Friday, 30 May 2014

The Naked Scientist: Life Under the Microscope – Chris Smith ***

Chris Smith is a hero of British science communication with his excellent The Naked Scientists radio show/podcast (I have to say I hate the name, but you can’t have everything). In this book he collects together a series of really interesting scientific discoveries, which may be quirky or deeply significant.
In theory this is an excellent idea, but there were two reasons the book didn’t work particularly well for me. One was that far too many of the stories were medical/biological. This probably reflects the fact that Smith is a medical doctor, but the radio show doesn’t suffer from this limitation, so it was a bit of a surprise. The book really should be labelled The Naked Biologist.
More signficantly, although the science was interesting, the presentation wasn’t. It was like reading a collection of press releases – after a while the reader loses the will to live, or at least to read on. I think the approach would have been much better if Smith had picked maybe a quarter of the topics and gone into them in more depth.
This isn’t a fatal flaw – it’s fine as a dip-in book (perhaps one to keep in the smallest room), but it is not one that many readers would want to plough through from cover to cover. There are lots of good stories here, but we are getting the synopsis without the storytelling, and that is a shame.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 29 May 2014

My Manager and Other Animals – Richard Robinson ***

It might seem odd to feature what seems like a management book on a science website, but what Richard Robinson cleverly does is to explore the science, particularly the evolutionary psychology, behind workplace behaviour.
Early on, the book identifies three key behaviours – harmony, antagonism and chaos, with harmony illustrated by the lives of ants and also the impact of mirror neurons on our behaviour and those of other animals. Antagonism is given to us with the ape as typifier, while a special type of successful chaos belongs to ants… but a far worse kind is in the hands of MBAs.
We also meet the concepts of evolution, wevolution and mevolution. The first you’ll be familiar with. Wevolution is the adaptive behaviour that gave us science and technology, agriculture and writing. And mevolution is the way we as individuals adapt to specific circumstances – say the office environment. All this is rather cleverly done, weaving in behaviour in the animal world and the workplace to give us some excellent insights into the psychology of working life. And there’s the original concept of the ‘social fractal’ likening the scale independence of social behaviour to the science of fractals.
My only significant criticism up to page 92 is that Robinson does have a tendency to breeze through topics in a way that doesn’t quite give you enough. What this means is that the reader’s obvious questions don’t get answered, as we’ve already wafted on to the next topic. So, for instance, early on we learn how bacteria started to cooperate as a survival mechanism, forming stromatolites – this is true, but I immediately thought, ‘Yes, but what about the vast majority of bacteria that don’t do this – they still survived pretty well’? Later on we hear about a manager who can detect by subtle body tells across the factory floor whether a worker has financial difficulties or has had a domestic. Really? That raises my bullish*t detector. Has anyone tested this ability in controlled conditions, or are we just taking what the manager says as fact? I suspect it’s anecdote rather than data.
If the book had continued this way, this would have been no more than an odd mild irritation. I can’t emphasise enough what an enjoyable and different book this starts out to be, bringing the spotlight of biology, often using comparisons with animal behaviour (hence the title) to bear in a way that gives a real insight into good and bad workplace behaviour. It was solidly heading for four stars, but then suddenly, at page 92, it shifts.
From here on in it’s one of those ‘funny’ management books, giving us a long saga of how an MBA dropped in as a manager will mess things up, and the Peter Principle, and Parkinson’s Law and Murphy’s law and so on. There is the occasional passing reference to the ant and the ape to try to tie it back in to the earlier part, but this second half is a very different book and not as good as the first half. It’s an entirely acceptable ‘why everything goes wrong at work’ type humorous business book, but it loses the interesting science and, frankly, some of the interest overall.
Seen as a whole, this is a good book, worth reading – but it could have been so much better.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Super Freakonomics – Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner *****

This review is written a long time after the book came out, but after reviewing Levitt & Dubner’s latest, I realised we had never had a review of their second book.
As with the phenomenally successful Freakonomics, what we have here is a very clever application of the tools of economics (in effect, mostly statistics, though with some more explicitly economic aspects) to a range of surprising problem areas from prostitution (more explanatory than preventative) to climate change. The aim is to show that the ‘common sense’ view isn’t always the most helpful, and the authors prove this in spades.
From the classic discovery that many deaths were caused in maternity hospitals by doctors not washing their hands, to the apparently bizarre statistic that national level youth football players tend to be born in the first three months of the year (it’s to do with the time of year the cut-off birth date to qualify is applied) it is entertaining and thought provoking throughout. I especially liked the section on climate change, where the authors addressed the uncertainty in ways that really is rarely done by climate scientists, and looked at some surprisingly cheap and cheerful solutions.
I think the only sections I have slight issue with are the parts on child car seats and walking drunks. The child seat issue is portrayed in headline as child seats being ineffective, where the data does show benefit in terms of injury rates. The authors do still make an important point, though, that things would be a lot better if the seats were easy to fit properly. On walking drunks, we are told that by examining in the number of people killed while drunk driving and the number killed while walking drunk, it is actually safer, per mile to drink drive than walk home when drunk. But this grossly oversimplifies the situation, as drinkers aren’t in a simple binary split of sober/drunk. I’d suggest the majority of people who leave a party having consumed too much alcohol to legally drive are not drunk, and not liable to fall in front of a car.
Relatively minor quibbles, though about a fascinating book.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 23 May 2014

Think Like a Freak – Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner ***

I loved Freakonomics and its sequel, so was expecting more of the same here, but Think Like a Freak is a very different book and suffers by comparison. (To be honest it doesn’t belong on this site as it is far less of a popular maths book than the other two, but I’ve kept it in for consistency.)
The thing that absolutely blew everyone away with the earlier books was the absolute string of superb eye-opening stories, taking a sideways look at a problem using statistics and psychology (it wasn’t really economics, but it worked as a title). Perhaps the definitive example was the idea that crime rates had fallen as a result of increased availability of abortions some years earlier. In this book, though, theFreakonomics authors set out to teach us their methodology and, by comparison it’s a bit dull.
What we get is often ittle more than a collection of management consultancy platitudes like ‘thinking small is powerful’ and ‘it’s good to quit’, because in the end the special thing about the Freakonomics approach was not the basic tools, which are two a penny, but the way the authors employed them. Occasionally we do get a great little story – I particularly love the exploration of how to do better in football penalty shootouts – but there just aren’t enough of them, specifically not enough really surprising, ‘Wow!’ stories like the ones that fill the previous books. The authors really should have taken their own advice when they say the most powerful form of persuasion they know is to use stories. We need more great stories, guys!
I would also pick up on another point they made. When talking about the benefits of quitting (where appropriate) they say ‘Should we take our own advice and think about  quitting? After three Freakonomics books, can we possibly have more to say – and will anyone care?’ The answer is yes, and no. ‘Yes’, quit doing this kind of book – but ‘no’ don’t give up and write us another Freakonomics if you can, as we will be ready to lap up more of those mind-bending ideas.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Network Geeks – Brian E. Carpenter ***

There is a series of TV adverts in the UK that have managed to embed their tagline into common usage. The ads are for a type of varnish, and that tagline is ‘It does what it says on the tin.’ There is a real problem when a book doesn’t do what it says on the tin – you get cognitive dissonance, expecting one thing and discovering another. That’s what happened when I opened up Network Geeks.
The subtitle promises ‘how they built the internet.’ Now this is a topic I’m fascinated by. I really enjoyed the book Where Wizards Stay Up Late, which details the story of the origins of the internet, but that’s quite old now, and I assumed this would give a modern day take from the viewpoint of an internet dominated society. What you get inside is totally different, and that’s a shock.
In trendy music terms, this book is a mashup. It really has three separate themes, only linked by the author, Brian Carpenter. One is an autobiography – so we get a fair amount of Carpenter’s family history, going back a good few generations. It’s not badly written, but probably of limited interest to anyone outside Carpenter’s family. Secondly – and this is the best bit – we have a considerable account of Carpenter’s work at CERN. He worked there twice and if you are into the developed of distributed computing (as I am) there is some really interesting material here, as CERN was both groundbreaking and yet isolated from the mainstream. Apart from anything else in this technical memoir part of the book I had distinct tugs of nostalgia as I had a great time working on DEC equipment, which regularly rears its head, while in the OR department of British Airways.
So far, so good – but we are yet to encounter anything that really has to do with the supposed topic of the book. This comes into the third part of the mashup, featured in the introductory section (which is part of the reason it is such a shock when the book suddenly goes into autobiographical mode) and towards the end. But this isn’t really about ‘how the built the Internet’ at all. It is about ‘how their committees made endless bureaucratic decisions about the architecture and protocols of the internet and how the architecture and protocols developed.’ To be honest, that is a rather less exciting, and certainly a lot more specialist field.
The problem is, unless you are really into the nitty gritty of how the committees that control the internet work, this probably isn’t for you. Carpenter falls into a few writing traps in naming far too many people we aren’t really interested in, using endless acronyms we don’t really care about and giving much too much detail on the minutiae to the extent that we lose the big picture. Here’s a not atypical snippet to get a feel: ‘Internet standards, originally endorsed by DARPA, came from the IETF by 1991, and certainly not from the ITU or the ISO, the twin homes of CLNP. On the other hand, CLNP was officially defined and had already been picked up for the next version of DECnet, a significant factor in the minicomputer market then served by the Internet.’
It’s not that this is a bad book – it just doesn’t do what it says on the tin, and I can only recommend it for the rather narrow audience for whom this kind of thing is meat and drink.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 12 May 2014

Cracking the Particle Code of the Universe – John Moffat ****

I’ll be honest, when I saw this book I thought ‘Oh no, not another book about the hunt for the Higgs boson,’ and so put off reading it for a long while, but it fact it is far from another me-too book. If you want a good, straightforward book about the what the Higgs is and the basics of the hunt, you should head straight for Higgs by Jim Baggott, but Cracking the Particle Code is quite a different beast.
Two things make this book stand out. One is the author’s personal involvement in the field over a long period, and the other is that he is brave enough not to take the simplistic stance that we’ve found the Higgs and it’s all over, but rather to point out that things are a lot more complicated than the press releases from CERN would suggest, and that there is certainly no sense in which we can say that the standard model is complete and particle physics is signed off. In fact, as Moffat shows, it is entirely possible to generate masses using quantum field theory without the complication of a Higgs boson. He may be a minority voice – but there is certainly a lot that’s interesting about this alternative view.
The book isn’t dominated by Moffat’s own theory as he takes us through the hunt for the Higgs and the implications of the discoveries made at CERN – but equally, lacking the usual need to bolster a career that means once a theory gains enough followers it becomes gospel until there’s a major shift (Fred Hoyle likened such physicists to a flock of geese), Moffat is able to give us a uniquely balanced viewpoint.
It isn’t the easiest read – although in some ways he gives one of the best explanations of symmetry breaking (something that rarely makes sense in popular attempts to explain it as it is dependent on a mathematical world rather than anything observed), his science does crack along at a pace that requires a fair amount of application of a piece of advice I received early on while an undergraduate studying physics when my supervisor said that the only way to cope is not to panic when you don’t understand – let it flow over you, and gradually it will make sense.
If you are happy to take that approach, then I can’t recommend this book too highly. If you want an easy, hand-held read, though, look elsewhere.
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Review by Brian Clegg