Friday, 14 June 2013

Extra Sensory – Brian Clegg ****

As a subject, extra sensory perception, ESP, psi or whatever you want to call it hovers on the frivolous edges of science. And yet there certainly is something for science to investigate, whether it is an actual physical phenomena or the oddities of the human mind that make it susceptible to believing in such possibilities.
The editor of this site, Brian Clegg, has decided to take the scalpel of science to areas of the paranormal where an attempt has been made to make a controlled and scientific assessment, limiting himself to those areas that could have a scientific explanation, as opposed to those that rely on the supernatural. So we are talking about the likes of telepathy, telekinesis, clairvoyance and remote viewing.
I had always got the impression that the first to take a really scientific approach was Rhine in the 1930s – in reality it seems that athough these early investigators employed the trappings of science, a lot of the tools, particularly the controls and the maths were applied rather carelessly. What’s more this seems a common theme in much of the subsequent scientific exploration of mental powers.
All the way through, Clegg makes the book very approachable, using an introductory story to get into each chapter, looking at possible scientific explanations and exploring the attempts of academia to get to grips with everything from Uri Geller to bizarre experiments straight out of a David Cronenberg movie with half-ping pong balls taped over the subjects’ eyes. He opens up all the means of deception, whether accidental from misunderstanding statistics to explaining the tricks used by magicians and mentalists to give the appearance of having psi abilities.
The only reason I don’t give the book more stars is that there really isn’t a huge amount of science in it – which is hardly Clegg’s fault, it is just the nature of the subject. Inevitably his attempts to provide possible scientific explanations for the likes of telepathy are a little speculative, but overall this is a refreshing attempt that unusually for this subject treads the tightrope of proper scientific enquiry. It is neither the total denial of the ultra-skeptic who will not even consider any evidence (Clegg quotes Richard Dawkins saying ‘I am not interested in evidence’) and the feeble acceptance of any old rubbish made by those who never question whatever they are told by psychics. Good stuff.
Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Peter Spitz
Please note, this title is written by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion – and we could hardly omit the book – but do want to make the connection clear.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

The Spark of Life – Frances Ashcroft ****

I think most of us are aware that the human body uses both chemical and electrical signalling to control its inner functions, but until I read this book I had certainly never realised that extent to which a rather strange electrical process (strange because it involves the flow not of electrons as in ‘normal’ electricity, but of ions) is handled by ion channels.
After a preface that is a little confusing as she uses terms that aren’t really explained until later, biologist Frances Ashcroft, who spends her days working with ion channels, gives us a brief introduction to electricity. This physics part is by far the weakest bit of the book. For example she doesn’t differentiate between a flow of electrons and the electromagnetic signal in a wire – and some of the history is a little out of date (she says, for instance, that Franklin did the ‘kite in a thunderstorm’ experiment, which is thought unlikely now). But this is only an introductory phase before we get into the meat of the book, which is quite fascinating.
Ashcroft explains how ion channels can open and close to allow a flow of ions through, and how electrical energy is involved in making these essential cell components function. This is absolutely fascinating from the first mention of sodium pumps (I was hoping to come across the medication type proton pump inhibitors, which like many thousands of people I take, but if they were mentioned I missed it). It is remarkable how this essential part of cell function wasn’t properly understood until around 50 years ago.
For the rest of the book we are taken on a tour of the body and the way that ion channels have a powerful influence on everything from poisoning to the functioning of memory. It is quite mind-boggling just how much these tiny channels do for us – always dependent on that electrical motive power.
For me – and it is fair to say that my biology tolerance is pretty low – the book did get a little repetitious in some ways, if only because of the central role of ion channels throughout. I suspect, though, for many, the connection with the functioning of the human body will keep that interest going – and Ashcroft has a light, approachable tone and makes sufficient ventures into the wider picture to keep the reader on-board. Overall a subject that clearly needed writing about, carefully and entertainingly revealed.
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Symmetry and the Beautiful Universe – Leon Lederman & Christopher Hill ****

Although it won’t appeal to everyone, as I will explain in a moment, I think it’s fair to say this is one of most valuable popular science books I have ever read. Symmetry is at the heart of much modern physics, but it is generally concealed under the surface, and when it has to emerge, for example when talking about the standard model of particle physics, every book I have ever read on the subject fails to explain the subject properly. This book doesn’t quite make it, but it is by far the closest I have ever seen to a comprehensible explanation.
Nobel laureate Leon Lederman (the man behind the dreaded ‘God particle’ term) and his usual co-author Christopher Hill pack a huge amount of information into this slim paperback. We begin with an exploration of symmetry itself, bring in the laws of physics, meet Emmy Noether in some detail and specifically her concept that each of the conservation laws corresponds to an underlying symmetry. From there Lederman and Hill bring in classical physics, and particularly inertia, relativity, broken symmetry, quantum physics, local gauge invariance and QED, quarks and QCD, the standard model and the Higgs field. It is a huge achievement just how much of this they get in, and how approachable most of it is with a bit of work.
As that suggests, there is a price to pay for the reader. If you are totally equation averse, you will have problems because there are a lot of them. They are always relatively simple and well explained, but the pages are littered with them (which presents a different problem, as we will discover in a moment). This is a book you will have to work a little bit to read, perhaps occasionally re-reading a section to get the full meaning, but it will be so well worth it.
I just have two issues with the book. Although Lederman and Hill almost make the application of symmetry and gauge theories comprehensible there is one huge gap, where the authors say ‘let’s change something to randomly to have any value as we move through time and space.’ They build the whole explanation of gauge theory on this (this is the first book, by the way, I’ve seen that properly explains where that word ‘gauge’ comes in) – yet as presented it makes no sense. They give no reason why we are asked to choose random values, rather than sticking with a smoothly changing value, or making some other arbitrary decision. Because of this there’s a feeling that your understanding is built on sand. There is also a certain weakness in their historical content – they reproduce the myth that Bruno was burned for his scientific beliefs unquestioningly, for instance.
The other issue is the quality of the physical book itself. I am very careful with books when I read them – paperbacks usually still look brand new with no creases etc. But by the time I had reached the end, half the pages had come away from the spine. I can live with that, but worse still, the book seemed not to have been proof read. Any book has a few typos or small errors that slip through. You can’t spot everything. But page after page there were equations where a character (often the multiply sign, or the Greek letter phi) was replaced with a question mark. It made them much harder to read, the last thing you need with equations in a popular science book. I can’t understand how the publisher or the authors could fail to spot such a glaring error at the proof stage.
Nonetheless an important and hugely informative book on a subject that is at the heart of modern physics but has rarely been comprehensibly explained. Recommended.
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

New Stars for Old – Marc Read ***

I have said many times that there must be a way to combine fiction and popular science – to get a message across and provide a great story to enjoy as well. But it is a horriblydifficult thing to do, as the many failures fallen by the wayside have shown. In New Stars for Old, Marc Read takes the most original approach to this I have ever seen, and it holds out real promise to deliver on the dream.
In his introduction, Read points out that science is done by people, and as such we can’t really separate the achievements of science from the lives and times of the people making the discoveries. This is true, though his suggestion that the people are usually ignored applies more to textbooks than popular science – many popular science books spend a fair amount of time on the scientists and their lives. Read takes this one stage further, though, by giving us a series of fictional vignettes of the lives of people who have carried astronomy a step forward. Their scientific achievements come into it, but only incidentally. Each piece of fiction is then followed by a page of notes, which explain what is real and what is fiction, sometimes adding a tiny bit about the science.
There is a danger in taking this approach of producing a hilarious parody of a cartoon life. You could imagine a physics equivalent where we have a dialogue something like this:
‘Good morning, Michael. What are you doing today?’
‘Well, Mrs Faraday, or wife as I should call you, today I thought I would invent electromagnetism. Unless it’s sunny, in which case I shall take a stroll in the park. Or as us northerners would say, despite years living in the south, “a stroll in’t park”.’
Thankfully, the real thing is nothing like this. Read’s vignettes are well described, giving an effective picture of the time, and the science is introduced in as natural a way as is possible, though even here it can occasionally be a little stilted.
In terms of the idea and the broad direction, this is a five star book. But I do have some issues. The indirect nature of the science storytelling means that it isn’t always really very clear what it’s about. I know what Aristotle’s version of astronomy was like – but I struggled to see it in the occasional mentions amongst the rather lovey dovey description of the big man’s home life. It really needed more time on the science. Also, the downside of a series of vignettes is that the whole thing does not flow at all. It is, as they say in the fiction world, episodic in the extreme.
For me, the selection of scenes was too biassed to the early period. There are just too many medievals making minor steps forward. I wrote a book about Roger Bacon, so I am interested in the period, but still found the procession of King Roger II, Thomas Aquinas, Richard Swineshead, Nicolas Oresme, Cardinal Bessarion, Regiomontanus became more than a little dull. Newton is the final person covered, when arguably most of the really interesting astronomy was only just beginning. (Perhaps the rest are being saved for a sequel.)
Despite the fiction not really keeping my interest, particularly with the medievals (I had to resist flicking forward and just reading the notes), I still think this is a very brave and worthwhile venture. I think the format could well deliver that gold at the end of the rainbow that is popular-science-as-fiction – but more work is required to get the balance right.
Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

The Cosmic Tourist – Brian May, Patrick Moore, Chris Lintott ***

If I am honest, this book combines two of my least favourite approaches to writing a popular science book – celebrity authors and list books that have (in this case) 100 short entries around a particular theme. But in part because of the rather clever format (and also because, as scientific celebrity authors go, the late Sir Patrick Moore had a lot going for him), this particular example bucks the trend and works rather well.
The conceit is simple – our three voyagers, a rock musician (who admittedly has a doctorate in astrophysics, though this doesn’t necessarily make him a good science writer), a TV astronomer and an academic voyage through the universe, visiting the 100 must-see sights.
Just over half the topics are in the solar system, with the rest given over to the usual stunning Hubble images and the like. In reality, the ‘tourist’ model wears a little thin sometimes, and it does just become a collection of 100 interesting astronomical articles – so, for instance, the last entry is on the cosmic microwave background, not exactly something our intrepid explorers can visit on the spaceship pictured on the book’s cover. But some of the other entries, particularly those based in the solar system, really do give the sense of a visit guide, and so get the extra novelty of the format.
It is without doubt a good, well illustrated guide. There are better end-to-end reading books to get a real introduction to astronomy or the universe (including some of Patrick Moore’s own), but the novelty of the approach could bring in some additional readers, which is great, and I think this would make an ideal gift for a teenager who is showing the first signs of an interest in astronomy, or for an older reader who enjoys a little armchair exploring, but has tired of earthbound destinations. A bit of fun.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Einstein on the Road – Josef Eisinger ***

There is a huge industry of books that have Einstein as their subject, more so than any other scientist. And not just biographies. There is even a book that consists entirely of quotes from the Sainted Albert. So it is no entirely surprising that someone has found a new way to slice and dice the Einstein legend – by retelling the great man’s travel diaries.
In a relatively slim 165 pages (once one has extracted the notes and index), Josef Eisinger takes us with Einstein on his visits abroad from the exotic far East to the less bewitching Pasadena. And it is faintly interesting. Einstein, for instance, really struggled with Japanese music, because for him harmony was so important in the construction of music. And pined for his violin when he didn’t get a chance to play it (but not for the fjords).
There is a lot more of the social niceties here than any scientific insights. It is distinctly surprising just how much Einstein was feted as a superstar as he travelled the world. And how often he had to sit through boring speeches and formal occasions. He seems to have often been treated more like royalty than a working scientist. But it is hard to get particularly excited about what we read.
There isn’t enough detail here for a research writing a biography of Einstein – he or she would want to go to the original travel diaries. But there isn’t enough of interest or of science to capture a more general audience. For all that it opens up a (very mundane) slice of the mystery that is Einstein, this is a book that will be appreciated by a narrow audience.
Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Peter Spitz

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The Paranormal Equation – James Stein ***

I  really wish I had my hands on a copy of mathematician’s James Stein’s book Paranormal Equation when I wrote my own Extra Sensory, as there is some fascinating material here taking a whole new slant on the supernatural that I have never seen before. It wouldn’t be too much to say that Stein has developed a whole new theoretical approach for dealing with supernatural phenomena (with a proviso), based on his mathematical background – and that is quite a feat.
Having said it would be useful, the two books are actually addressing almost unconnected areas of thought – ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ as Stephen Jay Gould might have put it. I deal with aspects of the paranormal that could have a natural explanation – I don’t cover the supernatural at all – where Stein is focussed on events that don’t have a possible natural explanation.
After giving us a fair amount of information as to how most paranormal events can’t happen, Stein provides a loophole with a fascinating conjecture that I’ve never seen before. Since the mid twentieth century, mathematicians have been aware that there are some propositions in the mathematical system we use that can never be proved. We think some of them are true, but it has been proved that they can’t be proved. This is a bit like a mathematical version of the logical knots that arise from dealing with the statement ‘This statement is false.’
The great Alan Turing came up with a similar concept to Gödel’s incompleteness theorem for computing – but Stein goes further. He considers the possibility that in an infinite universe (something that may well be the case), there could be a similar concept in physics. There could be phenomena that it is impossible for physics to explain. Ever. And these arguably would be supernatural by definition. This doesn’t mean, of course, that this makes telepathy, say, possible – and Stein doesn’t say this. But it is a truly fascinating bit of thinking on his part.
There are two reasons that this important book doesn’t have more stars. One is that much of it is more about the philosophy of science than science itself, and some of the content is as airy and difficult to pin down as a paranormal event. The other is that it isn’t the easiest of books to read, although it is well worth the effort. (And one or two of the facts quoted outside the main thrust of the book are a little iffy. Stein comments ‘It is certainly true that humans generally use about 10 percent of the brain.’ This is a myth so well established it has its own Wikipedia page.)
However this is without doubt the most original and fascinating book I have read about supernatural phenomena in many years and a highly recommended work for anyone who wants to take an open-minded scientific view of the paranormal.
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Stuff Matters – Mark Miodownik ****

In my head there is a spectrum of interestingness for science that
runs from geology to the really weird bits of physics. I have never yet found a popular science writer, however good, who can make geology truly interesting, while something like quantum physics is so fascinating (and strange) that it takes little effort to make it fascinating (though it’s hard to make it comprehensible). Materials science – what I call ‘how stuff works’ when talking to junior school children generally sits near to geology on that spectrum. But Mark Miodownik has managed the near-impossible and made it a deeply enjoyable read.
I thought things were going to be a bit dire when he starts with the story of how he was attacked as a teen with a razor blade on the London Underground and developed a fascination with the nature of metal, an opinion that wasn’t helped by the rather self-indulgent approach of basing the book around a photograph of the author sitting on his roof terrace. But very soon the superb storytelling took over and we were into the fascinating world of Bessemer and the making of steel. In fact so well are the stories told throughout the book that the author’s photograph of himself becomes an old friend and interesting as a focus. It really works.
The book has ten sections, covering metals, paper, concrete, chocolate, foam (particularly aerogel), plastic, glass, graphite, porcelain and rather bizarrely ‘implant’ covering both bones and artificial items in the body like screws. These are all delightful excursions into the subjects with plenty of diversions along the way.
Two of the sections, paper and plastic, are weaker than the other because Miodownik decided to try a different format for the chapter. Paper has very little content (which is perhaps why he used this approach), consisting primarily of two page spreads describing different types of paper which gets a little repetitive. Plastic is done in the form of a film script (to reflect the importance of plastic film to moving pictures), but this seemed rather strained. Miodownik is also loose with the facts in stating that ‘the biggest diamond yet discovered… is an entire planet five times the Earth.’ That’s not science. All we know is that a star’s variation suggests a companion that has the right sort of density to possibly be mostly diamond. However these blips don’t damage the book’s integrity.
Overall a delightful book on a subject that is relatively rarely written about – you could say the cinderella of the sciences. You will discover facts you didn’t know, how basic but important elements of our lives like cement or chocolate work at the structural level – and along the way will enjoy some excellent storytelling. Recommended.
Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Denying Science – John Grant ****

This is a cracking book, a really excellent exposé of the extent to which science is under threat from multiple directions. John Grant dissects the anti-science efforts of religious extremists, big companies, legislators and more in a whole range of fields from evolution to climate change.
The book comes in a long tradition of attempts to support rational thinking in a sea of hogwash. I think, for instance, of Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things and Carl Sagan’s classic The Demon Haunted World. But Grant’s book benefits from being up-to-date and particularly politically aware, emphasising those that actively deny science, rather than concentrating solely on the scientific nonsense of many silly beliefs.
The book takes in complementary medicine, the anti-vaccine brigade (including AIDS/HIV deniers), self help books (yes, really), and has lots on evolution and climate change. Although it can sometimes be a little heavy going in the sheer volume of examples that Grant uses (he might have concentrated on fewer to better effect), it is surprisingly lightly and entertainingly written and really brings home the sheer bonkers nature of some of the opposition to science, and the serious political issues involved, often, though not entirely from religious groups and the US right.
In a way this kind of book is always going to be preaching to the converted. I suspect it will not make a single anti-vaxxer or climate change denier change their views. In fact they won’t read it. Instead it will be read by those who feel that science is under threat – and they are certainly right to be concerned. If you have any feeling for the importance of science to human civilization, then this is an important book to have on your shelves. There is nothing better than knowing what the opposition is likely to throw at you to be better able to defend what is important. But be prepared to throw your hands in the air in horror at the stupidity of a worryingly large proportion of humanity.
Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg