Monday, 14 April 2014

Quantum Mechanics – The Theoretical Minimum – Leonard Susskind and Art Friedman ***

I saw this book on the shelves in my local booksellers which are usually reserved for books which are new, interesting and likely to sell a lot of copies. They were right on two out of three, but they were in cloud cuckoo land on the ‘lot of copies’ part (unless we get a ‘Brief History of Time effect’ where lots buy it and don’t read it). This is a new and interesting book, and for the niche it is aimed at it is brilliant – but that is a narrow niche indeed.
Usually there are two kinds of science books. Popular science explains what the discoveries and theories of science, with historical perspective, so that the general reader can get a feel for them – but reading a popular science book on, say, quantum mechanics would not leave you able to solve quantum mechanics problems.
Textbooks, on the other hand, teach the actual science itself, usually with a lot more maths, so that you can indeed do the workings, but they don’t give you any context, and they are inaccessible (and, frankly, highly boring) to most readers.
This book highlights a tiny crack in between the two, a niche where it can do a very interesting job of leading the reader into the actual science, but in a more hand-held and less boring way than a textbook. Because it takes this approach it hasn’t got the context or readability of a popular science book – but it’s far more readable than a textbook. Similarly, it doesn’t have quite enough detail to really ‘do’ the physics – but it takes you well on the way there, so that it would only take a little textbook work to get on top of it.]
The only thing I’d criticise (apart from the narrowness of that niche) is the really irritating attempts at folksy fictional openings to the sections. They don’t work. Stay with what you’re trying to do, guys, don’t try to be entertainers.
For most popular science readers this book simply won’t work. It makes the infamously ‘I started it but couldn’t finish it’ Brief History of Time look highly simplistic and non-mathematical. And for serious physicists, it’s still too limited – though it takes what is in some ways a better approach, giving more emphasis early on to entanglement, than the way quantum physics is traditionally taught. Either for those about to start a university physics course who want some preparation, or for someone who finds popular science explanations too summary and is prepared to take on some quite serious maths (A level maths required as a minimum, I would say) it’s a fascinating addition to the library. For the rest of us, probably best to leave it where it is.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 7 April 2014

Wizards, Aliens and Starships – Charles L. Adler ***

Subtitled ‘physics and maths in fantasy and science fiction’, this is one for the hardcore science fan. In fact the best reader may well be a scientist who likes a bit of science fictionand wants to play around with how likely all the science in the stories really is.
Strangely, the most readable part is the first section, where Charles Adler deals with the goings on of fantasy, rather than science fiction. I think this is because we don’t really expect the science to work in fantasy, and we can enjoy laughing at distortion of the conservation of energy, or the second law of thermodynamics, and thinking about the physics of dragons. But when the book starts to pull apart basics like space travel, it feels like something of a betrayal.
Once we got onto science fiction, Adler shows us that practically every major theme of space-based science fiction from the basics of space travel being possible to constructing vast space stations and ring worlds and the like is all extremely unlikely because of problems with energy and many other aspects of physics. It’s frankly a bit depressing, but I could cope with it, were not that the style gets considerably more hardcore than it was in the fantasy section. In the science fiction parts we have far more pages of calculation with relatively little and relatively impenetrable explanation.
This can make the book decidedly opaque to the non-technical reader. Take, for instance, the section describing the trajectory of an apple thrown inside a spaceship that is being rotated to produce artificial gravity. Adler points out the way that the Coriolis effect will result in strange movements. But the whole description, complete with completely unnecessary equations and diagrams which explain nothing is difficult to follow and lacks any feel for the reader’s response. It is far more like a simplified textbook than anything else. This is disappointing, as it wasn’t the case with the early sections.
In the end, I didn’t enjoy the book as I much as I thought I would initially. There are two reasons. One is the old W. B. Yeats favourite ‘Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.’ For many science fiction and fantasy fans (even quite a few who became scientists), what is particularly wonderful about SF&F is that it is a matter of dreams. It takes us away from boring reality, and if it has to sacrifice a little accuracy in the way of a good story, so be it. Forget treading softly, here the dreams get the hobnail boot treatment. The other problem is that there is too much calculation and not enough explanation, as a result of which it all too often reads more like an exercises section in a textbook, rather than a popular science book.
Don’t get me wrong – this is an interesting, well-written book, and Adler has put a lot of work into it. It should be invaluable for anyone wanting to write really accurate science fiction. But it isn’t as much fun as I expected it to be.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 3 April 2014

A Rough Ride to the Future – James Lovelock ****

James Lovelock is unique, both as a scientist and as a writer. He may be most famous for his Gaia hypothesis that the Earth acts as if it were a self-regulating living entity, but has done so much more in a 94 year life to date.
A Rough Ride (not to be confused with Jon Turney’s Rough Guide to the Future) is an important book, but it is also flawed, and I wanted to get those flaws out of the way, as I’ve awarded it four stars for the significance of its content, rather than its well-written nature. It is, frankly, distinctly irritating to read – meandering, highly repetitive and rather too full of admiration for Lovelock’s achievements. But I am not giving the book a top rating as a ‘well done for being so old’ award – far from it. Instead it’s because Lovelock has some very powerful things to say about climate change. I’ve been labelled a green heretic in the past, and there is no doubt that Lovelock deserves this accolade far more, as he tears into the naivety of much green thinking and green politics.
He begins, though, by taking on the scientific establishment, pointing out the limitations of modern, peer reviewed, team-oriented science  in the way that it blocks the individual and creative scientific thinker – the kind of person who has come up with most of our good scientific ideas and inventions over the centuries. He does this primarily to establish that he is worth listening to, rather than being some lone voice spouting nonsense. I’m not sure he needs to do this – I think there are few who wouldn’t respect Lovelock and give him an ear, but it’s a good point and significant that he feels it necessary.
The main thrust of the book is to suggest that our politicians (almost universally ignorant of science) are taking the wrong approach to climate change. He derides the effort to develop renewable energy, despises the way the Blair government chickened out of nuclear power (and is very heavy on the Germans and Italians for their panic reaction after the Japanese tsunami) and makes it clear that from his viewpoint, our whole approach to climate change is idiotic.
With the starting point that the whole system is far too complex to allow any decent modelling, or to be sure what any attempts at geoengineering could achieve, Lovelock suggests that the answer is to let Gaia get on with sorting itself out, and instead of worrying about trying to manage carbon emissions in our current situation, we should instead put our efforts into adapting the way we live to cope with changes in the climate. He points out, the kind of climate we had before the industrial revolution (or accelerated evolution, as he believes it to be) was not the typical climate of the Earth either, which would be more like its state in the grips of an Ice Age.
Rather that trying to somehow get it back to an imaginary utopian state, he argues we should be looking at new ways to live that will enable us to manage despite what the climate throws at us. He points out, for instance, that in our fears of the impact of 2 to 6 degrees of warming we miss that Singapore manages perfectly well in an environment that is 12.5 degrees above the global average. Of course, you might argue that we couldn’t sustain that way of life for 7 billion people – and Lovelock is sanguine about this. He doesn’t expect humans to carry on at that kind of population level, as part of the adaptation.
What’s fascinating is that while reading the book I also read an article by that most demonised of environmental figures, Bjorn Lomborg, and it was remarkable how much similarity there was in their views of the approach we should take, though coming at the problem from very different directions and with very different predicted outcomes.
A final thrust of the book is perhaps less convincing. Lovelock, looking 100 million years or more into the future, suggests that the best way our descendants can survive to keep Gaia going is in electronic form, as it would be possible to live on for many more millions of years despite the Earth warming, due to the Sun’s gradual increase of output, to a stage where it is uninhabitable by biological life. At the same time he dismisses terraforming Mars (and doesn’t even consider starships) as a mechanism for keeping a future humanity alive. This seems a bit of an stance and dilutes, rather than helps the central message of what we should do about climate change and human existence on Earth.
As I mentioned earlier on, you may well find the book a frustrating read because of all the repetition, but this is a book that will really get you thinking about our approach to climate change, and whether we’ve got it all terribly wrong. Read it.
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Review by Brian Clegg