Wednesday, 29 October 2014

The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets – Simon Singh ****

Updated for paperback edition
Through the years we have had a whole slew of books dedicated to discovering the science or maths used in a fiction book, movie or TV show – think, for instance of The Physics of Star Trek or The Science of Middle Earth. And at first sight, Simon Singh’s new book (which he tells me has been brewing in his mind for a good few years) is more of the same, but in fact it takes rather a different approach. Where the other books look for the science etc. inherent in the world created in the storyline, Singh’s new title picks out the mathematics explicitly incorporated by the writers into the Simpsons (and in its companion show, Futurama, to which the final few chapters are dedicated).
I confess I haven’t much time for Futurama, but despite having always enjoyed the Simpsons, I hadn’t spotted the unusually high level of mathematical content, the result of several of the writers having maths, science or computer science backgrounds. Sometimes it manifests in just a passing reference – perhaps the title of a book glimpsed for a second, or something written on a blackboard in the background. At others the maths is central to the storyline.
In some ways, what should be a ‘best of both worlds’ crossover book that appeals to both  Simpsons fans and maths nerds (publishers love crossover books) is in danger of being the opposite kind of product (I mean product in a mathematical sense – how else?), by being a book that only appeals to maths nerds who are also fans of the Simpsons. As I almost qualify for this, I was going to enjoy reading it anyway, but what saved it from being the mathematical equivalent of trainspotting (‘Did you know that in episode #382, the number 47 is referred to ironically as a square, even though everyone knows it isn’t, fnaar, fnaar!’*) was Singh’s indubitable writing skill and ability to bring in interesting asides and deviations.
Popular maths will always have a smaller audience than popular science for good reason, but if you have only the smallest interest in maths and some enjoyment of either the Simpsons or Futurama you should find this an excellent entertainment, and certainly a revelation when it comes to the lengths that the writers will go to get some little mathematical reference in.
* This isn’t a real example, but the sort of thing I mean
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Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 25 October 2014

I Think You'll Find It's a Bit More Complicated Than That - Ben Goldacre *****

I was somewhat unnerved when Ben Goldacre's latest arrived in the post. I generally love his work, but this is a positive doorstep of a book at 474 pages, so I recoiled a little - but I shouldn't have worried, because as always it's readable, entertaining and enlightening. I got through the whole thing in two days, admittedly helped by spending six hours reading it on two train journeys, which, as a result, flew by.

What we have a selection of Goldacre's writing on bad science and the like since around 2003 (though it's not particularly chronological, more ordered by topic). A lot of the entries are taken from his Guardian Bad Science column, so if you are a fan of that, some will seem familiar. However there was plenty enough for me that I had not seen before - and even revisiting old favourites brought a smile, rather than a feeling of 'not again.'

Topics include all the usual Goldacre targets: quacks and pseudo-science, badly reported experiments, journalists totally misleading the public about what a scientific paper says and much more. You can enjoy, for instance, him laying into individuals and companies that make outrageous claims, but also highlighting heavy handed litigation to suppress criticism, newspaper headlines like 'Suicides Linked to Mobile Phone Masts' (guess what - they weren't) and even a piece on the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch railway. I particularly liked the article 'The Caveat in Paragraph 19' which pointed out something I'd been aware of for a long time without really quantifying, which was the way bad newspaper science often makes outrageous claims up front, then has someone qualified far into the article - well after many stop reading - saying 'but actually there is no evidence for this.'

I Think You'll Find works well as a dip-in book, but I happily read it end to end. What says it all about the quality of this book is that when I got to page 403 and discovered that the remaining pages were notes and index I was really disappointed. I wanted more, and I rarely like long books. That's not a bad sign. Recommended for all the journalists, politicians, purveyors of woo and scientists in your life - but, frankly, for everyone else too. Lovely stuff.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Question Everything - Mick O'Hare (Ed.) ***

I am very fond of these New Scientist books that bring together question and answer sessions from the weekly magazine's Last Word column. The idea is simple - readers send in questions, other readers provide answers (which I assume are only used if they are reasonably correct (or funny)). The series has been very popular, but inevitably some books in the series stand out, and for me this wasn't one of the better ones.

It's not that there isn't good material. I enjoyed, for instance, entries on the spinning of cricket balls (and I hate sport), the long life of fruit cakes, skimming stones and the reason animals don't need toilet paper. But there were just too many questions and answers that didn't really give me anything new and exciting. Perhaps all the really mind boggling questions have already been dealt with.

The final question also illustrated the limitations of this approach. Someone asked how the UK TV audience figures are calculated. They clearly don't ask every viewer what they watched - so how do we know that 9 million people watched programme X? The answer about a sample of viewers whose viewing is recorded was fine, but the problem is that in a 'real' popular science book, the writer would be likely to think through what more would people want to discover? A writer would develop the question. But this 'crowd sourced' approach means there isn't that opportunity to dive in. So here, for instance, the really interesting question is how do they deal with the fact that many us now hardly watch any TV at the time of broadcast, but instead watch a mix of programmes time shifted with a PVR, catch-up TV and streamed shows? That's where the questioning should have gone, but the format doesn't allow for it unless someone happens to write in with the follow-up question.

So, overall, definitely still an interesting book to dip into and makes a great gift (the timing of the publication before Christmas is hardly coincidental) - but it wasn't one of my favourites in the series.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Infinitesimal - Amir Alexander ***

While some books have obscure titles, a combination of the title and the subtitle will usually make it plain what the book is about. But I can pretty much guarantee that most readers, seeing Infinitesimal - how a dangerous mathematical theory shaped the modern world would leap to an incorrect conclusion as I did. The dangerous aspect of infinitesimals was surely going to be related in some way to calculus, but I expected it to be about the great priority debate between Newton and Leibniz, where in fact the book concentrates on the precursors to their work that would make the use of infinitesimals - quantities that are vanishingly close to zero - acceptable in mathematics.

The book is in two distinct sections. The first focuses on the history of the Jesuits, from their founding to their weighing into the mathematical debate against those who wanted to use infinitesimals in maths. For the Jesuits, everything was cut and dried, and where Aristotle's view and the geometry of Euclid had an unchanging nature that made them acceptable, the use of infinitesimals was far too redolent of change and rebellion. This was interesting, particularly in the way that the history gave background on Galileo's rise and fall seen from a different viewpoint (as he was in the ascendancy, the Jesuits were temporarily losing power, and vice versa). However, this part goes on far too long and says the same thing pretty much over and over again. This is, I can't help but feel, a fairly small book, trying to look bigger and more important than it is by being padded.

The second section I found considerably more interesting, though this was mostly as a pure history text. I was fairly ignorant about the origins of the civil war and the impact of its outcome, and Amir Alexander lays this out well. He also portrays the mental battle between philosopher Thomas Hobbes and mathematician John Wallis in a very interesting fashion. I knew, for example, that Wallis had been the first to use the lemniscate, the symbol for infinity used in calculus, but wasn't aware how much he was a self-taught mathematician who took an approach to maths that would horrify any modern maths professional, treating it more as an experimental science where induction was key, than a pure discipline where everything has to be proved.

Hobbes, I only really knew as a name, associated with that horrible frontispiece of his 'masterpiece' Leviathan, which seems to the modern eye a work of madness, envisaging a state where the monarch's word is so supreme that the people are more like automata, cells in a body or bees in a hive rather than individual, thinking humans. What I hadn't realised is that Hobbes was also an enthusiastic mathematician who believed it was possible to derive all his philosophy from geometry - and geometry alone, with none of Wallis' cheating little infinitesimals. The pair attacked each other in print for many years, though Hobbes' campaign foundered to some extent on his inability to see that geometry was not capable of everything (he regularly claimed he had worked out how to square the circle, a geometrically impossible task).

Although I enjoyed finding out more about the historical context it's perhaps unfortunate that Alexander is a historian, rather than someone with an eye to modern science, as I felt the first two sections, which effectively described the winning of the war by induction and experimentation over a view that expected mathematics to be a pure predictor of reality, would have benefited hugely from being contrasted with modern physics, where some would argue that far too much depends on starting with mathematics and predicting outcomes, rather than starting with observation and experiment. An interesting book without doubt, but not quite what it could have been.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 20 October 2014

Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? - Timothy Verstynen and Bradley Voytek ***

When I first opened this book I was a little unsure. My idea of a great horror film is the 1945 classic Dead of Night, which is not just genuinely spooky and unsettling but is surely the only horror film ever to inspire a major cosmological theory (the steady state theory). There is no gore in the movie, and as far as I'm concerned that makes it a much better film than any zombie tripe. I don't want to see blood and guts, thank you. The only zombie movie I've ever seen was Sean of the Dead, and though, like all Simon Pegg's output, it's entertaining, frankly the violent bits make me feel sick. 

I don't understand the appeal of zombies per se. So given that, the authors' idea that they can make biology more appealing by using zombies as the way of explaining the interactions between the brain and the body isn't really my cup of tea. It's not even the first biology-via-zombies book I've come across, following on from (though not acknowledging) Dr Austin's Zombie Science 1Z. But having said all that, Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep isn't half bad.

What the book does is to take us through many of the brain's significant systems, showing how they deal with various aspects of keeping us going, from movement to memory. The context in which this is done is to look at the ways in which zombies appear to have problems with various aspects of their brains, which could produce, for instance, their shuffling gait, or their usual inability to vocalise beyond a grunts and groans. However, Timothy Verstynen and Bradley Voytek do this in such a way that around three quarters of what we read is actually about normal brains, so providing the 'real' educative part of the book, leaving a fragment dealing with zombies to keep the title afloat. This is helped by the way that a lot we have found out about brain function is through patients who have various problems with and damage of the brain - making parallels with the zombie condition easier.

Although bits of it were fascinating, I couldn't help reflect on the great physicist, Richard Feynman and his experience while taking biology as a side course while at university. Feynman had to do a presentation on the nervous system of the cat, and started off displaying a 'map' of the cat, giving names to various parts. He was told he didn't need to bother, because they had to learn the names. Feynman mused that this must be why it took three years to get a biology degree - because they had to spend so much time learning labels. And when it comes down to it, an awful lot of the content here is telling us the labels for various bits of the brain and nervous system that don't really matter to us. But when we get a feel for the remarkable complexity and sometimes counterintuitive operation of the brain, we can see beyond this - even if it is often to discover the shuffling approach of a brain-eating zombie.

Overall, then, I was never going to be totally thrilled by the book, but I was pleasantly surprised on a number of occasions. It won't persuade me to start watching zombie films, though.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Why Don't Spiders Stick to their Webs - Robert Matthews ***

Every publisher is on the look-out for a successful formula, and as New Scientist has discovered, its series based on the Last Word column, where readers' scientific queries are addressed by other readers, are big sellers. Another success in the 'quick answers to scientific questions' field is Robert Matthews' Why don't Spiders Stick to their own Webs, featuring columns originally published in the Sunday Telegraph. But the difference here is that, where Last Word answers tend to read like a lecture by a pernickety academic (or a scientifically inclined comedian), Matthews gives us his wisdom like a benificent and well-read uncle, entertaining his guests at the dinner table.

What is appealing here is the wide-ranging nature of the topics. On one page you might discover the best properties to buy on the Monopoly board, while elsewhere we are told (at least from Pascal's viewpoint) whether it is rational to believe in God. Matthews demolishes myths, like the suggestion there are more people alive now than ever lived before (probably wrong by a whopping factor of 10 to 15) to 'nobody really knows' questions like 'How big is the universe?' (Matthews fudges this a bit by giving a size for the visible universe, rather than the real thing, and in a later question contradicts himself by incorrectly saying 'the radius of the visible universe is 13.7 billion light years'.)

All in all, it's highly entertaining stuff. You will enjoy yourself, learn a bit, and gain several 'Did you know...?' stories to entertain friends and relations. The only problem with the book is that it is getting a trifle elderly and could do with an update. It was originally published in 2005 and doesn't seem to have been updated since. Specifically, this tends to impact on medical and dietary questions, where advice has moved on, including the strong evidence against homeopathy being anything but a placebo effect, which makes Matthews' support for it look rather odd. Perhaps the most obvious failing is when he answers the question 'Why does a magnet held near a television produce weird colours' and gives an answer that assumes everyone's TV and computer monitor is still a cathode ray tube. This is a book that predates flat screens.

Overall, then, good fun and plenty of enjoyable factoids, but it's a shame that it hasn't been updated. (Entertainingly, this does appear to be the same book another of our reviewers gave 5 stars back in 2005, but then, of course, the need for an update was less pressing.)

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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 13 October 2014

Roberto Trotta - Four Way Interview

Roberto Trotta is a theoretical cosmologist and senior lecturer at Imperial College London, where his research focuses on dark matter and dark energy. He is one of the world’s leading figures in the new discipline of astrostatistics – the development and application of advanced statistical tools to problems in cosmology and astrophysics. He has published more than fifty scientific papers and received numerous awards for his research and outreach work. He’s also worked with museums, writers, filmmakers and artists as a scientific consultant, helping to make their artistic creations scientifically sound. A passionate communicator of science, he has recently been awarded an STFC Public Engagement Fellowship to carry out an innovative public outreach programme, which aims at developing and delivering new interactive ways of bringing the excitement of cosmology to the general public. His first book is The Edge of the Sky.  www.robertotrotta.com
Why science?
To think that we can find out answers to hard questions about the nature of the Universe, where it comes from and what will happen to it in the future still excites me and fills me with wonder. For example, we have now learnt that the Universe is 13 billion 798 million years old (give or take 37 million years) -- an amazing achievement! This is what science at its best does: it gives us new eyes to look at the cosmos and understand it in a deeper way. But as I say in The Edge of the Sky, "perhaps the most amazing thing about the All-There-Is is that we can understand it at all."
Why this book?
For over a decade I've been looking for ways of better engaging the public with cosmology, the science of the cosmos. When I came across the XKCD cartoon of the Up-Goer-Five (the Saturn V moon rocket, all labeled using only the most common 1,000 words in English), I thought that perhaps this new language could be used to talk about the entire All-There-Is (that's to say, the Universe), in a simple, straight-forward way that everybody could understand. Limiting my lexicon to the 1,000 most common words in English would not only do away with jargon -- it would force me to think about my subject anew, and express it in a novel, fresh and hopefully surprising way. The Edge of the Sky is the result of that small Eureka! moment. 
What’s next?
I have some ideas for a book that will try to take public engagement and literary experiment where no one has gone before - but it's too early to talk about that! For the moment, I am thoroughly enjoying seeing The Edge of the Sky reach a wide, new audience of readers, and hearing back from them about how they relate and connect with the book. It's been a wonderful journey! 
What’s exciting you at the moment?
Scientifically, the hunt for dark matter is reaching a critical point. We might be on the verge of discovering the dark matter drop (ahem, particle) in a laboratory experiment, which would be one of the greatest scientific breakthrough of all times. I'm very excited to be giving my small contribution to that quest. 

How to Predict the Unpredictable - William Poundstone ****

There's a certain kind of maths title that delights. It's not the kind of pure maths you'd find in an Ian Stewart book, where maths is an intricate, latticework puzzle like a net of spun sugar that need have no connection to the real world. No, this is maths as impure and dirty as it gets. It sneaks up behind us and takes us by surprise, because this is the maths at the interface with psychology - maths that often challenges our beliefs and understanding of the world. It can be both deeply satisfying and quite interesting in a QI fashion, all at the same time.

I suppose the classic of this field is Freakonomics, though I would also recommend The Tiger that Isn't and (in a modest way), my own Dice World. What William Poundstone does with great aplomb here is to unpick our dubious relationship with randomness. In the first half of the book he points out how we are particularly poor envisaging randomness, and how, as a result, if you understand how people get it wrong, it's possible to get an unexpected edge in everything from rock - paper - scissors to multiple choice questions. This all starts with a lovely description of the 'outguessing machine' an incredibly simple device that nonetheless is generally capable at beating humans at a guessing game.

The second part of the book is rather more tenuously linked by the idea of a 'hot hand' - the sport (and specifically basketball) delusion that people who are on a winning streak are more likely to succeed again - coupled with the gamblers' fallacy, which says that, for instance, after a run of black on a roulette wheel, red is more likely to come up. As Poundstone points out, these two apparently contradictory fallacies are actually linked, as the first is only applied in something involving human skill, while the second is reserved for mechanical outcomes. He shows how an understanding of these can help with football betting, property prices and the stock market.

I loved the book until well over half way through. Even in the apparently straightforward answer to 'how to outguess the lottery', Poundstone goes further than the traditional 'by using random selections, rather than human choice.' He isn't going over the boundary to say you can predict the outcome - that really is unpredictable - but rather how to maximise your winnings if you do win. Towards the end of the book, though the content got too specialist for me. There was too much on sports betting, which I have no interest in, and then on ways to beat the stock market, a section which is far too long and technically detailed for the general reader. It's a real shame that this section is used to end the book as it means the whole thing ends on quite a downer.

Don't get me wrong - the concept of beating the stock market is mind-boggling, as the market itself is the kind of chaotic system that isn't possible to forecast. But Poundstone shows how some measures, dependent on the inability of traders to overcome our ability to read patterns into randomness that isn't there, give a long term guidance on action.  And this would have been great if covered in five pages. But as the 36 page finale of the book it's a disappointment. 

So this is mostly a great book - do read it and be prepared to be delighted - but unless you are a sports better or play the markets be prepared for a little disappointment towards the end.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 10 October 2014

The Edge of the Sky - Roberto Trotta ****

This is, without doubt, the strangest popular science book I have ever read or am ever likely to read. For reasons I don't quite understand, I really liked it. Let me start off by telling you why I shouldn't have liked it - but bear in mind that I did. What we have here is a book about cosmology, written in the strangest way.

Firstly it's the teensiest weeniest little book - just 12,000 words for your £10. But far more significantly, Roberto Trotta has decided, for reasons it surely is impossible to explain rationally, to write the book only using the 1,000 most common words in English. (In practice he only used 707.) When I first saw that I thought that this was an attempt to write a science book for those who struggle to read, so he was sticking to a limited vocabulary. But no - the approach means that Trotta has to go all around the houses to use words in ways they were never intended to be used. So, for instance, a planet is a 'crazy star', an atom (or more precisely, a particle) is a 'drop' and the universe is the 'all-there-is.'

That 1,000 word vocabulary seems painfully arbitrary. I don't even know where he got it from. When I looked up a list of the most common 1,000 words in English, they included both planet and atom, so it seems as if his list has almost been deliberately chosen to be difficult to use. Trotta makes an even more bizarre choice about proper names. He uses people's proper names with gay abandon, but doesn't use country names. So, he calls China, 'the land of Mr. Mao' - which is more like a crossword puzzle clue than something that simplifies the reading. (He also insists on calling people Mr. this and Mr. that, presumably because Mr. and Mrs. are in the list - but when he has said Mr. Einstein 10 times, it just seems weird. Why not just 'Einstein'?)

And yet... and yet the result is something with a strangely hypnotic, poetic quality. I was reminded most of all of Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha. This book isn't in verse, but it has the same, slightly mystical, rhythmic feel that translates a fairly ordinary story (like the opening chapter about an astronomer arriving at an observatory) into something magical. I really wanted to read it aloud. It fascinates despite itself. And though I wouldn't say it's a great way to find out about cosmology, as you spend a lot of your time trying to convert the words into something understandable - it certainly gives a feel for the excitement and intensity of the best modern work in the field.

If I have any criticism of the content it's the common one that there is far too much certainty in the way what is inevitably a speculative field is presented. Trotta even says 'We know the age of the All-There-Is is well that it would be like be able to tell the day of the year a stranger in the street came to life to the nearest day just by looking at him.' Admittedly the dating of the big bang hasn't changed much lately - but it has before and it may again. This is emphasised by the way Trotta tells us 'This Early Push [inflation] left space-time shaking with lots of waves, which student-people think they have now picked up with a Far-Seer at the bottom end of our Home-World.' Unfortunately, the BICEP2 experiment this refers to did not do this after all - and what's worse, some even have suggested that what evidence there is suggests inflation is an incorrect model.

So it's a shame Trotta didn't use the exceptional form he has chosen in order to emphasise that science involves model building - more poetic, if you like, than establishing truth. But that didn't stop me liking this little gem. The best comparison I have for it is Alan Garner's Stone Book quartet - and that's a recommendation indeed. (It is on Kindle, but I recommend the paper version, as it's a handsome little book. There is also an audio version, which may be good for the poetic feel, but you probably need to see some of these words to understand what is meant.)

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Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Professor Stewart's Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities - Ian Stewart ****

This is the second review of a trilogy, read in entirely the wrong order (book 3, then 1 here, and 2 to follow), so should you be feeling confused, this book is a predecessor to Professor Stewart's Casebook of Mathematical Mysteries. The format is very similar - a collection of factoids, logical puzzles, mathematical expositions and more to entertain any recreational maths enthusiast. I think it works significantly better in this first book of the series because, to be honest, by volume 3 there is probably a bit of barrel scraping going on. Here the topics are fresh and fun.

There is arguably something for everyone here, which inversely means that there are probably some bits, depending on your mathematical knowledge and interests, that you will either find too trivial or too heavy going. But the format makes it easy to skip through to the next. I personally most enjoy the logic problems (though a small black mark for featuring a near-identical "moving the cups" problem to one in the third book) and, much to my surprise, the geometry, which I suppose took me back to a more innocent time. There were inevitably some entries where there was a strong feeling of 'so what?', leaving the reader suspecting that mathematicians need to get a life. And at least one where I think the answer is wrong, if you apply the same logic as applied in an earlier tricksy question. (It's the one about pigs and umbrellas, if you must know.) 

Funnily, what works least well are the bits that are most like a conventional popular maths book, that describe famous mathematical problems and their context, such as the four colour problem and Fermat's last theorem. The entries for these are rather longer than the rest, but obviously much shorter than, say, Simon Singh's brilliant book on Fermat. That means that you get concentrated fact, but none of the interesting detail that makes a popular science or maths book appealing. For me these sections just don't work and I largely skipped them. 

But - and that's the joy of the format - it really doesn't matter. Because in a few pages there will be something else, and something else, and something else again to entertain and tickle the brain cells. It's notable that I got not just one (about a strange set of dice) but two blog posts (the other being about an oddity in my review copy) out of this book - because it made me think, reminded me of some old favourite problems and puzzles, introduced plenty of new ones and entertained. What more can you ask from maths.

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Review by Brian Clegg