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Showing posts from April, 2012

The Scientific revolution: a very short introduction – Lawrence M. Principe ****

It’s easy for a very short guide to a subject to become a collection of information without narrative or style. Luckily Lawrence Principe’s entry in the OUP pocket guide series is the very reverse. It is elegantly written and fascinating to read. Along the way you may well have your illusions about the history of science shattered. Nothing much happened in science between the Greeks and the renaissance? Wrong. They thought the Earth was flat in Columbus’s day? Wrong. Galileo’s trial was all about science versus the church? Wrong. What comes across most strongly – and it’s why I’ve always found medieval science absolutely fascinating – is that you have to see the world with a different mindset. It’s not that they were all illogical and stupid back then, merely that they started from different first principles and built logically but incorrectly on these. This little book gives an excellent feeling for where our scientific ideas came from, how the approach to science was shaped by the u…

The Goldilocks Planet – Jan Zalasiewicz & Mark Williams ***

I don’t know why it is, but for me (and possibly for many general readers), books on earth science tend to be most dull read in all of popular science. I suppose biology is interesting because it’s how we work, and physics and cosmology are interesting because it’s how the universe works… but earth science is saddled with impenetrable names for different periods of time, plenty of climate variations (yawn) and a lot of mud and bits of stone. As someone once said to me, ‘When you’ve seen one stone, you’ve seen them all.’ Of course a geologist would wince at this and start telling us about all the different rock formations, but after five minutes we’d all be asleep, so it wouldn’t really help. Similarly, it’s very difficult to get excited about the history of the climate – it has similar snooze-making capabilities. This makes writing an accessible book on earth science an uphill struggle, but I think, on the whole Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams have achieved it. The book is subtitle…

Reactions – Peter Atkins ***

Like any other medium, from newspapers to blockbuster movies, popular science books tend to follow trends. I’m delighted to say that this is a book that breaks most of the current trends – it is probably the most different popular science book I’ve seen in a number of years. Firstly, it concentrates on chemistry, the Cinderella of the sciences (at least from the point of view of popular science writing). If you aren’t dealing with the elements, chemistry generally gets a very rough ride. But Peter Atkins gives us a book that is as purely focused on chemistry as it’s possible to be. Secondly, it bucks the trend that you either do a nicely illustrated book at a simplistic, for-anyone level, or a largely non-illustrated book if it’s for the more sophisticated audience. The illustrations (and beautiful they are too) are key to this book, yet it’s not a lightweight read in any sense of the world. What Atkins aims to do is to present us with the fundamentals of chemistry in a new way. We st…

Jim Al-Khalili – Four Way Interview

Jim Al-Khalili is a theoretical physicist based at the University of Surrey, where he teaches and carries out research in quantum mechanics. He presents the Radio 4 series The Life Scientific and has presented TV and radio documentaries. His latest book is Paradox. Why Science? Science is, for me, the only rational and reliable way of making sense of the world. Striving to understand why and how the universe is the way it is and our place in it is, I believe, what makes us human. Why this book? Asking and seeking answers to some of the most profound questions of existence don’t have to be obscure and complicated. They can be fun, challenging and mind-blowing. So what better way than to tackle them than through setting them up as paradoxes and puzzles that stretch the old grey matter? What’s next? Having written an accessible popular science book that I hope everyone can enjoy, I now embark on another book that is far more challenging. While still popular science, this book (working title…

Paradox – Jim Al-Khalili ****

There is something wonderful about paradoxes – and when I give talks to people about physics, I find it’s the paradoxical bits, the ones that seriously bend your mind, that really get them going. That being the case, it’s a no-brainer that Jim Al-Khalili’s latest book is one to look out for. It’s rather unfortunate that he defines paradox incorrectly at the start, saying it is ‘a statement that leads to a circular and self-contradictory argument, or describes a situation that is logically impossible’ – no, that’s a fallacy. The OED defines a paradox as ‘a statement or tenet contrary to received opinion or belief, especially one that is difficult to believe’ – but there is no suggestion in the main definition that a paradox has to be logically impossible. And that’s why they’re such fun, because they challenge our beliefs, but they really can be true. What we get is nine fascinating paradoxes of science (mostly physics), with an gentle introduction using the famous Monty Hall problem (…

The Information – James Gleick *****

A new book by James Gleick is a much-anticipated thing. Admittedly he hasn’t always lived up to the promise of his excellent Chaos, but most of his books have been top notch. In The Information, Gleick gives us a full bore account of the defining feature of our age. We explore the nature of information, how it has been communicated from the written word and jungle drums through to the internet, and, perhaps most fascinating of all, Gleick takes us through the social historical impact of a burgeoning quantity of information. It’s fascinating that the whole idea of information overload was first brought up not as a result of the internet, but hundreds of years earlier as a response to the flood of information that the printing press released on the world. And then again for microfilm. Rather oddly for someone who has made their name as a science writer, Gleick comes across best in the social history sections. The more detailed the science, the more he loses us. In part this is down to t…

Imagine: how creativity works – Jonah Lehrer ***

Very much of the journalism-based, story telling, popular science style, there is no doubt that this is a very readable book from an enthusiastic writer. As someone who has trained people in business creativity for over 15 years, it was also very interesting seeing a degree of scientific basis for what we’ve known pragmatically for a long time about ways of being creative. As often is the case with brain-based popular science, the scientific backup is primarily through studies of how the brain acts using fMRI and EEG. So far, so good. But I do have some issues. For me the ‘practical’ creative aspects of the book work much better than the ‘arty’ side. In the end, to an extent, this is inevitable because the arty side is so subjective. Jonah Lehrer (any relation to the very creative Tom? the bio doesn’t say) positively drools over how wonderful and creative Bob Dylan is. I find Dylan boring, pretentious and anything but creative. So that’s a whole chunk of the book that turns me off. Yo…