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Showing posts from 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, …

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 …

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 wel…

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 robu…

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 equa…

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 count…

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.

Paperback:  Review by Brian Clegg

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 a…

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…

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…

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…

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 …