Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Magical Mathematics – Persi Diaconis & Ron Graham ***

This is an oddity of a popular maths book in that the approachable bits of the book aren’t, on the whole, about maths but about magic. Magic is a strange topic – for me, certainly, it has a fascination. When I was at school I briefly flirted with the school’s magical society, but in the end I hadn’t the patience to practice the tricks over and over again until they were slick enough to be worth watching. I wanted instant magic that didn’t require sleight of hand ability. The other interesting thing about magic as a topic is that we seem, mostly, to have lost patience with the traditional forms. On the TV show Britain’s Got Talent, magicians mostly don’t fare well as the audience and judges don’t have the patience to sit through the build. We love Derren Brown’s dramatic showmanship, but not traditional tricks. This means that Persi Diaconis and Ron Graham have a potentially difficult audience.
Magical Mathematics really has three different threads interwoven. There’s biographical information about magicians (this is the smallest part). There are details of how to do tricks. And there’s the maths behind the tricks. These are actual tricks which at first sight should have appealed to my young self because they are worked by mathematics – the magician need have no physical dexterity. This sounds horribly like the kind of recreational maths (you know, magic squares and the like) that mathematicians get all excited about but for most people cause big yawns. However, when you look at some of these tricks in terms of the effect, they are very impressive. I particularly like one where five spectators each cut a pack of cards in turn, then take a card each. They are asked to do a simple thing (everyone with a red card stands up), and the magician then tells each of them which card they are holding. That really is impressive.
Of course there’s no gain without pain, and in the case of this trick, though there is no dexterity required, you do have to remember (or otherwise access) quite a lot of information. Even so it’s a great trick, and the maths behind it, on de Bruijn sequences (don’t ask) is also really interesting, including some real world applications of the mathematical structure that’s used. This is by far the most engaging bit of the book – but even here, the maths isn’t particularly well explained. I didn’t really get the first explanation and it was only because there’s a second chapter dedicated to the applications that I grasped what was going on. It’s not complicated, it’s just that the explanation isn’t particularly well written.
Other sections of the book proved less interesting. The tricks were not so impressive or the maths was obscure, hard to follow and, frankly, more than a little dull. It got even worse when juggling was brought into the mix, something that, along with mimes, should have been banished from the world many years ago. Only jugglers appreciate juggling.
The underlying thesis, that you can do real, entertaining magic driven by maths was interesting (though I wish it hadn’t concentrated so much on card magic, which is one of the less appealing aspects of the business). The idea of combining explanations of tricks with info on the maths was good too. But overall the book (and I’ve no idea why it’s in a near-coffee table format) didn’t really work for me.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 23 May 2011

Pleasure [The Compass of Pleasure] – David J. Linden ****

There are times when I feel like the bowl of petunias in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. For those who aren’t initiates, these petunias were created in space above a planet (along with a sperm whale) as a side effect of a spaceship using an ‘infinite improbability drive.’ As the whale falls it goes through various philosophical discoveries before going splat. The bowl of petunias just thinks ‘Oh no, not again.’
The reason for this rather long-winded introduction is that at the moment the popular science market is absolutely flooded with books about emotions and feelings. The touch-feelies have taken over the science asylum. Less than a year ago there was How Pleasure Works, we’ve had at least two books on happiness, more on human attraction, others on wellbeing. Frankly, it can make you want to be miserable. If I’m honest I wasn’t greatly cheered up by the subtitle ‘How our brains make junk food, exercise, marijuana, generosity and gambling feel so good.’ It sounds to be trying too hard. (It’s interesting that it was felt okay to mention drugs in the subtitle, but not sex, which is obviously another of the topics this book covers.) And yet… and yet the book actually delivers some enjoyable, dare I say pleasurable, moments.
As I read David Linden’s prologue, starting with a conversation with a taxi-driver in Bangkok offering him pretty well every vice available, I thought ‘this is going to be fun’ – and it often is. Linden makes an excellent point about the apparent strangeness of the way practically every pleasure is also a vice – something the rest of the book will explore and explain very thoroughly.
He then takes each of the principle pleasures suggested by that list in the subtitle (plus sex) and combines an exploration of just what the experience is from the brain’s viewpoint with details from research on how we (and various animals) respond to pleasurable stimuli, what the effects are on the brain and how the consequent signals are generated, transmitted and used. The first chapter looks at the early experimental setups that first made such studies possible, while the second concentrates on the impact of various drugs from LSD to caffeine, alcohol and nicotine, and also explores what addiction is. These first two chapters are absolutely brilliant. I was fascinated and learned a lot.
The minor problem is that after that it’s all a bit downhill (as it was for the bowl of petunias). Actually that’s a bit unfair. The part of each chapter about the experience and the experiments is always interesting. But when Linden gets on to explaining the biochemistry in each chapter this gets a trifle dull – there’s a slight feeling of ‘can we get over the jargon and back to the science, please.’ To get a feel for what I mean here is a randomly selected such bit:
‘This is particularly true of a subset of slow-acting glutamate receptors called metabotropic receptors, which have a more limited distribution in the nervous system and which are engaged only by particular patterns of neural activity. One receptor, called the metabotropic glutamate receptor type 5 (mGluR5) has received particular attention, as it is strongly expressed in key portions of the pleasure circuit, including the neurons of the nucleus accumbens and the dorsal striatum.’ That’s okay, then.
It’s not, obviously, that we’ve anything against the science bits. Popular science wouldn’t exactly work without them. But the key is making science accessible, and as Richard Feynman was fond of pointing out, biologists do sometimes seem to have an enthusiasm for labelling things, and considering knowing these names to be science in its own right.
So this was a book that started off brilliantly, and though it didn’t quite live up to its initial promise, it continued to produce fascinating insights and was well worth the effort of getting past the occasional dull bit to produce an overall powerful four star package. Perhaps not up with the heights of pleasure, but pleasurable nonetheless.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 19 May 2011

David Linden – Four Way Interview

David J. Linden is professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Maryland, USA. The author of more than ninety scientific papers and the acclaimed book The Accidental Mind, he also serves as editor-in-chief of the Journal of Neurophysiology. His latest book is Pleasure.
Why Science?
It was either that or crime and science seemed slightly less risky.
Why this book?
This book is about how the pleasure centers of the brain are activated by food, sex, meditation, exercise, drugs, gambling, paying taxes and goofing around on the Internet. It required a lot of fieldwork but I was prepared to make that sacrifice for my readers. Pleasure is the first book to explain the biology of reward in a way that will make you feel smarter and give you a laugh at the same time. Plus, it will provide you with clever anecdotes about topics from lesbian bonobo sex to the neuroscience of weight loss to hallucinogenic reindeer urine that will make you the toast of your social circle.
What’s next?
More fieldwork, I think.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
My lab has several new efforts that have me very enthused. These rely upon implanting cranial windows in the skulls of mice and then placing the mice under a special microscope (called a 2-photon confocal microscope) that allows us to see into the middle of otherwise opaque living brain tissue. This technique is allowing us to make time-lapse movies showing how neurons, glial cells and blood vessels in the brain respond to exercise and motor learning and how recovery of function proceeds following brain damage from amphetamine drugs.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

The Little Book of Medical Breakthroughs – Naomi Craft ***

Naomi Craft’s small book is a handy reference guide to the development of medicine over the years. She takes us through some of the most significant advances in chronological order, with each entry being one or two pages long, and also covering the main people behind the discoveries and breakthroughs, the time of the breakthroughs, and the places the advances originated.
We have big theoretical breakthroughs in science, which advanced our general understanding of how to practice medicine, like the outcome of Mendel’s experiments on peas and Watson and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA. We look at the emergence of operational techniques, like key hole surgery and tele-surgery (where the doctor and patient can be separated by thousands of miles). We have small practical advances, like the idea that hand washing can prevent the spread of disease. And we look at ideas that have changed the culture within which medicine is done – evidence-based medicine (including randomised-controlled trials) is covered, for instance, with this now being seen as just as important as the authority of individual doctors.
There are some interesting facts along the way. It is said, for instance, that the Roman philosopher Seneca used to read books through a bowl filled with water, using it as a primitive lens. And there are quite a few unpleasant medical practices covered – one of these, which isn’t the worst example in the book, is doctors drinking their patients’ urine to measure the sweetness of it. They were testing for what we now know as diabetes.
There is enough context and surrounding information in each short article for the book not to feel too much like a dictionary and, as everything is in chorological order, it is something you could read to get a general feel for the history of medicine. Being the kind of book that it is, there’s nothing to get too excited about – but it does the job it aims to do well.
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Review by Matt Chorley

Time – Eva Hoffman ***

In this book, Eva Hoffman diagnoses a problem (particularly in the West) where, over recent years, we have been trying to squeeze more and more into ever shorter periods of time, both at work and in our leisure time. It is as if, she says, we have felt we need to battle against the unstoppable passage of time, as if we feel time is always against us, and that we have to constantly remain busy in order to live worthwhile lives.
We look at the cultural and technological reasons for why this has happened, and consider findings of neuroscience that support Hoffman’s view that many of us need to slow down, overcome our preoccupation with time, take life at a more reasonable pace, and rediscover things like ‘quality time’ with no fixed boundaries we spend with those close to us.
One of the ways of thinking about all of this is the following. Have you ever had the experience of struggling with a difficult concept or idea, and giving up on it in a state of confusion – but of coming back to the idea the day next and finding you understand it much better? Chances are you have, and it will have been because, provided you got enough sleep overnight, your brain had a chance to process and make sense of the information while you were resting. As Hoffman explains, when we overwork ourselves or try and fit too much in, believing we don’t want to waste time or spend time unproductively, we actually deprive ourselves of the necessary ‘downtime’ we need to properly deal with, unconsciously, what we come across in life. This can mean we lose a sense of perspective, and find it more difficult to reflect on the past. Ultimately, it is sometimes good to set aside time to doing nothing in particular, and we should always get sufficient rest.
It is a message that most of us can probably agree with, and that is conveyed well in the book. My problem was that the science was sometimes fairly summary, and I didn’t like the number of times Freud and psychoanalysis were brought into the discussion. There references mean the book just doesn’t read like a convincing scientific exploration of the subject.
This is still an interesting philosophical reflection on the way we perceive time in modern society, though, and will give you pause for thought – and I did enjoy reading it. It is worth reading for its undoubtedly important message, but the science underpinning the message could have been done better.
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Review by Matt Chorley

Monday, 16 May 2011

Packing for Mars – Mary Roach ****

The rating on this book is a real head versus heart thing. I went with my heart. If I’d listened to my head, I would have given it a lower rating, or even not reviewed it at all. Because Mary Roach’s book contains very little science – and actually surprisingly little technology too. If I can draw a parallel, to call this popular science is a bit like calling a travel book that happens to be about an area of great geological interest ‘popular science’. The ‘place’ Roach explores – space travel and astronauts – is indubitably very much about technology, but the book itself is really a travel/personal experiences book and for that reason sits rather oddly here.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great book and that’s why it got four stars. It is mostly very enjoyable to read, with fascinating material from the NASA archive plus interviews with the people involved in spaceflight, both astronauts and on the ground. It just ignores much of the science and technology and concentrates on the people and their experiences. You will, however, find out about all the hazards of zero g. About eating and going to the toilet in space. About surviving (and not surviving) disasters and much more.
If I am honest, there were a couple of chapters I mostly skipped as they concentrated too much on medical issues and on ways people get broken by extreme conditions, which really didn’t interest me. But there is much to savour. Although vaguely aware of the difficulties, I really hadn’t thought about just how many problems there were with going to the loo in zero gravity – or how embarrassing many of the solutions are. And there’s some fascinating material on the apes who went into space just before the first American astronauts.
I’m not sure everyone will like Roach’s chatty and sometimes eyebrow raising tone, but I did. I was, however, a bit disappointed with the very shallow analysis of the costs and benefits of human spaceflight. I personally find the risk (and cost) hard to justify for the dubious benefits over unmanned flight, and I think she could have done more to defend her position that it’s all worthwhile.
There are also a number of dangling stories. For example, she teases us with the fact that in 2010 Felix Baumgartner was due to perform a freefall jump from space that, in part, would act as a test of whether it was possible to bail out of an ailing space capsule. As it happens the real story gets even stranger as the jump never happened because of a lawsuit from someone else claiming to own ‘certain rights to the project.’ I suppose the biggest dangling story is the ‘Will they, won’t they?’ for an expedition to Mars – that is certainly one that’s going to run and run.
Overall, then an often funny (particularly the footnotes – do read the footnotes), informative and entertaining venture into the experiences and minds of astronauts and those involved in the space industry. Just not a lot of popular science.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Quantum Man – Lawrence Krauss ****

With the exception of science’s Holy Trinity of Newton, Darwin and Einstein, the scientist who has probably had most written about him is Richard Feynman. Arguably the second most brilliant physicist of the twentieth century, and without doubt the most charismatic, Feynman is a natural biographical subject. To see a video of him giving a lecture, whether you understand him or not, is ridiculously entertaining for a scientist. If he had been played in a movie it should have been by a young Tony Curtis (accent included). And his own stories of his adventures, brilliantly told, if occasionally embroidered, in Surely You Must be Joking Mr Feynman and the like, are unparalleled.
Given all this, do we really need another Feynman biography? The Gleick book Genius surely says all there is to say?
The answer is yes and no. If what you want is a good, approachable biography of Feynman, look no further than Gleick. If, on the other hand, you really want to get a feel for the nature of Feynman’s science, then to turn to Quantum Man. The subtitle is ‘a life in science’ but it should be ‘a life through science’ because physicist Lawrence Krauss makes sure that the science dominates. In fact this is arguably not a biography at all but rather a book on Feynman’s scientific achievements that makes passing reference to his life. So, for instance, his second wife gets no more than half a page of coverage.
The one problem with this approach is the book is neither one thing or another, which can be quite frustrating. Krauss describes the science in more detail than some readers will be comfortable with, but it is all covered fleetingly enough to make it quite difficult to follow. He gives us tantalising peeks at the detail that doesn’t make it into a conventional biography, but fails to explain in enough depth for it to be meaningful, which can be frustrating.
Nonetheless this is a very good book for those who are prepared to work a little at their popular science. I would recommend reading the Gleick book first and would see this almost as a supplement to get more detail of the significance of the science. If Krauss could have made the scientific content more approachable this would have been a marvel of a book. As it is, it is solid and a very useful addition to the Feynman canon.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Farmer Buckley’s Exploding Trousers – Stephanie Pain (Ed.) ****

I love this job – I have just gone from writing about a book on zombies to reading about exploding trousers (and other odd events). This is another of New Scientist‘s highly entertaining ‘how to fossilize a penguin’s gerbil’ type books, with a list of unrelated interesting scientific factoids, in this case about accidental, strange and unlikely discoveries.
I think the book doesn’t do itself any favours by starting with medical examples, which I found amongst the weakest of the stories, but then Stephanie Pain’s selection settles down in fine fettle with a straightforward formula that has a short teaser on the subject followed by the story of the discovery, experiment or event that is being covered.
If I’m honest, I didn’t find the book as enjoyable as some of the other New Scientist science factoid books. I think this is in part because the text tended to be longer in these pieces (based on the ‘Histories’ series in the magazine), and partly because some of the subjects were rather more worthy than exciting. So, for instance, we hear how a humble dock labourer, William Henley, made an insulation winding machine that made it easier to make early electrical devices. It’s heart-warming stuff, but there’s not a lot of science, nor, to be honest, fun.
However other pieces have more to interest the reader, whether it’s the exploding trousers of the title (caused by farm workers using the oxidant sodium chlorate as a weedkiller, something I confess I did in my youth (using sodium chlorate, not having exploding trousers)), toads appearing inside rocks (suspected to be a hoax) or the surprising invention of high quality stereo recording during the Second World War. The subtitle claims the book’s subject is ‘odd events on the way to scientific discovery’ but in reality there is relatively little science here – it’s much more about technology, though remaining none the worse for that.
Overall this was a solid book that had a QI-like ‘quite interesting’ atmosphere, and plenty of historical content, but with a rather less populist feel than its predecessors.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Zombie Science 1Z – ‘Doctor Austin’ ***

I’ve long been of the opinion that there must be a way to combine effective popular science with fiction to make it easier to digest. It works reasonably well in children’s books, but I’ve yet to seen it done to great effect in a title for older readers. The good news is that this book is the best effort I’ve seen yet.
Set in the form of a ‘course’ on zombieology, the book picks away at the typical movie zombie, removes the impossible aspects (like being dead and alive at the same time) and constructs a near-feasible picture for ‘real’ zombies. Along the way we learn quite a lot about the way corpses decay, and about various potential brain defects that could lead to a zombie-like state. Doctor Austin’s conclusion is that being a zombie may well be a result of a prion induced ailment, giving the opportunity to explore the fascinating, if rather depressing world of rogue prions, responsible for mad cow disease and CJD.
The cover is beautifully produced – it could easily be for a professional adventure game – and it is accompanied by a slick website. Up to this point this is a five star book. It loses one for the subject – in the end, zombies only seem to open up a quite small area of medical science that might not get a wide audience as a popular science subject – and loses another because the writing, while okay has clearly not been subjected to a good edit.
If you get a first edition of the book, the text is laid out very amateurishly (it just screams ‘self published’, although supposedly this has been in the hands of a publisher) with nowhere near enough white space or paragraph formatting. Now this has been significantly improved – the layout is much better. The other problem with the text is that it is desperately crying out for a good professional edit, to bring it up to a traditionally published book. There is some phrasing like: ‘Decomposition is the name given to the biological and chemical changes that occur soon after death. How soon, well approximately four minutes after the death of a human decomposition starts to take hold.’ which is so clumsy it could be taken from a 10-year-old’s essay.
It’s a shame that ‘Doctor Austin’ (I wish the author had a real name and bio somewhere rather than leaving the book in the hands of a fictional character) didn’t have a traditional publisher to sort out his text, or this could have been absolutely brilliant. As it is it’s a good effort and shows promise for the future.
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Review by Brian Clegg