Thursday, 27 January 2011

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.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

On Being – Peter Atkins ***

This isn’t so much a book as a musing. It is easy to imagine the author, seated comfortably in a leather armchair in the Senior Combination Room (or whatever they call it at his institution), sipping vintage port and holding forth on his topic, which the subtitle refers to as ‘the great questions of existence.’ Whether or not this slim volume works for you depends on how you react to that concept. I’m not saying it’s high falutin’ – the book is written in an approachable, chatty style – but the reader has to be in the mood for some contemplation, rather than an exploration of the history of science or an explanation of scientific fact.
Peter Atkins covers the beginnings and end of the universe itself – and also of a human being in birth and death. It’s a vast scope and the book works better in some sections that others. (It’s strange, incidentally, that a book that is ‘On Being’ concentrates on the beginning and the ending but not on the being bit in the middle.) I found the universe-focused chapters more interesting than the human-centred ones. In fact the chapter on human death, essentially describing what will happen to Atkins’ own body after death, seemed out of place. This was really just a description of a biochemical process happening to a piece of meat. It didn’t seem to have lot to do with ‘being.’
I found this book very interesting but I did have a problem with the approach. There is a fundamental assumption in the preface that sets up the book’s premise: Atkins tells us that he believes that the the scientific method can be applied to everything. I find the idea of basing an argument on a belief that there is nothing supernatural no better than basing an argument on the belief that the supernatural exists. It seems a little flimsy (which is, perhaps, why it is tucked away in the preface).
What comes across, oddly, is an approach that feels unscientific. Surely to be truly scientific (at least, when taking a wide, philosophical view like this book) we should start with the possibility of a creator god as one option. Saying, as Atkins does, that ‘even if in due course science has to throw in the towel and, heaven forbid, concede that the universe was created by God’ exhibits the sort of prejudice that science rightly condemns in religious believers. He hasn’t come at this with an open mind. It’s telling that in the final chapter Atkins spends a fair amount of time attacking millennialism and the concept of the rapture, which is hardly mainstream. This is a bit like picking on some silly goings on at the University of East Anglia to attack climate science as a whole. It seems to suggest a lack of a cogent argument.
This is not by any means a bad book – its great strength is that it really does encourage the reader to think about some deep issues. But the danger of straying into the old folly of attempting to prove or disprove the existence of a deity through scientific argument is too close to the surface for me.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Sam Kean – Four Way Interview

Sam Kean spent years collecting mercury from broken thermometers as a child and now he is a writer in Washington D.C. He studied physics and English and his work has appeared in the New York Times magazine, Slate and New Scientist. His first book is The Disappearing Spoon.
Why Science?
I love literature and have grown more and more interested in politics since moving to Washington, D.C. But in those fields you’re dealing with the same themes and problems as people hundreds and even thousands of years ago. Science excites me because it’s one of the few things that’s truly new and that has truly changed across the millennia. We’re no smarter than the ancient Greeks or Egyptians or Chinese in the arts but we know immeasurably more science, and it’s fun being a part of that, however modestly, through writing.
Why this book?
I’d always gravitated in school toward teachers who neglected the lesson plans in favor of telling us stories, and I finally wanted to collect all the fabulous tales about elements into one place. Plus, we talked about so few of the 118 elements in school and I just knew there had to funny, unusual, and spooky stories about elements most people have never ever heard of, too.
What’s next?
I’m working on a new book about genetics – fun, peculiar, and strange stories from the long history of human evolution. Most of them would have been lost forever if they weren’t etched (or rather encoded, waiting to be read) into our DNA.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
Astrobiology – hunting for life on other planets. It’s such a great blend of so many different fields (physics, geology, astronomy, biology, atmospheric chemistry, virology, etc., etc.) And if we do find life somewhere else in the universe I think that will be the most important discovery we could ever make.
Photo (c) Voss Studios, Austinville, Iowa, US – reproduced with permission

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

How to Live Forever – Alok Jha ***

I admit, I am bit of sucker for the ‘wild and wonderful’ style of popular science book, so I was salivating as I sat down in Starbucks* to make a start on How to Live Forever, which is subtitled ‘and 34 other really interesting uses of science.’ What I found, I am afraid, was a bit of a disappointment. There’s nothing much wrong with the book – it’s one of the ‘summary of most of science’ books that seem all the rage at the moment, but the staid contents simply didn’t reflect the sell on the cover, nor the sense of fun and excitement the approach seems to suggest.
There is the feeling here of a book that has been forced into a format that it wasn’t designed for. Each of the 35 sections is headed ‘How to…’ like the title one, so we read, for instance, such intriguing possibilities as ‘How to create a universe’ and ‘How to split the atom’, but we then get solid but not quite connected sections on big bang theory or nuclear bombs (though notably not how nuclear bombs are constructed). Even ‘How to live forever’ doesn’t really come close to a guide for doing this.
Most of the science in there is good and well presented, if rather uninspiringly written, with very little that was a surprise (or, to be honest, new). Perhaps the best bit for me, just because it broke out of the mould of the ‘everything you always wanted to know about science’ book was a section entitled ‘How to spot a pseudoscientist’, though even this missed the chance to give more practical guidance on telling the difference between pseudoscience and science – and also could have done more to show how it’s sometimes the case that a properly accepted scientific theory is held onto long after its sell by date.
I did have a couple of specific problems with the content. It was bizarre that the ‘What is light?’ subsection of ‘How to become invisible’ totally ignores photons. (These are then mentioned out of the blue later in the book, which makes for a real disconnect.) It’s straight Victorian wave theory of light. I was expecting to turn the page and come across phlogiston theory. I was also puzzled by the comment on the periodic table that ‘Mendeleev’s original table did not contain space for isotopes of the elements’ – I think I know what is meant, but it suggests that current tables have several entries for each element, showing the different isotopes, which isn’t the case.
Overall, it’s not a bad book, but it lacks that spark that makes for great popular science.
* The good news for the author is that while I sat in Starbucks, the cover was interesting enough to get someone at an adjacent table to ask me what the answer was. The bad news is that the book didn’t enable me to tell him.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Do we need Pandas? – Ken Thompson **

Before starting a book I usually have a quick flick through to get a general feel for it and to see what is ahead. When I first picked up this introduction to biodiversity and conservation, I got the impression it was going to be a little dry and academic. In hindsight, I’m not at all sure why I thought this, as it turned out to be nothing of the sort. It is, in fact, very accessible and engaging.
The book addresses the basic questions you are likely to have when starting to think about biodiversity and conservation of species. Author Ken Thompson covers what we know about what biodiversity consists of, what explains the patterns of diversity around the world, what functions biodiversity carries out for us and the planet as a whole, and why species are currently threatened. What comes across most, however, and it’s a point I recall being made a few times in the book, is just how little we know about many of the world’s species (let alone the ones we haven’t even identified yet) and ecosystems.
Thompson’s answer to the question posed in the book’s title is, as you might expect, no, or at least, probably not – ultimately, we are unlikely to be affected if we lose certain individual species (even though we can all agree that any loss of life’s diversity would be a shame). But in any case, Thompson explains, this isn’t the sort of question we should be asking. This is because singling out any individual species for protection does not solve the more general, underlying problem of the destruction of natural habitat around the world. For the most part, conservation efforts should concentrate on simply ensuring that earth’s ecosystems are broadly well equipped to support diversity – important factors here would be things like fertility of land, size of forests and wetland, and soil pH. If we focus on these aspects, it is argued, the problem of loss of species will resolve itself.
It is not clear from the book whether this is a minority view among conservationists – and there are other occasions where I would have liked to have been informed whether what was being said reflected more or less the current consensus (if there is a consensus on any of the issues). But here, Thompson’s clear and methodical writing in any case makes his argument convincing. It is the same elsewhere in the book – the author’s ideas are always very well organised, and there is always research and specific examples behind what is being discussed.
There is a lot to recommend this title, then. After reading this, you’ll be in a good position to explore the issues further, and it may challenge the way you think about conservation.
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Review by Matt Chorley

A World without Ice – Henry Pollack ****

This book might well have passed me by if it had not been shortlisted for the 2010 Royal Society science book prize. I hope the book receives the exposure it deserves – Henry Pollack gets across well the dangers we face if we do not prevent further global warming and melting of the world’s ice.
We see how, if we are not careful, rising sea levels, caused by the melting of ice sheets, will lead to the flooding of low-lying island nations, and how parts of South America will be without water for drinking and agriculture after the snow and ice on top of the Andes have disappeared. We see how the melting of permafrost will release the greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere, exacerbating the warming of the planet, and how underwater animal species that rely on sea ice for their development will struggle to survive once the ice is gone, producing knock on effects all the way up food chains.
The book isn’t limited to these discussions, however, and considerable space is also given earlier on to a variety of surrounding topics. In these sections we look at, for instance, what the world was like during past ice ages and how ice has shaped earth’s landscapes historically, and the strength of the consensus among scientists about the extent of future global warming and what have been the main causes of warming in the past.
The author is good at making simple analogies to get across important points. When looking at the causes of global warming in the earlier sections, for example, Pollack discusses the IPCC’s position in 2007 that there is a 90 percent chance that humans are responsible for most of the warming in the second half of last century. Some have seized on the remaining 10 percent to argue that there is uncertainty around the role humans have played. But, as Pollack says, if you were to go into a casino and be told that, for any game you choose, you would be given a 9 out of 10 chance of success, you would feel very confident indeed about going home with a lot of money. There is very little doubt about the extent to which humans have driven climate change, and are accelerating the transition to a world without ice.
Nothing gets in the way of the book’s message – the science is easy to understand and the writing is very approachable. It’s difficult to find anything significantly wrong with the book. I wondered whether it could have spent a little more time on what action we as governments and individuals need to take, given the position we are in – this is dealt with fairly briefly. It could also have been useful to hear directly from individuals in the communities most threatened by rising sea levels and the loss of ice about the specific difficulties in their daily lives they will likely be forced to contend with, and are already dealing with. These human stories would have made the consequences of ice loss seem a little less abstract.
These are small drawbacks, however. All in all, this is a well written book that should alert us to the importance of tackling global warming, and stopping ice loss, urgently.
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Review by Matt Chorley

Friday, 14 January 2011

The Disappearing Spoon – Sam Kean *****

Winning the honour of being the first five star book of 2011, Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon is an entertaining romp through the chemical elements. Rather than take the kind of rigid, structured walk through the periodic table that might seem the natural approach, Kean lumps together rather random collections of elements, linked only by the wonderful rambling tales of their discovery, use and general oddity.
In case you were wondering, the ‘disappearing spoon’ refers to gallium, which has a melting point of around 30 degrees Celsius. Despite being a metal with a fair resemblance to aluminium, it will melt in your hands (unlike certain sweets). So make a spoon out of gallium, give it to someone to stir their tea, then sit back and chortle as they wonder where the spoon went. Ah, how we laughed.
This book is entirely entertaining – it’s a real page turner, and there’s very little not to like about the combination of a string of QI like fascinating facts with a whole slew of engaging stories. Of course we get Mendeleev (and a couple of his counterparts), but mostly its about the elements themselves.
If I have to quibble, Kean is not at his best explaining atomic orbits and bonding – I thought that could have been done better – and sometimes the casual phrasing seems a trifle overdone. So for instance we read ‘… had sponsored porcelain research but had succeeded in producing only C-minus knockoffs.’ This feels a bit forced to me. Similarly we hear that Henry Moseley was ‘a pill, stiff and stuffy.’ I’ve no idea what being ‘a pill’ means (unless he was small, white and swallowable), and this sort of one-line characterisation seems more appropriate to 1066 and All That than it is to a modern popular science book. However, such lapses are relatively uncommon. (I ought to also mention that he claims calling a person who does calculations ‘a computer’ was a neologism in the Manhattan Project – if he’d bothered to check, the term has been used since the 17th century.)
Overall this was a book that was a delight to read, taking a very predictable subject and approaching it in an entertaining, original and informative way. If you want to read a serious history of the periodic table and the possible alternatives take a look at Eric Scerri’s The Periodic Table, but if you want to be entertained and find out lots of history and fascinating facts around the elements themselves, this is the one for you. Recommended. (See also Hugh Aldersey-Williams’ Periodic Tales.)

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Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Dinosaurs: a field guide – Gregory S. Paul ***

This isn’t the only book with this title, indicating that the whole idea of a field guide you can take out and help in ‘spotting’ dinosaurs is rather an attractive concept, at least to publishers. I am rather doubtful in this particular case whether the book would make a good practical field guide – it is too big, coming in somewhere between a large hardback and small coffee table book in size, and there is too much introductory text.
I’d also suggest that a field guide to dinosaurs should be a book you can take out to use to spot live dinosaurs, what this book is (more practically, I admit) one that that concentrates on skeletons, and would be more appropriately described as a field guide to dinosaur skeletons.
There is no doubt that Gregory S. Paul knows his stuff, but this book falls at one of the main hurdles to producing a good popular science book – identifying who it is aimed at. Dinosaurs are incredibly popular with younger children, but the dry, detailed tone of the introductory text, which is packed with information, really wouldn’t appeal to the younger reader. Similarly, the guide pages are too detailed and slightly dusty feeling for anyone but a resting academic or older dino anorak.
The other test of how a dinosaur book is pitched is to see how it treats that favourite, the T. rex – it does get a full page picture, but the entry lacks the sort of excitement I would hope to get from such a sauric superstar. I was also slightly disappointed there was no mention – even if it were to dismiss it – off the much vaunted speculation in the last few years that T. rex was a scavenger rather than a hunter.
It is all very structured and analytical and scientific. But I’m really not sure who is going to read it, or why I would buy this rather than one of the many other dinosaur titles. Having said that, the enthusiastic reviews on Amazon suggest someone loves it – so if esoteric dino details are your thing, it’s definitely one to add to your library.
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Review by Jo Reed

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

The Ultimate Quotable Einstein – Alice Calaprice (Ed.) ***

There is no doubt that Albert Einstein had a way with words. He was an expert with the sound bite long before the concept existed. In this fat little book, Alice Calaprice has collected together a vast number of his quotable snippets to delight the Einstein fans.
Just looking at the Oxford Dictionary of Scientific Quotations shows how quotable (and what a wit) Einstein was. He has 37 entries compared with 10 for Rutherford (no slacker) and 7 for the ultimate science wit Richard Feynman. And that’s where the doubt creeps in. Feynman was, without doubt, even better at coming up with little gems – yet we don’t get equivalent books for him. At the moment on TV, a grotesque animation of Einstein is being used to advertise bread. He is more than a scientist, he is a brand. The only real reason for producing a book like this is because Einstein has fans. It wouldn’t be going too far to call the action of putting this collection together hagiography.
This being the case, it’s hard to be too enthusiastic about the result. It would have been much better, for instance, if it had far fewer dull quotes but gave a lot more context. Ultimately, I just don’t see what this book is for. You would have to be a real fan to read it from cover to cover, and it’s not really a reference book for any practical use. An oddity beyond doubt.
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Review by Brian Clegg