Sunday, 16 November 2014

Life on the Edge - Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden ****

You might think that this book has received four stars, but if you know anything about quantum theory you will be aware that a quantum object can be in a superposition of states. And this quantum book is in a superposed state of 5 stars for the subject - which is fascinating and important - and 3 stars for the writing - which is disappointingly poor, given Jim Al-Khalili's expertise and experience.

It might seem that the whole concept of 'quantum biology' is a truism that hardly needs exploring. When every chemical reaction or electrical activity in a living organism is based on the interaction of quantum particles, why would there be a need for a separate discipline? But the (still relatively few) workers in the field like quantum physicist Jim Al-Khalili and biologist Johnjoe McFadden are looking at special cases. Where quantum effects, like entanglement, have a direct impact on large scale systems. Whether it's the robin's ability to steer using a molecular magnetic compass or the detail at the heart of photosynthesis, there seems to be some strange quantum behaviour that would take biologists by surprise as much as the general reader. And, the authors suggest, perhaps it is the reason that life itself can exist.

There are two aspects of the book that are truly fascinating. One is the exploration of the way that photosynthesis makes use of quantum effects - in fact, could not work without it. It's absolutely mind-boggling that the excited electron that has to be passed as an energy source to the reaction centre has no way of getting there without making use the of the quantum probabilities of taking every path to find its way. And as the authors explore the incredible unlikeliness of life getting started as a result of random interactions it becomes increasingly obvious that there surely must have been some kind of quantum effect that was involved in that process. (We have no idea what it might be, so having a chapter titled How life began' is a bit optimistic.)

One thing I didn't like, which is a common failing when a media scientist writes a book, is the way that quantum physics is presented with a broadcast gloss. What I mean by this is that in a TV or radio programme, where you only have a minute or two to explain something, you often have to gloss over the detail in a way that means you will say something that isn't quite true to keep things moving. But in a book you have the space to explain things properly, and this kind of glossing is a shame. It happens early on where quantum physics is first explained. We hear for instance that quantum particles can be in two places at once (where in reality they aren't at any fixed location) and quantum spin is mentioned in a way that suggests it's literally about a particle spinning around (it's not).

There was also what seemed like a little cattiness. Several times (again, as it's on quantum physics I assume this was Al-Khalili) there are at least four little digs about the way that quantum entanglement doesn't make 'paranormal phenomena' (his inverted commas) such as telepathy possible. At one point he says 'despite the bogus claims of telepathy'. If you don't know the field, you might wonder why this obsession with telepathy, but if you do it's hard not to suspect that this is a dig at Nobel Prize winner Brian Josephson who has previously made exactly this suggestion.

However, neither of these is the reason for the 3 stars for writing, which is rather that apart from those highlights of photosynthesis and the origins of life the book gets bogged down in biochemical details that are frankly not very interesting and that fail to carry the reader. Quantum physics may be glossed, but biological details get the opposite treatment. Perhaps it's the difficulty of having a co-authored book. Perhaps it's because the authors are too close to the subject, but I found parts of it very tedious, perhaps reflective of the old Feynman observation about biologists spending far too much time learning the names for things.

Overall, then, a fascinating topic, a branch of science that is shiny and new and wonderful. But not the book it should have been.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Sciku: the wonder of science in haiku - Students of Camden School for Girls ****

I was a little uncertain about what this book would be like. Probably the closest thing I'd come across before was Marcus Chown and Govert Schilling's Tweeting the Universe, which came across as one of those projects that works better as an idea than it does in practice. But, in fact, this collection of haiku on science subjects by the students of Camden School for Girls proved surprisingly enjoyable and thought provoking.

There were distinct differences between different subjects - and there was a huge range of styles and content. Being low on appreciation of high culture I particularly enjoyed the humorous haiku, but it was interesting that the physics and cosmology topics seemed to work better than the biology. This may be a poetic reflection of Rutherford's old taunt to biologists that 'all science is either physics or stamp collecting' - all too often the biology topics were primarily establishing labels, where in the physics poems the sharp limits of the form seemed to fit well with the stark beauty of the topic. Take this one, for instance, titled Particles:


We huddle in bricks
We dance around in water
We fly in the sky

If I want to be picky, there was a spot of cheating and poems that didn't quite ring true. A good few times the poem consisted of not one but multiple haiku, which strikes me as more like a conventional poem with a set of verses than the true form. And when presented with a line like 'A lump of quarks and protons' I couldn't help think 'but protons are quarks', by which point the magic was lost. (And it's kryptonite that kills Superman, not krypton which was the name of his home planet - to be fair, the editor acknowledges this.)

One problem here is that I am not a great poetry reader - so it may be that my assessment of the quality of the work was a bit like asking someone who eats at a fast food joint every night what they think of a new Michelin starred restaurant. But I thought the quality of the writing, given the age of the contributors, was surprisingly good. You can tell from the desperation of my complaint about krypton that there's not much wrong with this lovely little collection, which would make a great gift or dip in book.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

About Time - Adam Frank ***

This is a curious book that tries to be great - and it almost succeeds. Adam Frank makes a determined effort to interweave two apparently unconnected strands of science and technology history - the personal appreciation of time in human culture and our cosmology. Along the way he brings in a whole host of little details - whether or not you feel that the main aim of the book is successful, there is plenty to enjoy in here.

To begin with, that blend of two disparate strands works very well. We start with time that is linked to the heavens and so is inevitably tied up with cosmology. Later on we get the monastic measures of time, the first clocks, the spread of mechanical time, electrical synchronisation and the railways, modern time keeping, the Outlook program from Microsoft Office and our modern hyper-connected, always aware world, and alongside it the move from mythical cosmologies through Greek and Copernican versions of the solar system, our expanding view of the universe, various Big Bang theories and their burgeoning rivals. (Frank pretty much has the Big Bang as dead by now.)

Sometimes the interweaving is impressive. For instance, I knew that Einstein came up with his special relativity with its very different views of simultaneity while he was working in the Swiss Patent Office in Bern. But I had assumed the work was a sinecure he got out of the way quickly before thinking his important thoughts. Frank points out that much of the patent material he was working on would be about electrical synchronisation of clocks - a concept with simultaneity at its heart - so could be directly inspirational in his thinking.

For much of the rest of the book, though, the linkage between our cultural perception of time and cosmology seemed forced, especially when Frank makes Outlook one of the crucial steps. Unlike the other mileposts, which applied to everyone, only a small percentage of the population has ever used Outlook, making it a clumsy choice. I found the style decidedly forced, particularly in the way each chapter began with a rather twee fictional dramadoc representation of a point in history (or the future). And there was a tendency to state as 'fact' descriptions of historic, and particularly prehistoric events we really don't know much about. This particularly struck me in the description of neolithic myth and ritual which is pure supposition. I think Frank should have read the superb Motel of the Mysteries, which features future archeologists treating a motel room as if it were an Egyptian tomb, assuming, for instance, that the sanitisation strip on the toilet was a ritual marker. (Oh, and I was really irritated with the way he used 'megalith' as a name for a monument like Stonehenge, where it is actually one of the stones the structure is built with, not the monument itself.)

All in all, then, a noble effort, and there was much to like, but it just didn't quite work for me.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Royal Society Winton Prize 2014

The books listed for the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize, arguably a summary of the best popular science books published in 2013.

Winner


The judges said: “A contemporary, sideways look at everyday stuff. Miodownik writes with a passionate ability to explain each subject. It’s packed full of excellent stories and is the only science book out there where the author gets stabbed on the London Underground!”

Shortlist

The judges said: “An incredibly interesting look at the politics of science and the decisions all scientists have to make.”


  • Seven Elements That Have Changed The World: Iron, Carbon, Gold, Silver, Uranium, Titanium, Silicon by John Browne

The judges said: “An inspired look at seven very special elements which are essential to the modern world. It’s a captivating read.”



The judges said: “Very lucidly written, Ferreira succeeds in a explaining some very tricky concepts. A treasure trove of information.”


  • The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine’s Deepest Mystery, by George Johnson

The judges said: “A scrupulously researched, well written book that makes excellent use of case studies.”



The judges said: “An entertaining and disarming read which delves into a usually unspeakable topic with great humour and great insight.”

Longlist

The judges said: “Full of lots of new messages, Carlson makes you stop and think about the practicalities of science, industry and invention.”
The judges said: “Chown is a terrific science writer. His book is a tour de force that covers an incredible range of topics.”
The judges said: “A fantastic look at the importance of randomness, full of interesting and philosophical ideas while still remaining open and accessible.”
The judges said: “Davis wins you over from the start with touch points you can relate to and engaging descriptions. Dedication and a life spent in pursuit of his subject are evident on every page.”
  • My Brief History by Stephen Hawking
The judges said: “Hawking writes incredibly poetically, conjuring evocative images in your mind. My Brief History takes you on a journey of adversities and shows you what has made Hawking one of the most respected theoretical physicists in the world today.
  • Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live by Marlene Luk
The judges said: “Paleofantasy presents an interesting thesis that feels fresh in a very accessible way. The book represents an argument against the accepted wisdom of our time.”

and here are our favourites that didn’t make the long list, but perhaps should have:

Professor Nicky Clayton FRS, Chair of the judges, said:
“Choosing just 12 books from the over 160 that were submitted for this year’s Prize was a very difficult task. There really is a plethora of good science writing out there at the moment. I think this shows how science is ever increasingly becoming part of our culture. In the end though, we did have to agree on 12 and we’re delighted with those we’ve selected. Each one takes you on an informative but perhaps more importantly, engaging, journey of the science. Some are woven with humour and passionate personal stories; others are able to illuminate incredibly complex topics. All are marvellously written and full of the wonder of science.”
The judges on this year’s judging panel are: Professor Nicola Clayton FRS (Chair), Professor of Comparative Cognition at the University of Cambridge and Scientist in Residence at Rambert (formerly Rambert Dance Company); Dr Nathalie Vriend, Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow, Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, University of Cambridge; Emma Read, Head of Factual and Features at ITN Productions; Michael Frayn, playwright and novelist, best known as the author of the farce Noises Off and the dramas Copenhagen and Democracy; Lone Frank, former neuroscientist, journalist and author of My Beautiful Genome, shortlisted for the 2012 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books.