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Showing posts from March, 2015

A Scientist in Wonderland - Edzard Ernst ****

The thing that rather puzzled me when I first came across Edzard Ernst's book A Scientist in Wonderland was the remarkable difference between its British and German titles. The British title clearly refers to Ernst's adventures in the sometimes bafflingly twisted world of alternative medicine. But what to make of Nazis, Nadeln und Intrigen (Nazis, Needles and Intrigue) for the German version? The reason is simply that the book comes in what are effectively two distinctly different halves, and each title majors on one of these.

If I can reverse the order, I would not hesitate to give the second half of the book five stars. It describes Ernst's 20 year tenure as Professor of Complementary Medicine at the University of Exeter. This what made Ernst's previous book, Trick or Treatment, co-authored with Simon Singh, so definitive. What is quite remarkable, in a way, is how much Ernst achieved in this time, as the scales were definitely weighted against him. He describes how, …

Scientific Babel - Michael D. Gordin ***

This is one of the hardest books to review I've ever come across. Supertitled The language of science from the fall of Latin to the rise of English it has plenty to appeal to a science writer, for whom the combination of science and language is so important. But can it be of general interest, and what's it like as a book?

The good news is that there is plenty of genuinely interesting material in here. I found particularly absorbing the parts on the fall of Latin, the dispute over the periodic table (in which language played a major part), the development of constructed languages like Esperanto - the story of the rapid rise and fall of Ido, an Esperanto variant without sillinesses like accents, is particularly impressive - and the early material on the development of machine translation, driven as it seemed to have been, much like the space race, by the USA and the USSR's respective needs to stay on top of what the others were doing - though things seemed to get stuck at the…

Junk DNA - Nessa Carey ****

What grabs the reader fairly early on in Junk DNA is just how wonderfully complex and sophisticated the biological machinery in our cells is. As a non-biologist, I found that reading her description of the way that the cellular mechanisms pull the two copies of a chromosome to opposite sides of the cell, for instance, absolutely riveting. But it's not all superbly functioning miniature marvels: Nessa Carey also explores the many ways that these genetic mechanisms can go wrong. Anyone who ascribes the complexity of biological systems to a designer needs to contemplate just what a messy, over-complex and ad-hoc design has emerged.

I really hadn't though of there being a mechanism for separating copies of chromosomes before - and I think this is the beauty of Carey's book. Us non-biologists have some vague idea of how cells split or proteins are assembled from the genetic 'instructions', but there's a whole host of mechanisms required to go from an apparently simpl…

Professor Stewart's Incredible Numbers - Ian Stewart ***

Ian Stewart is the most prolific writer in the field of popular maths, sometimes producing absolute crackers of a book like The Great Mathematical Problems and sometimes turning out ones that don't quite hit the mark. Intriguingly, this seems to manage to be both, in the same way as we discover that zero manages to be the same as minus zero.

The good news is that there's all kind of weird and wonderful mathematical information here. The book is divided into many sections, starting with the small integers, and making it all the way to infinity, via a plethora of different values and climaxing, appropriately enough, with 42. 

The bad news is that this format means that the book is mostly a collection of facts with limited context and narrative, the part of a popular maths/science book that makes for a truly engrossing read. There are also heavy duty examples of the classic writer's error of 'If it's interesting to me, it must be to you.' So, at one point we read &#…

Atoms Under the Floorboards - Chris Woodford ****

I am very fond of the 'take something everyday and use it to explore science' genre - I did exactly that with my book The Universe Inside You, and I'm delighted to say that in Atoms Under the Floorboards - the surprising science hidden in your home, Chris Woodford takes the same kind of approach, yet come up with a totally different and highly engaging book.

The introduction was a little worrying, as it tries a bit too hard to be friendly in a way that feels at times like a kid's book ('surprising scientific explanations behind all kinds of everyday things, from gurgling drains and squeaky floorboards to rubbery custard and shiny shoes') and at others like the over-enthusiastic introduction to the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Like that remarkable tome, it settles down after a bit, although the text throughout has a kind of breathless enthusiasm that feels like it ought to be read aloud by the actor in the Cillit Bang commercial. (If you aren't fami…

Science in Wonderland - Melanie Keene ***

It's an odd one this, though I was pleased to have it to read, as it makes a distinct change from the usual diet of heavy duty science.

Cambridge historian of science Melanie Keene introduces us to a genre I was unaware of - a peculiarly Victorian idea of putting across science for children using the mechanisms of fairy tales. Sell-out demonstrations at venues like the Royal Institution had shown the public appetite for science, when presented in the best way, and writers were enthusiastic to get these true wonders of the age across, but felt that children would best be introduced to science using intermediaries like fairies (relatively newly transformed from human-sized mischief-makers like Puck to insect-sized, much more attractive winged creatures) and wizards.

An obvious opportunity that was seized with both hands were the parallels between the dramatic revelations of the prehistoric existence of dinosaurs and storybook tales. Here the science was simply presented with some of t…