Sunday, 29 June 2014

The Compatibility Gene – Daniel M. Davis *****

Some of the best popular science books tell us as much about the people as the science, and that is the approach taken byDaniel Davis. In exploring the ‘compatibility gene’ (or more accurately, the ‘compatibility genes’ – I don’t know why it’s singular in the title). He takes us on a voyage of discovery through the key steps to identifying the small group of genes that seem to contribute to making that individual more or less compatible with other people, whether on the level of transplants or sexual compatibility, taking in our growing understanding of the immune system along the way.
It probably helps that Davis is a practising scientist in the field – the director of research at the University of Manchester’s Collaborative Centre for Inflammation Research and a visiting professor at Imperial College, London. Often, frankly, discovering the book is by a working scientist can mean turgid text or an inability to explain the science in a way the general reader can understand, but Davis writes fluently and often beautifully, as much in love with the history of his trade as the scientific breakthroughs he covers.A good example of the way he brings a topic to life is the first subject to come under his spotlight, the Nobel Prize winning Peter Medawar and his colleagues (several of whom also get a good biographical introduction). I’ve read before about Medawar’s work on rejection and compatibility in transplants, but in Davis’ hands it’s almost as if you are talking to Medawar about his life and achievements, giving a real insight into the bumpy process of scientific discovery.
The book divides into three, looking at the scientific revolution in compatibility, the frontier of compatibility and the ‘overarching system’ which includes the near-notorious T-shirt sniffing research and the remarkable suggestion that a couple having the right mix of compatibility genes can enhance their ability to have children. All in all, there’s a good mix of the relatively familiar and the surprising new, all handled in Davis’ measured, likeable phrasing.
I only really have two small niggles (I’ve never written a review yet without any). One is that I think Davis is almost too close to the subject and, as a result, perhaps gives it more of a sense of importance than it deserves. Of course, from a medical viewpoint, this is important work, but the way he seems to put it up there with the work of Newton, Darwin and Einstein perhaps overinflates its importance. The other slight problem I have is that for me, there is rather too much biography, and not quite enough science. (It’s interesting that the lead endorsement in the press release is by Bill Bryson.) It sounds terrible, but I’m only really interested in the biographies of a handful of key scientists and that apart I’d rather just have a quick sketch and get into the science in a bit more depth – but I appreciate that this might be a very different opinion from that of many would be readers.
So don’t be put off by that textbook-like, low key cover – this is a really interesting read about a fascinating area of genetics and medicine. Recommended.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 28 June 2014

At the Edge of Uncertainty – Michael Brooks ****

One of my favourite popular science books is Marcus Chown’s The Universe Next Door, where he explores scientific theories just the other side of the dividing line between sanityand madness. Here Michael Brooks, who started his ‘amazing things in science’ run with the excellent 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense, now gives us ’11 discoveries taking science by surprise’ – science that can still shock us, but is just on the sane side of the dividing line.
The topics range from consciousness and chimeras to hyper computers (which go beyond the limits of Turing’s Universal Computer) and time. Where the chapters work, they work very well. I thought the chapter on the big bang and inflation, where Brooks pulls apart the fragile, held-together-by-duct-tape nature of the current theory with surgical precision was brilliant, starting from a little pen portrait of Alan Guth and then showing both how the current picture is strung together and also how various discoveries have chipped away at the solidity of the current picture. (Sadly the book was written too soon to include the BICEP2 collapse.) On the whole, the physics-based chapters worked better than the biology chapters, which seemed a little more staid and less exciting, though there was a lot to find interesting in the chimeras chapter and all had plenty of joyful nuggets of discovery.
What I was less certain about was the delivery. The cover quote says ‘He writes, above all, with attitude.’ This is true, but that attitude sometimes got in the way of accuracy, making the approach inconsistent. In the big bang chapter Brooks makes it clear that things are anything but certain, as is the nature of science. Yet it most other chapters he makes plonking statements of fact about theories that are anything but solid, where that same scepticism and honesty would have been more appropriate. So, for instance, when describing the holographic universe theory, he says ‘It turns out the table – and everything else around you – is a hologram.’ Well, no, it doesn’t. There is a theory that the information that makes up the universe could be represented in one less dimension, i.e. as a hologram. But that doesn’t make it true, and it certainly doesn’t make a table a hologram.
Later on, he tells us that time doesn’t exist, again as if this were gospel. Yet what he’s talking about is an approach that isn’t universally held among physicists, and even when it is, doesn’t mean what it sounds like. When physicists say this, they mean that it may be possible to formulate most of the key equations of physics without incorporating time. But that’s not the same as ‘time doesn’t exist’ in any normal sense. Those equations don’t incorporate Mount Everest either, but that doesn’t mean the mountain doesn’t exist.
One last concern is that in the drive to be dramatic, accuracy can be lost. Early on, he perpetuates the ‘humans are nothing special’ myth,  pointing out how other animals share some of our traits. But this misses the point – it’s one thing for a bower bird to build an attractive bower, or rats to display personality. I won’t be convinced humans aren’t special until another species starts writing books, sending people to the moon and curing a wide range of diseases. Of course humans are special. Later, scientific fact is distorted to make a dramatic point. We are told ‘The atoms in your body were forged in the explosions of supernovae many hundreds of millions of years after the Big Bang. That makes them cosmic youngsters compared to the lithium atoms so vital to your mobile phone battery. Those atoms were created in the first three minutes of the universe’s life. There is something extraordinary about holding something so old in your hand.’ Y-e-e-s, only the most common atom in your body is hydrogen, which was created at the same time as the lithium (and much of the rest didn’t come out of supernovae, which are only required for atoms with a mass above iron).
One other howler. In the (fascinating) hypercomputing section, Brooks describes non-Euclidian geometries. He says ‘You almost certainly didn’t learn about these at school. That’s partly because they can’t be made physical in our three-dimensional universe…’ Dr Brooks clearly never worked for an airline, as they have to deal with non-Euclidian geometry all the time. Euclidean geometry makes statements like ‘parallel lines never meet’. Try drawing two parallel lines, starting from different points on the equator and heading north. You will find they meet at the pole. Similarly, in Euclidian geometry, the angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees. Draw a triangle on the surface of the earth and the angles add up to more than 180 degrees. Non-Euclidian geometry is very physical in our three dimensional universe.
So there are a few issues, but I don’t want to put you off because it really is an excellent read and covers some fascinating areas of science. Just don’t take those statements of ‘fact’ at face value and buckle in for a wonderful ride.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Einstein and the Quantum – A. Douglas Stone *****

This is without doubt a five star, standout book, though there are a couple of provisos that mean it won’t work for everyone.
If you ask someone who has read a bit of popular science about the founders of quantum theory they will mention names like Planck, Bohr, Schr√∂dinger and Heisenberg – but as Douglas Stone points out, the most significant name in laying the foundations of quantum physics was its arch-critic, Albert Einstein. You may be aware that Einstein took Planck’s original speculation about quantised energy and turned it into a description of the action of real particles in his 1905 paper photoelectric effect that won him his Nobel Prize – but what is shocking to learn is just how much further Einstein went, producing a whole string of papers that made the development of quantum theory almost inevitable. It was Einstein, for instance, who came up the earliest form of wave/particle duality.
I have never read anything that gave detail on this fascinating period of the development of physics the way that Stone does. This isn’t really a scientific biography. Stone does dip into Einstein’s life, but often in a fairly shallow way. What is much more significant is the way he shows us the building blocks that would make the full quantum theory being put in place. It really is absolutely fascinating. Science writers like me tend to skip over large chunks of the way this developed, throwing in just the highlights, but Stone really gives us chapter and verse, without ever resorting to mathematics, demonstrating the route to quantum theory in a way, he suggests, that most working physicists have no ability to appreciate. Remarkable.
I have two provisos. A minor one is that Stone’s context is not as well-researched as his physics. We are told that Arrhenius moved to Europe from Sweden, perhaps a slight surprise for most Swedes to realise that they don’t live in Europe. And he calls Rutherford British – admittedly the great New Zealand physicist did most of his best work in the UK, but I’m not sure we can count him as our own.
The bigger warning is that this book isn’t going to work for everyone. While I found some of the explanations – notably of a Bose Einstein condensate – the clearest I’ve ever read, Stone does fall into the typical trap of the physicist-as-science-writer of assuming what comes naturally to him is equally accessible to the general reader. I don’t think he makes clear enough the basis in thermodynamics of the early work, perhaps assuming that the statistical mechanics of vibrating bodies, and other essentials that constantly turn up in the early workings, are sufficiently straightforward as classical physics that they don’t need much explanation. Without that clear foundation, his later explanations may be slightly hard going – but I can only say that if you really want a feel for where quantum physics came from to persevere and go with the flow, because it is well worth it.
P.S. I wish someone had told the cover designer how inappropriate the solar system-like atom picture on the cover is for the topic!
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Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 22 June 2014

The significance of stars - Feature

Personally, I think stars are underrated. Not the ones in the sky – if it weren’t for one of them, the Sun, the Earth wouldn’t exist (and even if there was an Earth, there would be no life on it because it would be far too cold). For that matter, if it weren’t for stars in general there would be no atoms other than hydrogen, helium and a touch of lithium – making the whole concept of a planet (or a person) inconceivable. So the stars of the cosmos are seriously rated.
Nor am I talking about the stars of stage and screen. Because, let’s face it, most of them are seriously overrated. I refer instead to stars in reviews.
A good while ago I wrote to the journal Nature, complaining about some of the book reviews they carried. I pointed out that the (long) reviews said nothing about whether the book was any good – they merely gave the reviewer a chance to do his or her potted version of the theme of the book. They said what the book was about, but not if it was any good or whether you should read it. I got what was, frankly, a rather snotty email back from someone at Nature saying something to the effect of ‘ours aren’t the sort of trivial reviews like yours on www.popularscience.co.uk are. We aren’t going to start giving a book stars.’
Personally, I think this is a mistake. Life is too short to read every review – it’s very handy to be able to check out the star rating and then decide which reviews to read. I’m not suggesting we only take notice of the star rating, but it’s a good indicator of whether the reviewer considers a book (or film or whatever) really bad or excellent – in both cases suggesting the review is worth getting into in more depth.
However a star rating means different things to different people, so I thought it would be useful to finish by giving a quick guide to the way we use the star rating system on www.popularscience.co.uk:
* – Just doesn’t work for us
** – Has some interesting points, but not for everyone – check the provisos in the review
*** – Good solid book, well worth reading if you are interested in the topic
**** – Excellent book that any popular science fan would want to read
***** – One of the best popular science books of the year
ImageCredit: NASA, ESA, and J. Maiz Apellaniz (Instituto de Astrofisica de Andalucia, Spain)

Friday, 20 June 2014

Out in the dice world - Brian Clegg - Feature

I’m delighted that my book Dice World has made it to the long list for the 2014 Royal Society Prize for Science Books. Like all those on the long list, I’m now juggling probabilities of getting further in my head, so I thought it would be interesting to share a little part of Dice World on the matter of casinos and probability – specifically the iconic game of roulette.
There was a time when casinos were, frankly, another world for the vast majority of us. I remember walking past one on the way to school in Manchester and it seemed a totally alien concept – something I had only seen in Bond films. But now you can’t watch a digital TV channel without being bombarded with advertising for online casinos. The availability of internet gambling has changed the casino from an exclusive building most of us would never enter, to a game that’s on everyone’s phone. And of course, there is likely to be roulette in there. So what’s it all about?
A roulette wheel is a rather crude random number generator, which generates a value by sending a ball around the outside of a spinning wheel. There are eighteen black and eighteen red slots on the roulette wheel into which the ball can drop, so if we ignore for the time being the green 0 or 00 slots, there should be an 18⁄36 (or 1 in 2) chance of winning if you bet on either black or red. Another way of putting it is that there is a 50:50 chance of winning or losing. This isn’t a safe enough bet for casinos, which as businesses want to make sure that they will get a profit. So they add a zero slot (often there are two of them on wheels in the US). If the ball ends up in this slot, no one wins but the casino. It should be crystal clear for players what this means – long term, the casino will win.
But of course this doesn’t mean that lucky players can’t clean up – as long as they stop while they are ahead. And in principle, that luck may be helped by a physical error. A roulette wheel is a physical device, and as such is not a perfect mechanism for producing a random number. Although wheels are routinely tested, it is entirely possible for one to have a slight bias – and just occasionally this can result in a chance for players to make a bundle. It certainly did so for 19th-century British engineer Joseph Jagger, who has, probably incorrectly, been associated with the song ‘The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo’, which came out around the same time as Jagger had a remarkable win in Monaco.
The song probably referred instead to the conman Charles Wells, who won over a million francs at Monte Carlo and did indeed ‘break the bank’. (This doesn’t mean that he cleaned out the casino, simply that he used up all the chips available on a particular table.) There were many attempts to find how Wells was cheating, but he later admitted that it was purely a run of luck, combined with a large amount of cash enabling him to take the often effective but dangerous strategy of doubling the stake on every play until he won.
However, Jagger probably deserves the accolade more than Wells, as his win was down to the application of wits rather than luck – and was even more dramatic. Jagger finally amassed over 2 million francs – the equivalent of over £3 million (or US$5 million) today. He hired a number of men to frequent the casino and record the winning numbers on the six wheels. After studying the results he discovered that one wheel favoured nine of the numbers significantly over the rest. By sticking to these numbers he managed to beat the system until the casino realised it was just this wheel that was suffering large losses and rearranged the wheels overnight. Although Jagger soon tracked down the wheel, which had a distinctive scratch, the casino struck back by rearranging the numbers on the wheel each night, making his knowledge worthless.
Sadly, for would be modern-day Jaggers, casinos are now a lot more careful about testing their wheels to ensure this kind of thing can happen, while online casinos don’t rely on physical devices, but instead use computer-generated random numbers, or more likely pseudo-random numbers. Numbers that are random enough for gambling, but that aren’t good enough if you want a good long sequence of numbers that are truly random for scientific purposes. That is because the pseudo-random number generator is not genuinely picking between the options with equal probabilities, nor is any value in a sequence of numbers it generates totally independent of what came before.
That has to be the case or we can’t calculate the random number using some sort of computer algorithm. A pseudo-random generator usually starts with a ‘seed’, an initial value which is often taken from the computer’s clock, and then repeatedly carries out a mathematical operation, typically multiplying the previous value by a constant, adding another constant and then finding the remainder when dividing by a third constant. So, for instance, a crude pseudo-random number generator would be something like:
New value = (1,366 × Previous Value + 150,899) modulo 714,025
where ‘modulo’ is the fancy term for ‘take the remainder when you divide it by …’ The output of the pseudo-random number generator wanders off away from the seed value and can be reasonably convincing in appearance, but it will always produce the same values given the same seed, and can’t match a true random number generator for effectiveness of results. Even with pseudo-random numbers, though, the implications are clear. There are no winning systems. You can’t beat the system. By all means play the game – but be under no illusion about what’s happening.

Friday, 13 June 2014

How to be a good publicist - Brian Clegg - Feature

Here at popularscience.co.uk we get offered a lot of books for review, and often we turn them down. This should have been a review of one we said ‘Yes’ to – a book called Unification of Electromagnetism and Gravity by Selwyn Wright. Unfortunately, the book does not fit our criteria.
There are three key essentials we insist on, and this went wrong on every count. So here’s the quick guide to how to be a good publicist from our viewpoint.
1) We don’t usually review self-published books, particularly ones with new theories, unless they are by someone with appropriate qualifications. Don’t bend the truth. Clearly for a book on this topic we need a well-qualified physicist, and the press release describes Dr Wright as a ‘physicist’ and a ‘retired Stanford and NASA physicist.’ (Elsewhere I have seen him described as a ‘former professor of physics at Huddersfield University’.) But as far as I can see – I’m happy to be proved wrong – Dr Wright’s doctorate was in engineering, and his work has largely been in acoustic engineering.
Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against engineers – they do a brilliant job, and to be an academic engineer needs a high level of expertise. But engineering is not physics, and being an acoustic engineer doesn’t make you an expert in relativity. The point here is that popularscience.co.uk is in no position to judge the quality of a book describing a new theory (we don’t claim to be experts in anything, apart from what makes a good popular science book!) – so it’s a reasonable assumption as a minimum that a book we review should be written by someone with appropriate qualifications, and that inappropriate claims are not made.
2) We only review books for the general reader. So publicist, have you read and understood the book? The press release is titled ‘A theory of relativity for the lay person’, but almost from page 1 it was clear this was not the case. The arguments are not put in terms you can understand without a reasonable training in maths and physics. Would you honestly expect a general reader to cope with a page like this:

… and there are many such pages. If the publicist really thinks this is for the lay person, my suspicion is that he hasn’t read it.
3) Don’t claim that new theory ‘disproves’ another theory (especially one by Einstein). This is one we see so often. The press release tells us that Dr Wright has ‘finally showed that Einstein’s ether-less aspect of relativity is in error.’ The problem is you can’t disprove a theory with another theory – only experimental evidence can do this. You can come up with an alternative theory that can be put alongside an existing one, see which best matches the evidence and use the one that gets a scientific consensus as the current best theory – but you can’t say ‘my theory proves yours is wrong.’
I assumed that this was a result of the publicist not understanding science, but I’m not entirely sure having read the start of the book. We hear repeatedly phrases along the line of ‘There is a fundamental requirement, confirmed by measurement, that all waves need a propagation medium to propagate.’ Variants of this are repeated again and again, page after page – which doesn’t make for great reading, but I also have problems with this in terms of the scientific method. (I ought to stress once more that I am not qualified to comment on the detail of Dr Wright’s theory, merely the approach taken here.)
What we seem to have  is a problem of semantics. It’s a truism that if you define a wave as an oscillation in a medium, there has to be a medium. And this is the case with the sound waves with which Dr Wright has much expertise. But you can’t assume, just because something is called ‘a wave’ that it is also an oscillation in a medium, as these repeated statements appear to do. You, could, for instance, mean ‘a particle that has a property called phase that varies with time, resulting in wave-like behaviour’. And that would not require a medium. An electron, for example, is such a particle, but it certainly doesn’t require a medium.
Elsewhere, Dr Wright criticises special relativity because in the case of two spaceships ‘According to Einstein’s relativity, either ship could be considered moving and the other stationary. Either set of astronauts could be considered to age less than those on the other ship. Amazingly, against all logic, both situations were considered possible, even at the same time, which is physically impossible (non causal) in the real world.’ Again, the attempt is to disprove a theory not by appeal to experiment, but to common sense. But science doesn’t work like that. You only have to consider a very simple light clock experiment to realise that the viewpoint he describes as ‘physically impossible’ is what actually happens – no longer impossible because both clocks are seen from different frames of reference.
The fact is that relativity is well supported by experimental evidence. There is also good evidence that light is not a conventional wave – since the start of the 20th century there have been many observations and measurements that light can act as a particle. Quantum theory means that we can consider light as being like a wave, a particle or a fluctuation in a quantum field. All these are models that are used to produce results – but there is no suggestion that light is a wave in the same sense that sound is. There is a huge amount of experimental evidence that this is the case. Yet I didn’t spot any reference to quantum theory here.
So, unfortunately, this book failed on all three criteria. The author didn’t have the right credentials to be giving us a new theory, the book isn’t suitable for the general reader, and the author is not presenting well-documented experimental evidence to disprove a theory in any consistent way. Sorry, folks, that’s not how we do business.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Celestial Revolutionary – John Freely **

I was really looking forward to reading John Freely’s scientific biography of Copernicus as the man who put the sun where it belongs is someone who tends to only receive a couple of pages of aside before we get onto the meaty stuff. I knew the basics, but I wanted to know about Copernicus the man, and to discover more about his work that the concept of a heliocentric universe.
Sadly, the opening chapters were a huge let-down. They consist of brain-numbingly dull history. I was reminded powerfully of the bit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, where everyone has got soaked by the pool of Alice’s tears, and the mouse says ‘I’ll soon make you dry enough,’ and goes on ‘This is the driest thing I know,’ followed by a tranche of exceedingly dull history, all names and places with no real content. Compare, for example, this from Celestial Revolutionary:
The Second Peace of Thorn in 1466 had removed Warmia from the control of the Teutonic Knights and placed it under the sovereignty of the Polish Crown as part of the province of Royal Prussia, although with special privileges that gave it some degree of autonomy under its bishop. The following year the cathedral chapter of Warmia elected Nicolaus von T√ľngen as bishop, going against the wishes of King Casimir IV. The new bishop allied himself with the Teutonic Knights and King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary. This led to a conflict known as the War of the Priests, which began in 1478 when the army of the Polish Crown invaded Warmia putting the town of Braunsberg under siege. The town withstood the siege and the war ended the following year with the Treaty of Piotrkow Trybunalski.
That isn’t even the whole paragraph. It is just plonking down facts – no narrative, no link to Copernicus or his work. Even when we get a chapter of historical background Ancient Greek models of the universe, we just get a long list of ‘This philosopher thought this. Another philosopher thought that.’ Without doubt, this reviewer was losing the will to live by page 35.
Later on things got slightly better as we spent more time on Copernicus and his work. Again, though, there did tend to be a heavy duty concentration on putting the facts across without any great literary flair. Even so, in this part it does the job. Interestingly, the sections that cover Copernicus’s life and work outside of his astronomy are more lively and readable than the parts that should be the core of the book. Copernicus himself is out of the way by page 160, but we trudge on to page 249, with a detailed analysis of De revolutionibus, then chapters that take us all the way through to Newton, which seemed perhaps a little too far removed from the supposed subject matter.
This is a very useful and detailed book if, say, you are doing some academic research for which a knowledge of exactly what Copernicus got up to in his work would be useful, but it really isn’t the popular account that it was sold to me as by the publisher. The front paper promises to tell us about the ‘epic, thrilling times in which [Copernicus] lived’, but I am afraid that for me, that thrill was sadly lacking.
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Review by Brian Clegg