Monday, 29 December 2014

The Calendar - David Ewing Duncan ***

Update from early review which had been lost
The 5,000 year struggle to align the clock with reality - and what happened to the missing ten days. Struggle is the word. It wasn't until 1949 that China joined the rest of the world on the Gregorian calendar - and the rest of us still suffered many hundreds of years on calendars that were hopelessly adrift with respect reality.

There is a good opportunity for a mix of exploring historical characters and the very arbitrary formation of the 'human' side of the calendar - why is February the short month? Why is the tenth month called the eighth? - alongside the gradual astronomical developments that would pin the calendar the motion of the earth.

Like many of the very tightly focused popular science books, this can be a little samey in places, but it is a fascinating story and rewards the reader throughout with delightful insights. What it lacks in narrative flow, it makes up with information that is well worth the effort.

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Review by Peter Spitz

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

The Quantum Moment - Robert P. Crease and Alfred Scharff Goldhaber ***

This is a book that is trying to be two very different things at the same time, which I suppose, given the subject, is apt. But that doesn't necessarily make it a good idea. On the one hand we find a really quite in-depth exploration of the development of quantum theory. There are some genuinely valuable insights and explanations, with significantly more use of equations than is common in popular science book, but rarely in a way that is scary. On the other hand, it churns out all the hackneyed attempts to base art on science that inevitably are either amateurish or cringemaking - plus presenting some of the more outrageous history of science ideas that emerged from the 1960s when everything had to break the mould and be provocative, however far fetched their ideas seemed.

I can imagine this was done to try to broaden the audience of the book. I can just see the marketing people thinking 'Popular science readers will love it, and so will arty types, so we'll sell lots more copies.' In practice, I think the reverse will happen, because a fair number of popular science enthusiasts will be put off by the wishy-washy science-as-metaphor stuff, while the arts types will find the hard core popular science tedious.

 I'm not quite sure how in touch the academic authors are with the real world either. At one point we are told that Planck's equation E=hν is 'one of the few equations recognizable by the public.' Really? They've clearly been on campus for too long and need to get out more.

There is so much good material in the science parts that it's a real shame that the reader has to plough through pages of the hand waving to get to it. We are told at one point, with enthusiasm and no sense of criticism, about the work of Valerie Laws, who in 2002 spray painted words onto sheep, enabling the flock to spell out randomly(ish) generated phrases. Apparently a spokesperson for Northern Arts, which funded this venture, said the result was 'an exciting fusion of poetry and quantum physics.' And the artist commented 'I decided to explore randomness and some of the principles of quantum mechanics, through poetry, using the medium of sheep.' You couldn't parody this as a worse example of old-fashioned flaky linking of science and art. It's a ready-made Monty Python sketch. This had nothing to do with quantum physics.

There is plenty of great material in here if you want to expand a basic popular science understanding of quantum physics with a bit more depth, but you will have to wade through a lot of unnecessary material to get to it. Mostly the content seems spot on, though I was slightly concerned about a certain flexibility in the history of science presented when we hear, for instance, that returning from the 1911 Solvay conference 'British scientist Ernest Rutherford brought word back to England, where he shared his excitement with an entranced young Danish visitor, Niels Bohr.' Apart from Rutherford being a New Zealander, Bohr didn't meet Rutherford until the end of 1911 and I've never seen any suggestion that Rutherford was the first to bring the early quantum theory to Bohr's attention. So, approach with caution - but if you are tolerant (possibly more tolerant than me), you might enjoy it.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 7 December 2014

When Computing Got Personal - Matt Nicholson *****

It's easy to underestimate just how much personal computing (including access to the internet) has done for us. Yet so many jobs have been transformed - mine as writer certainly has - as has everything from the sheer access to information to the ability to play immersive games in the personal sphere. Matt Nicholson, a long time IT journalist, takes us on the fascinating journey of the development of the desktop personal computer, from the earliest kit computers, through Sinclair Spectrums and BBC Bs to the IBM PC (with its many descendants) and the Apple Mac.

Nicholson tells the story at just the right level, bringing in all the key players and technologies and giving a real in-depth feel to his discussion of the technology, business and politics of the many decisions that left us with the personal computing landscape we have today. From the rise of Microsoft to Apple teetering on the knife-edge of disappearance before it found its way with a new generation of machines, if you are interested in computing this is an excellent account. I've read all the personality-based books on the early developments, that focus almost entirely on the likes of Gates and Jobs, but this achieves a much better balance between the people and the details of the technology (as long as you are techie-minded).

The only thing I really wasn't entirely happy with was the ending. Nicholson decided not to follow personal computing into the laptop/tablet/smartphone era. There's no mention, for instance, of Chrome and only passing references to iPhones and iPads. I think that's a shame, because it's still part of the same revolution, but I can understand him wanting to stick to the very specific rise of the desktop computer. Even so, the actual last few pages end very suddenly without a nice tie-up. Otherwise the whole thing is excellent, particularly surprising as this appears to be a self-published book, but it has clearly been well edited. The only thing that sets it apart is that for some reason self-published books never get the text layout on the page working quite as a well as a properly typeset book. But it's no real problem.

There is one proviso to this review, including those five stars. This is a book that could have been written for me as an audience. I started programming IBM PCs in 1984 (the year the Mac launched). I had the second PC AT in the UK, on which I lost two hard disks in 6 months, so Nicholson's comment 'it soon became apparent that there was something wrong with its 20 Mb hard disk, as users started reporting that it was prone to crashing and losing data for no apparent reason' hit me between the eyes. I was heavily involved in the introduction of Windows and my first ever paid piece of writing was a review of the launch version of Excel for Windows. This is so much a history of my early working life that I can't help but be entranced by it. If you have embraced your inner computer geek you should find it equally enjoyable, but it might not work as well for someone with less of an in-depth interest in the topic.

So - if the thought of finding out why IBM was so tardy bringing in the 80386, what happened to products like Borland Sidekick and Visi On, the real story of the demise of CP/M, whatever happened to OS/2, Microsoft's U-turn in embracing the internet and far more, click away (because surely you shop online) and buy this book.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 1 December 2014

Drunk Tank Pink - Adam Alter ****

Going on the subtitle, which I had to because the title meant nothing to me, I was concerned this would seem to be yet another of the long string of books we've had looking at particular emotions and how the brain produces them. Instead it is far more fascinating because it's observational rather than theoretical. About, for instance, the way that bright pink decor seems to calm people (hence the title - this effect seems not to have reached the UK where I suspect prison governors might resist painting their cells pink), or the way that names influence our perception of people.

This is a genuinely fascinating book, exploring the many psychological experiments that demonstrate how human behaviour is influenced by factors beyond our control and often beyond our awareness. Adam Alter includes more obvious inputs, like Maslow's hierarchy of need, or the tendency to prefer those who are like ourselves, but also many factors that influence us in subtle and unexpected ways. Whether it's the way the ability to see yourself in a mirror makes you less likely to cheat, or the way that some optical illusions don't work as well with African tribespeople as they do New Yorkers, because the Africans live in a world with few straight lines so aren't fooled by fake perspective effects that the New Yorkers can't resist, there is so much here to find interesting.

While I think Alter goes too far in his conclusion in saying that after reading this book you'll be in a better place to 'maximize your health wisdom wealth and well-being' - and let's face it, that wording suggests a tongue firmly in the cheek - you will be genuinely amazed the number of times and situations when your perception and behaviour is likely to be subtly altered by influences you aren't even aware of. One remarkable suggestion is that because of a right hand bias, most of us prefer words that are typed with the right  hand on QWERTY keyboard. So apparently we particularly like words like n00b and woohoo (Alter's examples). I don't know about you, but these aren't among my favourite words - and for that matter, it's hard to see how this can influence someone who isn't a touch typist. But it's still great fun.

My one concern, and the reason that this book has four stars rather than five, is that the author never mentions the reality that much research in psychology is of relatively poor quality. In the manner of a tabloid newspaper jumping from a trial with cells in a lab to say that a substance cures cancer, Alter seems to take all the evidence as if it were fact. Sometimes the effect he describes appears subtle - perhaps a five per cent change - but he never explores statistical significance. And in at least one example, he cites an experiment as if it's meaningful without pointing out it has since been shown that the effect only occurs in the artificial environment of the lab, and isn't repeated when the experiment is undertaken in a real world situation.

There is even an example of being a little fast and loose with evidence in the book. It shows a series of three photos of the same face, but with the features modified so that they display characteristics typical of black and white faces, and something in between. Alter makes a big deal that people see the faces as darker or lighter, depending on the characteristics even though they're 'identical in tone.' He points out 'If you cover up the facial features with your hand and focus only on the foreheads you'll be able to see that the faces share an identical skin tone.' The trouble is, this is a test of a very subtle reaction, where people will pick up on tiny visual queues - and his observation is selective, a classic error in soft sciences like psychology.

While it's true that the foreheads all have the same tones, it's not true of the rest of the face. For some reason, on the 'black characteristics' face, there is a shadow across the cheeks that extends all the way to the lips. On the 'white characteristics' face, this shadow is only on the very edge of the face. As a result, around a quarter of the skin area is significantly darker on the 'black' image - plenty enough to make someone see this face as darker skinned. Being selective about your data is a cardinal sin in science and undermines the authority of the book.

Overall then, Drunk Tank Pink is great fun with lots of fascinating observations of the strange ways that people behave. This is material that has a real impact on the way we understand human behaviour and perhaps how we should react to it. But you need to apply a pinch of salt to the 'scientific' conclusions, as there is definitely an aspect of tabloid science at play.

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Review by Brian Clegg