Sunday, 25 August 2013

What If Einstein Was Wrong – Ed. Brian Clegg ****

It’s ironic that the editor of this website, Brian Clegg, has occasionally said he can’t see the point of books with a series of short articles on a subject… only to end up editing just such a book here. I usually review children’s books and this format is very familiar to me – the two page spread, with text on one page and a large illustration on the other – but I do accept it’s more uncommon in adult non-fiction.
For me this particular example works well. If I’m honest, though, the cover made me nervous. With a combination of an ungrammatical title and a picture of E=mc2 crossed out (something that never features inside) it seems as if it may be verging on pseudo-science, but actually the topics (written by a collection of highly respectable authors, including Jim Al-Khalili on the foreword) are the bits of physics that were once or are still challenging and that take people by surprise. In other words, the interesting bits.
The book is divided into seven sections – quantum physics, relativity and time travel, particle physics, cosmology, astrophysics, classical physics and technology. (Ok, that last isn’t really physics, but it’s technology that is physics related.) Each section also has a ‘historical’ entry that was once a little risqué but is now fairly straightforward, like Galilean relativity or the (not) flat Earth. It actually all works surprisingly well. There’s enough text to get a meaty little bit of information, plus a couple of bonus factoids, and some of the illustrations are rather fun.
It’s hard to pick out favourites among the 50 or so topics, but they range from the likes of ‘What if Schrödinger lost his cat?’ to ‘What if Maxwell had a demon?’ You get the feel, I think. Overall entertaining bite-sized physics that would make a good present or just something to read here and there.
Review by Jo Reed
Please note, this title is edited 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.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

A Piece of the Sun – Daniel Clery ****

I was a little worried early on in A Piece of the Sun as, frankly the science is borderline feeble. I was quite shocked that in describing the fusion reaction in the sun, the author was very hand waving about quantum theory, not even mentioning quantum tunnelling in his explanation. Luckily, though, this isn’t a book about science, so much as about how science and technology is undertaken, and that it mostly does very well.
Nuclear fusion with its simple fuel and low level waste has always seemed such a natural energy solution I have never understood why we have been so slow at developing it – now I do. Daniel Clery beautifully describes the development of the technology and the parallel understanding of plasmas and fusion in the UK, US and Russia (for some reason, less so in the other big fusion player, Japan). By reading this you get a real feel for the difficulties and in some cases the dramatic stories of the developments and political infighting along the way.
The book also explains another mystery – why the US has put so much effort into the laser-driven inertial containment method which had never seemed a likely way to build a power station. It is, it seems, because it has been used to study the miniature fusion bombs that it uses, and has been strongly linked to military funding.
The way the story is told could have been a little better – the text can be a bit repetitive and there is perhaps a bit too much of the bureaucratic detail of how projects have been controlled and funded (in the end this is important to understanding how these mega projects work – but it makes the book less readable). It is also strange that we get the whole story in summary up front, then again in detail. It’s not the author’s fault but I was disappointed how far we still are from even having ITER working and with the conclusion of some experts that the technology is never going to be workable to reliably generate power for the grid.
Overall an essential book for anyone interested in fusion or who is involved in the politics of how we generate our electricity.
Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 2 August 2013

30-Second Elements – Ed. Eric Scerri ****

Remarkably soon after reviewing Eric Scerri’s A Tale of Seven Elements he’s back with 30-Second Elements. I need to admit up front that I have made a small contribution to thisbook – but it’s no more than 10% and only in writing a few of the articles, nothing to do with the overall volume. The way the book works is as a series of 50 articles, each on an element and each a two-page spread, with pithy text on the left and an illustration on the right. It is given a bit more weight with a longer introduction and a profile of a key figure in each of seven main sections.
If I am honest, I have been scathing about these ’30-Second’ books in the past, because I have found it hard to understand why anyone would buy one. They generally aren’t readable through like a real book, but aren’t detailed enough to be a reference. However, they have sold plenty of copies, and this particular one is something of an exception to my uncertainty because the subject of the elements lends itself to this ‘bitty’ approach – they are, after all, bitty things.
The text is broken into a series of parts – the main text, long enough to be readable, the ‘3 second state’ which gives some basic facts like the chemical symbol, the ‘3 minute reaction’ (which strangely is shorter than the main ’30 second’ piece), giving a little side bar of tangential information and the dates of a few key figures. Although I did write a few of the entries, I hadn’t read most of them and found myself surprisingly drawn into the elegant little factoids and stories, learning, for instance, that we store about 3 years’ worth of magnesium in our bodies, and that fluorine finds its way into the wet-weather clothing Gore-Tex via Teflon. Not to mention a handy discussion of the difference between silicon and silicone – useful if you want the right materials in the right place.
So while I still prefer a popular science book that is an end-to-end read, I have to admit this example of the 30 second series, with the ‘rough hewn cardboard’ feeling cover that is part of the series look and feel, has rather won me over. But then, if anyone knows his periodic table, it’s Eric Scerri.
Review by Brian Clegg