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Showing posts from May, 2011

Royal Society Winton Prize 2011

Read more about the 2011 Royal Society Winton Prize, arguably a summary of the best popular science books published in 2010. Here are the results: Winner The Wavewatcher’s Companion – Gavin Pretor-Pinney Shortlist Alex’s Adventures in Numberland – Alex BelosMassive – Ian SampleThe Disappearing Spoon – Sam KeanThe Rough Guide to the Future – Jon TurneyThrough the Language Glass – Guy DeutscherLonglist Here on Earth – Tim FlanneryPacking for Mars – Mary RoachSpider Silk – Leslie Brunetta & Catherine L. CraigThe Fever – Sonia ShahThe Price of Altruism – Oren HarmanThe Rational Optimist – Matt RidleyWhat Technology Wants – Kevin Kellyand here are our favourites that didn’t make the long list: 1089 and all that – David AchesonBoffinology – Justin PollardThe Canon – Natalie AngierThe Climate Files – Fred PearceDazzled and Deceived – Peter ForbesEconomyths – David Orrell

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 info…

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 …

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 circl…

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-contro…

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 th…

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 …

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 …

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 m…

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 profes…