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Showing posts from 2014

The Calendar - David Ewing Duncan ***

Update from early review which had been lostThe 5,000 year struggle to align the clock with reality - and what happened to the missing ten days. Struggle is the word. It wasn't until 1949 that China joined the rest of the world on the Gregorian calendar - and the rest of us still suffered many hundreds of years on calendars that were hopelessly adrift with respect reality.

There is a good opportunity for a mix of exploring historical characters and the very arbitrary formation of the 'human' side of the calendar - why is February the short month? Why is the tenth month called the eighth? - alongside the gradual astronomical developments that would pin the calendar the motion of the earth.

Like many of the very tightly focused popular science books, this can be a little samey in places, but it is a fascinating story and rewards the reader throughout with delightful insights. What it lacks in narrative flow, it makes up with information that is well worth the effort.


The Quantum Moment - Robert P. Crease and Alfred Scharff Goldhaber ***

This is a book that is trying to be two very different things at the same time, which I suppose, given the subject, is apt. But that doesn't necessarily make it a good idea. On the one hand we find a really quite in-depth exploration of the development of quantum theory. There are some genuinely valuable insights and explanations, with significantly more use of equations than is common in popular science book, but rarely in a way that is scary. On the other hand, it churns out all the hackneyed attempts to base art on science that inevitably are either amateurish or cringemaking - plus presenting some of the more outrageous history of science ideas that emerged from the 1960s when everything had to break the mould and be provocative, however far fetched their ideas seemed.

I can imagine this was done to try to broaden the audience of the book. I can just see the marketing people thinking 'Popular science readers will love it, and so will arty types, so we'll sell lots more …

When Computing Got Personal - Matt Nicholson *****

It's easy to underestimate just how much personal computing (including access to the internet) has done for us. Yet so many jobs have been transformed - mine as writer certainly has - as has everything from the sheer access to information to the ability to play immersive games in the personal sphere. Matt Nicholson, a long time IT journalist, takes us on the fascinating journey of the development of the desktop personal computer, from the earliest kit computers, through Sinclair Spectrums and BBC Bs to the IBM PC (with its many descendants) and the Apple Mac.

Nicholson tells the story at just the right level, bringing in all the key players and technologies and giving a real in-depth feel to his discussion of the technology, business and politics of the many decisions that left us with the personal computing landscape we have today. From the rise of Microsoft to Apple teetering on the knife-edge of disappearance before it found its way with a new generation of machines, if you are …

Drunk Tank Pink - Adam Alter ****

Going on the subtitle, which I had to because the title meant nothing to me, I was concerned this would seem to be yet another of the long string of books we've had looking at particular emotions and how the brain produces them. Instead it is far more fascinating because it's observational rather than theoretical. About, for instance, the way that bright pink decor seems to calm people (hence the title - this effect seems not to have reached the UK where I suspect prison governors might resist painting their cells pink), or the way that names influence our perception of people.

This is a genuinely fascinating book, exploring the many psychological experiments that demonstrate how human behaviour is influenced by factors beyond our control and often beyond our awareness. Adam Alter includes more obvious inputs, like Maslow's hierarchy of need, or the tendency to prefer those who are like ourselves, but also many factors that influence us in subtle and unexpected ways. Whethe…

Life on the Edge - Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden ****

You might think that this book has received four stars, but if you know anything about quantum theory you will be aware that a quantum object can be in a superposition of states. And this quantum book is in a superposed state of 5 stars for the subject - which is fascinating and important - and 3 stars for the writing - which is disappointingly poor, given Jim Al-Khalili's expertise and experience.

It might seem that the whole concept of 'quantum biology' is a truism that hardly needs exploring. When every chemical reaction or electrical activity in a living organism is based on the interaction of quantum particles, why would there be a need for a separate discipline? But the (still relatively few) workers in the field like quantum physicist Jim Al-Khalili and biologist Johnjoe McFadden are looking at special cases. Where quantum effects, like entanglement, have a direct impact on large scale systems. Whether it's the robin's ability to steer using a molecular magne…

Sciku: the wonder of science in haiku - Students of Camden School for Girls ****

I was a little uncertain about what this book would be like. Probably the closest thing I'd come across before was Marcus Chown and Govert Schilling's Tweeting the Universe, which came across as one of those projects that works better as an idea than it does in practice. But, in fact, this collection of haiku on science subjects by the students of Camden School for Girls proved surprisingly enjoyable and thought provoking.

There were distinct differences between different subjects - and there was a huge range of styles and content. Being low on appreciation of high culture I particularly enjoyed the humorous haiku, but it was interesting that the physics and cosmology topics seemed to work better than the biology. This may be a poetic reflection of Rutherford's old taunt to biologists that 'all science is either physics or stamp collecting' - all too often the biology topics were primarily establishing labels, where in the physics poems the sharp limits of the form …

About Time - Adam Frank ***

This is a curious book that tries to be great - and it almost succeeds. Adam Frank makes a determined effort to interweave two apparently unconnected strands of science and technology history - the personal appreciation of time in human culture and our cosmology. Along the way he brings in a whole host of little details - whether or not you feel that the main aim of the book is successful, there is plenty to enjoy in here.

To begin with, that blend of two disparate strands works very well. We start with time that is linked to the heavens and so is inevitably tied up with cosmology. Later on we get the monastic measures of time, the first clocks, the spread of mechanical time, electrical synchronisation and the railways, modern time keeping, the Outlook program from Microsoft Office and our modern hyper-connected, always aware world, and alongside it the move from mythical cosmologies through Greek and Copernican versions of the solar system, our expanding view of the universe, various …

Royal Society Winton Prize 2014

The books listed for the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize, arguably a summary of the best popular science books published in 2013. Winner
Stuff Matters: The Strange Stories of the Marvellous Materials that Shape Our Man-made World by Mark MiodownikThe judges said: “A contemporary, sideways look at everyday stuff. Miodownik writes with a passionate ability to explain each subject. It’s packed full of excellent stories and is the only science book out there where the author gets stabbed on the London Underground!” ShortlistServing the Reich: the struggle for the soul of physics under Hitler by Philip Ball The judges said: “An incredibly interesting look at the politics of science and the decisions all scientists have to make.”

Seven Elements That Have Changed The World: Iron, Carbon, Gold, Silver, Uranium, Titanium, Silicon by John Browne
The judges said: “An inspired look at seven very special elements which are essential to the modern world. It’s a captivating read.”

The Perfect Theory by Ped…

The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets – Simon Singh ****

Updated for paperback editionThrough the years we have had a whole slew of books dedicated to discovering the science or maths used in a fiction book, movie or TV show – think, for instance of The Physics of Star Trek or The Science of Middle Earth. And at first sight, Simon Singh’s new book (which he tells me has been brewing in his mind for a good few years) is more of the same, but in fact it takes rather a different approach. Where the other books look for the science etc. inherent in the world created in the storyline, Singh’s new title picks out the mathematics explicitly incorporated by the writers into the Simpsons (and in its companion show, Futurama, to which the final few chapters are dedicated). I confess I haven’t much time for Futurama, but despite having always enjoyed the Simpsons, I hadn’t spotted the unusually high level of mathematical content, the result of several of the writers having maths, science or computer science backgrounds. Sometimes it manifests in just …

I Think You'll Find It's a Bit More Complicated Than That - Ben Goldacre *****

I was somewhat unnerved when Ben Goldacre's latest arrived in the post. I generally love his work, but this is a positive doorstep of a book at 474 pages, so I recoiled a little - but I shouldn't have worried, because as always it's readable, entertaining and enlightening. I got through the whole thing in two days, admittedly helped by spending six hours reading it on two train journeys, which, as a result, flew by.

What we have a selection of Goldacre's writing on bad science and the like since around 2003 (though it's not particularly chronological, more ordered by topic). A lot of the entries are taken from his Guardian Bad Science column, so if you are a fan of that, some will seem familiar. However there was plenty enough for me that I had not seen before - and even revisiting old favourites brought a smile, rather than a feeling of 'not again.'

Topics include all the usual Goldacre targets: quacks and pseudo-science, badly reported experiments, journali…