Friday, 29 June 2012

Genome – Matt Ridley *****

The output of the human genome project is a heavy duty subject – just understanding what’s involved in the process is not easy; interpreting the results operates at a wholedifferent level. As for writing about the human genome in an accessible and enjoyable way – this is a particularly drastic challenge.
Ridley not only succeeds but does so in a rather cute fashion. This is ‘an autobiography of a species in 23 chapters’. The number 23 is no random selection – it corresponds to the number of chromosome pairs we have, and Ridley picks out a gene to feature from each chromosome pair in each chapter.
This approach enables his book to be far reaching, looking at our relationship to other owners of the gene, from bacteria to great apes, spanning from the earliest forms of life to the genes that could be responsible for intelligence and language.
Evolutionary theory, biology’s great triumph, is put across very effectively alongside good background material on genetics, and of the many books around the human genome, this has to be one of the best.
Particularly attractive is Ridley’s style – effortlessly informative, yet light enough to almost always be enjoyable. If there’s anything to criticize it is an over use of something to the effect of “to go through all of this would bore you to tears, but I just want to show you this little bit because…” – but that is a very minor moan.
This reviewer has a physics background and expects biology-based popular science to often be an necessary chore rather than a pleasure – this is a definite exception!
It’s interesting to read it alongside Andrew Brown’s In the Beginning was the Worm.
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Ian Watson – Four Way Interview

Ian Watson is a professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Auckland New Zealand. His latest book is The Universal Machine: from the dawn of computing to digital consciousness, exploring the legacy of Alan Turing, the inventor of the computer. He is a keen blogger and is currently researching in Game AI.
Why science?
I’ve never felt it’s a matter of choosing science over something else. At school I specialised in Biology, Chemistry and English Literature for my university entrance exams. My school said, “You can’t do that! You’ve got to specialise in either the sciences or the arts.” I replied, “I can do that. The timetable permits it – I checked.” Going from a chemistry or biology lab to an English Lit. class or vice versa was constantly refreshing and stimulating.
Steve Jobs was often photographed in front of a mythical street intersection: Liberal Arts and Technology. He famously said “In my perspective … computer science is a liberal art.” I agree with him; to be inventive in computer science you have to imagine it first. It’s a creative act – computer scientists are not discoverers exploring reality and bringing back theories, we’re creative artists, imagining things and making them happen.
Why this book?
There are many books about difference parts of the history of computing from Charles Babbage to the present day. I’ve read many of them, but most are only for the real enthusiast: 600 plus pages on Steve Jobs or Facebook is not for everyone. I wanted to write one book that would cover all the basics from the 1830s to the present day and be accessible and easy to read. 2012 is also the centenary of Alan Turing’s birth and I felt that a book that put his legacy in its full context would be a great contribution to the Alan Turing Year celebrations.
What’s next?
I’ve now started work on a popular science history of artificial intelligence. AI is probably the aspect of computer science that most fascinates and even frightens people. I intend to look at the history of AI from the mythical creations of ancient history through mechanical automata to the birth of AI in the 1950s and to today. The book will then deal, in layperson terms, with the main techniques of AI and look at how AI has been applied in business and industry, health care, the arts and entertainment and the military. The final chapter will look over the horizon at what AI may have in store for us in the future.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
In computing it’s the power of the cloud to provide us with unlimited processing power and data storage where ever we are via our mobile devices. Soon we’ll no longer care how much processing power or memory our new gadget has – this will be utterly irrelevant. The advent of this will enable a completely new class of intelligent applications become feasible – I call it cloud intelligence, perhaps I should write a book about it.

Elephants on Acid – Alex Boese *****

I went about this what was officially the wrong way round, reading the sequel to Elephants on Acid (if you are wondering, Electrified Sheep) first – but for me it worked well because I preferred the original.
Both books have the same basic premise – a collection of tales of the weirdest and most bizarre experiments that real scientists have undertaken – but Elephants has the advantage of both coming first, and hence probably getting the cream of the crop, and also lacks the format issue I had with the sequel, because it doesn’t have the lengthy, slightly irritating dramatised intros to the stories. On the whole the entries are shorter too – this does make the book a little bitty but with this kind of concept it actually works better.
Some of the experiments described are mildly horrifying (if you get upset by vivisection, look away in the section describing a kitten having its head cut off and its spinal cord replaced with a metal amalgam, or attempts to keep two heads alive on the same dog. Others are just bonkers, like the title one involving giving an elephant a huge overdose of LSD (it died). Or most fascinating for me the  psychological ventures including the inevitable Milgram shocking experiment.
You might not gain a lot of valuable science from this book, but I can guarantee you will be thoroughly entertained.
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Techno Sport – Brian Clegg

Anyone who knows me will be aware that I am as enamoured with sport as the next geek, which is to say not at all. I have attended one football match, just to see what it’s like, and I have no intention of going again. The Olympics will pass me by as an irritating disruption of the TV schedule and an even more irritating financial burden on the country. Yet the subject of using technology to enhance sporting prowess is one that interests me immensely, because like my book Upgrade Me it is all about using human inventiveness to go beyond the built-in capabilities of the body.
In Upgrade Me I identify five primary ways we have used technology to produce a kind of artificial evolution. They are in lengthening our lifespan, making ourselves more attractive to other members of our species, increasing physical capabilities, enhancing the brain and making physical repairs to the body. While there are some inputs science and technology for sport have made to this last category, it’s in increasing physical capabilities that most work has been done.
There is a constant battle in sport that goes on between those who develop technologies and the governing bodies. Someone comes up with a way to enhance sporting ability and the governing body bans it for giving an unfair advantage. (Strangely this happens most often in Formula 1, a sport that is inherently about technology.) This battle between the rules and new ideas seems totally arbitrary, and needs a major rethink in approach.
Take nanotechnology, something that has played an increasing role in sport. A simple example was the introduction of Lycra. This artificial fibre which has interesting properties at the nano-level that give it unusual stretchiness, was introduced in the 1950s as a replacement for rubber in corsetry. But it really took off when the French Olympic ski team used Lycra to give sleekness to their ski suits in the 1968 Olympics, and became an absolute essential for swimmers from the 1972 Olympics on, spreading to many other sports.
This doesn’t seem to have offended the powers that be. Nor does the use of a nano-technology liquid repellent coating like that created by UK Sport and P2i for use in cycling and sailing. By repelling liquids, the nano-coating prevents sporting equipment from taking on extra weight from absorbed liquids. Yet at the same time, Speedo’s LZR Racer bodysuit, which helped produce 168 world records with a combination of water repellent nano particles and special panels to trap air, was banned by the international swimming association Fina for giving competitors unfair advantage until it was totally redesigned.
This kind of inconsistency highlights the strange bias of sporting achievement. The way we undertake competitive sport is not designed to show how well an individual pushes themselves against their basic capabilities, how hard they have worked, what a star they are – instead our sporting ability traditionally largely depends on genetic input. It wouldn’t matter how much effort I put into making myself a runner, I would never be able to compete effectively at county level, let alone in national or international competitions. It’s the luck of the draw. I’m not a runner, and I never will be.
If we really wanted a “fair” race, everyone would be handicapped according to their natural ability, and only what they achieve through extra effort would be rewarded – but of course that’s never going to happen. What sports bodies who ban a technology are saying is that it is okay to have an athlete’s ability decided by random factors, but not by planned effort on their part. This surely isn’t right: it’s the effort, the creativity that we should celebrate. Rather than worry about the technologies, it would be better to find some method of handicapping to natural ability and make sure the technology is available to all.
Of course there will always be limits. There will remain concerns about doping – though I would argue that enhancement through stuff you consume is fine as long as it has no negative effects on the body. That’s all that a sports dietician does, after all. It’s interesting that there is a session at this year’s Euroscience Open Forum session in Dublin on ‘building a better athlete’ that looks at ways receptor binding agents can mimic positive effects of doping agents like steroids without the negative impact. If there is a way to enhance ability, without side effects, why not use it?
The attitudes of governing bodies illustrate, I suspect, the total arbitrariness of sporting rules. The marathon is the ultimate example – the bizarre distance of 26 miles and 385 yards doesn’t reflect the original run in Greek history it is supposed to honour. The 385 yards was added in 1908 when the Olympic race was run in Windsor, at the request of the royal family to bring the start into view of the royal nursery, and the race has stayed that length ever since.
There is something very sad about the obsession with doing things simply because they stretch human beings to the limit. This is what leads to attempts to trek across the North or South Pole on foot, or to climb Everest without oxygen. To any sensible onlooker, it’s stupidity. There is no scientific benefit. There is no discovery. It’s little more than risky posturing.
Those who design great treks across vast wastes would laugh at a challenge of standing on one foot for as long as you can, or hopping around London with a paper bag over your head – yet each has exactly the same benefit as their achievements: it tests the limit of human endurance. We should see these ‘great feats’ for what they are. A way of showing off that has no more value than standing on one foot.
It’s time we had a total rethink of the way sporting rules are applied. Accept the fact that the restrictions are totally arbitrary – if a technology works and it is safe, make it available to all, but we should use that technology to enhance our capabilities. It’s the single most definitive feature that makes us human.

Monday, 25 June 2012

The Address Book – Tim Radford ***

I have to admit, I opened this book to immediate disappointment. Our editor mentioned he’d got a book for review by Tim Harford, the undercover economist on the excellent More or Less radio programme. Expecting Harford’s light, bright style I ploughed into the dense, wordy first chapter like hitting a brick wall. Why had he changed his style so much? And then I realised the mistake – wrong Tim.
The Address Book has a lovely basis. Like many of us, Tim Radford felt the urge when at school to do one of those unconsciously set theory based addresses, starting with his street address, town, county, country, continent, hemisphere, planet, solar system, galaxy and, you guessed it, the universe. This book parallels his address structure with a chapter on each of these. And each of those chapters makes use of the particular subject to take us an a whole host of delightful side steps and deviations. So far so good.
But then we hit two big problems. One is that I really don’t like the verbose, heavy style he writes in. Some will, I know – it’s a personal thing. But I found the first chapter totally unreadable with its endless personal tales about his house – I’m afraid I don’t care about his house. After that, as the canvas broadened, things got a little easier, though I still found the writing much too flowery, and with a strong tendency to give us list after list. Radford can’t just tell us about an animal in the countryside, he has to list sixteen different examples of the local wildlife, as if all those rolling syllables somehow give the whole thing more gravitas. It’s the sort of approach they used to use in 1950s radio broadcasts – now it seems fusty and old fashioned.
The other problem, from the point of view of this website is that this isn’t really a science book. Radford says as much, commenting in his acknowledgments section ‘This is not intentionally a science book, although it draws on generations of scientific research’. For the first 100 pages or so there is hardly any science apart from a touch of geology. After that there is inevitably more, as the scope takes in the reaches of outer space, but we still get plenty that isn’t. Which makes it a bit of a joke that this book is on the long list for the Royal Society science book prize. It’s not a good fit with this genre.
So I’m afraid this really wasn’t a great experience for me. I do think those who enjoy the likes of a John Betjeman at his most verbose will enjoy the prose style, but I’m afraid it doesn’t work for me, and it’s much too hard work to dig out what nuggets of science are present.
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Peter Spitz

A farewell to Lonesome George

Sad news today of the death of Lonesome George, the only known survivor of the Pinta variant of the giant tortoise.
We very much enjoyed Henry Nicolls’ book on Lonesome George, subtitled ‘the life and loves of a conservation icon’ – sadly he is now an ex-conservation icon, but the book is a great story, and is still worth taking look at to find out just why the death of a single animal in a remote location has made it onto the national news.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

The Universal Machine – Ian Watson ****

I have to admit upfront that I’m a big computer geek and lap up anything about the history of computing, so this could be a slightly biassed review - but even if you don’t have a lot interest in computers per se, their influence on the modern world is so huge that this has to be a book you will at least consider. Because The Universal Machine follows the development of computers, as it says in the subtitle, ‘From the dawn of computing to digital consciousness.’
Ian Watson takes us on this journey with a charming if slightly amateurish personal style (the first line of the book is ‘Hi, you probably don’t know me, but assuming you stick with this book then we’re going to be spending quite a bit of time together.’) – don’t be put off by the introduction, the style settles down. Bearing in mind my bias, I found it absolutely fascinating, from one of the best section’s on Babbage’s work I’ve ever read, through the development of the electronic computer, into PCs and the web.
On the whole, the historical content was at just the right level – enough to keep you interested without getting overwhelmed. I was slightly surprised Ted Nelson, who devised the hypertext concept, wasn’t mentioned, but there is always going to be something. Of course, there are parts of the story where a lot more depth is truly fascinating – so I’d recommend, for example, the classic Insanely Great and Hard Drive on the origins of Apple and Microsoft respectively – but for an overview this was hard to beat. Interestingly it’s at it’s best in an application context. The only time the text got a little dull was when Watson talked pure computing, and in the probably unnecessary future gazing bit at the end.
What was odd about the book is that I know that it was published by a large international publisher (Springer Verlag), but reading it sometimes felt more like the experience you typically have with a self-published book. The text is too tightly crammed on the page, making it slightly uncomfortable to read. And there are rather more typos and basic errors than I’d expect in a professionally published book. One example that jumped off the page – Mary Shelley’s surname is written as ‘Shelly’ at least three times. (Funnily enough, her surname was actually Godwin when she wrote Frankenstein, though she had married Shelley by the time it was published.) There are a couple of places where the text doesn’t knit well together, resulting in some repetition. And it’s also rather unfortunate that the author says ‘you may be reading [this book] on a Kindle or iPad’ when there isn’t a Kindle edition.
Overall, then, although I would recommend following it up with some more focused computing histories, The Universal Machine is a great way to get a real feel for where the machines that are at the centre of so many of our lives came from.
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The Wonder of Brian Cox – Ben Falk ***

Poor old Brian Cox. Many scientists are already very snippy about his media success – they will be even less delighted to see he now has a biography on the shelves, putting him up against the likes of Einstein, Dirac and Feynman. (Or more accurately the members of One Direction.)
‘But why?’ they will moan. ‘He’s nothing special as a scientist.’ And there they will have missed the point entirely. What is special about Brian Cox, a point this book brings out superbly well, is that he is ordinary. He’s the bloke down the pub who can really explain science to you. (And it doesn’t hurt that the ladies like him.) As Zaphod Beeblebrox’s analyst says of him in Hitcher Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, ‘He’s just this guy, you know?’
I ought to say straight away – and it’s the reason it only gets three stars – that this isn’t a scientific biography. Ben Falk is straight about this. Referring to a talk by Cox and his long-time collaborator Jeff Forshaw, Falk says ‘Personally I struggle to understand why they’re talking about, but then I gladly gave up science at GCSE.’ This is not a book that is going to explain Cox’s science to you, it’s very much about Cox the man, Cox the musician and Cox the media star.
As such, and bearing in mind it has been written without any cooperation from Cox, it does a pretty good job of putting together a picture of where he came from, his lucky breaks and his essential qualities that allowed him to make something of those breaks. Perhaps the most fascinating point is where the second band Cox had an involvement with, D:ream have just became well know and are about to set off on a world tour. He decides (a good choice as it turned out, because D:ream’s fame did not last long) not to stick with them, but to go and start his physics degree.
I’ve had coffee with Brian Cox while waiting to do a gig at the Science Museum together just before he was famous, and I think the book is a fair reflection of how he comes across in life. A nice guy, passionate about his science, but dazzled by the media. At the time he had just got the job of science advisor to the financially disastrous Danny Boyle movie Sunshine, and he was absolutely fascinated by the whole business.
My main criticism of the book is that it’s a shame Falk couldn’t do a bit more with the science. He can’t entirely ignore it, but it’s clear whenever he talks about the scientific part of Cox’s life (a relatively small percentage of the book), Falk is just quoting what he’s read without any understanding of it. Anyone familiar with press releases on science subjects will be familiar with this style.
Weakest of all is Falk’s coverage of IT. I think because it’s less scary he is prepared to put things in his own words, and gets it wrong. So, for instance, we are told that ‘Perhaps the most incredible discovery at CERN prior to 2008 was the internet.’ This would come as something of a surprise to those at ARPA who started the internet from the non-secure part of ARPAnet years earlier. He means, of course, the world wide web. Elsewhere, Falk tells us that Cox was using C++ and clearly thinks this is obscure and highly technical, apparently unaware that the vast majority of bog-standard programs on Windows, Mac OS and Unix are written using this language.
This is a good book, as long as you treat it as you would any other media biography of a current phenomenon. (It’s interesting that there is no back material, not even an index, which somehow is very suggestive of this genre). It even has a longish quote from our review of Cox and Forshaw’s The Quantum Universe. Don’t look for science here, but those jealous scientists who can’t understand Cox’s success would do well to look here to get a better understanding of why it’s him, and not them, in the limelight.
Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Electrified Sheep – Alex Boese ****

It’s difficult to read this title without thinking of Philip K. Dick’s story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep which was (very loosely) translated in the movie Blade Runner. Actually it’s difficult to read the title of this book at all because of strangely wordy cover. But what’s inside is not a freak show, but rather an exploration of some of the more bizarre experiments that scientists have in all honest decided to take on.
This is a field that is already covered by the igNobels (annual awards for real scientific papers that make you laugh and then make you think) and the Darwin Awards for people who do such stupid things they end up removing themselves from the gene pool. But Alex Boese treads a middle line of real scientific experiments – often major pieces of research – that sound mind boggling or just surely would never happen. But did. (Apart from nuking the Moon which ‘nearly happened’.)
If it wasn’t such an overused simile I’d say it was a roller coaster of a read – a very interesting mix of ups and downs, from the man who had an unhealthy relationship with a source of electricity to people who thought it would be educational to get two people to pretend to have a gun fight in the middle of a lecture. Not to mention the thousand tonne rocket propelled by hydrogen bombs that was genuinely worked on by American scientists at the end of the 1950s. It’s certainly an eye-opener!
Although the experience of reading the book was good, with an excellent mix of narrative and science fact, there were a couple of points I wasn’t so sure of. Each section started with a dramatisation of an event (Benjamin Franklin attempting to electrocute a turkey and instead shocking himself, for instance). These felt a little false, as if it were drama for the sake of it. And occasionally the author was perhaps a little loose with facts. He says, for example, that lightning is the biggest natural disaster killer worldwide – by most measures it comes in behind droughts and flooding/tsunamis at the very least.
Overall, though an excellent romp through some weird and wonderful scientists and their exploits that genuinely does both entertain and inform in equal measure.
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 15 June 2012

Paul Zak – Four Way Interview

Paul J. Zak has PhD in economics from the University of Pennsylvania and postgraduate training in neuroscience from Harvard. He is now Professor of Economics, Psychology and Management (3 for the price of one!) at Claremont and Clinical Professor of Neurology at Loma Linda University Medical Center in California. He has recently written The Moral Molecule on his work and adventures with oxytocin.
Why science?
Early in my life I rejected the “thou shall” and “thou shall not” top-down view of morality, and then being conned as a teenager led to an interest in human behavior.  Could there be a scientific reason why people are good or evil?  I spent 10 years in the laboratory and doing field studies to figure this out and discovered the key role for  little-studied neurochemical called oxytocin as a key governor of moral behavior.
Why this book?
I have had so many inquiries about my work from the general public, from patients and their families, and from lawyers and judges that I thought it would be useful (and fun!) to lay out the role of oxytocin across these various realms, and how moral behaviors support greater societal prosperity that then stimulates greater morality.  Plus, I’ve done some really crazy experiments to put my findings to the test that are fun to discuss, like taking blood samples at a wedding.
What’s next?
My lab is now actively applying this work to help organizations function more effectively.  For example, working with companies to design oxytocin-rich environments where people are highly engaged and happy at work.  And, with the US military to help them optimize the training of soliders to keep them safe.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
So many things!  First, that this research has spawned a number of clinical trials that are seeking to use oxytocin to help patients.  Second, that the neuroscience I’ve done is actionable–it is being used by organizations, cities, and individuals to foster empathy and connection in order to improve the quality of life.   Third, recognizing and celebrating the often amazing things that human beings do for each other–including strangers–as part of our human moral nature.  We are a much kinder and caring a species than I think we give ourselves credit for, and I show evidence that our kindness is actually increasing in the world.  That’s exciting!

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Mark Henderson – Four Way Interview

Mark Henderson is Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health by supporting the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. His latest book, The Geek Manifesto, contains his personal views, not those of the Wellcome Trust.
Before joining the Trust in January 2012, Mark was Science Editor of The Times, where he built a reputation as one of Britain’s foremost science journalists and commentators.
Why science?
I came to science late. I did humanities A-levels and a history degree, and embarked on a career in journalism fully expecting to become a foreign correspondent or political reporter. But then something serendipitious happened – rather as so often happens in science – that took me off in an entirely new direction. Ben Preston, then my acting editor at The Times, asked / told me to become the science correspondent. I knew it would be interesting, but never expected to do the job for more than a couple of years, before moving on to something bigger and (I thought back then) better. But I never did.
What happened when I started to write about science for a living was that I started to appreciate it as never before. I started to grasp properly for really the first time the wonderful dictum of Carl Sagan that “science is more than a body of knowledge. It’s a way of thinking.” I began to develop a great respect for the rigorous approach that scientists take to problem solving, the way they understand that they’re human beings prone to all the errors of thought that affect us, and attempt to put mechanisms in place to guard against that. Science a process, the best way we have yet developed of developing better approximations of how the world really works, and of generating reliable knowledge. It’s also provisional, comfortable with changing its mind in the light of better evidence.
As I spent 11 years covering science for The Times, I began to develop more and more of a passion for science, until I couldn’t imagine working in another field.
Why this book?
It really grew out of the personal development that I’ve outlined above. As I started to appreciate scientific approaches to knowledge more deeply, I wasn’t the only person without a background in science who hadn’t fully appreciated what they have to offer. And I also began to become more and more convinced that scientific thinking could play a much bigger part than it could in politics and public life.
I covered all sorts of topics at the interface of science and politics: climate change, developments in embryology and human reproduction, the regulation of research, science funding, drugs policy and the like. And every time, I was struck by how badly these issues were often handled by ministers and MPs whose understanding wasn’t what it could be. I also began to see how scientific approaches – randomised controlled trials and so forth – might profitably be applied to policy questions to which we don’t really know the answers, such as sentencing young offenders or teaching children to read.
Over the past five years, I’ve also been witness to what you might call an emerging geek consciousness, as people who care about science, skepticism and critical thinking have started to become more vocal about their passion. You can see it in the success of Brian Cox’s television programmes, Ben Goldacre’s book and columns, and the comedy of Robin Ince and Tim Minchin. You can also see it in the support given to Simon Singh during his libel case, the campaign to protect science funding in the 2010 spending review, and the backlash that followed the sacking of David Nutt.
The Geek Manifesto is the synthesis of all these trends. It’s about how politicians mishandle science and fail to make the most of it, not because they’re hostile to science (for the most part), but because they have little experience of it, and haven’t paused to consider how it might contribute to better policy making. It’s also about how geeks – people who have an affinity for science, and who care deeply about it – might become still more active as citizens to create a political cost to handling science badly. It’s an optimistic book – I genuinely believe that it’s in our power to improve this.
What’s next?
The big challenge now is to mobilise the geeks as I propose in the book. And in particular, we need to take advantage of events, to ensure that our voices are heard in contemporary debates that are happening anyway. There was a great example a couple of weeks ago with the “Take the Flour Back” threat to rip up a trial of GM wheat at Rothamsted Research. Rather than just accept this, the scientists involved started a shrewd media campaign to explain what they were doing and why — and why it was much less risky than the critics suggested. They also pleaded with protestors not to damage the crop, and a group of geeks staged a small counter-protest on the day. The result? The trial survived (though a lone protestor caused some damage), and there was much positive media coverage both of the rationale for GM crops and the scientists’ constructive engagement.
One of the big issues ahead is next year’s Comprehensive Spending Review. Science did quite well last time, securing a freeze rather than a cut in funding. But we need to make a clear and compelling case if we’re to do as well or better again. We need to start getting our ducks in a row now, and employ all the tactics I talk about in the book — especially lobbying our MPs.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
There are a few other issues coming up that excite me. There’s the campaign for open access scientific journals, in which I’m heavily involved in my day job at the Wellcome Trust. It’s absurd that taxpayers and charities fund so much research, the results of which are then locked up behind paywalls.
There are also two important public consultations planned this autumn to which I hope geeks will contribute fully. The first is on mitochondrial disease: scientists at Newcastle University are developing an IVF technique that transplants mitochondria so families affected by these inherited disorders can have healthy children. It’s not yet legal to use this in the clinic, but the fertility watchdog is consulting on whether this ought to be allowed. It’s important for people who care about science to get involved. Disclosure: the Newcastle team is funded by the Wellcome Trust.
Then there’s the consultation on changing the NHS constitution so that patients have to opt out of having medical records used in research, instead of opting in as at present. This is a terrific opportunity to drive forward research into all kinds of health issues, but the proposal is easily misunderstood. Again, we need geeks to contribute in numbers.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Brian Clegg – Four Way Interview

Brian Clegg is the editor of the Popular Science website and has written books on subjects including light, infinity, quantum entanglement, inflight science and time machines. His latest titles are The Universe Inside You, exploring science using the human body and Gravity on the force that shaped the universe.
Why science?
Science fascinated me as a child and I’ve never lost that sense of wonder. For me it’s a no-brainer of a question: I’d almost rather ask ‘why not science?’ This is a subject everyone should be fascinated by – for goodness sake, it’s how our world, our universe (and us) works – and presented right, I believe science can excite anyone.
Why these books?
They’re very different. The Universe Inside You is a follow up to Inflight Science. Like that book I wanted to use something familiar as a starting point to thinking about the science of the world around us. With Inflight Science that starting point was a plane flight, and with Universe Inside it’s our bodies – arguably the most remarkable things in the universe. So, yes it’s about our bodies but it is also much more, using the body as a starting point and laboratory to explore the universe. You can see a bit more about it in the video below.
Gravity is, if you like, a more traditional book – looking back through history to explore humanity’s gradual understanding of gravity. It’s something we take for granted, yet it’s responsible for so much of the formation of the universe – not to mention keeping us stuck on the surface of the planet. For me the most fascinating bits are Einstein’s general relativity, which I think I’ve explored more thoroughly than is usually the case in popular science, but still kept it approachable, and anti-gravity, which is great fun as a topic.
What’s next?
I have a couple of books in the pipeline. I’m doing one of the little pocket illustrated books in the Introducing series, which has been brilliant to do, working with an excellent illustrator (I even make it into the illustrations). And I’m well into my next book for St Martin’s Press, which will be exploring telepathy, telekinesis and the like and seeing if there is any possible scientific explanation or if it’s all bunk.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
Writing as always, and pathetic though it may seem I’m still thrilled with my new iMac which has really transformed my day-to-day experience sitting in front of a computer screen. I’m also really enjoying converting the Popular Science site into its new, more accessible format.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

The Moral Molecule – Paul J. Zak *****

You wait years for a book on empathy and two come out within days. But the contrast with Simon Baron-Cohen’s book could not be greater. The Moral Molecule is popular science as rumbustious personal story telling – it is a highly enjoyable exploration of Paul Zak’s journey from economist to neurobiologist and of his almost obsessive interest in the molecule oxytocin and its influence on trust and empathy – in effect on human goodness.
Although oxytocin is the star, this is a tale of two molecules, with testosterone in the black hat to oxytocin’s white. Testosterone it seems doesn’t just counter oxytocin’s beneficial effects, it encourages us towards behaviour that could be considered evil – though to be fair to Zak things are nowhere near so black and white in reality: we need both for different reasons. But Zak makes a wonderful fist of selling the benefits of the trust and empathy that arise from an oxytocin high (even though I’m not sure I’m sold on Zak’s enthusiasm for hugs).
The final part of the book is a bit of a let down. Up to then it has been a romp of a story with lots of experiments and their outcomes. For the final section it settles down to Zak’s analysis of the likes of religion and business with an ‘oxytocin rules’ hat on. Still interesting, but much less engaging.
I really thought for the first few pages this would be one of those wince-making books where a scientist features himself as star, but actually it’s one of the best popular science books I’ve read this year. Recommended.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Zero Degrees of Empathy [The Science of Evil] – Simon Baron-Cohen ***

I’ve been a real fan of previous books by Simon Baron-Cohen like The Essential Difference, so opening this was one was a pleasant prospect. What I found was a book that wasn’t bad… but that could have been a lot better. I got the impression of a book that had been rushed out without a lot of work going into it.
The thesis at the heart of the book – that one of the important ‘circuits’ of the brain is the one dealing with empathy, and that individuals sit on an empathy spectrum, with some residing at zero degrees of empathy – is an interesting one. Baron-Cohen introduces us to three key personality types he defines as ‘zero-negative’ including psychopaths, plus types that are ‘zero-positive’ like those with Asperger’s.
In a way both of these definitions are odd, in that his zero-negatives can actually have a lot of the kind of empathy that involves being able to read another person’s emotional state, and his zero-negatives can have a lot of the kind of empathy involved in sympathising with someone else’s suffering. But this is certainly interesting stuff.
He also points out that empathy is important because arguably it is erosion of empathy that makes not only individuals do bad things, but states get into long term conflicts, like the situation in the Middle East.
And that’s great as far as it goes (though he offers no actual significant mechanisms for dealing with these empathy issues). But the whole thing does not read particularly well. The worst section is the one where Baron-Cohen describes the different areas of the brain that seem to be involved in the ‘empathy circuit’ (not by any means a single region) this is dull and an impenetrable list of acronyms with very little benefit to the reader. For the rest, there is a lack of feeling of context. We are given this assertion about empathy, and these people with zero empathy (except where they aren’t) without any way to make use of this information.
So, a disappointment. With a significant re-write, more context and more readability this would be the ‘valuable’ and ‘significant’ book the puffs on the back claim it to be, but as it stands it’s not quite there. Or am I just lacking empathy?
Paperback (US is hardback):  
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Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Nuclear Power: a very short introduction – Maxwell Irvine ***

The ‘very short introduction’ series from OUP is decidedly variable in its content. Some are really readable pocket popular science books. This one isn’t. However I would say it is an absolutely essential little book for anyone who wants to get the facts straight in a discussion of the pros and cons of nuclear power.
In effect it’s a fact book on nuclear. And being a collection of facts it isn’t always incredibly readable (not helped by the industry’s delight in acronyms). The pages on different reactor types in various countries, for example, provide little more than a long, detailed list. Yet it’s all valuable  information. The way, for example, in the UK pretty well every reactor is a prototype, so we never got the benefits of scale that France did from mass production.
The book is modern enough to cover the 2011 Japan tsunami disaster and its impact on the power plants, though doesn’t mention the painful knee-jerk political reaction in countries like Germany. It is clear and factual on costs (remarkably similar to coal/oil when everything is factored in, though longer term hence the investment problems), on risk and on the world’s need to have conventional nuclear to keep us going until fusion comes online (which it explains very well).With the best will in the world, that isn’t going to be until the 2050s at the earliest. It doesn’t dismiss renewables, but highlights the way they just aren’t and can’t be enough to get us into cleaner energy soon enough.
Overall then, in terms of value of content, this is probably a five star book, but I can only give it three stars because it’s not much of a read.
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Review by Brian Clegg