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Showing posts from October, 2012

Discord – Mike Goldsmith ***

Subtitled ‘the story of noise’ this is a book about noise as nuisance, noise as literal discord and just what noise is – through the ages. When I started the book I was thrilled – there really hasn’t been a good book about sound that I’ve come across, and inevitably this book puts in place a lot of the science of sound, as well as what turns it into noise. The early part is truly fascinating. It’s very interesting in terms of noise as nuisance just how far the concept goes back, and also a delight to see the various early legal and scientific attempts to quantify it and control it. Overall, though, the plodding historical approach, almost decade by decade, does become horribly repetitive as the book continues and this really makes what would otherwise have been a truly excellent book a bit of a chore to read. My other sadness is that there isn’t more about discordant music. As far as I have spotted there are only two references to this, first in the classical era and then 20th centur…

Gravity – Brian Clegg ****

Gravity is a subject that sneaks around the senses. It’s all pervasive. It gets everywhere in your life, but on the whole you ignore it, except when it intrudes in the form of a fall. It is, of course, much more than the thing that sticks you to the surface of the planet, as it tends to be presented in children’s non-fiction books. It’s why the Earth stays in orbit. It’s why the Earth and the Sun formed in the first place. And all this from a force that is billions upon billions of times weaker than electromagnetism. In the same way, gravity tends to be sidelined in popular science books. It creeps into books about relativity, or basic physics. But I’m not aware that it has been treated head on until now. To be honest, when presented with it, I was worried that there wouldn’t be enough material to fill a book, but Brian Clegg has defied that possibility by giving us both a historical journey through humanity’s gradual understanding that gravity existed at all (I love that Newton was …

The Brain Supremacy – Kathleen Taylor ***

I really enjoyed Kathleen Taylor’s previous book Brainwashing, commenting that it was that rarest of species, a book that was both academic and readable, so I picked up her new title, The Brain Supremacy, with some enthusiasm. That enthusiasm proved to be partially justified. The good news is that there is a whole lot in here we ought to know about our current best knowledge of the brain and the various fascinating bits of technology that are used to study it. If you read any human science/brain books these days you can expect to come across fMRI, but not only is Taylor one of the first to explain to me what the point of the ‘f’ is, she also takes in PET, MEG and more. Unfortunately, though, this isn’t a book I could enthuse over as much as Brainwashing, for a couple of reasons. Firstly it’s far too long. At 368 pages it doesn’t sound enormous, but it really did seem to go on for ever. This isn’t helped by rather too much description of bits of the brain. Secondly it lacks focus. It …

This is Improbable – Marc Abrahams ****

The Ig Nobel Prize has become something of an institution in the science world. Year after year, respected scientists turn up to have their leg pulled about the topic of an academic paper they have had published (or occasionally a patent application). The man behind the Ig Nobels, Marc Abrahams, writes a column on ‘improbable research’ and this book is a collection of these articles, though often enhanced for the book form. The tag line of the Ig Nobels is that it is for research that makes you laugh… then makes you think. This is true, although you often think ‘I don’t know how they ever managed to get funding for that research,’ or ‘How could they have the front to present that as science?’ A classic example of the latter is a piece where the incidence of wearing high heeled shoes is correlated with the rise of schizophrenia. It’s hard to start on what’s wrong with this paper – particularly the Science 101 error of confusing correlation with causality. It really is excruciating. Oth…

Nano Nightmares – Brian Clegg

Nanotechnology, like genetically modified food or nuclear power, often produces a knee-jerk reaction. It’s somehow ‘not natural’ and so is considered scary and dangerous. This is primarily a reaction to words, the same way that it easy for advertisers to push emotional buttons with ‘natural’ as good and ‘artificial’ as bad.

This is a silly distinction. There is a lot in nature that is very dangerous indeed – and much that is artificial protects us from that. If you doubt this, try removing everything artificial when you are flying in a plane over shark infested waters. For that matter, many of the most virulent poisons like ricin and botulinus toxin are natural. Water crammed with bacteria and faecal matter is natural. Clean, safe drinking water from a tap is artificial. Yet we can’t help reacting like puppets when the advertisers use those magic words.
What we’re not talking about – nano machines Some concerns about nanotechnology are down to what is at best futurology and at worst sc…

The Islands of Benoit Mandelbrot – Nina Samuel (Ed.) **

Benoit Mandelbrot was the poster-boy of chaos and fractals, in a sense literally as the graphic version of his Mandelbrot set occupied many an arty poster in its time. There’s no doubt Mandelbrot himself did lots of marvellous work from his analysis of cotton production to his ‘how far is at around the coastline of the UK’ and, yes, his remarkable set. But the trouble with the arty associations of that image means he tends to get dragged into a lot of stuff that is peripheral and verges on pseudo-science. The antennae were raised by the subtitle of this book: ‘Fractals, chaos and the materiality of thinking.’ Is ‘materiality’ even a word? It also doesn’t help that this book is a collection of articles. There is no narrative thrust – it’s not going anywhere. Allegedly the book shows how ‘images actually further knowledge.’ There is an element of truth in that idea, though it sounds rather like wishful thinking on the part of arty people who want to be scientific. But the approach take…

The Flame of Miletus – John Freely ***

It is fashionable to play down the importance of the ancient Greeks, noting that other civilizations – China, for instance – we also cradles of scientific thought. But that misses the point. Modern science has a clear ancestry: ancient Greeks, Arab world, Europe, Worldwide. There is no doubt that amazing work was done elsewhere, and to some extent (e.g. with Indian mathematics) has been a side feed to this process, but most of the early development of science that occurred in parallel with the ancient Greeks proved to be evolutionary dead ends. The fact is, tracing back where our modern science came from, the ancient Greeks were the first in that family tree to shift from what they called the work of theologi (theologians) to physikoi (physicists) – from a worldview where things happened because the gods willed it, to one of natural explanations for the world around us. And so we really ought to be better acquainted with what went on back then. Like most popular science writers I usua…

Can We Travel Through Time – Michael Brooks ***

It can be something of a struggle to make a book stand out, to make it different from the crowd. In this case, Quercus Books has achieved the different feel by giving The Big Questions: Physics the appearance of a notebook. It’s a hardback with an elastic closure (the black stripe in the picture), just like many notebooks. I’ve a suspicion it’s one of those novelties that seemed a good idea at the time – all it does for the reader is get in the way a bit, though you can use it as a bookmark, but it does at least make the book, or rather the series, distinctive.



My suspicion is that the whole approach didn’t work, as the paperback is a conventional design and has been retitled to pull out just one of the questions – Can We Travel Through Time (a question that isn’t really answered in the book – for that you need my How to Build a Time Machine).


Although the book is an individual one by Michael Brooks, the series is a significant one in getting a feel for this title. Edited by professor …

Exploring Evolution – Michael Alan Park ***

In this heavily illustrated hardback, (part of the same series as my Exploring the Universe) small enough to be readable in a way that coffee table book isn’t, but big enough to have some dramatic pictures, Michael Alan Park takes a look at evolution and its context. The book begins with the age of the Earth and how it has changed over time, takes us through the basics of genetics and its relevance to evolution, examines the way species change over time – and how new species emerge – gives us a chapter with a particular focus on humans (we can’t help but be interested in humans!) and looks at the challenges to evolution from creationism and intelligent design. The final chapter, ‘How has the theory of evolution influenced modern society’ tries to put evolution into the context of its everyday significance, a difficult thing to do that doesn’t quite come off, so it’s an unfortunate ending. Overall the content is fine – sometimes a little phrased the way an academic rather than a good …

Poor Robin’s Prophecies – Benjamin Wardhaugh ***

This is an unusual one. It’s reminiscent of that quote on Wagner’s music. Not Woody Allen’s (I can’t listen to that much Wagner. I start getting the urge to conquer Poland.) or Oscar Wilde’s (I like Wagner’s music better than anybody’s. It is so loud that one can talk the whole time without other people hearing what one says.) but Rossini’s – Mr. Wagner has beautiful moments but awful quarters of an hour. That probably makes the book sound worse than it is (unless you like Wagner). The concept is brilliant. It is looking back at a seventeenth/eighteenth century phenomenon and using it as a hook on which to hang an assessment of the everyday approach to maths in England in that time. The phenomenon in question is Poor Robin’s Prophesies, a long running almanac. In general almanacs were annual publications that threw in what the authors thought of as lots of useful information, from saints’ days to tide tables, with a good dollop of astrology to add zest. Poor Robin was initially primar…

Mick O’Hare – Four Way Interview

Mick O’Hare is the editor of numerous popular science books taken from his column The Last Word, found inside New Scientistmagazine. He is also production editor at the publication. His degree was in geology but he retains a healthy disregard for rocks. He I as as passionate about science as he is about rugby league, malt whisky and Formula 1, which is saying something. His latest title is Will We Ever Speak Dolphin? Why science? Because it’s the story of the rational. It can, ultimately, explain everything, although what constitutes everything and its limits are constantly shifting. Nonetheless it’s the only process we possess that can give us answers to our questions based on evidence rather than irrationality. And as such it should be embraced by every free-thinking person. It can also tell us why snot is green and what earwax is for. Which keeps me in work.
Why this book? We just can’t stop. All the previous books in the series have proved popular and there was a clamour for more. An…

Simon Flynn – Four Way Interview

Simon Flynn has degrees in chemistry and philosophy and worked at publisher Icon Books for fifteen years, becoming managing director. Always driven by an urge to communicate science, he has recently left the publishing world to train to be a science teacher. His book The Science Magpie is an entertaining cornucopia of science trivia and history. Why science?
I love nearly everything about it. Obviously this includes the archetypes of science such as laws, processes, theories etc. But I also really enjoy those things that extend beyond science as just a body of knowledge – the personalities, the stories, its relationship with society, and so on. Why this book?
Following on from the above, The Science Magpie is the sort of book I’d enjoy reading and it allowed me to explore further some of the great variety of science mentioned in the previous answer. But as well as those lofty themes, it also gave me the opportunity to demonstrate science’s more humorous side (in my opinion at least). Wha…

Will We Ever Speak Dolphin – Mick O’Hare (Ed.) ****

Welcome to the latest in New Scientist‘s hugely popular quirky science answers series. As with its predecessors, we have here what ought to be a disaster, as it’s a book made up of a series of columns from newspapers. With a few exceptions, these are, frankly uninspiring books that are very cheap to produce, and it shows. But because the questions are so fascinating, the books culled from the New Scientist‘s Last Word column continue to be a delight. I think the reason they are so successful is because they tap into the reason human beings are driven to do science. Curiosity. That nagging urge to get an answer to the question ‘Why?’ that drives every conversation with a five year old. As Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory demonstrates, to maintain such a level of questioning into adulthood would be irritating indeed – but it is the residue of that childhood curiosity that thankfully makes us interested in all things scientific. Without that drive the questions would have become dull afte…