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Showing posts from July, 2014

The Perfect Theory – Pedro G. Ferreira ****

Despite the quote from Marcus du Sautoy on the front referring to this
book by astrophysics professor Pedro Ferreira as a ‘guide to the outer reaches of the universe’, this is far more a book about what goes on in human brains – and specifically the development and partial solutions of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which turned our understanding of the nature of gravitation upside down. For me it’s a three bears porridge book. We start off with a section that’s just right, then get a bit that’s far too long and end with a bit that’s far too short. (Okay, I know, the porridge was about temperature, not length, but this wasn’t supposed to be taken literally.) That ‘just right’ opening section gives us Einstein’s work and specifically the development of his masterpiece, the ‘perfect theory’, the general theory of relativity. This takes a totally opposite approach to, say, Cox and Forshaw’s The Quantum UniverseWhere that book does not shy away from presenting difficult detai…

The Solar Revolution – Steven McKevitt and Tony Ryan ****

This is updated edition of Project Sunshine and the review is from that edition. The authors of this important book recognize that energy is the fundamental limiter for human existence and coupled with getting food production right, producing enough clean energy is the most essential step required to keep the world as we know it going. It’s a slightly meandering book, taking in population growth, cosmology, world history, fossil fuels, renewables and more. The conclusions are powerful and inevitable. Forget the hydrogen infrastructure beloved of Arnie and Top Gear – it’s expensive and impractical. Yes to wind and all those other good things, but for at least 30 years we need a major increase in nuclear (with particular investment in fusion) combined with a rapidly increasing dependence on solar. This needs to be assembled alongside with effective ways of storing energy, which are more likely to be chemical (e.g. producing methanol from air-based carbon, then burning it) than as batter…

Particle Physics: a very short introduction – Frank Close ****

Frank Close packs in a lot of information in this “very short” introduction (notice there’s no promise about difficulty!). That is at once this book’s biggest strength and its potential challenge. The reader who picks it up expecting a breezy, bird’s-eye-view of particle physics is in for a surprise. But if you stick with it, your efforts will be amply rewarded. In ten concise, albeit dense, chapters, Close covers everything from the basic scale of fundamental particles and forces and the three families of matter to quantum chromodynamics, the origins of mass, and even more esoteric subjects like dark matter. The first four chapters are a particular delight. One of Close’s strengths is his ability to make extremely large or small quantities relatable by using apt analogies and by carefully explaining the units physicists use, such as electron volts. His writing is consistently accessible, unassuming and fun in a wry sort of way, but you never get the sense that he is dumbing down the…

Paleofantasy – Marlene Zuk ***

We all enjoy seeing smug people who tell us how to live being taken down a peg, and in Paleofantasy, subtitled ‘what evolution really tells us about sex, diet and how we live’, Marlene Zuk lays into those who promote a ‘paleo diet’ or ‘caveman lifestyle.’ As the book entertainingly makes clear, these concepts are based on a total misunderstanding. The idea behind the paleofantasy, particularly popular, it seems, among the New York chatterati, is that we ought to try to live more like our Palaeolithic forebears, because this was the lifestyle and diet we evolved for, where now we live in a very ‘unnatural’ environment. Zuk tears this idea to shreds, showing how evolution doesn’t evolve ‘for’ anything, how we weren’t particularly well matched to our Palaeolithic environment anyway, how we’ve evolved since and how the ideas of what, for instance, people of that period ate are wrong both because, for instance, they did seem to eat grains, and also because they weren’t a single population…

Tesla, inventor of the electrical age – W. Bernard Carlson ****

I’ve reviewed two biographies of the engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla: Man out of Time (which is good on Tesla’s odd behaviour but struggles with the science) and Wizard (which is a more rounded book, but is totally lost in the science, telling us that Telsa was close to splitting the electron). This is definitely the best of the three. Certainly it is far better on the aspects of Tesla’s work that are worthwhile – his engineering genius in working on AC motors and polyphase AC, giving comprehensive details of his designs and work. There is also plenty on his long obsession with transmitting information and electrical energy remotely, culminating in the remarkable Wardenclyffe development with its iconic discharge tower, which ruined him financially and proved his downfall when he was unable to deliver on his promises to be able to span the Atlantic in six months to financier J. P. Morgan. By contrast, though, some of his more wild schemes and his social oddities are only discussed …

Serving the Reich – Philip Ball ****

Subtitled ‘the struggle for the soul of physics’, Philip Ball’s book takes us deep into the conflicted (and conflicting) stories of how German physicists responded to the growing power of the Nazis, their attitude to Jews, and their responses to the strictures of the Second World War.
In principle Ball does this by examining the lives and work of three physicists – the old guard Max Planck, a Dutch immigrant Peter Debye, and the seemingly amoral Werner Heisenberg – but in practice we see the impact of the regime and culture on many other physicists from intense supporters of the Nazis to those who did their best to oppose the regime. Over the years these German scientists have been portrayed as everything from enthusiastic supporters of the Third Reich to secret saboteurs who did all they could to slow down the German development of nuclear weapons. Ball resolutely refuses to paint them either black or white, instead giving us every possible detail of shades of grey. This is, without …

Superintelligence – Nick Bostrom ***

There has been a spate of outbursts from physicists who should know better, including Stephen Hawking, saying ‘philosophy is dead – all we need now is physics’ or words to that effect. I challenge any of them to read this book and still say that philosophy is pointless. It’s worth pointing out immediately that this isn’t really a popular science book. I’d say the first handful of chapters are for everyone, but after that, the bulk of the book would probably be best for undergraduate philosophy students or AI students, reading more like a textbook than anything else, particularly in its dogged detail – but if you are interested in philosophy and/or artificial intelligence, don’t let that put you off. What Nick Bostrom does is to look at the implications of developing artificial intelligence that goes beyond human abilities in the general sense. (Of course, we already have a sort of AI that goes beyond our abilities in the narrow sense of, say, arithmetic, or playing chess.) In the firs…