Sunday, 21 August 2011

The Rough Guide to the Future – Jon Turney ***

This is a really interesting book, which is why I feel I need to explain up front why it only has three stars. In part it’s because this is a science website, and there is an awful lot of this book that isn’t science. ‘Futurology’ itself certainly isn’t a science – it’s collection of opinion. As the saying goes, the plural of anecdote is not data, and collecting together opinions is not science. It’s also notable that the chapter on ‘science futures’ is practically all about technology. Nothing about future discoveries in physics, cosmology, chemistry or even biology (as opposed to biotech and medicine).
The other reason I can’t give the book too high a score is that it’s not always great to read. This says nothing about Jon Turney’s writing, which is great, wonderfully readable and well crafted. It’s all down to the topic and the format. The problem with the topic is that, frankly, when you get down to looking at the future (future of economics, future of politics, future of food supply…) it starts reading like a government ministry checklist. It’s only likely to really excite a civil servant. We want the future to be all about ray guns and jet packs, not supply and demand curves.
As for the format, it’s a case of boxitis. I don’t know why, but some publishers love having little boxes on the page with separate bits of text. I started writing business books before I got into popular science and business publishers absolutely insist on boxes, as, apparently, do the Rough Guide people – I can’t imagine Turney wanted it. Boxes work fine in a traditional Dorling Kindersley style two page spread, where the main body text is complete in itself on the two pages. But in a normal book, where the body text flows from page to page, as it does here, when are you supposed to read the boxes? If you do it at the start or end of the page, you often have to stop reading midsentence. It’s just irritating.
There’s a lot to be interested by and enjoy in this book. I particularly liked it when Turney invoked science fiction and made comparisons with the more way-out ideas of the future from the past. We find out a lot about important topics like climate change, energy problems, water problems and more in a very approachable way. I really, really wanted to like this book. But I didn’t. I would have liked to have seen more comparison of old futurology with what really happened (for example Tofler’s fascinating but almost entirely disastrously wrong ideas in Future Shock). And I’m disappointed that the book tells us that the world’s first maglev train runs from Shanghai Airport. (What about Birmingham Airport’s maglev from last century?) But on the whole the coverage is fine – it’s just the problems detailed above that prevented me from enjoying this ride into the future.
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Using Science Fiction to Stimulate Interest in Science Fact – Douglas E. Richards

Science popularizer Douglas Richards argues that Science Fiction is a great way to get kids interested in science itself. See our review of The Prometheus Project.
I have a Master’s degree in molecular biology and write science pieces for National Geographic KIDS magazine. As a kid, I read nothing but science fiction, much of it by actual scientists striving to get the science correct, and I know firsthand the power of this genre to stoke interest in science.
This is a widespread phenomena, with no better exemplar than Star Trek. The number of NASA scientists that were inspired by this series is well known and explains why so many real space ships have taken their names from those found in the Star Trek universe. Martin Cooper, the inventor of the cell phone, cited Captain Kirk’s communicator as his inspiration for the invention. Mark D. Rayman, Chief Propulsion Engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, developed Ion Propulsion, inspired by the Star Trek episode, “Spock’s Brain.” The principle scientist at Apple, Steve Perlman, created QuickTime after watching Data the Android accessing his favorite songs on the computer, and QuickTime has been the progenitor of MP3 music, iPods, and YouTube (All of the above examples, and many more, can be found in the documentary, “How William Shatner Changed the World.”) Professor Lawrence Krauss of Case Western University has written a book, “The Physics of Star Trek.” And Southwest Washington Medical Center, on its web site, describes a new procedure as follows: “Inspired by the scalpel-free technique of Dr. McCoy on Star Trek, CyberKnife combines advanced robotics and missile-guidance technology to pinpoint the position of tumors and deliver highly focused beams of radiation without damaging surrounding tissue.”
Endless additional examples abound. This is but the tip of the iceberg for Star Trek, and there are any number of science fiction novels that have inspired interest in science as well.
When I had kids of my own, I couldn’t wait to introduce them to science fiction that would expand their minds the way mine had been expanded. Unfortunately, most of the science fiction I read as a teen was written for adults, and the science within was often either glossed over or was far too complex and advanced for young readers. My hope was to find a series of science fiction books written principally for forth, fifth, and sixth graders that would contain scrupulously accurate science, and lots of it, and that would be impossible for my kids to put down. In addition to touching on scientific facts, I also wanted the books to cover key scientific concepts that would compliment what they were learning in school.
I never did find a series that would accomplish what I wanted. While there were science fiction books that imparted science to kids tangentially, and could inspire imaginations, including a Star Trek series for kids, I was unable to find one whose purpose for being was to synergize with children’s science classes. So I decided to write a series of science fiction thrillers of my own to do just that. To ensure I could explore endless scientific topics, I decided to set the books in a vast, abandoned alien city, buried deep underground, where multidisciplinary teams of Earth’s greatest scientists would study the amazing technology found within.
In the first book in the series, The Prometheus Project — Trapped, the protagonists (a brother/sister pair named after my own two children) stumble upon the alien city and then get cut off from the scientist team, leaving them trapped inside and facing unimaginable dangers. The kids soon realize that they need to use the scientific method to understand the dangers they face and to find a way to save their mother’s life. I introduced “cool science” into the book wherever I could as long as it served the story. I also raised broad topics I hoped would stimulate children’s imaginations. For example, I had the characters discuss the following question: what would people from hundreds of years ago make of today’s world? Of our televisions, airplanes, and cell phones? They would almost certainly think our technology was magic. So wouldn’t science and technology well in advance of ours seem like magic to us? And along with great benefits, couldn’t the study of this science lead to unexpected dangers? (like a caveman sticking his finger into an innocent light socket).
The reaction to these books by kids, parents, and educators has been everything I had hoped it would be. Trapped has been called, “Perfect for middle grades,” by Teaching Pre K-8 Magazine, has been endorsed by the California Department of Education, and is included on Missouri State University’s list of “Best New Books to Engage Students in Math and Science.” Both Trapped and Captured (the second book in the series) have been endorsed by the California Science Teachers Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. A number of teachers have even used Trapped as a read aloud and scientific discussion starter in their classrooms. “My class loved it,” said a fifth-grade teacher who was quoted by the San Diego Union-Tribune. “They were totally engaged.” A recent review published in the North Carolina Science Teachers Association Newsletter adds, “The Prometheus Project could make a great addition to the North Carolina Standard Course of Study in middle grades science. As a fast-paced science fiction adventure about an underground city built by an advanced alien civilization would help to teach children about science and technology by appealing to their creative minds. I recommend this book to any middle school science teacher, as well as reluctant readers and students interested in science fiction thrillers.”
I would like to think that Trapped and Captured add to the grand tradition of science fiction books that foster a fascination with science and a lifelong hunger to learn more about it (for the grade-school and middle-school set). For other ideas on how to use science fiction as a teaching tool in the classroom, consider reading Teaching Science Fact With Science Fiction by Gary Raham.
To learn more about the author and his books (including full reviews and National Geographic KIDS science pieces) go to You can write the author at Click here for a lesson plan for the books published on ScienceNetLinks. 

Friday, 19 August 2011

Spider Silk – Leslie Brunetta & Catherine L. Craig *****

Somewhere in Spider Silk the authors describe one of the first arachnids coming out of the sea onto the land around 400 million years ago. There was little vegetation but for 150 million years these trigonotarbids persisted. They had eight legs and they looked very much like today’s spiders, but with one very important difference: they made no silk.
Silk-making arachnids, attercops, arrived, perhaps, around 20 million years later, but it was not until 290 million years ago that the first arachnids with spinnerets arrived on the scene. These were called mesotheles and 90 species survive to this day. Their mating ritual involves limbo dancing. Some of them lay trip wires. They live in burrows lined with silk and with silken trap doors, and from these they lie in wait…
The mygalomorphae, which arrived 50 millions years later, are hairy and rather large (the tarantula is an example) and unlike the mesotheles, have spinnerets at the end of their abdomen which gives them greater flexibility in web design. Some of them are lethally amorous: interrupt the hour-long clinch of the Sydney Funnelweb at your peril. A bite from one of these little beauties can cause an autonomic storm that can be fatal in the vulnerable.
The next development came with the araneomorphs. These are the most successful arachnids in the world today. They outnumber the mesotheles and mygalomorphs by fourteen to one, and are the silk connoisseurs. All arachnids produce different sorts of silk, but the silk of araneomorphs is made to order. It can be superstrong, superstretchy, supersticky or superfluffy according to requirements – and scientists would love to emulate it.
136 million years ago the araneoidea superfamily came up with the spider trade-mark: the orb. However, since this turned out to have a major design flaw, this is under further development by firm arachnid today.
The book makes fascinating reading with plenty of quirky spider facts. The origin, genetics and molecular structure of the silk is assessed and used to explain the properties, and all of this then set in the context of the web and the behaviour of the spider. Along the way it takes the opportunity to discuss aspects of basic genetics, developmental evolutionary theory and evolution itself. In fact, its description of the finer points of Darwin’s evolutionary theory and the explanation of how it differed from earlier theory was the best I’ve ever read. It will give you a new appreciation of the wild life of your home, and give you an excellent excuse not to dust.
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Clare Dudman

Earth: in 100 groundbreaking discoveries – Douglas Palmer ****

If I am honest my heart fell a little at the sight of this book. Although publishers seem to love ‘100 best whatever’ books and the like – which presumably means they sell – I find them mostly tedious. Ok, they can be handy gift books if you can’t think of anything better to give someone, but I rarely feel the urge to buy one. Usually they are a compendium of little articles with no flow and limited readability. They are okay to dip into, but little more.
Douglas Palmer’s book, then, was a considerable relief – because it can be read from end to end as a real book. It tells the story of the development of the Earth from its creation, through the formation of the continents, plate tectonics and more, to the present day. A surprising amount of the book is also about the development of life, in part through the fossil remains found in the Earth, so it’s a mix of a geology and a biology book. For good measure there is a bit towards the end about energy sources, climate change and natural resources.
Palmer’s writing is approachable, but I have to say that after about a dozen sections, I lost interest a little bit and felt the urge to skip forward to when the living things started to emerge. Fascinating though the basics of the Earth’s structure and formation are, geology is a topic where it’s very difficult to keep the interest rate going, and I did find my attention dropping off. That it was kept at all, was because of the impressive and sometimes stunning photographs that accompany each section.
Although you can read the book end to end, the 100 sections do slightly break up the flow. I tended to ignore the headings each section has (rather portentous stuff along the lines of: Definition/Discovery/Key Breakthrough/Importance) and just stick with the main text.
So the good news – this is probably the best ‘whatever in 100 blah blah’ type book I’ve ever read. (Why it’s ‘groundbreaking discoveries’ I’ve no idea, as many of the sections aren’t anything of the sort.) But it’s not a format I find endearing. I’m sure Douglas Palmer could have made this a better book still if he hadn’t been constrained by the format.
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Douglas Palmer – Four Way Interview

Douglas Palmer is a a science writer and lecturer on Earth Sciences for the University of Cambridge Institute of Continuing Education. He is the author of more than 20 books, most recently Earth: in 100 groundbreaking discoveries. He is a consultant for BBC Wildlife Magazine and a regular contributor to New Scientist and Science magazines.
Why science?
Whilst the sex lives of footballers and celebs undoubtedly have a certain interest, the science of planet Earth has more variety, drama and relevance in the greater scheme of things. Whilst in a year or two the shenanigans of most of our dear little celebs will have evaporated in the ether, the science of Earth will still be impacting upon our everyday lives, whether we like it or not and whether we are aware of it or not – you have been warned.
Why this book?
Earth’s story is an ever ending one with new insights, problems and resolutions emerging every day but still very little of the science news gets through our media quagmire. This book is my latest effort to try and bring some of the science news – both good and bad to light, in what is hopefully a readable and interesting way.
What’s next?
I have just launched my website, but it just has basic stuff about my previous books. Now the work begins as I want to use it to pass on to any interested reader updates on stories I have already written about and new science stories that I find interesting.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
This week’s Nature journal has a great news story about Archaeopteryx, which is one of the most important fossil finds ever made as it provided good evidence for the evolution of birds from reptiles. Its discovery came just after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species and provided the first convincing support for his evolutionary theory from the fossil record. Ever since Archaeopteryx has been seen as the earliest known and most basal true bird. However, a new discovery of a feathered bird-dinosaur from China and its analysis is questioning whether Archaeopteryx was really the most primitive bird. This research will generate a considerable debate and help us re-evaluate the early origin of the birds.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Frank Ryan – Four Way Interview

Frank Ryan is a consultant physician and an innovative evolutionary biologist. He has pioneered the concept of viruses as symbionts. His book on tuberculosis, renamed The Forgotten Plague, was a non-fiction book of the year for the New York Times, while his Darwin’s Blind Spot created interest in academic and lay circles, leading to Frank being elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London. Frank’s new book for 2011 is Metamorphosis/ The Mystery of Metamorphosis, in the UK and US respectively. Frank’s books have been the subject of many TV and radio documentaries. He is also an occasional reviewer of books for the New York Times.
Why science?
I’m a physician with an interest in evolutionary biology, so science has been my life for forty years. It attracted me in the first place because it tries to answer some of the great mysteries of life and the universe through logic and experiment.
Why this book?
I’ve always been fascinated by the dramatic changes of metamorphosis. One of the most fascinating is the highly topical evolutionary thread that links the tadpole larva of the sea squirt, which probably evolved more than 500 million years ago, to the present-day development of the human forebrain in the foetus. Metamorphosis bridges these extraordinary evolutionary distances. Twelve years ago Lynn Margulis, the famous US scientist, asked me to take an interest in the work of Don Williamson. I see his work as involving the most extreme hybridisation theory, and even more importantly, extreme hybridisation experiments ever in evolutionary biology. In two of his experiments he produced what may be the first ever artificial life form produced in the lab. The experiment is described in more detail on my website.
What’s next?
My personal field is the role of viruses in the origins of life and its subsequent diversity. So this interest, which I term “viral symbiosis” (which was described in my book, Virolution), will continue to preoccupy me.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
The first ever symbiotic role for a HERV-K (human endogenous retrovirus) has just been reported. HERV-Ks are specific to mammals and include the only HERVs exclusive to humans. It appears to be expressing its genes deep within the human placenta – the involvement of HERV-Ks in our human evolution is very exciting.

Metamorphosis – Frank Ryan ****

Every now and then a theory comes along that challenges mainstream thinking in a scientific field and all too often the established scientists are not great at taking on board the new mode of thinking. Of course the theory could be incorrect – but often the scientific establishment don’t even take the trouble to really think about the idea, or dismiss the theory out of hand because it breaks with orthodoxy.
This has always happened. Newton’s first submission to the Royal Society on light and colour was pushed aside by Robert Hooke, who later admitted that he didn’t really bother to read it properly. I’m not saying that the biological establishment haven’t bothered to read the theory that is a major part of Frank Ryan’s book, but they certainly have shown signs of sticking with the standard approach without really thinking about the alternatives, as if Darwin’s support for an idea makes it inevitably right. Come on guys, even Einstein got it wrong occasionally.
The theory in question is that of British biologist Donald Williamson. Williamson has suggested that some (perhaps all) organisms where the animal goes through a metamorphosis from a very different larval stage (think caterpillars and butterflies) is the result of hybridization between different species, where an animal that initially had a straightforward lifecycle had blended in the early forms of another animal.
Because this runs counter to basic Darwinian theory (without in any sense countering the basics of evolution or its mechanisms) the idea’s supporters have really had to fight for it to get it noticed – and yet the more you think about it, the better the idea is.
Williamson’s isn’t the only story that Frank Ryan covers in this wide-ranging book about metamorphosis (he even identifies puberty as a sort of partial metamorphosis in humans), but it is the central thread. In terms of the story, the characters, the theory – this is a brilliant book. But it has a couple of flaws. One is the lack of illustrations. Each chapter has a picture as a heading, but that’s it. There are many points in the book that really cry out for illustrations to make it clearer what is being described.
The second problem is that Ryan isn’t a great writer. His style is approachable but he can be long-winded. For example he takes 3 pages to tell us that insects have to moult because their rigid exoskeleton doesn’t grow. And some of the detail he gives can be a little mind-numbing. But it is perfectly possible to see past any style issues to discover a superb story, some excellent scientific insights and a fascinating theory. Recommended.
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Brian Switek – Four Way Interview

Brian Switek is a freelance science writer based out of Salt Lake City, Utah. In addition to writing about paleontology and natural history for publications such as Smithsonian, Scientific American, the Wall Street Journal, The Times, and others, he has published academic articles on fossils and has participated in fieldwork in Utah, Wyoming, and Montana. He also writes the blogs Laelaps for Wired Science and Dinosaur Tracking for Smithsonian. Written in Stone is his first book, and he is currently working on a follow-up titled A Date with a Dinosaur.
Why science?
Science is our ongoing effort to interrogate nature and understand the universe we inhabit. The more we discover, the more questions we have, and how we perceive ourselves is intimately wrapped up in our endeavour to understand reality. Science is not just the systematic accumulation of facts – it is an essential part of the human journey filled with poetry, serendipity, and surprises.
Why this book?
There’s no shortage of books about evolution, but I was frustrated by the short shrift the fossil record received in many of them. How can we understand evolution at all if we virtually ignore the deep history of life on earth? The patterns and processes of evolution in the deep past provide the essential context for life on earth today, and wanted to introduce readers to the intricate beauty of what prehistoric life can teach us about how familiar parts of the natural world came to be as they are.
What’s next?
I am currently working on my second book – A Date With a Dinosaur. I have been a dinosaur freak since I was knee-high to a Stegosaurus, so this is a dream come true for me. This summer I have been travelling around the west, searching for fossils with different field crews, and I hope that the stories I bring back with me will help my future readers understand why our image of dinosaurs has changed so drastically over the years. Why is the Tyrannosaurus of today not your daddy’s dinosaur? That’s what I’m setting out to explain.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
Paleontology is the most integrative of evolutionary sciences. It isn’t just the combination of geology and comparative anatomy – ideas and techniques from various disciplines, from biochemistry to evolutionary theory, have been brought into the science to better understand how the world was long before our species evolved. From the body temperatures of ichthyosaurs to the colours of dinosaurs, paleontologists are finally starting to approach questions we have always had but have previously been unable to answer. There has never been a more exciting time for paleontology than now.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Quantum Enigma – Bruce Rosenblum & Fred Kuttner ***

Of all the wonders of physics, none is more fascinating and mind-bending than quantum theory. But there is one aspect of it that, frankly, I find tedious – and as this book is dedicated to that aspect, I wasn’t hugely looking forward to reading it. The aspect in question is interpretations of quantum theory. Such is my distaste for these speculations that my book on quantum entanglement, The God Effect, only makes passing reference to them.
Quantum theory itself describes how very small particles – both matter and less substantial, like photons of light – behave. It’s a weird world, but a consistent one. The trouble comes when you try to make the bridge between that world and the ‘normal’ world we experience. For example, unless they are observed, quantum particles don’t have a precise location. Instead there is a range of possibilities, each with it’s probability predicted precisely by an equation. But until you check where a particle is, it isn’t in a single place. This is fine and all works well. But the ‘enigma’ of the title is how it works. How a particle (say) goes from being a range of possibilities to an actual location.
We usually loosely ascribe this fixing of the state of a particle to a measurement or an observation – but does that imply it requires conscious attention? (Which is why this book also considers consciousness.) This led Einstein to wryly ask if the moon is still there if no one is looking at it. In practice it seems obvious consciousness is not involved. A detector like a Geiger counter is enough to fix a location. But those who have agonized about this for years think that a totally isolated Geiger counter that had no contact with anything else whatsoever would not make an observation, but would go into an entangled state with the particle.
So apart from the original Copenhagen interpretation, which simply describes the probability wave function collapsing on contact with a macro object and doesn’t fuss too much about the detail, there are now a whole range of interpretations from the many worlds idea to Bohm’s transformation of reality that works on the whole universe all at once.
The trouble I have with all this is that it isn’t really science. It’s more metaphysics than physics. The interpretations all predict the same thing – quantum physics happening the way it does – but don’t really add anything because they remain speculation. If at some point we get a clear indication of an interpretation that can have our support as being distinguished by data as the best one, I’d be happy to think about it, but for the moment I can’t help but feel it’s a waste of time. I’m quite happy to say that quantum physics works the way it does and I don’t really care how it is interpreted. Just enjoy the science!
As it happens, it wasn’t as bad an experience reading the book as I thought. Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner make the various interpretations and the way this whole business strays into the nature of consciousness quite approachable, and they get the message across without resorting to too much painful philosophy. I would say, though, that they tend to labour the point. There’s a long and rather boring section with a story about someone visiting a world where macro objects behave like quantum particles that is entirely unnecessary, especially as all the same examples are gone through again later using an actual quantum particle. I really can’t see the point of this.
There are also a few not-quite-right moments when the pair stray from science to history of science (they are scientists, not writers, which perhaps explains this). One example that jumped out at me was the comment about philosopher George Berkeley that Berkeley was a bishop, going on to say ‘It was common in those days for English academics to be ordained as Anglican priests, though the celibacy of Newton’s day was no longer required. Berkeley married.’ The big problem here is that Berkeley and Newton were contemporaries. Admittedly Berkeley was younger, but their working lives overlapped in a big way (in fact Berkeley’s most famous contribution to science was his attack on Newton’s ‘method of fluxions). The point they seem to have missed is that Berkeley wasn’t a priest because he was an academic. He was a bishop first, and a philosopher in his spare time. He wasn’t a professional academic at all.
Overall, an interesting contribution to books on quantum theory if you want to know more about interpretations, but because of the topic, not one I can get too excited about.
Review by Brian Clegg