Saturday, 31 March 2012

Space Chronicles – Neil de Grasse Tyson **

I really struggled with this book. I love space and space travel – I have lived through and been thrilled by the entire space race and the development of space science. I expected to love a book by a great astronomer and science populariser, but instead I pretty well had to give up, part way through.
There are two problems. The lesser one is the structure of the book. It consists of a collection of articles, interviews and such that Tyson has produced on the subject of space exploration. This inevitably means there is repetition. A lot of repetition. It’s not that what he is saying is not interesting, but after you’ve heard it for the tenth time it loses its novelty. Perhaps the most interesting thing is the way Tyson is so obviously pulled in two directions. On the one hand he appreciates how superior unmanned satellites and explorers are from a bang-per-buck science viewpoint. On the other hand he believes manned missions are essential to raise interest levels. But of course manned missions are very expensive and almost purely political/military in role, so he really does have to go through some entertaining gymnastics to defend them.
But the thing that made me give up was the sheer jingoism of the book. If you aren’t an American, I can guarantee this book will irritate you. Here’s one example, the words of an interviewer speaking to Tyson (who Tyson doesn’t argue with): ‘If we land on Mars, how are we going to know if USA is number one if an American astronaut is standing next to a French guy? Are we going to say, “Go Earth!”? No, we’re going to say, “Go USA!” Right?’ So basically international cooperation like CERN is a waste of time and money – all that’s important, all that space science is about, is knowing that USA is number one.
An even better example, as it is purely Tyson’s own remarks is when he is talking about the aerospace industry, bemoaning the loss of US control. He says ‘In the fifties, sixties, seventies, part of the eighties, every plane that landed in your city was made in America. From Aerolineas Argentinas to Zambian Airways, everybody flew Boeings.’ I’m sorry? I worked for an airline in the 1970s, and I can tell you this is total baloney (which is apparently American for bilge). Remind me, for example, who built the Comet, the first jet airliner. Which American company? Oh, no, it was British. Of course Boeing was the biggest player in the period he describes, but there were plenty of others. (There were even a couple of other US manufacturers. Remember Lockheed?) Could I just point out also who made the only supersonic airliner flying back then. And come to think of it, the only one to fly ever since. The UK and France. And what did the US contribute to this amazing advance? They tied it up with red tape and objections so it was almost impossible to fly it.
This really made me angry, I’m afraid. In another article, Tyson tells off a judge for inaccuracy because he referred to 1,700 milligrams rather than 1.7 grams. Okay, it wasn’t a particularly sensible convention, but at least it wasn’t wrong. Saying ‘all planes were (US) Boeings’ is just factual inaccuracy to put across your political position. A book on space travel must cover politics, but once it is so hugely politically biased towards one country, however significant it may have been to the aerospace business, it loses credibility. This isn’t a book about space science, it’s a rallying cry for Americans. That’s something that has its place. I’m not knocking America, and it’s good that Tyson is proud of his country. But a science book isn’t the place for such sentiments.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 26 March 2012

The Righteous Mind – Jonathan Haidt *****

Don’t be put off by the title of this book (or the subtitle ‘why good people are divided by politics and religion’). Although they are technically correct they don’t give a full sense of the glory of what is certainly the best popular science book I have read this year, and comes easily into my top ten ever.
Jonathan Haidt is a psychologist who specializes in morality. We are inundated with books about human behaviours and traits – and many of them are rather tedious – but this is a totally different beast. Not only is it a real page turner but it is full of ‘Oh! Is that why?!’ moments when the reader gets an explanation for some strange behaviour of human beings that they have never fully understood.
I ought to say that this isn’t like a book about general relativity, say, where even though there are alternative theories, the core has been vastly tried and tested over the years. What is presented here is the work of Haidt and his team and there may well be psychologists who disagree with his model in its entirety. But the great thing is that, if there are, his model explains why they do.
I don’t want to over-inflate the importance of this, but I felt a bit like I did as a teenager when reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. The idea that the Foundation’s mathematics could predict the way human society behaved into the future was entrancing. But, in the end, it was fiction. Reading Haidt’s ideas I got a similar jolt, but based on sensible relatively simple observations. It’s almost too right to be wrong.
The Righteous Mind suggest that we make moral decisions intuitively and then justify them using rational argument. It presents six dimensions (care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation) as the framework in which we make these moral decisions. And shows how the two main political wings differ in that the left almost entirely bases its thinking on the first two dimensions (with a touch of the third), while the right tends to use all six much more evenly. This apparently simple observation results in some truly impressive insights.
Every politician should be forced to read this book before taking office. And everyone who believes that people from the opposite end of the political spectrum is evil, wrong and stupid should also read it. As should every wild-eyed scientific atheist who proclaims that religion is entirely bad and without redeeming features. And every fundamentalist religious supporter who believes liberals and atheists should be burned.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of the book is the way that Haidt, a left wing intellectual atheist, comes to realize that his own position and views are blinkered, just as much as any right wing religious bigot. Truly brilliant.
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also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 23 March 2012

Hubble: the mirror on the universe – Robin Kerrod & Carole Stott ***

I was asked to review this book as I also looked at a book with a scarily similar title, Hubble: window on the universe. Both are coffee table books that depend on pictures from the Hubble telescope for their appeal. Both have 224 pages of big colour pictures, using those stunning images that Hubble has provided over the years.
I can’t fault the image selection in either. Here, after a quick look at the telescope itself we progress through stars, stellar destruction, galaxies, the big bang, the solar system and planets. Of the two, the text is definitely better in this book, while the other title has the edge on the photos because of the sheer size of the book – 37×30 to this book’s 28×23. That extra size means that ‘window’ really wows you visually.
However the bigger pictures here are still stunning, and it is noticeably easier to hold. You can just about read this in your lap, where ‘window’ probably needs to be on a table to have a chance.
This is an excellent choice, and in its 2011 third edition the more up-to-date of the two. I also significantly preferred the text here. But this isn’t going to be the sort of book you read cover-to-cover, and as such, for the sheer scale of the photos, the other book just has the edge. And if you want a book that’s more manageable to read with a stronger concentration on the text, I’d probably recommend our editor’s Exploring the Universe instead. It doesn’t stop this being an excellent book, though – and this book would make a great present for anyone interested in astronomy.
Paperback:  
Review by Jo Reed

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Weather Wonders – Gordon Higgins ***

The weather can make for a good book of pictures, and it was interesting to compare this book with Extraordinary Weather from the same publisher. I would say that a fair number of the pictures work better here – they are brighter and more contrasty, though I have to offset the fact that many are significantly smaller in a book that is little bigger than a large postcard, so isn’t really able to offer really stunning sized photographs.
Like the other title we have a few pages of introduction and then what is essentially a set of photographs with captions. Here, though, there is a wider spread of pictures. The book is split into two sections with photos ‘from above’ and ‘from below.’ Extreme weather inevitably features, but here there is a much wider spread of reasonably ordinary weather, from fog over London to a pretty comprehensive collection of photographs of the different cloud types.
It’s all mildly interesting, but I can’t get hugely excited about either the topic or the photos. Some are certainly dramatic or colourful, but when you’ve seen 3 overhead views of storms or 5 cloudscapes, you have probably seen as many as you want to see. Like Extraordinary Weather, this is more a dip-in book than one I would expect many people to read from cover to cover. It surely has a fairly limited audience – but if you like this kind of thing, it’s not a bad example of its kind.
Paperback:  
Review by Martin O'Brien

Spacecam – Terry Hope ****

I love a good book of space pictures, but it’s a difficult balance. For a book to be readable it can’t be too big – yet you want the pictures to be as large as possible. Spacecam comes in at the bottom end of the compromise. It’s about the size of a trade paperback, but in landscape format, which helps with the pictures. I’d really like it to be a little bigger to get the full glory of these images, but it’s big enough that the shots can be quite stunning, while at the same time it is a manageable size.
Having said that it is surprisingly heavy as it packs in 256 glossy pages – a lot for a book like this. After a couple of pages of introduction, this is a picture book with captions, rather than a flowing text, which I don’t generally like, but the quality of the images and quite informative captions (packing a lot in at the price of pretty small text) make the best of the format.
There’s a good mix here. Lovely colour shots from the Apollo missions, excellent Hubble space shots, a good range of photos from planetary missions and a wide range of satellite shots of the Earth – because we shouldn’t forget that arguably the great successes of the space missions have been those that look back on our planet.
It’s always a difficult choice when doing this kind of book to decide on the design of the pages. I personally find the black backgrounds of many space photography books, including this one, a little oppressive – I prefer the crisp contrast of a light coloured page – but it’s bearable.
Whether we’re looking at collapsing ice-sheets, the scarily Lord of the Rings-like Cat’s Eye nebula or an Apollo astronaut collecting lunar samples, there’s a lot to enjoy here. I think inevitably this may work best as a dip-in book, the sort of thing you might keep in the loo, but having said that, I found it intriguing enough to go through it beginning to end on a train journey. All in all, a very good attempt at what is inevitably a difficult type of book to pull off.
Paperback:  
Also in hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

The Met Office Book of the British Weather – John Prior ***

The book trade is a strange one. Many authors have what they think are really good ideas for books that publishers won’t touch. But then you see a book put out by a proper publisher and you can’t help but ask ‘Why?’ This is such a book. I have to ask why they thought anyone would want to buy it?
It’s not that the basic concept is unappealing. If you are British (I can’t see it would go down too well in Australia, say), then you are interested in the British Weather. It’s a given. And so the book may have some success with people buying it for someone else. (The press release helpfully points out that it has ‘attractive gift packaging’.) But if you do, any thank-you you get will be purely for show.
The trouble is, the vast majority of the book is page after page of maps of the UK showing how (for instance) hours of sunshine, rainfall and average temperature vary across the British Isles. It has all the readability of an atlas, and to be honest, to classify it as popular science seems a bit of a cheek. Admittedly there are short, quite interesting introductory passages of a couple of small pages – the we’re back to page after page of maps again. The only part that captured my interest briefly was a little bit at the back where it presents different scenarios for the way temperature and such will vary into the future, given the predictions of climate change. But even these quickly palled.
The press release tells me that the book gives us that the ‘Profile of local weather is relevant to everyone in Britain.’ Well, yes. But only in the way the VAT regulations are relevant to everyone in Britain. They are important – but you aren’t going to sit down and wade through them for entertainment. Or even for education. Relevance is not the same as interest.
Sorry, Met Office people. I really don’t know where you are going with this one. I’ve given it three stars because the book is nicely produced and the maps are pretty… but frankly, as a popular science book it only deserves two.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

How to Save the World with Salad Dressing – Thomas Byrne & Tom Cassidy ***

I first read this book as a manuscript to provide a puff for the cover. As my comment says ‘Brilliant! I couldn’t stop reading,’ it might seem hard to reconcile with three stars. In a sense both are true.
The book uses a frankly lame storyline to link a series of science-based problems where you have the opportunity to think through a problem (supposedly faced by the hero in the storyline) and then check with the answer, learning some science painlessly along the way. It starts with a brief science guide (well, mechanics really), then plunges you into the problems, where you take on Erik van Basten ‘the world’s foremost evil genius’ and ‘creator of the world’s most powerful criminal empire.’ Ho hum. The trouble with this kind of fictional approach is it’s fairly cheesy for children – if the book’s for adults, which I think it is, then it doesn’t work for me.
What is good, though, is the series of problems. These were the reason ‘I couldn’t stop reading’ – it’s very tempting, having worked through one, to go onto the next and the next. To give an example of the sort of problem (and the ‘humour’), at one point our hero is standing on a set of very sensitive scales and expels a ‘methane fart’ – we are asked to work out what happens to Ethan’s mass, his weight and the scale reading.
We then have to flip to the back to read the answer. I found this highly tedious with a total of 26 problems to deal with. Given you have to read the answer before moving on, it would have been so much easier if each answer followed the appropriate problem. Generally speaking the science is pretty good. The specific problem I mention they get wrong, but I pointed this out before publication and they have put in an explanatory note, though sadly the explanation doesn’t actually fix the error – but all the rest is fine.
There still might seem to be a bit of a variance between that ‘Brilliant!’ and my assessment. That is because what I actually said was Building a book around ingenious science challenges for the reader to solve is brilliant. I couldn’t stop reading – after each problem I had to move onto the next. Best of all it made me really think about basic physical principles, but never felt like a dull science lecture. All of which I still hold to be true. But sadly, the way the book delivers an excellent concept could be done better.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Extraordinary Weather – Richard Hamblyn ***

Probably the next most photogenic aspect of science after astronomy is the weather. From red skies and dramatic thunderstorms to snow scenes and lightning, the weather can truly hit you between the eyes.
This new book from David & Charles and the Met Office, put together by Richard Hamblyn, aims to show us some of nature’s most dramatic views thanks to the weather. The photographs are great, at least as far as the subjects go. A lot of effort has gone into finding some amazing shots of weird and wonderful weather phenomena. The only criticism I’d have is that they have often come out too dark – the colour doesn’t jump off the page. Instead they can be rather murky and low contrast, which with a subject like this (and despite fancy glossy pages) is a real disappointment.
Even so, there are, just as the title suggests, some extraordinary weather effects here, including storms, ice and snow, heat and drought, bizarre clouds and my favourite ‘strange phenomena’. This is very much a picture book. After a rather lyrical couple of pages of introduction, Hamblyn limits himself to extended captions. The only trouble with this is that you have to know quite a few meteorological bits and pieces to be able to keep up. So, for instance, the captions for several photographs refer to supercells, which sounds like they are a kind of battery, but appear to be serious thunderstorms. The word is used as if it’s common parlance (‘I was on the way down to the shops and I saw an amazing supercell!’), and it just isn’t.
I enjoyed thumbing through this book – it was more of a thumb-through than a read – and I really don’t mean this as an insult to say it would be a great book to keep in the toilet. It’s the sort of title that you can dip into for a couple of minutes and really get something out of it. As long as you aren’t expecting more than this, there is everything to recommend about Extraordinary Weather – but don’t expect too much in the way of scientific insights.
Paperback:  
Review by Martin O'Brien

Friday, 9 March 2012

Moonwalking with Einstein – Joshua Foer *****

There is a very particular style of popular science writing, often from America, that combines information on science with a personal voyage of discovery. On the whole they tend to be written either by quite young writers or by someone very well funded by a magazine or a TV company (book publishers rarely pay well enough) because they involve giving up maybe a year of your life to go on the road and follow up a high concept. The cream of these books are superbly enjoyable – and I think Joshua Foer’s is the best I’ve ever read, making it a classic of the genre.
In Moonwalking with Einstein he explores the world of competitive memory skills – a small, almost unknown cadre of (dare we say) rather weird individuals who spend the year practising to be able compete at tasks like memorizing the order of a pack of cards (allegedly very useful in casinos, though Foer doesn’t really explore this particular application), an unseen poem, a list of names and faces, and random binary digits.
Along the way – and here comes the science bit, as they say in all the best cosmetic adverts – he gives us a fair amount of information on the nature of memory and how the human brain processes it, though obviously this is not covered in as much detail as you would get in a ‘pure’ popular science book – it probably amounts to less than a quarter of the content. Even so, Foer gives us a good picture of current thinking on what is still an area of science requiring a lot more understanding.
The brain science is pretty well presented – though I’ve read a lot about the brain, I still learned a few things – but the captivating part of the book is Foer’s personal journey. Not only does he get to know the memory champions, and the larger-than-life ‘use your brain better’ guru Tony Buzan – he actually enters the US Memory Championships. It seems unlikely that an ‘amateur’ would do well, but apparently the US Championships are not in the same league as the Europeans, and Foer is guided by a UK master – so he has a fighting chance of getting placed (apart from an epilogue, the book peaks with his taking part – I won’t give the game away by saying how he does).
Perhaps the most fascinating chapter is when he is dealing with ‘savants’, people who have unusual and remarkable talents, often accompanied by mental disabilities. He talks to the man who was the inspiration of the movie Rain Man, but the best part of all is his interaction with the savant Daniel Tammet who Foer gives strong evidence for being not quite what he seems. It’s not that Tammet doesn’t have excellent memory and mental maths skills – but Foer clearly believes this originated from training rather than from any special mental capacity. And his argument is very persuasive.
Overall, then, a truly enjoyable book with a real surge of excitement as ‘our boy’ takes on the US Championships. You really do learn quite a lot about how memory works, and also plenty of excellent memory techniques. In the epilogue, Foer points out something I too have observed from dabbling in memory techniques. They really do work. It’s perfectly possible for pretty well anyone to remember names and lists and phone numbers. But the fact is it is actually harder work than just jotting down a note. These techniques work conceptually, but they rarely seem worth the effort in practice. Highly recommended.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Exploring the Universe – Brian Clegg ***

There are few subjects better suited to a picture book than the universe, and the latest title from www.popularscience.co.uk’s prolific editor proves this admirably.
When the title says ‘Exploring the Universe’ it might seem that this is a book about space travel, but Brian Clegg makes the important point that pretty well all of our exploration has been (and will continue to be into the foreseeable future) using light. The sheer scale of the universe means that nothing slower is practical – and only a vehicle that has been in use for billions of years like light will enable us to see far enough.
The pictures are great, and I was unusually comfortable with the format. All too often picture books are so big that they aren’t practical to sit and read, they are only suited to thumbing through on the proverbial coffee table. This one is big enough for the colour pictures to have impact, but compact enough to be readable.
That readability is necessary because unlike many picture books with their short, unconnected mini-articles, this book has a continual flow of text that picks up on Clegg’s experience as a popular science writer. The downside of this is that it’s not so much a dip-in book as a traditional picture book format, but I see that primarily as a good thing – the mini-article approach is much more suited to websites and apps than a good book.
This title isn’t going to tell you all you ever wanted to know about the universe, but it makes a great taster whether you are a younger reader coming to the area for the first time or an adult who wants a more pictorial overview. Compromises rarely deliver as well as they could, but this coalition between picture book and conventional non-fiction popular science title is a pleasant surprise.
Hardback:  
Review by Jo Reed
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.