Skip to main content

Posts

Showing posts from May, 2012

A Wealth of Numbers – Benjamin Wardhaugh ***

I’m probably the last person who should be reviewing this book because quite a bit of  it is about mathematical puzzles, and I’m hopeless with these. I enjoy them as long as I can get the answer off the top of my head within 30 seconds – then I feel smug. But otherwise  I get bored, and I’m certainly not going to do anything that involves writing out a series of equations. That’s perhaps a bit picky, though. Because the book has a much wider brief than mathematical puzzles and diversions – it provides us with many excerpts from maths books aimed at the general reader over the last five hundred years. As such it’s a box of curiosities. Reading it is a bit like going around one of those really old fashioned, fusty local museums. A lot of the stuff you see you think ‘Why are they bothering to display this?’ But then you will come across a little gem like a mummified mermaid and it is all, briefly, worthwhile. So it is, for example, quaintly interesting to see extracts from Robert Record…

The Geek Manifesto – Mark Henderson ****

It’s interesting that the ‘added puff’ fake sticker on the front of this book calls it ‘important’ because that is actually a very informative word about this book. What is packed into ‘important’ is that this is a really essential topic with lots of well argued material… but it’s a bit boring. And that’s kind of how I felt about the book. In a way it suffers from the target of my agent’s non-fiction mantra: ‘Is this a book or is it an article?’ I felt that this really was more an article taken to book length. But the problem is more than that and it sits at the heart of the issue that Mark Henderson is addressing. Talking about the politics of science can be rather boring. It’s a turn off. It’s quite easy to make science itself interesting if you are good writer, as Henderson indubitably is – but it’s very hard to make politics of science engaging. I read a lot of science blogs – in fact I’ve met many of the people Henderson quotes  – and much though I love someone like Stephen Curr…

Dana Mackenzie – Four Way Interview

Dana Mackenzie is the author of The Big Splat, or How Our Moon Came to Be (Wiley), among other books. He is a frequent contributor to Science, Discover, and New Scientist. He has a PhD in mathematics from Princeton and was a mathematics professor for thirteen years before becoming a full time writer. His latest book is The Universe in Zero Words. Why maths? To me, mathematics is the most universal language. It is a subject with a continuous unbroken tradition from the ancient Chinese, Babylonians, and Egyptians to the present day – a longer tradition than any other science and virtually any other human endeavor. It is an enabling subject, in the sense that every other science depends on it to some extent, and generally speaking the more modern a science becomes, the more explicitly it incorporates mathematical reasoning and ideas. Most importantly and most personally for me, I love mathematics because there is no other field I know of where truth and beauty are so closely intertwined. …

The Nanotechnology Myth – Brian Clegg

Imagine an army of self-replicating robots, each invisibly small, endlessly reproducing, forming a grey mass that swamps the world, and destroys its resources. This was the premise of Michael Crichton’s thriller, Prey, but the concept of using invisibly small technology is not just science fiction. This so-called ‘grey goo’ scenario is fantasy (grey goo because the nanobots are too small to be seen individually, and would collectively appear as a viscous, self-moving grey liquid). But nanotechnology is real and has a huge potential. Until recently, that prefix ‘nano’ was an unfamiliar one. At the 11th Conférence Générale des Poids es Mesures in 1960 a faceless committee defined the SI (Système International) units. As well as agreeing standards of measurement like the meter, the kilogram and the second, the conference developed a range of prefixes for bigger and smaller units from tera (multiply by 1,000,000,000,000) to pico (divide by 1,000,000,000,000). The penultimate prefix was na…

The Ultimate Book of Saturday Science – Neil A. Downie ****

We get quite a lot of books in that are made up of ‘fun experiments’ to do, and often, if I am honest, they are trifle lame. Sanitised and safe,  they are the sort of ‘acid and baking powder’ experiment – of themselves entirely worthy, but not the sort of thing that would have interested me as teenager when I was blowing things up, making miniature rocket motors and trying to build a laser from scratch. This book, however, would have been right up my street. Neil Downie does a lot of work with Saturday Morning science clubs, school science clubs and the like, and although they can be done in the home, these are often the sort of experiments that would benefit from that kind of environment. I could also, frankly, see grown up engineers doing this kind of thing in there spare time, just for a bit of fun. It’s not that every experiment involves danger, although we do have a dramatic vacuum powered cannon, electrical explosives and more – but there isn’t the usual feel of restraint and ‘…

The Puzzler’s Dilemma – Derrick Niederman ****

For me, the best popular science books are those that get you actively involved and thinking about what’s being looked at, rather than merely allowing you to take in the information passively. Whether it’s through exercises to get stuck into, little experiments to try out for yourself, or puzzles which challenge you to think things through – it just makes a book more enjoyable and memorable, and allows you to get more from it. I really enjoyed this book from Derrick Niederman, then – it’s jam packed full of puzzles and logic problems which really get you thinking, and which get across well the themes covered. The puzzles slot in around what the book fundamentally is – a collection of short reflections on all kinds of aspects of puzzles and puzzle solving. We look at, for instance, how puzzles can be categorised, strategies for solving puzzles, and what puzzles can reveal about the mind and human reasoning. One thing I found fascinating was the way we often unnecessarily complicate pro…

The Universe in Zero Words – Dana Mackenzie *****

In awarding this book five stars I am rather reminded of the infamous Samuel Johnson quote on women preachers: ‘A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.’ Leaving aside that Doctor Johnson might have had to rethink his opinion had he seen Pudsey, the reason I say this is because I’m reviewing a book about mathematical equations. Taken purely as a piece of popular science writing it probably only merits four stars, but I am so amazed that anyone can write a book about a series of equations and make it readable and interesting that I have had to award it five. When I first saw the title I thought I was about to flick through a nice picture book of astronomical photos, but in fact Dana Mackenzie provides us with plenty of words – it’s just that they are describing these ‘no words’ equations. Mackenzie eases us in gently with the work of the ancient Greeks, then brings us forward in time, allowing the …

The Sun is Dying and Global Dimming – Brian Cox

Two mini-features from the CERN physicist, media star and scientific advisor to the movie Sunshine. The Sun is Dying The Sun will not live forever. It has enough fuel left, if our current understanding is correct, for another 5 billion years, at which point it will die. But could it be possible for the Sun to die much sooner, within the next 100 years even? From a scientific perspective, it should be said that this is very unlikely. But, it is also true that there is a lot about the universe that we do not understand. Over the last few years astronomers have observed that there is extra “stuff” in the universe that we can see only by its gravitational influence on stars and galaxies. This stuff goes by the name of Dark Matter, and there is five times as much Dark Matter in the universe as there is normal matter, the stuff that makes up you, me, and the stars and planets we can see with our telescopes. What is this mysterious stuff? It’s possible, some scientists would say likely even, …

The Cambridge Phenomenon – Kate Kirk ***

There is a certain, very specific kind of book that rarely makes it into the bookshops. It’s a sort of cross between a personal photo album and a corporate history. Large companies rather like to produce them to mark anniversaries. In a sense this is such a book, but it is certainly the most interesting one I’ve ever come across. It starts with an introduction by Bill Gates, which shows the importance of the technology spin-offs and business parks that have benefited so hugely from easy contact with the one of the world’s top science universities. Of itself it isn’t very readable – our Bill is no author, as his previous books have proved – but it does give the book a certain kudos. We then get into a history of the development of this outer circle of technoknowledge from the string and sealing wax Cambridge Consultants and Sinclair Radionics (nostalgic sigh from British geeks of a certain age) to the modern and hugely successful science parks. All this with glossy pages that have a g…

Listening to Chemistry

We don’t often see chemistry appearing in popular science, so it’s great that the Royal Society of Chemistry has built a a collection of 5 minute podcasts on each of the chemical elements, forming an audio periodic table. You can look over the whole table and click on element to hear a podcast (or read a transcript). There is also a second, more open-ended series on compounds. Both element and compound series feature a range of podcasts by our editor, Brian Clegg. Here, for example, is his podcast on DNA. You can see the whole list of elements here at the podcast site, and the new set of compounds here.

Introducing Artificial Intelligence – Henry Brighton & Howard Selina ****

It is almost impossible to rate these relentlessly hip books – they are pure marmite*. The huge Introducing … series (a vast range of books covering everything from Quantum Theory to Islam), previously known as … for Beginners, puts across the message in a style that owes as much to Terry Gilliam and pop art as it does to popular science. Pretty well every page features large graphics with speech bubbles that are supposed to emphasise the point. Funnily, Introducing Artificial Intelligence is both a good and bad example of the series. Let’s get the bad bits out of the way first. The illustrators of these books are very variable, and I didn’t particularly like the pictures here. They did add something – the illustrations in these books always have a lot of information content, rather than being window dressing – but they seemed more detached from the text and rather lacking in the oomph the best versions have. The other real problem is that this is a book that really should have been …

30 Second Maths – Richard Brown (Ed.) ***

I sometimes feel like I’m becoming a Victor Meldrew of science publishing. It happens when I can’t understand why a book exists. This is just such a book. It’s a lovely book. It feels nice to hold, it looks great, the design is superb. But I don’t understand what it’s for. 30 Second Maths (nice to see that ‘s’) is divided into chunks covering things like ‘Numbers and Counting’ and ‘Algebra and Abstraction’. Each chunk starts with a glossary and then is mainly two page spreads, the left text, the right a stylish illustration. The text is divided up into a number of bitettes, including the main ’30 seconds maths’ section, and sidebars including a ‘3 second sum’ and a ‘3 minute addition’. My biggest bugbear is the ‘3 second biography’ section which is just a list of names and dates. This whole layout is design over readability. The headings don’t make any sense –  the ‘3 minute addition’ may be adding a little depth but it is a lot shorter than the ’30 second maths’ section. The main chu…