Time travel is an absolutely fascinating aspect of physics, if only because few people realize that it’s not fantasy – not only does time travel fail to break the laws of physics, we even have to deal with (very small scale) time travel on the part of GPS satellites to make them work properly. Paul Nahin doesn’t point this out, quite possibly because this is a surprisingly old book – although reissued in 2011 with a new preface, it dates back to 1997.
GPS might not have been part of everyday life back then, but most of the time travel science has survived pretty well unchanged. There are a few time-based omissions. No mention of superluminal tunnelling experiments or laser-based frame dragging, for instance. But the biggest omission in the science due to the age of the book has nothing much to do with time travel – it’s the casual dismissal of the cosmological constant, showing a predating of the discovery of dark energy. But luckily this is more a side-comment than of any great significance.
Apart from those small omissions, Nahin does a great job of getting through all the possibilities in a reasonably compact way. However, the way the book is tightly targeted means that it isn’t the ideal popular science book on time travel for the general reader. This is very much aimed at would-be writers of science fiction, and this comes through very strongly, both in Nahin’s remarks and in his approach which relies on many, many examples of science fiction stories featuring time travel. I’m quite a fan of science fiction, but I have to confess I found it heavy going with so many fictional references.
There are a couple of other tiny problems with the book. The science is mostly put across in a friendly fashion, but there are two times when Nahin goes into much too much detail, in a way that may well put off a lot of readers (particularly if they are looking at this as authors rather than would-be scientists). The other problem I had was a rather hectoring tone – at times he almost says that people with certain ideas (e.g. having problems with the killing-your-grandfather type paradox) are idiots because the paradox obviously won’t happen. I’m sorry, it isn’t obvious, and taking this approach is not particularly helpful.
Overall, then, a good if rather dated summary of the science of time travel, but because of the way it is put across only really of interest to serious SF fans or would-be writers (which, to be fair to the author, is exactly the audience that it is aimed at).
It is almost impossible to rate these relentlessly hip books – they are pure marmite*. The huge Introducing … series (a vast range of books covering everything from Quantum Theory to Islam), previously known as … for Beginners, puts across the message in a style that owes as much to Terry Gilliam and pop art as it does to popular science. Pretty well every page features large graphics with speech bubbles that are supposed to emphasise the point.
It is easy for the reader to get a little confused about which book to go for here as you can also choose Introducing Evolutionary Psychology and Introducing Darwin, the latter of which has significant overlaps with the current book. Of the two, I’d say this was probably the better choice for getting the basics of evolution – although both feature Darwin’s life and work, this covers the science better and makes better use of the illustrated ‘Introducing’ format.
The text flows nicely and the book works well as an introduction to the subject. It isn’t limited to the pure consideration of evolution by natural selection but also takes in the implications and the difficulties – so, for example, you will find quite a bit on altruism, which at first sight seems at odds with the concept of natural selection. I would have liked to see more on speciation, which is one of the areas of evolution that is less clear (even most creationists accept variations within species this way), and I was very surprised not to find a reference to evo devo (evolutionary development) in a book that is a lot more modern than the Darwin title.
The images are always important in one of these books and many of them here work well, though I found the ape-headed human used as a guide was a joke that became tired rather quickly. Overall a solid addition to the series though not an outstanding one.
*Marmite? If you are puzzled by this assessment, you probably aren’t from the UK. Marmite is a yeast-based product (originally derived from beer production waste) that is spread on bread/toast. It’s something people either love or hate, so much so that the company has run very successful TV ad campaigns showing people absolutely hating the stuff…
A long time ago, the archaeological world was turned on its head by Stonehenge Decoded, a book by an astronomer that suggested Stonehenge was a complex astronomical calculator. The archaeologists didn’t seem too pleased at the intervention of an outsider, but they did eventually take on some of the ideas from the book (it seems to be accepted that other of the ideas were taking astronomical alignments too far).
The same thing seems to have happened with some aspects of Robert Bauval’s theories, excellently laid out in the highly readable The Egypt Code. In that book, Bauval put forward astronomical explanations for the positions and alignments of many Egyptian structures (including the great pyramids), and even for special shafts in the structures that allowed for certain sightings to be taken. Once again, the initial reaction was dismissal, but since then the Egyptologists seem to have grudgingly accepted some of the astronomical data, while still leaving some of it out in the cold.
Now Bauval is back with a co-writer, new structures from ancient Egypt, and another theory to wind up the experts. It has to be said straight away that this book doesn’t work nearly so well as its predecessor. It has too much technical detail, the newly discovered structures are a lot less impressive than those covered in the first book, while his underlying theory is difficult to prove.
Bauval introduces us to a miniature stone circle out in the Sahara that seems to date back to a prehistoric period of Egyptian civilization, the precursor of the ancient Egypt we know and love. Assuming the whole thing isn’t a hoax, it’s both fascinating and saddening to see these relics studied – and messed up by a seeming lack of care from the local authorities that end up with one of the most significant stones smashed into two and the whole stone circle removed from its position.
Some of the alignments and links seem very sensible, but there is always a certain danger when discovering alignments. I was reminded of another book by an image Bauval shows of an alignment fitting with a notch in a hill. This was Alfred Watkins’ book The Old Straight Path, which introduced the concept of ley lines. There are, without doubt, some ancient routes and pathways that can now be represented as ley lines, but many of Watkins’ alignments (which often used notches in hills) simply reflect how easy it is to set up alignments when there are so many objects to choose from. It has recently been pointed out that every postcode in the UK can be put into an alignment with at least 3 ancient structures. Alignments are just going to happen sometimes, and it doesn’t necessarily signify an intention.
The underlying theory of Bauval’s book is that the ancient Egyptians were black, or at least had black ancestors. Of course this has to be true, depending on how far you go back – we all have black ancestors, assuming the ‘out of Africa’ theory is correct. But Bauval highlights various pointers that suggest the ancient Egyptians were more directly descended from black African tribes.
All in all, then, an interesting but not hugely readable book that should intrigue anyone with an interest in ancient Egypt, but that leaves a number of questions unanswered.
This book presents the reader with a rather nice concept slightly strangled by a format. The idea is to look at factors that can add or subtract to your brainpower. This could make for an interesting book if presented the right way, perhaps looking at the pros and cons (and there certainly are some cons in this business) of intelligence enhancement – but the format requires it to be in the format of 100 snippets each of which is given + or – points as a score in the way it influences your intelligence.
This makes for a rather bumpy ride of a read. The book doesn’t really flow, and there is little connection between the individual mini-articles. It can’t really decide if it’s a self-help book (eat more fish to be more brainy) or an analysis of the status quo which you can’t do anything about (if you are born this way, you will be more or less intelligent).
To be fair to the author, Stephen Pincock does do his best to take a good, analytical approach to the various factors, as this is area (anyone care to drink lots of water and rub their chests in a certain way?) where there is a lot of snake oil salesmanship. However occasionally he does let standards slip a little. So, for instance, on the Mozart effect business, where thousands of poor babies have been subjected to that tedious composer because listening to his music is supposed to increase their intelligence. Pincock tells us that those who have reviewed a wide range of studies found that the effect of listening to Mozart ‘was not significant.’ Nevertheless, he goes on to tell us, ‘many researchers believe there is an effect.’ So what? Many people believe in all sorts of untrue things. Pincock should take his own advice. When talking about critical thinking, he says to be wary of group think – yet this is exactly what he is falling for here.
Overall, then, most of the content is good despite the occasional leaning towards unsupported conclusions, but it’s not totally clear what you would do with it as a book.
Sometimes great books on a particular subject are like busses – you can wait for ages, then two come along together. In this case it’s Curt Stager’s Deep Future and Tim Flannery’s Here on Earth. After reading Deep Future I was feeling surprisingly positive about global warming. Not in a ‘no need to bother’ sense. But Stager points out that in the long term, the global warming we’ve had so far will have some beneficial effects, and if we can cut back on emissions, we should be able to cope with what it will throw at us. Now Tim Flannery has given me a reality check by pointing out that it still could be fairly horrendous.
Don’t get the idea, though, that this is just a ‘woe, woe, and thrice woe!’ climate change misery memoir. Flannery starts with an absolutely brilliant introduction to evolution, the development of Earth and life on Earth, and the development of human civilization. Taken on its own this would be a superb (if rather short) five star book. Flannery’s writing style is superb – I just wanted to keep reading on – he is a natural storyteller. Anyone who still doubts evolution, for example, should be exposed to Flannery from an early age. (The only slight hesitation I have is that he isn’t strong enough on that creationist bugbear, the idea that micro-evolution makes sense, but it’s much harder to explain the formation of new species.)
In effect this is a three act book. The first part is this wonderful introduction. Then we get the realities of global warming and other human-caused pollution and what it is going to do the flora and fauna of our world. (And, potentially, to our civilization.) Finally there are some suggestions on how to fix this and make things better. The reason this book gets four stars, rather than five, is that each of these sections is slightly less convincing than the one before. Perhaps it was because I came to straight from Stager’s book, but I found the predictions of doom in the centre section not entirely convincing, and I certainly have very little hope that Flannery’s over-optimistic solutions will show fruit.
I also had a concern about a tone in the writing and a couple of specific statements. That tone is the way he refers to Gaia and other fringe scientific ideas with rather too much enthusiasm. I don’t think the way to win over politicians and business people is through New Age feeling concepts, however much Lovelock’s original Gaia model has merits (which it does). Flannery never points out that Lovelock himself has pointed out the people tend to over-literalise Gaia.
The first specific problem is a strange bias in a comparison he draws. He suggests that low tech hunter gatherers are much more flexible and capable than a typical ‘modern’ human being because post-hunter gatherer societies are mostly composed of incompetent individuals. To illustrate this he points out that a Westerner (say) put in a New Guinea hunter gatherer environment would flounder and not survive, yet he has met people who were born New Guinea hunter gatherers who have become helicopter pilots (say). This is a bizarre comparison. Certainly if you put a typical city dweller in the jungle and said ‘survive’ they wouldn’t live long. But equally if you put a New Guinea hunter gatherer straight from the forest into the pilot’s seat of a helicopter at 10,000 feet and said ‘survive’, he or she would last an even shorter time. It’s a stupid comparison that detracts from the weight of his other arguments.
There’s also at least one example of distorting history to make a point. Flannery tells us that organo-phosphate crop sprays were derived from nerve gasses, implying that the evil, anti-Gaian farmers took something terrible – nerve gas – and thought ‘why don’t we spray this around without a care?’ In fact this happened the other way round. Because the crop sprays were discovered to be dangerous when they landed on the skin, nerve agents (usually liquid rather than gas) were derived from the crop sprays. I’m not saying spraying with these substances is thus okay, but that by reversing the historical order of things to make people’s actions seem worse, Flannery endangers his argument as a whole.
Overall, then, this book is worth reading for the first section alone, which is beautiful. And as long as you can reign in any tendency to dismiss the good parts because of the tone and the occasional folly, the rest of the book is also very powerful. Flannery may not have instant solutions to the problems of climate change, and I think he is over-optimistic about the reactions of governments, particularly at the time this book was published with most of the world in recession. Yet there is some encouragement there – and I hope that many people will be inspired by Flannery’s obvious love of the natural world and his immense talents as a writer.
This is a most remarkable book. For one thing, it’s a book about global warming that in some senses leaves you feeling optimistic – which surely is pretty well unique in the history of publishing. I’m feeling better about climate change after reading this than I have for years.
It’s not that Curt Stager denies the impact of global warming, nor does he doubt that man-made global warming is happening, but instead he takes the big picture, something no one else has really done. By looking back at what happened in the past, both in terms of warming and cooling, and the impact it had on life at the time, he points out that predictions of doom are probably not realistic. After all, human beings survived the last ice age, a climate change event on a bigger scale than anything man made global warming can hit us with – there is no reason to think that we are going to be wiped out by the upcoming change.
Of course, this doesn’t mean there won’t be an impact, which Stager points out in terms of the changes hitting species. And it doesn’t mean we should let anything go. He points out the differences in what we would have to cope with under different scenarios, and it will be a lot easier to maintain out level of civilization with a lesser impact – so all the effort to reduce global warming is worth it – but we shouldn’t see it as a disaster that will end life as we know it.
In fact there’s even good news. It looks like our global warming efforts will cancel the next ice age, which would have produced a much bigger devastating blow to civilization than anything global warming has to offer. In the long term, assuming human beings survive, it looks like global warming will have been a good thing for the human race.
The only reason this isn’t a five star book is that it doesn’t hold up on readability. Stager’s style is fine, but in the end this has the slight feel of a magazine article that has been expanded to make a book, which means there’s much more detail than we really need or want to know (and, as seems the trend with scientist-written books these days, a bit too much ‘me’ in it from Stager). There’s also one slipup, where hydrogen is referred to as an energy source – it isn’t, it’s an energy storage and transmission medium, the energy to produce the hydrogen has to come from somewhere – in his example, the energy source is solar, with hydrogen used as a store.
Nevertheless, despite the flaws, this is a book that every green campaigner should read, learn and inwardly digest, if only to reduce the chances of getting ulcers. It gives a whole new perspective on global warming.
Whereas you might think of science as the opposite of art or literature – perhaps just as a collection of matter-of-fact observations and laws, lacking in emotion – there is just as much expression, imagination and beauty in our physical theories as there is in any poem or painting, physicist Giovanni Vignale argues here.
It is fundamental limits to our understanding that allow us to be imaginative, the book conveys. Reality is, at a deep level, inaccessible and unknowable, so we can only hope to describe it indirectly. We are forced to think creatively, to come up with stories and analogies, and to understand through metaphor and abstraction: scientific theories, the author says, “lie at the interface between the fictional and the real world.”
This may seem most obvious in the quantum mechanical world, where observations and experimental results don’t make intuitive sense, so we have to think outside the box when coming up with theories to make sense of them. But it is the same across all of physics, the book explains – fields, particles and all the rest are the result of the imaginative and creative thinking of physicists and have no physical existence in and of themselves.
Most of the examples the book chooses really get across the extent to which our descriptions of reality rely just as much on human imagination as on hard, matter-of-fact data. And, fittingly, much of the book is written in quite beautiful and poetic language.
The book has a particularly interesting section on the similarities between theories in physics and updated versions of classic pieces of literature. Think, for instance, of the modern takes on Shakespeare’s plays sometimes on television. Whilst these modern versions are superficially different from the original plays – the characters’ names may be different, or we might be in 21st century America rather than 16th century Italy – the underlying themes that are dealt with are the same, and there is a core storyline that remains whichever version you are watching. In this analogy, the core themes and core storyline are reality, with a physical theory being only a particular version or ‘representation’ of it we have come up with through creative thought, and only one of many theories that we could conceivably come up with that would serve just as good a purpose.
The Beautiful Invisible can be hard going at points. It combines a sophisticated philosophical outlook (about what reality is) and numerous references to literature (some pieces of which I know little about) with at times quite technical physics – with the section on electron spin being especially technical. It certainly took me out of my comfort zone on occasion. It is the kind of challenge that is enjoyable, however. And two aspects of physics are covered particularly well. One is entropy, and the other is the discussion around the violation of Bell’s inequality.
The book also wins points for uniqueness – I can’t recall reading anything quite like it before. It’s common for authors to point out that our theories are only imperfect representations of reality. But Vignale’s book explores the idea in much more detail than usual. All in all, it is an interesting perspective on theories in physics, which makes you appreciate science for the creative discipline it is.
Like any other pocket summary, David Rothery’s Planets – a very short introduction is limited by the format. The book never goes into excessive detail, but it is surprisingly comprehensive and though sometimes quite dry, it is readable throughout.
To give a feel for the way the author brings a little life into what could be a dull collection of facts, consider this extract: visualize a pock-marked potato scaled up to any size between tens of metres and a few hundred kilometres, and you should have a serviceable mental image of a typical asteroid… Generally, rotation is at right angles to their length, so they rotate like sausages twirled on a cocktail stick.
Rothery takes an appropriately balanced view on the demotion of Pluto to a minor planet. He leads us on a quite detailed tour of each of the planets and their moons, throwing in some bonus material on asteroids, comets and exoplanets.
This kind of pocket guide is never going to set the world in fire, but it does an excellent job of introducing the planets within the limitation of the format. It would be great for a young astronomer or for anyone who just wants to know quite a lot more about the Sun’s satellites.
The first thing to mention about this book is the cover. So often I come across dull looking books that would have benefitted from a little splash of colour on the front - a book’s outward appearance shouldn’t affect our judgement of it, but it can and often does. There is absolutely no problem here, though – I like the colourful design and the book really grabs your attention. I suspect this is going to help sales significantly.
And I hope it does, as the contents don’t disappoint, either. This is an interesting look at the science behind the technology we come across at the airport and on the plane, and the different features of the world we can see out of the plane window during the journey. We look at many of these pieces of technology and aspects of the world in the order we come across them on a real journey, so you could easily read the book during your next wait at the airport and during your flight, observing as you go the various features discussed, and using the book to get all kinds of insights.
Partly the book is a celebration of looking at the world in a different way – from a scientific point of view. We all put our bags through the airport’s security scanners, we are all (hopefully) content to sit in our seats mid-flight, sure that we will remain up there, and we’re happy to watch a film or track the progress of our flight on the screens on the back of the seat in front of us. But less often do we think any more about all of this – about how airport scanners actually operate; about why exactly we don’t fall to the ground under gravity’s influence whilst suspended 40,000 feet in the air; or about how the LCD screens on planes work. Brian Clegg does think about these things, however, and gets across just how interesting and illuminating these scientific explanations are. And sometimes we find out that what we thought we knew is, in fact, wrong – as the book outlines, for instance, the real explanation of how the lift that gets our plane off the ground works is different from what you are likely to have been told in the past.
This is all done in clear, easy to understand language, making the book very readable. There are also a few surprising facts along the way that add to the readability of the book. I had no idea, for example, that because of some people’s fear of the number 13, there will not be a gate 13 at many airports. And, we learn, just in case passengers notice that 13 is missing and consider gate 14 as unlucky, Terminal 4 at Heathrow airport has gates 12 and 14 at opposite ends of the building, so it is not clear that there is no gate 13.
The book covers a lot of ground, and as well as what’s mentioned above, we look down at rivers to consider their formation and urban areas to think about how they developed; we look at the Earth’s atmosphere and weather events; and we consider aspects of the behaviour of the Sun, moon and planets. Because of the amount of material, after considering briefly one aspect of the plane or our surroundings, we are often quickly on to the next thing. There were times when I turned the page expecting and wanting to read more about a certain topic, only to find that we were moving on to something else. This isn’t a huge problem – the book wouldn’t work as well as it does in many other respects if we dwelled for too long on the topics. But it can occasionally mean that the explanations feel a little summary.
Taken all together, however, Inflight Science is a stimulating and approachable account of the science behind flight and of what we can see from the air. Definitely recommended.
It’s always difficult to be impartial with a book by our editor: here is part of an independent review from a newspaper:
…we should be grateful for this book from Brian Clegg, an unabashed aircraft geek. Everything about aircraft seems to fascinate him: how much they weigh, how their lavatories work, how they affect our bodies. His curiosity extends to airports, which he turns into pleasure palaces full of little-known facts rather than the dull shopping malls we normally take them to be… I consider myself reasonably competent on matters aeronautical, but he still managed to surprise me with something new on every page. For example, he digresses on why there will never be electric aircraft. The reason is that to carry the same amount of energy as 10kg of jet fuel, you’d need one ton of batteries…. He points out that only children tend still to be excited by aircraft. We should take their curiosity as a guide. With this book in hand, we have all we need to set off on our next flight with our eyes open to the sheer wonder of what is involved. Mail on Sunday (Alain de Botton)
Review by Matt Chorley
Please note, this title is written by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion – and we could hardly omit the book – but do want to make the connection clear.
This is a pocket book in the same series as the entertaining Little Book of Unscientific propositions etc – but there is a fundamental difference between the two. The subject matter in that other title was fun and entertaining, making the little articles on different subjects an enjoyable read, but here it’s more a case of plodding through mathematical history picking out the main features. Frankly it is dull, not aided by the relentless chronological order, which puts all the boring basics at the beginning.
Even when the book moves out of straightforward maths into historical context there are some issues because the history of maths parts don’t always seem particularly well researched. So, for example, the book says that the Pythagorean who let slip that the diagonal of square to be irrational is unknown, but that he was taken out and drowned. The usual version is that we have a name for the man (Hipparsus) but that there is only a legend that he was drowned. Similarly, Newton is identified here as the ‘infidel’ in Bishop Berkley’s discourse on the method of fluxions/calculus – where in fact it was Edmund Halley.
There also seems to be paucity of maths to cover, because a fair number of the topics are straightforward science, like the move from an earth-centred to a sun-centred universe and the mechanics of falling bodies. There’s even a section on special relativity, which is rather poorly handled as the text suggests the effects of relativity are subjective, as if (for instance) time dilation just seems to happen. This is misleading as it is a real, measurable effect.
Overall, then, this is a book that isn’t particularly one you can sit and read through for enjoyment, but neither is it detailed enough to be used as a reference book. I’m really not sure what it’s for. We need more good popular maths books, but sadly this doesn’t make a contribution.
One of OUP’s pocket series ‘a very short introduction’ (books with a cover design that says ‘dull’), this title takes on the thorny topic of genius. It’s hard to say whether or not this subject is science at all. There is certainly some science in the book – when looking at studies of the way the brain works and the nature of intelligence – but the concept of ‘genius’ itself is such a fuzzy one that is probably more a media label than anything meaningful.
Apart from anything else, as Andrew Robinson makes clear, we can’t agree on what genius is, nor on who is a genius. There are a few exceptions – few people could argue about Newton or Einstein – but in many other cases the validity of the claim is open to question. What I found fascinating was that Robinson says that in some cases genius is disputed – for example Picasso – while in others it’s undisputed – for example Mozart. I was surprised that Picasso is questioned while at the same time (I know I’m in a minority) I really don’t see what the fuss is about Mozart, whose music seems mostly trivial to me. As another example of the subjectivity of this label, Robinson constantly refers to Virginia Woolf as a genius. What? Is he serious? More celebrity than genius I would have said.
The more I read this book, the more I thought that this thing being labelled genius is an entirely different concept between (say) science, art & music. However, for some reason this difference doesn’t come though in the text until very late in the book, and when Robinson does cover it, what he says is not very satisfactory. He never explores the thesis, for example, that art only has a value that is set by fashion – genius in art is inevitably going to be subjective – while science can have an objective assessment of value that makes it much easier to pinpoint genius (even if the collective nature of scientific work makes it harder to assign this genius to an individual).
All in all it’s a good little book in that makes you think about the nature of genius – but an irritating topic, because in the end it’s a subject that is so arbitrary. A work of genius? Probably not.
We’re all used to the Darwinian perspective of nature being about raw competition, fighting tooth and nail for survival – but the reality is much more complex. Specifically, cooperation is a major feature of life, and mathematical biologist Martin Nowak, aided by journalist Roger Highfield, sets out to explain just what is going on.
What is particularly interesting here if you are used to biology being all about field studies of the interaction of lesser spotted mole rats (or whatever), is that Nowak takes a modelling approach, making heavy use of game theory and other mathematical techniques to simulate the nature of cooperation. This really is interesting, though some of the topics covered (like indirect reciprocity and group selection) can leave the reader a little bogged down.
The trouble is, the authors are rather fond of flowery, hand-waving language and make some very broad assertions up front (like cooperation has to be put alongside mutation and selection in evolution) without initially justifying them. I am not saying that they are necessarily wrong in the importance they give to cooperation, but the result comes across as more than a little pompous. To be fair, though, this settles down rather once we’re into the main part of the book.
The book also falls into something of a trap that emerges when an active scientist co-authors with a journalist. Journalists like human interest, and the result seems to be that the scientist is encouraged to put a lot of themselves into the book. This is all very well when writing about the history of science, when details of Newton’s life, say, help us put his work into context. But when it’s a living author doing this about themselves, the result is to come across – unintentionally I believe – as self-important. Some readers will like this approach, so I can’t say it’s definitely wrong, but I’m afraid it puts my back up.
Overall, then, the result is an interesting concept, with some delightful ideas behind it, that would have made an excellent feature article in New Scientist, but stretched over a book it feels to rather drag. If you are particularly interested in the field, then this is a book you must read, but I’m not sure if it has enough going for it to be a must read for those with a broader interest in science.