Thursday, 31 March 2011

Incognito – David Eagleman *****


Popular science books often come in waves and at the moment we’re drowning in biologically inspired ‘ness’ books. We’ve got books on happiness, cooperativeness, pleasurableness (okay, I had to force that one), loneliness, competitiveness, and for all I know Loch Ness. When I see another one looming on the review shelf I tend to groan and reach for that DIY brain chemistry modifier, a pain killer. So when I saw Incognito looming there I was gritting my teeth for yet another dose of the same… but I couldn’t have been more wrong.
It all starts with the UK cover, which has a lovely bit of op art in the squirly bit (not really obvious in the reduced version here), but the book was a dream to read. It explores how much of our actions are out of the control of our conscious mind and takes us through the wonders that are the various half-understood and often competing systems that handle the many aspects of thought and our interaction with our senses body as a whole.
The first few chapters are packed with absolutely fascinating little examples (some of them practical things you can try yourself) that demonstrate just how much disconnection there is between our relatively puny consciousness and everything else the brain does. David Eagleman describes what’s going on in there as a bit like a parliament, rather than a dictatorship of the conscious mind. There is then a really thought provoking chapter on the crime and punishment. If, as Eagleman suggests seems likely, all actions can be linked to states of the brain rather than an individual’s choice, where does that leave our attitude to offenders? Eagleman argues we shouldn’t punish them, but some we can rehabilitate through specific mental processes, while others will have to be locked away for everyone’s protection because there is no way to change things.
Of course, the book isn’t perfect. The introduction has some rather loose information in an attempt to make sweeping, involving statements. We are told that the visible universe is 15 billion light years across – probably a factor of 5 out. Eagleman suggests that Galileo’s near-contemporary Bruno was burned at the stake for rejecting an Earth-centered universe – which he wasn’t. (He was burned at the stake, but for heretical religious views, not his science.) And there’s a dramatic error in an attempt to show how our brains mishandle logic (see below for the detail). Of themselves these aren’t huge errors, but it’s difficult not to think ‘If there are these mistakes in the bits I know about, what could be wrong in the stuff about brains that comes as a great surprise to me?’ My suspicion is that Eagleman knows his stuff, though – and he tells a great story.
One good mark of the effectiveness of this book was that I couldn’t resist telling people about a couple of things I read here. One was that a percentage of women have a fourth colour receptor in their eyes, so would see colours and colour matches differently. Lovely factoid. The other you’ll have to spot when you read it. All in all this was a hugely enjoyable book, and despite sometimes seeming like a TV science show in its focus on style, it really delivers on information we’re all interested in about our favourite topic – ourselves. Recommended.
The ‘error in the logic’ example:
In the book, Eagleman tries to demonstrate how our brains struggle with certain kinds of logic. This is wonderfully illustrated – because he gets the logic wrong himself. He shows us four cards and asks which cards we have to turn over to check the validity of the rule if a card has an even number on one face, it has the name of a primary colour on the other face. Here are the cards:
Eagleman argues you only have to turn over the number 8 and the Purple card. He says ‘if you had turned over the 5 card and found Red on the other side, that would tell you nothing about the truth of the rule.’ This is perfectly correct as far as it goes. Unfortunately it doesn’t allow for the possibility of turning over the 5 card and finding a 4 on the other side. In that case the rule would be proved false. Eagleman makes the assumption – not supported by any evidence – that all the cards have a number on one side and a colour on the other. Logic fail.
Hardback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 21 March 2011

The Little Book of Unscientific Propositions, Theories and Things – Surendra Verma ****

The two most striking things about this book are its convenient size and the fact that it’s great fun to read. The fact that it can be slipped in a jacket pocket made it ideal when being a dad’s taxi and having to have a quick coffee waiting to do a pick up – The Little Book of etc. just slipped into my jacket pocket and was there to fill in a few minutes. It’s particularly effective for this sort of use (or as a loo book) because it consists of 100 little items that can be dipped into at will. Unlike many such books, though, it feels fine to read on through, as well as in short bursts.
Sometimes when I have a book to read for review, I come back to it thinking ‘Here we go again,’ but the ‘fun to read’ part of this book was in evidence that I was, instead, thinking ‘Excellent, let’s see what else is in there.’ As a foil to his excellent Little Book of Scientific etc, Surendra Verma covers a wide range of topics on the fringes of science. To be more precise, he goes from good science that would be practically impossible to do anything with (such as quantum teleportation and time travel), through speculative science (like tachyons and mirror matter), unlikely but genuinely interesting near-science (like Bauval’s Orion/pyramids theory) to total loony tunes pseudo science (homeopathy to quantum healing).
These different ventures into the hinterland between science and fiction throw up some fascinating little stories. As a hoax, for instance, I was aware of Piltdown Man (who gets an entry), but not of the fake biography of a M. Litre after which the volumetric unit was named. It really is very entertaining.
I do have a couple of reservations. One is in tone. Verma can be very dismissive, which is fine in the extreme of the spectrum, but less so elsewhere. When talking about near-death experiences, he comments that after the ‘dying process': ‘What happens then? Obviously nothing, as death is the final frontier and we have simply ceased to exist.’ It’s true that a lot of scientists are atheists, but that doesn’t make it scientific to dismiss something like this as ‘obviously…’ At least one put-down rather backfires. Verma comments that people who believe that they have been abducted by aliens: ‘tend to believe not only in alien abduction, but also things like UFOs and ESP.’ This is intended to show how gullible they are. Yet surely they would be highly illogical if they believed in abduction, but didn’t believe in UFOs?
There are also a few errors in the science. Pretty well every book has the odd mistake (mine certainly do) – but in a book that is implicitly criticizing people for irrational beliefs, it’s important to get your facts right. As an example, when talking about time travel, the book says that a spaceship travelling near the speed of light on a return trip to [Proxima] Centauri, ‘on return to Earth the crew would find that many decades had gone by.’ Given the journey would take around 9 years according to Newtonian physics, it is not going to take longer when taking relativity into account.
However, these slips don’t detract from the fact that this is a highly enjoyable and informative little book, exploring some of the more unlikely terrain between science and fruit loopery.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Angela Saini – Four Way Interview

Angela Saini is an award-winning independent journalist based in London, and the author of Geek Nation, a journey through India, to find out whether the country is set to become the world’s next scientific superpower. She has written for New Scientist, Science, Wired and The Economist, and she’s a regular reporter on BBC radio science shows, including Digital Planet. Her first book is Geek Nation.
Why Science?
I’ve always loved reading about big scientific ideas in fields like quantum physics and genetics, but when I think about it, I’m not so much a science-lover as an engineering-lover. I used to build model rockets when I was at school, I’ve always been a bit of a tinkerer (I do all the DIY at home!), and of course I studied Engineering at university. I like to see science applied in the real world, in architecture, electronics and other inventions, and observing the kind of repercussions these things have on our lives.
Why this book?
Since I’m a (British) Indian geek myself and I’ve lived in India twice, in hindsight it feels inevitable that I would end up writing something like Geek Nation. The book stemmed from a trip I made to Mumbai in 2009 while I was writing a piece about lie detectors for Wired UK magazine. It seemed to me as though the country had turned a scientific corner since the last time I was there, in 2004. There was so much exciting research happening, the government was making a huge commitment to ramp up science spending, and the tech boom was finally giving way to real innovations.
What’s next?
I’m going to the United States in March to give a talk at Google about Geek Nation, and then in April I’m doing a mega five-city book tour of India, courtesy of my Indian publishers, Hachette. I’m keen to find out what actual Indian geeks think about the book! But in the longer-term I’m looking forward to discovering whether India really does live up to its scientific promise.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
Just recently I was introduced to the wonderful sounds of the Intercontinental Music Lab, a collective of musicians based all over the world, who use science as their inspiration. To my delight they’ve kindly agreed to let me use their song, Dr Robotnik, as the soundtrack to Geek Nation. So readers in India will soon be seeing a trailer in bookshops with this awesome tune!
Photo by Blue Turtle Photography, reproduced with permission of copyright holder

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Sean Carroll – Four Way Interview

Sean Carroll is a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology. His papers on dark matter and dark energy, the physics of extra dimensions, and alternative theories of gravity have been widely praised. he is also one of the founders of the group blog cosmicvariance.com. His book on time and entropy is From Eternity to Here.
Why Science?
The best thing about science is the sense of surprise. Human imagination is a powerful force, and we can invent all kinds of crazy ideas. But studying the universe teaches us things we never would have come up with on our own. Science lets us peer into corners of the universe that are incredibly far from our everyday experience, and the amazing thing is that we are eventually able to understand what’s going on.
Why this book?
Time is familiar; we all use it every day. But there are still mysteries that surround it. One of the deepest mysteries – “Why is the past different from the future?” – leads us directly to thinking about the origin of the universe. Studying the nature of time is a great way to start with the world immediately around us, take seriously what we observe, and end up thinking about some of the biggest questions out there.
What’s next?
Mostly I’m doing research, thinking about the role of time in quantum field theory as well as approaches to the very beginning of the universe. If I do write another book, it might be about connecting the laws of nature to the meaning of life. (No reason not to think big.)
What’s exciting you at the moment?
I love the fact that physics is a constantly shifting field; excitement moves from problem to problem as we come up with new ideas and are surprised by new data. There are a bunch of experiments running right now that could have a huge impact — searches for new particles, new forces, dark matter, gravitational waves. I’m looking forward to having some of our cherished ideas overturned by harsh reality. That’s when things get exciting.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Perfect Rigour – Masha Gessen ****

I was vaguely aware of the story at the heart of this book, so it was interesting to read a full account of it here. In 2002, the Russian mathematician Gregory Perelman solved one of the biggest problems in mathematics. By proving the PoincarĂ© conjecture, he did what numerous top mathematicians had tried and failed to do since 1904. He was awarded the Fields medal (the mathematics equivalent of the Nobel Prize) for the breakthrough; was offered $1 million by the Clay Mathematics Institute, which in 2000 had offered the sum to anyone who could prove the conjecture; and was offered numerous top academic positions. Perelman didn’t react to this in the way most of us would have, however. He turned all of this down, withdrew completely from the mathematics community, and cut contact with long standing friends, now appearing to live a reclusive existence in St Petersburg. In Perfect Rigour, Masha Gessen aims to make sense of this.
For the book, Gessen interviewed many of Perelman’s (previously) close friends, teachers, and colleagues to get an insight into the man. We never hear from Perelman directly (he certainly doesn’t speak to journalists anymore), but from these interviews Gessen is able to build up a picture of the reasons for his retreat into his own world, and his shunning of the mathematics community, and she probably gets close to the truth of the matter.
One aspect of all this is Perelman’s apparent dislike of honours (like Feynman’s, although clearly to a much greater extent). For Perelman, it’s not the money or accolades that matter – he believes in doing maths for its own sake. It’s about the joy of the discovery, of contributing to our knowledge of the world. It shouldn’t be about prizes and there should not be financial incentives, and, because of this deep conviction, Perelman appears not to have taken kindly to the idea that work should be rewarded with material items.
But there are many other factors involved. The accolades that came Perelman’s way appear to have brought to a head a variety of deep-seated dissatisfactions he has had with the way academic mathematics is practised, and, ultimately, with the way the world works. Gessen looks at how Perelman came to have these dissatisfactions, looking in particular at the influence his schooling and upbringing had on him. Gessen is well placed to understand the impact of his early years, as she was also a young maths prodigy in Russia and of the same generation as Perelman.
As an aside, whilst Gessen doesn’t make these comparisons herself, it was interesting throughout the book to note a few similarities between Perelman and others who have made significant breakthroughs. As well as the Feynman comparison above, there’s speculation that Perelman is autistic (with this being suggested as a big factor in why he has acted as he has) and an account of how once, when asked to clarify something he had told an audience during a lecture, he repeated, word for word, what he had said in the first place – Paul Dirac used to do this. There’s also the bemusement Perelman seems to have felt about people praising him whilst not understanding the work he had done. This is reminiscent of how Einstein used to feel about some of the attention he received.
The book’s discussion of the mathematics itself is fairly limited – we get a short explanation of the PoincarĂ© conjecture and a sketch of Perelman’s proof – and unless you have some kind of background in maths (which I don’t), these sections will probably not be hugely illuminating. I’m not sure whether anyone else could have done a better job, though – it’s an abstract problem in topology which does not lend itself to easy explanation.
In any case, you shouldn’t be put off by the difficulty of the maths, which is not the focus of the book. As an exploration of Perelman’s genius and an insight into this remarkable character, this is worth the read.
Paperback (US is hardback):  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Matt Chorley

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Think Like a Maths Genius [Secrets of Mental Math] – Arthur Benjamin & Michael Shermer ***

This is the kind of book you will either find really fun or deadly dull. Flick through it, and if you are put off by seeing grids of numbers and fractions and mathematical manipulations you will drop it like a hot potato. But if you actually enjoy being able to manipulate numbers in your head, and would like to learn the tips of the trade, this is the book for you.
Starting gently with simple addition and subtraction it works up through levels of multiplication to division, before veering off into pencil and paper techniques, number memory techniques and mathematical magic like magic squares. Where a book like Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions picks off the most bizarre and exotic mathematical trickery, this is mostly bread and butter stuff, with much more focus on practical techniques and less storytelling. For this reason, it’s not as much a book to sit down and read as Martin Gardiner’s classic work, but if you enjoy working through this kind of exercise and building up your mental mathematical ability, this is the one for you.
There is no really exotic stuff here – but that’s not the point. Apart from the trip into number magic, this is real world calculation, the sort of thing we use everyday – but performed using brain cells instead of a calculator. And that can’t be a bad thing. If you find sudoku entertaining, this is very much a book for you. If you can’t see the point of filling in those little squares of numbers, and think everyone should get a life (and a calculator)… look elsewhere.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 7 March 2011

Life as Energy – Alexis Mari Pietak **

I am in a real quandary with this book. It has some severe problems that make it difficult to recommend, and yet at its heart is a very interesting idea that merits further thought.
The author is a biophysicist, so has scientific credentials, yet at the same time the book has some worrying aspects that make it feel like what New Scientist would refer to as fruit-loopery… and let’s face it, some perfectly respectable scientists have had bizarre ideas in the past.
Let’s get the good bit up front, because it really is rather impressive. As I have limited experience with biology, I don’t know how new an idea it is, but let’s give Alexis Pietak the benefit of the doubt. It goes something like this. In physics we can look at the behaviour of individual particles like atoms, and to do so we apply quantum theory to great effect. Yet quantum theory isn’t our only weapon when looking at, say, matter. We can also apply macro physics to come up with things like mechanics and thermodynamics. We get benefit from operating at more than one level.
Also in physics, we often apply more than one model or metaphor to describe a physical concept. So, for example, when talking about electromagnetism we sometimes use particles, sometimes waves and sometimes fields. In principle you could probably do everything just using particles, but fields particularly have lots of benefits both in terms of understanding and in developing new theories. Pietak then contrasts this with biology. On the whole biology seems to try to apply the equivalent of a quantum theory approach to everything. There isn’t the equivalent of thermodynamics or field theory that gives us a different view that makes it easier to take in the whole. She argues this should be attempted, and gives some suggestions as to how it might be done.
To this extent, the book has a lot of merit. But there are two problems with the approach taken.
Firstly the author simply isn’t very good at explaining science to the general reader. Her approach is repetitive, and her explanation of quantum theory is one of the worst attempts I’ve seen in popular science.
That isn’t what really drags the book down though. Unfortunately she wraps the whole thing in a New Age appealing wrapper that immediately puts off any reader with an interest in the science. She keeps telling us about how mankind’s early beliefs almost always imbued living things with a ‘life force’ or ‘living energy.’ So what? Mankind’s early beliefs almost always put a static Earth at the centre of the universe, but it doesn’t make it true, nor is it useful to understanding cosmology to be receptive to an Earth-centred picture. Pietak also has a habit of pointing out that the concept of ‘life energy’ is central to the likes of Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic systems. If this is supposed to encourage us to be supportive of her ideas, it has exactly the reverse effect.
To make matters worse, the author employs the classic language used by practitioners of woo to attack rational science. She refers to reductionism with negative tones. She even falls into the ‘so-called’ trap. This is a standard indicator that we’re dealing with pseudo-science, when a writer refers to something within the scientific field using ‘so-called’ as a put down. Pietak refers to the ‘so-called life sciences.’ Immediately the reader’s woo detector goes into overdrive.
Finally, Pietak makes the mistake of referring to Rupert Sheldrake’s work without the literary equivalent of a raised eyebrow. Whatever you think of Sheldrake, he is a highly controversial figure, and doing this only brings doubts on Pietak’s own ideas. It doesn’t help that she uses the term ‘morphogenetic field’, which sounds too much like Sheldrake’s morphic fields, though the concept is different. She also, near the end of the book, puts in some thoughts on applications of her ideas to ecology that seem thin and poorly thought out. (For example, while trying to take a holistic view, she seems to think it’s okay to deal only with the plant life in an ecosystem, ignoring bacteria, animal life and physical factors like weather.)
Overall, then, a puzzling book. It has a really interesting idea at its heart but the way it is presented I can’t see it appealing to anyone. Those with an interest in science will be put off by the New Age wrapper, those wanting to take a New Age view will be scared off by the heavy dose of science. Like the nuns in the Sound of Music we have to ask what we will do with a problem like this book?
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 3 March 2011

The Instant Physicist – Richard A. Muller ***

Richard Muller is the author of one of my favourite popular science books of all time, Physics for Future Presidents. That book is such a neat idea, the physics you need to know about if you want to run the country. So I looked forward to his new title with interest. The Instant Physicist takes an illustrated take on getting the key points in physics across.
It’s a pocket sized hardback, set up as a series of two page spreads. On the right is a colour cartoon, very professionally done by Joey Manfre, illustrating a surprising observation that forms its caption. So, for example, we have ‘If not for the notorious greenhouse effect, the entire surface of the Earth would currently be frozen solid.’ or ‘The world’s first uranium reactor is 1.7 billion years old.’ Then on the left hand page there’s a simple explanation of the surprising fact, giving the basic science behind it. It’s a glossy book throughout.
The result kind of works, but there are a couple of problems. The format means there really isn’t a lot of text in there. Compared to my equivalent sized Instant Egghead Guide to Physics, for instance, there is only a tiny amount of content. Not everything essential can be driven by wow-amazing-facts, so it cherry picks, and there’s rather too much about radioactivity, I suspect Prof. Muller’s speciality, and not enough (say) quantum theory. The other thing is the layout is just wrong! You have to read the caption – on the right hand side of the spread – before you read the main text – on the left hand side. We have this fairly well known convention of reading left to right. Making the reader take in the right hand page before the left is silly and unnecessary.
So, not an entirely satisfactory experience, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that this is a fun idea, and it’s well produced. It might be best pressed into service as one of those books people keep in the toilet, where you dip into it and pick out just one article or two, then put it away for next time. And it would make an entertaining gift. But it could have been better.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

What if the Earth had two Moons? – Neil F. Comins ***

There is a great idea behind this book. Why not, as a thought experiment, change the parameters ohere is a great idea behind this book. Why not, as a thought experiment, change the parameters of our solar system and see how things would be different, using this to explore cosmology on a wider scale. So, for instance, the book goes through the title scenario, but also what if:
  • the Earth were a moon?
  • The Moon orbited backwards?
  • The Earth’s crust was thicker?
… and so on for a total of 10 scenarios. Along the way we’ll find out more about everything from black holes to the Big Bang, but particularly lots about how planets and solar systems form and function.
In principle this is wonderful, but the execution has three problems.
Firstly there’s the way that the ‘What if’ concept is approached. Although the title specifically says ‘What if the Earth had two Moons?’ the chapter actually describes a planet called Dimaan that’s a bit like the Earth and has two moons. This is frustrating, as I really want to know what the actual Earth would be like, not a planet like Earth. This approach means Neil Comins is always flipping between describing the Earth and Dimaan (etc.), which irritates. I also find the science fictional naming a bit painful – so, for example, the second chapter has a system where the Sun is called the Zon. Why?
Speaking of fiction, the second problem is that each chapter begins with a rather painful bit of fiction set on the world that chapter is dealing with. The people who feature in the stories are human, and sometimes even are real people like Galileo or Columbus. This is both confusing and twee. Some of the storylines are bizarre. In one two children are presenting alternative theories at the Royal Society. Why would children be presenting at the Royal Society? And worse still, there’s an elementary plotting error: the second child doesn’t even get a chance to present her theory because she gets an asthma attack. Why? It doesn’t go anywhere. This is just self-indulgence.
Finally, I have to confess that by about the third chapter it all gets a bit samey. Ok, each of the scenarios have interesting implications and we keep getting extra snippets about the universe as a whole, but in the end we keep reading about how various parameters of the Earth (or rather, the not Earth) would be different, and what started as a fascinating concept ends up as a rather nerdy detailing of information that isn’t of great interest unless you specialize in planetary behaviour. The best science writing can take the mundane and make it exciting. This takes the dramatic and makes it mundane.
There’s no doubt that there is a lot of good stuff in here. Comins knows his astronomical onions and packs in lots of information in his 10 interesting scenarios. It’s a great idea. But even the best ideas don’t always work as you hope – and that’s what I found with What if the Earth had two Moons.
Paperback:  
Also in hardback:  
Review by Brian Cleggf our solar system and see how things would be different, using this to explore cosmology on a wider scale. So, for instance, the book goes through the title scenario, but also what if:
  • the Earth were a moon?
  • The Moon orbited backwards?
  • The Earth’s crust was thicker?
… and so on for a total of 10 scenarios. Along the way we’ll find out more about everything from black holes to the Big Bang, but particularly lots about how planets and solar systems form and function.
In principle this is wonderful, but the execution has three problems.
Firstly there’s the way that the ‘What if’ concept is approached. Although the title specifically says ‘What if the Earth had two Moons?’ the chapter actually describes a planet called Dimaan that’s a bit like the Earth and has two moons. This is frustrating, as I really want to know what the actual Earth would be like, not a planet like Earth. This approach means Neil Comins is always flipping between describing the Earth and Dimaan (etc.), which irritates. I also find the science fictional naming a bit painful – so, for example, the second chapter has a system where the Sun is called the Zon. Why?
Speaking of fiction, the second problem is that each chapter begins with a rather painful bit of fiction set on the world that chapter is dealing with. The people who feature in the stories are human, and sometimes even are real people like Galileo or Columbus. This is both confusing and twee. Some of the storylines are bizarre. In one two children are presenting alternative theories at the Royal Society. Why would children be presenting at the Royal Society? And worse still, there’s an elementary plotting error: the second child doesn’t even get a chance to present her theory because she gets an asthma attack. Why? It doesn’t go anywhere. This is just self-indulgence.
Finally, I have to confess that by about the third chapter it all gets a bit samey. Ok, each of the scenarios have interesting implications and we keep getting extra snippets about the universe as a whole, but in the end we keep reading about how various parameters of the Earth (or rather, the not Earth) would be different, and what started as a fascinating concept ends up as a rather nerdy detailing of information that isn’t of great interest unless you specialize in planetary behaviour. The best science writing can take the mundane and make it exciting. This takes the dramatic and makes it mundane.
There’s no doubt that there is a lot of good stuff in here. Comins knows his astronomical onions and packs in lots of information in his 10 interesting scenarios. It’s a great idea. But even the best ideas don’t always work as you hope – and that’s what I found with What if the Earth had two Moons.
Paperback:  
Also in hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Einstein and Relativity – Paul Strathearn ***

This is part of author Paul Strathern’s ‘Big Idea’ series, with each book in the series aiming to provide a condensed, readable introduction to a particular scientist’s life and work. The format is the same each time, so we also have, for instance, ‘Darwin and Evolution’, ‘Curie and radioactivity’ and ‘Newton and Gravity’.
This offering on Einstein really is very short – at under 90 pages, it can be read in about 90 minutes. Still, Strathern manages to get in a good overview of the major episodes of Einstein’s life, encompassing his political activities and his ultimately unsuccessful work towards the end of his career on unification, and we get some insights into Einstein as a person.
Clearly, given the length of the book, you will need to go elsewhere to get a full account of relativity. But, again, the book does well to fit in what it does into such a small amount of space. We get brief but useful explanations of the special and general theories, Einstein’s thinking whilst coming up with each, and the context within which the breakthroughs were made. And via discussions of the Michelson-Morley experiment, the differences between Galilean relativity and Einstein’s relativity, and the action at a distance problem in Newton’s theory of gravitation, the truly revolutionary nature of Einstein’s theories comes through.
The book is easy to read throughout and would be particularly good for those new to popular science, and as something to look at before going on to, say, Walter Isaacson’s detailed Einstein: his life and universe. All in all, this is a useful summary of the man and his ideas, which definitely has a place in the popular science genre.
Paperback:  
Review by Matt Chorley

The Hidden Reality – Brian Greene *****

I hugely enjoyed Brian Greene’s previous books, The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos, so when I saw this title had been released I was looking forward to reading it. In The Hidden Reality, Greene explores the various possibilities of there being parallel universes beyond our own. He takes us through, in all, nine conceptions of the multiverse that seem to emerge naturally from the mathematics behind some of our most successful physical theories. The book turns out to be an absolute delight.
We start with the fascinating idea that, if the universe is infinite in extent, this implies the existence of an infinite number of places in the universe where physical conditions are identical to those we find around us, and therefore an unending number of worlds in which ‘you’ and ‘I’ are going about their lives in exactly the same way as we are doing, here. Later in the book, we look at, among other things, the ‘braneworlds’ scenario that comes out of string theory, and the idea that we live in one universe among many in a computer simulated multiverse.
For each variation on the multiverse theme, Greene first brings us up to speed on the physics we need in order to make sense of the ideas to be looked at, bringing in discussions of quantum mechanics, relativity, string theory and thermodynamics where necessary. This background information is incredibly useful in its own right – Greene’s explanation of the difficulties of merging quantum mechanics and general relativity, for instance, is better than I have seen anywhere else. Whilst good across the board, the best chapter is the one on the ‘Many Worlds’ interpretation of quantum mechanics – the summary here would be ideal to read before going on to look at a more full exploration of the subject.
Greene clearly appreciates the difficulties the layperson is likely to have in coming to grips with the tricky concepts being introduced, and he knows how to take the absolute beginner along with him, and to bring them to a good level of understanding. His analogies always get across the main ideas well, and when things get tough, the reader is warned.
Many of the ideas here do seem highly speculative, and some will argue that, because they appear not to be falsifiable, this is not good science. Greene anticipates this reaction, however, and devotes a chapter to it. He outlines the experiments and observations that could, in fact, give us an indication as to whether any of these ideas are on the right track. He sensibly emphasises that we shouldn’t consider sound any theory that cannot be verified by observation or experiment, and, ultimately, he is convincing that the ideas discussed in the book are at least worth considering for the time being.
If you have read Greene’s previous books, there will be occasions where you may want to skip a section or two, where the discussions overlap a little with those covered in the previous books. But whatever background you to come to this book with, you’re likely to be very impressed with the presentation of the science and hugely intrigued by the ideas themselves. I have no hesitation in giving this book five stars, and can easily see it being among the best popular science books of 2011. Highly recommended.
Paperback:  
Hardback:  
Also on audio CD:  
Review by Matt Chorley