Friday, 26 July 2013

John Gribbin – Four Way Interview

John Gribbin is one of Britain’s foremost science writers. John gained a PhD from the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge (then under the leadership of Fred Hoyle) before working as a science journalist for Nature and later New Scientist. He is the author of a number of bestselling popular science books, including In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat, In Search of the Multiverse, Science: A History and The Universe: A Biography. He is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Sussex and in 2000 was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. His most recent book is Computing with Quantum Cats.
Why science?
From my earliest memories I have been interested in how things (things at large) work, and where it all comes from. I was specifically turned on to science by reading the Sf magazine Astounding (as it then was) from about the age of 8 or 9. Each issue included a “Science Fact” article. This led me to non-fiction by Asimov and Clarke. The rest is history.
Why this book?
Long-standing interest in quantum physics, merged with interest in the quantum group at Sussex University, leaders in the ion trap technology. Turing’s 100th birthday was the specific trigger.
What’s next?
Keeping it under my hat as not yet signed contracts.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
Quantum computing! This is not so obvious as it might seem, since usually by the time a book comes out I have moved on. But the field is developing faster than I can write about it. I’m also intrigued by hints of asymmetry in the cosmic background radiation, but this is very speculative as yet.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

A Tale of 7 Elements – Eric Scerri ***

Eric Scerri, author of this book, is the wizard of the periodic table. He knows more about the chemistry student’s bane, and about elements and their history, than pretty well anyone else, full stop. His book The Periodic Table is the ultimate history of the development of this distinctive layout of the elements showing their relationships. But the blessing of his expertise and knowledge can also be a bit of a curse.
The trouble is, because he does know so much, Scerri does sometimes give us a bit too much detail. In this book, after a couple of chapters introduction to the origins of the periodic table (the least readable part of the book, which he hints you may wish to skip over) he tells us about the discovery of seven ‘missing’ elements, added late to their places in the table: protactinium, hafnium, rhenium, technetium, francium, astatine and promethium.
What is great about these discoveries is that they aren’t straight forward. Far from it. In fact in many cases there were stumbles along the way, with incorrect claims to have found a missing element, or downright disputes over who got there first. This is a very useful insight into the real nature of scientific discovery – not the cut and dried, steady progress of a school history of science book, but the messy and sometimes downright acrimonious progress of real people making discoveries and desperate to get there first.
There is, obviously, a huge opportunity for storytelling here, but the downside of the approach taken for the non-specialist popular science reader is that, although the personalities are there, we get rather too much of the dry science and step by step analysis of their work, and rather too little of the people and how they interacted. That’s a shame. It doesn’t by any means invalidate the book, but it does mean that it is far more suitable for history of science students and chemists who want to really get into the origins of some of their elements than it is for the general reader who wants to get a better picture of how science really works, along with some interesting history.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 19 July 2013

101 Things I Learned in Engineering School – John Kuprenas & Matthew Frederick ***

This is a classic example of one of those books that you are much more likely to buy for someone as a present than to know exactly what to do with when you get it. It consists of 101 small two page spreads with an illustration on one page and a short burst of text on the other. These are words of wisdom for engineers, or for ordinary folk who want to learn the engineering equivalent of the force.
Some of the entries are a little hokey, and sound more like a line from a self-help manual, (‘The heart of engineering isn’t calculation; it’s problem solving.’) but many are genuinely useful little engineering tips or thoughts that may have a broader application. Some give a little historical background, others showing, for instance, why roundabouts are better than conventional four-way intersections (because civil engineering is engineering too – in fact, according to another entry, the granddaddy of them all). You’ll find out why aircraft parts aren’t designed for perfect reliability (gulp) and how to stop a crack. What’s not to love?
The hesitation in that first paragraph really comes from the fact that I am an old fashioned, sit down and read a book end to end kind of person. Books like this work better as dip-in titles. Perhaps to keep in the smallest room in the house. A niche market, admittedly, but in this case a beautifully engineered one.
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In case any engineers, and especially civil engineers, get a bit full of themselves after reading this book (or even this review) I leave you with this genuine excerpt from Yellow Pages. 
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 18 July 2013

To a Distant Day – Chris Gainor ***

It’s entertaining, in a way, that the expression ‘It’s not rocket science’ has such a hold because if there’s one bit of technology that’s not rocket science, it’s, er, rocket science. I am not saying that it is easy to get successful rockets into space – the many failures, crashes and burns of the early space programme attest to this, and space flight remains a risky activity. But the science itself is pretty straightforward – far more Isaac Newton than Einstein.

This is an effective and straightforward history of the development of rocket flight in the US, Russia and Germany. With some background on the history of rockets, we find out plenty about key characters like Goddard, Tsiolovsky, Oberth and von Braun. All the successes and failures along the way are carefully spelled out. There is enough about the people to avoid this being a purely technological saga – all in all, it does the job well.

This book is not really in competition with an in-depth study of the key US versus USSR period, typified by Deborah Cadbury’s Space Race. In fact it stops once manned space flight has begun. But it fills in considerably more detail about those early faltering steps than other books and is well worth adding to a spaceflight library.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 15 July 2013

Computing with Quantum Cats – John Gribbin ****

A new John Gribbin book is always a delight, and he is at his best when exploring the bizarre possibilities of quantum theory. If you aren’t familiar with his previous books on the subject, the title here might be worrying as it suggests some fiendish bio-electronic device where collections of unwilling cats are wired into a computer, but in fact it’s a follow on from earlier titles In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat and Schrödinger’s Kittens, where the relevance of the cats to the topic has become increasingly strained.
What we have here is an introduction to the wonderful world of quantum computers. Usefully, Gribbin leads us in through conventional computing, with workmanlike short biographies of Turing and von Neumann to help make the route to understanding what is going on in devices we use every day, but of which we have little comprehension, much clearer. It’s good to have a computing history that fully takes into account the British contribution, often sidelined by US work, in part because of the way Churchill unfortunately insisted that most of the UK wartime work be destroyed.
The second section of the book takes us into quantum theory, using Richard Feynman and John Bell as the key biographies, while the third concentrates on quantum computing, leading on the perhaps rather less obviously central character of David Deutsch and taking us through some of the many mechanisms for building a quantum computer that are currently being worked on.
Overall this works very well, and we get a powerful insight into the capabilities of this remarkable technology and the huge challenges that are faced in making it work reliably. To get any idea of how quantum computers work it is necessary to give a good background in quantum theory itself, and this is something that Gribbin can do with one hand tied behind his back. It is indicative of the strange nature of quantum theory that when writing on the subject, I take a very different line on some aspects – notably the many worlds interpretation – and yet both views are currently unassailable. You might even say superposed.
If I have any criticism it is that some areas are brushed over just a little too lightly – this isn’t the book to really get a total low-down on quantum physics as it isn’t its central topic. This means that there are a few places were Gribbin effectively says ‘this happens, but you don’t need to understand it.’ The only specific topic I do think could have been handled better is the very important concept of decoherence, which (unless I missed it) is introduced without ever explaining what it means. Certainly in the first reference to it in the index it is used as if it is obvious what it’s about. Yet in reality it is a subtle concept that is hugely important to the quantum computing business. I really wish there had been a few pages putting this straight.
Overall, without doubt the best book I’ve read to provide the general reader with an introduction to quantum computers, and given their potential importance in the future, that has to make it a brilliant addition to any popular science enthusiast’s shelf.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 8 July 2013

Sciencia – Ed. John Martineau ***

This compact but chunky 400 page book packs in six different titles covering an eclectic if not entirely logical combination of topics (with authors whose names seem almost made up). We have Burkard Polster on mathematical proofs, Matthew Watkins packing in useful mathematical and physical formulae (sounds a laugh a minute), Matt Tweed on both the periodic table and the cosmos, Gerard Cheshire on evolution and Moff Betts on the human body.
Each of the mini-books inside consists of a series of two pages spreads, which given the relatively small size of the book and the fact that the right hand page is all illustration, means that there is relatively little space for text. This is an adult equivalent of the Basher books, but thankfully without the irritating tendency to allow the topics to address the reader in the first person.
I think it is fair to say the approach works better for some topics than others. Of the two maths sections, the first on proofs is a lot more readable than the second on formulae, which ends up classically dry and unapproachable. The highlights for me were Matt Tweed’s two entries, which were both approachable and enjoyable. Of the two, I think because the topic was better suited to the format, my favourite was the periodic table. That leaves the two biology based mini-books, which were fine but a little worthy, particularly the one on evolution.
Overall, then, not a bad little book, but as always with these highly illustrated two-page spread tomes I wonder what it is for. It would be very dull to read through from cover to cover – it has to be for dipping in. As a loo book, perhaps? It would probably be best seen as a gift for someone who has a slight interest in science, but doesn’t know much yet (otherwise the science sections might be a bit simplistic).
The book is nicely made, though the old-fashioned looking illustrations left me cold. I really don’t understand the quotes on the back like ‘Mesmerising’ from the Guardian (unless the original review said ‘The pattern on the cover is mesmerising’). It is a passable book indeed, but any tendency to be put in a trance would come from the repetitive format not the wondrous content.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Mark Miodownik – Four Way Interview

Mark is an engineer and materials scientist. He is the Professor of Materials and Society at UCL where he teaches and runs a research group. His research areas include self-assembling materials, self-healing materials, psychophysical properties of materials. Mark is the Director of the Institute of Making which is a multidisciplinary research club for those interested in the made world: from makers of molecules to makers of buildings, synthetic skin to spacecraft, soup to clothes, furniture to cities. Mark is a broadcaster and writer on science and engineering issues, and believes passionately that to engineer is human. He gave the 2010 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, and is a regular presenter of science and engineering BBC TV programmes. Mark’s first book is Stuff Matters.
Why science?
I got stabbed, and became obsessed. Not with science, but first with knives and then the stuff they were made from. I noticed materials everywhere and went a bit mad, they call it OCD these days. Everything is made from something I realised, but noone talked about those somethings…and well, I wanted to know what they were. Materials Science which is the systematic study of how physics, chemistry, biology and engineering create stuff, caught my attention, and thats what I do.
Why this book?
Materials Science is not the whole story about stuff. It took me twenty years to really understand that, and so thats why I wrote the book, to show that materials are more than technology, they are a kind of reflection of who we are as a society. The ages of civilisation are named after materials: the stone age, the bronze age, the iron age, and so it is now, only its a lot more complicated. Unpicking where all this stuff came from and what it means is the point of my book.
What’s next?
Along with a very talented team at UCL we have created an institute that is a physical embodiment of the philosophy of the book. Its called the Institute of Making. We aim to show that making is not just technologically important, but also is an important part of being human.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
The maker movement is really getting going, Fab labs, Hack Spaces, MakeSpaces are all coming to a neighbourhood near you soon!