Thursday, 24 July 2014

The Perfect Theory – Pedro G. Ferreira ****

Despite the quote from Marcus du Sautoy on the front referring to this
book by astrophysics professor Pedro Ferreira as a ‘guide to the outer reaches of the universe’, this is far more a book about what goes on in human brains – and specifically the development and partial solutions of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which turned our understanding of the nature of gravitation upside down.
For me it’s a three bears porridge book. We start off with a section that’s just right, then get a bit that’s far too long and end with a bit that’s far too short. (Okay, I know, the porridge was about temperature, not length, but this wasn’t supposed to be taken literally.) That ‘just right’ opening section gives us Einstein’s work and specifically the development of his masterpiece, the ‘perfect theory’, the general theory of relativity.
This takes a totally opposite approach to, say, Cox and Forshaw’s The Quantum UniverseWhere that book does not shy away from presenting difficult detail, Ferreira’s swift, breezy and very readable style wafts us through without any detail at all. Biographically this results in a sanitisation of Einstein’s life (for instance, his first child is never mentioned, and Ferreira makes it sound as if he divorced his first wife before becoming romantically entangled with his cousin). Taking the advice given to Stephen Hawking literally, Ferreira doesn’t show a single equation, not even the central equation of general relativity. I think this is a pity – it is perfectly possible to explain what’s going on there without doing the maths. But his approach does make for an easy read.
The centre section is where Ferreira gets boggled down. While he (probably wisely) continues to omit the details of the theoretical developments themselves, he gives us far too much detail of how this person, and then that person, and then this other person, made some small addition to the understanding of general relativity. This part just seemed to go on for an unnecessarily long time – it was a bit like one of those endless Oscars speeches.
The narration starts to pick up again with gravitational waves. The sad rise and fall of Joseph Weber is very well chronicled, though I think Ferreira is over generous on the matter of LIGO, the extremely expensive gravity wave detector that has never detected anything. He is relentlessly optimistic that the upgrade will succeed – which is not a universal view by any means – and says nothing about the very interesting problems of detection which have all too often produced spurious results.
Finally, at the end, the book got really interesting again – and here, I think, Ferreira spent far too little time. This was particularly the case with the short chapter on alternatives to and developments of general relativity like MOND and TeVeS. This area could usefully have taken up a third of the book, rather than a single short chapter. Overall, though, a worthwhile addition to the popular science canon on gravity, quantum theory and cosmology.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 19 July 2014

The Solar Revolution – Steven McKevitt and Tony Ryan ****

This is updated edition of Project Sunshine and the review is from that edition.
The authors of this important book recognize that energy is the fundamental limiter for human existence and coupled with getting food production right, producing enough clean energy is the most essential step required to keep the world as we know it going.
It’s a slightly meandering book, taking in population growth, cosmology, world history, fossil fuels, renewables and more. The conclusions are powerful and inevitable. Forget the hydrogen infrastructure beloved of Arnie and Top Gear – it’s expensive and impractical. Yes to wind and all those other good things, but for at least 30 years we need a major increase in nuclear (with particular investment in fusion) combined with a rapidly increasing dependence on solar. This needs to be assembled alongside with effective ways of storing energy, which are more likely to be chemical (e.g. producing methanol from air-based carbon, then burning it) than as batteries.
So a great, really important message, but I found quite a lot of the book irritatingly slow, with far too much history that didn’t really contribute a lot to the argument. There was also a touch of the ‘Gore syndrome ‘ – Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth was largely good, but it was let down badly by a couple of factual errors.
All pop science books have a few errors, but when you lay down the law in a polemic fashion you need to be perfect with you core arguments. This book twice makes the plonking statement that ‘all our energy comes from the Sun’. This is blatantly not true, as the book makes plain in describing nuclear, geothermal and tidal energy – none if them dependent on sunlight.
The pages dealing with cosmology seemed slightly better than in the first edition, but even so there are  some highly dubious numbers on inflation, and this whole section feels a little out of place – not crucial but irritating, making me wonder if the authors should have stuck to the science they knew. Overall, though, a very powerful and important title that all politicians should have on their shelves.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Particle Physics: a very short introduction – Frank Close ****

Frank Close packs in a lot of information in this “very short” introduction (notice there’s no promise about difficulty!). That is at once this book’s biggest strength and its potential challenge. The reader who picks it up expecting a breezy, bird’s-eye-view of particle physics is in for a surprise. But if you stick with it, your efforts will be amply rewarded. In ten concise, albeit dense, chapters, Close covers everything from the basic scale of fundamental particles and forces and the three families of matter to quantum chromodynamics, the origins of mass, and even more esoteric subjects like dark matter.
The first four chapters are a particular delight. One of Close’s strengths is his ability to make extremely large or small quantities relatable by using apt analogies and by carefully explaining the units physicists use, such as electron volts. His writing is consistently accessible, unassuming and fun in a wry sort of way, but you never get the sense that he is dumbing down the subject matter or taking the sorts of shortcuts that lead to misunderstandings. These chapters serve as an admirable mini-introduction in their own right.
I have to admit that the fifth and sixth chapters, though worthwhile, occasionally tried my patience: these focus heavily on the history and development of particle accelerators and detectors. While I agree that covering the experimental side of particle physics is necessary in order to understand its current state, Close’s descriptions of cyclotrons, synchrotons, linear accelerators, emulsions, bubble and spark chambers, neutrino detectors and the likes could have benefitted from less historical detail, which is interesting but not essential.
In thinking about the book’s four last chapters, it’s inevitable to point out that these were written before the LHC discovered the Higgs boson in July 2012, so there is some speculation about the LHC that an updated edition would remove or replace. One wonders too, based on what we now know, whether speculative ideas such as supersymmetry, for which we have yet to find any experimental confirmation, might be de-emphasized. But these minor quibbles don’t detract much from an engaging and rigorous discussion of the standard model, antimatter and questions that remain open. Close’s clear, balanced approach is to be applauded. I should also point out that there are plenty of helpful diagrams and tables – as well as a few equations – throughout.
It seems only fair to acknowledge that rating this book using stars may seem a bit prosaic, given its subject matter. So I will translate this rating into particle physics terms: On a pentaquark (they haven’t been confirmed experimentally yet, but exist hypothetically) scale of book rating, I award this volume two positively charged K mesons. And if that just has you scratching your head, I encourage you to pick up this excellent primer.
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Review by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Paleofantasy – Marlene Zuk ***

We all enjoy seeing smug people who tell us how to live being taken down a peg, and in Paleofantasy, subtitled ‘what evolution really tells us about sex, diet and how we live’, Marlene Zuk lays into those who promote a ‘paleo diet’ or ‘caveman lifestyle.’ As the book entertainingly makes clear, these concepts are based on a total misunderstanding.
The idea behind the paleofantasy, particularly popular, it seems, among the New York chatterati, is that we ought to try to live more like our Palaeolithic forebears, because this was the lifestyle and diet we evolved for, where now we live in a very ‘unnatural’ environment. Zuk tears this idea to shreds, showing how evolution doesn’t evolve ‘for’ anything, how we weren’t particularly well matched to our Palaeolithic environment anyway, how we’ve evolved since and how the ideas of what, for instance, people of that period ate are wrong both because, for instance, they did seem to eat grains, and also because they weren’t a single population in a single environment, but actually had many, widely differing lifestyles.
This much is brilliant, but the reason I can only give the book three stars is that it really does feel like this part of the content is more a long article than a book, so it then had to be stretched. This produces a couple of problems. One is that Zuk keeps going back to what the people on ‘Caveman’ forums and the likes say, to compare with the science, and after the initial fun, we don’t care. It’s a bit like writing a book on climate change and using the non-science that Nigel Lawson puts forward all the way through as a straw man, rather than briefly mentioning and dismissing it at the start. It gives the paleofantasists who are, after all, a tiny minority, particularly outside the US, more weight than they deserve.
The other problem is that to fill it out there is an awful lot about the specifics of human evolution (or not) and what we can learn from genetics about our behaviour and illnesses and so on that somehow doesn’t quite work. Unlike the early, fun part of the book, it becomes a less interesting read. Perhaps it’s just me, but I couldn’t get engaged with the material.
Don’t get me wrong, there is lots of interesting science in there, from the genetics of different forms of earwax (though this mostly seems to be in to make a good chapter title, as when it comes down to it, the story is rather uninspiring) to the origins and nature of the structure of the human family, but the way it is presented just didn’t get me excited. It’s a book that’s well worth reading, nonetheless.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Tesla, inventor of the electrical age – W. Bernard Carlson ****

I’ve reviewed two biographies of the engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla: Man out of Time (which is good on Tesla’s odd behaviour but struggles with the science) and Wizard (which is a more rounded book, but is totally lost in the science, telling us that Telsa was close to splitting the electron). This is definitely the best of the three. Certainly it is far better on the aspects of Tesla’s work that are worthwhile – his engineering genius in working on AC motors and polyphase AC, giving comprehensive details of his designs and work.
There is also plenty on his long obsession with transmitting information and electrical energy remotely, culminating in the remarkable Wardenclyffe development with its iconic discharge tower, which ruined him financially and proved his downfall when he was unable to deliver on his promises to be able to span the Atlantic in six months to financier J. P. Morgan. By contrast, though, some of his more wild schemes and his social oddities are only discussed in passing – Carlson hints at the possibility that Tesla was homosexual, which would have been controversial in his day, but hardly mentions his strange eating habits and pigeon-befriending activities. I’m not sure the balance is quite right. This is after, after all a biography, and we  get a rather sketchy picture of Tesla, the man. It may be because Carlson struggles with that side of biography – we hear, for instance, the strangely childlike line that his father died because he was heartbroken. But any shortcomings on the personal front are more than made up for by the exquisite detail on the engineering achievements.
There was one other aspect I was uncomfortable with, which was that Carlson seemed to find it difficult to admit when Tesla was wrong. The facts seem to be that Tesla was a brilliant engineer, but only a so-so scientist. It’s not an unusual combination, and Tesla often managed to develop technology by trial and error without understanding the underlying physics. Specifically he had a poor grasp of the nature of electromagnetic radiation, leading to his odd ideas of being able to transmit electrical energy as a form of vibration through the Earth. While Carlson makes it clear Tesla didn’t succeed he avoids saying that Tesla failed to understand the science, using phrases like ‘raises questions about its feasibility’ in a situation that demands ‘it was just never going to work.’ There is also reasonable evidence that many of Teslas promises of being able to develop technology were nothing more than evasions to put off his creditors or pure fantasy – again Tesla gets too much benefit of the doubt.
Overall, though this is an enjoyable biography of Tesla, concentrating in detail on his engineering achievements and business arrangements, even though it could have been firmer on the unscientific nature of some of Tesla’s ideas.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Serving the Reich – Philip Ball ****

Subtitled ‘the struggle for the soul of physics’, Philip Ball’s book takes us deep into the conflicted (and conflicting) stories of how German physicists responded to the growing power of the Nazis, their attitude to Jews, and their responses to the strictures of the Second World War.
In principle Ball does this by examining the lives and work of three physicists – the old guard Max Planck, a Dutch immigrant Peter Debye, and the seemingly amoral Werner Heisenberg – but in practice we see the impact of the regime and culture on many other physicists from intense supporters of the Nazis to those who did their best to oppose the regime.
Over the years these German scientists have been portrayed as everything from enthusiastic supporters of the Third Reich to secret saboteurs who did all they could to slow down the German development of nuclear weapons. Ball resolutely refuses to paint them either black or white, instead giving us every possible detail of shades of grey.
This is, without doubt, the fairest and most honest approach, given the lack of concrete information, but sometimes Ball’s concern to remain neutral and portray history as it was, rather than the usual ‘as the historian wants it to be’ can make the book a bit of a hard slog. Reading a Philip Ball book is a bit like attending a lecture by a scientist who absolutely knows his stuff, and is prepared to go off on lots of interesting side diversions, but nonetheless is very pernickety and precise, insisting on weighing everything up from every possible angle, so that just sometimes not only is the moral position of the scientists entirely grey, so is the storytelling.
This is a fascinating period in the history of physics, and it is indeed interesting to see how these well known (and less well known) characters played their part. Often the answer is ‘in a human, if rather detached, way – wanting as much as possible to get on with life, even if it meant ignoring some difficult truths.’ There is a feeling that somehow scientists should be more able to face reality – but in fact, in many ways they can be even more withdrawn than a typical citizen. Either way, with such ambiguous circumstances, combined with attempts after the war to modify the record to make things look less unpleasant, the result is inevitably a messy history that can never definitively tell us what happened. So don’t expect to come out of this with a clear picture – but do expect to know a lot more about the thinking of these key figures outside of their work in physics.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Superintelligence – Nick Bostrom ***

There has been a spate of outbursts from physicists who should know better, including Stephen Hawking, saying ‘philosophy is dead – all we need now is physics’ or words to that effect. I challenge any of them to read this book and still say that philosophy is pointless.
It’s worth pointing out immediately that this isn’t really a popular science book. I’d say the first handful of chapters are for everyone, but after that, the bulk of the book would probably be best for undergraduate philosophy students or AI students, reading more like a textbook than anything else, particularly in its dogged detail – but if you are interested in philosophy and/or artificial intelligence, don’t let that put you off.
What Nick Bostrom does is to look at the implications of developing artificial intelligence that goes beyond human abilities in the general sense. (Of course, we already have a sort of AI that goes beyond our abilities in the narrow sense of, say, arithmetic, or playing chess.) In the first couple of chapters he examines how this might be possible – and points out that the timescale is very vague. (Ever since electronic computers have been invented, pundits have been putting the development of effective AI around 20 years in the future, and it’s still the case.) Even so, it seems entirely feasible that we will have a more than human AI – a superintelligent AI – by the end of the century. But the ‘how’ aspect is only a minor part of this book.
The real subject here is how we would deal with such a ‘cleverer than us’ AI. What would we ask it to do? How would we motivate it? How would we control it? And, bearing in mind it is more intelligent than us, how would we prevent it taking over the world or subverting the tasks we give it to its own ends? It is truly fascinating concept, explored in great depth here. This is genuine, practical philosophy. The development of super-AIs may well happen – and if we don’t think through the implications and how we would deal with it, we could well be stuffed as a species.
I think it’s a shame that Bostrom doesn’t make more use of science fiction to give examples of how people have already thought about these issues – he gives only half a page to Asimov and the three laws of robotics (and how Asimov then spends most of his time showing how they’d go wrong), but that’s about it. Yet there has been a lot of thought and dare I say it, a lot more readability than you typically get in a textbook, put into the issues in science fiction than is being allowed for, and it would have been worthy of a chapter in its own right.
I also think a couple of the fundamentals aren’t covered well enough, but pretty much assumed. One is that it would be impossible to contain and restrict such an AI. Although some effort is put into this, I’m not sure there is enough thought put into the basics of ways you can pull the plug manually – if necessary by shutting down the power station that provides the AI with electricity.
The other dubious assertion was originally made by I. J. Good, who worked with Alan Turing, and seems to be taken as true without analysis. This is the suggestion that an ultra-intelligent machine would inevitably be able to design a better AI than humans, so once we build one it will rapidly improve on itself, producing an ‘intelligence explosion’. I think the trouble with this argument is that my suspicion is that if you got hold of the million most intelligent people on earth, the chances are that none of them could design an ultra-powerful computer at the component level. Just because something is superintelligent doesn’t mean it can do this specific task well – this is an assumption.
However this doesn’t set aside what a magnificent conception the book is. I don’t think it will appeal to many general readers, but I do think it ought to be required reading on all philosophy undergraduate courses, by anyone attempting to build AIs… and by physicists who think there is no point to philosophy.
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Review by Brian Clegg