Saturday, 28 January 2012

1001 Inventions that Changed the World – Jack Challoner (Ed.) **

It is hard to envisage how to do better at making a book that has clearly involved a lot of work, and that contains lots of interesting information, yet at the same time is quite so useless.
This book derives from the series that started as things like 1001 Places to Visit before you Die or some such. That kind of application has a clear use – dip in, find somewhere to visit, visit it. But when you start applying it to inventions, it’s a bit different.
It’s all nicely laid out with some interesting illustrations, but if you try to sit down and read through it, you will very soon give up. It’s just so dull. It doesn’t help that the inventions are in date order, so by page 100 you have only reached the pulley (750 BC).
There are lots of wonderful inventions in here, everything from the stone axe to the Large Hadron Collider. And some pretty barmy things too. But why would you possibly want to read it? It’s impossible to read end to end (apart from anything else, it weighs a tonne), dipping in feels rather pointless, and if you want a reference it’s much easier to go online.
In fact that’s the answer really. This is the book equivalent of bringing out Coldplay’s latest track on a 78 rpm record. This is a website on paper, with none of the advantages of the online medium.
It’s frustrating. There really is lots of good material here that people have sweated over producing. But there’s no point to it.
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Review by Jo Reed

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Quantum Physics for Poets – Leon Lederman & Christopher Hill ***

I am always suspicious when a book makes a big thing about the author being a doctor. When you see ‘The Wonder of Vitamins’ by Fred Doser M.D., you just know it’s more about selling product than information. Although not quite as bad, I was a little put off by the way the cover of this book tells us it’s not by Leon Lederman, but Leon LedermanNobel Laureate. Now don’t get me wrong, Leon Lederman, the scientist who came up with the nickname ‘God particle’ for the Higgs Boson is a real scientist, and is, indeed, a Nobel Prize winner. But I couldn’t help but find this splashing around of the fact a distraction rather than an aid. Was his Nobel Prize for explaining physics to ordinary folk? No. Does it make him any better at it? No. So why such a big thing of it?
Once you’ve got past this branding, it’s certainly an interesting title. Unlike The Cosmic Verses, this isn’t a book that’s all in rhyme, though admittedly a few poems do appear. It’s more a book that is intended to be read by people who don’t read science books like, well, poets.
It certainly manages to fulfil half the title. There’s plenty of quantum physics in here, along with a bit of Newton/Galileo style science to give the background. And Lederman & Hill don’t hold back in going into some quite hard to follow areas. They spend quite a while, for instance, on Bell’s theorem, the indirect way by which it’s proved that quantum entanglement really does involve non local effects, rather than carrying information in hidden variables. But the trouble is, I don’t get the impression that either of the authors are great communicators. Lederman’s God Particle book is significantly more readable, but I think his co-author was a writer. The fact is any poet (or anyone else not reasonably versed in science) is going to struggle to keep up with this book and having a few cartoons (which quickly die out) doesn’t transform it into effective science communication.
What you end up with, then, is not a book for poets, but rather one that gives an introduction to quantum theory for, perhaps, those who are nearing the end of school and are hoping to study physics at university. The trouble is, even that market is better covered Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw’s The Quantum Universe. If Leon Lederman had brought hosts of personal insights to the table, it would have made this book worthwhile, but there are only a couple of very short instances. It’s fine as alternative to Cox and Forshaw, but certainly isn’t for those of a poetic disposition.
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Review by Peter Spitz

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

17 Equations that Changed the World [In Pursuit of the Unknown] – Ian Stewart ***

There’s been a trend for a couple of years in popular science to produce ‘n greatest ideas’ type books, the written equivalent of those interminable ’50 best musicals’ or ‘100 favourite comedy moments’ or whatever shows that certain TV companies churn out. Now it has come to popular maths in the form of Ian Stewart’s 17 Equations that Changed the World.
Stewart is a prolific writer – according to the accompanying bumf he has authored more than 80 books, which is quite an oeuvre. That can’t be bad. He is also a professional mathematician – a maths professor – and that potentially is a problem. The trouble is that, much more so than science, mathematicians are not ordinary people. They get excited about things that really don’t get other people thrilled. And it takes an exceptional mathematician to be able to communicate that enthusiasm without boring the pants off you. It’s notable that the most successful maths populariser ever, Martin Gardner, wasn’t a mathematician.
So how does Ian Stewart do here? Middling well, I’d say. The equations he provides us with are wonderful, fundamental ones that even someone with an interest in science alone, who only sees maths as a means to an end, can see are fascinating. In most cases he throws in quite a lot of back story, historical context to get us interested. So the meat of the book is excellent. But all too often there comes a point in trying to explain the actual equation where he either loses the reader because he is simplifying something to the extent that the explanation isn’t an explanation, or because it’s hard to get excited about it, unless you are a mathematician.
The section on the Schrodinger equation, for example, is presented in such a way that it’s almost impossible to understand what he’s on about, throwing around terms like the Hamiltonian and eigenfunctions without ever giving enough information to follow the description of what is happening. (I also always get really irritated with knot theory, as the first thing mathematicians do is say ‘Let’s join the ends up.’ No, that’s not a knot any more, it’s a twisted or tangled loop. A knot has to be in a piece of string (or rope, or whatever) with free ends.)
Inevitably, to give the book real world interest, many of the equations are from science, and Stewart proves, if anything, better at getting across the science than he is the maths (probably because it is easier to grasp the point). The only section I’d argue a little with is the one on entropy, where he repeatedly says that entropy always increases or stays the same, where it’s more accurate to say that statistically it is very, very likely to do so. But there is always a small chance that purely randomly, say a mixture of gas molecules will partly unmix. (He also uses an unnecessarily complex argument to put down the creationist argument that uses entropy to argue for divine intervention, as it’s easiest to explain that you aren’t dealing with a closed system, something he doesn’t cover.)
Overall, then, I am not sure who will benefit from this book. There’s not enough detail to interest people studying maths or physics at university, but it becomes too obscure in a number of places for the general reader. A good attempt, but would have benefited from having a co-author who isn’t a mathematician and who could say ‘Sorry, Ian, I don’t get that. Let’s do it differently.’ Bring back Simplicio. (One for the Galileo fans.)
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Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 6 January 2012

The Science Delusion – Rupert Sheldrake ***

Half of what’s in this quite chunky tome is excellent – the trouble is that I suspect the other bits, which aren’t so good, will put off those that really should be reading it.
The fundamental message Rupert Sheldrake is trying to get across is that science typically operates in a very blinkered, limited way. And he’s right. He shows very convincingly the way that time and again scientists refuse to look at anything outside of a very limited set of possibilities, not because there is good evidence that these particular avenues should be ignored, but simply because of kneejerk reactions and belief systems.
Of course science can’t examine every silly idea, fruitcake theory and dead-end observation, but the closed-mindedness of many scientists is quite extraordinary, and certainly not scientific. And in bringing this out, Sheldrake has a lot to offer in this book. He examines a whole range of assumptions that are generally made in science and never questioned – and this is a brilliant thing. We’re talking basic things like universal constants staying constant, energy being conserved, whether consciousness is purely a product of the matter in the brain and so on. I’m not saying these are assumptions are necessarily wrong, but it’s too easy to get into the habit of thinking that they shouldn’t be questioned. We quickly forget that they are assumptions.
Sheldrake also shows powerfully how some professional skeptics simply have no interest in looking into claims for anything outside of our current scientific understanding (telepathy, for example). He cites a wonderful example where he was brought into a TV programme with Richard Dawkins. He did this on the assurance that this would would involve the discussion of the evidence for and against telepathy. ‘I suggested that we actually discuss the evidence,’ says Sheldrake. ‘[Dawkins] looked uneasy and said “I don’t want to discuss evidence.”… The director confirmed that he too was not interested in evidence.’ Debunking without evidence isn’t science, it is little more than name calling, and assuming it’s true, Richard Dawkins ought to be ashamed.
Another great example is pointing out how little science, outside of medicine (and parapsychology) makes use of blind experiments. It has been demonstrated time and again that if experimenters have an expected outcome, they will influence the results of the experiment. A good example was an experiment using rats in a maze. The experimenters were split into two, one set given highly intelligent rats, the other given slow rats. Not surprisingly, the intelligent rats completed the mazes very significantly faster. Only they were both the same type of rats. The only difference was the experimenters’ expectations. When physicists undertake an experiment (the hunt for a Higgs boson, say), they are not usually open minded, they are looking for a specific outcome. It’s rather scary to think just how much they may be biasing the experimental outcome (and what’s published – at least 90 percent of data isn’t) towards the results they expect.
So there’s good stuff in here that everyone working in science, or thinking about science, ought to consider. But then there’s the downside. We’ve all got friends who are obsessed with their hobbies. And whatever you are talking about, they will bring in their pet topic. So you might be discussing the banking crisis and your friend who is a bus enthusiast pipes up, ‘Yes, and it’s amazing what an effect it has had on bus timetables.’ Reading a Rupert Sheldrake book, you are always thinking, ‘Please don’t do it, Rupert. Don’t mention it, Rupert. Please!’ But inevitably along comes morphic resonance and morphic fields.
The thing is, Sheldrake is a legitimate scientist who came up with an idea that has been largely ignored or ridiculed. Morphic resonance (apart from sounding far too much like a weapon the Borg would use) is actually not a bad idea and deserves further investigation. But as soon as you bring your pet unsupported scientific theories into a book it degrades the rest of it. Morphic fields might illustrate well the kind of problem with assumptions and conventions that Sheldrake is trying to highlight, but because they are so speculative, they simply get in the way. He should have left them out.
Similarly there is quite a lot here that will put the backs up of many readers. Material that seems supportive of anything from homeopathy to the concept of chi (qi) in ancient Chinese medicine. The trouble here is that Sheldrake seems to be confusing two things. It is perfectly possible that there are phenomena like telepathy that exist (at least in perception) but aren’t well explained by current scientific theories. But this doesn’t mean that you should give any support to totally fictional theories that have no basis in observation and what we do know about science. We may well need new ideas, new mechanisms – but not hauling out hoary old ideas that are long past their sell-by date. He should have trimmed this guff out, which would not in any way have weakened the main thrust of the book.
Overall, then, a valuable and powerful message, but one that is almost certainly going to be lost to those who most need to hear of it because of the unfortunate trappings that have also been included.
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Review by Brian Clegg