Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Royal Society Winton Prize 2012

Read more about the 2012 Royal Society Winton Prize, arguably a summary of the best popular science books published in 2011.
We have a winner for the prize! Best books of 2011? You decide…
and here are our favourites that didn’t make the long list:

Monday, 19 November 2012

Butterflies and toilets

What do a South American butterfly and motorhead TV presenter Richard Hammond have in common? Both have a need to avoid close contact with water. In his 2012 BBC programme Richard Hammond’s Miracles of Nature, Hammond demonstrates an all too common problem: dropping a phone down the toilet.
Apparently 19 per cent of us admit to having had this accident occur at some point. It’s all too easy, particularly if you have a phone in a breast pocket and bend over – or simply slip while holding your handset in the smallest room. We won’t resort to Hammond’s dodgy statistics: he combines the 40 per cent who admit to taking their phones into the loo in the first place (what do the other 60 per cent do with their phones, leave them by the door?) with that 19 per cent to suggest half of those who take their phones drop them down the pan. However, there is no doubt that the toilet and all the other water hazards we face from puddles to simply using our phones in the rain put those most essential of personal gadgets at risk.
Rather in the same way that I recently took a look at the lotus leaf effect in our series Nature’s Nanotech, Hammond was inspired by the magnificent electric blue wings of the morpho butterfly. Living in the rainforest, this large-winged butterfly is in constant danger of inundation, bombarded by large water droplets in a way that could cause its fragile wings permanent damage.
To avoid every truly coming into contact with water, the butterfly’s wing surfaces are covered in a series of sharp-edged ridges, making a repeated waffle-like pattern. When a drop of water hits the wing, only a tiny part of the droplet – less than one per cent of the surface – ever comes into contact with the wing. There is no wetting effect – the droplet just rolls off, leaving the wing undamaged. And this is exactly what Hammond wants to see happen to his phone.
To see just what’s possible, Hammond takes a trip to the Oxfordshire laboratories of our friends at P2i, where a nanopolymer coating produces a very similar hydrophobic water repulsion effect to the butterfly’s wings. To show just how much this approach could do for us, Hammond’s team knock up a Heath Robinson machine where water repellency ensures that things we normally can’t afford to get wet continue to function in simulated rainfall. We see:
  • A newspaper that droplets simply run off
  • An egg carton that won’t become sticky
  • Utensils and containers that don’t dribble or get dirty
  • A book you read on the beach or by the pool
With surely conscious echoes of the film The Man the White Suit, Hammond finally dons a coated white suit which takes everything that can be thrown at it: beans, coffee, red wine, mustard, fruit juices and soy sauce.
In that film, inventor Sidney Stratton, played by a young Alec Guinness, produces a new fabric that will never get dirty or wear out. Interestingly, clothing manufacturers hate the idea and take increasingly desperate measures to try to destroy Guinness’s pristine white suit. It’s rather surprising in some ways (but encouraging) that modern manufacturers of phones and sportswear take a rather different attitude and embrace the concept. There is one huge difference, though. In the end, the treatment causes Guinness’s fabric to break down, coming apart in pieces, where the surface coating used here has no impact on the substances in covers from fibres to electronic components on the inside of a phone.
This takes us back to the phone down the toilet – with a quick treatment at P2i, Hammond’s phone not only survives the submersion but rings underwater (rather him than me when it comes to holding it to his ear – and Richard, take off the bracelets next time, they will get soggy).
In the classic ‘light entertainment science’ mode that Hammond pioneered with the Sky series Brainiac, the programme rather firmly makes the point. This is something we really want for our phones. They are far too precious to be damaged by water – and the whole point of having a mobile is that you should be able to use it safely wherever you are.
I think Hammond missed an important point he made, which is that this is a concept with even more potential than the essential role of keeping phones safe. I know the coating is also used on trainers and some military clothing, but I would have thought there are a fair number of much broader applications, just as the Heath Robinson machine suggested, that go beyond the current imaginings of the marketers of this technology.
For the moment, though, our phones remain the main target for this technology. We shouldn’t think this is only a problem in the bathroom – there are plenty of other opportunities for water damage to phones that could be averted with well-applied water resistance. It’s time for that butterfly to stretch its wings.
Images – As seen on BBC 1’s Miracles of Nature

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Seduced by Logic – Robyn Arianrhod ***

Though there still aren’t enough women involved in physics, there are certainly are far more than there used to be. When I look back at my 1976, final year undergraduate group photograph at the Cavendish in Cambridge there are probably only around 5 per cent of the students who are female. (It’s a little difficult to tell, given the similarities in hair length favoured at the time.) Now it would be significantly higher. But go back over two centuries and what’s amazing is to find any woman who dared to make herself visible in the scientific arena.
Yet despite the widely voiced concerns that women’s brains would practically explode if faced with anything more than the fluffiest of science popularisation (the father of one of the main characters in this book, discovering her interest in maths, said ‘We must put a stop to this, or we shall have Mary in a straightjacket one of these days’) the two individuals at the heart of Robin Arianrhod’s book managed not just to learn about the physics of the day but to make important contributions.
The first is Émilie du Châtelet. She was worthy of a biography for her life alone, somehow managing despite being married to the aristocratic Marquis du Châtelet, to spend most of her married life in the company of the writer Voltaire (with another lover later on with whom she had a child, though, sadly, Émilie would die shortly after the birth). But she was also a great enthusiast for Newton’s work, doggedly acquired knowledge of mathematics to better her understanding (soon outstripping Voltaire) and writing an influential paper on what we would now think of as energy. Perhaps most remarkably she made what is still the only complete French translation of Newton’s brilliant but often impenetrable masterpiece, the Principia.
Scottish-born Mary Somerville, the second of Arianrhod’s characters, born 70 years later, had more of a middle class background (Arianrhod helpfully puts her on a par in both period and social status with Jane Austen and her principle characters), but still managed to go on to be a world expert on Newton’s work, both providing new insights for the many scientists who struggled with Newton’s sometimes painful obscurity and writing some of the first approachable popular science on the subject. While both woman were of a certain standing, and could not have broken through the way Faraday did from truly humble beginnings, the achievements of this pair when all of society and the scientific establishment was stacked against them was truly remarkable and it is excellent that their work is being detailed here.
Where I have a little concern with the book (as opposed to the subjects) is that Arianrhod sets out to give us too detailed a rendition. Dotting every i and crossing every t of a scientific life is necessary for an academic biography, but here it can get a little plodding at times. It is only because of this that I have not given the book more stars – it is impossible to fault the attention to detail of the biography, nor the interest of the subjects, but the book doesn’t quite have the page turning intensity that these women’s stories could have had with the right approach.
However, if you want to find out more about this remarkable pair of early female Newtonians, this is definitely the book to make you a very happy bunny indeed.
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 8 November 2012

The science they didn’t teach you at school

We’ve got a new sister site, sciextra.com – it contains short pieces from our editor, Brian Clegg, on the science they didn’t teach you at school. The really interesting bits. The bits that make you go ‘Wow!’
It’s early days, but there’s new content going up every week. The material is a mix of short written pieces and videos. These videos don’t set out to be all hi-tech and broadcast quality. The aim is just to get the ideas across quickly and simply.
Please do click through and take a look at the site, but for a taster here’s one of the videos, answering the question ‘If time travel is possible, why aren’t we inundated with visitors from the future?’

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Caleb Scharf – Four Way Interview

Caleb Scharf is Director of Astrobiology at Columbia University in New York. He is the winner of the 2011 Chambliss Astronomical Writing Award from the American Astronomical Society, and the Guardian has cited his Life, Unbounded blog at Scientific American as one of the “hottest science blogs,”. His extensive research career has covered cosmology, high-energy astrophysics, and exoplanetary science, and he currently leads efforts to understand the nature of exoplanets and the environments suitable for life in the universe. He has also served as consultant for New Scientist, Discovery Channel, the Science Channel, National Geographic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and others. His book Gravity’s Engines explores the influence of black holes on the universe.
Why science? 
So many evolving reasons. Curiosity, obsessiveness, and a love of stories. The more science I work on the more I see it through the lens of storytelling, and it’s hard to do better than the story of our universe. I can appreciate simplicity and elegance, but as I get older I appreciate more and more the multi-textured, layered, chaotic, and unbelievably interwoven nature of reality. It really is just amazing.
I like the perspective gained from science. It appeals to my core sense of humour that we’re these microscopic specks of cosmic filth assembled into thinking objects, and we’re gawping at the immensity of it all, and actually managing to make a small amount of sense out of it. That’s incredible, and for me is a fundamental part of our humanity.
Why this book? 
Black holes are one of the craziest and most unexpected stories in science. I wanted to cut through the haze of misty eyed rumination about their exotic physics and explain just how real and important they actually are. Every week we’re hearing about new black hole discoveries – and these tell us that super-sized versions inhabit most galaxies and have been co-joined with the nature of galaxies and stars for the past 13 billion years. Because matter falling into holes can generate colossal amounts of energy – easily more than nuclear fusion, it can profoundly influence the cosmic environment. Instead of being off-limits and hidden away, these gateways to quantum gravity help make the universe what it is today.
What’s next?
I’m working on a book called The Copernicus Complex, that comes out in 2014. I’m really excited about this. It’s all about the quest for our cosmic significance, or perhaps insignificance! Like most of my writing it drills down deep into the science, but is also about telling a great tale. I also think that there are a number of original and intriguing ideas in the book, stemming from the latest research in microbiology, exoplanets, cosmology, and even statistical inference. Hopefully it will get people talking!
What’s exciting you at the moment?
I’m always going to say the abundance of exoplanets and the search for life in the universe, but I’m also agog at what’s happening with lab-bench science right now. Incredible things are taking place in optics, quantum physics, and microbiology. I feel that we may be on the verge of a genuine shift in our understanding of the fundamentals of the microscopic world, and I can’t help but wonder how that will lead to new ways to probe the cosmos.

Gravity’s Engines – Caleb Scharf *****

Black holes are the rock stars of cosmology. With the possible exception of the Big Bang, nothing gets better press. And there has been plenty written about the guts of black holes – but in Gravity’s Engines, Caleb Scharf turns the picture on its head and explores the interaction of black holes with the environment around them.
The result is stunning. I can’t remember when I last read a popular science book where I learned as much I hadn’t come across before. In particular Scharf’s descriptions of the super-massive black holes in the centres of galaxies and how they influence the formation and structure of the galaxies is truly fascinating.
What’s more, this is no workmanlike bit of dull scientist droning, like some books by astronomers. Scharf can wax lyrical when taking us on a journey through space. I particularly loved the cosmic zoom fairly early on in the book, where he follows X-ray photons from a distant galaxy 12 billion light years away, very cleverly linking their flight to events on Earth (once it had formed around 4.5 billion years ago) that were happening at the same time.
The book is not without problems. Often the description is great, but sometimes it tips over into the flowery. It’s difficult not to lose interest a bit when Scharf goes into the details of his own work in a lengthy section. The attempt to show that black holes are somehow responsible for life on Earth stretches the credulity. And worst of all, Scharf never admits how much of what’s in the book is speculative, stating almost all of it as if it were unquestioned fact. So, for instance, dark matter is taken for granted with nary a mention of the competing MOND theory. I don’t think scientists (especially cosmologists) do themselves any favours when they pretend they deal in absolute facts.
This doesn’t detract though from the reality that this is the best cosmology book I’ve read all year, and a must for anyone with an interest in black holes. Recommended.
Review by Brian Clegg

A Little History of Science – William Bynum ***

Doing all of science in one book is not an easy task, nor is it obvious how to go about it. William Bynum has chosen to provide us with a breezy high speed canter through the history of science, with the keyword being ‘history’. There is a lot of about the people involved and the context, always good from a popular science viewpoint.
Bynum manages to do this in an approachable way – almost too approachable sometimes as the style veers between writing for adults and for children. The bumf says ‘this is a volume for young and old to treasure together,’ but it really is neither fish nor fowl. The approach generally speaking is one that works best for adults, but then you get a sentence like ‘Galen was very clever and was not afraid to say so,’ that sounds ever so Janet and John.
Perhaps my biggest problem with the book is that while the history side of it was usually fine, the science was not always so. Some of it was just little factual errors – stating that the human appendix has no function – actually it has recently been discovered to have one – or referring to ‘degrees Kelvin’ like ‘degrees Celsius’ where the unit on the Kelvin scale is just kelvins (no degrees). But the problems were more painful when it came to modern physics – it did rather look like the author really didn’t know what he was writing about.
He tells us, for instance, that cyclotrons and synchrotrons were used by Chadwick in ‘smashing high-speed neutrons into heavy atoms’ – but these devices can only accelerate charged particles, and Chadwick used slow neutrons from decaying radioactive substances. He also says that the twins paradox ‘is just a thought experiment and could only happen in science fiction’. Well, no, it’s not, and on a small scale with atomic clocks it has been performed many times. He also seems confused about gravity, commenting that in space ‘there is no gravity. Astronauts and their spacecraft are essentially in free fall.’ The last bit is true, but not because there is no gravity – there’s plenty of gravity at the kind of level that, say the ISS orbits. But that free fall means it isn’t felt.
The absolute worst example is a paragraph that I find almost entirely without meaning. I would be grateful if anyone could explain this one to me:
As Einstein’s E=mc2 tells us, at ever higher speeds – almost the speed of light – in the accelerators the mass is mostly converted into energy. The physicists found that these very fast particles do some fascinating things. The electron emerges unchanged from the accelerator. It is part of a family of force-particles – the leptons.
I am baffled. Overall, then I am not sure what the audience for this book is, nor am I happy that they will get any sensible understanding of modern physics.
Review by Brian Clegg

Introducing Psychotherapy – Nigel Benson & Borin van Loon **

This site is about science.
This book isn’t.
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Deceived Wisdom – David Bradley ****

One of the joys of reading popular science books is discovering little factoids that amaze you and that you can’t resist telling other people. But David Bradley’s Deceived Wisdom goes one step better. Here the factoids are ones that many people believe, but science shows to be false. Apart from the risk of coming across as a smartarse, what’s not to love?
This slim volume (I read the whole thing in one go on a 1.5 hour train journey) has a good mix of classic old wives tales and more modern surprises. It’s delightful to discover that so many of those things you were told off for as a child (‘Don’t wear your coat inside, you won’t feel the benefit!’ for instance) are simply not true. I similarly rather enjoyed the evidence that women are no better at multitasking then men, and that cats aren’t cleverer than dogs. (Bradley attempts balance, but he clearly demonstrates it’s the other way round.) If nothing else, every member of the government should be sent a copy of this book to persuade them they don’t need to put notices in petrol stations telling us not to use our phones. There is no risk of setting the petrol on fire.
It’s almost inevitable with a collection like this that there are some quibbles. Sometimes the wording could be a little clearer. I was confused, for instance, if letting red wine breathe (by decanting it) was a good idea or not. The structure of the entries is to have the myth up front and then disprove it. But when dispensing with ‘No two snowflakes are alike’, Bradley concludes ‘get a lot closer and it becomes clear that no two snow crystals could be exactly the same.’ He seems to have proved his myth. Actually it’s more complicated. At the level the statement was originally made, visually, it is a myth. A lot of snow crystals are simple hexagons. Not identical at the molecular level, but that was never intended.
Another example I could quibble with is that Bradley claims as a myth ‘The full moon looks bigger when it’s closer to the horizon.’ This is patently true. What he means is that it is no different optically, but ‘looks’ refers to what a human being perceives – and there it is true. The underlying reason is that we don’t see like a camera, but rather the brain detects shapes, shading etc. and constructs the image we ‘see’ – this isn’t really discussed. But these really are quibbles and don’t take away from the fun of reading this excellent collection of science surprises.
If you liken popular science books to food, Deceived Wisdom is simply not meaty enough to make it a three course meal. It is, however, a top notch box of chocolates – and who doesn’t like that? Recommended.

Review by Brian Clegg