Sunday, 26 February 2012

Physics of the Future – Michio Kaku ***

‘Prediction is very difficult,’ said the great physicist Neils Bohr, ‘especially about the future.’ So physics professor and science populariser extraordinaire Michio Kaku is taking on a very risky task in trying to predict the way science will develop between now and 2100.
The approach he has taken is to talk to a vast swathe of scientists – the acknowledgements list is truly breathtaking – and as Kaku points out, unlike the work of many futurologists, this is an attempt to predict the future of science based on the knowledge of working scientists, not historians or science fiction writers or sociologists. Surely this is bound to succeed and make a great book? In practice, the result is mixed. Things don’t go well where you use potential developments in science to predict consumer products. What consumers buy is not based on how good the science is – and the sections of the book covering consumer products are the weakest. The trouble is scientists in universities are the last people to know what normal consumers want. One of Kaku’s sources is MIT’s Media Lab. But if you look back over Media Lab’s work over the last 20 to 30 years, practically none of it ever became commercial.
Things are much better in sections where the science drives the reality. So the parts of the book dealing with the generation of energy and space travel, for example, were by far the best and most enjoyable to read. They stopped sounding like a sales catalogue of the future and started really to excite. Of course even here there have to be provisos. These large scale efforts are mostly controlled by politics, not science. The reason we went to the Moon and the reason we haven’t returned (or tried for Mars) are all about politics, something that Kaku can’t really explore properly.
Unfortunately, what this book attempts to do is a very difficult task. Firstly, most future predictions books are virtually unreadable because they end up as a string of facts and rapidly become very dull. In his other books Kaku is a lively, approachable writer, but here he did suffer rather from factititis and sometimes it was difficult to keep interested. This book doesn’t compare with some of his other work in terms of readability.
But perhaps the biggest problem, as I’ve already suggested, is the assumption that because scientists understand science, they understand everything else too. The future isn’t just dependent on science. It is dependent on politics and economics and such like minor matters that scientists are traditionally very bad at. Time and again when scientists stray outside their field they get it wrong – think how physicists have been duped by fake mediums, for example. Kaku demonstrates this at full blast when he comments that we can expect to achieve a ‘what physicists call a Type I civilization’ within 100 years. Now leaving aside that quote (I don’t think many physicists talk about civilizations at all, and certainly don’t give them labels like this), this seems hugely naive.
Kaku’s Type I civilization is basically a planetary civilization – there are still nations, but they are much weaker and most things are done on a worldwide basis. Really? Does he really think the American people would be happy to speak Chinese? Can you imagine what an amalgamation of just China and the USA -both very inward looking countries – would be like, let alone the rest of the world? Do you think the French will happily abandon their individuality? That the Islamic nations would say ‘We’ll just forget all that religious stuff’ and fit in with everyone else? He holds up the European Union as evidence, but as this is currently in turmoil, it seems an unlikely exemplar. It really seems that to imagine a planetary civilization could happen in less than 100 years is pretty optimistic. And if he can get something as fundamental as this wrong, it’s hard to believe that the fine detail has any great weight either.
Overall, then, a great idea with some excellent thoughts about specific science and technology, but gets a little dull in places and like all futurology lacks credibility. However, compare it with a ‘classic’ of the genre, Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock and it’s much more readable, and much more plausible. In this field, there is no doubt this is a great book – it’s just not a topic than can ever be done awfully well.
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Review by Peter Spitz

Science in Seconds – Hazel Muir ***

I don’t know why it is, but publishers seem to love books that give you a whole host of bite-sized information on a subject. I can’t help but feel it’s a bit of a dinosaur as far as book styles go, because this is the kind of thing that the internet does so well. Books are better for narrative flow – no one wants to read 80,000 words from a web page – but if you just want a bite-sized intro to a subject, then the web is your oyster.
With that in mind, I really have nothing against Hazel Muir’s Science in Seconds. It is a well written collection of very short articles on all sorts of aspects of science. They are so short they tend to be more statement of facts than interesting stories, but they do the job well enough, with passable illustrations in a strange almost square pocket-sized shape. But I am stretched to see the point of it.
There are a couple of small moans. Inevitably when trying to cover all of science, some good bits will be missed out and others questioned – it’s the case with any ‘best of’ list. Interesting though hard drives, flash memory and optical storage are, I really don’t think they qualify to rank alongside the big bang, quantum theory and evolution. And if I’m going to be picky, there were a couple of small errors. The explanation of a how a plane’s wing generates lift is wrong in ascribing it primarily to the Bernoulli effect, and a piece on the planets tell us there are 8 in the text, but show 9 in the diagram – but mostly the content is absolutely fine, concise and factful. It’s just I keep coming back to ‘What’s the point’?
The press release tells us it is a ‘compact and portable format – a handy reference, ideal for students’. But would a student really buy this as a reference? It has far too little detail to help with a science course. And anyone with a smartphone can access much more detailed references at the touch of a button in an even better ‘compact and portable’ format. I feel like a real grouch here. Just call me Oscar. I genuinely think that Muir has done an excellent job. But to what end?
For those who like a bit of publishing speculation, it’s interesting that when I searched for the book on Amazon, this book came up – what appears to be exactly the same book, but written by a different author. What happened there, then?

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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The Story of Astronomy – Heather Couper & Nigel Henbest *****

Of all the sciences, astronomy is probably the one that most often grabs us when we’re young. If you want hands on experience of particle physics or cell biology you need to be in a lab. To get practical experience of astronomy all you’ve got to do is go out on a dark night. I think this explains the enduring appeal of the BBC’s The Sky of Night programme. It’s years since I watched it regularly, but I’ve only got to catch the opening of that theme music to get a lump in my throat. Astronomy has a universal appeal, and the team of Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest tell it wonderfully in this highly approachable book.
The great thing about The Story of Astronomy is the way it tells the story of thousands of years of discovery through people. It is genuinely engaging and fascinating. Whether we’re hearing about Copernicus and Galileo or Hubble and Leavitt there’s a whole host of individuals helping us to fill in what genuinely is a story with good narrative thrust. A lot of it inevitably is familiar ground. (There’s quite a lot of overlap, for example, with my own Light Years – since light is the main vehicle for exploring astronomy – and it takes a very similar people-driven narrative approach.) Even so, the authors manage to keep it fresh. For example I found the section on the discovery of Pluto and its (very sensible) demotion to a minor planet had plenty that was new to me, and kept me turning the pages.
There’s only one gripe I had with this book that nearly made me drop it down to four stars – the authors insist on repeatedly including little interview snippets where people we’ve neither heard of or, frankly, care about keep putting in their opinions. It’s fine to have little interviews in a book if the subject is directly relevant to the topic. So, say, with Jocelyn Bell Burnell on pulsars. But not these regular visits to historians of science and such so they can throw in a bon mot. It smacks too much of a book trying hard to be a TV series (‘Look, we’ve got talking heads and everything!’), it breaks the flow, and I really don’t like it.
That apart, though – and it’s relatively easy to ignore – this book is delight and a must for anyone with even a passing interest in looking up at the night sky. Which should be all of us.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Heather Couper – Four Way Interview

Heather Couper studied Astrophysics at Oxford University. She ran the Greenwich Planetarium, and later became President of the British Astronomical Association and Gresham Professor of Astronomy. She wrote and presented BBC Radio 4’s epic 30-part series Cosmic Quest, a ground-breaking overview of the history of astronomy. Her latest book, with Nigel Henbest, is The Story of Astronomy.
Why Science?
Because I’ve always been fascinated by the closest I can get to the truth. I’m amused by superstition, but can’t take it seriously – otherwise, we’d still all be going around maintaining that lightning was caused by Thor hurling thunderbolts about. Ditto astrology. I feel that a rational approach to science gives us the clearest picture of the Universe: one that isn’t sullied by religious beliefs, mysticism, or a penchant for UFOs. That’s not to say I’m an atheist rationalist. I don’t think a scientist can say that they are an atheist (much as I admire Richard Dawkins). But religion is a belief system, not a measurable entity – and we haven’t got measureable evidence that a god DOESN’T exist. So I have to say that I’m a sceptical agnostic.
I like the purity of science: It’s clean and spare, and cuts waffling to the core. Although this may sound controversial, I feel the way to get the true spirit of science across is to link it to human stories, culture, and the romantic spirit of discovery – which brings me on to the next question …
Why this book?
Essentially. the story of astronomy has been the story of our culture – or, indeed, cultures. Think of early astronomy: and we’re going back to the aboriginal tribes of 40,000 years ago. It started off as a purely practical endeavour: timekeeping, calendar-making, navigation …. then later cultures, such as the Babylonians, the Greeks and the Persians, started to ask the question ‘why?’ Why was the shadow on the Moon during a lunar eclipse curved? – the Greeks instantly realised that the Earth was round. The length of the year? Look no further than Persian astronomer-poet Omar Khayyam, who calculated the length of the year to an accuracy unprecedented until today. The story of astronomy is peppered with characters and personalities who pushed back the boundaries of knowledge, and often got into deep trouble with the established authorities.
But the giants of astronomy laid the foundations for later generations of astrophysicists – men and women who would push the boundaries of space to the very edge of the Universe. ‘The Story of Astronomy’ is a celebration of these inspiring people.
What’s next?
Our ‘Philip’s Stargazing 2013′ guide (by Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest) is being written now – it’ll be published in October 2012. It’s a month-by-month guide to next year’s night sky, suitable for stargazers from complete beginners to the advanced amateur astronomer. Afterwards – well, we’d like to do books on the history of constellations, black holes, the Milky Way and the Violent Universe. Otherwise, my co-author, Nigel Henbest, is preparing to go into space as an astronaut on Virgin Galactic. And I’d like to do more TV/radio programmes about my other passions: the English countryside, and classical music with astronomical connections.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
The enthusiasm of people for astronomy. We’ve gone through an abominable era of light pollution but – thanks to creative engineers, who have pioneered better lighting designs – it’s getting better. Don’t forget that the sky is a landscape: it has as much to offer as the beautiful vistas beneath our feet. These starscapes are being celebrated in dark-sky locations around the UK (Google Dark Sky Sites). I think that Brian Cox has – through his Stargazing initiative – highlighted the heavens in a major way. He’s also made astrophysics cool, and I’m so proud to be an astrophysicist myself. There’s nothing I love more than getting people out into the pub car park – in the darkness of the countryside – and seeing them connect with the stars and planets.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Simplexity – Alain Berthoz **

I am at a loss after attempting to read this book. The experience was not unlike reading a pseudo-science book, where there are lots of sciency-sounding terms flung about with dramatic disregard for the science behind them. But this isn’t a pseudo-science book. There’s plenty of real science in there from a professor of physiology. I don’t know whether it’s the fact it’s a translation from the French or what – but this book was almost unreadable.
To take a simple point – what is the book about? What does this irritating compound word ‘simplexity’ mean? Although the word is used throughout, I never found a satisfactory definition. Alain Berthoz gives us plenty of examples of biological processes he considers to be ‘simplex’ but the examples of themselves don’t define the term. I’m lucky. I have a press release. So I know, according to that, that simplexity means
‘the set of solutions that living organisms find that enable them to deal with information and situations, while taking into account past experiences and anticipating future ones. Such solutions are new ways of addressing problems so that actions may be taken more quickly, more elegantly, and more efficiently.’
That’s okay, then. But I really haven’t a clue what this book was saying. It was impossible to get much from it. The subtitle is ‘simplifying principles for a complex world’ which makes it sound really practical and useful. Sorry. Baffled. I need some complicity.
(Please note this is a different book to the remarkably similarly titled Simplexity: the simple rules of a complex world by Jeffrey Kluger.)
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Review by Brian Clegg