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Showing posts from February, 2014

The Accidental Species – Henry Gee *****

* UPDATED * to include paperback This is one the best popular science books of the year, so I feel a touch of regret that it has been published by an academic press. Don’t get me wrong, Chicago University Press has done an excellent job with it – the book is a thing of beauty – but there are two ways this can get in the way of a wide readership. One is that people might be put off because academic books tend to be stuffy and dull. This one isn’t. And secondly because of pricing. Initially it was a hardback selling at £18 with no discount, for what is quite a slim book. (The Kindle version is a lot cheaper.) Thankfully it's now significantly cheaper in paperback because I want lots of people to read it. In fact I’d go so far as to say that a copy should be given to every 16-year-old. Not because it’s aimed at younger readers, but because this is the best book I’ve ever read for putting evolution into perspective, and for giving a real understanding of the nature of the fossil recor…

A Brief History of Infinity – Brian Clegg *****

* UPDATED * To include audio download Clegg has an amiable, easy style; he chats us through complex ideas rather than lecturing to us. Like other good science populists (Isaac Asimov springs immediately to mind), he explores his subject through narrative and anecdote: hanging discussions of infinity onto their historical development puts flesh onto what might easily be dry bones in other writers' hands, and so we have a tour of fascinating personalities and slices of history, a subject breathed into life.
Brian Clegg has just had me revisiting areas of mathematics I haven't even considered since university. And I enjoyed it.

We human beings have trouble with infinity. Philosophers and mathematicians have gone mad contemplating its nature and complexity – and yet it is a concept now routinely used by schoolchildren. In this highly entertaining and stimulating history, Brian Clegg takes us on a tour of that borderland between the extremely large and the ultimate, from Archimedes…

The Future of the Mind – Michio Kaku ***

Physicist Michio Kaku, an expert in string theory, might not seem the obvious person to take us on a tour of what the subtitle describes as ‘the scientific quest to understand, enhance and empower the mind.’ But Kaku is a very experienced science communicator and though I didn’t feel the same deep connection with, and love for, his subject as comes across in his physics-based books, there is certainly a lot to ponder in this reasonably chunky bit of scientific futurology. Of all the great science popularisers – and I don’t hesitate to put him in that bracket – Kaku is the most deeply immersed in the science fiction tradition. For every example of a scientific idea he has a story to put it into context, which if you like SF, as I do, is a great asset. The only slight problem this makes for is that when Kaku extrapolates a piece of current technology into the future he tends to oversimplify the problems and goes far too far. So, for instance, an experiment where monkeys are led to feel…

Beautiful Geometry – Eli Maor and Eugene Jost ***

On the whole, art/science collaborations make me feel faintly queasy. From the science side there seems to be a puppy-like desperation to be loved and normal. ‘Look, I’m not really a nerd,’ they seem to say, ‘I don’t always speak incomprehensibly in technical jargon. I can do art.’ Meanwhile, the art side seems to have far too much in common with those pedlars of woo who invest their snake oil with (what they think is) scientific gravitas by using terms from quantum physics to dress up their baloney. So, if I’m honest, I came to this near coffee-table book sized collaboration between a mathematician and an artist with all the enthusiasm of someone on a trip to the dentist. As it happens, my assessment was a little harsh, because the art isn’t allowed to dominate, as is usually the case. Here what we’ve got is a series of short essays on principles of mathematics, each accompanied by a handsome, if fairly basic full page colour art work. So in a way it’s less like one of the dreaded c…

Smarter: the new science of building brain power – Dan Hurley ****

The knee-jerk reaction on seeing this book was ‘it’s going to be rubbish’, as it is widely publicised that most commercial ‘brain training’ products have no more value than any activity that keeps the mind active, from reading a book to chatting to a next-door neighbour. And while an active mind is valuable in keeping alert in old age, it gives no advantages in terms of ‘brain power’ whether you  consider that as IQ or something a bit more subtle. In fact, I needn’t have worried, because Dan Hurley is aware of this, and is approaching a very specific aspect of training, using an intense methodology, which has shown some interesting results in proper scientific testing. Along the way, he decides to see if he can enhance his own brain, so takes a MENSA test, then engages in as many brain enhancing activities as he can before being re-tested – from physical exercise to a nicotine patch – which have been shown to have some benefit in mental acuity. Perhaps the most interesting bit of the …

Thirteen: the Apollo flight that failed – Henry S. F. Cooper Jr. ***

Most of us probably think we know all we need to know about the Apollo 13 mission – after all, we’ve seen the movie (which isn’t bad at all) – but inevitably the Hollywood treatment skims over a lot of fascinating detail, while this book, written just two years after the event, gives us the true nitty gritty. I found it absolutely fascinating, seeing the disaster unfold in slow motion, with all the messiness of real life. For instance, the ground controllers, unaware that an explosion had taken place and had disabled a lot of the equipment went quite a while making incorrect assumptions, still hoping they could get the mission to the moon. In fact what the book makes clear is that in some ways the astronauts were just bit part players and it all the different individuals on the ground who were making the decisions and calculations and generally trying to sort things out. On the whole this works very well – by relaying the conversations on the ground, the arguments between the differen…