Sunday, 31 August 2014

The First 20 Minutes – Gretchen Reynolds ****

Anyone who knows the reviewer would raise an eyebrow about my reading a book on how to  exercise better, but this is subtitled ‘The surprising science of how we can exercise better, train smarter and live longer’. Gretchen Reynolds delivers an impressive balance between exploring scientific studies in the area of exercise and practical guidance for everyday folk.
One problem with studies in health and fitness is that it isn’t always easy to tell the difference between a small subjective study with insufficient data to draw an significant conclusions and large studies that have been replicated and confirmed in their findings. It is also often quite difficult to distinguish pick out where the link between exercise and health is causal and where it is just correlated (i.e. statistically linked in some way, but the exercise didn’t actually cause the health benefits, because, say, people who do this exercise also tend to have a better lifestyle). Reynolds is reasonably good in this respect, usually making it clear where a study is insufficient to draw concrete conclusions, but the lack of certainly on the quality of the data in some cases is probably the weakest aspect of the findings.
Even so, this is a very readable book, perhaps particularly for someone who hates exercise. It also delivers a fair number of surprises – for instance that static stretching is actually damaging rather than beneficial, and that Andy Murray’s famed ice baths are nothing more than a placebo. Sorry, Andy, won’t be joining you. Whether you are interested in the science of the human body or want to improve your fitness with minimum effort, this book is well worth a look.
Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Introducing Particle Physics – Tom Whyntie & Oliver Pugh ***

I’ve long been a fan of the massive ‘Introducing’ series of graphic guides and even contributed one (Introducing Infinity) with the excellent Oliver Pugh. They provide an easy-to-digest overview of a topic, using pages that are dominated by illustrations that often remind me of Terry Gilliam’s work on Monty Python, combined with speech bubbles and small chunks of text to get the message across.
Some work better than others and for me, Introducing Particle Physics was a mixed experience. I don’t doubt that Tom Whyntie had a huge challenge to face. Whole chunks of particle physics are, frankly rather dull, while other parts are amongst the most difficult to explain in all of physics. Really making symmetry breaking and the whole Higgs business comprehensible (rather than putting it across at the trite level the news correspondents managed) is very difficult, and I’m not sure that Whyntie manages it. I suspect as someone working in the field he is too close to it to really understand why everyone else finds it so daunting.
The other problem I had was that I found the text rather too dense and not hugely readable in places. But having said all that, given the problems of getting across this subject there is no doubt at all that this format makes for one of the most approachable attempts I’ve seen. Bearing in mind that to explain particle physics, Whyntie also has to pull in chunks of quantum physics and nuclear physics it’s quite a tour-de-force that this book was ever written at all. So don’t expect everything about particle physics to suddenly become crystal clear – but this will certainly help fill in a lot of the background before, perhaps, reading a more detailed book on the subject.
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Imagine That… The History of Technology Rewritten – Michael Sells ***

Asking the question ‘What if…?’ is a classic approach to creativity and original thinking. As Michael Sells shows, it is also a good way to explore a whole range of subjects, from technology in this book through to the likes of ‘Football Rewritten’ and ‘The History of Music Rewritten.’
What Sells does here is take a number of key events in the history of science and technology where a small change in situation could result in a major difference in outcome. So, we are invited, for instance, to consider what would have happened if Alexander Fleming had cleaned his petri dishes and penicillin was washed down the drain – or if Steve Jobs never visited Xerox PARC at Palo Alto and got the inspiration that would lead to the Mac.
It’s a fascinating approach and Sells brings us ten scenarios including the transistor, Facebook, cats’ eyes (the ones in the road) and the totally wonderful ‘Newspaper Radio’, an idea from the end of the 1930s of broadcasting a facsimile newspaper bringing, as Sells puts it, 24 hour journalism to 1939. Most of the ‘what if?’s did happen, though a couple – like that broadcast newspaper and Tesla’s wilder ideas having enough financial backing – didn’t.
There were a couple of disappointments for me. A minor matter was that the title grated. It would have read much better as ‘Imagine… The History of Technology Rewritten.’ But what was more significant was that very little of the content was ‘What if?’ According to the bumf we are taken on a ‘historical flight of fancy, imagining the consequences if history had gone just that little bit differently’, but in practice the text is almost all about what actually did happen. So, for instance, with Fleming, we get the initial set up of ‘Imagine if he cleans up his dishes’, but then around 90% of the text is a simple description of what actually did happen, with just a few pages on how things would have been if Fleming had got down to scrubbing.
I was also unhappy with the Tesla section, which suggested he would have gone onto far greater things if he had ‘received philanthropic support.’ However there is no evidence that Tesla’s ‘World System’ of ‘free energy’ and broadcast power and information that would span the globe would have worked. It had no scientific basis. Sells comments that ‘Tesla had an unerring habit of being right.’ But this just isn’t true. He was a brilliant engineer, and his work on AC was outstanding – but he showed several times that he had limited understanding of some aspects of physics. For instance, he refused to accept relativity. Not to mention his infamous claim to have a box containing a deadly energy weapon that in fact held a Wheatstone bridge. It’s true that Tesla predicted many things – but that didn’t mean he could make them happen, any more than Roger Bacon could have produced the aeroplanes, cars, television etc. he dreamed up in the thirteenth century if only he had philanthropic support.
So, an excellent concept with some very good entries (my favourites were cats’ eyes and the newspaper radio), but a little patchy and not delivering enough on the ‘what if?’s. Even so it’s a well-priced pocket-sized book and well worth taking a look.
Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Hal’s Legacy – David G. Stork (ed.) ***

For me, 2001 was the first (and still one of the only) science fiction films that comes close to being accurate in its science. And without doubt, the movie-stealing character (certainly the most emotionally ranging character) was the computer, HAL.
This is an old book, dating back to the late 1990s, but still fascinating in the way that it uses the different aspects of HAL to look at how the real technologies have developed in comparison with the way they were envisaged in the 1960s film. It’s in the format of a series of articles by different authors. Amongst my favourites was the AI overview by Marvin Minsky, who was on set part of the time (and nearly killed by a flying spanner) and the discussion of HAL’s game of chess, reflecting on the way he plays chess like a person, rather than in the manner of a chess-playing computer like IBM’s Deep Blue.
Inevitably it’s a bit dated in places – but surprisingly little, considering how computer technology has moved on since the late 1990s. Also it’s probably a touch too academic and obsessed with every fiddly detail to make it acceptable as a general read (which is why I’ve only given it three stars). But if, like me, you were overwhelmed at the time by 2001, and are still impressed by it, this is a book of delights.
Hardback (older edition):  
Review by Brian Clegg