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Showing posts from 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 …

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…

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…

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 beli…

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 …