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Showing posts from October, 2010

Maths 1001 [Mathematics 1001] – Richard Elwes ***

Like its sister title Science 1001, this book takes on an enormous task: telling us ‘everything we need to know about mathematics in 1001 bite-sized explanations’. 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 geometry and algebra, through to the exotics from statistics to game theory. Each section is split into topics – so in geometry you might get ‘Euclidian geometry’ and within each topic there may be around 12 entries. In a sense, then, this is a mini-encyclopaedia of maths, though arranged by subject, rather than alphabetically. I had mixed feelings about the science entry in the series and those feelings are more extravagantly mixed than ever here. There is no doubt whatsoever that this is a useful book. A good marker of this is that, unlike many of the books that come into the review pile, I intend to keep this …

Hubble: Window on the Universe – Giles Sparrow ****

The Hubble space telescope has provided a massive step forward in producing images of everything from planets to distant galaxies – and this is a massive picture book, detailing Hubble’s achievements and rather a lot more. We’re talking genuinely massive here: at 37cm x 30, this isn’t so much a coffee table book as a book you could make a coffee table out of. In a way, the title of the book is too confining for what’s actually in it. A lot of the content is from or about the Hubble telescope, but there are also images from a range of other telescopes and probes. We begin with a brief introduction to the telescope itself, then set out on a voyage across the solar system (this is where we particularly get images from other probes, such as the Mars landers). This continues to expand, taking in stars, the stunning photographs of nebulae and galaxies we have come to associate with Hubble, and finally the universe as a whole. Along the way we see how the different missions to maintain the t…

1089 and All That – David Acheson *****

I really don’t know what’s happened to OUP – there was a time when this academic publisher had great ideas for science books, but the books themselves were practically unreadable. Now they’ve had a string of top notch titles – to which this is both a recent and an early addition, as the first edition of this book slipped under the radar back in 2002, but now it’s out in paperback and ready to wow a wider audience. For non-UK readers, the title is a play on 1066 and All That, a humorous book on history that was very popular in the 1950s. Here, though, the topic is mathematics, and rather than mock the subject, as 1066 does, the approach here is to demonstrate the delight of maths done right. The author could just have easily gone for a 1970s appeal and called this The Joy of Maths – because a joy it truly is. There is a slightly dated feel about the book, both in its presentation and style that, for me at least, is not a bad thing, but rather 100% nostalgia. It starts with a reference …

Science: the definitive guide – Piers Bizony ***

Popular science books often seem to come in waves, and this is the second title we’ve had recently that attempts to cover all of science in one go, following the chunky Science 1001 by Paul Parsons. This is a massive undertaking and in this case the approach taken is to go for a massive format – a coffee table book 37 cm by 30 in size, and weighty enough to match at well over 2 kilos. Inside are seven sections (Earth, climate, chemistry, biology, space, physics and cosmology), each of which consists of a series of Dorling-Kindersley style double page spreads on different topics, mixing lots of images (often including the background, which can make it a little difficult to read) with a fairly dry text. Each of these two page spreads is standalone – there is no feeling of flow from one to another, which means you don’t really get any sense of the significance of the subject or how the different aspects fit together. And given there relatively few spreads for each topic – chemistry, for …

The Planet in a Pebble – Jan Zalasiewicz ****

This is such a wonderful idea for a book. No, not just wonderful, it’s absolutely brilliant. It may to some extent have been inspired by the early geologist Gideon Mantell’s book Thoughts on a Pebble – but the idea of using an in-depth exploration of single slate pebble, picked from a Welsh beach, to reveal a whole host of aspects of the formation of the universe, the Earth, early biology, chemistry, geology and more is inspired. I couldn’t help think of Blake’s lines from Auguries of Innocence: To see a world in a grain of sand 
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour. This book really is about seeing the world, if not in a grain of sand, in a pebble. In terms of format, then, this is a top notch popular science book. What’s more, unlike many of the more academic authors, Jan Zalasiewicz has a lovely approachable writing style (if there’s any criticism, he’s a bit over-zealous in his attempt to be matey). This has all the makings of a…

Royal Society Prize for Science Books 2010

Read more about the 2010 Royal Society Prize, arguably a summary of the best popular science books published in 2009. Here are the results: Winner Life Ascending – Nick Lane Shortlist A World Without Ice – Henry PollackEveryday Practice of Science – Frederick GrinnellGod’s Philosophers – James HannamWe Need to Talk About Kelvin – Marcus ChownWhy does E=mc2? – Brian Cox & Jeff ForshawLonglist Complexity – a guided tour – Melanie MitchellDarwin’s Island – Steve JonesIn Search of the Multiverse – John GribbinThe Master and his Emissary – Iain McGilchristStorms of My Grandchildren – James HansenWhy Evolution is True – Jerry A. Coyneand here are our favourites that didn’t make the long list: 13 Things that Don’t Make Sense – Michael BrooksAtomic – Jim BaggottBefore the Big Bang – Brian CleggHeatstroke – Anthony BarnoskyM

Richard Cohen – Four Way Interview

Richard Cohen is a former publishing director of Hutchinson and Hodder & Stoughton. He is the author of By the Sword: a history of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers and Olympic Champions, has written for the Times, the Guardian, the Independent and most other leading London newspapers, and has appeared on BBC radio and television. He lives in New York City. His more recent book is Chasing the Sun. Why science? — a question I used to ask when I was at school, which in fact I managed to get through without taking a single class in chemistry, biology, botany or zoology. I did have one year of physics, at the end of which I got 83% in the exam. My teacher, a Mr Richards, look at me suspiciously and said, ‘You were lucky. But from now on you won’t have to do any more physics. Putting you in for O level would be a waste of time.’ But eight years ago I became suddenly aware of an overwhelmingly gap in what I knew, and in writing about the Sun have had to teach myself somethin…

Richard Elwes – Four Way Interview

Richard Elwes is a writer, teacher and researcher in Mathematics and a visiting fellow at the University of Leeds. Dr Elwes is passionate about the public understanding of maths, which he promotes at talks and on the radio. His more recent book is Maths 1001. Why maths? I don’t know anything else! I have always enjoyed the subject, and the more I have studied, the more I have realised how incredibly deep it goes, and just how much there is to know. At the same time, I am aware of the gulf between how most people see maths (a horrendous mix of tedious equations and incomprehensible jargon), and how I see it, which is as a whole other world, packed full of amazingly cool, interlocking ideas. So, as well as enjoying studying maths myself, I suppose I have a drive to try to close this gap. Why this book? There are two answers, both true. The first is that I don’t think a book like this has ever been attempted before. Of course, there are plenty of excellent books discussing various mathemat…

Introducing Fractals: a graphic guide – Nigel Lesmoir-Gordon, Will Rood & Ralph Edney ***

It is almost impossible to rate these relentlessly hip books – they are pure marmite*. The huge Introducing … series (a vast range of books covering everything from Quantum Theory to Islam), previously known as … for Beginners, puts across the message in a style that owes as much to Terry Gilliam and pop art as it does to popular science. Pretty well every page features large graphics with speech bubbles that are supposed to emphasise the point. Fractals are, without doubt, fun and fascinating, and this little book brings out what they are and why they are so remarkable. (Fractals are complex geometric forms produced by (often) fairly simple mathematical processes that behave rather strangely. Fractals often resemble natural forms, like trees or mountains.) The first half of the book takes us through the origins of fractals, and really works well. In some of the books in this series the abundant illustrations get in the way of the message. Here, while they lack some of the energetic m…

Chasing the Sun – Richard Cohen ****

The tagline to this book is ‘the epic story that gives us life’ and that word epic gives pause for thought. It has good connotations (‘an epic adventure’ or just the modern adjective ‘epic!’) – but equally it can suggest a monster tome that is going to be a bit of a drag. Time will tell. What Richard Cohen sets out to do is give a comprehensive if personal exploration of humanity’s relationship with the sun, from science to religion, sunlight to gravity. It surely is a subject that deserves this kind of treatment, and parts of this book are wonderful in the way they provide so many factoids and quite interesting (in the QI sense) deviations into all sorts of very slightly sun-related areas. I could pick out so many, but one little part that caught my fancy was a collection of early 20th century beliefs about strong sunlight, including the need to wear flannel spine pads, as the sun was thought to damage the backbone, and the requirement to wear hats indoors in buildings with metal roo…

Why Can’t Elephants Jump? – Mick O’ Hare (Ed.) ***

Here we go again with another collection of 114 questions (there’s a title to the next book: Why 114 Questions in these Books?) that first appeared in the ‘Last Word’ section of New Scientist magazine. The format is simple – readers write in with questions, other readers provide answers, the best of which are published. The books contain the question, selected good answers and sometimes editorial comment. I loved the earlier Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze?, and still got a lot out of the experiment-oriented How to Fossilize your Hamster. But I did comment in the Hamster review: ‘These books have been great but they aren’t really decent popular science books as they don’t have any narrative flow. The approach has been milked to death now – let’s see something different.’ I unfortunately did get a sense of diminishing returns this time around. Enough, already. I’m not saying that some of the questions and answers weren’t good. I quite enjoyed, for instance, the title question, which wa…