Friday, 28 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 record and what it can and can’t tell us, not to mention explaining the power and limitations of science.
Henry Gee shows eloquently why the concept of a ‘missing link’, while attractive to journalists, is just wrong – along with those popular drawings that have an apparent evolutionary progression from an ape-like creature, through a cave man, to a modern person. With the enthusiasm of someone who knows his bones firsthand, Gee tells us about what we do know from fossil remains, particularly in early and pre-humans, but also about the huge gaps. He explains clearly and precisely just what evolution is – and what it isn’t. And he gives short shrift to creationists who have in the past quote-mined his books to give ‘evidence’ of how ‘even evolutionists’ say that evolution is wrong. As Gee makes clear, evolution is inevitable, not wrong, it is just when we misunderstand its nature or try to read more into the fossil record than it can tell us that we can misuse evolution. (To demonstrate how easily quote mining can be used to give a message that is totally contrary to the writer’s intent, Gee points out that taken in isolation, Psalm 14, verse 1 (second half) reads: ‘There is no God.’)
There is only one aspect of the book that I disagree with. Gee spends the last few chapters picking out characteristics that you might think of as unique to human beings and showing that there are other animals with these characteristics. His aim is to show that humans are not special. His reason for doing this is good. He wants to emphasise how we make a mistake if we think in some sense that humans are the ‘pinnacle’ of evolution or that evolution has been in some way directed to create better and better creatures, ending up with us. As he demonstrates very clearly in the rest of the book, this is a total misunderstanding of the nature of evolution. And there is plenty of fascinating stuff about animal abilities. But I do think he throws the baby out with the bathwater here, as humans very clearly are special.
I think there are two ways the book gets this wrong. One is to assume that ‘special’ means ‘unique’ – which it doesn’t. So, for instance, he argues that our technology doesn’t make us special as some animals and birds make use of tools, for instance using a stick to poke into a hole to get to insects. But this is a very limited way of looking at things. I can run, but that doesn’t stop Usain Bolt being special. I can pick out a tune on a keyboard with one finger, but that doesn’t stop a great concert pianist from being special. In almost every comparison made, human beings are orders of magnitude different from every comparator, and as such certainly are special.
I would also say there are clear examples where humans have done things that goes beyond their built-in biological capabilities that no other organism can do. What other species can build technology that requires an understanding of quantum theory to design it? Or see something happening on the other side of the world, or billions of light years out in space? Or enjoy stories written by someone they’ve never met and make use of the thoughts of a member of their species who died hundreds of years ago? Or decide to take a trip to the Moon and make it happen? Humans are both unique and special. Not the pinnacle. Not the last word, or a target – but special nonetheless.
I don’t find this disagreement a problem, because this is the sort of book that provokes thought and that should inspire discussion and debate. And even without those last few chapters this is an excellent piece of popular science writing. You may think there was nothing more to say about evolution, but The Accidental Species proves that there is – and wonderful stuff it is.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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 counting the grains of sand that would fill the universe, to the latest theories on the physical reality of the infinite.
Full of unexpected delights, the history of infinity proves to be a surprisingly human subject. Whether it’s St Augustine contemplating the nature of creation, Newton and Leibniz battling over the ownership of calculus or Cantor’s struggle to publicize his vision of the transfinite, infinity’s fascination remains the way it brings together the everyday and the extraordinary, prosaic daily life and the esoteric. Exploring the infinite is nothing more than a journey into paradox.
Although infinity is touched on in many places, as far as we are aware this is the only popular exploration of infinity around – and well worth getting hold of.
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Review by Peter Spitz & Keith Brooke (originally on Infinity Plus)
Please note, this title is written by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion – and we could hardly omit the book – but do want to make the connection clear.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

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 the sense of touch from a remote sensor leads us to Kaku prompting an interviewee to say ‘I think this is the first demonstration that something like the [Star Trek, the Next Generation] holodeck will be possible in the near future.’ This is almost the definition of hyperbole. My suspicion is that physicists make better science fiction writers than futurologists.
Throughout the book we visit different aspects of the brain and the mind and how they might in the future be enhanced. This often involves finding out more about current brain conditions and injuries, as these have frequently resulted in discovering more about the workings of this most remarkable organ. Kaku quotes a mind-boggling example of a patient with a split brain. Without the usual connection of the corpus callosum, the left and right sides of the brain can hold different opinions and have different feelings. We hear of a patient whose left brain was atheist and right brain was a religious believer – a quite remarkable state of affairs. The ‘learning through damage and illness’ bit is necessary, but after a while, hearing about all these failings of the brain does get a little wearing.
Along the way we experience mind-to-mind communication, mind controlling machines, intelligence enhancement (though strangely with hardly any overlap with Smarter), artificial intelligence, disembodied minds and more. There’s a lot of good material here, but somehow I found reading it a little too much like hard work, rather than the feast of ideas we often get in one of Kaku’s books. Interesting, but not one of his best.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 16 February 2014

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 collaborations than a book like 30 Second Maths where you get a mini-exposition accompanied by an illustration (though I have to say the 30 Second illustrations are less geometric and hence usually more interesting).
The advantage this book has over the 30 Second approach is that it allows Eli Maor to give us considerably more text on his topics, so there can be a better exploration and less of the rigid constraint of a format. For some of the topics this is wonderful as they really need more exploration. Lissaojous figures, for instance, and infinite gaskets like the Sierpinski triangle. But to be honest, unless you are a mathematician, it’s hard to get too excited about most of the topics.
Take the opening of the essay on quadrilaterals. ‘Here is a little known jewel of a theorem,’ says Maor, ‘that never fails to amaze me: take any quadrilateral (four sided polygon), connect the midpoints of adjacent sides and – surprise – you’ll get a parallelogram!’ Now, to be honest, my reaction to this was ‘He should get out more.’ Just as only parents could be persuaded their baby is the most amazing thing that ever existed, only a mathematician would find this ‘jewel’ amazing.
So, if you get your kicks from everything from Pythagoras’ theorem (which is so exciting it gets two entries) to Steiner’s porism (no, it’s not infectious), this could be the book for you. But if you don’t, the essays could get a tad tedious in places, and the art, while workmanlike, was never sufficient to make looking at the book worthwhile on its own. It’s a case of ‘Nice try, but it doesn’t work for me.’ It might for you. What do I know about art? But you attempt it at your own risk. (Incidentally, only go for the Kindle book if viewing it on a tablet – a traditional black and white Kindle would lose much of the art’s impact.)
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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

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 book is where he assesses all the different possibilities, dismissing some (eating the right thing, apart from drinking coffee, for instance) and taking others on board, all based on our best current science.
Another favourite is the final section, where we see played out a significant battle between academics, some sticking to the traditional argument that all training does is train you to be better at that particular test, some open to a wide range of possibilities. It’s interesting, apart from anything else, to show just how different theories are sometimes handled in the academic community.
The only part of the book I felt didn’t quite work was a longish section on Down’s syndrome, not because it wasn’t important or interesting, but because it didn’t quite fit with everything else, centred around Hurley’s personal test, and the result was that overall the book’s structure seemed a little haphazard.
As long as you don’t object too much to the author’s slightly patronising magazine writer’s style, that makes him feel the urge to put in a number of unnecessary personal descriptions (take for instance ‘Tall, blond and good-looking: in another words, a typical Swiss’), this should prove a fascinating read on a truly interesting topic.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 1 February 2014

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 different specialists and so on, we get a real, in-depth feel of what really happened here. This makes it a genuine page turner, as the reader feels to be present as the disaster unfolds. The only downside of this is that we are showered with with acronyms for all the different controllers, referred to, for instance, as CAPCOM, TELMU, FIDO, EECOM, GUIDO, RETRO and so on. To add to the confusion, because there are four shifts of controllers, there are four persons per title, leading to a cast that it is very difficult to keep sorted in the mind.
I have two niggles with the book – one small and one significant. The small one is the author’s affectation of spelling re-entry as re├źntry, which is for some reason very irritating. The big one is the science, which the author clearly hasn’t got a clue about. Two specific examples. He says ‘One amp-hour on the spacecraft’s twenty-eight volt current (sic) would keep a 40-watt bulb burning for one hour.’ Anyone with high school science should be able to see at least two things wrong with that. But the biggest howler is ‘so it was difficult for the computer to work out vectors, a vector being a point in space where the spacecraft was known to have been’. It’s not rocket science. Well, okay, it is rocket science, but it is not exactly postgrad physics to realise that a vector is not a point in space.
The book doesn’t suffer particularly from its age – in fact it is only apparent in two ways. One is that it thinks the computers of the day are impressive bits of kit (dwarfed as they now are by any smartphone), and the other is that when the book was written it seems that one of the most iconic quotes of modern times (misquoted though it often is) had not become well-known. There is no direct reference to Swigert’s ‘Okay Houston, we’ve had a problem here.’ (Or Lovell’s near repeat ‘Houston, we’ve had a problem.’) All Cooper says is ‘First, Swigert reported over the radio that the seemed to have a problem.’
Although I can only give it three stars because of the bad science, I have no doubt that anyone interested in the history of space flight should give this book a go.
Note, paperback is original 1972 edition while Kindle is a new edition
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Review by Brian Clegg