Skip to main content

Quantify! – Göran Grimvall ***

There’s a class of book that isn’t really a popular science book, yet is likely to be to be of interest to many popular science readers. This is just such a book. It’s an excellent piece of work with lots of fascinating information inside, yet fairly large chunks of it are more of interest to those who study the workings of science, or who use numbers, than readers who are looking for entertaining reading.
The concept is simple. To look at how numbers are used in science and in presenting information to the public and to pull apart the disciplines involved to get a good understanding of what’s going on. The result is highly informative and sometimes fascinating. I loved, for example, the way he demonstrates that the 5,000 metre athletics record is effectively meaningless, because the times measured are much more accurate than the distance – to the extent that any measurement of time below half a second is worthless. I also was bowled over by the counter-intuitive section on how we get it wrong when we try to combine the speed of a plane with a wind on a return journey.
However there is an equal amount of information in here, in fact probably the majority of the little essays, where the response is either ‘Huh?’ or ‘So?’ I think a lot of the aspects of the application of number covered are a touch esoteric or downright boring, when seen as popular science. I also think the text can be a little dry.
Occasionally, also, the author is a touch sneery. For example he talks about what is sometimes called ‘the Baywatch principle’ (though he doesn’t use this term). This is the idea that if you see someone drowning in the sea and have to run across the beach and through the water, the fastest route is not towards them, but at an angle away from them initially, so you spend more time running on sand (fast) and less time running through the water (slow). He points out how this principle of least action – extremely useful in optics and quantum electrodynamics – makes relatively little difference on the beach rescue in a way that makes it seem like he is looking down his nose at people who make use of this approach.
I’d say there will be a real split on this book. If you like your popular science fun and light, this probably isn’t the one for you. But if you are the kind of person who actually works out the solutions at the end of a chapter in a book that has some ‘try it yourself’ problems, then you will find it wonderful. The decision is yours.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…