Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Molecule vs Molecule – Brian Clegg

In a number of recent posts I’ve looked at the ways that nanotechnology coatings like those produced by P2i can be used to make everything from mobile phones to trainers water repellent – and at the natural examples of this same phenomenon – but I haven’t really considered the science behind this technology – which is all about the electromagnetic interaction of molecules.
We’re probably most familiar with this kind of interaction in an attractive way. As I write this, there is a heavy frost outside. Water is turning from liquid to solid. Yet were it not for a particular molecular interaction, this would be an impossibility because water would boil below -70 °C. There would be no liquid or solid water on the Earth and, in all probability, no life.
The interaction that makes life possible is hydrogen bonding. This is an electromagnetic attraction between a hydrogen atom in one molecule, and an atom like oxygen, nitrogen or fluorine in a second molecule. When hydrogen is bonded to one of these atoms there is a relative positive charge on the hydrogen and a relative negative charge on the oxygen (say). This happens because the hydrogen atom’s only electron is in its bond, leaving a positively charged ‘end’ to the molecule, while the oxygen atom has four outer electrons not in its bonds, which are repelled away from the electrons in the bonds, giving it a negative charge.
Put two molecules alongside each other and the positively charged hydrogen is attracted to the negatively charged oxygen in its neighbour. The two molecules are drawn towards each other. There’s a force pulling the molecules together, and that means if you want to break them apart – say to boil liquid water – then it takes more energy that it otherwise would, as you have to overcome that force. Result: a much higher boiling point.
This inter-molecular attraction also accounts for another oddity that means aquatic creatures can survive in icy cold weather. Solid water – ice – is less dense than the liquid form, so it floats, leaving the water beneath still liquid. It’s sometimes said this is a unique property of water. It’s not – acetic acid and silicon, for instance, are both denser as a liquid than a solid – but it is unusual. It happens because the six-sided shape of a water crystal won’t fit with the way the hydrogen bonds pull the hydrogen of one water molecule towards the oxygen of another. To slot into the structure, these bonds have to stretch and twist, pulling water molecules further apart than they are in water’s most dense liquid form.
Hydrogen bonding would not be a good mechanism to consider if you wanted to keep liquids off an object. It would tend, rather, to keep them in place. So to produce a water resistant coating, you are looking instead for molecules that won’t attract. I have a personal interest in this. My father was an industrial chemist and was part of the team that developed one of the world’s first fabric conditioners. He used to bring home experimental jars of turquoise gloop from work to try out at home. And the principle behind a fabric conditioner or fabric softener is the opposite of cosy hydrogen bonds.
Such conditioners work by making clothes dirty with a special kind of dirt. Conditioners leave a thin residue on the fabric fibres. These molecules have several roles, but the significant one here is that they tend to repel each other, making the detailed structure of the fibres fluff up and giving the fabric a softer, more luxurious feel, lubricating the fibres when they move against each other.
This is very much fabric conditioner on fabric conditioner interaction. But to achieve a water-repellent coating we need to combine aspects of the two effects to get an interaction between the molecules in the coating and the water molecules that we are trying to get away from a product as quickly as possible.
P2i’s nanocoating is a polymer with molecules that are long-chains which can be either hydrocarbons or poly fluorinated . These start out as individual monomers – the molecules that will eventually be bound together in a polymer – which are exposed to a low power radio signal at 13.56 MHz to produce a plasma, a gas-like collection of ionised monomers, which then polymerize directly on the object being coated. It’s not a case of applying a polymer like sticking on an outer coating, but rather of creating it in place on all surfaces of the object to be protected.
Water forming into droplets on a tissue with a P2i coating
The molecular action here is rather more subtle than in a fabric conditioner. The coated surface has a low surface energy – significantly lower than that of water. Surface energy is a way of describing how much ability the surface of a substance has to produce interactions. P2i’s coating is unusually reluctant to interact, giving it a very low surface energy, around 1/3 that of the non-stick substance PTFE (Teflon). This means that the water is much more attracted to itself, through hydrogen bonding, than it is to the surface of the material. The result is that rather than wetting the surface – spreading out as a thin layer – the water forms spherical drops, because most of the attraction the water molecules feel is towards other water molecules and with all this inward attraction the natural result in the formation of a sphere.
As the water is in self-contained droplets on the surface, it will roll off in these beads without interacting with the material. This is why you can have the kind of remarkable result shown in the Richard Hammond TV show where he pulled a ringing phone out of a toilet and it still worked. The water was not given a chance to wet the surface and short out or corrode the electronics.
We tend to think of a substance in terms of its macro properties – those that we can see and feel. But we can only properly understand what’s going on by taking a close up look. When it comes to how stuff works, it’s a molecule versus molecule world.
Images courtesy of P2i

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Thinking Statistically – Uri Bram ****

This is a delightful little book (just three chapters) introducing three of the fundamental aspects of statistics that can get us confused: selection bias, edogeneity (effectively missing external factors which are influencing the outcome) and the use of Bayesian statistics, an approach that is very powerful but makes it easy to go astray.
I wouldn’t quite describe this as a popular science book – there are probably rather too many equations – but it is excellent both as providing a bit of understanding for those making use of statistical methods (it’s all too easy to just crank the handle without understanding what you are doing and thereby come up with the wrong results) and as  an introduction for the general reader who isn’t put off by a little bit of jargon and equations in what is, nonetheless, a very readable little book.
Thinking Statistically is short enough to read in a couple of hours, and I think it’s a credit to the author that I thought ‘Oh, really, I wanted more!’ when I got to the end. Uri Bram’s aim is to get the reader taking a more statistical viewpoint. Not necessarily wheeling out the statistical big guns every time you make a decision, but at least being aware of the statistical processes you are undergoing mentally, often unconsciously.
If you would like to know a bit more about statistics, but find the whole business a bit baffling, this is a good place to start.
You may wonder what the cover has to do with statistics. So did I. The simple answer is nothing.
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The Science of Middle Earth – Henry Gee ****

When I saw this book (subtitled “Explaining The Science Behind The Greatest Fantasy Epic Ever Told!” in the original US edition), I thought it was time to put my foot down. Okay, Douglas Adams’ delirious fantasy, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was largely a science fiction parody, so Science of Hitchhiker’s made sense. Even Science of Discworld works, thanks to the conceit of treating it as the view of fantasy characters of Discworld observing our science. But Science of Middle Earth? Isn’t it all swords and sorcery? What’s more, Tolkien was famously a romantic who longed for a non-existent bucolic rural past, typified by the hobbits’ Shire (while conveniently forgetting the rampant disease, infant mortality and frequent malnutrition, that were just some of the joys of the real rural past). Didn’t Tolkien attack the whole idea of science and technology as the black vision of the likes of his number II baddy, Saruman?
Henry Gee, a senior editor of the definitive science journal Nature in his day job, makes a striking case for taking a different viewpoint. He reminds us firstly that Tolkien’s own speciality, the study of words and language, a subject that is at the heart of The Lord of the Rings and his other heavy duty fiction, is a science. He also makes it clear that Tolkien wasn’t anti-science per se (apparently Isaac Asimov was a favourite of his). What he was against was the wrong attitude to science – letting it control us, rather than the other way around. In fact, Gee argues persuasively that, for instance, the Elves in LoTR don’t use magic (they say this themselves), but technology that is so in tune with nature that it’s hard to distinguish from it.
All in all this makes for a fascinating and very unusual entry in the “Science of…” league. Firstly it’s a very literary and precise book for such a subject. There’s as much about language as there is about “normal” science, and Gee’s approach has a scholarly care that may seem a little dry to the followers of more straight forward popular science, but that works surprisingly well. After the aspects of language, a lot of space is given to the biology of Middle Earth – where did orcs come from? What is the biology of ents? – all fascinating stuff.
There is one iffy bit of science. Gee suggests that the palantiri, the long distance seeing stones that feature in the book, could be linked by quantum entanglement, allowing instant communication. The trouble is, while quantum entanglement does provide an instant link across any distance, it can only provide the result of a random outcome – it can’t instantly communicate any information [1]. (It’s just as well: if it could, it would be possible to send a message through time and disrupt causality.) It’s fine to come up with real world scientific solutions to oddities of fiction, but they ought to make sense with science as we know it.
Just occasionally, for instance when Gee was struggling to explain how the One Ring could make people invisible I wanted to shout “What’s the point? It’s just a story!” But that’s not the main reaction to this book. Any Tolkien fan will find fascinating insights into the man and a side of his interests that is wildly underrepresented in what has been written about him. And as an exercise in “Science of…” attached to a work of fiction it’s one of the best around [2].
[1] In the ebook edition this problem is highlighted and explored, but only in a note at the back of the book, which still leaves the error in the main text.
[2] The Science of Middle Earth is even better in the ebook edition [3] (would Tolkien have approved?), which has been updated from the original, though most of the updates seem to be in the end notes. So, for instance, where in the main text Gee refers to the difficulties of juggling various e-devices that don’t communicate (like PDAs – remember PDAs?), he updates this in the notes.
[3] If possible, go for the ebook edition.
Paperback:  
Kindle (updated edition):  
Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Meaning in Mathematics – John Polkinghorne (Ed.) ***

In this book a number of leading mathematicians, philosophers and physicists, each contributing a chapter, offer us a range of reflections on the philosophy of mathematics, looking at, for example, the extent to which mathematics can be considered objective, and the issue of discovery versus creation in mathematics.
I really liked the format of the book. Each chapter is followed by a brief commentary by one of the other contributors to the book, with these commentaries providing alternative ways of looking at a particular issue, and encouraging the reader to engage in the debates. Further, the chapters are bite-sized and self-contained, and I enjoyed picking up the book to read, say, a chapter or two, before coming back to it later.
There is an occasional problem with the shortness of the chapters. This is that sometimes there isn’t enough room for ideas to be gently introduced to those of us who aren’t professional mathematicians or philosophers. Despite the book’s aim of being accessible to the layperson, at times it is just too much like an academic book to be considered good popular science.
Some contributions are not as dense as others, however. Marcus du Sautoy, who has perhaps had more practice than some of the other contributors in writing popular science, has written a very easy to follow chapter. And I particularly liked his idea of reconciling creation in mathematics with discovery – whilst all mathematical ideas already exist ‘out there’, in a Platonic sense, waiting to be discovered, mathematicians are still engaged in creative processes, in the sense that they have to choose, often for aesthetic reasons, the most appealing and useful ideas from among the much more banal.
Altogether, then, this is an interesting and thought-provoking collection, which does however suffer from being a little too difficult in parts.
Hardback:  
Review by Matt Chorley

How Pleasure Works – Paul Bloom ****

I have to start this review with a confession and an apology to the author. When the book arrived for review in 2010 (no, not a typo), I was totally fed up with books about different human emotions. We had been absolutely drenched with the things, many of them rather tedious. So I put it to one side and forgot about it. A few days ago I needed a book to read, had nothing else to hand and discovered I’d made a big mistake – because the book is brilliant. So my apologies to Paul Bloom: the only thing I would say is that as an author I appreciate reviews however late they come and I hope he will too.
Bloom makes a wonderful exploration of what pleasure is and why we appreciate everything from basic animal desires like food and sex to much more complex enjoyment like reading a book or looking at an artwork. In doing so he digs into the real attachments we have – why, for example, we appreciate a ‘real’ original painting more than a perfect copy, even though the artwork itself is identical. And why we value a tape measure owned by J. F. Kennedy (one sold for $50,000) more than just an ordinary one off the shelf in a hardware store.
At the heart of Bloom’s argument is the rather philosophical concept of essences. Human beings have a tendency, he argues to associate invisible intangible essences with objects that change their value to us. The fact that in an objective sense these essences don’t exist doesn’t matter to us – and so from a psychological viewpoint they are important and real. If this sounds a little dull and philosophical don’t worry – Bloom’s writing is light and interesting and he makes all this stuff… a pleasure to read.
You may wonder when I think this book is so excellent why it has only got four rather than five stars. This is primarily because the subject, though fascinating, is frankly rather woolly. There is a lot in here that isn’t so much science as philosophy and guesswork (there’s  difference?). Because of that, I hesitate to give it the full whack. But it is a great read, there is fascinating material in there, and I’d really encourage you to give it a go. With the proviso of not giving it to anyone who’d be shocked by the description of S&M etc. it would make a great present too.
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 3 December 2012

Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age – B. Jack Copeland *****

Alan Turing is a name that has grown in stature over the years. When I first got interested in computers all you really heard about was the Turing test – the idea of testing if a computer could think by having a conversation by teletype and seeing if you could tell if there was a computer or a human at the other end. Then came the revelations of the amazing code breaking work at Bletchley Park. Now, though, we know that Turing was much more than this, the single person who most deserves to be called the father of the computer (we allow Babbage to be grandfather).
All this and much more comes through in B. Jack Copeland’s superb biography of Turing. It’s not surprising this book (and its competitors) is on sale now. 2012 is the hundredth anniversary of Turing’s birth. And it is a timely reminder of just how important Turing was to the development of the the technology that is at the heart of much of our everyday lives (including the iPad I’m typing this on today).
If I had to find fault at all with this book, it can be a little summary in some aspects of Turing’s private life – but I suspect this reflects the lack of information from a very private man. However if, like me, you’re a bit of a computer geek it would be impossible not to be fascinated by the description of his ideas and the technology that was developed from them, beautifully written by Copeland. I’ve read plenty before about Enigma, but the section on this was still interesting, and the Tunny material (a later, more sophisticated German coding device, to crack which the Colossus computer was developed) was all new to me.
Similarly, I hadn’t realised how many firsts belong in the UK rather than the US. I knew Turing’s work led to the first stored program electronic computer – the first true computer in a modern sense – but I hadn’t realised, for instance that Turing was the first to write the code for computer generated music, with the first computer music in the world produced using that code in Manchester (contrary to the myths you are likely to see online).
Although some of the personal life information is a little sketchy, Copeland really delivers on Turing’s death. I had always accepted the story that he committed suicide with a poisoned apple as a result of the ‘chemical castration’ he chose as an alternative to prison for admitting homosexual acts. Copeland tears this myth to pieces. Turing had endured the hormone treatment with amusement – and it had finished a year before his death. By then he was fully recovered. He appears to have been happy and positive at the time of his death. He left a part-eaten apple by his bed every night. And he was experimenting on electroplating in a room adjacent to his bedroom – using a solution that gave off hydrogen cyanide. The postmortem was very poor, without testing whether the cyanide that killed him had been ingested or inhaled. The evidence seems strong that Turing’s death was an unfortunate accident, not the tragic suicide that is usually portrayed.
In the end I can strongly recommend that anyone with an interest in computing should rush out and buy a copy of this book. Well written, fascinating and overthrowing a number of myths, it’s a must-have.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Royal Society Winton Prize 2012

Read more about the 2012 Royal Society Winton Prize, arguably a summary of the best popular science books published in 2011.
We have a winner for the prize! Best books of 2011? You decide…
Winner
Shortlist
Longlist
and here are our favourites that didn’t make the long list:

Monday, 19 November 2012

Butterflies and toilets

What do a South American butterfly and motorhead TV presenter Richard Hammond have in common? Both have a need to avoid close contact with water. In his 2012 BBC programme Richard Hammond’s Miracles of Nature, Hammond demonstrates an all too common problem: dropping a phone down the toilet.
Apparently 19 per cent of us admit to having had this accident occur at some point. It’s all too easy, particularly if you have a phone in a breast pocket and bend over – or simply slip while holding your handset in the smallest room. We won’t resort to Hammond’s dodgy statistics: he combines the 40 per cent who admit to taking their phones into the loo in the first place (what do the other 60 per cent do with their phones, leave them by the door?) with that 19 per cent to suggest half of those who take their phones drop them down the pan. However, there is no doubt that the toilet and all the other water hazards we face from puddles to simply using our phones in the rain put those most essential of personal gadgets at risk.
Rather in the same way that I recently took a look at the lotus leaf effect in our series Nature’s Nanotech, Hammond was inspired by the magnificent electric blue wings of the morpho butterfly. Living in the rainforest, this large-winged butterfly is in constant danger of inundation, bombarded by large water droplets in a way that could cause its fragile wings permanent damage.
To avoid every truly coming into contact with water, the butterfly’s wing surfaces are covered in a series of sharp-edged ridges, making a repeated waffle-like pattern. When a drop of water hits the wing, only a tiny part of the droplet – less than one per cent of the surface – ever comes into contact with the wing. There is no wetting effect – the droplet just rolls off, leaving the wing undamaged. And this is exactly what Hammond wants to see happen to his phone.
To see just what’s possible, Hammond takes a trip to the Oxfordshire laboratories of our friends at P2i, where a nanopolymer coating produces a very similar hydrophobic water repulsion effect to the butterfly’s wings. To show just how much this approach could do for us, Hammond’s team knock up a Heath Robinson machine where water repellency ensures that things we normally can’t afford to get wet continue to function in simulated rainfall. We see:
  • A newspaper that droplets simply run off
  • An egg carton that won’t become sticky
  • Utensils and containers that don’t dribble or get dirty
  • A book you read on the beach or by the pool
With surely conscious echoes of the film The Man the White Suit, Hammond finally dons a coated white suit which takes everything that can be thrown at it: beans, coffee, red wine, mustard, fruit juices and soy sauce.
In that film, inventor Sidney Stratton, played by a young Alec Guinness, produces a new fabric that will never get dirty or wear out. Interestingly, clothing manufacturers hate the idea and take increasingly desperate measures to try to destroy Guinness’s pristine white suit. It’s rather surprising in some ways (but encouraging) that modern manufacturers of phones and sportswear take a rather different attitude and embrace the concept. There is one huge difference, though. In the end, the treatment causes Guinness’s fabric to break down, coming apart in pieces, where the surface coating used here has no impact on the substances in covers from fibres to electronic components on the inside of a phone.
This takes us back to the phone down the toilet – with a quick treatment at P2i, Hammond’s phone not only survives the submersion but rings underwater (rather him than me when it comes to holding it to his ear – and Richard, take off the bracelets next time, they will get soggy).
In the classic ‘light entertainment science’ mode that Hammond pioneered with the Sky series Brainiac, the programme rather firmly makes the point. This is something we really want for our phones. They are far too precious to be damaged by water – and the whole point of having a mobile is that you should be able to use it safely wherever you are.
I think Hammond missed an important point he made, which is that this is a concept with even more potential than the essential role of keeping phones safe. I know the coating is also used on trainers and some military clothing, but I would have thought there are a fair number of much broader applications, just as the Heath Robinson machine suggested, that go beyond the current imaginings of the marketers of this technology.
For the moment, though, our phones remain the main target for this technology. We shouldn’t think this is only a problem in the bathroom – there are plenty of other opportunities for water damage to phones that could be averted with well-applied water resistance. It’s time for that butterfly to stretch its wings.
Images – As seen on BBC 1’s Miracles of Nature

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Seduced by Logic – Robyn Arianrhod ***

Though there still aren’t enough women involved in physics, there are certainly are far more than there used to be. When I look back at my 1976, final year undergraduate group photograph at the Cavendish in Cambridge there are probably only around 5 per cent of the students who are female. (It’s a little difficult to tell, given the similarities in hair length favoured at the time.) Now it would be significantly higher. But go back over two centuries and what’s amazing is to find any woman who dared to make herself visible in the scientific arena.
Yet despite the widely voiced concerns that women’s brains would practically explode if faced with anything more than the fluffiest of science popularisation (the father of one of the main characters in this book, discovering her interest in maths, said ‘We must put a stop to this, or we shall have Mary in a straightjacket one of these days’) the two individuals at the heart of Robin Arianrhod’s book managed not just to learn about the physics of the day but to make important contributions.
The first is Émilie du Châtelet. She was worthy of a biography for her life alone, somehow managing despite being married to the aristocratic Marquis du Châtelet, to spend most of her married life in the company of the writer Voltaire (with another lover later on with whom she had a child, though, sadly, Émilie would die shortly after the birth). But she was also a great enthusiast for Newton’s work, doggedly acquired knowledge of mathematics to better her understanding (soon outstripping Voltaire) and writing an influential paper on what we would now think of as energy. Perhaps most remarkably she made what is still the only complete French translation of Newton’s brilliant but often impenetrable masterpiece, the Principia.
Scottish-born Mary Somerville, the second of Arianrhod’s characters, born 70 years later, had more of a middle class background (Arianrhod helpfully puts her on a par in both period and social status with Jane Austen and her principle characters), but still managed to go on to be a world expert on Newton’s work, both providing new insights for the many scientists who struggled with Newton’s sometimes painful obscurity and writing some of the first approachable popular science on the subject. While both woman were of a certain standing, and could not have broken through the way Faraday did from truly humble beginnings, the achievements of this pair when all of society and the scientific establishment was stacked against them was truly remarkable and it is excellent that their work is being detailed here.
Where I have a little concern with the book (as opposed to the subjects) is that Arianrhod sets out to give us too detailed a rendition. Dotting every i and crossing every t of a scientific life is necessary for an academic biography, but here it can get a little plodding at times. It is only because of this that I have not given the book more stars – it is impossible to fault the attention to detail of the biography, nor the interest of the subjects, but the book doesn’t quite have the page turning intensity that these women’s stories could have had with the right approach.
However, if you want to find out more about this remarkable pair of early female Newtonians, this is definitely the book to make you a very happy bunny indeed.
Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 8 November 2012

The science they didn’t teach you at school

We’ve got a new sister site, sciextra.com – it contains short pieces from our editor, Brian Clegg, on the science they didn’t teach you at school. The really interesting bits. The bits that make you go ‘Wow!’
It’s early days, but there’s new content going up every week. The material is a mix of short written pieces and videos. These videos don’t set out to be all hi-tech and broadcast quality. The aim is just to get the ideas across quickly and simply.
Please do click through and take a look at the site, but for a taster here’s one of the videos, answering the question ‘If time travel is possible, why aren’t we inundated with visitors from the future?’

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Caleb Scharf – Four Way Interview

Caleb Scharf is Director of Astrobiology at Columbia University in New York. He is the winner of the 2011 Chambliss Astronomical Writing Award from the American Astronomical Society, and the Guardian has cited his Life, Unbounded blog at Scientific American as one of the “hottest science blogs,”. His extensive research career has covered cosmology, high-energy astrophysics, and exoplanetary science, and he currently leads efforts to understand the nature of exoplanets and the environments suitable for life in the universe. He has also served as consultant for New Scientist, Discovery Channel, the Science Channel, National Geographic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and others. His book Gravity’s Engines explores the influence of black holes on the universe.
Why science? 
So many evolving reasons. Curiosity, obsessiveness, and a love of stories. The more science I work on the more I see it through the lens of storytelling, and it’s hard to do better than the story of our universe. I can appreciate simplicity and elegance, but as I get older I appreciate more and more the multi-textured, layered, chaotic, and unbelievably interwoven nature of reality. It really is just amazing.
I like the perspective gained from science. It appeals to my core sense of humour that we’re these microscopic specks of cosmic filth assembled into thinking objects, and we’re gawping at the immensity of it all, and actually managing to make a small amount of sense out of it. That’s incredible, and for me is a fundamental part of our humanity.
Why this book? 
Black holes are one of the craziest and most unexpected stories in science. I wanted to cut through the haze of misty eyed rumination about their exotic physics and explain just how real and important they actually are. Every week we’re hearing about new black hole discoveries – and these tell us that super-sized versions inhabit most galaxies and have been co-joined with the nature of galaxies and stars for the past 13 billion years. Because matter falling into holes can generate colossal amounts of energy – easily more than nuclear fusion, it can profoundly influence the cosmic environment. Instead of being off-limits and hidden away, these gateways to quantum gravity help make the universe what it is today.
What’s next?
I’m working on a book called The Copernicus Complex, that comes out in 2014. I’m really excited about this. It’s all about the quest for our cosmic significance, or perhaps insignificance! Like most of my writing it drills down deep into the science, but is also about telling a great tale. I also think that there are a number of original and intriguing ideas in the book, stemming from the latest research in microbiology, exoplanets, cosmology, and even statistical inference. Hopefully it will get people talking!
What’s exciting you at the moment?
I’m always going to say the abundance of exoplanets and the search for life in the universe, but I’m also agog at what’s happening with lab-bench science right now. Incredible things are taking place in optics, quantum physics, and microbiology. I feel that we may be on the verge of a genuine shift in our understanding of the fundamentals of the microscopic world, and I can’t help but wonder how that will lead to new ways to probe the cosmos.

Gravity’s Engines – Caleb Scharf *****

Black holes are the rock stars of cosmology. With the possible exception of the Big Bang, nothing gets better press. And there has been plenty written about the guts of black holes – but in Gravity’s Engines, Caleb Scharf turns the picture on its head and explores the interaction of black holes with the environment around them.
The result is stunning. I can’t remember when I last read a popular science book where I learned as much I hadn’t come across before. In particular Scharf’s descriptions of the super-massive black holes in the centres of galaxies and how they influence the formation and structure of the galaxies is truly fascinating.
What’s more, this is no workmanlike bit of dull scientist droning, like some books by astronomers. Scharf can wax lyrical when taking us on a journey through space. I particularly loved the cosmic zoom fairly early on in the book, where he follows X-ray photons from a distant galaxy 12 billion light years away, very cleverly linking their flight to events on Earth (once it had formed around 4.5 billion years ago) that were happening at the same time.
The book is not without problems. Often the description is great, but sometimes it tips over into the flowery. It’s difficult not to lose interest a bit when Scharf goes into the details of his own work in a lengthy section. The attempt to show that black holes are somehow responsible for life on Earth stretches the credulity. And worst of all, Scharf never admits how much of what’s in the book is speculative, stating almost all of it as if it were unquestioned fact. So, for instance, dark matter is taken for granted with nary a mention of the competing MOND theory. I don’t think scientists (especially cosmologists) do themselves any favours when they pretend they deal in absolute facts.
This doesn’t detract though from the reality that this is the best cosmology book I’ve read all year, and a must for anyone with an interest in black holes. Recommended.
Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

A Little History of Science – William Bynum ***

Doing all of science in one book is not an easy task, nor is it obvious how to go about it. William Bynum has chosen to provide us with a breezy high speed canter through the history of science, with the keyword being ‘history’. There is a lot of about the people involved and the context, always good from a popular science viewpoint.
Bynum manages to do this in an approachable way – almost too approachable sometimes as the style veers between writing for adults and for children. The bumf says ‘this is a volume for young and old to treasure together,’ but it really is neither fish nor fowl. The approach generally speaking is one that works best for adults, but then you get a sentence like ‘Galen was very clever and was not afraid to say so,’ that sounds ever so Janet and John.
Perhaps my biggest problem with the book is that while the history side of it was usually fine, the science was not always so. Some of it was just little factual errors – stating that the human appendix has no function – actually it has recently been discovered to have one – or referring to ‘degrees Kelvin’ like ‘degrees Celsius’ where the unit on the Kelvin scale is just kelvins (no degrees). But the problems were more painful when it came to modern physics – it did rather look like the author really didn’t know what he was writing about.
He tells us, for instance, that cyclotrons and synchrotrons were used by Chadwick in ‘smashing high-speed neutrons into heavy atoms’ – but these devices can only accelerate charged particles, and Chadwick used slow neutrons from decaying radioactive substances. He also says that the twins paradox ‘is just a thought experiment and could only happen in science fiction’. Well, no, it’s not, and on a small scale with atomic clocks it has been performed many times. He also seems confused about gravity, commenting that in space ‘there is no gravity. Astronauts and their spacecraft are essentially in free fall.’ The last bit is true, but not because there is no gravity – there’s plenty of gravity at the kind of level that, say the ISS orbits. But that free fall means it isn’t felt.
The absolute worst example is a paragraph that I find almost entirely without meaning. I would be grateful if anyone could explain this one to me:
As Einstein’s E=mc2 tells us, at ever higher speeds – almost the speed of light – in the accelerators the mass is mostly converted into energy. The physicists found that these very fast particles do some fascinating things. The electron emerges unchanged from the accelerator. It is part of a family of force-particles – the leptons.
I am baffled. Overall, then I am not sure what the audience for this book is, nor am I happy that they will get any sensible understanding of modern physics.
Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Introducing Psychotherapy – Nigel Benson & Borin van Loon **

This site is about science.
This book isn’t.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Deceived Wisdom – David Bradley ****

One of the joys of reading popular science books is discovering little factoids that amaze you and that you can’t resist telling other people. But David Bradley’s Deceived Wisdom goes one step better. Here the factoids are ones that many people believe, but science shows to be false. Apart from the risk of coming across as a smartarse, what’s not to love?
This slim volume (I read the whole thing in one go on a 1.5 hour train journey) has a good mix of classic old wives tales and more modern surprises. It’s delightful to discover that so many of those things you were told off for as a child (‘Don’t wear your coat inside, you won’t feel the benefit!’ for instance) are simply not true. I similarly rather enjoyed the evidence that women are no better at multitasking then men, and that cats aren’t cleverer than dogs. (Bradley attempts balance, but he clearly demonstrates it’s the other way round.) If nothing else, every member of the government should be sent a copy of this book to persuade them they don’t need to put notices in petrol stations telling us not to use our phones. There is no risk of setting the petrol on fire.
It’s almost inevitable with a collection like this that there are some quibbles. Sometimes the wording could be a little clearer. I was confused, for instance, if letting red wine breathe (by decanting it) was a good idea or not. The structure of the entries is to have the myth up front and then disprove it. But when dispensing with ‘No two snowflakes are alike’, Bradley concludes ‘get a lot closer and it becomes clear that no two snow crystals could be exactly the same.’ He seems to have proved his myth. Actually it’s more complicated. At the level the statement was originally made, visually, it is a myth. A lot of snow crystals are simple hexagons. Not identical at the molecular level, but that was never intended.
Another example I could quibble with is that Bradley claims as a myth ‘The full moon looks bigger when it’s closer to the horizon.’ This is patently true. What he means is that it is no different optically, but ‘looks’ refers to what a human being perceives – and there it is true. The underlying reason is that we don’t see like a camera, but rather the brain detects shapes, shading etc. and constructs the image we ‘see’ – this isn’t really discussed. But these really are quibbles and don’t take away from the fun of reading this excellent collection of science surprises.
If you liken popular science books to food, Deceived Wisdom is simply not meaty enough to make it a three course meal. It is, however, a top notch box of chocolates – and who doesn’t like that? Recommended.
Hardback:  
Kindle:  

Audio:  
Review by Brian Clegg