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Showing posts from 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 f…

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.

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 l…

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…

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 twent…

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…

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 ci…

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…