Tuesday, 19 March 2013

An Introduction to the Physics of Sport – Vassilios McInnes Spathopoulos ***

This short title may have been self published, but it has been well edited and comes across as a professional piece of writing. The only issue I have with it is whether or not it manages to cross the divide from textbook to popular science.
The topic is an interesting one – looking a how physics comes into play (see what I did there – ‘into play’) in sport. Personally I have zero interest in sport itself – I would rather watch paint dry than be a spectator at a sporting event or watch it on TV – yet there still is some interesting stuff to be had here.
It is, as some sporting commentator once nearly said, a book of three halves. It opens very strongly, with some excellent material on the way people accelerate, comparing a runner with a car or a plane (people do better for a very short while). Similarly, as I had no idea about the Magnus force that enables a spinning ball to curve (although I had used it often enough in table tennis, and inevitably heard of it a la ‘Bend it like Beckham’), it was fascinating to find out more about this.
In the centre section of the book, which has a lot of detail about rotating objects and flying objects, frankly my attention wained. It was a bit snooze inducing. But then things picked up again a lot at the end with another truly fascinating section on how environmental conditions can influence performance. I had no idea, for example, that wind speed is very tightly restricted in running races, but in, say, discus where it has potentially much more effect, it isn’t taken into consideration. This was both of interest and strongly confirmed my view that all competitive sport is totally arbitrary and meaningless.
As far as the way the book is written, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. The author clearly intends to make the subject approachable, but can’t help but fall into classic academic writing mode, often flinging out a collection of facts rather than presenting us with a narrative that makes the topic approachable.
Although some of the equations are useful, there are too many – and where they are used we also have the other typical error of the academic of using clumsy notation because it is the convention. The very first example makes this plain. We are told that speed is given by the equation V=S/t which to the general reader is baffling. It would have been much better to have said s=d/t so the letters correspond properly to the words ‘speed’, ‘distance’ and ‘time’ (and were all in the same case). I know there are reasons why in the physics big picture the particular letters in the book are used, but as popular science readers we don’t give a damn about that. Make it readable, not conventional!
Overall then, if you are interested in the physics that lies behind sport, this  short book will give you plenty of information – and if the topic interests you it is definitely worth getting hold of a copy – but I’d see it working best as an introductory primer for someone going into sports science rather than a true popular science book.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Henri PoincarĂ© – Jeremy Gray ***

My first sight of this book filled me with a certain unease. It would be polite to call it chunky – in truth, at 542 pages plus appendices, it is obese. This initial feeling was not helped by a bizarre statement the author makes in the introduction. ‘This is a scientific biography of Henri PoincarĂ©,’ he says. ‘It is confined entirely to his public life: his contributions to mathematics, to many branches of physics, technology, to philosophy and to public life. It presents him as a public figure in his intellectual and social world; it leaves the private man alone apart from a deliberately brief account of his childhood and education.’
No, no, no! This is a bizarre distortion of what a scientific biography should be. I am comfortable with keeping coverage of his childhood and education brief, as they are usually dull and not particularly illuminating. There are clear counter-examples, for example, with Newton’s formative years, which are absolutely crucial in understanding the scientist, but for many, these aspects are fairly irrelevant. But the point of a scientificbiography, as opposed to a book about a person’s science pure and simple is that it puts the science into context – and that context must include the private life. Can you imagine a biography of Richard Feynman without his private life coming into it? This is a crazy viewpoint.
Even so I persevered, as I have always had PoincarĂ© in my mind as one of those mathematicians beloved by other mathematicians but of little interest to the real world, so I wanted to find out more about the man (as much as Jeremy Gray would allow me) and his impact on science and technology. It was hard work. There’s an awful lot (some of it truly awful) about the subtleties of philosophy that gets in the way of much of the more interesting content. This is supposed to be a scientific biography, remember, not a philosophical one.
When there is a section that is more of interest (and the way the book is organized does not make it easy to find your way around), frankly it can verge on the unreadable. This is the worst kind of dry academic writing, combined with an approach to the science that is strongly mathematical in flavour and the author lacks any skill in actually explaining the science for anyone who doesn’t know the maths already.
There is always a danger in reading an academic tone and complaining that it’s not popular science because it was never intended to be. And this book is published by Princeton University Press. But I was told it was suitable for a general readership, and this is usually the case with scientific biographies. But I am afraid this is really only suitable for a very narrow audience with a purely academic interest in pure and applied mathematics and the philosophy behind it. Disappointing.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Unraveling the Universe’s Mysteries – Louis A. Del Monte **

As I have mentioned before, we are distinctly fussy about taking on self-published books, but made an exception in this case. ‘Unraveling’ combines an exploration of the currently accepted cosmology with some speculative alternative physics ideas and even a quick discussion of the existence of God.
Although I was prepared to set aside an aversion to self-publication, it does show through quite strongly in this book, and I ought in all fairness to mention the bad side of this first. Like almost all self-published books, the print layout on the page looks wrong – more like a Word document than a book. This isn’t insuperable, but mildly irritating. What’s worse is that it is very clear that the book hasn’t been professionally edited (or if it has, the author should get his money back). There are far too many errors. So, for instance, when talking about string theory, at one point it is sting theory, and at another spring theory. Professor Ronald Mallett, who is discussed at some length, quite often only had one ‘t’ in his name. And so it goes on.
Putting that aside, what we get here is a combination of a quite reasonable introduction to the big bang and string/M theory with some personal speculation from Mr Del Monte and an interesting exploration of some ‘mysteries that still baffle modern science.’ I ought to divide this into three: how well Del Monte does at explaining the basic science, how readable the book is, and what to think of Del Monte’s original theories.
Most of the basic science is good and some is reasonably well explained. The author is a lot better on cosmology than he is on quantum theory and relativity, which can be rather confusing in the way they are covered, but overall it’s a workmanlike job. What is slightly worrying is that the author doesn’t seem to understand special relativity, as he suggests that the ‘twins paradox’ is presented as only being an illusion, because the effect is symmetrical. This runs counter to even undergraduate level physics – in any special relativity textbook it is clearly explained why the twins paradox is real and not an illusion because the symmetry is broken – one twin is accelerated and the other isn’t. That’s worrying.
As for the readability, the book starts off pretty well in an approachable, quite chatty fashion, but it suffers from not having any clear structure, jumping episodically from chapter to chapter, and there is no evidence that the author has any great expertise in science communication. There’s nothing particularly new in the basic science here, and there are plenty of other books on cosmology and string/M-theory that do the job of getting them across better.
We are left with the author’s own theories. I have a problem here. I have no issue with a working scientist with academic standing presenting their own, speculative theories. However when someone without appropriate credentials does so, it is worrying. Del Monte has a masters in physics and then spent his working life as an engineer. Nothing wrong with this, but it does not make him a ‘physicist’ as he is described, and it does not give a great deal of weight to his theories. To be fair I am not saying that they are in the typical ‘Einstein was wrong, my new theory shows why’ fruit-loopery class. There is some interesting reasoning here – but I am not qualified to say if there is anything of interest, and neither, really is Del Monte.
Taking all this into account, this isn’t a bad book, but the combination of self published, poorly edited, not brilliantly written, and combining nothing that isn’t done better elsewhere on standard cosmology with some pet personal theories does not make it one I can recommend either.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 7 March 2013

The Great Mathematical Problems – Ian Stewart *****

As a science writer, whose only foray into maths has been to cover infinity – by far the sexiest and most intriguing mathematical topic – I am in awe of those who successfully popularize maths.

By comparison, science is easy. We all know from school that science can be dull, but if you go about it the right way, it is naturally fascinating, because it’s about how the universe we live in works. Admittedly maths has plenty of applications, but an awful lot of mathematics is about a universe we don’t live in. It can seem that many mathematicians spend their time doing the equivalent of arguing about the dietary habits of unicorns. Not really a proper job for a grown human being.
Probably the best of the current crop of popular maths writers is Ian Stewart. Certainly the most prolific – I don’t know how he finds the time for his day job. Stewart is decidedly variable in his books. Some of them are pure unicorn territory. I find myself turning page after page thinking ‘So what? I don’t care!’ But every now and then he gets it just right – and this is such an example.
Okay, there are occasional unicorn moments, where I had to skip through a page or two to avoid dropping off (when, for example, he gets altogether too excited about the prospect of constructing a regular 17 sided polygon using only a ruler and a pair of compasses), but they are rare indeed. Stewart takes on some of the greatest problems to face mathematicians through history – even the names are evocative, like Goldbach’s Conjecture and, of course, the Riemann Hypothesis. They sound like a Sherlock Holmes story. And Stewart makes them interesting. Which is truly wonderful.
In part the readability is because of a good smattering of stuff about the people – historical context is never more important than in popular maths – but he also pitches the mathematics itself at just the right level to keep our interest without going into mind-numbing detail, or being too summary. I am very wary of describing any book as a tour-de-force, but this one certainly comes close.
Even though Stewart does not keep things enthralling throughout – the dullest chapter is the one on Fermat’s Last Theorem, which I suspect is because Stewart focuses more on the maths here and less on the people, so excellently covered by Simon Singh – there is plenty in this book to keep the imagination alive. If you hate maths this is not going to make you a convert. But if, like me, you have a grudging admiration for maths but find a lot of it impenetrable or pointless, you should have a great time in Ian Stewart’s capable hands.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 4 March 2013

I want to write popular science – Brian Clegg

Last week I received a rather strange phone call. ‘Is that the popular science website?’ a female Scottish voice asked. I don’t get phone calls for www.popularscience.co.uk so
Don’t assume it’ll be like this
I rather hesitantly said ‘Yes.’
‘Do I need a degree to write popular science books?’ came the reply. The conversation went on this vein for about 5 minutes. Inevitably afterwards I thought of a key question I should have asked her – ‘Why do you want to write popular science books?’ But I didn’t.
My caller was a member of her local astronomical society, but had no qualifications. So what is the answer? Is enthusiasm enough? My reply had to be rather vague. It was a definite maybe. If you are going to write a book about heavy duty physics, I suspect a degree is the minimum qualification to have a reasonable chance of getting the message right. If, however, you are going to write a book about the joys of stargazing, then it certainly isn’t a prerequisite. But that doesn’t mean that it’s enough to simply want to write a popular science book to do it well.
Anyone can, of course, write such a book and self publish it, or pay an arm and a leg for a vanity publisher to do it for them. But that doesn’t mean the book will be any good, or that any one will read it. And whether you go down the self-publishing route or a more conventional one it would be sensible to apply the same criteria that a publisher would in taking a look at your proposal.
They would ask questions like:
Why you? You may not have a degree, but what makes you a good person to write this book? What is your experience? What can you bring to it? We need a little more that ‘I’m a member of my astronomical society.’
Is what you want to write about interesting to other people? You may be fascinated by a ten year study of the brightness of a single variable star, but the audience for such a book would be pretty limited. What is there going to be in your book that will get people interested?
Can you write? In many ways this is the clincher. It’s easy to think ‘Well, anyone can write. I wrote stuff at school.’ But there’s a world of difference between being able to put words on a piece of paper and being able to get a science topic across engagingly – as many a professor attempting to write a popular book has discovered. This is a particularly difficult one as, frankly, you have little idea of your own ability. Nor do your friends and relatives (unless they work in publishing and are dangerously honest). If possible you need to get an unbiassed external assessment. One way to do this is just to send your stuff off to a publisher and see what happens.*
It’s a painful process, but a necessary one.
As I mentioned, I regret I also didn’t ask that key question ‘Why?’ If you want to write a popular science book because you heard Stephen Hawking made millions from A Brief History of Time, forget it. Most popular science books probably earn their author a couple of thousand pounds for a lot of work – certainly less than minimum wage. If it’s because you want to get on TV and be the next Brian Cox, doubly so forget it. If you have your own scientific theories (probably proving Einstein wrong) that you know the world would be dying to hear – take a reality check. The world does not want to hear. I would only recommend it if the topic fascinates you and you have an urge to share that fascination – and have a certain talent in getting that excitement and fascination across. You don’t necessarily need a degree to write a popular science book, but there are some things you can’t do without.
* When it comes to the stuff to send, it is important to get it right. I’ve a little free downloadable guide on this website that describes the package that should be sent as a proposal.

The Universe Within – Neil Shubin ***

Having written a book called The Universe Inside You, which uses your body as a way of exploring wider science, I was rather intrigued to come across a book called The Universe Within, which ‘reveals the deep connections between the cosmos and the human body.’
As it happens, any worries about plagiarism were unfounded as this is a very different type of book. Neil Shubin doesn’t really say anything about our bodies, merely observes that the atoms that make them up came from outside and then spends the rest of the book considering the more recent source of those atoms, the Earth (and hence geology/palaeontology) and its impact on different living forms, and in the longer term origins when the atoms were forged in stars.
Along the way, the book lurches from topic to topic – sometimes in what feels a very random fashion, though sometimes making a neat excursion to find out more that is very enjoyable. It’s an episodic book, with some sections far less appealing than others. The bits I really disliked were the parts describing Shubin’s own fossil hunting expeditions, which seemed decidedly self-indulgent. By contrast, he can wax enjoyably lyrical when describing some aspect of the universe.
It’s not a bad book by any means, and many will enjoy it, but I found the way it repeatedly jumps back and forth chronologically with no obvious structure mildly irritating and confusing. Bits of it are superb, but we are in real curate’s egg territory.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Neils Bohr and the Quantum Atom – Helge Kragh ***

This is a bit of specialist one. If you don’t have a physics degree, don’t bother to read any further. Neils Bohr and the Quantum Atom is not intended to be popular science (if you want a more approachable book, try Abraham Pais’s Niels Bohr’s Times), but I was very interested to read it as it’s a subject that is close to my heart.
Bohr himself tends to be underrated – he tended to come across rather badly when public speaking, and some of his quasi-philosophical pronouncements on the nature of quantum physics were painfully obscure. But we must not forget the huge contribution he made to kick-starting quantum theory, starting with his key development of the quantum model of the atom.
Although the book does plunge into equations on a number of occasions it is primarily a historical narrative of the development of Bohr’s model of the atom, including a fair amount of biography, from his early thoughts at Manchester in 1912 to its full fruition and subsequent transformation by the new quantum mechanics in the 1920s. I would be lying if I said that reading it wasn’t quite hard work – but if you really want to get a feel for the detailed process of the development of one of the key foundations of twentieth century physics, the book is unparalleled. There is a lot of detail – but this is about real science, not the sanitised version.
Overall, if you are the right reader (and I was), very satisfying.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Neils Bohr’s Times – Abraham Pais ****

Fully, if clumsily titled Neils Bohr’s Times, in physics, philosophy, and polity, this is the definitive scientific biography of Bohr by fellow physicist Abraham Pais who knew and worked with him.
The good news is that this chunky title will give you an in-depth look at Bohr and his work. From his early days in Copenhagen, through his brief but fruitful stay in the UK, his return to Denmark, the rush to safety in the Second World War and his gradual move to elder statesman of quantum physics, it’s all here.
As is often the case with a biography written by another scientist, the science content is quite heavy and sometimes not the easiest to digest, but it is worth battling through, and the picture of Bohr himself that comes out of this book is second-to-none. Niels Bohr sometimes gets a rough time of it, in part because his own communication was often rather opaque, but Pais will really open your eyes to Bohr’s importance.
The book dates back to 1991 but is none the worse for that. If you really want to understand the development of quantum physics in its historical and scientific context, this should be on your reading list.
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Review by Brian Clegg