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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 sound…

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 …

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 …

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…

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 str…

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, t…

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 i…

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 la…

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…

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 di…

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…