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Showing posts from 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…

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-…

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 abo…

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). Ev…

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 ec…

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 earlie…

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 …

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 introduct…

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 e…