Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Gulp - Mary Roach ****

I have to be honest, I wasn't particularly looking forward to this book, and put off reading it for quite a while. In part this because anything vaguely medical makes me feel queasy, while as someone who suffers from a serious chronic gastrointestinal problem, Mary Roach's subtitle 'adventures on the alimentary canal' was not encouraging. As it happens, though, the experience was not all bad.

In her usual style, Roach pulls in a lot of characters along the way, from sword swallowers to 'fartistes' (sic) including the inevitable lighting of inflammable gasses, which is where a lot of the fun in the book comes from. Her humorous writing style lacks the subtlety of a Bill Bryson - if I'm honest, I find it a trifle irritating - but a lot of people do like it, with newspaper reviews describing it as 'seriously funny' and 'laugh a minute.'

What's more you certainly will learn a lot more about a part of our bodily system that few of us (who don't suffer from GERD) give little thought to as we pile in the food, really forgetting it after the eating part of the experience, and then dispose of the, erm, detritus from the other end. So it genuinely is educational and sometimes fascinating. I particularly enjoyed, for instance, the section on being swallowed alive, where at least there was a chance to get away from the human digestive tract for a while.

This is without doubt a good book, which is why I've given it more stars than I would on my own personal reaction. However, to get the most out of it, I think it's fair to say you need a strong stomach, which I don't have. So I'm afraid it's a book that is more likely to get flushed than to come back for a second tasting.

Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Professor Stewart's Casebook of Mathematical Mysteries ***

There are broadly two audiences for popular maths books - general readers and maths geeks, and a title can appeal to one, or the other, or a bit of both. I struggle with the pure geek books (I'll give you an example of the sort of thing you have to enjoy for me to define you as a maths geek in a moment), but Ian Stewart is capable of writing a book that really does appeal solidly to general reader, as evidenced by his Great Mathematical Problems.

I haven't read (yet) his two previous books in this trilogy, Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities and Hoard of Mathematical Treasures, but my suspicion is that Stewart got through most of the really appealing stuff in those, as at least two thirds of this book fell into the 'geeks only' category. This was a real shame, as the other bits were excellent. I was, admittedly, a bit wary on reading the bumf to discover that Stewart was indulging in some Sherlock Holmes pastiche to frame some of the problems. If there's one thing scientists and mathematicians fall for when they try to do funny, it's whimsy - and it can be horribly painful. All the signs were that this would be the case. Stewart's pair, Soames and Watsup have a landlady called Mrs Soapsuds (why?) - the groans were already pilling up. Yet, surprisingly, what he has produced are very palatable pastiches, full of references to the real thing, yet working surprisingly effectively on their own. Nice one.

The fact remains, though, that there are far too many 'mathematical mysteries' that evoke the response 'So what?' For example: 
The cubes of the three consecutive numbers 1, 2, 3 are 1, 8, 27, which add up to 36, a perfect square. What are the next three consecutive cubes whose sum is a square?
Sorry, I neither know nor care - and though I've given a very short example, some of the longer entries are this kind of mathematical trivia that will only turn on the ├╝ber-mathers.

So near, but so far. The good bits are five star greats. I loved, for instance, the Soames and Watsup puzzle requiring you to change the pattern of 8 glasses with only two moves. (Partly, admittedly, because I saw the answer straight away.) In fact the best bits do tend to be logical or lateral thinking problems. I will have to check out the two earlier books to see if the ratio of interest is similar, but for me, in this particular title, there are just too many items that don't raise more than a passing eyebrow.

Paperback (from October 2015):  
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Scarcity - Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir ****

There is no scarcity of books about the brain and psychology and emotion. In fact, the shelves are groaning with them. But here's a psychological take on what you might regard as a problem of economics - and that makes it genuinely fascinating. So it's a shame that it doesn't work better as a book - but this is one of those titles that you will want to read despite that.

The authors Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir look at the nature of scarcity and, crucially, the effect it has on human performance. You might hear the term and think it's about going hungry - and that is one example of scarcity - but they also look at what happens when money, time and even friends are in short supply. Although they aren't exact analogues, all have related impacts on us as human beings.

By referencing the best available studies (and doing a few of their own), the authors come to some important conclusions. Scarcity isn't all bad. It concentrates the mind - gives us focus. But there is a price to pay for being in that tunnel. It means that other essential aspects of life get ignored. And, most strikingly, what the authors call 'bandwidth' - a combination of cognitive ability and ability to concentrate - is reduced. They call this a 'bandwidth tax'.

So far, so engaging. We aren't just offered the symptoms and diagnosis, but also some attempts to counter this. Pointing out, for instance, that it's better for people to make decisions and learn things when they are going through a good phase than through scarcity. However I have two problems with this as a book. One is that while it's no textbook, it really isn't particularly readable - it takes a really interesting subject and makes it a bit dull. And the other is that there are strong signs that this is really a magazine article, not a book. For page after page the same thing is said in subtly different ways. If I see the word 'bandwidth' again today, I'll scream. The meat of this book could easily fit in 4,000 words.

So, paradoxically, I do urge you to read the book, as the subject is well worth exploring - but I can't promise that you will enjoy the experience.


Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 15 September 2014

Final Frontier - Brian Clegg ****

This book takes the reader on a fascinating journey through the subject of space exploration.

After a discussion of how space travel is portrayed, sometimes unrealistically, in science fiction; this book gives us an informative and interesting breakdown of the various aspects of space travel. Whether it is establishing a base on the Moon, terraforming Mars or mining asteroids for minerals, throughout the book the ideas and concepts which are discussed are explained in a clear and engaging fashion. 

As the book says on several occasions, whether nations justify any space exploration on political, scientific or commercial grounds; the underlying reason that humans will leave this planet is because of humankind's innate desire to explore and expand our frontiers. This book is a wonderful discussion of how that exciting voyage will probably unfold.

To finish, here's what the veteran science writer John Gribbin said:
An enjoyable romp across space and time, from Cyrano de Bergerac to future space-warp driven interstellar craft, via Verne, Wells and the possibility of colonising the solar system.
Review by Rhodri Evans
Please note, this title is written by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion – and we could hardly omit the book – but do want to make the connection clear.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

What If - Randall Munroe ****

I am deeply suspicious whenever a book is sold on the basis that its author is in some sense famous, so I was immediately wary of Randall Munroe's What If, especially as the book was plastered with references to his internet science cartoon site xkcd. The press release gets even more excited, proclaiming 'Science's most intriguing questions answered by the web's favourite writer, the genius behind XLCD.com.' Damn him with faint praise, won't you? This isn't helped by the fact that the few times I've seen Munroe's stick cartoons, usually re-spread on social media, I haven't found them at all funny. So it was almost a disappointment when I discovered that I really liked this book.

Munro gives detailed answers to weird questions asked from readers on his website. Questions like 'If every person on Earth aimed a laser pointer at the Moon at the same time, would it change colour?' and 'How much Force power can Yoda output?' There are even some questions that Munroe shakes his head and retreats from - things like 'How many houses are burned down in the US every year? What would be the easiest way to increase the number by a significant amount (say, at least 15%)?'

The answers given are light hearted, but take the challenge seriously and with some impressive back-of-an-envelope calculation and a touch of research deliver convincing answers. There is a distinguished precedent in taking absurd suggestions (admittedly self-generated) and using them to explore the realities of science in George Gamow's classic (if now rather difficult to read) Mr Tompkins books where, for instance, he explores what would happen if the speed of light reduced to a walking pace.

The main problem with Gamow's books is that they suffer from an excess of whimsy, which was considered funny at the time, something that Munroe does occasional succumb to in his footnotes. Two other slight problems with What If are that some of the problems are so silly that it's easy to think 'So what?' and after a while the format gets a bit samey.

However, it's hard not to admire the straight faced aplomb with which Munroe deals with weird problem after weird problem - and often takes them so far over the top they become more interesting still. (For instance when asking a question about a hair dryer in a box, he considers the outcome for different powers of hair dryers up to 11 petawatts, which is considerably more than the EU likes to allow for electrical goods. (Sorry, the whimsy is catching.) ) 

The fact is this is a very likeable and fun book that should entertain many readers.

Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 8 September 2014

The Copernicus Complex – Caleb Scharf ***

Gravity’s Engines, Caleb Scharf’s first book was one of the best cosmology titles I’ve ever read. In the way it explored lack holes and their relationship to galaxies and the universe it was quite stunning. The only downside was a certain floweriness of style (one reviewer described it as ‘rich language’, but, no, it was floweriness) and the occasional dip into amateur philosophising. The big problem with The Copernicus Complex is that this philosophising becomes the main backbone of the book, which leaves it without an effective narrative arc.
The good news first. There are chapters where Scharf really delivers the goods. There’s a brilliant description of the latest views on the formation of the solar system, for instance. An interesting description of the different types of planets discovered around other solar systems. And even an easy-to-grasp introduction to Bayesian statistics, though this could do with a little more meat.
However, the problem is that the thesis of the book is to explore ‘the quest for our cosmic (in)significance.’ Scharf interestingly talks about the way the move to the Copernican model, shifting the Earth from the centre of the universe, reduced our sense of self-importance. But the real problem here is that there is simply no data to support all the later conjecture about whether life is unusual or common on other planets, so we end up with much hand waving and little substance. There are pages at a time that come to the conclusion ‘so this doesn’t tell us anything.’ Elsewhere we discover ‘If we carefully step through the mental minefield of Bayesian inference, we come to an unsettling conclusion: we can infer relatively little about the statistics of life in the universe from the history of life on Earth.’ That doesn’t so much seem an ‘unsettling conclusion’ as the obvious and not at all surprising one.
To make matters worse, Scharf repeatedly vastly over-inflates the significance of the topic to life, the universe and everything, at least as far as non-cosmologists are concerned. He tells us, for instance, that the discovery that the planetary motions of our solar system are unpredictable in the very long term ‘is a profoundly disturbing discovery.’ [His italics.] No, it really isn’t. It’s interesting, but it’s hardly the kind of thing that’s going to make the six o’clock news.
There were minor irritations too. Even if the book is primarily aimed at a US audience, there is no excuse for just giving temperatures in Fahrenheit. And we had yet again the old chestnut rehashed that Giordano Bruno ‘paid dearly for his views’ [that the Sun was merely a star and there were endless other inhabited worlds]. These views were relatively unusual, but not unique, and certainly not the reason Bruno was burned by the Catholics, which was for common-or-garden religious heresy, not his rather poor scientific theorising.
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of worse cosmology books that this, and I would buy it for that description of the formation of the solar system alone. But it’s a real let down after its predecessor.
Review by Brian Clegg