Thursday, 26 February 2015

I, Superorganism - Jon Turney ****

I need to say straight away that I like this book, as my first comment otherwise would be a complaint. Because I don't like the title. For me, a superorganism is something very specific. It's a collection of individual organisms that come together to act as a single being. None typically has the full range of functionality and none seeks its own benefit. Instead they act more like the cells of a body. This kind of lifeform sounds like an alien in a sci-fi movie. But bees, ants and termites are all such superorganisms. Humans aren't. 

I'm not saying humans aren't amazing, with lots of parasitism and symbiotic action going on with all the many non-human inhabitants of the body, but we aren't real superorganisms. Jon Turney does make a quick reference right at the end of his book to this 'other' use of the term, but for me that is the definitive use - so for this phenomenon they should choose a new term like metaorganism or hyperorganism. I don't care, just hands off the bees.

With that moan over, this is a very important book because it covers a phenomenal topic, which practically no one knows much about, and Turney does the best possible job in covering it. As the book's subtitle suggests it's about 'learning to love your inner ecosystem' - or probably more accurately, becoming more aware of just how amazing the colony of bacteria (etc.) that co-occupies your body is, where it comes from, and all the remarkable things it does in terms of your body's everyday working.

When I wrote The Universe Inside You, it was amazing enough to be able to say that we have around ten times as many bacterial cells as human in our bodies - but these figures are relatively dated, it seems. It's not so much that we have a better feel for the numbers, but rather a better feel for how little we really know. Whatever the actual figure, there are certainly far more bacterial cells in us than our own, and they occur pretty well everywhere, even in areas like the surface of the eye that were once thought to be sterile. (Part of the problem with pinning down bacteria is that they don't all flourish in a petri dish, so before DNA sequencing it was hard to be sure what was present, and even now it's all decidedly vague.)

Among the revelations are that our systems are built around supporting bacteria far more than we once thought. For instance, a major part of our very sophisticated and complex immune system seems to have been developed not to protect us, but to protect all the useful bacteria that inhabit our cracks, crevices and innards. And then there's the sheer diversity - because different individuals can have almost entirely different proportions of onboard flora and fauna - in fact each of us can be as different as different continents. Which all means that even though our DNA sequencing techniques are hugely improved, and can now routinely make deductions from a whole mess of DNA, rather than that of an isolated bacterium, we are largely in the dark about the whys and wherefores of any particular human ecosystem.

Which leads me on to the negative side. Quite a lot of the book is, well, dull. This might seem a contradiction to my earlier comment about Turney doing the best possible job in covering it - but the point is that the subject itself manages to be hugely important... and boring, all at the same time. Part of the problem is the Rutherford effect. The great physicist Ernest Rutherford famously (and very effectively) wound up by biologists by saying 'all science is either physics or stamp collecting,' meaning that biologists, and to some extend chemists, spend most of their time collecting information, cataloguing it and structuring it, rather than developing any fundamental underlying science. And while biology now has its mega-theories, this study of these bacterial colonies and their interaction with their human host is very much in the stamp collecting phase, even if it's done with brand new, high-tech approaches.

So we get page after page that is telling us about the type of bacteria that may (or may not) be found in different parts of the body and the chemical systems they use to interact and the molecular... zzzz. Of course I may be biased, having a physics background, but I've read and enjoyed plenty of popular biology books. I like this one, I find the underlying 'wow factor' of the sheer scale and importance of our associated bacteria amazing, but the detail is rather tedious. 

I also didn't get an answer to the question that was at the back of my mind, raising a hand for attention, all the way through. What do the different antibiotics we get given do to our bacterial landscape, and what does this mean for its recovery afterwards? There is a specific section about the impact of antibiotics on young children, but no insights into the specific action of, say, amoxycillin on our gut bacteria. (And someone should have spotted the howler where a paper is quoted as saying as a sample was 'placed in a cooler and... stored at 280°C until DNA extraction.' That's not storage, that's cooking. It should have read -80°C.)

Given that, what should I conclude? I think even if you end up, like me, skipping through a few pages where things look to be carrying on in the same fashion, it is still a really important milestone in our understanding of the complexity and variability of our inner landscape, and as such is a must-have addition to the popular science bookshelf.

Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Frank Close - Four Way Interview

Frank Close is Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford. He was formerly vice president of the British Association for Advancement of 
Science, Head of the Theoretical Physics Division at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and Head of Communications and Public Education at CERN. He is the winner of the Kelvin Medal of the Institute of Physics for his "outstanding contributions to the public 
understanding of physics." . His latest book is Half Life, a scientific biography of nuclear scientist (and possible spy) Bruno Pontecorvo.

Why Science?

I always wanted to know: why? Decades later I discovered that science deals with 'how?', but by then I was hooked. Chemistry at school consisted of lots of facts, too many to remember, but it was the chemistry teacher who told me that everything is made of atoms, which in turn are all made of electrons encircling a nucleus, and the only difference between one atomic element and the next is the number of protons. That such simplicity could lead to such richness astonished me then, and still does. It also gave me the hope that I could derive all of chemistry from this basic fact (a hope unfulfilled) and pointed me towards physics, eventually particle physics. I always loved numbers, and algebra, and was useless with experiments. That’s how I became a theoretical physicist. I still find it remarkable that by scribbling equations on pieces of paper, it is possible to deduce profound consequences about the nature of the universe, which experiments subsequently confirm. How can mathematics 'know' reality before we ourselves?

Why this book?

I wrote a book called Neutrino, the story of Ray Davis’ heroic forty year quest to detect these ghostly particles, which theory implied must be pouring from the sun in vast quantities. He survived long enough to collect a Nobel Prize, in 2002, at age 87. In the course of researching that book, I discovered that behind the scenes another physicist, Bruno Pontecorvo, had played a central role. However, halfway through his life he had defected to the Soviet Union at the height of the cold war, and missed out on one Nobel Prize as a result (he was unable to share in Davis’ Nobel, later, as Pontecorvo died in 1993). I began to research Pontecorvo’s life, and the question of why he had made the fateful flight to the USSR began to take centre stage. In addition to being a great physicist, had he also been a spy, as some conjectured? I discovered that he had lived in my home-town, and I found people who had known him, sixty-five years ago. I traced school-friends of his son, who had been twelve years old at the time, and they told me their memories of the disappearance. Then we discovered that one of the teachers at their school had worked for MI5, and suddenly I realised that I had an inside track to a spy mystery as well as a scientific biography. I met family members of two certain atomic spies, as well as several of Bruno Pontecorvo’s own relatives, along with others from the world of smoke and mirrors. My breakthrough was in unearthing an MI5 document that had been lost – or maybe 'lost' – which revealed that the infamous Kim Philby had played a central role in Pontecorvo’s disappearance. From which point, Half Life wrote itself. I am flattered that, having spent forty years as a physicist, reviewers are now describing me as an “historian”.

What next?

I am writing a short book about my fascination with solar eclipses, which began as an eight years old schoolboy and, since I was present at a total solar eclipse in 1999, have become an obsession. In my new guise as 'historian' of scientific affairs, I am researching another atomic physics espionage mystery from the Second World War. This has grown out of my research into Half Life, which revealed some previously unknown facts about Klaus Fuchs, his mentor Rudolf Peierls – the British father of the atomic bomb - and the role of MI5 and the FBI. But as there may be literary spies out there, I shall say no more for now!

What’s exciting you right now?

In my own field of particle physics, I am eagerly awaiting the re-start of the Large Hadron Collider at higher energies. Having discovered the Higgs boson, will the LHC find evidence for supersymmetry, or reveal the dark matter particles, which, according to cosmologists, are more copious than the stuff that we presently know? Only Nature knows the answers so far, but the weird property of mathematics, which I mentioned at the start, suggests that discoveries are waiting to be made. Outside particle physics, I am intrigued about consciousness: how many atoms are needed to gather together before they are self-aware? Unfortunately I have no idea how to answer this question. Other than that, I hope that answers will come to some of these questions while I am still capable of sharing my excitement about them, and their significance, in print sometime in the future.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Half Life - Frank Close ****

It would be easy from the title of this book to suspect that physics professor Frank Close is writing about... well, radioactive half lives, but the subtitle tells us this is really on a more complex topic: 'The divided life of Bruno Pontecorvo, physicist or spy'. (I feel there ought to be a question mark at the end of that.)

Frank Close is a familiar name, with a string of excellent books focusing on specific topics in physics like Antimatter, The Infinity Puzzle and my particular favourite, Neutrino. This last title is particular apt, as neutrinos feature heavily in Half Life too, but this is a very different beast. In Half Life we get a scientific biography of Bruno Pontecorvo, the Italian physicist who worked on nuclear reactors during the Second World War, moved to Harwell in the UK soon after, but then, in 1950, mysteriously disappeared without trace. Five years later he appeared in the Soviet Union where he lived and worked for the rest of a long life.

What's very welcome about this book is that it gives us the chance to put Pontecorvo in his place in the annals of physics. Arguably he would have been a Nobel Prize winner if he hadn't disappeared into Russian obscurity, and he continued to do important work at Dubna, particularly around neutrino theory. But Pontecorvo's disappearance meant that a) speculation about this dominated any popular writing about him and b) his scientific work didn't really get the credit he deserved.

There are really three strands here - Pontecorvo's life, his work and the nature of his relationship with the Soviet Union - and Close covers them all in some detail in over 300 pages before you reach the notes. Apart from finding out more about Pontecorvo's work on neutrinos there is some fascinating material on his time in Fermi's lab in Italy. I hadn't realised, for instance, that Fermi and his team took out a patent on the slow neutron process that made nuclear chain reactions practical. One of the reasons that some of Pontecorvo's former colleagues gave him the cold shoulder after his defection was that his disappearance damaged their lawsuit for a large payment from the US government.

I'd still say that the Neutrino book is the best way to read up on these fascinating particles - here the scence parts tend to be a bit disjointed, because some aspects of the development involved messy overlaps and the chronology flips back and forth, and the science is fitted around the people part. But you will certainly gain some insights. There is also the key mystery that has never been solved - was Pontecorvo a Soviet spy who defected when he was in danger of being revealed, or just a naive communist who thought he was heading for a better life?

Close isn't able to provide us with a definitive answer to that question, but he pieces together evidence that gives a strong suggestion of Pontecorvo's role, which Close admits was totally different to his own expectation. (You'll have to read the book to get the answer.) The detective work is painstaking, perhaps giving us rather more detail than we really want. But the story of the key few days when the Pontecorvos (his wife and children disappeared with him) gave every appearance of being on an enjoyable European motoring holiday before things suddenly become strange is told very well.

This was a part of the history of physics that has never been properly explored in popular science, with a good mix of biography and the key science behind it. While I can't go as far as one of the quotes on the back which refers to it as a 'gripping scientific spy mystery' - the grip is mostly quite loose - it is essential reading for anyone who wants to get a good feel for what Fermi's team did before the war, the machinations of wartime science spying and the development of neutrino theory. Close does a great job of putting Pontecorvo in his proper place in the history of physics, and (as much as is possible) draws back the curtain of mystery that has always covered his relationship with the Soviet Union.

Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 20 February 2015

Before the Big Bang - John Gribbin ****

In this compact (50 page) ebook, veteran popular science writer John Gribbin takes on the period in the current best-accepted theory of the origin of the universe, the hot big bang theory, that came before the big bang itself.

Although I also wrote a book called Before the Big Bang, I'm not overly miffed as this is a totally different approach. Where my book was about the historical context leading up to the big bang theory, plus alternative models of the origin of the universe, some of which have more of a 'before' than the vanilla big bang theory, Gribbin is filling in a much misunderstood aspect of this central cosmological theory. As he frequently points out, the 'big bang' in question is not the beginning of the universe, but the point after inflation when things get seriously hot (though it's not totally clear that Fred Hoyle meant this at the moment he coined the term).

Gribbin starts us off with a bit of background, revealing, for instance, in a more robust fashion than usual that Lemaitre and not Hubble was the discoverer of what is now known as Hubble's law. He then gives a clear picture of the nature of the big bang itself, based on a book by Soviet cosmologist Igor Novikov that dates back to the late 1970s, and remarkably is still pretty much in line with current understanding.

From there, Gribbin gives us an excellent exploration of inflation and some of the reasoning behind the possibility of a singularity (or at least near-singularity) for the actual beginning of our universe, followed up with a good summary of the multiverse concept, and how it could be driven by different possible kinds of inflation, all brought up to date with useful analysis of the BICEP2 mis-discovery of evidence for inflation.

Gribbin could have been a little less definitive about some of this, because however much cosmologists like to think they've left their reputation for speculation behind, there is still some (highly educated) guesswork in the field. When Gribbin says 'The story of the Big Bang is as well established as any story in science,' it feels a bit like when at the start of the twentieth century budding physicists were told 'there are only a few minor details to sort out, but basically we've got physics cracked.' And then relativity and quantum theory came along. So for instance, on dark matter, Gribbin comments 'we now know... that the Universe also contains something called dark matter', where I think it would be more balanced to say 'we now think...' but generally speaking the only other negative here is that because the book(let) is so short, it is quite condensed information, so is not as easy a read as the author's full length books.

If you've got the price of a cup of coffee to spare, why not give your caffeine addiction a miss and spend it instead on something that really will improve the mind? There'll even be some change.

Review by Brian Clegg

Two weird quantum concepts

Quantum physics is famous for its strangeness. As the great Richard Feynman once said about the part of quantum theory that deals with the interactions of light and matter particles, quantum electrodynamics:
I’m going to describe to you how Nature is – and if you don’t like it, that’s going to get in the way of your understanding it… The theory of quantum electrodynamics describes Nature as absurd from the point of view of common sense. And it agrees fully with experiment. So I hope you can accept Nature as she is – absurd.
It's interesting to compare two of the strangest concepts to be associated with quantum physics - Dirac's negative energy sea and the 'many worlds' interpretation. Each strains our acceptance, but both have had their ardent supporters.

Dirac's 'sea' emerges from his equation which describes the behaviour of the electron as a quantum particle that is subject to relativistic effects. The English physicist Paul Dirac discovered that his equation, which fits experimental observation beautifully, could not hold without one really weird implication. We are used to electrons occupying different quantised energy levels. This is bread and butter quantum theory. But all those levels are positive. Dirac's equation required there also to be a matching set of negative energy levels.

This caused confusion, doubt and in some cases rage. Such levels had never been observed. And if they were there, you would expect electrons to plunge down into them, emitting radiation as they went. Nothing would be stable. As a mind-boggling patch, Dirac suggested that while these levels existed, they were already full of electrons. So every electron we observe would be supported by an infinite tower of electrons, all combining to fill space with his 'Dirac sea'.

As you might expect, a good number of physicists were not impressed by this concept. But Dirac stuck with it and examined the implications. Sometimes you would expect that an electron in the sea would absorb energy and jump to a higher, positive level - leaving behind a hole in the negative energy sea. Dirac reasoned that such an absence of a negatively charged, negative energy electron would be the same as the presence of a positively charged, positive energy anti-electron. If his sea existed, there should be some anti-electrons out there, which would be able to combine with a conventional electron - as the electron filled the hole - giving off a zap of energy as photons.

It took quite a while, but in the early cloud chambers that were used to study cosmic rays it was discovered that a particle sometimes formed that seemed identical to an electron, except for having a positive charge - the positron, or anti-electron.

Weird though it was, Dirac's concept was able to predict a detectable outcome and moved forward our understanding of physics. As it happens, with time it proved possible to formulate quantum field theory in such a way that the positron was a true particle and the need for the sea was removed, although it remains as an alternative way of thinking about electrons that has proved useful in solid state electronics.

The 'many worlds' hypothesis originated in the late 1950s from the American physicist Hugh Everett. Its aim is to avoid the difficulty we have of the difference between the probabilistic quantum world and the 'real' things we see around us, which seem not to have the same flighty behaviour. Everett didn't like the then dominant 'Copenhagen interpretation' (variants of which are still relatively common) which said that a quantum particle would cease behaving in a weird quantum fashion and 'collapse' to having a particular value when it was 'observed'. This concept gave a lot of physicists problems, especially when it was assumed that this 'observation' had to be by a conscious being, rather than simply an interaction with other particles.

Like the Dirac sea, 'many worlds' patches up a problem with a drastic-sounding solution. In 'many worlds', the system being observed and the observer are considered as a whole. After an event that the Copenhagen interpretation would regard as a collapse, 'many worlds' effectively has a universe that combines both possible states, each with its own version of the observer. So, in effect, the process means that the universe doubles in complexity each time such a quantum event occurs, becoming a massively complex tree of possibilities.

Some physicists like the lack of a need for anything like the odd 'collapse' and the distinction between  small scale and large - others find the whole thing baroque in its complexity. What would help is if 'many worlds' could come up with its equivalent of antimatter - a prediction of something that emerges from it but not from other interpretations that can be measured and detected. As yet this is to happen. Whether or not you accept 'many worlds', it is certainly a remarkable example of the kind of thinking needed to get your head around quantum physics.

Find out more about Dirac, his equation and the quantum sea in The Strangest Man by Graham Farmelo.

Find out more about the latest thinking on 'many worlds' in Our Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark.

Steven Weinberg - Four Way Interview

Steven Weinberg was educated at Cornell, Copenhagen, and Princeton, and taught at Columbia, Berkeley, M.I.T., and Harvard. In 1982 he moved to The University of Texas at Austin and founded its Theory Group. At Texas he holds the Josey Regental Chair of Science and is a member of the Physics and Astronomy Departments. His research has spanned a broad range of topics in quantum field theory, elementary particle physics, and cosmology, and has received numerous awards, including the Nobel Prize in Physics. His latest book is To Explain the World.

Why science?

I have known that I wanted to be a theoretical physicist since I was sixteen  It was irresistible to me to think that, by stewing over what is known experimentally in the light of present theories, and noodling around with equations, someone could come up with a new theory that turned out to make successful predictions about the real world.  That earlier successful theories like quantum mechanics and relativity were esoteric and counter-intuitive and used fancy mathematics only added to the challenge.

Why this book?

A while ago I decided that I needed to learn more about an earlier era of the history of science, when the goals and standards of physics and astronomy had not yet taken their present shape.  I became impressed with the many differences between the mentality of scientists before the seventeenth century and our own.  It was terribly difficult for them to learn what sort of thing can be learned about the world, and how to learn it.  I tried in this book to give the reader an idea of hard it has been to come to anything like modern science.

What’s next?

Cambridge University Press and I are nursing the second edition of my graduate-level treatise, “Lectures on Quantum Mechanics,” through to publication later this year.  I have added a lot of new material, and sharpened the arguments that lead to a controversial conclusion, that at present there is no really satisfactory interpretation of quantum mechanics.

What’s exciting you at the moment?

There are several experimental facilities that are now coming on line, and that we hope will make discoveries of fundamental importance.  One is the improved Large Hadron Collider, which is starting up again soon at higher energy, and may be able to discover signs of supersymmetry, and/or the dark matter particles that astronomers tell us make up 5/6 of the matter of the universe.  Another instrument is the Advanced Laser Interferometric Gravitational Wave Observatory, which will be completed soon and will have a good chance of observing gravitational waves produced by pairs of neutron stars as they coalesce.  That’s just two examples.

Photograph (c) Matt Valentine - reproduced with permission (Penguin Books)

Thursday, 19 February 2015

The Library of Isaac Newton - John Harrison ***

Clearly not popular science, in fact, very much one for specialists - but for historians of science this is an extremely valuable look at the 2000+ books that Isaac Newton collected. 

Infuriatingly, the collection remained in one piece until the 1920s, but then a good chunk of it was sold off to a collector. There will be some surprises. For instance, Newton doesn't seem to have a copy of Galileo's definitive physics book 'Two New Sciences'. And his library contained far more books on theology than physics. He also had a fair amount of fiction... and even some books on medals.

Along with an erudite exploration of the library's history and its various oddities, the book contains a complete catalogue of the volumes, and whether they had any oddities like markings and page turnings by Newton.

Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 15 February 2015

To Explain the World - Steven Weinberg *****

There was a time when one approached a popular science book by a 'real' working scientist with trepidation. There was little doubt they would get the science right, but the chances are it would read more like a textbook or dull lecture notes. Thankfully, there are now a number of scientists who make pretty good writers too, but one area they tend to fall down on in history of science. I've lost count of the number of popular science titles by working scientists (including, infamously also the reboot of the Cosmos TV show, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson) which roll out the tedious and incorrect suggestion that Giordano Bruno was burned for his advanced scientific ideas.

Luckily, though, Steven Weinberg, as well as being a Nobel Prize winning physicist for his work on the electroweak theory (and all round nice guy), has made something of a hobby of history of science and his accounts are largely well done. I might disagree with some of his emphasis, and there are a couple of arguable points when dealing with Newton, both in his introduction of centripetal force and in the claim that the Royal Society published Principia, but on the whole the history is sound.

Perhaps surprisingly for a modern physicist, whose working life has been focussed on the peculiarities of particle theory and the significance of symmetry, Weinberg chooses to write about the period when the scientific method was evolving. So he starts with the Ancient Greeks and runs through to Newton, with only a short summary chapter filling in everything else in physics.

I have given the book five stars because I think that Weinberg builds this structure beautifully, showing how very different the ancient ideas of natural philosophy were from natural science and explaining in far more detail than I've ever seen in a popular work how the different models of the universe (what we would now call the solar system) were developed through time, including really interesting points like the way that Ptolemy-style epicycles were maintained in the early Copernican era.

He is also very good on the period when Arab scientists did original work and brought the mostly forgotten Greek works to the attention of the world. Here he treads what feels a very sound line between the older tendency to play down the Arab contribution and the more recent tendency to allow this period more of a contribution than it really had. Weinberg is perhaps a little sparse in his appreciation of the medieval period, ignoring Grosseteste and only having a passing reference  to one thing that Roger Bacon mentions, but again he then very much puts Descartes and Francis Bacon in their proper place, rather than giving too much weight to their work.

Reading this book you will find out a whole lot about Ancient Greek science plus the contributions of Galileo and Newton, and it will be a rewarding read. Don't expect a lot of context - there is only very sketchy biographical information - so the content can be a little dry in places, but Weinberg's impressive grasp of the gradual evolution of the scientific method more than makes up for this.

The only slight surprise was that the book is significantly shorter than it looks. The main text ends on page 268 of 416. The rest (apart from the index) is a series of 'technical notes' which are effectively textbook explanations of various developments in physics from some Greek basics through to Newtonian matters like planetary masses and conservation of momentum. I'll be surprised if 1 in 100 readers makes it through these. There has also been some carping that Weinberg expects ancient philosophers to take too modern a view, so tends to be over-critical - it's a matter of taste, I suspect.

So, highly recommended if you want a history of the development of physics from ancient Greece through to Newton with a lot of detail on the way that both the model of the solar system and the basics of mechanics were developed in that period. Weinberg's writing may be a little dry with its lack of biographical context, but it is rarely dull as he keeps the ideas flying.

Audio CD:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Physics for Gearheads - Randy Beikmann ***

One of this site's favourite physics books is Physics for Future Presidents, so having a 'Physics for...' format is certainly no negative - and I count myself as a paid-up petrolhead, which I assume is similar to the term 'gearhead' which I've never encountered before (and neither has my spellchecker).

In fact that American term hides a much bigger problem that is encountered as early as page 3. No one in Europe gets taught physics in feet and pounds and degrees Fahrenheit these days - so it is immediately baffling that we get force measured in pounds as in 'This comes from the road surface pushing up on the tire contact patches with a total force of 1,500 lb.' The other concern about the first few pages is that we've launched into what the author admits is a discussion of classical physics, using a term like 'force' that is frequently misused in ordinary English without ever saying what a force is. It's just assumed that we know. Once we get into equations that lack of proper scientific units gets even more hairy. I just can't look at an equation working out force in a cylinder from pressure times an area as (500 pounds/inch2) x (12.566 inch2) without feeling I'm reading something from Victorian times.

Of course, in the UK we are mixed up when it comes to units. We buy our petrol in litres and measure temperatures in Celsius but we still measure car speeds in miles per hour and distances in miles - but the rest of Europe doesn't, and, as I stressed, all our school teaching about physics will have been using MKS metric units. Admittedly from chapter 2 onwards, the book does at least mention what the MKS units are, but it still tends to do its the examples using the old Imperial units (known here as 'SFS' units and as 'SAE' units - not sure what the difference is) - and some of these, like 'slug' as the unit of mass, I've never even heard of.

All this is a bit of shame, as there's lots of good material in the book. It read too much like a textbook (too reminiscent of the sort of thing I had to plough through at school for my liking), but is cleanly and attractively laid out and gets a lot of material in, usually giving a thorough and well-paced run through. Reading it was work rather than pleasure, but it was useful work if you want to have the tools to work out all the kinds of mechanical forces and energies and such involved in making a car go. As such, I'm not sure it's a fun read for someone who likes tinkering with cars, but it would be a great primer for would-be American auto engineers, and as such I will glowingly recommend it. (The pricing reflects this too - it's priced at over £44 in the UK.)

So this is a book that really only works for a US market and that is much more textbook for budding engineers than popular science for petrolheads. I would love to see a true popular science equivalent - one that explains the science behind the way cars work without all the tedious workings out - but this isn't it.

Review by Martin O'Brien

Science for Life - Brian Clegg *****

It's always difficult to know what to do about a review for books by our editor - we can't just ignore them. In this case we have borrowed an independent review from Good Housekeeping. (N.B. given the source, the review concentrates most on personal health/diet advice, but the book also has a lot to say about the way the media communicate science.)

Much of what you hear and read about health can feel contradictory and overwhelming, and it can sometimes be hard to know which diet we should be on, how much exercise we should be doing, what’s said to be causing serious illnesses this week, or to keep track of the latest advice to make sure you lead a happier and healthier life.

At GH we believe in rigorously putting any claims to the test, and that’s why we love Science For Life by GH contributor Brian Clegg. It gives definitive answers to the kind of questions we ask ourselves regularly – is red wine really good for us? (science says it’s not, sadly) And should we avoid artificial sweeteners? (research actually shows that they haven’t been linked to as many health problems as sugar).

The book provides no-nonsense, straightforward advice, all backed up by scientific research. And, unlike others, Science For Life doesn’t claim to have all the answers. It acknowledges where there isn’t enough hard evidence – such as whether too much TV is bad for kids.

Clegg’s writing is informative and entertaining, with a welcome lack of irritating jargon. Divided by subject, the scope of the book is remarkably broad – everything from whether e-numbers are bad for us (they’re not), to how likely it is we’ll be visited by UFOs (science is highly sceptical).

What Science For Life does best is help you make informed health choices – from how much exercise to do a week to which supplements to take – so you can make small changes with maximum impact. It also gives some peace of mind on the science behind medical treatments and what we should really be doing to help the environment. Best of all, Clegg will continue update his findings online at as new research comes in. 
Review by Simon Cocks
Please note, this title is written by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion – and we could hardly omit the book – but do want to make the connection clear.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Finding Zero - Amir Aczel ****

There's nothing publishers like more than authors talking about themselves, because they think it connects them to their audience. I must admit, when it's, say, a physicist talking about their feelings about their latest discoveries, or how they travelled to yet another conference in a gorgeous location at taxpayers' expense, it makes me want to throw the book away. However there are some writers who have a genuinely interesting story to tell, and that's definitely the case with Amir Aczel's Finding Zero, a sort of 'India Jones does maths'.

There are two particularly excellent bits - the opening section, which describes the young Amir's introduction to mathematics in his highly unusual upbringing often on a cruise ship (his father was the captain), where one of the stewards (who had a sideline in smuggling) looked after him, and as a mathematician, enticed the boy into the wonders and history of mathematics. Then, later on, the latter half of the book is an attempt to find the oldest known example of zero, which disappeared many years ago, a quest that has as many ups and down as any Hollywood tale.

Although I do love the personal storytelling part, I would have liked a bit more mathematical content, but when we do get it, there's some interesting stuff about the different early number systems and the origin on the characters we use to represent numerals, which seem to have come from India, but the route and the exact sources are still not clearly known.

I do have a couple of problems with the book. The big issue is that Aczel indulges in the same kind of woffly linking of Eastern philosophy and religion to scientific contents as the unfortunate Tao of Physics. The technique is to find something in ancient writing that bears a vague resemblance to modern science or maths and suggest that the ancients understood something that they clearly didn't. (This is nothing new - in medieval times it was common to think that ancient civilisations had much exotic knowledge that has since been lost.) This will put some readers off - but if you can get past it, there is much that is worth reading.

The other problem is that in trying to fight back against the early 20th century tendency to play down anything that came from the East, Aczel goes too far the other way, commenting, for instance, 'The three religions [Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism] together give us concepts that did not arrive in the West until much later, in the late middle Ages. These concepts are zero, infinity and finite but extremely large numbers.' My issue with that is that infinity was discussed in the West since the Ancient Greeks (Aristotle, for instance, spent some considerable time on it) and you can't do better on finite but large numbers than Archimedes' magnificent Sand Reckoner, where he calculates how many grains of sand it would take to fill the universe. (To his credit, when I mentioned this to Aczel he broadly agrees with the criticism.)

What is impressive, though, is the central core of the book, the search for zero. It's not only a case of hunting for the oldest known written zero, Aczel makes a convincing argument that there is something about the Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism, that make it easier to conceive the concept of emptiness, or the void, as a worthwhile concept. It doesn't seem unreasonable that this viewpoint was behind the development of that incredibly useful mathematical widget, the zero.

So, a bit of a mixed bag, but well worth overcoming a negative reaction (should you have one) to waffly Eastern philosophy bits to get to the valuable insights into the early history of mathematics.

Audio CD:  

Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 2 February 2015

Happiness by Design - Paul Dolan ***

I've always been a little wary of books that package up the science of a human emotion, or some other arbitrarily isolated mental trait. However, happiness is something that has responded quite well to this treatment, both in Daniel Nettle's book Happiness, which focuses on the science behind the feeling of happiness and David Linden's Pleasure, which lives up to its entertaining subtitle 'How our brains make junk food, exercise, marijuana, generosity and gambling feel so good,' in an entertaining romp through the biochemistry of the pleasure principle.

In the case of Happiness by Design, Paul Dolan takes a very different approach. Rather than go into any depth on the science of happiness, this is written more in the style of a 'how to' business book - so how to find what makes us happy, assess our personal state and do something about making it better.

Dolan divides happiness into two parts - pleasure and purpose (which is achieving something that makes you feel happy for having achieved it, rather than giving you direct pleasure - he gives a good example of writing a book as potentially producing that kind of happiness). Dolan makes this division sound like something new and original, though interestingly in Nettle's book happiness was given this division and one further distinction, as Nettle splits it between the immediate, short-lived buzz of joy, the feeling of well being and satisfaction, and the least directly expressed but long term feeling of achieving your potential.

Of itself, this revelation, and Dolan's recipe for discovering your current state of happiness and doing something that makes it better is quite interesting, but the whole thing suffers from business book-itis. In my experience, most business books (and I've written a few), when compared with a popular science title, have very little content, repeated over and again different ways, with various layout gimmicks like boxes, diagrams and tables to write in, designed to fill it out to length. And I'm afraid Happiness by Design does suffer from this a bit. I think Dolan could have fit the whole thing into a feature article in a magazine and all the rest is filler. It would have been much better if there had been more of the underlying science to back up the various claims and suggestions, as well as giving a better understanding of just what happens in the brain to cause happiness.  That way, this could have made a good book.

As it was, reading it didn't make me happy. The writing style is workmanlike, but not inspiring. Although it is structured as a 'how to' book, the advice is quite difficult to separate from what can be rather dull text. I also got the impression that Dolan had taken to heart the usual publisher's push to 'make it more personal' and 'give it your voice' by trying to be a little hip occasionally (doesn't work) and by telling us far too much about himself. The danger here - and it really does come across this way - is of suffering from confirmation bias. Dolan is a body builder, which he gives as a good example of the purpose aspect of happiness, which seems to blind him to the fact that most people think bodybuilders look grotesque and that the whole business is about as purposeless as it gets.

One last, minor moan. One of the few parts where Dolan does stray into science, he gets it unfortunately wrong in an analogy linking the way we subjectively 'warp' time with the way we notice sounds. He comments 'If I doubled the volume of the TV from 50 decibels to 100 decibels, you would think that the sound had increased by less than a factor two.' In practice I would definitely know that the sound had increased by far more than a factor of two, because decibels are measured on a logarithmic scale.

So some good points here - I especially enjoyed the breakdowns of when and doing what people were most happy (for those who moan we watch too much TV, the television seems to be pretty much the number one source of happiness) - but it wasn't a particularly inspiring book.

Review by Brian Clegg