Thursday, 26 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 universities and religion of the day, and how we need to have much less of a knee-jerk reaction to the way they got things wrong with astrology and natural magic and other similar silly sounding topics.
I’ve read a lot of these very short introductions to review them both here and elsewhere, and I’d say this is definitely one of my favourites. Not only is there is a surprising amount of thought provoking and very readable content, it is an absolute essential to understand where our modern approach to science has come from. Read it now.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

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 subtitled ‘the four billion year story of earth’s climate’ and traces through the different eras and eons and goodness knows what how and why the climate has changed, whether it is to form a snowball (or slushball) or to get excessively hot in modern terms. Despite all these variations, once life got going it seems to have clung on, hence the ‘Goldilocks’ bit. Once the Earth got over its initial formation, it seems to have stuck quite closely to a climate range that made life possible.
After being indoctrinated by the Royal Society of Chemistry, who assure me that the only way to write sulfur is with an ‘f’ these days, I was slightly surprised that the equally erudite OUP went for the ‘sulphur’ spelling, but that apart I certainly couldn’t complain about the science. But the nice surprise was the way the authors managed some engaging storytelling that made the book enjoyable to read. I would be going too far to say that this was a page turner I could put down, but it was much more readable than I thought it would be.
Even so, I can only give it three stars, because in the end the bogeyman of earth science and historical climatology wins over. It does all get a little samey and lacking in interest. The authors do everything they can to keep us with them, but the subject matter still gives them a hard time. Perhaps the best bit is appreciating just how speculative some of the assertions are, based on very indirect assumptions – in this respect it gives cosmology a run for its money.
If you want or need to read about the way the Earth’s climate has changed in history, this is a brilliant book – but if you only have a casual interest, it could be more of a struggle to stay with it.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 16 April 2012

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 start of gently with the nature of water, precipitation, redox reactions, combustion, acids and bases and the like. Over time, though, things build up until by the end we’re dealing with sophisticated organic reactions (admittedly in a rather more summary fashion) and reactions that involve light.
That reference to ‘redox reactions’ is the clue that this is not a book that is going to appeal to everyone. The nature of oxidation and reduction, which Atkins gradually shifts from its traditional meaning to the movement of electrons, is something a popular science book is likely to cover at a fairly summary level, but here we get quite meaty. I originally intended to do a degree in chemistry before switching to physics (though it’s a long time since I did any), yet I still found the book as a whole quite hard work. Its ideal audience would be chemistry students towards the end of their school career before moving on to university. It covers the groundwork beautifully, and I learned things I’m sure I never knew. But I can’t see many people sitting down and enjoying this as a purely recreational popular science book. As such it’s the chemistry equivalent of Cox and Forshaw’s The Quantum Universe.
Atkins has a great turn of phrase. I loved remarks like ‘Dissolution is seduction by electrical deception.’ It’s almost worth reading the book for these alone. Funnily enough, the real let down for me was those gorgeous illustrations. They show the structure of the molecules undertaking the reactions. But the trouble is there is no labelling – they rely on size, position and colour alone – and it is very difficult to work out what’s going on in them. This isn’t helped when the same colouring is used to mean different things in different diagrams. The idea of basing the book around these illustrations is great, but they would need significantly more development (or even better to be turned into animations in an iPad version of the book) to really do the job.
Overall then, a beautifully presented book, a great and largely overlooked subject and some excellent writing, but one for the chemistry student rather than the general reader.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 15 April 2012

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: Quantum Life) will, I hope become the definitive one on the emerging and tremendously exciting field of research I am involved in, called quantum biology. I have the rest of this year and the next to carry out the research for the book and to write. I am getting excited just thinking about the prospect.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
Ah, well, there you go. I have sort of just answered that: what excites me is my current research into possible quantum mechanical mechanisms in microbiology. For instance, what is the extent to which quantum tunnelling (a process I am familiar with from nuclear physics) is required to explain genetic mutations? Or, how does quantum entanglement explain bird migration and our sense of smell? And, can we only really understand the process of photosynthesis by appealing to the notion that subatomic particles can be in two places at once?
Picture (c) Furnace Ltd – reproduced with permission

Thursday, 12 April 2012

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 (also known as Ferraris and Goats) and one or two other paradoxes of probability. Each chapter is based around one of these chunky paradoxes, but Al-Khalili uses the theme to lead us through all sorts of interesting background, either because we need it to understand the paradox itself, or simply because it’s an opportunity to bring in some great material. So, for instance, we have the old infinite series paradox Achilles and the Tortoise as chapter 2, but we also discover the other known paradoxes of Zeno, including the delightful Arrow. Then there’s Olber’s Paradox – why is the night sky dark, Maxwell’s Demon – opening up all the wonders of entropy, The Pole in the Barn for the spatial aspect of special relativity, The Twins Paradox for the time aspect of special relativity, The Grandfather Paradox if you can do backwards time travel, Laplace’s Demon for determinism and chaos, Schrodinger’s Cat (oh, how I hate that cat) – explained better than I’ve ever seen it, and Fermi’s Paradox asking where all the aliens are. All in all, a great set, which uses these fascinating mind twisters to explore a lot of really interesting physics (and a spot of maths).
As is almost inevitably the case, there were one or two factual eyebrow-lifters. We are told, for example, that the Andromeda Galaxy contains 500 million stars – I think we’re talking hundreds of billions, not a mere half billion. And the explanation of Maxwell’s demon seems to suggest that flipping bits takes energy as opposed to the actual cause, which is erasure of information. But my only real problem with Paradox is that Al-Khalili writes like a physics professor (which he is), rather than like a science writer. His style can be a little plodding, and definitely patronising. So for instance the ‘explanation’ of the quantum Zeno effect is in essence to smile and tell us not to worry our little heads about it: ‘I don’t think I will pursue this line of thought in any more detail here, just in case you are nervously wondering what you’ve let yourself in for.’ In that case, why mention in in the first place?
Again I would contrast Al-Khalili’s suggestion that we leave thinking about quantum theory to the big boys: ‘However carefully it is explained to the non-physicist, quantum mechanics will sound utterly baffling, even far-fetched.’ with another physics professor, Richard Feynman: ‘It is my task to convince you not to turn away because you don’t understand it. You see, my physics students don’t understand it either. That is because I don’t understand it. Nobody does… The theory of quantum electrodynamics describes Nature as absurd from the point of view of common sense. And it agrees fully with experiment. So I hope you can accept Nature as She is – absurd.’ Feynman’s version is inclusive; Al-Khalili emphasizes that there are physicists and there is you, the common herd of readers. This is even rubbed in on the cover of the book. It’s not by Jim Al-Khalili, it’s by Professor Jim Al-Khalili – a bit like those dubious medical books where the author always has M. D. after their name.
Does the writing style spoil the content? Absolutely not. And I ought to stress that Paradox is by no means unreadable, just not in the professorial rank when it comes to science writing. The fact remains that the idea of building the book around paradoxes is great, the subject matter is excellent and the exploration of different aspects of physics is fascinating. This is a book that many popular science enthusiasts will lap up.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

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 the Claude Shannon effect. Shannon is an absolutely central figure in information theory, and yet every book I’ve ever read that featured him gets dull when he is mentioned. I don’t know why, exactly, but Shannon is like one of those people at parties who can be talking about the most exciting subject and yet make it depressingly boring.
You can’t write a book like this without having a lot of Shannon turning up, but it does make it difficult for the writer to keep the reader’s attention. I also thought that Gleick could have made more of the whole ‘it from bit’ cosmological theory – it comes across very vaguely, without the scientific backing you might expect. But there is so much more to enjoy, whether it’s one of the best accounts of Babbage and Ada King (not Lovelace) and the emerging concept of computing, or Turing’s work, or telegraphy wireless and otherwise. It’s a rich (if not always well-structured) concoction of information about information.
There’s so much information in there, you suspect that Gleick’s research was occasionally a bit thin. So, for instance, he refers to the transistor pioneer William Shockley as an Englishman. Shockley was an American, brought up in America. The only reason I can imagine anyone calling him English is that when you glance at his Wikipedia entry (and yes, Wikipedia gets a fascinating write-up in the book), it jumps out of you that he was born in London. Read a little further, though, and you’ll see this is just because his American parents happened to be there at the time.
I do also have a couple of small issues with this book as a whole. Firstly it’s a doorstop. I seriously dislike books this thick, and it’s a mark of how good the good parts are that I put up with a 526 page tome. There are a couple of chapters that could be done away with entirely, and there’s a lot of unnecessary flowery text. The other issue is that it can stray a little into the pretentious. This comes across perhaps most strongly in the title – putting ‘The’ upfront feels very calculated.
However, The Information does squeak in as a five star book, partly because the subject is so central to twenty-first century civilization (I find it difficult to think of a day when I haven’t used the internet or touched a book) – and partly because when Gleick’s writing is going brilliantly, which is for well over half the book, he is compelling to read. This is a truly interesting book, even if you may have to skip a few bits to get through it. And it is one you ought to have on your shelf. (Just make sure it is reinforced first.)
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Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 6 April 2012

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. You can’t argue about the creativity of a new product or invention – you certainly can about art.
There are, nonetheless, some very interesting observations – and it’s certainly not all as commonplace as ‘it helps to go and have a walk if you’re trying to come up with an idea’. (This may seem trivial, but it’s one of the most powerful aids to creativity.) I was really interested in the aspects of the influence of cities over productivity, and how electronic versions don’t deliver the same effect.
Unfortunately, Lehrer does get one thing totally wrong. He slags off the great Alex Osborn, because his idea ‘brainstorming’ doesn’t really deliver. This is a classic misunderstanding that tends to come if you don’t actually read Osborn’s books. He never intended brainstorming to be used in isolation to generate ideas. It’s an idea collection technique, not a generation technique – it’s supposed to be used alongside a generation technique, which Lehrer doesn’t mention. He also collapses the creative process, usually at its best consisting of at least four stages, into a single event and so totally fails to understand it.
Despite this, though, there a fair amount of useful material in a book that is generally an easy read. It just isn’t the masterpiece that it seems to think it is.
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Review by Brian Clegg