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Showing posts from 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 re…

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 …

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…

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 go…

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 genetic…

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 b…

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 rol…