Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The Visioneers – W. Patrick McCray ***

It may sound like a job at a Walt Disney theme park (where designers are called imagineers), but ‘visioneer’ is Patrick McCray’s portmanteau word combining ‘visionary’and ‘engineer’ – not a hand-waving futurologist, but a scientist or engineer who is coming up with blue sky ideas that are, nonetheless, based on the projection of solid science and engineering.
The two key figures here are physicist Gerard O’Neill, who devised space colonies, and engineer Eric Drexler who was at the forefront of the nanotechnology movement, both dating back to the heady days of the 1970s. Their ideas are put in the contrasting context of limits – an influential group, the Club of Rome had recently published dire warnings of the limited resources available to human beings, and arguably both these threads were about ways to escape the limits, either by reaching outside the Earth, or into the microcosm.
The opening of the book promised a lot – it looked as if it was going to be really exciting and engaging. But overall McCray doesn’t really deliver. The problem is that this is essentially a social history rather than a piece of popular science writing. Historian McCray makes it clear early on he isn’t going to be dealing much with the actual science and technology (which is perhaps just as well when one the few mentions he has of actual science is a distinct blooper in saying ‘Unlike time travel, designing a space colony violated no obvious physical laws’ – if the author would care to take a look at How to Build a Time Machine, he’d discover time travel violates no physical laws either). And that is a big shame.
While what we read provides interesting context (if spending far too long on, for instance,Omni magazine) there really is very little about the actual ideas and the science behind them – just glancing references that intrigue but never clarify. I appreciate this was what McCray was setting out to do, but it is frustrating as the book would have been so much better if had been significantly beefed up on the science side.
If you are looking for a social history of these two big ideas that still seem as far away as they did in the 1970s (and a book with the longest index I’ve ever seen), go for it. But don’t expect to have any detailed grasp of what the ideas actually were.
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 25 February 2013

The Quantum Divide – Christopher C. Gerry & Kimberley M. Bruno ***

Broadly speaking, science books are either popular science or textbooks. The popular science book is aimed at a general audience with little or no science background required and fills in the basics in a far more interesting way than science was every taught at school. The textbook does the business of educating with the theories, while not worrying too much about the historical context, with readability always coming a distant second. It assumes the reader has science and maths education to the required level. But The Quantum Divide, perhaps in keeping with the concept of quantum superposition, manages to be a bit of both at the same time.
What we have here is an exploration of quantum physics and the divide between the world of quantum particles and the macro universe. It is pitched in a way that I have simply never seen before. For a very narrow band of readers this book is absolutely superb. If you have been fascinated by a book on a quantum subject, like my own The God Effect on quantum entanglement, but want to dig into more depth about what is actually going on, and what was really undertaken in some of the experiments you usually have to either read a textbook or go to an academic paper. But both of these are pretty impenetrable and too maths-heavy for the general reader. Gerry and Bruno give that extra meat without requiring heavy duty mathematical support. There are equations in here, but they are used as shorthand, not to do maths. The result is quite extraordinary – it really expands on anything you can get from a popular science book without being too heavy to cope with, and for that, the authors need a huge pat on the back.
To be honest, though, I don’t think most popular science readers actually want this extra detail. On the other hand, university level physics students will find it too basic and not mathematical enough (though it could provide a good introduction before a course). This is a great book for, say, science journalists and those with a similar level of semi-professional interest – but probably not for many others.
The other slight problem is that the authors can occasionally be quite prissy and negative about guess who… science writers. Their audience in all probability. Take this quote:
Quantum theory does not predict that an object can be in two or more places at once. The false notion to the contrary often appears in the popular press, but is due to a naïve interpretation of quantum mechanics.
The problem with this attitude is that it entirely misses the point. All descriptive models of something as counter-intuitive as quantum theory are inevitably approximations – what they are really doing here is not liking someone else’s language, even though it gets the basic point across better than their version. I don’t think this is any more a problem than when physicists speak of the big bang or dark matter as if it they are facts, rather than our current best accepted theories.
There’s a similar cringe-worthy section where the authors attack the suggestion that light is a particle in the true sense, which again seems nit-picking. Their argument seems to make little sense and given Richard Feynman was happy to say ‘I want to emphasize that light does come in this form – particles’ I find their position hard to justify. So there are a couple of places where a particular slant of interpretation gets in the way of what otherwise is excellent explanation – but I think that can be forgiven.
Overall, then, a worthy and fascinating book but one that I suspect will only ever have a very limited audience.
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 21 February 2013

The Scientific Sherlock Holmes – James O’Brien ***

I’m a fan of Sherlock Holmes in every form from the original stories to the modern day TV version Sherlock, so it was with some enthusiasm that I came to The Scientific Sherlock Holmes. What I hoped for was something along the lines of one of the better ‘the science of’ type books – but in reality this is something quite different.
As the understated cover suggests, this feels like more of an academic book that a popular title. This comes through in a number of ways. James O’Brien is too interested in cataloguing every instance of something, rather than giving an interesting narrative. He also uses an infuriating approach, apparently common in academic writing about the Holmes stories, of using a four letter code to represent each story. So after a first reference to, say, The Hound of the Baskervilles, it is thereafter designated as HOUN. Similarly, A Study in Scarlet is STUD and so on. Unless you are a devotee, this makes the text rather impenetrable. Another academic tendency that does the author no favours is to keep referring to the way someone has theorised something about the particular topic, then giving a reference – not a great way of putting an argument across.
There is some interesting material in here as to how Doyle got his ideas, and examining in detail the different aspects of Holmes’ use of scientific and forensic methods – sometimes quite groundbreaking – and the degree of his scientific knowledge. In this, O’Brien is generally quite defensive of Holmes, giving him the benefit of the doubt when others like Isaac Asimov have suggested he was actually not up to scratch. But overall the package does not give the reader enough to get their teeth into and is presented in such a dry fashion that it is hard to consider it any more than a passing interest.
If you are deep Holmes enthusiast, the kind of person who buys and studies all the surrounding literature, this will be a must-have addition to your collection. Otherwise, probably not for you.
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Frankenstein’s Cat – Emily Anthes ****

In my experience, more scientists like dogs than cats (a dangerous assertion, I admit), which is why, perhaps, a cat ended up on the receiving end of the most famous thought experiment in history, Schrödinger’s Cat. Although the cat in Emily Anthes’ title obviously owes its existence to its hypothetical quantum cousin, though, this isn’t a book about thought experiments, but the real things. From fluorescent fish to cyborg animals, this is the story of what we are really doing – or planning to do – to modify nature.
For me, Anthes gets the balance just right in the book (though that ‘Frankenstein’ in the title is totally misleading in this respect). There are real moral issues to be considered in what we do to animals for our own benefit, but provided we take animal welfare into account, there is really no reason why we shouldn’t modify animals for our purposes. After all, we’ve been doing it for millennia through selective breeding – this is just a matter of doing it much more quickly and effectively.
Anthes covers all sorts of possibilities, and is at her best when she’s dealing with the everyday life side of the experience. So, for instance, her opening story of the fluorescent Glo-fish (despite headlines beloved of tabloid editors, they don’t glow in the dark, they re-emit light at a different frequency) is totally fascinating in part because of the legal challenges faced by the entrepreneurs looking to bring the fish to market (something that still isn’t legal, for instance, in the EU).
Making pets more interesting to look at may be fairly trivial (though as Anthes points out, it is surely more humane to make happy, healthy glowing fish than it is to distort goldfish into weird shapes so they have pop-eyes, as selective breeders have done for years), but we also meet much more useful possibilities in pharming – animals that have been modified so, for instance, their milk contains medically important proteins. Inevitably some animal rights types will moan, but surely it’s easier to justify keeping goats to produce medicine (in a normal and pleasant enough goaty life) than keeping rabbits as pets in cages (for instance).
Then we get to the real heavy stuff – implants that turn animals into controllable devices. Here, rightly, the moral discussion comes very much to the fore. However, where the animals in questions are insects, as many of them are, most of us have relatively few qualms. I’d certainly rather an insect was wired up as a drone than was used for entertainment in I’m a Celebrity Get me Out of Here. Again, it’s the entrepreneurs that fascinate – specifically a pair that sell a ‘control your own cockroach’ kit to turn a cockroach into a remote controlled object and learn a bit about neuroscience along the way.
Just occasionally I found the interest levels dropping a bit, and the way the book is pitched is just a little too casual for me with not quite enough science. But this is a very important area that is not going to go away and that we all ought to be thinking about. The way we have handled GM crops has been disastrous, resulting in the pathetic scene of supposedly humanitarian organizations preventing the use of crops that could help millions of people survive. We need to do better with modified animals – and this book is a good eye opener on the possibilities and the debates we will face. Recommended.
Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 16 February 2013

R & D is War – Clifford L. Spiro ****

Industrial research and development is arguably the cinderella of science and technology, yet without it we wouldn’t have all the remarkable stuff we use  – from high tech gadgets to apparently trivial pieces of technology like a light bulb.
Clifford Spiro (who, if his author photo is anything to go by, is the Bruce Willis of R&D) gives us an engaging insider’s view of the realities of industrial R&D, working on a range of product areas in his career from coal technology through light bulbs to artificial diamonds. It isn’t an easy road – time and again there’s a struggle with a difficult problem, a solution is produced… and then not used. Just occasionally, though it’s a multi-million dollar winner. Spiro gives us real, coal face experience of the power of R&D, the difficulties of getting it right and the practicalities of using the scientific method in the real world, without the academic’s ivory tower protection.
When it works well, this book works really well. It features good story telling – the reader wants to find out what happens next. Spiro has a light, colloquial tone and brings the R&D environment alive. The downside is that he can be a bit summary – there is an element of ‘with a single bound he was free’ from some of the problem solving and I would like to have seen a bit more of the science explained – and I’m not sure there’s a lot of value in his end-of-chapter words of wisdom for doing R&D well. It’s when we’re getting good narrative of the R&D guys versus the challenge of, say, preventing a light bulb exploding that this becomes a great read, not as a business primer.
This is a self-published book, with the usual drawbacks, though it is very classy considering. The cover design is excellent and the text is reasonably edited. Where it is let down a little is in layout – like many self-published books the text itself is too dense, making it heavy on the eye, and for some reason all the m-dashes (a long hyphen used as a sentence break – like this) have no spaces before them, which looks odd. It’s certainly not enough to put me off recommending this book.
Were it not for the topic I would probably only give the book three stars, as it it does need some work on that summary nature – but there is so little written about R&D, and the stories are so interesting when at their best that I have had to give it four.
Review by Brian Clegg

Anatomies – Hugh Aldersey-Williams ***

Author Hugh Aldersey-Williams had a real success with his chemical elements book Periodic Tales, so was faced with the inevitable challenge of what to do next. He has gone for a medical tour of the body, intending to reach into the bits we don’t normally find out about to uncover the hot research topics.
After a quick canter through the history of the way we view our bodies he breaks it down for a bit-by-bit exploration. If I’m honest, basic biology (especially human biology) is not a topic that thrills me, but there is no doubt that Aldersey-Williams manages to bring out some enjoyable, quirky and interesting subjects. Admittedly some of these are covered better elsewhere – so, for instance, his brief foray into what made Einstein’s brain special can’t match Possessing Genius – but the idea that they were already performing nose jobs over 100 years ago or the weirdness of synaesthesia certainly catch the attention.
I like plenty of historical context – and this book has it in spades – but I also like to see a balance of science content, and there it seems a little weak. It is interesting to contrast the book with our editor’s The Universe Inside You, also based on a tour of your body, but in this case dominated by the science and the sheer amazement of it all. When we take the same journey in Anatomies we certainly get more of the basic biology, medical aspects and cultural context, but we miss out on so much of the meaty science.
By no means a bad book, but not in the same league as Periodic Tales.
Review by Jo Reed

Friday, 15 February 2013

Near-Earth Objects – Donald K. Yeomans ****

As I write this there has just been a meteor strike in Russia leaving hundreds injured, so it is very timely to be considering, as the subtitle puts it, how we can find ‘them before they find us.’
Donald Yeomans’ book introduces us to the origins of the solar system (including a relatively recent update on the traditional model with the ‘Nice model’) and explains why there is so much debris out there that has the potential of crashing to Earth from the tiny bits of dust and pebble sized rocks that burn up harmlessly as meteors to the impressively large and scary kilometre scale asteroids and comets.
While in no sense scare-mongering, Yeomans makes it clear just why we need to be on the look out for incoming material, explains what the risks are and explores the opportunities for intervening and preventing potential disaster. It’s not all doom and gloom, though, as Yeomans also gives us chapter and verse on the potential to make use of relatively accessible near Earth objects, either to get hold of scarce materials, to act as a way station en route to a distant destination like Mars, or both (when, for instance a NEO way station could be mined for water on the way to Mars).
Unlike many books involving space exploration I didn’t get the feeling of fantasy, wishful thinking or sabre rattling. Yeomans just gives us good, reasoned arguments, presented in the main in a likeable, friendly fashion. The only major irritation is that Yeomans does occasionally flip into ‘astronomer cataloguing mode’, giving us long tedious lists, foe example when describing where the near Earth objects come from. Be prepared to skip a page or two – but the focus on readability soon returns.
Overall, if you are interested in astronomy, the solar system or the survival of the human race, this is a book that should spark your interest.
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Thinking in Numbers – Daniel Tammet ****

This collection of 25 essays by Daniel Tammet, probably best known for his feat of memorising vast quantities of digits of pi, is an enjoyable light way of getting an introduction to some of the reasons that maths is more than just a mechanism for doing science or adding up your shopping bills.
Some essay collections don’t work so well in book form, but these make excellent bite-sized nuggets, with Tammet ranging far and wide over a landscape that successfully pulls in poets, authors and playwrights as much as it does mathematicians. I loved, for instance, the parallels Tammet brings out between Tolstoy’s view of history and calculus.
Inevitably in such a collection there will be some pieces that appeal less to an individual reader. I was less interested in the more autobiographical essays, but I am sure they would appeal to others. If I’m being picky I’d also say Tammet is occasionally a little loose factually. So, for instance, he says the odds of him being in a particular location is 1 in 2 – he’s either there or he’s not. That’s a very strange way of defining odds, which usually means the probability of something: and clearly there isn’t a 1 in 2 chance of him being (say) in my kitchen.
Overall, though, a very enjoyable and informative read.
Review by Brian Clegg