Sunday, 29 September 2013

The Drugs Don’t Work – Sally C. Davies ****

This is a Penguin Special, a deliberately slim book that gets across a single point with devastating effect. Sally Davies (I really can’t call her ‘Professor Dame’ like the cover does - it makes her sound like a character from a pantomime) ought to know what she’s talking about when it comes to antibiotics, as she is the Chief Medical Officer for England.
We start with a stark little story of life in the 2040s when all the antibiotics have failed and even what appears to be a harmless throat infection could result in isolation and death. Davies then takes us swiftly through the history of antibiotics and the various nasties we have to face up against.
In case it’s not obvious by now, the theme is that our over-use of antibiotics is resulting in growing resistance building up in more and more diseases. At the same time, there really isn’t a lot of work going into the next generation of drugs, as it isn’t a hugely profitable thing for pharma companies to do.
Left with only the current facts we are presented with a dire situation, particularly for the next generations. However, Davies does come up with a range of possibilities for making things better, from the simplest aspects like washing our hands more effectively through to means to encourage production of the next generation of antibiotics. The trouble is, these positive bits seem to me to be primarily filled with the optimism of the scientific professional, rather than a reflection of the political reality. Specifically, I think unless we see Bill Gates and his equivalents pouring vast amounts into the research we won’t get very far until things start going horribly wrong. For instance, the use of antibiotics in animal rearing should be clamped down on at draconian levels worldwide, but politicians have fudged it again and again.
But whether or not you take solace from the practical suggestions, and the rosier picture of the future the book finishes with, there is no doubt that this is a highly important message that, for a start, every MP and GP should be reading. And wash your hands. Right now.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

The ultimate physics music video

We aren’t in the habit of putting quirky music videos on this site, but this description of string theory and quantum gravity to the strains of Bohemian Rhapsody is so well done – it must have taken weeks – and so brilliant – we felt it was worth including.
It’s entirely possible that string theory won’t survive the attempts to develop a theory of quantum gravity, but even if it doesn’t, it will be worth its existence for this video alone.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

How we feel – Giovanni Frazzetto ****

The format in this book is that we look at one emotion (anger, anxiety, love and others) per chapter, and for each one author Giovanni Frazzetto relates a (sometimes quite personal) story from his own life where he experienced the emotion. He then goes on to tell us how much me know about what’s going on inside our brains when we experience each emotion, and why each emotion has evolved.
The limits to our understanding of emotions are nurmerous. Sometimes the problem is that any study of emotions carried out in a lab will inevitably lack realism; sometimes our understanding of a particular emotion is based only on aggregate data collected from a large number of brain scans, never the same as any one individual’s experience; sometimes we’re unable to determine how much genetics accounts for the existence and expression of emotions, as against social factors or an individual’s personal history.
I enjoyed the book a great deal, mostly due to the fact that I finished feeling that I had learned a lot effortlessly – what’s great is that the science Giovanni Frazzetto discusses is in amongst engaging stories from his own life, and his expressive style of writing is very enjoyable to read.
What I also liked was the regular emphasis on the fact that, when it comes to understanding emotions and ourselves, we shouldn’t look to science as self help, and we shouldn’t expect science to be able to change how we feel. Reflection, poetry, and trial and error as we go through life dealing with emotions are much better here, the author says. Reading the book, it always felt like the author was speaking of the science in its proper place. For this, and the other reasons given above, I’d certainly recommend this title.
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Review by Matt Chorley

Autopilot – Andrew Smart ***

This handy little book explains the importance of regularly taking time to do nothing in particular, to put work and study to one side, switch off, and allow our brains to function on autopilot. By doing this, author Andrew Smart explains, we’ll be smarter, more creative, and improve our mental health.
Before reading this book, I wasn’t aware just how crucial this downtime was for our brains. What we learn is that brain activity actually increases during periods of rest, and whereas in the past it was widely believed that brain activity during rest was just random ‘noise’, modern neuroscience has shown us just how purposeful it is. When we switch off, the brain’s ‘Resting State Network’ (RSN) comes into action, and our brains begin the process of organising information and making connections between disparate pieces of knowledge. RSN activity improves our memory, and the connections it creates make us more creative.
Whilst the science is interesting and explained well, my only problem with the book was when it moves on to discuss the negative impact of modern workplaces on the brain and the need for us to drastically change economic life. The argument is that ever-increasing ‘busyness’ at work and in our daily lives, and endless productivity fads, are preventing our brains from getting the rest we need and bad for us as human beings – the book argues we need to dramatically slow down. Whilst I actually don’t disagree with much of what the author says, I just found that these sections became overly polemical, and the tone a little too depressing (the last chapter of the book is entitled ‘Work is destroying the planet’). Personally, I would have preferred more of the science, with less time spent on the political arguments.
Overall, though, this remains well worth a read as an insight into how surprisingly active our brains are whilst we rest and how important the RSN is. Regardless of any wider changes to the workplace and society, it provides a useful reminder that, individually, we should always make time for doing very little.
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Review by Matt Chorley

Sunday, 15 September 2013

The Nostalgia Factory – Douwe Draaisma ****

I love this job… going from reviewing the less-than-subtle Poo What Is that Smell to what must be one of the most subtle popular science books I’ve ever read. The Nostalgia Factory takes on the nature of memory, particularly the memory of those who are in their 60s and older – a subject that will affect most of us, one way or another.
Part way through I was going to award this book five stars, and part of the reason for this is the beautifully written translation by Liz Waters. It really was a delight to read. Douwe Draaisma takes us smoothly into the way memories change with time, how memories from youth start to surface more and become more important, and the fragile connection between memory and reality. Two parts particularly stick out to my mind (as far as my ageing memory goes) – a powerful assessment of brain training and the whole ‘use it or lose it’ thing, and some fascinating observations on the differences between the way that we see the world in our late teens/early twenties and the way we remember seeing things at that age when we are 30 to 40 years older.
The reason I’ve not gone for the whole five stars is that the book is very slow. It makes some points over and over again – it is almost as if the whole thing was a magazine article that has been extended to make a (slim) book. There simply isn’t enough in it. I also found the chapter consisting of an interview with Oliver Sacks excruciating. While Sacks is clearly a hero for Draaisma, pretty well all written interviews are boring, and this was no exception. The only thing I got out of it was seriously downgrading Sacks in my opinion because he is apparently so dependent on his psychoanalyst that he has to have sessions over the phone when not at home. That Sacks believes in this pseudo-science is worrying to say the least.
Despite the limitations, though, this is an eloquent and elegant little book with some genuinely interesting (and perhaps worrying for someone in their late 50s) observations about the way memory changes as we get older.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 9 September 2013

Inventing Reality – Bruce Gregory *****

I am decidedly in awe of this book. It is simply the best, straightforward description of physics I have ever read.
I do have to get one proviso in straight away. This isn’t a typical popular science book. Although it is accessible and hasn’t got formulae, it is a rather cold, clinical, dry assessment with little of the storytelling and use of biographical detail that makes popular science more approachable. It is, arguably, a very readable textbook, rather than a popular science book. But if you are prepared to put in the effort to read it, it builds the structure of classical and then modern physics layer by layer in a way that makes it all beautifully clear.
But that’s not the most remarkable thing – because in a way explaining physics is only a sideline of the book. Its main theme is the way that science, and physics in particularly, is a construct, a way of predicting what happens that is quite detached from whatever reality may be. It shows why, for instance, Feynman’s instance that everything quantum was particles, and the more prevalent idea among modern physicists that everything is fields is not a disagreement but simply two descriptions both of which work to match what is observed and neither of which is any more than a model of reality. The subtitle is ‘physics as language’ for a reason.
So don’t expect fun stories, and do expect to work quite hard to take in a combination of practically everything important aspect of physics and some quite heavy duty philosophy all in a single slim tome. But it is so worth the effort. You will both understand the nature of physics better and see science in a whole new light. It is quite possibly the best book about science I have ever read.
This is not a new book – it came out in 1988 and depressingly it is out of print, though you can get copies from Amazon Marketplace (if you don’t mind a used copy, very cheaply).  But apart from technological references (for instance it thinks the collider that might find the Higgs is the never-built American SSC, not the LHC) there is nothing whatsoever that has dated here.
There is something of a tendency to bring back out of print books as ebooks as it’s cheap to do – please Wiley, do it for this one. The world needs it.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

What a Wonderful World – Marcus Chown ****

Marcus Chown has always been one of my favourite physics-based science writers, and after the rather shaky Tweeting the Universe it is good to see him back on form with What a Wonderful World. However, this isn’t just a physics book, it’s a brave attempt to take on the whole of science – or rather the bits of science, life and the universe that interest Chown. And on the whole it succeeds wonderfully. I found it was like eating chocolate digestives – when I finished one of the relatively short chapters I just wanted to start another every time.
The organization of these chapters can seem a little random, but along the way they are clumped into sections labelled ‘How we work’, ‘Putting matter to work’, ‘Earth works’, ‘Deep workings’ and ‘The cosmic connection.’ Some of these are obvious, if you accept ‘deep workings’ as primarily being the essentials of physics… except electromagnetism is in the ‘Putting matter’ work section, which is the strangest ragbag of them all, also including civilisation, computers, money and capitalism. (That last chapter is the least satisfactory of the whole book, more about Chown’s political leanings than science.)
Of course this approach means there are big gaps in what is covered – it is very much a personal journey for Chown – but it doesn’t stop it being a delight to read with many enjoyable little snippets of information and a true sense that we are exploring the underbelly of the workings of the world. I think the best parallel is something like a David Attenborough TV series – Attenborough can’t hope to cover all there is to say, for instance, about the oceans in a series, but instead he picks out areas that are particularly interesting or just those with a personal relevance for him, and that is what Chown has done here. On the whole it makes an inspiring read.
I do have to disagree with one sentiment, which reflects, perhaps, the only real consistent flaw in the book. Chown comments ‘Captain James T. Kirk of the starship Enterprise called space “the final frontier”. But he was mistaken. It is not space that is the final frontier. It is the human brain: the ultimate piece of “matter with curiosity”.’ Leaving aside the fact that Kirk is a fictional character and so couldn’t be mistaken about the script, what Chown is doing here is confusing metaphor with reality. Space is the final frontier, the final physical location we have to explore and set up home. In the metaphorical sense of ‘frontiers of science’ then, yes, the brain has a lot for us to find out (although in all fairness, an astrophysicist like Chown ought to know we are likely to succeed in understanding that long before we have physically explored all of space) – but it isn’t a true frontier.
This might seem a trivial point but it reflects a wider concern with a tendency to gloss over things, to make expansive sweeping comments without really explaining the science. Sometimes this is fine, sometimes it misses the important bits, and occasionally it makes it harder to understand the science beneath the illustrative words. So, for example, in talking about an oxygen atom which has a wave function with two strong peaks 20 metres apart, Chown tells us this corresponds ‘to an oxygen atom that is simultaneously 10 metres to your left and 10 metres to your right – in other words, in two places at once.’ Well, no, it doesn’t. It just means there equal quite high probabilities of it being in each location. The wave function is a probability wave and before a measurement is taken the atom isn’t anywhere specific – certainly not in two places at once.
However, I think to make this more than a quibble about a book that takes in so much of science is unfair. It would difficult indeed to deal with such a broad canvas without being summary in many places. And without doubt this is one of the best ‘everything you need to get you interested in science’ books I’ve come across. It may not rival Richard Dawkins’ superb explanation of evolution in The Magic of Reality – Chown misses Dawkins’ key eye-opening observation that every organism is the same species as its parents – but he knocks Dawkins into a cocked hat on physics and cosmology. It’s an ideal first popular science book for an adult, a tempting smorgasbord of all the possibilities reading popular science can offer.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 2 September 2013

Introducing Infinity – Brian Clegg & Oliver Pugh ****

I have to be honest, I absolutely loved Brian Clegg’s A Brief History of Infinity, which was one of the first books I reviewed for this site nearly ten years ago (can’t believe it’s so long!), so I was a little wary about this book – especially as it is illustrated. I’m no fan of the illustrated form, which so often seems a way of filling pages cheaply.
To be fair to Oliver Pugh, he does an excellent job, and the illustrations in this format are so integral to the look and feel that no one could accuse them of being padding. They add richness to the content that helps the reader absorb the content: I’m going to look out for more in this series.
As for the text itself, it is rather simplified when compared with the full length book. It isn’t possible to get the same level of entertaining detail, nor to really explain some of the more obscure aspects of the study of infinity. However, in all fairness, the Introducing book does a very good job of opening the reader’s eyes to the wonders of infinity. Where it works best is where the illustrations integrate with the text produce a seamless whole – for example in the exploration of the basics of set theory, which benefits much from this approach. I did raise an eyebrow, though, at the apparently straight-faced acceptance of the alleged Chinese set of ‘things that look like a fly when seen from a distance’ which I have always thought was a joke by Jorge Luis Borges.
If you want to dip into infinity and get an introduction to what it’s all about, you can’t beat this book. It does exactly what it says on the cover. For a more in-depth exploration, go for A Brief History of Infinity.
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Review by Peter Spitz
Please note, this title is co-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.