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Showing posts from 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 topic…

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…

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 l…

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 th…

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 b…

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 complicati…