Monday, 29 December 2014

The Calendar - David Ewing Duncan ***

Update from early review which had been lost
The 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.

Review by Peter Spitz

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

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 copies.' In practice, I think the reverse will happen, because a fair number of popular science enthusiasts will be put off by the wishy-washy science-as-metaphor stuff, while the arts types will find the hard core popular science tedious.

 I'm not quite sure how in touch the academic authors are with the real world either. At one point we are told that Planck's equation E=hν is 'one of the few equations recognizable by the public.' Really? They've clearly been on campus for too long and need to get out more.

There is so much good material in the science parts that it's a real shame that the reader has to plough through pages of the hand waving to get to it. We are told at one point, with enthusiasm and no sense of criticism, about the work of Valerie Laws, who in 2002 spray painted words onto sheep, enabling the flock to spell out randomly(ish) generated phrases. Apparently a spokesperson for Northern Arts, which funded this venture, said the result was 'an exciting fusion of poetry and quantum physics.' And the artist commented 'I decided to explore randomness and some of the principles of quantum mechanics, through poetry, using the medium of sheep.' You couldn't parody this as a worse example of old-fashioned flaky linking of science and art. It's a ready-made Monty Python sketch. This had nothing to do with quantum physics.

There is plenty of great material in here if you want to expand a basic popular science understanding of quantum physics with a bit more depth, but you will have to wade through a lot of unnecessary material to get to it. Mostly the content seems spot on, though I was slightly concerned about a certain flexibility in the history of science presented when we hear, for instance, that returning from the 1911 Solvay conference 'British scientist Ernest Rutherford brought word back to England, where he shared his excitement with an entranced young Danish visitor, Niels Bohr.' Apart from Rutherford being a New Zealander, Bohr didn't meet Rutherford until the end of 1911 and I've never seen any suggestion that Rutherford was the first to bring the early quantum theory to Bohr's attention. So, approach with caution - but if you are tolerant (possibly more tolerant than me), you might enjoy it.



Audio download:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 7 December 2014

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 interested in computing this is an excellent account. I've read all the personality-based books on the early developments, that focus almost entirely on the likes of Gates and Jobs, but this achieves a much better balance between the people and the details of the technology (as long as you are techie-minded).

The only thing I really wasn't entirely happy with was the ending. Nicholson decided not to follow personal computing into the laptop/tablet/smartphone era. There's no mention, for instance, of Chrome and only passing references to iPhones and iPads. I think that's a shame, because it's still part of the same revolution, but I can understand him wanting to stick to the very specific rise of the desktop computer. Even so, the actual last few pages end very suddenly without a nice tie-up. Otherwise the whole thing is excellent, particularly surprising as this appears to be a self-published book, but it has clearly been well edited. The only thing that sets it apart is that for some reason self-published books never get the text layout on the page working quite as a well as a properly typeset book. But it's no real problem.

There is one proviso to this review, including those five stars. This is a book that could have been written for me as an audience. I started programming IBM PCs in 1984 (the year the Mac launched). I had the second PC AT in the UK, on which I lost two hard disks in 6 months, so Nicholson's comment 'it soon became apparent that there was something wrong with its 20 Mb hard disk, as users started reporting that it was prone to crashing and losing data for no apparent reason' hit me between the eyes. I was heavily involved in the introduction of Windows and my first ever paid piece of writing was a review of the launch version of Excel for Windows. This is so much a history of my early working life that I can't help but be entranced by it. If you have embraced your inner computer geek you should find it equally enjoyable, but it might not work as well for someone with less of an in-depth interest in the topic.

So - if the thought of finding out why IBM was so tardy bringing in the 80386, what happened to products like Borland Sidekick and Visi On, the real story of the demise of CP/M, whatever happened to OS/2, Microsoft's U-turn in embracing the internet and far more, click away (because surely you shop online) and buy this book.


Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 1 December 2014

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. Whether it's the way the ability to see yourself in a mirror makes you less likely to cheat, or the way that some optical illusions don't work as well with African tribespeople as they do New Yorkers, because the Africans live in a world with few straight lines so aren't fooled by fake perspective effects that the New Yorkers can't resist, there is so much here to find interesting.

While I think Alter goes too far in his conclusion in saying that after reading this book you'll be in a better place to 'maximize your health wisdom wealth and well-being' - and let's face it, that wording suggests a tongue firmly in the cheek - you will be genuinely amazed the number of times and situations when your perception and behaviour is likely to be subtly altered by influences you aren't even aware of. One remarkable suggestion is that because of a right hand bias, most of us prefer words that are typed with the right  hand on QWERTY keyboard. So apparently we particularly like words like n00b and woohoo (Alter's examples). I don't know about you, but these aren't among my favourite words - and for that matter, it's hard to see how this can influence someone who isn't a touch typist. But it's still great fun.

My one concern, and the reason that this book has four stars rather than five, is that the author never mentions the reality that much research in psychology is of relatively poor quality. In the manner of a tabloid newspaper jumping from a trial with cells in a lab to say that a substance cures cancer, Alter seems to take all the evidence as if it were fact. Sometimes the effect he describes appears subtle - perhaps a five per cent change - but he never explores statistical significance. And in at least one example, he cites an experiment as if it's meaningful without pointing out it has since been shown that the effect only occurs in the artificial environment of the lab, and isn't repeated when the experiment is undertaken in a real world situation.

There is even an example of being a little fast and loose with evidence in the book. It shows a series of three photos of the same face, but with the features modified so that they display characteristics typical of black and white faces, and something in between. Alter makes a big deal that people see the faces as darker or lighter, depending on the characteristics even though they're 'identical in tone.' He points out 'If you cover up the facial features with your hand and focus only on the foreheads you'll be able to see that the faces share an identical skin tone.' The trouble is, this is a test of a very subtle reaction, where people will pick up on tiny visual queues - and his observation is selective, a classic error in soft sciences like psychology.

While it's true that the foreheads all have the same tones, it's not true of the rest of the face. For some reason, on the 'black characteristics' face, there is a shadow across the cheeks that extends all the way to the lips. On the 'white characteristics' face, this shadow is only on the very edge of the face. As a result, around a quarter of the skin area is significantly darker on the 'black' image - plenty enough to make someone see this face as darker skinned. Being selective about your data is a cardinal sin in science and undermines the authority of the book.

Overall then, Drunk Tank Pink is great fun with lots of fascinating observations of the strange ways that people behave. This is material that has a real impact on the way we understand human behaviour and perhaps how we should react to it. But you need to apply a pinch of salt to the 'scientific' conclusions, as there is definitely an aspect of tabloid science at play.


Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 16 November 2014

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 magnetic compass or the detail at the heart of photosynthesis, there seems to be some strange quantum behaviour that would take biologists by surprise as much as the general reader. And, the authors suggest, perhaps it is the reason that life itself can exist.

There are two aspects of the book that are truly fascinating. One is the exploration of the way that photosynthesis makes use of quantum effects - in fact, could not work without it. It's absolutely mind-boggling that the excited electron that has to be passed as an energy source to the reaction centre has no way of getting there without making use the of the quantum probabilities of taking every path to find its way. And as the authors explore the incredible unlikeliness of life getting started as a result of random interactions it becomes increasingly obvious that there surely must have been some kind of quantum effect that was involved in that process. (We have no idea what it might be, so having a chapter titled How life began' is a bit optimistic.)

One thing I didn't like, which is a common failing when a media scientist writes a book, is the way that quantum physics is presented with a broadcast gloss. What I mean by this is that in a TV or radio programme, where you only have a minute or two to explain something, you often have to gloss over the detail in a way that means you will say something that isn't quite true to keep things moving. But in a book you have the space to explain things properly, and this kind of glossing is a shame. It happens early on where quantum physics is first explained. We hear for instance that quantum particles can be in two places at once (where in reality they aren't at any fixed location) and quantum spin is mentioned in a way that suggests it's literally about a particle spinning around (it's not).

There was also what seemed like a little cattiness. Several times (again, as it's on quantum physics I assume this was Al-Khalili) there are at least four little digs about the way that quantum entanglement doesn't make 'paranormal phenomena' (his inverted commas) such as telepathy possible. At one point he says 'despite the bogus claims of telepathy'. If you don't know the field, you might wonder why this obsession with telepathy, but if you do it's hard not to suspect that this is a dig at Nobel Prize winner Brian Josephson who has previously made exactly this suggestion.

However, neither of these is the reason for the 3 stars for writing, which is rather that apart from those highlights of photosynthesis and the origins of life the book gets bogged down in biochemical details that are frankly not very interesting and that fail to carry the reader. Quantum physics may be glossed, but biological details get the opposite treatment. Perhaps it's the difficulty of having a co-authored book. Perhaps it's because the authors are too close to the subject, but I found parts of it very tedious, perhaps reflective of the old Feynman observation about biologists spending far too much time learning the names for things.

Overall, then, a fascinating topic, a branch of science that is shiny and new and wonderful. But not the book it should have been.


Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 15 November 2014

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 seemed to fit well with the stark beauty of the topic. Take this one, for instance, titled Particles:

We huddle in bricks
We dance around in water
We fly in the sky

If I want to be picky, there was a spot of cheating and poems that didn't quite ring true. A good few times the poem consisted of not one but multiple haiku, which strikes me as more like a conventional poem with a set of verses than the true form. And when presented with a line like 'A lump of quarks and protons' I couldn't help think 'but protons are quarks', by which point the magic was lost. (And it's kryptonite that kills Superman, not krypton which was the name of his home planet - to be fair, the editor acknowledges this.)

One problem here is that I am not a great poetry reader - so it may be that my assessment of the quality of the work was a bit like asking someone who eats at a fast food joint every night what they think of a new Michelin starred restaurant. But I thought the quality of the writing, given the age of the contributors, was surprisingly good. You can tell from the desperation of my complaint about krypton that there's not much wrong with this lovely little collection, which would make a great gift or dip in book.


Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

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 Big Bang theories and their burgeoning rivals. (Frank pretty much has the Big Bang as dead by now.)

Sometimes the interweaving is impressive. For instance, I knew that Einstein came up with his special relativity with its very different views of simultaneity while he was working in the Swiss Patent Office in Bern. But I had assumed the work was a sinecure he got out of the way quickly before thinking his important thoughts. Frank points out that much of the patent material he was working on would be about electrical synchronisation of clocks - a concept with simultaneity at its heart - so could be directly inspirational in his thinking.

For much of the rest of the book, though, the linkage between our cultural perception of time and cosmology seemed forced, especially when Frank makes Outlook one of the crucial steps. Unlike the other mileposts, which applied to everyone, only a small percentage of the population has ever used Outlook, making it a clumsy choice. I found the style decidedly forced, particularly in the way each chapter began with a rather twee fictional dramadoc representation of a point in history (or the future). And there was a tendency to state as 'fact' descriptions of historic, and particularly prehistoric events we really don't know much about. This particularly struck me in the description of neolithic myth and ritual which is pure supposition. I think Frank should have read the superb Motel of the Mysteries, which features future archeologists treating a motel room as if it were an Egyptian tomb, assuming, for instance, that the sanitisation strip on the toilet was a ritual marker. (Oh, and I was really irritated with the way he used 'megalith' as a name for a monument like Stonehenge, where it is actually one of the stones the structure is built with, not the monument itself.)

All in all, then, a noble effort, and there was much to like, but it just didn't quite work for me.


Review by Brian Clegg

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.


The 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!”


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 judges said: “Very lucidly written, Ferreira succeeds in a explaining some very tricky concepts. A treasure trove of information.”

  • The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine’s Deepest Mystery, by George Johnson

The judges said: “A scrupulously researched, well written book that makes excellent use of case studies.”

The judges said: “An entertaining and disarming read which delves into a usually unspeakable topic with great humour and great insight.”


The judges said: “Full of lots of new messages, Carlson makes you stop and think about the practicalities of science, industry and invention.”
The judges said: “Chown is a terrific science writer. His book is a tour de force that covers an incredible range of topics.”
The judges said: “A fantastic look at the importance of randomness, full of interesting and philosophical ideas while still remaining open and accessible.”
The judges said: “Davis wins you over from the start with touch points you can relate to and engaging descriptions. Dedication and a life spent in pursuit of his subject are evident on every page.”
  • My Brief History by Stephen Hawking
The judges said: “Hawking writes incredibly poetically, conjuring evocative images in your mind. My Brief History takes you on a journey of adversities and shows you what has made Hawking one of the most respected theoretical physicists in the world today.
  • Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live by Marlene Luk
The judges said: “Paleofantasy presents an interesting thesis that feels fresh in a very accessible way. The book represents an argument against the accepted wisdom of our time.”

and here are our favourites that didn’t make the long list, but perhaps should have:

Professor Nicky Clayton FRS, Chair of the judges, said:
“Choosing just 12 books from the over 160 that were submitted for this year’s Prize was a very difficult task. There really is a plethora of good science writing out there at the moment. I think this shows how science is ever increasingly becoming part of our culture. In the end though, we did have to agree on 12 and we’re delighted with those we’ve selected. Each one takes you on an informative but perhaps more importantly, engaging, journey of the science. Some are woven with humour and passionate personal stories; others are able to illuminate incredibly complex topics. All are marvellously written and full of the wonder of science.”
The judges on this year’s judging panel are: Professor Nicola Clayton FRS (Chair), Professor of Comparative Cognition at the University of Cambridge and Scientist in Residence at Rambert (formerly Rambert Dance Company); Dr Nathalie Vriend, Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow, Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, University of Cambridge; Emma Read, Head of Factual and Features at ITN Productions; Michael Frayn, playwright and novelist, best known as the author of the farce Noises Off and the dramas Copenhagen and Democracy; Lone Frank, former neuroscientist, journalist and author of My Beautiful Genome, shortlisted for the 2012 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

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

Updated for paperback edition
Through 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 a passing reference – perhaps the title of a book glimpsed for a second, or something written on a blackboard in the background. At others the maths is central to the storyline.
In some ways, what should be a ‘best of both worlds’ crossover book that appeals to both  Simpsons fans and maths nerds (publishers love crossover books) is in danger of being the opposite kind of product (I mean product in a mathematical sense – how else?), by being a book that only appeals to maths nerds who are also fans of the Simpsons. As I almost qualify for this, I was going to enjoy reading it anyway, but what saved it from being the mathematical equivalent of trainspotting (‘Did you know that in episode #382, the number 47 is referred to ironically as a square, even though everyone knows it isn’t, fnaar, fnaar!’*) was Singh’s indubitable writing skill and ability to bring in interesting asides and deviations.
Popular maths will always have a smaller audience than popular science for good reason, but if you have only the smallest interest in maths and some enjoyment of either the Simpsons or Futurama you should find this an excellent entertainment, and certainly a revelation when it comes to the lengths that the writers will go to get some little mathematical reference in.
* This isn’t a real example, but the sort of thing I mean

Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 25 October 2014

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, journalists totally misleading the public about what a scientific paper says and much more. You can enjoy, for instance, him laying into individuals and companies that make outrageous claims, but also highlighting heavy handed litigation to suppress criticism, newspaper headlines like 'Suicides Linked to Mobile Phone Masts' (guess what - they weren't) and even a piece on the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch railway. I particularly liked the article 'The Caveat in Paragraph 19' which pointed out something I'd been aware of for a long time without really quantifying, which was the way bad newspaper science often makes outrageous claims up front, then has someone qualified far into the article - well after many stop reading - saying 'but actually there is no evidence for this.'

I Think You'll Find works well as a dip-in book, but I happily read it end to end. What says it all about the quality of this book is that when I got to page 403 and discovered that the remaining pages were notes and index I was really disappointed. I wanted more, and I rarely like long books. That's not a bad sign. Recommended for all the journalists, politicians, purveyors of woo and scientists in your life - but, frankly, for everyone else too. Lovely stuff.



Audio download:  
Review by Brian Clegg