Saturday, 25 August 2012

The Black Swan – Nassim Nicholas Taleb ***

I have a strange relationship with this book. Back in 2008 I was having a talk with my then-agent about what to write next. He said to me ‘You ought to write something like The Black Swan,’ proving, as we shall see, that he hadn’t read the book. I duly bought a copy, had a quick flick through it, decided it was pretentious tosh and put it to one side. So it has sat there unread for four years, until I was needing a bit of light relief from physics books and decided it was time it was reviewed.
I quickly discovered this is in many ways a very readable book, though with some serious reservations I’ll mention in a moment. Nassim Nicholas Taleb really only makes one point in the entire 292 pages, but it is a very important point: that there are two types of randomness, and the sort physicists and economists deal with bears very little relationship to the kind of randomness that drives everything from the weather to sales of books and the success or failure of traders.
This is a hugely significant point, and Taleb has no end of fun pointing out the idiocy of those who try to use predictions based on the normal distribution bell curve in situations that are dominated by huge unexpected discrepancies. As he points out, a turkey trying to predict the future given its normal distribution of life’s ups and downs in the past would never predict the day when Christmas looms on the horizon and it gets the chop.
So far, so good. And Taleb uses some great examples and makes some excellent points along the way. (Or rather scores some excellent points as this is very much a ‘me versus the world’ book.) But, despite this flash of genius there are good reasons for this book only getting three stars.
One is the style. It is often pompous, didactic, nit-picking and irritating. There is far too much of the author in it – I really don’t care about him or want to know about him. The other is the lack of content. My agent was wrong about ‘writing another Black Swan‘ because the whole point of mega-successful books is you can’t predict their coming. And Black Swan also proves him wrong as one of his tests of a successful non-fiction book was to say ‘Is it a book or is it an article?’ I.e. does it have enough material to make a book? Black Swan is definitely an article posing as a book – it makes the one point over and over and over again, because there is really very little else to say. There is no real defence against this kind of randomness (though he gives a couple of pages of vague suggestions) and so it is just a warning of things going wrong, repeated indefinitely.
As such it shouldn’t have worked as a book – but it did (sorry, agent). I find it difficult to recommend it because I disliked so much of it,  but I have to admire that key would-make-a-great-article point, so in the end it’s a book I would probably go out and buy anyway.
Audio CD:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Meet Your Happy Chemicals – Loretta Graziano Breuning ***

You might be forgiven for thinking from the title of this book that it was designed for children, but Meet Your Happy Chemicals is aimed at the adult reader wanting to find more about their mental operating system, and specifically how dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin and serotonin have an impact on the human brain and how we feel.
This is very different approach from Paul Zak’s The Moral Molecule which concentrates on oxytocin and features a whole host of experiments demonstrating the impact of this remarkable chemical on the brain along with some fairly deep thinking on the importance of oxytocin and human behaviour.
Loretta Graziano Breuning is (rather oddly) a professor of management and in some ways Happy Chemicals is more like a management text on dealing with these aspects of the brain. Yes, there is plenty of information on the nature of these neurochemicals and their roles, but equally there is plenty to make this feel like a ‘how to’ book. For example, there are the kind of little boxes that crop up as a rule in a business book, initially with information like the ‘Happy survival motives’ of those big four chemicals, but later branching out into a chance to fill in your own ‘social survival circuits’ or ‘new dopamine strategies.’ It’s as much a brain self-help guide as it is a science book.
This is a very obviously self-published book. The page design is irritating and for some reason quite difficult physically to read. It just doesn’t have the look and feel of a ‘real book’. And the self-help aspects seem more like the repackaged platitudes of most business books than the sort of depth you expect in popular science. Yet there is a fair amount of science in there and these are, without doubt, fascinating chemicals that have a huge input on the way we feel and behave. At the time of writing, it’s cheap on Kindle – it’s worth taking a look at the free sample and deciding for yourself if this book will work for you.
Review by Jo Reed

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Mushroom – Nicholas P. Money ****

This book has done for mushrooms what The Buzz about Bees did for those creatures – transformed them from the everyday to the amazing. I really hadn’t thought much about mushrooms apart from knowing that they were fungi, but the variation and complexity of these remarkable fruiting bodies – and the more complex organisms that can exist unnoticed under the ground is fascinating.
Nicholas Money does not limit himself to the biology of mushrooms but takes us on a trip (occasionally literally) through the human experience of them – locating them in the wild, eating them, producing myths about them (not surprising with the magical way they can spring up overnight) and, of course getting poisoned or high as a result of consuming them. Don’t get this book expecting a guide on how to recognize edible mushrooms – it is a science book, not a guide for wild mushroom hunters – but do expect to be fascinated and beguiled.
I have a couple of issues with the writing. When I write a book, my editor is fierce about cutting out my attempts at humour, probably with some cause. Clearly Money’s editor didn’t stand up to him as well, because the book is peppered with very weak humour. It might work for some, but it didn’t for me. I also, strangely, found the most sciencey part the least readable. I found it very difficult to follow Money’s description of the reproductive habits and biological niceties of mushrooms. Now admittedly I’m a humble physicist who share’s Feynman’s revulsion for all the names you have to learn to have a vague idea of what’s going on in biology (yes, we have all those particles, but not many more names to memorise). But I can usually cope with introductory biology – this time it really didn’t sink in.
In the end, though, that was a relatively minor part of what was a wonderful adventure among the fungi. It’s pleasantly short and full of interesting stories. Pull up an mushroom and enjoy.
Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 12 August 2012

How to Build a Habitable Planet – Charles H. Langmuir and Wally Broecker ***

I have expressed before my horror at being faced with huge, megaheavy fat books purporting to be popular science – this has to be one of the chunkiest, weighing in at 1.4 wrist-crippling kilograms and with 668 pages before you get onto the glossary and index (thankfully, no notes). To be worth being this unwieldy, a book ought to do something pretty remarkable. And that’s just what How to Build, an updated version of a 1980s title, does, as you can tell from its subtitle, The Story of Earth from the Big Bang to Humankind. Now that’s what you call a large canvas.
The result is a rather strange mix, starting with the cosmology of the big bang, working through the formation of elements and then planets and solar systems, then leading us through the geological life of the Earth, which collectively takes up just over half of the book, leaving plenty of room for detail of the development of life, the impact of life on the planet, natural climate change, the evolution of humans and how we have impacted our world. It’s a challenging range of topics to cover, and although I am sure it is fine in terms of technical content, I have two problems with it.
The first is that this didn’t read to me like a popular science book, but rather like an introductory textbook. There are lots (unimaginably many) of facts in there, but very little storytelling. There is no real attempt to get the reader engaged. The result is a book that feels like you would read it because you needed to (for a course, say), but not because you wanted to.
The other, relatively minor problem, which I’ve mentioned with other titles, and is nobody’s fault, is that geology, which inevitably plays a major role here, is the dullest of the sciences and takes huge skill to make interesting to the general reader.
So I would hesitate more than once before buying this book for holiday reading or as educative entertainment – but if it’s recommended reading for your course it’s certainly an amazing feat and will do the job well.
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Nature’s Nanotech #4 – The importance of being wet – Brian Clegg

Fourth in our Nature’s Nanotech series
The image that almost always springs to mind when nanotechnology is mention is Drexler’s tiny army of assemblers and the threat of being overwhelmed by grey goo. But what many forget is that there is a fundamental problem in physics facing anyone building invisibly small robots (nanobots) – something that was spotted by the man who first came up with the concept of working on the nanoscale.
That man was Richard Feynman. His name may not be as well known outside physics circles as, say, Stephen Hawking, but ask a physicist to add a third to a triumvirate of heroes with Newton and Einstein and most would immediately choose Feynman. It didn’t hurt that Richard Feynman was a bongo-playing charmer whose lectures delighted even those who couldn’t understand the science, helped by an unexpected Bronx accent – imagine Tony Curtis lecturing on quantum theory.
Feynman became best known to the media for his dramatic contribution to the Challenger inquiry, when in front of the cameras he plunged an O-ring into iced water to show how it lost its elasticity. But on an evening in December 1959 he gave a lecture that laid the foundation for all future ideas of nanobots. His talk at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society was titled There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom, and his subject was manipulating and controlling things on a small scale.
Feynman pointed out that people were amazed by a device that could write the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin. But ‘Why cannot we write the entire 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica on the head of a pin?’ As he pointed out, the dots that make up a printed image, if reduced to a scale that took the area of paper in the encyclopedia down to pinhead size, would still contain 1,000 atoms each – plenty of material to make a pixel. And it could be read with technology they had already.
Feynman went on to describe how it would be possible to write at this scale, but also took in the idea that the monster computers of his day would have to become smaller and smaller to cram in the extra circuits required for sophisticated computation. Then he described how engineering could be undertaken on the nanoscale, and to do so, he let his imagination run a little wild.
What Feynman envisaged was making use of the servo ‘hands’ found in nuclear plants to act remotely, but instead of making the hands the same size as the original human hands, building them on a quarter scale. He would also construct quarter size lathes to produce scaled down parts for new devices. These quarter scale tools would be used to produce sixteenth scale hands and lathes, which themselves would produce sixty-fourth scale items… and so on, until reaching the nanoscale.
The second component of Feynman’s vision was a corresponding multiplication of quantity, as you would need billions of nanobots to do anything practical. So he would not make one set of quarter scale hands, but ten. Each of those would produce 10 sixteenth scale devices, so there would be 100 of them – and so on. Feynman points out there would not be a problem of space or materials, because one billion 1/4000 scale lathes would only take up two percent of the space and materials of a conventional lathe.
When he discussed running nanoscale machines, Feynman even considered the effect on lubrication. The mechanical devices we are familiar with need oil to prevent them ceasing up. As he pointed out, the effective viscosity of oil gets higher and higher in proportion as you go down in scale. It stops being a lubricant and starts being like attempting to operate in a bowl of tar. But, he argues, you may well not need lubricants, as the bearings won’t run hot because the heat would escape very rapidly from such a small device.
So far, so good, but what is the problem Feynman mentions? He points out that ‘As we go down in size there are a number of interesting problems that arise. All things do not simply scale down in proportion.’ Specifically, as things get smaller they begin to stick together. If you unscrewed a nanonut from a nanobolt it wouldn’t fall off – the Van der Waals force we met on the gecko’s foot is stronger than the force of gravity on this scale. Small things stick together in a big way.
Feynman is aware there would be problems. ‘It would be like those old movies of a man with his hands full of molasses, trying to get rid of a glass of water.’ But he does effectively dismiss the problems. In reality, the nano-engineer doesn’t just have Van der Waals forces to deal with. Mechanical engineering generally involves flat surfaces briefly coming together to transfer force from one to the other, as when the teeth of a pair of gears mesh. But down at the nanoscale a new, almost magical, force springs into life – the Casimir effect.
If two plates get very close, they are attracted towards each other. This has nothing to do with electromagnetism, like the Van der Waals force, but is the result of a weird aspect of quantum theory. All the time, throughout all of space, quantum particles briefly spring into existence, then annihilate each other. An apparently empty vacuum is, in fact, a seething mass of particles that exist for such a short space of time that we don’t notice them.
However, one circumstance when these particles do come to the fore is when there are two sheets of material very close to each other. If the space separating the sheets is close enough, far fewer of these ‘virtual’ particles can appear between them than outside them. The result is a real pressure that pushes the plates together. Tiny parallel surfaces slam together under this pressure.
The result of these effects is that even though toy nanoscale gears have been constructed from atoms, a real nanotechnology machine – a nanobot – would simply not work using conventional engineering. Instead the makers of nanobots need to look to nature. Because the natural world has plenty of nanoscale machines, moving around, interacting and working. What’s the big difference? Biological machines are wet and soft.
By this I don’t mean they use water as a lubricant rather than oil, but rather they are not usually a device made up of a series of interlocking mechanical components like our machines but rather use a totally different approach to mechanisms and interaction that results in a ‘wet’, soft environment lacking flat surfaces and the opportunities for small scale stickiness to get in the way of their workings.
If we are to build nanomachines, our engineers need to think in a totally different way. We need to dismiss Feynman’s picture of miniature lathes, nuts, bolts and gears. Instead our model has to be the natural world and the mechanisms that evolution has generated to make our, admittedly inefficient, but still functioning nanoscale technology work and thrive. The challenge is huge – but so is the potential.
In the next article in this series we will look at the lessons we can learn from a specific example of nature’s ability to manufacture technology on the nanoscale – the remarkable virus.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

UFOs Caught on Film – B J Booth ***

As a teenager I was fascinated by every weird and paranormal thing that you could watch a TV programme or read a book about. I revelled in Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World. And though books on Borley Rectory probably made ghosts my all time favourite, they were closely followed by UFOs. What was not to love about spacecraft from another world?
There’s no doubt that back then I would have loved this smallish landscape format hardback stuffed full of UFO pictures or, as the subtitle puts it, ‘amazing evidence of alien visitors to Earth.’ As an adult, though, I have serious doubts.
I have no axe to grind about the existence of UFOs. I am sure they do exist in the sense of being unidentified flying objects, though I very much doubt that they are extra-terrestrial craft because of the impossibly large scale of the universe. Even if you did achieve faster than light drive, there is just so much of it, the chances of a backwater like ours being regularly visited is tiny. But I am afraid I found many of the comments in the book naïve in the extreme. I have no reason to believe that the author is deliberately deceiving the reader – and yet what he has written bears very little resemblance to logical analysis.
To a healthily sceptical eye, many of the pictures look to be fakes. Like many other people, I suspect, I went through a phase of mocking up flying saucer pictures in my teens. I didn’t do this for any personal gain – I never sent them to newspapers or published them in any way, I simply did it for the fun of it. I liked flying saucers. I used two techniques. Some were plastic models, suspended from near-invisible fishing line and sufficiently out of focus to conceal the fact they were models (today this would be even easier to do with modern photo editing techniques). Others were pictures of a metal hubcap, thrown into the air and photographed, spinning, in flight.
One of the problems with the hubcap technique is that it tended to fly, and so to be photographed, at an unnatural angle – yet time after time these “unexplained and inexplicable” shots in the book are of fuzzy, out of focus hubcap-like objects at the same kind of angle as I found so irritating when I tried to fake my pictures. Two others look just like old fashioned outdoor suspended electric lights with the cable either out of shot or retouched out of the image. Others look like nothing more than a clay pigeon, or a bird or the sun. It’s only the way the text describes the shape as having UFO-like characteristics that makes us see a flying saucer.
Worst of all, the book includes the “classic” photo of a collection of UFOs over the Capitol building in Washington. There is nothing in the text to suggest that this picture has long since been debunked. And yet if you take a look at the whole photo, rather than the cropped image in the book showing just the building’s dome and nearby sky, it is entirely obvious what has happened. The UFO formation is an identical mirroring of a formation of lights running along in front of the building. It’s nothing more than lens flare, absolutely, definitively. Yet there is not a word about this in the book.
I have no problem with a book leaving things open to the reader, but where there is evidence against a photograph it really ought to be presented. Without this, the book is more fan fiction than science fact. It was fun to see the photos and speculate as to how they were taken. I enjoyed the enthusiastic commentary. But this shouldn’t be taken as a persuasive document that UFOs are visitors from another world.
I did, incidentally wonder how what was primarily a picture book would hold up on the unformatted environment of Kindle so I downloaded the opening sample – I would say, if you want this book, definitely go for the physical version. The Kindle version just doesn’t do it justice.
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 6 August 2012

Robert L. Wolke – Four Way Interview

Robert L. Wolke is a professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh. From 1998 to 2007, Wolke wrote the food science column “FOOD 101″ for The Washington Post. His journalism awards include the James Beard Foundation award for best newspaper column, the IACP’s Bert Greene Award for best newspaper food writing, and the American Chemical Society’s 2005 Grady-Stack Award for interpreting chemistry to the public. He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and co-author Marlene Parrish. His latest book is What Einstein Kept Under his Hat.
Why science?
All told, as a student, professor and administrator I have spent more than 40 years of my life in colleges and universities. In every institution all human scholarship, like Caesar’s Gaul, was divided into three parts: sciences, humanities and social sciences. Putting aside the perennial squabble among academics of whether economics, history, political science or sociology are true “sciences,” we are left with two categories: science and humanities.
But I firmly believe and would argue anywhere that science is a humanity. It is the most highly developed and most demanding intellectual pursuit that human beings engage in. Scientific investigation—seeking to learn how the universe works—is perhaps the most fundamental difference between humans and animals. We question Nature and seek understanding of it. Animals don’t. Science is a uniquely human enterprise: a prototypical humanity.
Why this book?
Behind every phenomenon lies a scientific explanation, whether we yet know the explanation or not. That’s what science is: trying to find explanations of phenomena. But many everyday phenomena remain mysteries to nonscientists, even though a scientist could explain them easily in simple terms. One location that harbors many mysteries is the kitchen, and I can explain these phenomena to both home cooks and professional chefs who may be following certain time-honored routines without knowing why. After 10 years of writing a food science column (“Food 101”) for the Washington Post and receiving literally thousands of questions from perplexed cooks, I was able to select a few hundred to edit and include in this book, “What Einstein Kept Under His Hat.”
What’s next?
I have written four popular science books in my “Einstein” series: “What Einstein Didn’t Know,” “What Einstein Told His Barber,” What Einstein Told His Cook,” and “What Einstein Kept Under His Hat.” Whether there will be a fifth or not is yet to be decided. But I am currently explaining science on The Huffington Post and in lectures, newspapers and magazines. What’s next? Que será será.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
Resurrecting my college chemistry textbook for non-science majors, Prentice-Hall’s “Chemistry Explained,” which is out of print but about which I continue to receive inquiries.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Beekeeper’s Lament – Hannah Nordhaus ****

This was, without doubt a very enjoyable book to read, even though it wasn’t much of a science book. If you want to find more about bees themselves, read The Buzz About Bees, which I think is unbeaten as an exploration of the nature of bees. Here you won’t really even get a feel for what a superorganism is, or how individual bees really aren’t animals in their own right. However what you will find a lot about is beekeepers and their complication-ridden business.
I was amazed at the complexity of industrial scale beekeeping in the US – how, for example, the bee people are paid large sums by almond growers to transport their hives into the almond groves to perform the pollination, then have to move out again swiftly as there is no food at all for the bees once the blossoms have gone. This whole idea of driving thousands of hives across America is one I simply hadn’t realized existed.
Similarly it was fascinating to read about all the difficulties industrial beekeepers have faced. Like most people I was vaguely aware of the ‘disappearing bees’ when Colony Collapse Disorder struck, but not just how delicate bees were and how afflicted by other disasters, particular a nasty mite that destroys them wholesale.
Equally, along with that vague awareness I thought bees were in danger of disappearing – and they would if left to their own devices – but so effective is the industrial process that bee numbers are being kept up by setting up new colonies with remarkable rapidity.
This is, without doubt a very readable book, though I do find Hannah Nordhaus’s writing style a little self-consciously arty. There are bits of science that you’ll find out along the way, but it’s much more about the industry and its ups and downs, something that’s fascinating in its own right. Recommended.
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg