Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Michael Brooks – Four Way Interview

Michael Brooks, who holds a PhD in quantum physics, is an author, journalist and broadcaster. He is a consultant at New Scientist, and the author of 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense and The Big Questions: Physics.
Why science?
Science is simply the best way we have of understanding the world. It’s not perfect – far from it – but it has made an enormous difference: the world is a better place for its existence. You only have to look at what vaccine science has achieved to see why science is such a force for good.
Why this book?
It was a great chance to sit down and think about what really matters: why do physicists do what they do, what questions they are trying to answer and what we have learned so far. It turns out that we’ve learned an awful lot over the centuries. I also loved harnessing the idea that such huge issues – Big Questions – can actually be boiled down to questions that children could ask (and they do, in my experience!)
What’s next?
I’m working on a book provisionally titled Standing on the shoulders of anarchists. It’s about how science really works. People think that scientists are cool, rational and logical – always making progress, and objectively assessing each others’ work in a tidy, well-disciplined way. The reality is very different. This book explores the intrigues, the moments of dubious behaviour, the wacky inspirations behind some of our greatest breakthroughs – dreams, drug-taking, hallucinations – the triumph of personality over evidence… All of this lies behind work that has won Nobel Prizes. In a way the book is highlighting science’s rock ‘n’ roll side: science is anything but boring.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
Lots of things! It’s great to see the Large Hadron Collider up and running now, and I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out of that in particular. But I’m pretty much always excited. Almost every week science seems to spit out a surprising result or discovery that makes you stop and question everything you were thinking the week before!

The View from the Centre of the Universe by Nancy Ellen Abrams and Joel R. Primack

After thousands of years of abstract theorizing, cosmology is finally coming close to a testable theory to explain the nature of the universe. In this essay based on their book The View from the Centre of the UniverseAbrams and Primack argue we need the modern equivalent of a creation myth to help fix the new cosmological ideas in our minds.
Those of us who are alive today have an extraordinary opportunity – the opportunity to see everything afresh through a new understanding of the universe itself. We are witnessing a full-blown scientific revolution in “cosmology,” the branch of astronomy and astrophysics that studies the origin and nature of the universe. The unrestricted, dataless fantasizing of theorists has been replaced by reliable theory tested against the entire visible universe. What is emerging is humanity’s first picture of the universe as a whole that might actually be true. We are the first humans privileged to see a face of the universe no earlier culture ever imagined. It is possible for the first time not only to understand the universe intellectually but to start developing imagery that we can all use to grasp this new reality more fully and to open our minds to what it may mean for our lives and the lives of our descendants. As we do this, we will discover our extraordinary place in the cosmos. We dare not undervalue this immense privilege, even though it is happening at the same time as some of the most barbaric and self-defeating behaviour our species has ever exhibited. This is all the more reason we need it.
The last time Western culture shared a coherent understanding of the universe was in the Middle Ages. For a thousand years, Christians, Jews, and Muslims believed that the earth was the immovable centre of the universe and all the planets and stars revolved on crystal spheres around it. The hierarchy continued on earth: God had created a place for every person, animal, and thing in a great chain of being. This picture of reality made sense of the rigid social hierarchy of that time. The medieval picture was destroyed by early scientists like Galileo. The cosmic hierarchy lost its credibility as the organizing principle of the universe and was replaced with the Newtonian picture: a universe of endless emptiness randomly scattered with stars, and our solar system in no special place. This picture was not based on evidence but was an extrapolation from Newtonian physics, which accurately explains the motions of the solar system but by no means the entire universe. The modern world has so deeply absorbed this bleak picture that it seems like reality itself.
Until the late twentieth century, there was virtually no reliable information about the universe as a whole. That has changed. Astronomers can now observe every bright galaxy in the visible universe and – because looking out into space is looking back in time – can even see back to the cosmic “Dark Ages” before galaxies formed and study in detail the heat radiation of the Big Bang. The great movie of the evolution of the universe is coming into clearer focus: we now know that throughout expanding space, as the universe evolved, vast clouds of invisible, mysterious non-atomic particles called “dark matter” collapsed under the force of their own gravity. In the process they pulled ordinary matter together to form galaxies. In these galaxies generations of stars arose, whose explosive deaths spread complex atoms from which planets would form around new stars, providing a home for life such as ours to evolve. Clusters, long filaments, and huge sheet-like superclusters whose building blocks are galaxies have formed along wrinkles in spacetime, which were apparently generated at the earliest moments of the Big Bang and etched into our universe forever. Every culture has had a story of the origin of the universe, but this is the first one that no storyteller made up – we are all witnesses on the edges of our seats.
The possession of this new picture is a gift so extraordinary that most of us don’t know what to do with it. We have been living for centuries in a black and white film. There were no obvious gaps in the scenes before us, so we didn’t notice that anything was missing. Becoming aware of the universe is like suddenly seeing in colour, and that changes not just what’s far away but what’s right here. The universe is here, and it’s more coherent and potentially meaningful for our lives than anyone imagined.
Most of us have grown up thinking that there is no basis for feeling central or even important to the physical cosmos. But with the new evidence it turns out that this perspective is nothing but a prejudice. There is no geographic centre to an expanding universe, but we intelligent creatures are central or special in multiple ways that derive directly from physics and cosmology, and this article discusses two of them: we are made of the rarest material – stardust – and we are at the centre of all possible sizes in the universe. In our new book, The View from the Centre of the Universe we also explain that we are at the centre of the habitable zone of both the solar system and the Milky Way and at the centre of our visible universe, and we are living at the midpoint of time for the universe, for Earth, and for the human species. Each form of centrality has been a scientific discovery, not an anthropocentric way of reading the data. Pre-scientific people always saw themselves at the centre of the world, however they imagined their world. They were wrong on the details, but they were right on a deep level: the human instinct to experience ourselves as central reflects something real about the universe, something independent of our viewpoint.
The Rarest Material
Except for hydrogen, which makes up about a tenth of your weight, the rest of your body is made of stardust. Hydrogen and helium, the two lightest kinds of atoms, came straight out of the Big Bang, while a little bit more helium and essentially all other atoms were created later by stars. The iron atoms in our blood carrying oxygen at this moment to our cells came largely from exploding white dwarf stars, while the oxygen itself came mainly from exploding supernovas that ended the lives of massive stars. Most of the carbon in the carbon dioxide we exhale on every breath came from planetary nebulas, the death clouds of middle-size stars a little bigger than the sun. We are made of material created and ejected into the Galaxy by the violence of earlier stars. To understand how this happened – to appreciate the millions or billions of years it takes a star to produce a comparatively tiny number of heavy atoms, and the tremendous space journeys of those particles of stardust that have now come together to incarnate us – is a first step toward finding our place in the cosmos.
All the stars, planets, gas, comets, dust, and galaxies that we see – all forms of visible matter – make up only about half a percent of what’s out there. Most of the matter in the universe is neither atomic nor visible. It is not even made of the protons, neutrons, and electrons that compose atoms. It’s an utterly strange substance called “cold dark matter,” and its existence was only established late in the 20th century. But it accounts for about 25% of the universe. Dark matter neither emits, reflects nor absorbs light or any other kind of radiation, but its immense gravity holds the spinning galaxies together. But 70% of the density of the universe is not even matter – it’s “dark energy.” Dark energy causes space to repel space. The more space there is – and increasing amounts of space are inevitable in an expanding universe – the more repulsion. The more repulsion, the faster space expands, and this can lead to an exponentially increasing expansion possibly forever. The Double Dark theory explains how dark matter and dark energy interact over time to create the universe we observe.
Dark energy is in the nature of space itself. The Double Dark theory’s history of the universe is basically this: in the early universe there was relatively little dark energy because there was relatively little space – the universe hadn’t had time to expand very much, but there was the same amount of dark matter then as now. For about nine billion years, the gravitational attraction of the dark matter slowed the rate of expansion. The dark matter thinned out as the universe expanded, but since dark energy is a characteristic of space, it never thins out; instead its relative importance has tremendously increased with the amount of space. Now the repulsive effect of the dark energy has surpassed the gravitational attraction of dark matter as the dominant effect on large scales in the universe, and expansion is no longer slowing down but accelerating. The turning point was about four and a half billion years ago – coincidentally just when our solar system was forming.
All earlier cosmologies have been shared through symbolic images and stories. We too need to visualize our universe – not just random fragments of it, which is all that even the most stunning NASA astronomical photos give us, but the whole – so that we can see where we fit. Since 99% of the universe is invisible, the only way to visualize the whole is symbolically.
The Pyramid of All Visible Matter borrows an image everyone in the United States possesses: the pyramid topped by the all-seeing eye, which appears on the back of the dollar bill. The pyramid’s capstone is separated and floating above it, blazing with light, and dominated by an eye. This symbol can represent all the visible matter in the
universe – all the matter that people until the late twentieth century thought existed. The volume of each section of the pyramid is proportional to the density of that particular ingredient in the universe. The large bottom part of the pyramid represents the lightest atoms: hydrogen and helium, which are so plentiful that they far outweigh all the heavy atoms – the stardust – that makes up not only living things but Earth and all rocky planets in the universe. Within the capstone, the fraction of stardust associated just with living things or the remains of living things is very tiny. Within that very tiny fraction, the matter associated specifically with intelligent life is vanishingly small – yet it is only that which looks at and grasps this pyramid. The very human-looking eye at the centre of the capstone represents the trace bit of stardust associated with intelligent life. The eye is the only part not drawn to scale. Think of it as being like an enlarged detail of a city centre, inset on the corner of a large-scale map. The inset is way out of proportion to the size of things surrounding it, but everyone knows that an inset on a map is a zoom-in visualizing something important on a different size scale. Here, in the same way, the eye on the capstone is a zoom-in to the presence of intelligent life. Without a zoom-in we could not even see the matter associated with intelligence on the pyramid, since it is so rare. Intelligence bursts out only from tiny bits of stardust.
The Pyramid of all Visible Matter stands on the solid ground of Earth with a few plants for emphasis. But now we know that there is a hidden base extending deep underground. This is shown in the second figure, which we call the Cosmic Density Pyramid.
When astronomers look into space, they see only the illuminated half a percent of what’s out there. It is as though great fleets of ghost ships made of dark matter sail through the cosmic ocean of dark energy, but in the blackness all we humans see are a few beacons lit at the tips of the tallest masts. Ordinary matter interacts with itself: particles interact to form atoms, atoms interact to form molecules, and under at least some circumstances molecules can form living cells and eventually evolve into higher life forms. But dark matter does none of this. When viewed in computer simulations that make dark matter visible, the stuff behaves like nothing anyone has ever seen before. Gravity swings clumps of it around in the presence of other clumps, but they can pass right through each other. Dark matter has some of the properties people imagine of ghosts: it goes through things, yet it has power over the ordinary world. Our kind of matter does not take up much space or contribute much to the total density of the universe, but it contributes out of all proportion to the richness of the universe.
The centre of all possible sizes
In mathematics numbers go on infinitely in both directions, but in physics there are a largest and a smallest size. The interplay of relativity and quantum mechanics sets the smallest size: general relativity tells us that there can’t be more than a certain amount of mass squeezed into a region of any given size. If more mass is packed in than the region can hold, gravity there becomes so intense that the region itself – the space – collapses to no size at all: a black hole. Any object compressed enough will hit this limit and suddenly become a black hole. Meanwhile, quantum mechanics also sets a minimum size limit but in a very peculiar way. The “size” of a particle is actually the size of the
region in which you can confidently locate it. The smaller the region in which the particle is confined, the more energy it takes, and more energy is equivalent to larger mass. There turns out to be a unique, very small size where the maximum mass that relativity allows to be crammed in without the region collapsing into a black hole is also
the minimum mass that quantum mechanics allows to be confined in so tiny a region. That size, about 10-33 cm, is called the Planck length. We have no way to talk or even think about anything smaller in our current understanding of physics. The largest size we can see is that of the visible universe; the distance to the cosmic horizon is about 1028 cm. From the Planck length to the cosmic horizon is a difference of about 60 orders of magnitude. The number 1060 is extremely big, but it’s not infinite. It’s comprehensible. With it, we have something to compare our size to. Adapting an idea of Sheldon Glashow, a 1979 Nobel laureate in physics, we borrow the ancient symbol of the uroboros – a serpent swallowing its tail – and reinterpret it as the “Cosmic Uroboros.”
The Cosmic Uroboros represents the universe as a continuity of vastly different size scales. The tip of the serpent’s tail corresponds to the Planck length, and its head to the visible universe. Travelling clockwise around the serpent from head to tail, the icons represent the size of the cosmic horizon (1028 cm), the size of a supercluster of galaxies (1025), a single galaxy, the distance from Earth to the Great Nebula in Orion, the solar system, the sun, the earth, a mountain, humans, an ant, a single-celled creature such as the E. coli bacterium, a strand of DNA, an atom, a nucleus, the scale of the weak interactions (carried by the W and Z particles), and approaching the tail the extremely small size scales on which physicists hope to find massive dark matter (DM) particles, and on even smaller scales a Grand Unified Theory (GUT) .
The size of a human being is near the centre of all possible sizes. And conscious beings like us couldn’t be anywhere else. Much smaller creatures would not have enough atoms to be sufficiently complex, while much larger ones would suffer from slow internal communication (limited by the speed of light) – which would mean that they would effectively be communities rather than individuals, like groups of communicating people, or supercomputers made up of many smaller processors.
On different size scales, different physical laws control events. For example, gravity is all-powerful on the scale of planets, stars, and galaxies, but on the sub-atomic scale, gravity is utterly irrelevant, and the weak and strong forces control. On neither of these size scales is electromagnetism important, yet on the human scale it’s what makes chemistry work and our bodies function. Size matters. The jurisdiction of physical laws is limited to a range of size scales, and this is the reason we can’t extrapolate from what is true on earth to what’s true in the universe – nor can we extrapolate safely in any context when the numbers or sizes we’re dealing with differ by many orders of magnitude. This was a fatal flaw of the Newtonian picture.
The island of size scales surrounding human beings is the “reality” in which common sense works and normal physical intuition is reliable. Most of us are rarely conscious of anything smaller than an insect or larger than the sun. These sizes define humanity’s native region of the universe, our true homeland. It’s not a geographical location: it’s a point of view – a setting of the intellectual zoom lens. We have named this central range of size scales “Midgard” because in the Old Norse mythological cosmos, Midgard was the human world. It was an island representing stability and civilized society in the middle of the world-sea, the Norse universe. The world-sea was large, and there was room not only for Midgard but for the land of the giants and the land of the gods. This is an excellent description – metaphorically, of course – of Midgard as the centre of the expanding universe. Our Midgard is the island of size scales that are familiar and comprehensible to human beings. But beyond the shores of Midgard in one direction – outward – into the expanding world-sea is the land of incomprehensibly giant beings, like black holes a million times the mass of the sun and galaxies made of hundreds of billions of stars. In the other direction from Midgard – inward, toward the small – lies a living cellular world, and beyond that the quantum world, and these microlands are the evolutionary and physical sources of everything we are. That may not make them gods, but compared to us they are more prolific, more ancient, universal, and omnipresent. Like the Norse Midgard, our Midgard is not isolated from these other lands in the world-sea. The bridge is the Cosmic Uroboros.
Midgard spans about fourteen orders of magnitude, from 10-2 cm to 1012 cm, holding everything for which people have intuition. The figure also shows the approximate decade and technology by which scientists discovered the rest of the Cosmic Uroboros. The concept of Midgard has implications. People disagree on just about everything that has to do with spirituality, but the one thing they do tend to agree on is that whatever the spiritual may be, it’s not physical. Midgard, however, helps us understand why this “physical/spiritual” dichotomy is an illusion. Backing up a bit, in medieval cosmology heaven was understood to be physically enveloping the sphere of the fixed stars at a finite distance away from Earth (so close that in Dante’s Paradiso it was possible from the height of Paradise to see the shoreline from Asia to Cadiz). But after medieval cosmology was overthrown by the Newtonian picture, space was understood to go on forever, leaving no geographical location for heaven. God was said to be “outside the universe” or “in the heart.” Today most people still have the idea that the spiritual, if it exists at all, is mysteriously other than the physical or material world and “transcends” the physical universe. The concept of Midgard erases this, not by telling us what the spiritual is, but what the physical is.
Very large and very small structures on the Cosmic Uroboros are not physical in the usual sense of the term. Superclusters of galaxies are expanding apart and in billions of years will disperse; they’re not bound together by gravity but by our dot-connecting minds. In the opposite direction from Midgard toward the very small, there are elementary particles that are not really “physical” particles but rather quantum mechanical ones that are routinely in two or more places at once. The strange truth is that what we usually think of as “physical” is a property of Midgard, perhaps the defining property, and thus Midgard is what people generally think of as the “physical” universe. Beyond Midgard, however, lies most of the Cosmic Uroboros.
“Transcendence” should not be thought of as an imaginary leap to some place “outside” the universe. Transcendence is what happens many times within this universe, every few powers of ten. For example, on the atomic and subatomic scales, “human” means nothing. There is no humanness to our atoms. Whether atoms are inside us, inside a rock, or drifting through space, is all the same to them. On the atomic scale, therefore, even inside our own bodies we do not exist. “We” are something that transcends atoms. In the same way the universe as a whole transcends familiar Midgard. Amazingly, in this interpretation the difference between spiritual and physical becomes – in an approximate way – quantifiable with powers of ten. Things larger than about 1012 cm, or smaller than about 10-2 cm, can only be known through science and only experienced, if at all, spiritually. This includes most of the universe. The Cosmic Uroboros is a context for those exotic size scales of the universe that no one ever had a connection with before. Seeing and living on multiple levels at once is what “cosmic connection” is all about. It is not mystical; it is as practical – and essential – as the visualizations that athletes do before a competition, or concert pianists before they go out on stage. It situates us in reality at our best.
As a culture we now have the scientific ability to see so much more deeply into the universe than ancient people, yet most people experience the universe so much less and connect with it almost not at all. Widespread cultural indifference to the universe is a staggering reality of our time – and possibly our biggest mental handicap in solving global problems. We have libraries full of creation stories, and a culture of scepticism. Without a believable story that explains the world we actually live in, people have no idea how to think about the big picture. And without a big picture, we are very small people. A human without a cosmology is like a pebble lying near the top of a great mountain, in contact with its little indentation in the dirt and the pebbles immediately surrounding it, but oblivious to its stupendous view.
Religious stories can still arouse in many people a sense of contact with something greater than we are – but that “something” is nothing like what is really out there. We don’t have to pretend to live in some traditional picture of the universe just to reap the benefit of the mythic language popularly associated with that traditional picture. People around the world should be able to portray our universe with all the power and majesty that earlier peoples evoked in expressing their own cosmologies. Mythic language is not the possession of any specific religion but is a human tool, and we need it today to talk about the meaning of our universe. Big changes are happening on our planet, and shepherding ourselves through them successfully is going to require tremendous creativity. An essential ingredient may be a cosmic perspective, and such a perspective is just becoming available.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Justin Pollard – Four Way Interview

Justin Pollard is a historical writer/consultant in film and TV. He is a researcher for the TV show QI and the author of five books. His most recent title is Boffinology – the real stories behind our greatest scientific discoveries.
Why Science?
When I was a child there always seemed something perfect about science. It was carried out by brilliant people in immaculate white coats who would invent audacious experiments leading, inevitably, to stunning results. In this way science would take another giant step forward, the scientists would congratulate one another, then clear their benches and start all over again, on a new and even harder problem. So I wanted to become one of those scientists but somehow ended up an historian.
Why this book?
As a historian I get to spend a lot of time with dead scientists. There are thousands of them in history books and reading the stories of their lives taught me something about science itself. Real science is not done by the perfect white-coated men and women I imagined as a child. It does have it heroes, of course, but it also has its villains, its disasters, its brilliant ideas that turn suddenly to dust and those handfuls of dust that, quite unexpectedly, lead to moments of genius. There is just more chaos in science than I ever imagined in my youth. It is a field populated by humans, together with all their triumphs and failings, their valiant strivings, their dogged determination, their indomitable spirit and their bitter rivalries, prejudices and tempers. That is what this book is about.
What’s next?
I’ve just finished work as historical advisor on the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie (POTC 4 – ‘On Stranger Tides’) and I’m moving on to work with Sir David Hare advising on a modern-day spy thriller about MI5 called ‘Page Eight’. Then in January research for the new series of QI should kick off.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
Currently I’m most excited by the inside of my head. Having had a MRI scan (which turned out to be fine) I persuaded the very lovely radiographers at give me a copy of the dataset, so I’ve been exploring my brain, such as it is. Another advantage is that on Facebook I can have a profile picture of the inside of my head rather than all those normal, boring shots of the outside of people’s heads.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

50 Ideas you Really need to Know: Universe – Joanne Baker **

This is another title in the same series as 50 Physics Ideas you Really need to Know, but ’50 Universe ideas you need to Know’ doesn’t really work as a title, so they’ve had to fiddle around with it. Like its predecessor, it’s a struggle to know exactly what this book is. It’s certainly not an end-to-end read, comprising of 50 short items. In fact it’s more like a children’s book in format, down to having cutesy little quotes and useless summaries for each item: ‘the universe’s warm bath of photons’ is one of the better ones, for the cosmic background radiation, but they are more style than substance.
On the good side, it’s approachably written and covers all the major topics you would expect in a book about cosmology (plus rather a lot of physics to pad it out to 50). It also looks rather handsome, in a series format that seems to be based on a wooden framed slate, for some reason. However there are some significant limitations.
The biggest overall one is that it is smug science. Dealing with the most speculative of sciences, it is written as if it is dealing with concrete fact. About the only place any doubt is inserted is when dealing with string theory (not exactly cosmology), but mostly, whether dealing with the big bang or dark matter, there is no suggestion that there are any sensible alternatives, or that the means of investigating all this are so indirect that there is plenty of room for error. Most grown up popular science will explain the realities rather than the fictional solid truth – in this respect, as in the format, it is more like a children’s book than anything for grownups.
The other issue is that it contains a fair number of errors. According to the blurb, the author studied physics at Cambridge and has a PhD in Astrophysics – but it doesn’t always show. The very first item on planets glibly states the ‘rules’ of what defines a planet without noticing that several of the traditional planets don’t actually succeed in the ‘clearing the neighbourhood’ rule. Joanne Baker also fails to point out when dealing with the ancients that their definition of ‘planet’ included the sun and moon. A more basic error comes up in the section on black holes. We are told about escape velocity that ‘a rocket needs to attain this speed if it is to escape the Earth.’ No it doesn’t, and this is basic physics. A rock needs to attain that speed, but a rocket can escape the Earth at 1 metre per hour if it wants to, because it is under power. This really isn’t good enough, and it’s not the only example.
Overall, then, it is hard to be entirely positive about this book. It is well presented, and covers all the basics (if with some errors), but it doesn’t read like an adult popular science book.
Review by Peter Spitz

Monday, 13 December 2010

Virtual Words – Jonathon Keats ****

Because this book is about science and words, I’m easy prey. As a science writer, what could be more wonderful? Jonathon Keats, author of the Jargon Watch column in Wired magazine sets off on a series of riffs on different neologisms that have emerged in science and technology (more technology, if push comes to shove).
Each is an elegantly written essay, light enough to make bedtime reading or a good gift book, but with enough insight to make them really interesting. Of course, if you don’t give a damn about words, it’s all a big ‘So what?’ It doesn’t really advance our knowledge of science an iota. But who couldn’t be enticed into discovering what an unparticle is, the strange history of in vitro meat, the tricky scientific oddity of a memristor, the enjoyment of a touch of crispy bacn (sic), what cloud computing, crowdsourcing or a mashup is (those irritating words that everyone else seems to know what they mean), and what the true origins of w00t are.
I really looked forward to reading this book every time I came back to it – always a good sign – but there were sufficient flaws to have to raise a couple of concerns about it. Firstly there’s the author’s rather pernickety tone, which won’t be to everyone’s taste. Then there is a slight feel that his science knowledge lags somewhat behind his expertise elsewhere. In the ‘memristor’ section he tells us ‘the capacitor linked charge and current, the resistor, current and voltage, and the inductor, current and flux.’ I’ve never come across a component called an ‘inductor’ – and since up to this point he had been talking about electricity, I didn’t really know what he meant by flux. It took a moment to realize he was talking about magnetism and an induction coil.
Perhaps that one was just me, but there was one other jarring oddity. The author refers to the early use of the term ‘flying saucer’ – but his comments suggest he hasn’t a clue how this term came into use (it had nothing to do with the shape of the spacecraft and everything to do with the way it moved). If he can get the derivation of such a well known term wrong, it doesn’t bode well for the more obscure ones he describes in his text.
However, the objections are minor and easily overlooked. The fact remains that it’s a very enjoyable book on a subject that will delight anyone with an interest in science/technology and language.
Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 10 December 2010

We Are Not Alone – Dirk Schulze-Makuch & David Darling ****

I am a little wary of books that make extravagant claims on the cover, then don’t entirely deliver. In this case, the dramatic subtitle is WE HAVE ALREADY FOUND EXTRATERRESTRIAL LIFE. Now, I admit ‘We think we have probably already found extraterrestrial life, though it is just bacterial, so don’t get too excited’ isn’t quite as powerful a tag line, but it would have been closer to the truth.
This doesn’t stop the book itself from being excellent. In the first half there is an in-depth exploration of the findings and uncertainties that have come out of the Mars probes, with a very useful explanation of why what was found is highly suggestive of the possibility of life without being definitive. We get a real sense of the ways that lifeforms could exist in environments that were once thought uninhabitable, plus a truly fascinating set of results that seem so strange there has to be something interesting going on, whether it’s life or not.
The second part is equally interesting, covering Venus and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn – the other possibilities for extraterrestrial life in the solar system. I had heard quite a lot about the moons, but the Venus possibilities (of life existing in the atmosphere, where the temperatures aren’t so blistering) was a new one to me that really tickled the mental facilities.
What really comes across, even though the authors don’t explicitly push this line, is how much we are wasting money on manned missions, when we could be doing much more robotically to explore these amazing worlds. With a suitable investment, rather than the faffing about trying to get people back on the Moon, we would be able to send a lander to Mars that could pick up samples and return them to Earth – the ultimate essential as there is only so much a remote lab can achieve. If ever there was a good rallying cry for shifting funding from manned spaceflight to robotic missions, this is it.
Finished off with a final short section on life beyond the solar system, this is a mostly readable (the writing is just occasionally in need of a bit of a lift) and informative insider view. I would have liked to have been told why the old term xenobiology has been replaced with astrobiology, which sounds much less exciting, but you can’t fault the authors’ knowledge and enthusiasm. I’ll even let them off that dubious claim on the cover. An excellent addition to the genre.
Review by Brian Clegg

The Darwinian Tourist – Christopher Wills ****

Biologist Christopher Wills encourages us here to look at the living world from an evolutionary perspective, and to appreciate the extent to which evolution has shaped all of life. Seeing the world in the context of evolution, he argues, enhances the richness and our understanding of earth’s species and ecosystems, and the book takes us on a wide-ranging tour of nature, based on the author’s own travels, to illustrate this point.
We start by looking at the evolutionary processes which account for why individual species are the way they are, and how new species come into being. We go on to see how co-operation and symbioses between living organisms come about as a result of evolution. Later, we see how evolutionary processes have led to the huge diversity of life we find on earth, and how patterns of human migration have been shaped by, and have influenced, evolution.
Along the way, we also discover that an evolutionary perspective on the world helps us understand how to protect earth’s ecosystems. For example, in broad terms, the evolutionary processes that have shaped ecosystems have often led to there being a delicate balance between the numbers of living organisms that make up those systems. This balance can easily be disturbed, putting whole ecosystems at risk. But if we understand how evolution has created this situation, we are in a better position to preserve these balances, and can appreciate the need to be cautious when we interfere with ecosystems.
Wills mixes in amongst the science various personal stories whilst carrying out his research – such as, for example, where he gets caught up in an earthquake while studying life underwater – and these make the book highly readable. Also useful is the large number of photographs taken by the author of the landscapes and individual organisms being discussed, some very exotic, printed on the book’s glossy paper – there are photographs on probably close to half of the pages. Occasionally they can get in the way of the flow of the main text, but by and large, this does not happen, and many of the author’s photographs are captivating. They often highlight much better than text is able to the sometimes extraordinary adaptations species have evolved over time.
Given the large number of topics covered, there are inevitably occasions where the author moves a little too quickly, and assumes a touch too much prior knowledge. But this never becomes a big problem.
Overall, the book conveys well the significant explanatory power of evolution, and the benefits of taking account of the lessons an evolutionary perspective on the world can teach us. Ultimately, it is hard to disagree with the author’s message, and I would highly recommend this book.
Review by Matt Chorley

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Loneliness – John T. Cacioppo & William Patrick ***

“For the last five centuries or more, Western societies have demoted human gregariousness from a necessity to an incidental.” This bold claim is the starting point for an in-depth survey of our human need for “social connection” and the perils that await individuals and societies that do not meet this need. The authors do well to narrow down this impossibly broad theme and bring it within the range of recent psychology, neuroscience, and ethology (the study of animal behaviour). The result is comprehensive and in many ways convincing. Loneliness, it seems, contaminates everything from our diet to our DNA transcriptions.
The lead author is John Cacioppo, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago and Director of Chicago’s Centre for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience. As you might expect, Cacioppo takes the science seriously. And he and his co-editor William Patrick keep the narrative moving along with plenty of personal anecdotes and literary references. The result is a book that is rarely dull and usually rigorous.
Does Loneliness make a convincing case for social connectedness? By and large, yes. There are three parts to Cacioppo’s argument. The first part deals with all the ways that loneliness damages the overall health of an individual. If Cacioppo is right, loneliness is a major psychological toxin, with symptoms ranging from a lowered IQ and poor self-control to unhealthy diet, loss of sleep and elevated blood pressure. The second part deals with the ways that loneliness impairs our ability to connect socially. Lonely people, it seems, respond less well to social cues than non-lonely people, take less pleasure in company, and exaggerate their own social incompetence. As Cacioppo points out, these feedback effects are what makes loneliness, in the worst cases, such a corrosive and long-lasting condition.
The last part of the argument is about the health of communities rather than individuals. In lizards and in bonobos, and therefore in humans, mutual aid and self-sacrifice is a great survival strategy for a group. In general, “the more extensive the reciprocal altruism born of social connection, the greater the advance towards health, wealth and happiness.” Even if our interests are purely economic, the authors argue, we are better off banding together than splitting into factions.
Tacked on to this economic/sociological/evolutionary claim is a polemic against “global capitalism” and its accompaniments: social atomisation, the breakdown of neighbourhoods, and the reliance on meagre substitutes such as pets, mega-churches, and the internet. The critique of capitalism is half-baked, but the statistics about social isolation make for grim reading. They also make the second-to-last chapter of the book – a recovery guide for the lonely – an important resource. If the statistics are right, most readers will benefit from the author’s suggestions on how to restore their sense of social connection. The self-help style of this chapter – complete with quotes from the Dalai Lama and a 5-step programme summarised in a cute anagram, EASE – may be off-putting for some. But by and large this chapter, like the rest of the book, delivers sensible advice without waffle or sentimentality.
For readers who are already paragons of social connectivity, Loneliness still has plenty of material not directly related to loneliness. There is the obligatory introduction to evolutionary theory, with a socially-oriented twist. There are sections on mirror neurones, confirmation bias, and attachment theory. And, for those who wonder how psychologists find stuff out, the studies in the book embrace a wide range of investigative techniques, from brain scans to highly controlled laboratory studies to surveys that follow a group of individuals over multiple years.
One problem with Loneliness is its over-reliance on evolutionary arguments. Aside from the fact that socio-biology is no longer young and exciting, and that it is outside the author’s expertise, there is the uncomfortable fact that we owe most of our adaptive features to millennia of brutal competition with other species and with other individuals in our own species. With this background, tales of co-operative lizards and compassionate bonobos seem like so much cherry-picking. Also, the authors tend to blur the boundaries between analogies and shared causes. Female bonobos masturbate when they meet, as a sign of good will; humans gossip. In both cases co-operation is aided by sharing information. But are we seriously meant to believe that human gossip has the same genetic basis as bonobo masturbation? And if there is no such causal link between these analogous behaviours, what purpose does the analogy serve?
Another defect in the book is the old problem of causes and correlations. If people who suffer from condition A also suffer from condition B, how do we know that A causes B and not the other way round? The authors do not answer this question at all in their flagship study on loneliness in an Ohio population. They show, for example, that lonely people tend to have more run-ins with neighbours and a higher rate of divorce. But this on its own does not show that loneliness causes the run-ins and divorces. The point is not just academic. If loneliness is not the cause here, then making people less lonely is not going to make them less prone to run-ins and divorces.
My last complaint is that the book lacks spark. It stands out from the current crop of books on positive psychology and social relations, but only for the rather dull reason that it is more thorough and down-to-earth. For all the anecdotes and personal stories, none of them really lose the stiffness of case histories. For a book about social connection I felt too little real connection with the authors – at any rate, too little to give it more than 3 stars.
When reading popular science books on psychology, I waver between pity and admiration. Pity because often a long string of careful experiments seem only to confirm, in a highly artificial setting, what we all know from ordinary life. Admiration because the human mind, especially the social mind, is so complicated that only the very brave and skilful are likely to find out anything new about it. I’m pleased to report that after reading Loneliness I felt more admiration than pity for Cocioppo and Patrick. Lonely readers will find plenty of reassurance and helpful advice in this book, not least from the knowledge that many others share their condition. And non-lonely readers will be reminded how lucky they are to live socially well-rounded lives – even as they are reminded of how much they have in common with bonobos and lizards.
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Review by Michael Bycroft

Monday, 6 December 2010

Armageddon Science – Brian Clegg ***

Initially, I thought that this book might be a lot like one I read a long time ago: Isaac Asimov’s Choice of Catastrophes. However, although Asimov and Clegg overlap very slightly – for example, when Asimov looks at infectious diseases and atomic bombs – Clegg’s whole focus is on how man could bring about the destruction of himself, rather than on how the Earth itself could meet its end. For example, one of Clegg’s most compelling and worrying chapters focuses on how we’re all doing our part to bring about climate change (the term Global Warming was first coined half a dozen years after Asmiov’s book appeared); whilst another looks at information meltdown (Asimov died a year or so before the Internet and the World Wide Web started in any real sense).
There’s another link to Asimov though: A good writer must also be a good investigator – and Clegg is a very good writer – and that’s what is so persuasive about this book: it’s meticulously researched, requiring painstaking inquiry, analysis and detective work, and it’s in Clegg’s metadata, asides, interpositions, excursions – call them what you will – where he adds so much more (and with apparent ease). For example, do you know why the Japanese threw porcelain pots out of their aircraft, or why anti-atoms won’t stay put?
Despite its rather depressing subject matter, I loved this book; and I’m sure you will too.
Review by Peet Morris
Please note, this title is written by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion – and we could hardly omit the book – but do want to make the connection clear.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Boffinology – Justin Pollard *****

If I’m honest I started off with two chips on my shoulder about this book. The first is that the publicity made a lot of author Justin Pollard’s connection with the TV show QI, which though enjoyable, always tends to come across as a little full of itself. The other was the writing style. The author adopts the sort of breezy near-humour that works well in children’s books, but can feel a little forced in an adult title.
However, as I began to read and enjoy myself, the chips fell away. This book is simply great fun – and the style settles down a bit (much as Douglas Adams had the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy do), so this doesn’t get in the way of the enjoyment. The title is probably a touch baffling, especially if you don’t know what a ‘boffin’ is (old fashion British term, roughly corresponding to a sort of middle aged proto-geek) – but in practice the book consists of a series of short and easily digested stories about scientists, their theories and their discoveries.
In a recent review for another publication, I commented that the book I was reviewing made A Brief History of Time look like bedtime reading. This book makes itself look like bedtime reading. It’s in short, digestible chunks and is highly entertaining. Some of the stories, featuring practically every historical name in science and a good few who really haven’t been remembered, cover typical QI-style surprising facts and things you didn’t expect, others are just simply excellent stories of achievement, wonder or stupidity.
I wanted to pick out a specific story that had delighted me, but there were so many to choose from, I was a little stumped. I think because it was the one I most wanted to tell the world about (and blogged about here), it was probably the story concerning Hans Selye and stress.
The only significant problem I had with the book is that it rather lost impetus in the final third. These later stories had less of a punch and we had quite a few that were only there because of an interesting bit of biography, rather than any real relevance to science. There were also one or two oddities. In describing the scientific paper ‘wittily’ ascribed to scientists Alpher, Bethe and Gamow, the book more than once refers to this using the relevant Greek letters – only instead of alpha, beta, gamma, they have actually put alpha, beta, chi. That’s just weird. Pollard also missed a trick in describing the story of the development of aspirin. Perhaps the best bit of the story is that for obscure reasons, aspirin was included in the treaty that ended the First World War, so it became a generic drug in the UK, while it remained a trademarked product in the rest of the world.
I am often asked for recommendations for a science book to give as a gift – and this is ideal. It has some surprising science, interesting people and plenty of entertainment. Excellent stuff.
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Review by Brian Clegg