Saturday, 29 October 2011

The Book of Time – Adam Hart-Davis ****

There seems to be a new breed of popular science book around aimed at families. These range from the ‘for children but adults will like it too’ book like Richard Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality to ‘for adults but children will like it too’ in the case of my own Inflight Science. I’d put Adam Hart-Davis’s latest in the latter category. It is pitched at adults, but never gets so heavy that older children would appreciate it too.
What’s more, the format is one that seems designed to appeal to those younger readers. It’s the size of a small coffee table book and has pages that have the sort of mix of text, photographs, zappy little mottos and factoids that you would expect to find in a children’s science book. The contents, though, are meaty enough for an adult reader to get their teeth into them – which is just as well, as, in writing about time, Hart-Davis is taking on a non-trivial topic.
One of the hardest things about time is to define what it is, especially up front where you can’t really go into block universes or the ‘becoming present’ and other philosophical concepts. However before long we are launched into the philosophical side and beginning to get a feel for the way human beings have struggled with the concepts of time since the earliest days through to modern philosophy. We then move on to time in nature, how we fix the units of time, how we measure the passing of time and a ‘time and science’ section that pulls together the various scientific implications and considerations of time from the speed of light and relativity to the big bang.
On the whole this all handled very well, at a level that won’t challenge, but will keep the interest going with some truly fascinating factoids and entertaining histories. I was slightly surprised that there was nothing much about thermodynamics with its implications for ‘time’s arrow’, but most of the important areas were covered. One of the difficulties in taking a relatively light approach is not over-simplifying. This doesn’t happen often, but, for instance, in talking about pendulums, there is no mention that Galileo’s idea that the period of pendulum does change with the size of its swing is wrong (despite often being repeated). In a conventional pendulum it only holds true for a small swing – once the pendulum moves more than about 15 degrees either side of the vertical, the force acting on it cease being linear, no longer producing a consistent frequency.
There is also one out-and-out error. We are told that, because of special relativity, the clocks on GPS satellites run slow by about 38 microseconds a day. Unfortunately, GPS satellites are also subject to general relativity – and this says that with lower gravity, clocks run faster. The lower gravitational pull on the satellites compared with the Earth’s surface means that they run fast, and this effect is stronger than the slowing from special relativity. In reality, the combination of the two effects means that GPS satellites run fast by 38 microseconds each day.
My only other concern is that as an adult reader, I find the busy visual presentation something of a distraction. I have nothing against illustrations in a book, but when you are having to jump here and there to read boxes and quotes and factoids, I find I lose the flow and don’t really get into the book in the same way I would with a conventional layout. I know this isn’t a problem for everyone – if you like this kind of layout, you will love this book – but it’s not my favourite approach.
Overall, this is an excellent introduction to the concepts of time, measuring it and its importance to science. It is pitched just right so that an adult can feel they are getting some worthwhile material, but a younger reader can also enjoy it. There is plenty to capture the interest, and a good balance of the historical and the scientific. Although the approach won’t work for everyone, and occasionally can over-simplify, I would still heartily recommend it, as time is subject that really isn’t covered enough in popular science.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 28 October 2011

Tweeting the Universe – Marcus Chown & Govert Schilling ***

My first reaction to this book was that it was going to be an irritating gimmick. How far could you get, after all, putting across complex science in 140 character tweets? However, Marcus Chown is one of the best science writers around, who I trust with my brain (I don’t know Govert Schilling), so I was prepared to suspend disbelief.
I immediately found the style was a little irritating in its conciseness, but it did produce a certain poetic need to really craft all the words that made some of the entries like little works of art. Another concern might be that making the content so short would result in over-simplification, but in most of the entries this wasn’t the case.
There were a few small issues, though. I was a bit worried by the first entry, on Newton’s light and colour work. We come across Newton first using his prism to split light into colours at his home in Woolsthorpe. The trouble is, he bought his first prism at the 1664 Stourbridge fair (near Cambridge), several months before he was exiled home by the plague, and infamously he made a hole to use it in his blinds at Cambridge, not ‘through a slit in the curtains at Woolsthorpe’. It’s not that he didn’t do more work on light in his enforced leave of absence, but it wasn’t the beginning, as the book (or rather its enforcedly compact entries).
Another example of a slight problem probably caused by the condensed text is in the explanation of the tides, which is simplified enough to miss out entirely the main reason that there is a second tide on the far side of the Earth from the Moon.
As I got further in, I did, I confess, increasingly find the choppiness of the prose a bit off-putting. I had to work really hard not to skip over chunks as soon as I had got the gist, to try to keep things flowing. Don’t get me wrong, there’s lots of good stuff in here (particularly some lovely compact cosmology), but I would still much rather read a ‘normal’ book.
One last shame – this was a book that cried out for a section at the back with further reading suggestions for people who have got a taster from what’s on offer. (Each of these could have been tweet length.) There were even loads of blank pages at the back where the recommendations could have gone (I counted 15 empty pages). Certainly this is a bit of fun, and would make a very acceptable gift book, certainly there is some good material in there, but in the end the real thing is not quite as good as the original idea promised. This is not the authors’ fault – they’ve done a great job under the circumstances – just the inevitable limitations of the format.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Infinity Puzzle – Frank Close ****

This is a really important popular science book if you are interested in physics, because it covers some of the important bits of modern physics that most of us science writers are too afraid to write about. Starting with renormalization in QED, the technique used to get rid of the unwanted infinities that plagued the early versions of the theory and moving on to the weak force, the massive W and Z bosons, the Higgs business and the development of the concept of quarks and some aspects of the theory covering the strong force that holds them in place, it contains a string of revelations that I have never seen covered to any degree in a popular text elsewhere.
Take that renormalization business. I have seen (and written) plenty of passing references to this, but never seen a good explanation of what the problem with infinities was really about, or how the renormalization was achieved and justified. Frank Close does this. Similarly I hadn’t realised that Murray Gell-Mann, the man behind the ‘quark’ name, originally took a similar view to quarks as Planck did to quanta – a mathematical trick to get the right answer that didn’t reflect anything real in terms of the particles involved.
For at least the first half of the book I was determined to give it five stars, despite itself. The content was sufficiently important and infrequently covered to require this. That ‘despite itself’ is because this is no light read – it makes the infamously frequently unfinished Brief History of Time seem a piece of cake. I think the reason for this is that the concepts here are more alien to the reader than those typically met in traditional ‘hard’ topics like relativity or quantum theory. Close does define a term like gauge invariance before using it, but then keeps using it for chapter after chapter. The trouble is, to the author this is an everyday concept, but to the reader the words are practically meaningless (unlike, say space and time in relativity), so a couple of pages on from the definition we’ve forgotten what it means and get horribly lost. These aspects (spontaneous symmetry breaking is another example) would have benefited hugely from a more detailed explanation and then use of more approachable terms along the way rather than what can be a highly opaque jargon.
I could forgive the author this though. After all his writing style is fine and there is all that interesting content. But there were a couple of things that dragged the book down a little for me. The first was a tendency to skip over bits of science, leaving them mysterious. For example, at one point we are told that a process can be split into five categories: scalar, pseudo-scalar, tensor, vector and axial. Of these only vector and scalar are defined (there are brief definitions in the end notes, but nothing in the main text), so when we are told that the weak force was classified as V-A, we have no clue what this means as we don’t know what axial means, or the significance of the minus sign. This is Rutherfordian stamp collecting, giving us labels without understanding the meaning.
Worse though, and the dominant part of the second half of the book, was that there was just far too much dissecting exactly who contributed exactly what little component to the theory, and who got the Nobel prize for what, and who didn’t get it, despite deserving it. Frankly, this is too much of an insider’s idea of what’s important. We don’t really care. I wish this had been omitted, leaving room for more handholding on the theory.
The trouble is, there were far too many people involved to get any successful human interest going in the story. Nobel prizes of themselves don’t make people interesting. I have two scientific heroes in the last 100 years – Richard Feynman and Fred Hoyle. (Obviously I’m in awe of the work of many others – Einstein, say – but this misses the point.) In that same period there must have been getting on for 300 Nobel prize winners in physics alone. I’m interested in their work, but I can’t get too excited about them as people. Those who criticise popular science for being too driven by the stories of a few individuals when so many have contributed miss the point. You can only have so many heroes.
Overall this remain a really important book if you want to get to grips with modern particle physics and quantum field theory. It fills in lots of gaps that other books gloss over. But it would be remiss of me not to also point out my concerns.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Why are Orangutans Orange? – Ed. Mick O’Hare ****

New Scientist has done very nicely, thank you, selling 2 million copies of its collections of answers to intriguing science questions derived from the back page of the magazine over the years. Those books were starting to feel just a little jaded, but they have been entirely revived in the latest addition to the series by including photographs. So these are photos readers have sent in of strange phenomena that they want explaining. We get the photo (in shiny colour), the reader’s question, other readers’ responses and a few witty comments from the editor. All in all it works very well.
Apart from the title question, there are strange creatures to be identified, unusual clouds and ice formations to investigate, eggs inside eggs, strange frozen crumpets and more. Very entertaining. It’s not a heavy read – I got through the whole thing on a train journey. I do find I tend to see what the answer is but skip through some of the more nerdy aspects of some replies. I would also say that I got a bit bored with cloud formations. But the exotic wildlife and domestic oddities more than made up for it.
One thing that was interesting – I usually take a quick look at the Last Word section in New Scientist where these Q&As feature. I’ve never remembered anything in the previous books like Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze, but I did remember quite a few of these. It just shows the power of images to fix items more firmly in the memory. Great either to fill in a train journey or as a gift book.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 15 October 2011

The Epigenetics Revolution – Nessa Carey ****

There have been lots of popular science books about genetics and evolution, and that’s fine – but there really hasn’t been anywhere near enough coverage of epigenetics, which is why Nessa Carey’s book is so welcome. Over the last 30 years or so it has become increasingly obvious that the idea of genes coding for proteins – the basic concept of genetics – is only a starting point for the way DNA acts to provide control software for the body’s development. There is also RNA that is coded by ‘junk’ DNA and the way genes can be switched on and off by various external factors – all together this is far more than genetics alone. This is epigenetics.
Without doubt this is a fascinating subject, and Carey provides plenty of examples of how epigenetics effects our development, our diseases and the way we inherit characteristics. I was genuinely surprised and delighted by many of the revelations. This is really significant stuff, that hasn’t made its way into many of the popular science genetics titles. What’s more Carey’s style is highly approachable and readable. I was convinced part way through the book that this was going to be a five star, top book.
To be honest, the only reason it’s not five star is the nature of the beast. (Okay, I did find Carey’s hero worship of a handful of key biologists a little irritating, but that wouldn’t have influenced the rating.) I’m reminded of Richard Feynman’s comment when studying biology because his physics work wasn’t taking up enough of his time. He was giving a presentation to his classmates, I think on the nervous system of a cat, and started by drawing a ‘map’ of the cat and giving the names of all the relevant components. He was told he didn’t need to tell them all these names, because they were required to learn them. No wonder, concluded Feynman, it took so long to get a biology degree – so much of it was memorizing names, unlike physics, which was much about working out what was happening and required relatively little memorizing.
What I found in Carey’s book was I was getting swamped with all the names of different genes and proteins and goodness knows whats. Some of the pages are dense with these, and after a while I found my eyes bouncing off them. I’d rather she had told us a lot fewer names (you can always, as Feynman pointed out, look them up) and concentrated on the processes and understanding of what’s happening. But, as I say, this is not so much her fault as the nature of biology.
Overall, then, despite occasional parts you might find yourself skipping through, this is a truly eye-opening and exciting book on an important and under-reported topic. For some reason so many books on human biology concentrate on emotions and morality and other aspects on the edge of brain science – it was great to find a book that really took us back to basics, but in a new way.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Litmus – Ra Page (Ed.) ***

A number of authors have attempted the difficult task of writing fiction that is used to explain science and it almost always fails. It’s just incredibly difficult to do well. Either the fiction isn’t good enough, or the science isn’t good enough – or the fiction is so obscure that it simply puts the reader off.
I confess, when I saw this book and got excited about reviewing it, I misunderstood what it was. The subtitle is ‘short stories from modern science’ so I thought it would be like Tania Hershman’s excellent collection of short stories The White Road, which takes science news as first seed of an idea for a story, but then provides a straightforward piece of fiction or science fiction. That works wonderfully well. But the approach that this book takes is much more directed to getting a scientific message across, and it suffers because of it.
What Litmus provides (and this is why it has made it into this site) is a series of short stories that are, in essence, historical fiction based on history of science. Each typically describes a key scientific moment, or someone being influenced by a key moment in scientific discovery. Each story is then followed by an essay that explains the significance of that moment and/or person in science.
In theory this could have worked very well, but I found most of the stories stiff and not particularly interesting reads. Where they put information across, it seemed forced – and when they didn’t, there didn’t seem a lot of point in the story. Then you would get the rather worthy essay, often unnecessarily deferential to the fiction it supported, which turned the whole thing into something that seemed like a school exercise rather than either a collection of good short stories or useful popular science.
There were some good stories – I’d pick out Tania Hershman’s, inspired by the glowing jellyfish gene. There were some mediocre stories, and some that seemed trivially pretentious (Stella Duffy’s piece, for example). Just to take one specific example in a bit more detail, there is a story set by Michael Jecks called Special Theory. Set in Bern, where Einstein worked in the Swiss patent office, it is an interaction between an unhappy British physicist, who is an Einstein fanboy, and a waitress. It sort of works as a story, though it’s a bit plonking in its conclusion. But I wasn’t comfortable with the historical context (several of the ‘facts’ about Einstein are dubious) nor, for that matter, that a physics professor would regard Einstein like a teenager looks to a pop star. The professor would know very well that Einstein’s contribution in special relativity was not the unique, light bulb moment he seems to suggest, and for that matter that Einstein was only one contributor to the development of the theory, not the sole, solitary genius behind it. Without doubt the most important contributor – but not working in isolation.
Overall, then, yet another attempt to marry fiction and popular science that has ended up on the rocks of incompatibility. A brave attempt – and I do still believe this ought to be possible. But it is clearly very difficult to do well.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 10 October 2011

Deceit and Self-Deception [The Folly of Fools] – Robert Trivers ***

This book was, as a reality show contestant would say, a roller-coaster ride (reality shows: there’s a subject of self-deception that Robert Trivers doesn’t cover but could have had great fun mining). At first sight I thought it was going to be deadly dull. I haven’t heard of Trivers, but I gather from the bumf he’s a bit of a big name academic in his field. That usually means a boring writer. Add to it that the book’s (UK) cover looks half finished and it’s a big fat tome (which usually means repetitive and padded) and, to be honest, it was touch and go whether I started it. But I’m glad I did.
Trivers writes in a very approachable fashion – none of the academic-speak here – and I was genuinely fascinated by the early part of his exploration of self-deception. This isn’t the sort of book it’s possible to read in one go (unless you’ve a lot of spare time), but each time I came back to it I really wanted to read on. Trivers makes a strong case that self-deception plays an important role in driving society and individuals, often because self-deception is an important tool in deceiving others (it’s easier to deceive if you believe the deceit yourself). This goes all the way from individuals to whole countries, and Trivers provides good evidence, for example, for the way that this trait is responsible for everything from animal behaviour to the unwavering US support for Israel, whatever that country does.
However there were flaws. The book is too long, and in some sections it felt rather that he was stretching the truth (indulging, in fact, in self-deception) to apply his chosen topic of expertise to the area the chapter was covering. There was a feel of ‘You can sort of consider this behaviour to be self-deception. Kind of.’ Trivers was probably weakest when talking about country level self-deception, where his analysis of wars was simplistic and often lacking in balance. It seemed wherever the US or the UK was involved they could do no right. I found fascinating that when talking about the horrific use of aerial bombing on civilian targets in the Second World War he lists Hamburg, Cologne and Dresden, but doesn’t see fit to mention London, Coventry, Birmingham, Manchester etc. You would think from his analysis of this aspect of the Second World War that the Germans were innocent victims of US/UK imperialism.
I also felt the side-comments where he allowed his own self to come through were a bit off-putting. I’m not sure I want to know about his drug misuse and sexual adventures. All that was missing was the rock and roll.
Without doubt there’s a huge amount of excellent material here. It’s worth buying the book for the section on NASA’s self-deception over the two Shuttle disasters alone – it is both fascinating and horrifying. But overall the book doesn’t work as well as it could have done.
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Review by Brian Clegg