Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Cosmic Numbers – James D. Stein ***

Basing a popular science book on some of the key constants of the universe is not original, but it’s a powerful approach because were it not for having some fixed values science would be practically impossible. What’s more a fair number of the constants here haven’t featured so strongly elsewhere, which is a good point for James Stein. Everything from the speed of light to the universal gravitational constant, with some more obscure figures too, features here.
We get a fair amount of historical context, some of it highly entertaining. But this isn’t a science book and there is a bit of a problem with the scientific content. I don’t know if it’s because Stein is a mathematician, but there is more use of equations than I would expect in a popular science book, and the approach taken seems so strongly oriented to a mathematical mindset that it’s quite easy for the reader to get lost what is supposed to be an explanation, but actually makes a physical concept more complicated than it need be.
Like many academics, there’s a suspicion that Dr. Stein has forgotten what it’s like to look at the world as a normal person. There’s quite a lot to glean from these pieces – in effect each chapter is a separate article – but it could have been significantly more approachable for the general reader.
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Peter Spitz

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Solar System – Marcus Chown ****

We’ve all seen the book of the movie, and even films based on theme park rides and computer games. But this could well be the first ever book of an iPad app. Not long ago I had a chance to take a look at the Solar System for iPad appand now we’ve got the book based on it.
Let’s get the downside out of the way first. I can’t be as enthusiastic about the book as I was about the app. Not only does it cost three times as much (before discounts) and threaten serious damage to the wrists from its weight, but also the book can’t compete with the interactive aspects of the app which work so well with this material. I also found that, compared with the iPad version, it was eye-straining to read the relatively small white text on a black background. But even so, there’s plenty to like here.
What we’ve got is a coffee table format book, which feels not unlike a Dorling Kindersley book in the way it uses two-page spreads with a bit of text, some great photographs and various graphics and little factoids to expand on the topic. Some of these can be quite surprising – at one point Brian May from Queen pops up, looking like a fantasy wizard in his doctoral robes, with a comment about his PhD thesis on the movement of solar system dust.
Perhaps to keep the translation from the app simple all the pages are black, which gets a little depressing (I got over my ‘decorate in black’ phase in my teens, thanks), but this is more than compensated for by the lush photography, with some superb imagery of the different components of the solar system. It was interesting to compare one of the pages of the book with the app – I randomly selected ‘Exploring Mars’. The basic text was the same (so as with my main criticism of the app, it could have done with a bit more meat), as was one of the key photographs (which could be panned on the app). The book then has four other photographs while the app has a rather more engaging speeded up video of the Mars rover Spirit in action. On other pages, some of the photographs not in the app were well worth having to expand the general feel of the content, so it wasn’t at all bad in the comparison.
Overall, then, an excellent photographic guide to the solar system and the astronomical basics behind it. Not as much fun as the app, and perhaps could have done with some more text (and fewer black backgrounds for text) – but an excellent book for any astronomy beginner, and would make a great gift.
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 21 November 2011

The Quantum Universe: everything that can happen does happen – Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw ****

Brian Cox has picked up a lot of fans (and a few parodies) for his light and fluffy ‘here’s me standing on top of a mountain looking at the stars’ TV science shows – no doubt a fair number of them will rush out and buy his latest collaboration with Jeff Forshaw. They will be disappointed. So, I suspect, will a number of My Little Pony fans, as with its rainbow cover and glittery lettering it only needs a pink pony tail bookmark to complete the look.
The reason The Quantum Universe will disappoint is not because it is a bad book. It’s brilliant. But it is to Cox’s TV show what the Texas Chainsaw Massacre is to Toy Story. It’s a different beast altogether.
As they did with their E=mc2 book, but even more so here, Cox and Forshaw take no prisoners and are prepared to delve deep into really hard-to-grasp aspects of quantum physics. This is the kind of gritty popular science writing that makes A Brief History of Time look like easy-peasy bedtime reading – so it really isn’t going to be for everyone, but for those who can keep going through a lot of hard mental work the rewards are great too.
More than anything, I wish this book had been available when I started my undergraduate course in physics. It would have been a superb primer to get the mind into the right way of thinking to deal with quantum physics. Using Feynman’s least action/sum over paths with ‘clocks’ representing phase, the authors take us into the basics of quantum physics, effectively deriving Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle from basic logic – wonderful.
They go on to describe electron orbitals, the mechanics of electronic devices, quantum electrodynamics, virtual particles in a vacuum and more with the same mix of heavy technical arguments, a little maths (though nowhere near as much as a physics textbook) and a lot of Feynman-style diagrams and logic.
The reason I think I would have benefited so much is that this book explains much more than an (certainly my) undergraduate course does. Not explaining why quantum physics does what it does – no one can do that. But explaining the powerful logic behind the science, laying the groundwork for the undergraduate to then be able to do the fancy maths and fling Hamiltonians around and such. It is very powerful in this respect and I would urge anyone about to start a physics degree (or in the early stages of one) to read it. I would also recommend it for someone who is just really interested in physics and is prepared to put a lot of work into reading it, probably revisiting some pages several times to get what Cox and Forshaw have in mind – because they don’t ease up very often.
What I can’t do, though, is recommend this as general popular science. It isn’t the kind of excellent introduction that gives you an understanding of what’s going on in quantum theory, a view of the mysteries and a broad understanding of what the topic is about. This book is just too hard core. I’d suggest that 90% plus of popular science readers shouldn’t touch it with the proverbial barge pole. If that sounds condescending, it isn’t meant to be. Good popular science can and does have a lot more content and thought provoking meat than a typical Brian Cox TV show – but this book goes so much further still than that, inevitably limiting its audience.
Also paperback from June 2012: 
Also on Kindle:  
Also on Audio CD:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Risk: a very short introduction – Baruch Fischhoff & John Kadvany ***

I have to confess to a personal interest in the subject of one of OUP’s pocket ‘a very short introduction’ guides. My first job was in Operational Research, which is very much about optimising decision making, and this book is strongly focussed on the difficulties of decisions where risk is involved. Not all difficult decisions do involve risk – for example anything comparing apples and oranges. I might be deciding between two products, one of which is very stylish and the other very practical. The comparison is not easy, but there’s not really risk attached. But this book is all about those decisions where we have to factor in risk – how to insure cars, for example, and the decision whether to try to keep a very premature birth alive are discussed early on.
The reason I confessed the interest is that I find this stuff fascinating, but I suspect this may be to some extent my inner geek coming out, and to the general reader it might be less interesting. The book contains is an effective analysis of making risk decisions, risk perception and communication and the interaction between risk, culture and society. There’s perhaps not as much that’s practical as you might expect, but I think that is fairly inevitable in this format. The book certainly gives a clear overview to the way theory has developed to help understand and manage a risk component to decision making.
I suppose my biggest disappointment with the book is that it isn’t really about risk, it’s purely about risk-based decision making, and particularly that it is only concerned with negative risk. I make this distinction because I think there is a lot to be said about risk in a positive sense. By positive risk, I don’t mean the kind of thing where someone risks their life trying to hop up Everest without oxygen – that’s just stupid showing off. What I mean is the kind of risk involved in creativity.
Every time someone is creative there is an element of risk. Whether it’s a new work of art or the product of business creativity – perhaps bringing a new product to market or a new way of working – there is risk involved, which still needs to be analyzed and considered. But this is good risk – there can be no creativity without it. Arguably it’s this type of risk that stops life from being bland. Yet this aspect of risk doesn’t come across at all in the book because it is so focussed on the assessment of negative risk and its impact on decisions.
What it does, it does well. But it doesn’t do what it says on the tin.
Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Galloping with Light – Felix Alba-Juez ***

I’m more than a little wary of self-published books, especially ones with subtitles like ‘Einstein, relativity and folklore’, but this looked like a book that would be different from the masses – and it is. It’s not one of the interminable ‘Einstein was wrong’ books, but rather one that tries to really give an in-depth understanding of Einstein’s ideas to the general reader.
Unfortunately, Felix Alba-Juez seemed far too obsessed with the definitions of words to give us useful insights into what is going on. In the first chapter he bangs on and on about nuclear power not being based on E=mc2. It’s certainly true that, contrary to popular belief, the equation isn’t a central part of the effort to make a nuclear bomb. But his repeated assertion that the idea of converting mass to energy is folklore totally misses the point, probably because of his obsessive pursuit of the term inertia, something that in some senses doesn’t exist but is merely a reflection of Newton’s second law. There is conversion between different forms of mass-energy in nuclear reactions, and for convenience we conventionally label some aspects of this as matter and some as energy. It’s not folklore, it’s scientific convention. It’s hard not to think ‘get a life.’
Similarly in the second chapter, Alba-Juez gets all heated about the famous Einstein quote about time passing quicker with a pretty girl than sitting on a stove, suggesting that this throw-away line is generally considered an attempt to explain relativity to the common man. But it’s obviously not that. Come on, the acronym of the supposed journal is JEST. It was always supposed to be a joke – has the author no sense of humour?
And so it goes on. While the philosophical musings about the words used in relativity are mildly interesting to those who already know the area quite well, and there is a lot of good basic science in here, I can’t recommend this as a science book for the general reader. Perhaps because it’s a translation, it is just too turgid and heavy handed. Although a lot of relativity is explained, the approach is often through extremely wordy and impenetrable prose. My undergrad textbook on relativity, which I still have (A. P. French) is often more readable.
The book, with its densely packed text (the layout has too little white space), doesn’t fill the reader with the delight of science but instead is like sitting through a rather dull and decidedly nit-picking science lesson. It’s an interesting idea, but the execution disappoints.
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Stephen Hawking – Kitty Ferguson ***

It’s apt that I’m writing this review on the train to Cambridge, Stephen Hawking’s home turf. A good few years ago we were taking a young German on a tour of Cambridge. He had no interest in science, but when we saw Hawking trundling along King’s Parade in his powered wheelchair our visitor instantly knew who he was. If you ask a person in the street to name the two most important physicists of the last 100 years they would probably name Einstein, then Hawking. Which is odd, because I wouldn’t put him in the top 20.
That sounds harsh, but I think Hawking is to physics what Katherine Jenkins is to opera. To the general public, Jenkins is obviously a great opera singer, after all she’s always on the TV. But those in the opera world will point out she has never sung a complete role. It’s not that she’s a bad singer, she just isn’t what the public thinks she is. Similarly by saying I might not put Hawking in my top 20 I’m not saying he’s not a great physicist. But bear in mind that well over 200 people have won the Nobel Prize in physics over the last 100 years. I’m just saying that most of those who know the field would have to consider Feynman or Dirac or Rutherford or a whole host of others before they got round to Hawking.
Yet Hawking remains a star. I went into Kitty Ferguson’s chunky biography of Hawking hoping I would understand this better, as well as getting a detailed feel for his work. The two obvious factors driving his stardom are the remarkable story of his having a full working career despite being told he would die in his 20s of his degenerative disease and his media exposure, driven by the huge success of A Brief History of Time which started the popular science bubble – but would Ferguson reveal more?
It is perhaps telling of the subject that I found myself more interested in the biographical parts than the science. It doesn’t help that this is often fairly abstruse – many of Hawking’s indubitably ingenious ideas are speculative and at the edge of our understanding, more grounded in maths than real observational science, which gives Ferguson a real challenge in explaining them. On the whole she does well, but the section on the relationship of space and time near the big bang was very difficult to read. I was also a little disappointed by the obvious omissions of explanation, even in something relatively straightforward like Hawking radiation.
Ferguson tells us that black holes lose energy this way, as a virtual particle pair that forms near the black hole can have the negative energy particle sucked into the hole while the positive energy particle zooms off, reducing the overall mass/energy of the black hole. There are two problems with this she doesn’t explain. One is how a particle can have negative energy – an antimatter particle, for instance, doesn’t have negative mass, so why negative energy? The other is why the majority of particles from virtual pairs sucked into the black hole are the negative energy ones. Why aren’t an equal number (statistically) of positive energy ones sucked in, producing no net effect? These kind of simple questions are often the ones popular science readers like answered.
The good news is that I did feel I had learned a lot more about Hawking’s ideas (if it was sometimes hard work) and about his personal life. The were some insights into Brief History of Time too (I couldn’t believe he got a $250,000 advance for the US version), though not really explaining its runaway success. I found the book genuinely interesting, despite Ferguson occasionally verging on hero-worship of Hawking. There were a couple of minor factual quibbles. I was unnerved to read that the New Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge was built in 1974 as I started attending lectures there in 1973. And the author’s American origins came through in her lack of understanding of British life before the 1960s – she suggested that somehow not having central heating made Hawking’s childhood home ramshackle – but it was the norm back then. These are trivial indeed, though.
If you are genuinely interested in Hawking this will definitely fill in a lot of the gaps in both his personal life and many popular science explanations of his work. If you made an attempt on Brief History of Time and failed, this is probably not for you.
Also paperback (July 2012): 
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 5 November 2011

The Edge of Physics – Anil Ananthaswamy *****

When I first came across this book, I groaned a little. Yet another ‘story of the mysteries of cosmology’ title. Was there anything left to say? I’m pleased to say that my groan was unnecessary – this is one of the most enjoyable popular sciencebooks I’ve read all year. Although there’s nothing new in the science itself, the main thread of Anil Ananthaswamy’s book is a tour of the remarkable places where the expanding universe, dark matter, dark energy, the Higgs boson and more are being pursued. At each location we get some excellent historical context – I loved, for example, how he puts across the feel of the early days at the Mount Wilson observatory.
What makes this so enjoyable are the extremes of the locations where this leading edge physics takes place. One moment we are perched on a snow-covered mountain in California, the next we are in a deep mine. As we reach CERN we are plunged into a vast underground empire that any Bond villain would be proud of… only to contrast this with an experiment using a vast block of Antarctic ice as a neutrino detector. I’m a big fan of Bill Bryson’s travel books, and while Ananthaswamy doesn’t have Bryson’s humour and homeliness, he does succeed in painting an excellent word picture of these locations, the people he meets and the far-reaching work that is being carried on there.
My only reservation with the book is that the science is mostly presented as if it is 100 percent fact, rather than our current best guess – something that, let’s face it, is all it can be with cosmology (as in ‘There’s speculation, then there’s more speculation, then there’s cosmology’). For example dark matter is presented as if it were as certain as normal matter. In fact what we know is that the gravitational force calculation comes up with the wrong value at the level of galaxies. This could mean that the mass is wrong (hence dark matter), that the distances are wrong, or that Newton/Einstein are wrong on the scale of galaxies. Dark matter is the best supported possibility – but it remains just this. I think not to make this clear does cosmology no favours.
I accept, though, that it is particularly easy to fall into fallacious fact-speak when the detail of the science is not the main thrust of the book. You want to get the science out of the way in an easy, approachable fashion so you can concentrate on the travel book/history of science aspects. And bearing that in mind, I can easily overlook that reservation, because this is such a good, well-written book. If you want to get a feel for where the mysteries of the universe are wrestled with, I can’t think of a better book to pick up. You’ll be swept away by Ananthaswamy’s expert storytelling.
Also hardback: 
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg