Thursday, 31 January 2013

The Logician and the Engineer – Paul J. Nahin ***

For its target readership this is an excellent book – and I have to say as someone outside that market I really enjoyed some parts – but the fact remains it is aimed at a pretty narrow segment. There’s even a little section at the front of the book that effectively says ‘read this to see if you can cope with the rest.’
The bits I found particularly appealing were a few introductory logic problems (though I’m not sure I agreed with all  the conclusions) and the pocket biographies of mathematician George Boole and information engineer Claude Shannon. However, while technically qualified to deal with the other parts of the book, in truth I couldn’t be bothered – it was too much like hard work.
For bits of it I would have to wade through far too much grunt maths, and for other bits would have had to think far too hard about electronic circuits and the logic circuits beloved of basement dwellers on computer science courses. (Or was it just my university that confined the computer scientists to the basement?)
I think the author makes the mistake that many academics make when trying to write for a broader audience: they carry through too much of the textbook, and find that the aspects that often encourage people to remember things in that context (often because they involve repetitious grunt work) actually prevent popular science readers from getting the message. It’s a shame, because the subjects are interesting, but unless you are the kind of person who designs logic circuits for fun, this is probably not the book you’d want to see.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 26 January 2013

A Down to Earth Guide to the Cosmos – Mark Thompson ***


I got into amateur astronomy at the age of 11, and for a number years took it veryseriously – and like pretty well anyone who does, I bought myself a good guide. I’ve still got it, and I treasure it – it’s Patrick Moore’s The Amateur Astronomer. Now Mark Thompson is setting out to do something similar for a new generation, and in reviewing it, I’ve had my Moore book alongside as a touchstone – so this has ended up as a kind of double review.
For those not familiar with Thompson (me included), he apparently appears on the BBC’s early evening magazine show, The One Show and on the BBC’s annual Stargazing Live with the ubiquitous Brian Cox, talking about astronomy. The book is organised in 12 sections, one for each month, with a general information chapter and then star charts for northern and southern hemispheres and a commentary for the month.
When the information chapter keeps to astronomy and the practicalities of it, Thompson is very good. As you might expect, he’s less pedantic and more chatty than Moore writing in 1957 (the book wasn’t new when I bought it!), and he really gets across the enjoyment of getting out there and taking a look at the sky, plus gives good guidance on how to watch meteors (strangely this appears twice), getting the right equipment and a fair amount more. This was solid four star material.
When the information chapters stray into cosmology and physics, Thompson becomes a little more flaky. Of course he’s much more up-to-date on the cosmology than Moore (I assume the 2000 edition is a lot more with it), but I can’t imagine Patrick telling us that Ritter discovered ultraviolet when he noticed that ‘a chemical called sodium chloride’ (i.e. common salt) was turned black by it. I think he means silver chloride.
Thompson also trips up several times on black holes. For example, he tells us that ‘the mass of a black hole is so high even light… is unable to escape.’ This isn’t a matter of mass – in principle you could have a micro black hole with a tiny mass (it just couldn’t form from a star). It’s the extreme curvature of spacetime that stops light getting out, not how big the mass is. His quantum theory is a bit iffy too.
Finally there are the star charts. In Moore’s book these are among a whole host of appendices, which contain loads of fascinating data I used to love poring over as a youth. None of that from Thompson I’m afraid. Moore, rather sensibly doesn’t try to match the map to any particular date. Instead he uses key, easy to find constellations as pointers and builds his maps from these. Thompson gives us Northern hemisphere maps that are only useful to a degree as they stop at the celestial equator. This makes for a strange disconnect with the commentary, as the maps don’t show the whole sky you would see from, say, England. So both January and February’s commentary have a lot to say about Orion – but neither the January or February map shows Orion.
In fact the maps just don’t have enough detail. Moore’s pointer approach means he can dedicated page after page so you can find loads of stars – far more than Thompson ever identifies. Of course you might say with the phone apps and computer planetarium software Thompson mentions and Moore couldn’t even imagine we don’t need maps any more. But I think Moore’s are really useful for getting a working knowledge of the sky – Thompson’s less so.
Overall then, if you want a real astronomer’s guide I would go for the relatively new 2000 edition of Moore’s book. If you don’t really intend to use it and just want to read a bit about astronomy and the cosmos, you could do worse than Thompson’s book. But it’s a shame it wasn’t better. It’s telling that Moore’s book feature’s an astronomical image on the cover (my old edition has a picture of the moon) – Thompson’s, driven by TV-celebrity science, has a picture of him. I know which I’d rather look at.
Mark Thompson – A Down to Earth Guide to the Cosmos
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Patrick Moore – The Amateur Astronomer
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Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 25 January 2013

The Particle at the End of the Universe – Sean Carroll ****

The possible discovery of the Higgs boson has prompted a flurry of books – in part because it’s significant (and because the Large Hadron Collider is a sexy bit of kit) and in part because the whole business of the Higgs field and its importance for the mass of particles is one of the most obscure and unlikely bits of physics in the current canon.
I have really mixed feelings about this entry in the genre from physicist Sean Carroll. It’s not because his book is too difficult to understand – it’s almost because it’s too easy. Generally speaking, there are three levels of good popular science. There’s TV news popular science, which cuts a lot of corners to make things totally simplistic, but manages to get the message across quickly. There’s the kind of book a good popular science writer will produce – highly approachable and readable, giving a lot more depth than the TV news and the best way to actually get an understanding of what’s going on for most of us, but still cutting some scientific corners. And there’s the kind of book a good scientist will write, which will probably go over your head the first time you read it, but if you persevere will give you the best illusion of knowing what the real science is about and getting some feel for the world of the scientist.
In his previous book From Eternity to Here, like Cox & Forshaw’s Why Does E=mc2, Carroll didn’t pull the punches. Much of the text was readable, but it may well have taken several attempts to get it to sink in. It was the perfect popular science book by an academic. Parts of this one, unfortunately verge on TV science. Some of it is so fluffy and approachable that it almost disappears into meaninglessness.
Luckily, this isn’t true of all the book. The early parts are worse. Oddly, he gets significantly better when talking about the building of the Large Hadron Collider than he does in his first attempts on the physics. And it is worth persevering as Carroll improves with his approach further in (best of all are a few appendices where he goes into more detail and we see the old, mind-bending Carroll emerging).
Some specific issues I had: it was really irritating that Carroll uses units like degrees Fahrenheit and miles rather than scientific (or European) units throughout. This is real poor TV science stuff. A lot of his science is what I’d call ‘plonking’ he states it as if it is absolute truth, not the current best theory. So, for instance, he speaks of dark matter as if it were certain fact (nary a mention of the rival MOND theory). And he says at one point ‘The world is really made out of fields. Sometimes the stuff of the universe looks like particles… but deep down it’s really fields.’
I have two problems with this. One is that one of my absolute heroes was Richard Feynman and he said of light ‘I want to emphasize that light does come in this form – particles.’ If particles are good enough for Feynman, they’re good enough for me. Secondly I think that what Carroll should be saying is ‘fields are the model that work best to describe what’s out there.’ In the end it’s a human devised model of something we can only inspect extremely indirectly. It is almost bound to be wrong – it’s just better than anything else we have at doing the job. (Yet.)
Perhaps the worst problem is the way he oversimplifies. Oddly this is a classic problem when a scientist is writing popular science (and why a good science writer is usually better) because he doesn’t know what the lay reader finds puzzling, so doesn’t bother to explain. His explanation of the application of symmetry to physics simply doesn’t fill in enough of the gaps. He says, for instance, that a mentos and diet coke experiment is symmetrical in all sorts of ways – you can point it in any direction, or translate it to any position and it works the same. Clearly this isn’t true. It wouldn’t work the same if the bottle was upside down, pointing straight at the ground, nor would it be the same if you translated it under the sea or into space. It’s a classic case of handwaving generalisation, missing out all the provisos and so making the explanation fail.
It’s certainly not a bad book – but I did prefer its rivals on a couple of counts. For a better heavy duty attempt at the physics, Frank Close’s The Infinity Puzzle wins (though that definitely is a ‘several reads to get it’ book). And for the best overall description of the search for the Higgs, combined with the most approachable but informative information on the Higgs field and the whole standard model of particle physics I’d recommend Higgs by Jim Baggott. But Sean Carroll’s book still did have a lot going for it and is still well worth considering.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Better than Human – Allen Buchanan ***

This pocket-sized book has a fair amount of content thanks to an unusually small font size – and the subject is one that is quite topical when this review was written given the furore over the cyclist Lance Armstrong’s use of performance enhancing drugs. Allen Buchanan takes on the whole subject of human beings enhancing ourselves.
It’s an interesting book that makes quite strong arguments that augmentation, both through use of drugs and genetic modification, is going to happen whether we like it or not, and shows how many of the arguments against such an approach are based on poor reasoning. Buchanan recognizes the issues and the ways this will cause problems, but equally dismisses many of the arguments against doing so. He also points out that the use of drugs in sport is actually a bad example (sorry), as in most circumstances we aren’t playing games and we aren’t in a zero sum competition. If one person is enhanced it has the potential to benefit the rest of us, rather than being a threat.
There are some quite serious issues. Early on, Buchanan rather condescendingly points out that this is the simplified version and he has a serious book on the topic for academics. That puts us in our place. But more to the point, I am not sure he has managed to leave behind his academic approach, making the book a little stilted sometimes and too focused on shooting down various academic arguments.
I was also quite disappointed that unlike my own Upgrade Me, he makes no mention of anything other than biological enhancements, where many of the most important ones are non-biological. Take two simple ones. If I hit someone with a stone in my fist, I enhance my ability to hurt them beyond human. If I use a water bottle when crossing a desert I am enhanced in my ability to survive. It is very arbitrary to limit yourself to drug and genetic modification.
In some ways, then, a frustrating book – but nonetheless a very useful guide to the arguments for anyone worried about anything from drugs in sport to those who want to enhance their intellectual ability.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 14 January 2013

Paranormality – Richard Wiseman ****

The subtitle here is ‘Why we believe the impossible’ or ‘Why we see what isn’t there’ (depending on your edition) emphasising that this a book not so much on parapsychology – the study of paranormal capabilities of the mind – but what you might call metaparapsychology – the study of why human beings incorrectly think that they have paranormal capabilities of the mind.
This is a very entertaining, lightly written book that takes a storytelling approach to introducing some of the strange and wonderful claims that people have made for supernatural mental abilities, only to pull them apart.
We begin with that most dubious of paranormal topics, psychics, with a UK psychic roundly failing in controlled tests and another psychic admitting exactly how he used cold reading tricks to fool his clients. Many books have debunked cold reading, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen before such a clear list of the six key techniques with a demonstration of how they were used in a specific reading. It’s superb.
Next under the microscope are out of body experiences (and for some reason the spurious idea of a body losing weight on death), which prove rather dull, and then moving things with the mind. There is interesting material on a specific case, though I found the ‘five psychological principles’ that make people believe this kind of act a touch heavy handed after we’d already been through the six for cold reading, especially as by the time we get to the fifth there is not one, but two asides in the middle of explaining it.
Next up is the table shifting/rapping/Ouija board style of spirit medium. There’s some nice historical introduction with the Fox sisters (who made ‘raps’ by clicking their toes) and some practical guidance on the do-it-yourself use of involuntary movement effects to jiggle tables or spell out Ouija messages (with perhaps a bit of cheating thrown in). We then move swiftly on to some entertaining ghost hunting tales (and thoughts on why we imagine ghosts exist), mind control and future gazing. All very readable, entertaining and often enlightening.
Although as a whole I liked the book, there was something about it that put me off a little (otherwise it might have made 5 stars). It was a touch gimmicky – I’m not sure, for instance, I particularly liked the used of QR codes to direct the reader to find out more online. In principle this should be a good thing, but these 3D barcodes were so large and obtrusive that they ruined the look of the page every time they were introduced.
The gimmickry also extends to some extent to the way the book is written, with chapters jumping around their subject and introducing little ‘tests’ that are supposed to show the reader the effect being discussed. (I’m pleased to say I avoided choosing the shape combination most people come up with when asked to think of one geometric shape inside another*.)
However, that’s just a personal thing – I think many people would like this kind of messing about in format, so it shouldn’t count against what I think is a really interesting book on a topic that isn’t really called metaparapsychology, but ought to be. If psychics, ESP and the world of the paranormal interest you, this book is an essential balance to your library – and if you are a sceptic, it will give you plenty of chances to raise an eyebrow and have a chuckle at the gullibility of the rest of the world.
* The usual choice is apparently a circle in a triangle or a triangle in a circle. I went for a triangle in a square.
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Review by Brian Clegg