Saturday, 27 November 2010

The 4% Universe – Richard Panek ****

The ‘four percent’ in the title of this book refers to the apparently true but bizarre fact that only 4% of the universe seems to be ordinary stuff – from planets to stars – with twenty-odd percent of the remainder dark matter and the rest dark energy, the unknown phenomenon that is forcing the expansion of the universe to accelerate.
Don’t come to this book hoping to find out what dark matter and dark energy are – because there’s a long way to go before those questions can be definitively answered – but instead you will find an in-depth history of the process by which the (probable) existence of dark matter and dark energy were discovered.
Richard Panek is at his best when describing human beings in action, rather than covering the details of physics or cosmology. He really takes the reader in to experience the astronomers, astrophysicists and cosmologists (surprisingly different beasts) at work. We begin to understand how these people work, what drives them and what they really think. We also see that these really are human beings, particularly in the rivalry and at times downright antagonism between two teams, one primarily astronomers, the other primarily physicists, who were at the forefront of the discovery of dark energy in the late 1990s.
There are two problems with this approach, though. One is that we are dealing with quite a large cast, few of whom are given big enough parts to really stand out – so often the reader, for example, can forget which of the two camps a particular scientist belongs to. Although we get a real feeling of knowing a couple of the names, it does get a bit overwhelming. What also gets overwhelming is the depth Panek goes into with the detail of discovery.
There’s a parallel here with the book A Grand and Bold Thing, where Ann Finkbeiner goes into a lot of detail of what happened in the development of the Sloane Digital Sky Survey. Our reviewer loved it, but I have seen another review bemoaning the Finkbeiner’s approach of covering ever little step. Similarly, if I’m honest, I got a touch bored with some of the trivia of discovery that Panek explored. The suspicion has to be that, having got access to detailed information from those involved, he was reluctant not to mention everything he heard – but this could have done with tighter editing.
The other problem with the focus on the people is that I’m not entirely sure that Panek always understands the science – there are one or two moments when he makes a statement that seems entirely wrong as far as the physics goes, but is swept away by the flow of the narrative so you don’t really notice it. For example he tells us that the anthropic principle is the term for the idea that inflation implies that there are 10500 inflationary bubbles, each its own universe. First of all, inflation doesn’t require this, it is just one possible implication, but secondly, the anthropic principle (which comes in two distinct forms) is not anything to do with inflation per se. It merely would explain why, if there were 10500 universes, we happened to live in this one.
A final niggle – the writing can be a touch pretentious. This doesn’t come across when Panek is at his best, telling us the personal stories of scientists and their work. But when he tries to take the overview we get sentiments like ‘… the award ceremony at Cambridge wasn’t only about posterity. It was about history, and history was something else. History was posterity in motion.’ Groan.
Don’t get me wrong. This is a great book for getting into the minds of those involved in these discoveries and for understanding more about how modern astronomy and cosmology works. I do recommend it. But the book’s limitations are strong enough that they can’t be entirely overlooked.
Paperback (US is hardback):  
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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

What’s Luck Got to do with It? – Joseph Mazur ****

Joseph Mazur’s aim in this book is to expose the “diabolical con” of the voice in the gambler’s ear that tells him he can win. To attack the “gambler’s illusion” Joseph Mazur brings out some big guns of modern science, from the mathematics of probability to the psychology of cognitive biases. Preaching is not his style, however, and there is much more in the book than arguments against gambling. The book sometimes loses its way through thickets of sociology, reportage, literary analysis and personal anecdotes. But the end results is Mazur an eclectic, personable introduction to the topic.
The first third of the book is a potted history of lotteries, casinos, shares trading, and theories of probability. Mazur takes us from eighteenth-century Bath to nineteenth-century Mississippi, from the Iliad to modern-day Monte Carlo. Inevitably some important developments are left out. For example, the rise of private life insurance in the late 18C, and its origins in a middle class anxious to protect its newly gained wealth, gets short shrift. Mazur pushes the story along with succinct scene-setting, judicious borrowing from historians of the topic, and tales of lost riches.
Modern-day gamblers will be glad to know that they are in good company–even, or especially, if they are massively in debt. Past gambling debtors include writers such as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, wealthy plantation owners in the American South, well-heeled dandies from the London coffee-house scene, and the entire royal court of Louis XIV. Women as well as men made disastrous flutters. Consider Francis Baddock, the accomplished 19C heiress who hung herself with gold and silver girdles after wasting her £24,000 (£2 million today) fortune in a month of high-rolling.
From history Mazur moves on to his area of expertise, mathematics. Statistical concepts are notoriously hard to get across to laypeople, and Mazur uses plenty of examples, diagrams and anecdotes to help the medicine go down. Most interesting is a chapter on the “truly astonishing” law of large numbers; most useful, a summary of the mathematics of poker, blackjack, sports betting, lotteries, and slot machines. The aims of the other maths chapters are less well-defined, but a patient reader will find colourful introductions to significance tests, normal distributions, Pascal’s triangle, the statistics of the Wall Street crash, and more.
Next up, psychology. This third of the book, like the third on mathematics, has problems of organisation. Chapter 12, sub-titled “psychomanaging risk”, seems like a chapter of left-overs, with an analysis of “Deal or No Deal” thrown together with a study of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda and the sad tale of a minister and psychotherapist who ruins himself in a Nigerian email scam. More purposeful is a chapter on 20th century psychologies of gambling–although Mazur concludes that general theories about why people gamble, starting with the Freudian theory that gamblers have a subconscious desire to lose, are in a sorry state.
More promising is the psychology of specific errors of reasoning. Mazur draws on those darlings of popular social science writing, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, in a chapter on the so-called “hot hands fallacy”: the belief that lucky streaks are more likely to continue than not. Reports of other gambling fallacies are scattered through the third on the book on psychology, from the house money effect (gamblers take more risks with their winnings than with their own money) to the Monte Carlo fallacy (after a string of reds, bet on blue). By showing that our statistical intuitions are not to be trusted, this material is at least as powerful an antidote to gambling behaviour as mathematical arguments.
If we count all these psychological effects, there is not one gambler’s illusion but many. Mazur is never very up-front about this problem, and one consequence is that the “gambler’s illusion” he describes in the introduction (the hot hands effect) is the opposite of the “gambler’s illusion” that appears in the book’s conclusion (the Monte Carlo fallacy). Another weakness is that Mazur never properly debunks the Monte Carlo fallacy. If a fair coin has come down head 60 times in 80 throws, surely we can expect the next 20 throws to have more tails than heads? Mazur’s rebuttal is that “we all know” that coins do not have memories; the chance of heads on a fair coin is always 50/50, irrespective of past throws. But this rebuttal is no use insofar as it does not reconcile our “no-memory” intuition with the equally strong intuition–the one behind the Monte Carlo fallacy–that fair coins should give half heads and half tails in the long term. This intuition is a version of the law of large numbers, which Mazur discusses — but not in enough detail to show why this otherwise sound law is misapplied in the Monte Carlo fallacy.
Gambling is a sad topic. For every lucky winner there are many forlorn addicts, like the women Mazur meets at casinos feeding coins into one-armed bandits at 5am. And along with the jackpots there are the suicides, like the London man who sunk his life savings on 24,000 lotto tickets in one week and came away with nothing. Stories like this are perhaps the best medicine for would-be gamblers, and Mazur’s book is full of them. But the book has an upbeat tone nevertheless, thanks to Mazur’s anecdotal style and passion for mathematics.
For gamblers, What’s Luck Got To Do With It? is a non-preachy introduction to the reasons for quitting, even if it leaves open some logical loopholes. For non-gamblers it is a sweeping tour of the seedy, sad and grandiose world of games of chance, with Mazur as a well-informed (if sometimes disoriented) guide.
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Review by Michael Bycroft

Sunday, 21 November 2010

The Life and Hard Times of an Armchair Scientist by Peter Forbes

In researching his book on bio-inspiration, The Gecko’s Foot, Peter Forbes made a discovery of his own – his idea has now born fruit, but not quite in the way he’d hoped:
I am not a scientist or inventor but a writer. For the last seven years I’ve been researching the new science of bio-inspiration – engineering solutions derived from nature’s own mechanisms, The Gecko’s Foot (Fourth Estate). Bio-inspiration, or biomimetics as it is often called, is a new multidisciplinary science – to get results biologists have to talk to chemists, have to talk to physicists, have to talk to engineers, and so on. An armchair researcher such as myself gets a very broad view of many subjects. You might even make a discovery or two. I did.
and the results have just been published in
The gecko’s foot is one of the big stories in bio-inspiration. For centuries, people could only wonder at the gecko’s ability to climb a smooth vertical wall either up or down, to walk across the ceiling, or to rest for half an hour upside down on the wall with no apparent strain.
Then in 2000, researchers at Berkeley, University of California, and Lewis and Clark College, Portland, Oregon, discovered the gecko’s secret. It has about half a million bristles on each foot and each bristle has between 100 and 1000 split ends with spoon-like tips. A gecko’s foot can touch a surface more intimately than any creature on earth. And it is the intimate contact that creates its clinging ability by means of molecular forces known as van der Waals forces. There’s nothing new about these forces – they were discovered by M. van der Waals in1873 – but until 2000 no one could quite believe that on their own they could account for the gecko’s sticky powers.
There was nothing particular to the gecko in this mechanism; life wasn’t necessary: according to Kellar Autumn, the gecko man at Lewis and Clark, a dead gecko will stay stuck to the wall for as long as you like, and its stickiness happens whenever you have enough fine hairs per unit area. So the race was on to make synthetic gecko tape. Gecko gloves would enable you to scale a building spiderman style and Kellar Autumn’s’ seven-year-old daughter was set on becoming the first Gecko Girl. In January 2004 the Berkeley/Oregon team took out a patent on the mechanism, detailing many possible ways of creating synthetic gecko hairs and hence a gecko adhesive strip.
The gecko story was always prime. In 2002 it briefly hit the newspapers when Andre Geim, a physicist at Manchester University, made a small square of synthetic gecko tape and used it to stick a toy Spiderman to the ceiling. It wasn’t nearly as good as the real thing but, as Geim said, it “proved the principle”. And, scaled up, that sample of synthetic gecko tape would have stuck a man to the ceiling.
Researching the book, I came across many techniques that might or might not be relevant to bio-inspired solutions. Bio-inspiration’s closest cousin is nanotechnology, the science of the very small, and the hot subject in nanotechnology is carbon nanotubes. So I read a lot about these amazing little structures without being sure how relevant they were going to be to my book.
Carbon nanotubes are in the front line of nanotechnology for several reasons. To grasp what they are, imagine a roll of chicken wire writ small – very small. The nanotube story starts with the discovery of buckminsterfullerene or the buckyball in 1985. Buckminsterfullerene is a molecule of 60 carbon atoms in the form of a football, with mixed hexagons and pentagons in the classic pattern of Buckminster Fuller’s domes.
The carbon nanotube (discovered in 1991) is the buckyball’s close cousin. Instead of a sphere, this is a long rolled tube – a nano chicken wire. This molecular chicken wire has a hexagonal lattice structure just like the big stuff: you can roll it up and link the ends to create a single-walled nanotube (SWN) or you can roll it over and over to create a multiwalled nanotube (MWN). Both these kinds of carbon nanotubes exist. Carbon nanotubes are very small, at the bottom end of the nano realm (single-walled nanotubes are only 1-2 nanometres across, multiwalled 10-30 nanometres). Computer chip engineers are particularly interested in nanotubes because not only are they far smaller than the etched silicon circuits currently used, carbon nanotubes actually have the requisite properties built in. Nanotubes can be transistors, light-emitting diodes or fulfil a variety of other electronic functions. But so far nanotubes are mostly a brilliant solution waiting for someone to ask the right question.
In 2002, in the journal Nature, I came across a neat trick with nanotubes. Bingqing Wei, a Chinese researcher, then at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York State, discovered that you can seed the growth of nanotube pillars on a prepared silicon template. To create the nanotube pillars Wei first creates a pattern – an array of equispaced silicon dioxide circles on silicon – by etching with standard semiconductor lithographic techniques. When a carbon-containing vapour is exposed to the surface at 800 degrees carbon nanotubes begin to grow out of the circles. The advantage of this technique is that very ordered arrays can be created to almost any density and length.
You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist (you had to be a biomimetician) to realise that the pillars formed could do duty as artificial gecko hairs – In Wei’s experiment the pillars were coarse (about 10,000 nanometres in diameter) but individual multiwall nanotubes – only 10-30 nanometres diameter – would be ideal for gecko hairs.
Instead of just reporting the new work, I decided at this point to get involved. In October 2003 I emailed Bingqing Wei to explain my idea. He wrote back the same day to say that it was indeed plausible and that he would set his student onto it. The schedules of book production and scientific research do not mesh easily. By the time the book had to go to bed at the end of 2004 the nanotubes for gecko hairs experiment had still not delivered any results.
There’s nothing like publishing a book for flushing out material that should have been included. Three days after publication, I was Googling the book’s title and in the top five searches there appeared ‘Synthetic gecko foot-hairs from multiwalled carbon nanotubes’. This turned out to be a paper in the British journal Chemical Communications by a team based at the University of Akron, Ohio. One of the team was an old colleague of Professor Wei from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and he had worked on the idea independently. From my armchair I had experienced a classic moment of the scientific life: the disappointment of having a valid idea but then seeing someone else get there first.
I was both pleased my idea had come off at last and miffed that someone else had independently come to the same conclusion. Had I just missed making my fortune? I had got so close up to the work that I was able to make a small discovery. At that point I didn’t know how to handle it. I could, I suppose, have written a short scientific paper and tried to establish my priority that way. Would a scientific journal have accepted a paper from an armchair scientist? I could have attempted to take out a patent but that is an expensive and convoluted process even for an expert. I would have needed technical help to write the patent application. So it seemed best to write to someone who could progress the idea. The results will be published soon.
It’s now open season for gecko solutions because the nanotube gecko adhesive is a nano Velcro for the 21st century. Could it become as ubiquitous? The Akron team reported that the nanotube array is 200 times stronger than natural gecko bristles. Quite how this can be is beyond me – perhaps it will not be confirmed but if true it is revolutionary. Just to have large quantities of dry adhesive as powerful as the gecko would have many applications in technology. But 200 times more powerful?! As to how far this idea will go we are in the dark.
As T. S. Eliot said, “Between the idea / And the reality / Between the motion / And the act / Falls the Shadow”.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Piers Bizony – Four Way Interview

Piers Bizony has written on popular science and space for a variety of magazines on both sides of the Atlantic, and was shortlisted for the NASA/Eugene M. Emme Award for Astronautical Writing. He has written several books, including Atom and most recently Science: the Definitive Guide.
Why science?
People sometimes imagine science as a dull technical enterprise conducted by emotionless nerds in white coats. The media also gets annoyed when scientists can’t answer questions in black and white terms – or worst of all, when one scientist’s ideas conflict with another’s. The wonderful thing about science is that it’s an act of creative imagination, followed by a test of those ideas to see if they have any truth behind them. It’s a constant and often fiery process of human discovery, rather than just an abstract set of cold facts. But the facts do count for a lot. Yes, the earth is round, not flat. Yes, the earth goes around the sun, and not the other way around. Yes, there’s an evolutionary reason – simple and compelling – why we share so much of our biology with the chimpanzees. That’s what I mean by “fiery.” The scientists who discovered these things came in for a lot of flack. Thanks to their determination, we can be sure of certain kinds of knowledge because of scientifically tested evidence. Year by year, generation by generation, science has delivered the most reliable form of human knowledge that we possess. And the exciting thing is how much more we have yet to discover. What’s not to like?
Why this book?
There are some ambitious illustrated guides to science available right now in the bookshops. They are impressive and monumental, and that’s precisely why we thought we could add something to the mix, by making a book that’s less daunting to pick up off the table, and easier for non-scientific families to get into. We spent many weeks working out what the structure of the book should be. It develops essentially as a narrative, through time and space. Where did the world come from? How did life develop? What are the forces and substances that make everything tick? Science is a story, and we structured the book in that way. And it’s not history, so much as purely and simply an overview of what we think we know today about the natural world and the forces that make everything tick. And all in plain simple language.
What’s next?
I’m working with the wonderful Rough Guides brand on a book about the genuine science of hunting for extraterrestrial life – a very hot topic right now, and fantastic fun.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
The breakthrough private technologies in space flight. Those so-called ‘space tourists’ are actually very dedicated entrepreneurs with a passion for opening up the space frontier. In the next few years we might actually start to get the science fiction future that we were always promised.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Once Before Time – Martin Bojowald ***

Physics has a dark secret at its heart. The two big theories that form the main basis of just about everything don’t work together. Quantum theory, dealing with the very small, and general relativity, dealing with gravity and the nature of space-time, are incompatible. Not only does this make it impossible to put together a coherent theory covering, for instance, all forces, it messes up our understanding of events that fit into both camps, like the big bang.
The best known modern attempt to pull the two together is string theory – but this has huge problems as far as making useful predictions goes, and some regard it as a dead end. Its main opposition (though there are other theories) is loop quantum gravity. This breaks down space-time itself into atoms, which have something of a loop-like nature, making reality a kind of weave of these loops.
This theory too has yet to make any useful predictions, and like string theory it depends on mind-twistingly complex maths. Yet it is in some ways simpler, doesn’t need many extra dimensions to make it work and even gets around some of the concerns about infinities cropping up at the big bang.
This means we desperately needed a good, popular science guide to string theory – and sadly we still do. Martin Bojowald is one of the key figures in the field, and certainly has a good grasp on the science, but has real problems with getting the information across. It probably doesn’t help that this book was first written in German, then translated into English by the author – certainly at times you might think it still isn’t English.
The science simply hasn’t been made understandable. The author spends a fair amount of time, for example, on Penrose diagrams. These special space-time diagrams are very useful to help understand what is happening in a black hole and similar oddities of space time. But it is very difficult to grasp what is going on. We are told that the singularity is not timelike, but spacelike – it is part of evolving space at a fixed time. This is shown clearly on the diagram, but we are given no real explanation of why this is so, or what it means.
It doesn’t help that the book is illustrated by fairly meaningless arty photographs and has occasional snippets of very bad fiction (which presumably are harder to translate than the science). All in all it is a frustrating read that is unlikely to be illuminating unless you already know quite a lot about the subject area, but not about loop quantum gravity.
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Review by Martin O'Brien

Introducing Psychology: a graphic guide – Nigel C. Benson ***

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.
Psychology is a difficult topic for this site because, to be honest, it’s not clear that it’s science. If this book is anything to go by, the reason it has a problematic image is that it is a mix of science and philosophy, and all too often the philosophy has too much weight.
Nigel Benson provides a useful summary of the different approaches to psychology (another indicator of its lack of modern scientific credentials – you certainly get disagreements about specific theories in physics, but you don’t get different ‘schools’, always an indicator you are drifting away from science and into philosophy). It was fascinating to see how much certain aspects of modern thinking are influenced by particular aspects of psychology – for example, how behaviourism seems to dominate education and particularly the sort of ‘Super Nanny’, how-to-deal-with-problem-children TV show. I was surprised how much content there was on Freud, all stated without any feeling this was arbitrary made-up rubbish with no scientific basis, with just a paragraph or so saying many don’t consider Freud useful anymore. Puzzling.
As a book it was quite approachable, but it was rather too bitty to get provide an ideal introduction. Now and again there would be some flow of the text, but often it seemed to be made up of a whole series of definitions. The illustrations were also a mix of useful and not. I really had no idea why the first part of the book is narrated by a figure wearing a Hannibal Lecter mask, but then he suddenly disappears. It’s not a particularly pleasant image and I really didn’t feel it helped. (There was extra confusion because the masked face used to be on the cover of the book, and is referred to as such inside, but it isn’t anymore.)
Overall, certainly not one of the best in the series, but will give a useful background on psychology if you want to get a quick fix on what the subject is about.
*Marmite? If you are puzzled by this assessment, you probably aren’t from the UK. Marmite is a yeast-based product (originally derived from beer production waste) that is spread on bread/toast. It’s something people either love or hate, so much so that the company has run very successful TV ad campaigns showing people absolutely hating the stuff…
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Neutrino – Frank Close *****

At first sight you could easily overlook this book. It’s small and succumbs to that easiest mistakes when dealing with something with a passing involvement with space of having a black cover, which almost inevitably makes a book look dull. It doesn’t cover one of the big topics of the day. Why bother? Because it’s a little cracker.
An awful lot of popular science passes across my desk, and it’s very rare that the vast majority of the content is new and fresh, but that’s the case here. Neutrinos are quantum particles that exist in vast quantities – many billions pass through your body from the Sun every second – yet they are so unlikely to interact with matter that the vast majority pass through the Earth as if it isn’t there. Once it became apparent that neutrinos ought to exist, the challenge was there to find some way of detecting them. But what a challenge.
Frank Close presents the tale of the hunt for the neutrino, and it’s a fascinating story. Apart from anything else, it’s a great example of what real science is like, with researchers in one country not aware of developments elsewhere, and huge pieces of equipment built on the erroneous assumption that protons decayed often enough to be detected then being redeployed as neutrino detectors. I particularly loved the way a scientist got an experiment past a laboratory director by playing on the director’s dislike of astrophysicists, telling him this was a chance to prove them wrong.
This really is physics in the raw – with the added benefit that we are dealing here with the weirdest detectors ever imagined. What would Galileo or Newton have made of telescopes consisting of tonnes of cleaning fluid in a cavern a mile underground? Or detectors that depend on spotting the afterglow of faster-than-light particles, again buried far beneath the Earth?
This is by no means a complete story. There is still plenty to learn about neutrinos, because even with the latest detectors, scientists are only spotting a handful a day. Yet an immense amount has been learned, both about neutrinos themselves and what they tell us about the mechanisms of stars. There is something very satisfying about someone apparently getting a theory wrong by a factor of two, only to be proved correct after 30 years study showed that neutrinos behave in a stranger fashion than anyone ever imagined.
If I’m going to be picky, there’s a ‘reprise’ section at the end that was too long to be a recap and seemed more a filler than anything – but I loved this little book and would highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in physics or astronomy.

Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 7 November 2010

The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics – James Kakalios ****

At first sight this is just bound to be one of those ‘science of’ books (the author’s own Physics of Superheroes, The Science of Discworld, The Science of Middle Earth, The Science of the Tellytubbies etc. etc.) in a different guise. For those in the know, the format of ‘Amazing Story’ on the cover is a big flag saying ‘1950s science fiction magazines are my inspiration’. And even if it’s not strictly a ‘science of’ book, the subtitle ‘a math-free exploration of the science that made our world’ seems a dead giveaway that this is very basic stuff.
I’m not quite sure why they’ve done this, because we’re not dealing with this kind of book at all. Okay, there are a lot of references to comics (much more so than Amazing Stories et al), sometimes a little obscure (the author seems to assume we all know, for example, the name of the character who is the alter ego of Iron Man. Pardon me for not being a fan). But the contents of this book are in fact one of the most hard hitting attempts to put across quantum theory to the general reader I’ve ever seen, and to call it ‘math free’ verges on the misleading.
Rather than a light-weight introduction to quantum mechanics, this is closer to Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw’s Why does E=mc2? – it is very brave about the level of detail it goes into and some of the quite heavy duty mathematical thinking, even if it doesn’t literally do the maths. I really liked this, though I would recommend reading a more straightforward non-technical introduction like Marcus Chown’s Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You before going for this one as it is a little heavy going for the absolute beginner. Not everyone will respond to the level of complexity here, but those who do will certainly be rewarded.
There is no doubt that the regular dips into comic strips do lighten things up a bit, which is refreshing. I have a couple of slight concerns about the content. I think the author makes things unnecessarily confusing by referring to waves most of the time (over and above the Schrodinger wave equation), where it sometimes have been more straightforward not to do so. And, to be honest, the author came across too much like a university lecturer in places. I particularly found his orchestra/gallery/mezzanine metaphor for electrons doing quantum jumps more baffling than illuminating.
So don’t expect this to be a light, fun read – it isn’t (apart from parts where he jumps into comic strip science) – but do expect a really useful introduction to quantum mechanics that doesn’t pull its punches or talk down to the reader. You will have to put some work in, but it will be rewarded.
Paperback (US is hardback):  
Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 6 November 2010

The End of Discovery – Russell Stannard ****

Russell Stannard argues here that at some point in the future we will have reached a stage where no new scientific discoveries can be made. It is unlikely we will have discovered everything about the physical world – there is no reason to believe that our brains are equipped to fully comprehend nature, Stannard argues, and even where we are not held back by fundamental limits to our understanding, we will face practical difficulties in continuing to make discoveries (we can’t build ever bigger particle accelerators, for instance). Instead, we will have discovered everything we are able to as human beings.
Each chapter looks at specific questions and mysteries in science that look like they could be beyond us to solve, and which may hint at where the boundaries lie of what we are capable of knowing. Some of the questions looked at may in fact soon have answers – is there a Higgs particle?; what is the nature of dark matter? – whilst some (the more philosophical questions) do indeed look like they might be too hard to solve – what is consciousness?; do we have free will?; where do the laws of nature come from?; can we talk meaningfully about a reality which is independent of what we observe?
Because of the background information given to each of these questions, the book serves as a good introduction to some of the key concepts and ideas in modern science, and in particular modern physics, towards which the book is heavily slanted. The explanations are clearly aimed at non-specialists, and there is only one occasion where the writing gets a little too technical – this is in the section on the unification of the electromagnetic and weak forces (the question being considered here is whether we will ever be able to confirm whether a Grand Unified Theory of three of the four fundamental forces exists).
What I would have liked to read more about, however, is whether this issue – will scientific discovery some day come to an end? – should even occupy us greatly. I’m not sure we can answer it with any certainty (although I am inclined to speculate that science will always continue to progress but with diminishing returns), and as Stannard acknowledges, even if we do reach the stage where no further progress in our understanding can be made, we will probably not be aware we have reached this end point. I am tempted to think that, for the time being at least, we should not worry too much about making grand predictions about the future, and that we should instead just get on with the science.
Putting this to one side, though, the large amount of topics covered, together with Stannard’s accessible writing, means this is still an enjoyable and worthwhile read. If you want a guide to some of the most difficult questions scientists are struggling with in the 21st century, I would recommend this book.
Hardback:  
Review by Matt Chorley