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Showing posts from July, 2011

Written in Stone – Brian Switek ****

It is interesting that Brian Switek starts his impressive look at our interpretation of fossils with a reference to the way the influence of a TV company called Atlantic Productions had made a scientific paper more like a TV documentary than science – as we had a similar complaint in our review of the book Dino Gangs, also steered by Atlantic Productions, being more like a shallow TV documentary and less like popular science writing. (Switek was also unimpressed by Dino Gangs.) This is a powerful exploration of the way fossil discoveries have changed our understanding of the development of animals, taking us from the old idea of a chain of more and less advanced creatures (so we, for example, were further up the chain than the apes, and where parts of the chain are currently unknown there is a ‘missing link’) to a Darwin-inspired picture of a tree of life on which we are one of millions of twigs, with common ancestors, but rarely a direct connection to other existing animals. The book…

Mind Bending Puzzles & Fascinating Facts – Paul Williams ***

There is nothing like a bunch of puzzles and factoids to help the reader recover from some heavy duty popular science reading. Although not all the puzzles and quite interesting facts in this book fall within the remit of science or maths, it has enough to qualify here. Paul Williams has organized his book into five sections – easy, moderate, tricky, difficult and fiendish. This doesn’t necessarily reflect how puzzling a topic is, but often refers to the amount of mathematical effort involved – so most of the ‘fiendish’ topics are straight mathematical proofs. Each item in the book is standalone, making this a good dip-in book (dare I say it, handy to install in the toilet). It is best described as eclectic. There are quite a lot of mathematical conundrums, but there are also logic problems, little bits of science and a collection of items that could best be described as ‘quite interesting’ from palindromes to ways of doing quick calculations in the head. Some of the entries are enter…

The Wild Life of our Bodies – Rob Dunn ****

This book is a little more wide-ranging that I first expected. I had thought the book would be purely about the microscopic life inside of us – species of bacteria and such things – with which we form symbiotic relationships, and how it has shaped us as human beings. Whilst much of the book focuses on this, we also look at the general ways in which how we live and respond to stimuli in the modern world still reflects strongly our historic interactions with all of life, especially predators. All kinds of areas of life – from the way we construct buildings and streets – seem to have been influenced to an impressive extent by the interactions we had with other life when in a more pure state of nature. What it comes down to with this book – and it’s probably one of the best things you can say about a book – is that I learned a lot and had great fun doing so. There are many interesting little nuggets of information that I wasn’t aware of – I had no idea, for instance, that even today most …

Catastrophes! – David Prothero ****

There is something interesting about the capacity of words on a page to transport you to another time and place, to evoke such strong emotions, and to draw you in completely and make you forget about what’s going on around you. This is what happens on many occasions throughout this book with the dramatic eye-witness accounts of earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and other natural disasters. We relive from the perspective of those who were there at the time some of the worst natural disasters ever to have hit us. These accounts are powerful and harrowing, and it’s impossible not to become fully immersed in them. Possibly the most powerful account is that of Charles Davy, living in Lisbon during the 1755 earthquake that destroyed the city. It is difficult to imagine what it must have been like to witness such a huge amount of destruction and chaos among those living in the city at the time. As in some of the other events that we look at in the book, it’s the death tolls that are most sh…

The Theory that would not Die – Sharon Bertsch Mcgrayne ***

Occasionally I review a book that makes me think ‘I wish I wrote that’ – and sometimes I nearly did. The subject of Sharon Bertsch Mcgrayne’s book, as the rather lengthy subtitle tells us is ‘how Bayes’ rule cracked the Enigma code, hunted down Russian submarines and emerged triumphant from two centuries of controversy.’ There is no doubt that Bayes’ theorem is the most intriguing piece of maths most people have never heard of, and I did once write a proposal for a book about it, but the publisher said no one would get it. I believe they should get it. But Bayes’ theorem, though simple, is famously difficult to keep in mind. So a significant test of this book is how well Mcgrayne gets across what the theorem really is. The good news is that this isn’t a stuffy book of heavy mathematics – Mcgrayne has a light touch and an airy style. I did worry early on if it was too airy as she resorts to language that is a little cringeworthy. She says ‘In 1731 [Bayes] wrote a pamphlet – a kind of b…

The Rational Optimist – Matt Ridley ****

I have a real problem reviewing a book like this. I’m the sort of person who can listen to a speech by practically any non-extremist politician and think ‘Yes, that makes sense.’ I am quite easily swayed by political argument, and in essence, The Rational Optimist isn’t a science book at all, it is a political polemic that happens to be by a science writer. Even so, it’s interesting enough that I feel it is worth covering here. The majority of Ridley’s book is pointing out that we really have never had it so good. And it’s a very convincing argument indeed. He points out that those people who look back to pre-industrialization with a fake rosy glow of a time when we lived happy lives, better in tune with nature is just rubbish. The fact is, most people scraped a living and had short (at least on average), nasty lives. Ah, someone is bound to pipe up, that’s because agriculture itself was one technology too many. People were better fed and happier when they were hunter gatherer’s. Ridl…

Free Radicals – Michael Brooks ***

This is one of those books that is very well done – but it’s difficult to like the outcome. Michael Brooks sets out to show that real scientists are not at all like the hyper-rational, logical, conformist Mr Spock caricatures we know and love. This is fine, as long as he doesn’t also demolish scientific heroes along the way – we all need heroes. Whether it’s using drugs to stimulate ideas, or being selective results, it seems many a scientist has been prepared to stray from the straight and narrow in order to get to their desired ends. We see how dog eat dog the battle to publish can be, but also how a kind of ‘acceptable fraud’ is all too common – not the outright making up of results, but rather going all out to pursue an idea, possibly a spark of genius, even if it means temporarily ignoring an experimental result or interpreting the data in a slightly selective fashion. Parts of the book feel a bit forced. The suggestion that many (or even any) great scientific ideas were the res…

The Presence of the Past – Rupert Sheldrake ***

Reviewing a Rupert Sheldrake book is a little like sitting on the jury in the trial of an infamous murderer (sorry, Rupert). As such a juror it is very difficult to ignore all that you have read in the press and to take an impartial line. Similarly, although this is the first time I have read one of Sheldrake’s books, I approach it in a cloud of awareness that this may be flaky science. Nothing typifies this better than the rather weasely reaction from that usually superb publication New Scientist. The book’s publisher has put a quote on the cover from NS in a review of the original 1988 edition of this book (this is the 2011 second edition). The quote reads ‘Engaging, provocative… a tour de force.’ Yet NS felt compelled to write ‘It’s usually a pleasure to see [our] reviews being mined for promotional pull-quotes. But not always. Sometimes it feels like desperate barrel-scraping on behalf of the publisher.’ In fact there is no barrel-scraping going on here – it’s a straightforward pu…