Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The Maths Handbook – Richard Elwes ***

I can’t score this book more than 3 stars because it’s not really popular maths, but it does what it sets out to do rather well, so it should be seen in this context. As Richard Elwes points out in his introduction ‘I was never any good at maths,’ is something you hear all the time. What he sets out to do – and succeeds in admirably – is taking the reader step by step through the basics of maths to be able to manage those slippery figures with ease.
The approach is not as heavy as a textbook, though occasionally I did get the feel of a slight older, fussy teacher at work. (It’s notable that the precise expression we’re told Elwes has heard from ‘a thousand different people’ is ‘I was never any good at mathematics.’ Hardly anyone would say ‘mathematics’ rather than ‘maths’. Now it’s possible he was trying to avoid the UK/US maths/math split – but it still fits that slightly fussy precision we meet on a regular basis through the text.)
I really can’t fault the step-by-step progress, starting with basic arithmetic, taking us on to fractions and powers, roots and logs, percentages, algebra, geometry and even a brief intro to probability and statistics. Each of the sections is quite short, easily digested, well laid out and illustrated and finished off with a little quiz that’s not too taxing but helps reinforce the message. I suppose the only question is whether it’s best to arrange such an introduction by the structure of maths itself (as this book is) or by application, taking the reader through typical mathematical chores from checking a shopping bill to calculating odds at a bookies. That way you could cover the same ground but perhaps make it seem more real world. However, Elwes doesn’t resort to an excess of mathematical jargon, keeping the focus simple – and at least by structuring the book on the maths itself it can have the most logical progression of experience.
As I mentioned at the start, this isn’t popular maths. A popular maths book is not a tutorial in how to use it, with tests, but an exploration of some aspect of maths, the people involved, the history and its significance. This is much more a practical book. I would it see it being particularly useful to an adult learner who had trouble with maths at school and now wants to come back to it and take it on. It is a lot less condescending than most modern maths textbooks and would appeal more to a mature reader. So for this particular audience it is definitely an option well worth considering – and it’s excellent value, priced like cheap paperback but actually a good size and well-made book. Just not really for someone wanting a voyage of discovery about the history or nature of mathematics.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Air: the excellent canopy – Frank Fahy ***

Considering how important it is to us, air has had relatively little coverage in popular science. Frank Fahy’s slim book aims to set that right, exploring every aspect of this essential medium.
We begin with the nature and basic physical properties of air, going on to look at how it supports life. From there we come onto a meaty section on aerodynamics and flight, providing the most comprehensive description of all the components that go into making flight possible I’ve ever seen in a book for the general reader. We also discover a lot about sound and about meteorology, where air and its flows are responsible for vast swathes of the weather phenomena we experience. There’s even room to look at some air-based technology, notably wind instruments and pneumatics.
Along the way there are a lot of useful diagrams and photographs. These are not always particularly well reproduced – often a problem with inline printing of photographs – and I believe that an attempt is being made to improve them. Even as they are, they contribute hugely to the understanding of the information that is being put across.
There’s certainly plenty covered, despite the book’s thinness. In part this is because the text is crammed in – there’s very little white space, making it a little difficult to read. Unfortunately there are quite a few typos as well – for example the section on why the sky is blue refers to the particles of light more than once as ‘protons’. The author clearly knows better, but this kind of error can leave the reader a little confused.
The book also doesn’t quite come across as being for the general reader. In part this is pricing – £20 for a slim paperback is not mass market – and in part the way the book is written. It is in numbered sections, more reminiscent of a textbook than a popular science title, and concentrates on putting across fact, which is fine, but lacks a certain storytelling flair. This is an interesting book, with a lot crammed into it, but it is unlikely to escape from a specialist niche.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Rising Force – James D. Livingston ****

James Livingston examines the various uses of magnetic levitation in modern technology, from medicine to the production of nuclear weapons, having first considered the historic fascination people have had with levitation, and the basics of gravity and electromagnetism.
As well as covering the science of magnetic levitation (which includes us gradually being able to reduce the number of supports needed to keep an object ‘up there’ and to keep it from being displaced in any direction), there’s much more. We have biographical information on some of the key players in the development of the science of maglev, fascinating stories of bitter copyright feuds between makers of maglev toys, and humorous examples of maglev products whose sales have failed to get off the ground (sorry) – there’s the levitating bed, for instance, which, costing thousands, has yet to have one buyer.
I must admit to having some concerns when starting the book about whether the topic of maglev could keep me interested for 250 pages. Because of the deviations mentioned above, however, and the gentle, easy to follow way in which the book is written, it kept my attention throughout.
The most interesting section, that which the book builds up to, is the one on maglev trains. (And given that I read much of this book whilst on a slow, bumpy train journey, the notion of high-speed, frictionless travel felt particularly exciting.) The science behind the trains is a little more complicated than I had previously believed. It’s unlikely you’ll be travelling on one soon, however. There are a limited number around and, unfortunately, as the book explains, many plans around the world for maglev trains to be rolled out have ultimately gone nowhere.
There are concerns over safety (largely unwarranted, the author suggests), but mainly the problems is cost, meaning that, though we have the technology, most high-speed trains rolled out in the next few years will still run on rails. The scrapping of two projects in Germany seemed particularly disappointing, for instance. Both cases reminded me of, and seemed similar to, what happened to the Superconducting Super Collider planned for Texas, cancelled in 2003. After so much effort and money spent on the project, in the end the plans went nowhere.
I can easily recommend this title, then. It’s a good insight into an aspect of much of modern technology, with enough surrounding material to keep it entertaining to read.
Hardback:  
Review by Matt Chorley

How to Build a Time Machine [Build Your Own Time Machine] – Brian Clegg *****

 If you remember James Burke (‘Good evening. [thoughtful pause; turn from one camera to another; raise an eyebrow] Or is it?’), you’re going to love How to Build a Time Machine!
James Burke is one of my heroes: the BBC’s moon-shot programmes, The Burke Special, The End of the Beginning, Tomorrow’s World, etc. However, it was his Connections programme that really got me. The way that one idea seeded some inkling of another – a tantalising Connection. It was a master-class in how to sneak up on a subject and then to hook the audience with a single line. Brian Clegg is surely cast from the same mould; he’s our contemporary JB.
In How to Build a Time Machine we start each chapter with an affirmation: ‘Yes, time travel is possible …’. There’s clarification, ‘ifs’, often detailed historic references; consequences; and then the practicalities – at which point you might have the feeling that it’s not possible after all. But then there’s the ‘Or is it?’ moment, and one cannot but take the bait and turn the page.
To name but a few, what does the following have to do with time travel?: near-light speed travel, an infinitely long cylinder built from dust – or a less ambitious one (!) built from neutron stars, wormholes, paradoxes, black and white Holes, antimatter, dark energy…? If you’re like me when presented with such a list – appetite whet to the point of drooling – this is a book written with you in mind!
One last and very important point: Clegg is both a writer and a physicist; and it’s as a writer – one who is able to communicate physics to the non-specialist – and that makes this book so very enjoyable. The hard stuff is there, between the lines, but we’re not asked to deal with it – Clegg leads us through, in his own inimitable style. There are just two equations: Einstein’s E=mc2 (of course), and Maxwell’s – the latter because they’re so ‘beautifully spare and simple looking’. Perfect. I’m sure I’ll go back and re-read it. If only I had the time – or a time machine perhaps?
Hardback:  
Review by Peet Morris
Please note, this title is written by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion – and we could hardly omit the book – but do want to make the connection clear.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

How the Hippies Saved Physics – David Kaiser ***

I have to be honest here, the approach taken by the author is not one I was totally comfortable with. He expresses regret that physics moved from requiring students to write philosophical essays about the interpretation of quantum theory to concentrating on the physics and maths. I have to say this doesn’t strike me as a problem. Similarly he is very enthusiastic, working very hard to find something good scientifically coming out of the counter culture. Again I don’t think this should be an end in itself. It’s interesting if true, but not something you should shape history to try to prove.
Much of the book is concerned with two things: quantum entanglement, and an obscure group of US scientists who called themselves the ‘Fundamental Fysics group.’ I’m sorry, but every time I saw that ‘Fysics’ it made me cringe and want to dunk someone’s head in a toilet and flush it. That kind of spelling is just about acceptable if you are selling doughnuts, but not if you want to be taken seriously.
Having written a book about quantum entanglement (The God Effect, which I’m delighted to see was in the author’s bibliography) I was interested to learn more about this group’s contribution. I think it’s fair to say, in the words of the great Paul Daniels it was ‘not a lot.’ But, to be fair, some of it was quite entertaining, if only in a kind of ‘weren’t those hippy types funny’ way. In fact by far the most interesting and absorbing part of the book (and it is a significant part) is the story of the lifestyles and strange goings on from nude discussion groups to murder.
The author also gives us quite a lot about entanglement, especially on the Bell inequality which was used to demonstrate that entangled particles really do seem to act non-locally, instantly communicating at a distance. Mostly this is fine, and provided significantly more details than many popular science accounts. This is important physics and deserves to be well covered. The only slight disappointment is a misunderstanding of the original EPR paper that started the whole quantum entanglement business.
This paper deals with two entangled particles, looking at their position and momentum. A lot of people misinterpreted it, thinking because it refers to these two properties that it’s about violating Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, suggesting it’s possible to measure both accurately and simultaneously (something the uncertainty principle forbids). David Kaiser falls into this trap. But Einstein (the E of EPR) was dismissive of this idea. He said of the use of both position and momentum ‘Ist mir Wurst!’ (literally ‘it’s sausage to me’), meaning ‘I couldn’t care less.’ The intention was to show you could do this with position or momentum – there is no suggestion in the paper that you would attempt to do both simultaneously and undermine uncertainty.
In the end, Kaiser doesn’t make a great case for the Fysics (ugh) group contributing anything significant to our knowledge of physics – they’re always on the fringe. He certainly doesn’t justify the book’s title as anything other than very cheeky hyperbole. But it is a mildly entertaining oddity in the history of science – and as this can be a little dull sometimes, it’s not at all a bad thing that it has been covered.
Hardback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Also in paperback (Sep 2012):  
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Also as audio download:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 1 December 2011

The Wonderful World of Relativity – Andrew M. Steane ***

This book has what is possibly the worst cover of any popular science title I’ve ever seen (even worse than the old Macmillan edition of my own Light Years, which is saying something). It’s muddy and dark – even the yellow lettering is muted. The illustration is a line drawing apparently by a ten-year-old that is just about visible on the black background. This doesn’t bode well, but of course the author isn’t responsible for the cover.
Unfortunately, the text is often equally impenetrable. The subtitle is ‘a precise guide for the general reader’ and the problem here is that there are two words in that sentence that really don’t fit well together. If you are going to be precise with a subject like special relativity, you will need to go into more maths than the general reader is comfortable with. Stephen Hawking was famously told that he would half his readership for every equation included – I reckon there are sufficient equations here to take the readership down to one.
It’s a shame, because there is the kernel of a good book here. I particularly liked the way Andrew Steane used some of the paradoxes of relativity to explore the subject. These are so good (except where he gets over-precise on us and loses most of us) that I could envisage a whole book just based on the paradoxes. Some, of course, are well worn, but I particularly liked the bug and rivet paradox (see my blog post about it here).
What this looks like is a closeted academic’s idea of what the general reader can cope with. You have to admire the author’s braveness – but ultimately it is a futile exercise because no one who isn’t about to embark on a physics degree would get anywhere with this book.
The title makes this book sounds like a Disney ride, but it’s anything but that. In the end it’s not a popular science book at all, it’s a watered down text book. And that isn’t the same thing at all, I’m afraid.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg