Tuesday, 27 September 2011

The Calculus Diaries – Jennifer Ouellette ***

Popular maths is a pig to write – much harder than the rest of popular science. Unless you are dealing with one of the glamorous aspects like infinity or Fermat’s last theorem, there are two big problems in grabbing a reader’s attention. One is that the maths itself can be more than a little impenetrable, and the other is that the applications (if there are any) can seem more like mental doodling than telling us something mind blowing about reality, as is the case with something like physics.
Jennifer Ouellette sets out to address both these problems in a very personal take on calculus and its importance to us. She is a self-admitted fearer of calculus, an English graduate for whom it was once all a mystery – but with help from her physicist husband, she sets out to tame this powerful mathematical tool.
It’s a recipe for a really enjoyable book, and it kind of works. Ouellette takes us on a very personal journey, so there’s a lot about her and her husband and their adventures that, if I’m honest I wasn’t really particularly interested in. This may be a personal failing – I’m interested in mathematicians and their lives, but I don’t really want to know about Ouellette and partner’s attempts in a casino or how they pass on little messages to each other at home on a whiteboard. Still, it’s certainly true that the approach takes away some of the impersonal scariness of mathematics.
When it comes down to the calculus itself, I was in a bit of a quandary. It is a hugely important tool that scientists and engineers resort to all the time – but the actual doing of it is, frankly, a bit tedious and I found the practical working of the maths side of the book both a little dull and also surprisingly opaque – I think I understand calculus, but some of the explanations of its use I found difficult to follow.
It’s interesting that the bit of the book I enjoyed most, dealing with the application of maths to gambling, really didn’t have much to do with calculus at all – it was more about probability. This was good fun and instructive for those who feel they might like a flutter in a casino. In fact there were several chapters where calculus really only got a passing mention, and some were among the better parts of the contents.
Overall there’s plenty going on here. You’ll visit a green gym, find out about calculating the stresses on arches in buildings, explore the maths of personal finance and of surfing. Oh yes, and you’ll find out about the way zombies (and other plagues) can spread. Altogether too much about zombies, in fact. Yet it just didn’t quite work for me. I wanted to love it, but failed in the attempt.
Hardback (US is paperback):  
Review by Brian Clegg

The God Species – Mark Lynas *****

The God Species is an unusual book: a review of the environmental challenges ahead of us that manages to give a balanced and optimistic approach. In GodSpecies he moves on from the general prediction of doom in Six Degrees to taking a look at what can be done. Some of his conclusions are surprising.
His approach is in terms of boundaries. These are limits that scientists have estimated we must not exceed in order to prevent ecological disaster (or, in fact, planetary catastrophe).
The first boundary is biodiversity. Mark Lynas says that the ‘Anthropocene’ (caused by man) Mass Extinction ‘and the death toll will soon rival that at the end of the Cretaceous, when the dinosaurs (and of the half the rest of life on earth) disappeared.’ The solution is to put a value on ecosystems as places of recreation, clean water and air and bring them into the marketplace.
Quite often Mark Lynas advocates using capitalism to solve our problems. As he says, preserving biodiversity makes economic and scientific sense. Once an animal becomes extinct the ecosystem to which it belonged falls apart – usually irretrievably. As well as having dire economic consequences to humans that depend on components of that ecosystem, unique resources are lost forever.
Climate Change is next on the list. In some ways the effect of global warming did not feel quite as catastrophic as in his previous book, although clearly it is something we need to urgently address. He points out that the release of methane hydrates from the ocean and the permafrost of Siberia is not thought to be imminent, for instance. However, his boundary for carbon dioxide concentration is revised downwards from 400ppm to 350ppm. Only with this concentration is the climate likely to stay similar to the one in which human civilisation developed and grew.
He says we cannot do this by reducing population (it would have to go down to just one billion) or reducing growth (because most people want and have a right to an improved standard of living). Instead it must be through reducing the carbon emitted by use of nuclear energy and renewables (solar, wind and HEP); and also research and development in these areas as well as cutting down on energy waste.
I found the chapter on the nitrogen boundary particularly interesting, despite the slight error at the beginning: elemental nitrogen has triple bonds not double. It described the importance of nitrogen fertiliser, and how this averted a Malthusian disaster at the beginning of the twentieth century. It, more than anything else, has allowed the population of the planet to grow, and so, in a way, is responsible for many of the other ecological problems today. Artificial fertiliser has led to direct problems as it is washed off the land and produces algae blooms in rivers and the sea. This growth deprives water of oxygen and it becomes a dead zone where nothing else grows. Overall the production of artificial nitrogen fertilisers should be reduced to 35 million tonnes a year from 100.
Mark Lynas lists some possible solutions: NOx boxes on car exhausts, maintenance of wetlands which foster denitrifying bacteria, removal of nitrogen compounds from sewage, avoiding excessive use of fertilizer, use of night soil, improving nitrogen uptake efficiency in crops using genetic engineering (convincing argument for this, and he is a recent convert), getting crops to become leguminous (i.e. fix nitrogen themselves using microbes).
The next boundary discussed is that of land use. It is important that land is kept in as close to natural state as possible, otherwise the biosphere is likely to collapse. No more than 15% should be converted to cropland to protect the earth system as a whole. He advocates city living as environmentally friendly as the wilderness areas are then left alone, and tends to decrease population growth. This ‘rewilding’of rural areas, he says, is already taking place.
In discussing the freshwater boundary he presents some surprising statistics. 60% of the world’s largest rivers have been fragmented by man-made structures such as dams, and two large dams a day for the last 50 years.
Freshwater is essential for human health and cleanliness and also agriculture. Damming water has provided water irrigation, but at the same time threatens biodiversity, changes local climate, and some rivers, such as the Yellow River in China are closed – with no water flow along some of its stretches at all. This may cause cities built on their deltas to sink. The limit to human consumption of water at 4,000 cubic kilometres a year has not yet been exceeded, but where this water is taken from is important. He recommends that unnecessary dams be removed and rivers serving ecological disaster areas such as the Aral Sea, are restored. This will mean cotton crops in arid regions are abandoned but they are unproductive anyway. Schemes such a China’s Three Gorges Dam present more of a conundrum since the ecological and social effects must be balanced against the advantages of a renewable source of electricity. Another surprising conclusion is that he advocates food is grown where water is more plentiful and transported. He is also in favour of water privatisation as a method of controlling water use, and necessary because public companies are not doing a good enough job.
The Toxics Boundary includes non-biodegradable plastics which are contaminating each part of the globe including the middle of the Arctic and the Pacific; hormones and molecules that have been found to effect marine and river life; and insecticides do not break down and are concentrated in the food chain, particularly in the Arctic. Chemicals already known to be toxic are already regulated. By 2018 new chemicals are to be tested and registered in the EU, with similar legislation in the US. Radiation toxicity is discounted because in areas where there is high natural radiation the cancer rates are no higher (except in areas where radon is emitted which increases the incidence of lung cancer). Effects of Chernobyl although devastating have turned out to be short-lived and less than feared. With the exodus of humans the ecosystems are flourishing. Listed against mine and oil refinery disasters the number of fatalities in the worst nuclear disasters are small. Dealing of waste is also manageable. He considers the Greens’ opposition to nuclear energy has been a big mistake, and may have contributed to global warming.
The colour of the sky is now more milky due to aerosols, and these form another boundary. The effect on global warming depends on the sort of aerosol particle and where it is. For instance a white cloud shielding the dark ocean will reflect more light and have a cooling effect, whereas a dark cloud over the poles will warm. Although the effect of aerosols is temporary it can have profound effects: for instance the brown cloud over India has diminished the Monsoon, and the smoke stacks of the northern hemisphere caused drought in Africa. Black carbon is mainly produced by developing countries, and is one of the easiest to address. Filters on diesel cars, scrubbers on ships, modernisation of coal-powered power stations in China and home stoves in India are the main solutions. In order to accomplish the latter he suggests the use of carbon-offset tariffs.
As far as sulphur-based aerosols are concerned he describes Nobel-prize winner Professor Crutzen’s idea to inject a2-4% of the 55 million tonnes that are produced each year into the upper atmosphere. These will reflect sunlight and yield a cooling effect which may temporarily ameliorate the effect of global warming. This is highly controversial. In the geological past, acidification of the oceans (another boundary) caused by increased vulcanism has caused mass extinctions. Although coral seems to have continued to flourish this is thought to be because of the neutralising effect of the the lower levels of the ocean. However, for this to happen there must be mixing, which requires over tens of thousands of years. Humans are producing carbon dioxide an order of magnitude more rapidly than the biggest super-volcanic eruption of the last billion years; the change may be too fast for the oceans to adapt and for life to evolve.
The boundary for the preservation of corals and marine life is in terms of the concentration of aragonite (the form of calcium carbonate used by corals to build shells) and this should not dip below 80% of pre-industrial levels. As long as the carbon dioxide level does not rise above 500ppm this should be okay. He argues against Matt Ridley’s assertions with regards to ocean acidification in The Rational Optimist, pointing out that a small change in pH is actually a large change in acidity because pH is a logarithmic scale.
He tells a very interesting and optimistic story about the hole in the ozone layer (the last boundary) and how politicians led the way in legislating for scientific and hence environmental change. This led to the banning of CFCs in the Montreal agreement of 1988 and consequently the hole in the ozone is now slowly recovering. However in Kyoto 1997 which hoped to do for climate change what the Montreal Protocol had done for the ozone layer there was failure because the USA refused to ratify and it also set the rich and poorer countries against each other. Mark Lynas was actually in the room when the Copenhagen treaty failed to agree targets in 2009, and his account is dramatic and depressing. China was flexing its muscles and establishing its new position in the world. Without China’s agreement nothing was possible. However, China is now leading the way in many respects post-Copenhagen. Although its emissions may be rising it leads the world in its investment in low carbon technology, and the US is losing ground.
There is a very interesting section discussing why the ‘libertarian right’ tend to oppose climate change arguments. It is, he believes, because they are forced to ‘confront the necessity of of respecting planetary limits’. He is equally dismissive of Green ‘dead-end ideology’ which advocates the adoption of a wartime rationing to combat climate change. He says that both camps tend to ignore scientific evidence to make their case. He believes that we can keep within the boundary limits even with economic growth, and thinks it is only fair that developing countries achieve the same standards of living as people in the west. He envisages a world economy that enjoys constant growth with lower material use if we recycle and use sustainable energy.
I was cheered by reading this book because it makes change seem possible. As he says, the pessimistic approach seldom works, and he is honest in that he admits to have completely revised his opinions on nuclear energy and genetic engineering. I am not sure I agree with everything he says, but it has made me think and consider things in a different light. As Mark Lynas says: The truth is global environmental problems are soluble. Let us go forward and solve them.’ It is a worthwhile book, very well written, bringing together much peer-reviewed scientific information, so that the general reader is brought quickly to speed. I recommend it to anyone interested in a hopeful viewpoint on ‘how the planet can survive the age of humans’.
Paperback (US is hardback):  
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Review by Clare Dudman (originally on her blog)

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Brain Bugs – Dean Buonomano *****

There are far too many popular science books around about emotions and pleasure and goodness knows what, so it might seem that the whole idea of writing about brain-related issues has got a bit tired… and then along comes Brain Bugs, which is an absolute delight to read and truly fascinating.
Dean Buonomano identifies the places where the brain gets it wrong, either because of technical problems – a classic example being optical illusions (there’s one of the best optical illusions I’ve seen in the book) – or because it was ‘programmed’ for life on the Savannah 100,000 years ago and doesn’t have a great fit with modern life. Along the way we’ll find things like memory (and why it gets things wrong), incorrect estimation of the rate of passing of time, fear, advertising, probability and the supernatural (Buonomano argues that religion is probably so strong for evolutionary reasons). I really enjoyed all the sections talking about the way our brains get into a pickle.
The only downside is that when the author gets into the technical practicalities of what’s causing what in the brain it can all become just a bit too techie and detailed. I’m with Richard Feynman, who explaining a cat’s nervous system (I think), was told that biology students would have learned all the names for all the bits. No wonder, Feynman, said, it took them so long to get a biology degree. He thought there’s no point knowing all those labels – you can just look them up – and I’m inclined to agree.
But this doesn’t take away from the fact that this is a brilliant book about the failings of your most important organ. They won’t kill you (usually) but they certainly will enthral you.
Also paperback (Sep 2012):  
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Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 16 September 2011

Lone Frank – Four Way Interview

Lone Frank is the author of The Neurotourist: Postcards from the edge of brain science. She holds a PhD in neurobiology and was previously a research scientist in the biotechnology industry. An award winning science journalist, she has written for many top publications. She lives in Copenhagen. Her latest book is My Beautiful Genome.
Why science?
I was always fascinated by knowing about and understanding the world, especially the living world. Then, in high school I was completely bowled by the first taste of the mysteries of the nervous system. I knew right then that I wanted to work with brains and went through university with that goal in mind. Having gotten my Ph.D. by way of killing rats and slicing up their brains for three years, the specialisation of a research career would stand in the way of seeing the bigger picture. So I quit practical research and went into science communication in order to concern myself with that more general understanding which was the original fascination.
Why this book?
What most interests me about science is how it affects our culture and way of thinking. And right now, what is about to change our thinking about our selves is the development in genetics. You could call it the genetic revolution’s second wave. It is biology’s parallel to the PC revolution. Just like computers changed our lives when they made the transition from expert tool to cheap every day commodity, consumer genetics will influence us by becoming a ubiquitous factor. Within a foreseeable future we will all routinely handle personal genetic information. It will not only shape personal health care but give us radically new in-sight into the basis for our mental habitus – personality, IQ, temperament etc. I think this will cause a cultural shift by ushering in a much more biological view of who we are. By sharing my personal journey into consumer genetics, I hope to open this wondrous new world to those who think genetics is academic and abstract. From now on, genetics is all about you.
What’s next?
There is much talk of ‘dark matter’ in the genome and ‘missing heritability’. I believe the coming years bringing massive whole genome sequencing of humans from all ethnic groups will throw light on the mysteries of how certain combinations of genetic variants and environmental factors together result in various phenotypes. My bet is there will be big surprises, some perhaps exploding our ideas of how heritability works – it will be thrilling to follow the discoveries.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
I find it really fascinating to watch how the world map of science and research is in flux. Especially Asian countries like Singapore, South Korea and certainly India and China are getting into the game big time and the question is whether or how this will affect the priorities and directions of research in the future.

Friday, 9 September 2011

The Human Body Close-up – John Clancy ****

Sometimes a set of pictures can be so stunning that they make a book worthwhile in its own right – and that’s the case with John Clancy’s book. It’s sort of biomechanics porn, allowing you to drool over the detail of cells and muscles, nerves and invaders in the form of viruses and bacteria.
On this micro-tour of the body you will be taken around the basic building blocks, circulatory and respiratory systems, nervous and endocrine systems, digestive and urinary systems, the reproductive system and body problems. Described like that it sounds, dare I say it, a bit dull – but Clancy takes us in at a hugely detailed level with colour manipulated images that emphasise the complex and amazing components of the body.
It’s not all pretty pictures, though. There is a solid enough text covering what you see, though this tends to be more descriptive than informative. So it tells you, for instance, what all the component parts of a muscle are called, accompanied by magnification 360 and 5,500 shots of the muscle fibres. But it doesn’t tell you how a muscle works in any useful fashion.
The triumph of the book remains the pictures. Some are absolutely stunning, others rather confusing, almost providing too much detail. There is a mix of photographs and diagrams – some of these are so detailed and photo-like (the cross-section of a cell, for instance) that it would be really useful to have a bit of labelling to make it clear which is a photograph and what’s an illustration. We also ought to be told where false colours have been used for emphasis.
But the only significant criticism I have of the book is its form factor and weight. It’s a fiddly shape to handle and weighs in at a wrist-numbing 1.2 kilograms. I found after holding it for five minutes my wrists were starting to ache and I had to find various ways of propping it up to keep reading. I can’t help but feel this would work even better (and less painfully) as an iPad application. But it doesn’t stop it being a fascinating book.
Review by Jo Reed

Sunday, 4 September 2011

My Beautiful Genome – Lone Frank ****

After getting over the nagging conviction that this was a book about a Galapagos tortoise (the author’s name, Lone Frank, is more than somewhat reminiscent of Lonesome George), I found this a fascinating exploration of a subject that is not going to go away – the influence of our genes on the way we are both medically and socially, looking at it as much from a commercial viewpoint as a scientific one.
In some ways the early promise of genetics has not delivered. After the initial idea that hoped that once you knew someone’s genome you could map out all kinds of illnesses, susceptibilities and personality traits, it turned out that things weren’t anywhere near as simple as first thought. Not only is it rare that a single gene acting alone is responsible for a particular trait, the whole business of epigenetics – genes being switched on and off during a person’s lifetime – makes it immensely difficult to draw straight conclusions from genetic information alone.
Nonetheless, companies offering genetic profiles for everything from susceptibility to medical conditions to romantic compatibility are springing up all over, and often doing well. In a very personal odyssey, Lone Frank tries out various tests and talks to many experts about what is sure, what is probabilistic and what is a distant pipe dream. She encounters everything from a man who believes it is a simple logical choice to have a double mastectomy if you have a gene combination that makes breast cancer more likely to a scientist who points out that in some ways eugenics is live and well in modern medicine.
There is no doubt that this is a very personal and informal exploration of an important and sometimes quite complex subject. Frank brings out some really thought-provoking issues, concerns and positive possibilities for the future. Unfortunately, though, the style also has its downside. One of her chapters begins: ‘What is the most interesting subject in the world? For all of us, it’s the same thing – ourselves. Me.’ This is so true, and there are occasions when the book is just too much about the author, not about the reader. The other slight problem is that the approach is inevitably rather rambling. Although it is interesting following the process by which she gathers her information (and also it’s cleverly written to make this approachable), the fact is that I’d like just a bit less about the process of interviewing people and a bit more of the content of the interviews.
That slight concern, which makes the book more of a chore to read than either its content or the excellent writing should, isn’t enough to put me off My Beautiful Genome, though. This is a subject we all should know more about, and Frank’s light style and storytelling verve is more than enough to get over any doubts to make this an enjoyable read.
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg