fact that he actually got the result totally wrong (he found that those who suffered bloodletting did much better than those who didn’t) reflects that early use of the technique, but doesn’t undermine its huge value.
In fact, arguably the biggest gift we have from this period, apart from the preservation and translation of Ancient Greek writings (something that shouldn’t be underplayed), is that a number of these individuals started to develop the scientific method, emphasizing the need to use experiment and observational data to shape theories, rather than the usually faulty abstracted reasoning that typified Greek science. (I find it odd that Al-Khalili praises Aristotle’s science when he seems to have got practically everything wrong.)
In its description of the people, their work and the political/religious context, this book is hard to fault. Where I think it lacks a little something is in the analysis. Although Al-Khalili tries to emphasize his independence by telling us he is an atheist, it’s hard not to feel that he isn’t a little defensive in the way he over-stresses some aspects. Born in Baghdad, it does feel like Al-Khalili is rooting for his old team.
A couple of examples. He says that Ibn al-Haytham ‘should be regarded as the world’s greatest physicist in the time span between Archimedes and Newton.’ This is really rather short-sighted. He seems to have decided to dismiss, for example, some minor thinker by the name of Galileo. It’s true that Galileo’s work that gets the most press is the business of the Earth going around the Sun, where he was only supporting someone else’s idea. But this is a very minor part of Galileo’s science. His undoubted masterpiece was his book on physics Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences. In here you will find everything from classical relativity to an experimental derivation of what is, in effect, Newton’s first law of motion. It goes from the acceleration due to gravity to the first serious mathematical thinking about infinity. I find it mindboggling that Al-Khalili can forget Galileo.
It’s also the case that in his analysis of why after the ‘golden age’ Muslim science lagged so far behind the West he seems to have a continuous attempt to put a particular spin on things. We are told of how there was a crack-down on rational thinking, but somehow this wasn’t the cause of the decline in Arabic science. Yes, there was an influence from a religious dislike of science, but look, Christians do this too with creationism (no mention of Muslim creationism). It’s all a little one-sided. And, oh, I really wish he could have got away from calling one person after another a polymath (even he seems to realize this is a bit repetitious by the end). Compared with a modern scientist’s tiny focus, every early scientist was a polymath. It was only really in Victorian times that the concept of specialization came in. A small feature, but an irritating one.
In then end, though, the author’s analysis is not the main part of the book, and can’t subtract from the his excellent presentation of the scientific ideas of these key figures in the history of scientific thought. This is a very useful contribution to the general understanding of where modern science came from, and should be widely read.
Review by Brian Clegg

I Used to Know That: General Science – Marianne Taylor ***

This pocket-sized book grew out of a more general I Used to Know That title, published in 2008, which covered the basics of maths, science, geography, history and English that you were taught at school but may have forgotten since. The aim is to revisit roughly GCSE-level science in an accessible way, and it turns out to be a handy and entertaining refresher course.
The book is in the format in which most people will have studied science at school – it is split up into three sections on physics, biology and chemistry. There were certain parts that particularly reminded me of being in the classroom – the graph showing the population fluctuations over time of a predator and its prey in the biology section, for example. And there’s occasionally a little on subjects there wasn’t time for at school – remarkably, for instance, quantum mechanics is covered briefly.
Author Marianne Taylor’s writing is light-hearted and approachable, making it easy to get through (I read it in one sitting over an hour and a half) and she makes science exciting – if your only memory of science from school is that it is dull and uninspiring, then this book will change your mind. There are one or two occasions where a subject is discussed a touch too quickly (the difference between meiosis and meitosis comes to mind), but this doesn’t take much away from the book as a whole.
I have a couple of small criticisms. At the very beginning of the book, Taylor explains (a little too briefly) what the scientific method is all about, and what the difference between science and pseudoscience is. My problem here is that the book’s one and only example of pseudoscience is a belief in God. I would just have avoided that and mentioned something else instead – there are plenty of examples to choose from, and the passage reads like it could end up alienating some readers before the main sections of the book have even begun.
I also think the author missed a good opportunity to give the reader good guidance about further reading. On the very last page of the book six titles are suggested, but it would have been more useful to list a few more books after the relevant chapters. And of the books suggested, Steven Rose’s The Chemistry of Life – which is very heavy going – and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time may not be the best books to go on to if you are returning to science after many years.
I don’t want to be too critical, however, as this is ultimately a fun book which by and large does a good job at reintroducing and making exciting the fundamentals of science.
Review by Matt Chorley

See What I’m Saying – Lawrence Rosenblum ****

Did you know that human hearing is so sophisticated that we have the ability to play sports like baseball and basketball without the aid of sight, and can get around remarkably well by using only echolocation? Or that human touch is so sensitive that, if we were both blind and deaf, we could still understand what our friends were saying to us merely by touching their faces? I didn’t before reading this book, which explains how surprisingly powerful our senses are, and have the potential to be.
OK, I don’t want to mislead you too much. The examples above would take an awful lot of practise, and the people we meet in See What I’m Saying who have developed exceptional sensory skills like these have done so predominantly because they were born without the use of a particular sense – Daniel Kish, for instance, who leads groups of blind and partially-sighted people on mountain-bike rides by using echolocation, was born blind and learned to echolocate over many years as a result of being strongly encouraged from a young age to be as independent as possible.
Still, as author Lawrence D. Rosenblum explains, every one of us possesses incredible perceptual abilities that we use all the time, even if we are not consciously aware of these abilities. We too use echolocation as well as sight to travel from place to place; we use smell to determine other people’s moods and emotions, and to judge others’ reproductive potential; and along with hearing, we use our sight to a surprisingly large extent to ‘listen’ to what someone is saying to us. And as these examples show, our senses combine more often than we might think to build a picture of the world and to help us navigate it, and our brains appear to be designed to deal with multisensory perception and can, for instance, interpret auditory ‘inputs’ as visual information.
The book combines well fascinating stories of individuals who possess highly developed sensory skills with the research that has revealed just how powerful our senses are and how they work together. The fact that Rosenblum has carried out a lot of the research himself makes him a good guide to it, and his writing is always engaging. Finally, on the good points, there are numerous enlightening exercises the reader is encouraged to try out that get across the unexpected abilities of our senses. I tried out a few of these exercises with others (which had to do with how what you see influences what you hear, and how touch can affect what you taste) and this added to my enjoyment of the book.
One small drawback is the length of the book. I wondered at times whether the material could have been covered just as well in a volume about two thirds as long. The last chapters, which bring everything together and emphasise the role of multisensory perception, should have come a little sooner. But that should not put you off reading what is still a fascinating and illuminating look at how we perceive the world and how remarkable our senses are. I would highly recommend this.
Review by Matt Chorley

Climate Change Begins at Home by Dave Reay

Dr Dave Reay of the University of Edinburgh doesn’t want us to start chanting on hills or cooking up nettle soup – but each one of us can reduce our lifetime contribution to global warming by over 1,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas… and that can’t be bad.

You can hear the groans sometimes. When more news comes in of rising greenhouse emissions in Europe or more political backsliding over the Kyoto Protocol, our building full of climate change scientists can be a bitter place. The frustration within the scientific community has been growing for a long time now. 10 years ago this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made its landmark statement that:
“the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate”
Two years later the Kyoto protocol – setting legally binding targets for greenhouse gas emissions – was adopted by the UN. Kyoto my have been a small first step, but its existence was more proof that world leaders had got the message, that real action to tackle this monstrous threat was finally underway.
The thousands of scientists involved in climate change research continued to count the greenhouse beans. Each year the weight of evidence for human-induced global warming increased, the uncertainties narrowed and the skeptics became fewer and more isolated. Then, in 2001, a really big groan went echoing through my building: George W Bush had withdrawn the US, the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, from the Kyoto protocol.
The protocol survived, just, though it is now much-weakened. Hopes were raised again when the 2005 G8 summit in Gleneagles made Africa and Climate Change its key issues for debate, but the summit failed to deliver any firm commitments to reduce greenhouse emissions: more groans.
We are faced with a truly global threat. The predicted impacts of climate change during this century range from sea level rise of up to a metre and 2 billion people at risk from flooding, to an extra 5,000 cases of skin cancer in the UK and a sharp rise in deaths due to heat stress.
So, what to do?
Should the scientists and everyone else simply wait until things get so bad that politicians are forced to act? Short of running for political office, what could we actually do to help change the direction of the roaring juggernaut that is climate change?
To begin with I thought “not much”. Surely it was industry, big business and ultimately the politicians who were doing the steering, we the public being just passengers, strapped into our seats and bracing ourselves for impact. I was wrong.
A glance at who is responsible for developed-world emissions showed just how much of the driving we were doing. The emissions pie is effectively divided into three big slices, a quarter from transport, a quarter from homes, and most of the rest from the places we work. As such we can each make a real difference to how severely climate change will affect us, our children and generations to come. How? Let’s look at just a few…
On the Move
It’s amazing how scary silence can be. Each year, my family and I go to an out-of-the-way holiday house on the West coast of Scotland and, just now again, there are times when there is no traffic noise at all. No distant car fan belts squealing, no low roar of a labouring passenger jet, just spine-tingling silence. At these times you get an idea of how insidious the spread of fossil-fuelled cars, trucks and jet planes has been: transport is now the fastest growing source of human-made greenhouse gas.
For a great many of us, our transport emissions are dominated by car-use and it is here where we can make some of the most far-reaching cuts in emissions. Drive a gas-guzzling 4-wheel drive and your emissions can reach 12 tonnes a year. Swapping this bull-barred behemoth for a smaller-engined model will more than halve these emissions.
Flying, like car driving, has become an everyday part of life in the developed world, but its rapidly growing emissions – the IPCC predict that by 2050 its contribution to global warming may have quadrupled – makes it a source of greenhouse gas that must be tackled. Taking the train can slash these emissions by two-thirds. If you ever happen to fly into Amsterdam’s Schipol airport think on this: as your plane touches down following its greenhouse gas-belching journey you are 6m below sea level.
Home Start
Having left our down-sized, dual-fuelled car on the drive and stepped into our house, the biggest energy user at home is right there waiting to greet us: temperature control.
Like flicking a switch and expecting light, we are used to warming up or cooling down our houses at the push of a button. As the snow piles up against the windows in winter and that Robin once again head bangs its way around the long-frozen bird bath in the garden, we are used to padding barefoot around the house in nothing more than a T-shirt. In summer we sit in the same T-shirt and shudder at the chill of the air-conditioning, as the sun beats down outside. The simple action of lowering the thermostat and pulling on some more clothes in winter can cut the emissions due to energy-use in the home by a third.
Food can clock up a big climate impact during its production and transport. For a developed-world family the emissions from their food alone can total more than four tonnes a year. The very process of ploughing-up soils and changing them to agricultural use leads to big greenhouse gas emissions. Since our ancestors started to cutting up trees to feed their fires, make into shelters, or hit each other with, land conversion by man has released around 200 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere.
As most food now has a “Country of Origin” label it’s easy to see that much of our food is pretty travel-worn. Reducing food miles through avoiding jet-setting foods, cutting down on the number of shopping trips and the ultimate food mile free option: home grown, can make a real difference.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
Time was that all that went into household bins was ash from the fire and a few food scraps, but as packaging and consumption have grown, so has the size of our bins. Replacing the thigh-high barrel shaped bins of yesteryear came giant plastic wheelie bins. Overnight whole neighbourhoods found they had been invaded by these tottering upright skips. On average each of us throws away 10 times our own body weight in rubbish each year, yet the bulk of this can be either composted or recycled. Once the bin loads of waste are collected, more than half is trucked to landfill sites where it ends up as manna from heaven for methane producing bacteria (methane is 23 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide).
By composting all the organic waste instead you will both cut greenhouse gas emissions and provide yourself with a source of free plant food. Recycling metals, glass and plastics also provides a great way to reduce the energy used in their production and so further reduce emissions.
At the heart of any truly effective push to cut greenhouse emissions from our waste is Reduce – less stuff produced in the first place. In the UK alone we use and then throw away 8 billion plastic bags a year and amongst the mass of rubbish that fills our wheelie bins each week a third will be packaging: Pick up the Sunday papers (or if you’ve a bad back get someone else to do it). From its massive bulk will fall not only a half dozen leaflets with a once-in-a-lifetime offer to buy a ‘Star Trek towel set with Klingon face flannels’ but also an extra wad of papers, itself wrapped in plastic.
The Power of One
Through making these and similarly small changes to our lifestyles – no chanting on hills or nettle soup required – we can cut our lifetime contribution to global warming by over a 1,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas. Multiply this up for your office, your street, or your town, and the potential savings are huge. Through increasing awareness and individual action in the developing world we can achieve not just one Kyoto Protocol-sized reduction in emissions, not two, but a cut equivalent to 6 Kyotos. All before the politicians have decided who will sit where at the next meeting.
As individuals we, our children and our children’s children, have a big stake in the global climate. Things could get very bad for a very large number of people. Sure, we need the politicians to take action too – there will be plenty more groans at work – but while we’re waiting for them to do their bit, let’s get on with doing ours.
Dave Reay is a Natural Environment Research Council Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. He studies greenhouse gas emissions in environments ranging from the Southern Ocean to evil-smelling drainage ditches. He has written numerous academic and popular articles about his work and is Editor of the leading climate change website He lives in a house well above sea level. His book Climate Change Begins at Home is published by Macmillan.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Paul Parsons – Four Way Interview

Paul Parsons is a contributor to Nature, New Scientist and the Daily Telegraph. He has appeared on radio and TV and was formerly editor of the award-winning BBC science magazine Focus. His books include the Royal Society Prize nominated The Science of Doctor Who and his most recent title, covering all science: Science 1001.
Why science?
Well, what’s not to like? I’m often baffled when people say science is boring. Obviously I’m biased, as it’s my favourite subject, but science is the way to understand so much of how the world works. From the origin of the Universe to how life itself actually operates – science is our best tool for answering the fundamental questions about nature. And it’s increasingly becoming a part of everyday life. Not only are your TV, car, iPad, and all the other stuff, all ultimately products of scientific research, but medicine, dietary advice, managing your money, and lots of other workaday things, are all kinds of science as well, that ordinary people – that is people who aren’t necessarily professional scientists – can benefit from having an understanding of.
Why this book?
As I said, science affects all of us. So even if you’re not an enthusiast who enjoys reading about scientific discoveries for the sake of it – although there is plenty of that in here – a broad knowledge of what science is about, and what certain scientific words and discoveries all mean is becoming increasingly helpful in life – and, I dare say, in the not-too-distant future may even become essential. And that’s what I’ve tried to furnish people with in Science 1001 – a single reference volume to modern science that’s comprehensive yet concise, and written at a level that pretty much anyone can understand.
What’s next?
There are several other books in the pipeline, one at the editing stage and a couple that I’m close to signing contracts on. Not sure how much I’m allowed to say about those just yet but I can promise you they’re going to be good!
What’s exciting you at the moment?
In terms of science, there’s so much going on I’m not sure where to start. The Large Hadron Collider on the Swiss-French border is soon to get into its stride and promises some incredible insights into subatomic particle physics, which will tell us how matter behaves on the tiniest scales and will play a major part in unpicking the story of the universe during the first moments after the Big Bang. Physicists are hoping the LHC will also finally show up the elusive Higgs boson – a particle of matter that’s thought to have given everything else in the cosmos its mass – and which is the only missing piece of the current ‘standard model’ of particle physics. Then there’s Craig Venter’s research on creating ‘synthetic life’ – lifeforms created in the lab from the ground up, completely new forms of life built from scratch. Which is just incredible. And there’s also a new wave of computing technology just bubbling up – quantum computers, machines that carry out computations in parallel universes and are many, many times faster than any kind of computer we can conceive of today – which could be replacing our desktop PCs in the decades to come. So, plenty to get excited about.
For me personally, the most exciting thing is fatherhood. My first child child was born just over 9 months ago. It’s an amazing and life-changing experience, and of course has got to be the ultimate experiment in applied genetics!

Friday, 10 September 2010

The Grand Design – Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow ***

Stephen Hawking has a habit of making big promises in his books that aren’t entirely delivered. In A Brief History of Time, for example, he tells us he is going to answer questions like ‘What is the nature of time?’ (the name of the book is a bit of a giveaway), yet you can scour it from end to end and not find anything that tells you what time is or how it works. In this new book co-authored with physicist, author and Star Trek writer Leonard Mlodinow he promises even more. The subtitle is ‘new answers to the ultimate questions of life’. That’s a big promise.
Amongst the questions the authors give us are:
  • When and how did the universe begin?
  • Why are we here?
  • What is the nature of reality?
  • Did the universe need a creator?
Serious questions and ones that have mostly been traditionally in the hands of philosophers – but Hawking and Mlodinow tell us that philosophy is now dead. (And religion already was.) Science, it seems, can do it all now. Or can it? We’ll see.
This is what they call a lavishly produced book. Instead of the typical rough paper, it’s on shiny gloss paper, with very arty illustrations in full colour. Usually authors are closely involved in any illustrations, but I suspect some of these have been provided by an art director without consultation with a scientist. Just after we’ve read that a solar eclipse is visible ‘only in a corridor on the earth about 30 miles wide’ we get an illustration of an eclipse where the moon’s shadow is about 18,000 kilometres across. Oops. (Similarly the picture of a ball bouncing on a plane to illustrate the relativity of simultaneity totally misunderstands what it is supposed to show, and hence is baffling.)
But lavish production and a big name isn’t enough. We need results. How do the dynamic duo do against the promises? The book concentrates on the laws of nature and makes some dramatic observations. Along the way it provides effective brief introductions to relativity, to quantum theory and Feynman’s ‘sum over all paths’ approach to quantum behaviour, to M-theory and aspects of cosmology, particularly multiverse-based concepts. Introductions is the keyword in this particular aspect – I wouldn’t recommend the book to get a grounding in any of these topics, but the coverage is fine as it goes.
What is much more suspect is the big picture and big claims. Somehow, by slight of hand we get from Feynman’s brilliant approach of taking a sum over all paths for a quantum particle to taking the same approach with whole universe – but without ever explaining how it can be applied on this scale when it doesn’t appear to apply to everyday objects around us (otherwise we should be able to get interference doing a twin slit experiment with footballs, for example). Frequently, theories that are only held by a part of the physics/cosmology community are stated as if they are facts. Susan Greenfield called Hawking’s approach Taliban-like – there are places where this book is physics by decree.
In reality, despite the claims, the book really doesn’t address philosophical questions – and certainly doesn’t dispose of the need for philosophy. Similarly, the attempts to dispose of ‘the need for God’ are sophistry. The book argues that because of the nature of quantum reality the universe could emerge on its own. But there is no attempt to explain where the underlying principle, the quantum theory that brings the other physical laws into being, comes from. All the authors do, if the tenuous ideas they put forward as near-fact are true, is push things back a level.
Fundamentally, then, this is an unsatisfying book that doesn’t do what it says on the tin. It’s very pretty, and does present some basics of physics and cosmology well, but the cod-philosophical wrapping and the vague-theory-presented-as-fact approach mean that it does more harm than good.
Also in hardback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Also on audio CD:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Why Balloons Rise and Apples Fall – Jeff Stewart ****

In this quite short book, Jeff Stewart gives us the basics of physics in easy, digestible terms. If your memory of physics from school is dull, a) you had a bad physics teacher and b) Stewart’s version will be a refreshing surprise.
From the point of view of popular science writing, Stewart fills a gaping hole – and I’m really pleased to see it. Authors like to bang on about the latest theories and the most weird and wonderful stuff. That’s fine, but it means there are very few popular science titles taking on the basic meat and two veg of physics – and this is exactly what Stewart does. At just the right level for the beginner he runs us through all the classical physics that no one bothers with, yet is at the heart of everyday life.
So we have Newton’s laws, energy, power, electricity, magnetism. All that good stuff that you may not even have had properly at school if you did general science. This is highly laudable.
I do have a couple of hesitations. One is very personal. Stewart’s style is one I am more comfortable with in children’s books than one aimed at adults, as this is. It is very jokey. All the time we get (to pick one at random) little comments like ‘… would be like thirty of the nuclear bombs dropped on Nagasaki all going on at once. And that’s going to hurt, even if you’ve got your plastic lab glasses and rubber gloves on.’ Yerrrs. Some people will love this style, but it really puts my back up. Whenever I put a joke in one of my books, the editor politely suggests I remove it – and he’s right.
The other issue is that after doing a good job on classical physics, he really rather rushes through 20th century physics. The chapter on relativity isn’t too bad, but the quantum physics chapter is very sketchy and the final chapter labelled ‘the universe’ is a bit of a mess. It contains the only obvious factual errors – he says that Hubble discovered the Andromeda galaxy in 1925, but it was known of a good 1,000 years before, and Herschel in the 18th century even suggested it was another Milky Way, i.e. another galaxy. He also makes the factual error of saying that ‘Andromeda – and everything else in the universe – is getting further away from us all the time.’ In fact the Andromeda galaxy is heading towards us, as it’s close enough for gravitational attraction to be stronger than the expansion of the universe.
There’s also a very tangled sentence about Grand Universal Theories, where he tantalisingly says that Mark Hadley devised what (by implication) is a better GUT than string theory in the 1990s, but it’s ignored because ‘it could be argued a thousand scientists are working on their GUTs simply because a thousand scientists are working on their GUTs – and because the best way to get funding for your GUT work is for a bunch of other scientists to agree that what you’re working on is worth the massive grant your GUT needs.’ I know what he’s trying to say, but it’s hard to understand it from that.
If you consider the last couple of chapters an epilogue and concentrate on the rest, though, this is an excellent little book for putting across the basics of classical physics to the uninitiated, and as such deserves praise.
Review by Brian Clegg

Cosmology: a very short introduction – Peter Coles ****

The OUP ‘very short introduction’ series provide a quick overview of many, many topics. Sometimes the approach can be so summary that it really doesn’t do the subject justice, but other times it is pitched just right to give the reader all the basics, so they can go on to read more if needed, but have all the essentials to hand.
Peter Coles’ addition to the series on cosmology very much fits into the second camp. It fits in a surprising amount of detail into a compact pocket book of around 130 pages. There is no attempt here to dumb down – Coles gives us an erudite but largely approachable introduction to the universe and its origins. Although we start with a touch of mythology, this isn’t a history of the subject in chronological order. We jump straight, for instance, from Hubble and his diagram to the Hubble telescope. But that makes sense in the way that Coles is building the subject.
It’s fair to say that if you read this little book, you really will be well prepared to take on discussions about the origin of the universe, will have a good grasp of what is and isn’t known about it, and will be able to knowledgably raise an eyebrow at some of Stephen Hawking’s more outrageous pronouncements.
If I’m being picky, the language can be a little dry. Sentences like ‘In mathematics, a singularity is a pathological property wherein the numerical value of a particular quantity becomes infinite during the course of a calculation,’ don’t do a lot for the general reader to illuminate the nature of the singularities at the heart of the big bang or black holes. But the whole book doesn’t read like this, and the majority of readers who want to pick up a quick background in the technical side of cosmology shouldn’t have a problem.
The other slight issue is that the book was published in 2001. A remarkable amount of the content is still fine, but inevitably in such a fast moving subject there are some aspects that have dated a little. (The best guess for the age of the universe is given as 15 billion years, for instance.) Maybe it’s time for a new edition.
With that proviso, an excellent source to get the basics of the technical aspects of cosmology in a small but beautifully formed package.
Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Physics and Technology for Future Presidents – Richard A. Muller ***

This is, in a way, the supercharged version of one of my favourite popular science books, Physics for Future Presidents. That book is superb. It’s pitched at just the right level and explains all the physics-based science any administrator could need, in language that is approachable and enjoyable. It’s a delight.
This is a more heavyweight take on the subject. Quite literally – it weighs getting on for two kilos, and I felt I’d been doing weight training when I finished reading it. Once again, Richard A. Muller gives us an approach that is supposed to give potential presidential candidates and other administrators the details they need to get a good grasp of the physical sciences and technology, but somehow, for me it just didn’t work as well this time.
Don’t get me wrong – there’s lots of good stuff in it. Muller really gives a complete introductory physics course here, going into a lot more depth about the fundamental science rather than just the applications, which he concentrates on in the earlier book. It has most of the content of the other title (some omissions – I was sad that pebble bed reactors only get a passing reference now), but much, much more theory. That isn’t as frightening as it sounds – it’s theory presented in a very accessible and friendly fashion.
So why don’t I like it as much? In the first place, there’s just too much in it. It really is more like the book of a course than a popular science book, down to each chapter ending in discussion topics, research topics, essay questions, multiple choice questions… far too much of a textbook. Strangely, I also disliked it when the author got a bit too personal, bringing in more about himself. This usually works well in popular science, but seemed out of place in something so like an academic course.
There was also one point of the physics that worried me. To keep things simple, I guess, Muller makes a big thing of light being a wave, and despite covering quantum theory does this as much as possible from a wave viewpoint. Photons have to get a mention but are brushed aside with great frequency and he plays them down as wave packets rather than particles. I can only quote Richard Feynman: ‘I want to emphasize that light comes in this form – particles. It is very important to know that light behaves like particles, especially for those of you who have gone to school, where you were probably told something about light behaving like waves. I’m telling you the way it does behave – like particles.’ Much though I like Richard Muller’s writing, I can hardly disagree with Feynman.
All in all then, it’s a great textbook for a physics course for non-scientists, and there’s plenty of stuff in there to interest scientists as well. But for an enjoyable popular science read, please turn to Physics for Future Presidents.
Review by Brian Clegg