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Showing posts from June, 2011

Mathematics of Life – Ian Stewart ****

Although there are a fair number of maths books by popular science writers, like our editor’s A Brief History of Infinity, or one-off books by mathematicians there are very few popular maths writers with a sizeable output. Leader of that very small pack is the highly productive Ian Stewart, mild mannered maths professor by day, popular maths writer by night. The premise of this book is almost one of conquest. Mathematics has had a central role in most of science throughout the ages. Galileo made it clear that maths was at the heart of science. But mostly biology has avoided it. There’s no doubt which aspect of science Rutherford most had in his sights when he came up with his famous put-down ‘All science is either physics or stamp collecting.’ The fact is that for most of its life, biology has been about collecting and classifying, with very little real science involved. But of course things have changed an awful lot now – and that includes the increasing use of mathematical technique…

Relativity for the Questioning Mind – Daniel Styler ****

On first inspection my paperback copy of this book had the look of a self-published title, with the small text on the back cover going right to the edge of the page and the front cover looking a little amateurish. The book is, however, published by Johns Hopkins University Press – and, luckily, once you get inside, there are no problems with the layout and no doubts about the quality. Relativity for the Questioning Mind is a little different from most popular science titles. It is ostensibly a workbook, with the idea being that the reader gets to grips with (mainly special) relativity through problem-solving rather than passive reading alone. Each short chapter sets a variety of problems to get you thinking, having first briefly introduced the relevant ideas and concepts, with hints and answers at the back of the book. Here is one of the simpler problems, in the chapter on time dilation, to give an idea of what these problems are like (the additional information and equations you need…

The Blind Spot – William Byers ***

If you decide to read this book, and you’re not a professional philosopher, you’d be advised to first find a quiet place where you won’t easily be disturbed, and proceed slowly. This is seriously difficult stuff. Or at least I found it so in parts. This is because William Byers’s aim is nothing less than to develop the foundations of a whole new philosophy of science, based on the ideas of ambiguity and uncertainty in science, and it’s very much written along the lines of’ ‘Now I will introduce the idea of…’ etc. I’ll give a sketch of what Byers’s way of thinking about science actually is – some elements of it are familiar and easily comprehensible, some less so. The general idea is that, whilst science has traditionally been seen as something which can provide certainty and which can give us a completely objective view of reality, there is an inherent uncertainty built into scientific ideas and a limit to what it can shed light on. Science can’t solve every problem, as we might be te…

The Most Human Human – Brian Christian ****

This is a brilliant concept well executed, if occasionally missing perfection due to a bit of pretentious twaddle. Of course I am well aware that one man’s pretentious twaddle is another person’s insightful and soul-searching philosophy, so you may appreciate Brian Christian’s musings, but I’d rather he stuck to the meat of the story. And what a wonderful story it is. Firstly, don’t be put off by the subtitle, A Defence of Humanity in the Age of the Computer – this makes it sound like a Bill McKibben style moan about how it’s time to stop with the technology and get back to nature. This isn’t what it’s about at all. Christian’s central theme is the Turing test – Alan Turing’s idea of seeing how far computers have advanced by asking a human to judge whether there is a computer or a person on the other end of a text message. In particular, Christian introduces us to the Loebner Prize which annually pits the world’s best chatbots against human beings for judges to distinguish in a 5 minu…

Dino Gangs - Josh Young ***

This is a book with an identity crisis. When I first saw the publicity material for it I assumed it was a children’s book. After all Dino Gangs is hardly an adult title. But no, it appears it is aimed at an adult audience. And then there’s the strange case of the author. The book cover is very clear there is one author, Josh Young. And in the ‘about the author’ section of the press release, there is also just one author. Dr Phil Currie. What? At the top of the press release the book is by ‘Dr Phil Currie & Josh Young.’ Totally confused. I turn to the copyright page as the definitive source, but the copyright belongs to ‘Atlantic Productions’, whoever they are. The reason for all this confusion is that in many ways this isn’t a book at all. Atlantic Productions is a TV production company that made a documentary about the work of palaeontologist Phil Currie for the Discovery Channel. What we have here is an attempt to turn the script of the documentary into readable form. This comes…

Discoverers of the Universe – Michael Hoskin *****

This was a really refreshing book to read. We’ve been inundated lately with title after title about the latest tiny discovery in biology, or some new and complex theory in physics. Here we have a perfect scientific biography of underappreciated contributors to our understanding of the universe – William Herschel and his sister Caroline. Some of the recent scientific biographies have been overblown, but this gets the balance just right. It’s not too long because it doesn’t try to cram in every single bit of research, and it achieves a good mix of the people and the science. Michael Hoskin leads us expertly and elegantly through the Herschels’ early life (always the hardest part because it has nothing to do with their achievements), their move to England, their musical careers and the development of astronomy from a hobby to a burning professional passion. At least for William. Just as interesting and less covered elsewhere is Caroline’s reluctant acceptance of her role as helper in Wil…

Numbers: a very short introduction – Peter M. Higgins ***

Part of the massive ‘a very short introduction’ range of pocket books, this book sets you straight immediately if you thought it was going to be about mathematics – no, it’s about number, which is quite a different thing. This is both true and not true, which really sets the pattern for the whole little book. Number is a quite distinct concept from maths, yet in discussing number, Peter Higgins inevitably brings in quite a lot of mathematics. The mixed feel continues with the presentation. The writing style is light and accessible for what can be quite an indigestible topic, but bits of the book are better than other in this respect. I wanted to keep reading, but I found myself feeling a strong urge to skip bits that seemed to be getting bogged down. After an introduction to what numbers are we’re plunged into prime numbers in some detail. From here we go on to the various labels mathematicians have for numbers, from perfect to deficient – this is faintly interesting, but it does gene…

Seven Tales of the Pendulum – Gregory L. Baker ***

There was a time when practically every review we published of an OUP popular science book had the same complaint. What we were forced to say again and again was that this was a book with a great idea, an excellent topic, and an expert writing it. But unfortunately that expert was an academic who didn’t have a clue how to write for the general public and the result was unreadable. In the last year or so, however, things have changed. OUP has come out with a good number of titles (e.g. The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III) which have been surprisingly readable. Unfortunately, this title is a return to form. It’s a wonderful subject. It has a neat concept in the ‘seven tales’. It’s written by an expert. But it is practically impenetrable. Things don’t start awfully well in the introduction, when Gregory L. Baker is a little condescending about producing a version of his ‘real’ book for the common herd. But he also reassures us ‘Readers may rest easy knowing that I am mindful of the warni…