Thursday, 23 May 2013

It’s Not Rocket Science – Ben Miller *****

Ben Miller is probably best known for playing a detective in the gentle, rather underrated comedy drama Death in Paradise, and as half of the comedy duo Armstrong and Miller, but he studied physics at Cambridge and was en route to a doctorate when he realized that getting a real job was much more useful. (I would like to apply a large kick to Brian Cox for writing the most condescending puff for the book I’ve ever seen: ‘A fun and insightful ride through the whole of science – it’s almost as if he’d finished his PhD.’)
I don’t know why it is, but people always get a little excited when an entertainer has a science qualification. (Think Brian May or Dara O’Briain for instance.) No doubt many others have, say, English or history degrees, but for some reason this doesn’t cause the same amazement. Perhaps the assumption is that all entertainers are a bit, well, thick. But either way we really have to take the book on its merits. And they are considerable.
Miller conducts a rambling tour of some of the best bits (in the terms of being mind boggling) of science. He takes us into the world of particle physics and the Large Hadron Collider, into the depths of the universe and black holes, looks at how the solar system formed, at the wonders of evolution and geology, DNA, the chemistry of cookery, global warming, and how space travel requires Newton’s laws of motion. All this is done in a good humoured light-hearted fashion. Particularly engaging are the sections where he describes how he got into science, his experiences at Cambridge and taking on Gordon Ramsay in making a sponge cake.
I’d say the ideal audience for this book is someone who has never read a popular science book and wants a primer. It is probably too simplistic for any regular science reader, but for the newcomer, Miller’s enthusiasm (much more Magnus Pyke than Brian Cox) is infectious. Just occasionally it gets a bit too childish and hand wavy, but mostly it works well. Admittedly even Miller can’t make geology exciting. And there is one out-and-out error, when he describes Einstein’s 1905 papers as general rather than special relativity, but these are small issues. He hits most of the good bits on the nail (except quantum theory, which is hardly covered at all) and carries the reader along effortlessly.
Not a book for everyone, then, but for teenagers or adults taking a first step into the world of popular science, this is a cracker.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 19 May 2013

The Serpent’s Promise – Steve Jones ***

There are broadly two ways to write a popular science book. One is, like my book Gravity, to pick a specific aspect of science and really dig into it. The other is to use a theme that allows you to explore a whole range of different scientific topics. I confess I’ve done this as well with the likes ofInflight Science and The Universe Inside You and the approach can be very effective. But there has to be a reason for choosing the framework – and I find Steve Jones’ hook in this particular book – the Bible – a little odd.
The bumf for the book says ‘The Bible was the first scientific textbook of all; and it got some things right (and plenty more wrong).’ I’m really not sure about that premise – I don’t think anyone sensibly would regard the Bible as a scientific textbook. The whole reason, for instance, that Genesis gets away with having two scientifically incompatible versions of the creation story is that it isn’t intended to be a literal, scientific explanation, but rather a contextual, spiritual description. (Which is why those who take the Bible as literal truth have an uphill struggle.) This is a bit like thinking that people thought the Earth was flat in the Middle Ages, because the likes of the Mappa Mundi look like a flat Earth – again, this was a symbolic representation, never intended as a projection of the real world.
In his introduction, Jones takes a slightly dubious path, saying he isn’t attacking religious belief per se, and then setting out to do just that. I’ve nothing against scientists attacking religious beliefs, there is plenty of reason to do so – but they shouldn’t try to weasel out of what they are doing. However, in the book proper he moves away from this (until the last chapter) and gets down to some more interesting stuff.
Rather strangely, and perhaps reflecting Jones’ background in biology, he starts not with the creation, but with humans and the endless lists of descent that are found in the Bible, using this to explore the real genetic, DNA-based possibilities, including the ‘real’ Adam and Eve, separated unfortunately by about 100,000 years, so not exactly on the best of terms. These lists in the Bible are rather dull, and unfortunately the endless seeming discussions of different lines of descent in Jones’ modern-day telling also gets a little tedious.
We then jump back to the creation and some fairly straightforward big bang description – adequate, though rather skimpy compared with the depth he went to on inheritance and DNA. It’s a shame, given Jones makes a big thing of one of the distinctions between religion and science is that religion has a ‘what’s in the book is true’ stance, where science goes on data and method that he doesn’t point out that the big bang is not ‘truth’ but the best accepted current theory, but we’ve all slipped into that kind of easy science writing – it gets a bit boring to keep pointing out the limitations of our knowledge, but it would probably have been worth doing it at the start, just to emphasize this is real science, not the unquestionable word of the science oracle.
Although there is a touch of physics there, even that single chapter soon jumps to a much longer discourse on where life came from. For me there was far too much biology here, fine for a single topic book, but over-emphasised for a book based on such a broad concept. In writing terms, it’s a mixed book. Some of the content has Jones’ trademark storytelling but a lot of it is plonking facts with little flow. Some parts read well, others (often where there’s a lot of mention of DNA) get a touch boring.
In the final chapter Jones comes back to religion itself and does a fair demolishing job, though there is one glaring non-sequitur. He is commenting on wars driven by religion and concludes with a sort of rosy picture of a peaceful harmonious world without religious divides. Yet one of his principle lines seems to run counter to this. He comments ‘For civil wars, like those between nations, there was a striking fit between how long they lasted and how ethnically (and often religiously) divided the nation had become.’ He concludes that Pascal was right to ascribe evil to a religious conviction. Yet look what he has done. Take away the religion and the ethnicity is still there. Is there any reason to suppose that wouldn’t still be an issue, especially bearing in mind that ‘and often’? That’s not science, Dr Jones.
Overall, then, this is the classic curates egg of a book, not really doing what it sets out to do and rambling (I like a good diversion, but this jumps all over) too much for good storytelling, but with some undoubted good bits. It’s not a bad book, but not great either.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Lee Smolin – Four Way Interview

Lee Smolin is one of our foremost theoretical physicists and a rare thinker, as deeply involved in the philosophy of science as in its theoretical detail and cultural resonance. He is able both to confront and propose solutions for a way out of what he sees is a current impasse in theoretical thinking and to continue to posit radical new theories about the fabric of the universe. He has made important contributions to the search for quantum gravity. Since 2001 he has been a founding faculty member at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Toronto. His books include Life of the Cosmos (1997), Three Roads to Quantum Gravity (2001) and The Trouble with Physics (2001). Lee’s latest book is Time Reborn – From the Crisis of Physics to the Future of the Universe.
Why science?
Let me answer with the lyrics to a song Science is Real by the rock band They Might be Giants
I like the stories
About angels, unicorns and elves
Now I like those stories
As much as anybody else
But when I’m seeking knowledge
Either simple or abstract
The facts are with science
The facts are with science
A scientific theory
Isn’t just a hunch or guess
It’s more like a question
That’s been put through a lot of tests
And when a theory emerges
Consistent with the facts
The proof is with science
The truth is with science
–They Might be Giants
Why this book? (Time Reborn)
Three reasons:
1) To present an argument based on science for the reality of the present moment and for the necessity that everything-even the laws of nature-evolve in time.
2) To explain why the opposite belief-that time is an illusion-has so powerfully influenced the thinking of scientists and philosophers and to explain why it is an illusion.
3) To explore its implications for science and for us as human beings.
What’s next?
To develop and test new hypotheses for cosmology based on the idea that time is real and laws evolve.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
The possibility of explaining why everyday phenomena are irreversible in time while the laws of physics are reversible, without having to refer to unlikely hypotheses like the improbability of the early conditions of our universe.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Scatter, Adapt, and Remember – Annalee Newitz ****

I’m not a natural audience for books about surviving disasters (even though I wrote theGlobal Warming Survival Kit). I can’t stand disaster movies, because I can’t take the pragmatic ‘Oh well, some survive,’ viewpoint as I watch millions perish. So I thought that I would find this book, with its subtitle How Humans will survive a mass extinctionsomewhat unappetising – but I was wrong.
The Earth has gone through a number of mass extinctions, where a fair percentage of living species have been killed off. The most famous is the one that mostly took out the dinosaurs around 65 million years ago, but there have been others and, Annalee Newitz points out, if we want to see the long term survival of the human race, we need to be able to make it through one, should it turn up, whether caused by climate change, pandemics, a supervolcano or an asteroid.
What Newitz does surprisingly well here is weave together what are really around four different books, all in one compact volume. We start of with palaeontology, looking back over previous mass extinctions, getting a better understanding of what happened, what survived and how it survived. From here we segue into human pre-history and history, drawing lessons from the plight of the Neanderthal and the impact of plague and other pandemics. After this, in a transitional section we see the examples of the three techniques in the book’s title – scattering in the Jewish disaspora, adaptation in cyanobacteria (and how we could use it) and remembering on the part of the gray whale, before taking another transition into a more science-fiction driven view.
Newitz starts by pointing out the potential lessons to be learned from the SF writing of Octavia Butler who is apparently ‘one of the 20th century’s greatest science fiction writers’, which I was a bit surprised by as I read a lot of science fiction and I’ve never heard of her. The segue here is into the shakiest part of the book where it dabbles in futurology. This broadly divides into relatively short term survival approaches and longer term diaspora into space.
One of the reasons this is the weakest part of the book is that Newitz offers us castle-in-the-air solutions with no obvious way (and certainly no hint) of how to get there from where we are now. So she says we will need underground cities if we need to survive some kinds of impact, while we would be helped by building green cities that merge biology and construction… but it’s not clear how we would ever get started on such major, long term projects. She doesn’t address the reality that humans are very bad at taking the long view.
I was, though, pleasantly surprised by this book, particularly the first half. This is genuinely interesting and thought provoking, up to and including the Octavia Butler section. And though it goes a little downhill after that, it never fails to be readable and interesting – just a little far fetched. So congratulations to Newitz on taking the rare long view – and in having optimism for our ability to survive what the universe can throw at us.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 12 May 2013

TimeOne – Colin Gillespie **(*)

I have always said that there is a real opportunity if anyone can write fiction that manages to entertain but also to educate about science at the same time. It is certainly possible, but fiercely difficult to do well. As we saw with something like Pythagoras’ Revenge, the result almost inevitably is either bad fiction with a slew of science or readable fiction where the science really doesn’t come across well. So I was excited when I saw the publicity for Colin Gillespie’s TimeOne, intriguingly subtitled ‘discover how the universe began.’
The idea of this work of fiction with a strong science content is to explore the nature of the big bang using the unusual concept of having a detective examine the ‘clues’ to see if they can work out how it all began. I’ve given it an extra bracketed star for ingenuity and effort, but I have to say that the outcome did not give me any joy.
There is plenty of reasonable science in here (along with an awful lot of philosophy and waffle), but the problem is that as a story it is nothing short of awful. There are three main characters, the employer, a mysterious woman who keeps popping into the office then flying off to mysterious destinations, the narrator, who is employed as a researcher to dig up the facts and history of the science, and an ex-cop detective who seems mostly there as a foil for the researcher. Three hours into reading all that had happened was that the employer came and went, the researcher VERY gradually dug out bits of information about relativity, quantum theory and the like, and the detective slobbed about. There was no story, no suspense, no real characters, no development, no plot.
Add to this an incredibly slow laying out of the facts, with a huge slab of philosophising and I really could not keep reading. It was extremely hard work with no real reward. I did try skipping forward to see how it would all turn out, but I couldn’t find any deviation from this formula (nor any great revelation about the big bang).
As I said at the start, I admire the intent and the work that has gone into this – I just don’t think that anyone is going to learn much science, or have any enjoyment from it as fiction.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 6 May 2013

The Golden Ticket: P, NP, and the Search for the Impossible – Lance Fortnow ***

There is good and bad news early on in this book about the P versus NP problem that haunts computing. The good news is that on the description I expected this to be a dull, heavy going book, and it’s not at all. Lance Fortnow makes what could be a fairly impenetrable and technical maths/computing issue light and accessible.
The bad news is that frustratingly he doesn’t actually tell you what P and NP mean for a long time, just gives rather sideways definitions of the problem along the lines of ‘P refers to the problems we can solve quickly using computers. NP refers to the problems to which we would like to find the best solution’, and also that he makes a couple of major errors early on, which make it difficult to be one hundred percent confident about the rest of the book.
The errors come in a section where he imagines a future where P=NP has been proved. This would mean you could write an algorithm to very efficiently match things and select from data. Fortnow suggests that our lives would be transformed. This is slightly cringe-making as fictional future histories often are, but the real problem is that he tells us that the algorithm would make it possible to do two things that I think just aren’t true.
First he says that from DNA you would be able to identify what a person looks like and their personality. Unfortunately, these are both strongly influenced by epigenetic/environmental issues. Anyone who knows adult identical twins (with the same basic DNA) will know that they can look quite different and certainly have very different personalities. And they will usually have been brought up in the same environment. Fortnow is forgetting one of the oldest essentials of computing – it doesn’t matter how good your algorithm is, GIGO – garbage in; garbage out.
The other, arguably worse error is that he says that it will be possible to have accurate weather forecasts going forward X days. This is so horribly wrong. He should have read my book Dice World. The reason you can’t predict the weather at all beyond about 10 days is nothing to do with the quality of the model/algorithm, it is because the system is chaotic. Firstly we just don’t know, and never can know, the initial conditions to enough decimal places not to deviate from the real world. When Lorenz first discovered chaos it was because he entered the starting values in his model to 4 decimal places rather than the 6 to which the model actually worked. It soon deviated from the previous run. We can’t measure things accurately enough. The other problem is that the weather system is so complex – hence the slightly misleading title of Lorenz’s famous paper Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas? – that we can’t possible take into account enough inputs to ever have so good a model as to go forwards that far. Sorry, Lance, it ain’t going to happen.
For the rest, the first half or so of the book goes along pretty well, gradually opening up the nature of P and NP, the problems that are of interest and the ‘hardest’ NP complete problems. I found the main example, used throughout, a hypothetical world called Frenemy where everyone is either a friend or enemy of everyone else confusing and not particularly useful, but Fortnow gets plenty of good stuff in. After that it’s as if he rather runs out of material and it gets a bit repetitious or has rather tangential chapters.
Overall, despite the flaws, a much better and more readable book than I thought it was going to be – but probably best for maths/computing buffs rather than the general popular science audience.
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Review by Brian Clegg