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Showing posts from June, 2015

The Cosmic Microwave Background - Rhodri Evans ****

In the preface to this book, Rhodri Evans describes cosmology as ‘understanding the beginning, evolution and nature of the Universe’. Probably every culture in human history has made a stab at doing this. What sets modern cosmology apart, however, is that it’s based on physical observations rather than metaphysical speculations. In a nutshell, that’s what this book is about – a chronological history of observational cosmology from the renaissance to the present day.

The first chapter describes how careful observations by successive generations of astronomers gradually built up an accurate picture of the structure and scale of the solar system, followed by the extension of the cosmic distance scale to other stars in the Galaxy. The second chapter deals with the rapid progress made during the early decades of the 20th century in understanding the structure and dynamics of the Galaxy, the distances to other galaxies, and the expansion of the universe. A lot of the material in these first …

When To Rob a Bank - Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner ****

After a certain amount of disappointment caused by the previous Freaknomics inspired book, Think Like a Freak, I was prepared to find the latest equally disappointing. After all, the authors admit this is just a transcription of parts of their blog. In economics terms, as they point out, this is the equivalent of buying bottled water - paying money for something you can get for free. However they do claim to have culled the best from their blog, so you don't have to, which is a useful service.

Like the huge successful Freakonomics and its successors, the blog is all about taking the tools of economics and statistics and using them in everyday life. Only here the uses are less thought through. Where they might have done a lot of work to get a piece together for one of the main books, here it's usually just a quick thought, without in-depth research attached. However despite this - and arguably sometimes because of this - a good number of the entries are thought provoking, challe…

Rain - Cynthia Barnett ***

This fairly chunky book, subtitled 'a natural and cultural history' takes on a subject that causes mixed emotions: rain. We all need it, however usually it's a case of 'but not now.' I think it's fair to say that Cynthia Barnett concentrates more on the cultural side than the natural history, but there is some science here in amongst the interesting stories of humanity's interaction with this very distinctive aspect of the weather.

Some sections are particularly interesting. I was fascinated by the attempts to make rain - even now, not wholly confirmed as a scientific possibility - from firing cannons into the sky to seeding clouds with dry ice and iodide crystals. There are strange rains (Fort's frogs and the like), monsoons and, of course, the whole business of clouds, intimately tied up with rain itself.

Overall, the book proved rather too US-centric for my taste, not only having a whole section dedicated to US weather, but also spending far too long r…

Fred Pearce - Four Way Interview

Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in London.  A former news editor of the UK-based New Scientist magazine, he has been its environment consultant since 1992, reporting from 86 countries.  He also writes regularly for the Yale e360 web site in the US, and the Guardian and other newspapers in the UK, as well as irregularly for many other outlets, including the Washington Post.  His most recent book is The New Wild: Why invasive species will be nature's salvation.  Others include: The Land Grabbers, Confessions of an Eco Sinner and When the Rivers Run Dry, which was listed among the all-time Top 50 Sustainability Books by the University of Cambridge’s Programme for Sustainable Leadership.  His books have been translated into 23 languages. 

Why science?

I was a geographer way back.  I'm never sure if that is true science, but it certainly led me to environmental reporting.  I have been doing that for upwards of 30 years now, initially writing about toxic tips an…

The New Wild - Fred Pearce *****

If you are interested in the environment, a new book by Fred Pearce is always a red letter day, and never more so than with his new title on the bizarre portrayal of invasive species and how we need a very different picture of the 'balance of nature' and the environment.

I was a little worried when I first saw the book as it seemed to be treading very similar ground to Ken Thomson's Where Do Camels Belong? and there was certainly an overlap, as both cover the way that 'alien' species that come into a country from elsewhere are treated hysterically by some conservationists and ecologists, with very little scientific backing for their arguments. But Camels concentrates primarily on the species themselves, how transfers from place to place are perfectly normal, and just how difficult it is to define what is a native or an alien species, while The New Wild is more about the politics and big picture aspects.

You know this is going to be special when Pearce opens with the …

Nanoscience - Peter Forbes and Tom Grimsey ***

Quantum theory proves the fascination of the science of the very small, and nanotechnology offers the potential for structures and materials at the kind of scale where quantum physics comes into play behaving significantly more impressively than we expect from something as, dare I say, it dull as materials science.

Thanks to the concept of tiny replicators and robots, nanotechnology has some remarkable heights to aim at - and some deadly lows in the form of all-eating 'grey goo' as worried about by Prince Charles. But the reality is that such technology is far beyond us, and may never be possible because of the difficulties of making engineering work at this scale, where all sorts of different influences, from unexpected forces to quantum tunnelling come into play. Practical nanotechnology started with pigments and even now is mostly about small structured particles and tubules, rather than mini-machines.

Peter Forbes and Tom Grimsey provide a good basic introduction to aspects …

Cakes, Custard and Category Theory - Eugenia Cheng ****

Popular maths books are the most difficult to make interesting to those beyond the hard core readers who are happy to spend their time on mathematical puzzles and diversions, and the reason this book gets four stars despite a couple of problems is that is one of the most original and insightful books on the nature of mathematics for the general reader that I've ever seen.

Rather than simply throw mathematical puzzles and diversions at us, or weird and wonderful numbers, Eugenia Cheng takes us on something close to a journey through the mathematical mind, introducing us first to abstraction, then through the processes of mathematics, the way it generalises and the essential foundations of axioms. This is all as an introduction to the second half the the book on Cheng's speciality, category theory, which will I suspect be as unfamiliar to most non-mathematicians as it was to me.

So in terms of what it sets out to do and what, to some degree, it achieves it is absolutely brilliant.…

The Composition of Foods - McCance and Widdowson ***

I find this book hypnotically wonderful. The fact that it has three stars reflects the fact it is a book that is only going to interest specialists - and the £50+ price tag underlines this. However what you've got here is a reference that well tell you how much water and fats and sugars and nutrients you'll find in anything from a kebab (really) to an aubergine. For instance, need to know how much phosphorous there is in a creme caramel*? It's 77mg. Ask me another.

Clearly this is going to make anyone who buys a copy a surefire success at dinner parties. But more to the point it is hugely valuable if you have a professional interest in nutrition. The nutritionist's bible, you might say. Sugar in a raw onion? It's 6.2 grams. And I can, of course, give it to you broken down by sugar type, if you prefer.

Aside from its value as a reference (and as a doorstop at a chunky 630 pages), it's also something of a curiosity in that both the apparent authors are dead, which …

Professor Povey's Perplexing Problems - Thomas Povey ****

I have a recurring nightmare where I find myself in my final year physics exam at university, but with no opportunity for revision and with practically every detail I learned forgotten. Not surprisingly it is a disaster. In fact one of the greatest moments of my life was when, on starting my first job, I realised I would never have to take another exam. So in principle this book, which is supposedly fun and according to the author ought to be entertaining, should have been my worst possible read. As I started it, I was mentally cursing Simon Singh for saying it was a cut above most popular science titles. In fact, things went rather better than expected. 

The idea is to put the reader through the kind of brain-taxing maths-based problems that are given to physics candidates applying to Oxford University. And some of these are genuinely entertaining. In particular I found the sections on logic problems, perpetual motion machines and estimating highly enjoyable - the estimating section c…

The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who - Simon Guerrier and Marek Kukula ***

There have been a number of books on the science of the long running family science fiction TV show Doctor Who, notably the unimaginatively titled The Science of Doctor Who, and it might be imagined that The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who is more of the same. But we are firmly told that The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who isn't that kind of book in the introduction.

The biggest difficulty following this is to say just what this book is, and who it is aimed at. The format consists of alternating short stories featuring the Doctor (in all of his incarnations) and chapters that cover 'the science bit', sometimes vaguely related to the story, but often not. So, for instance, the first story features an intriguing, but frankly hard to scientifically justify, monster that is gaseous. However, the following science bit makes no attempt to explain how this could be possible. It also doesn't correct the error in the first story where the Doctor says 'Fact: the mean temper…

The Fly Trap - Fredrik Sjöberg *****

I have to beg the popular science reader's indulgence a little with this title as there's not a huge amount of science in it - but it is the most delightful book I've read so far this year. What science there is sits very firmly in Rutherford's category of 'stamp collecting', but there are still interesting insights into the drive behind natural history and the urge to catalogue. 

Fredrik Sjöberg refers to the 'stamp collecting' aspect as buttonology, a term he takes from Strindberg, one of many literary references. Generally speaking, I hate popular science books where the author has the illusion that he is writing 'literature' and churns out a choppy mess of allusions and metaphor. But that's not at all what is happening here. Unlike those authors with pretensions of artiness, here there is nothing pretentious.

Let's get the science bit in first. Sjöberg is an entomologist; specifically he spends his days collecting and classifying hover…