Monday, 30 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, when he first started, practitioners of alternative medicine were horrified that rather than simply looking for ways to justify their practices, he actually intended to put them to a scientific test. In a later chapter, somewhat provocatively titled 'Off with his head' Ernst describes his (indirect) run-ins with Prince Charles and his Foundation for Integrated Health. I knew HRH was very supportive of CAM, but I hadn't realised the effort he has put into trying to get public money spent on it (not to mention his potentially profitable sidelines like the infamous Duchy Herbals Detox Tincture, which features in the book at some length).

In the end, perhaps the most shocking thing is the way that the university, which had in Ernst's group a superb scientific group with an excellent publishing record, seems to have systematically reneged on financial agreements and even set up a postgraduate 'Pathways in Integrated Health' course, funded by a homeopathic manufacturer, that would be working entirely against the message from the scientific work being done by Ernst's group. Ernst can sometimes come across a little angry in his Twitter communications - after reading this book it's easy to understand why.

The first half of the book is quite interesting - particularly seeing the world through immediately post-Nazi German eyes and following Ernst's unusual progression as a would-be jazz musician to become a medical professor. I was distinctly surprised at some of the revelations about goings on in the Austrian medical school at which he held a professorship. But despite the Nazi enthusiasm for alternative medications, I still don't think that the German title really works. Ernst clearly detests the abominations of Nazi science, but  there is no suggestion that this leads to his attitude to alternative medicine, which was commonplace in Germany when he grew up, and which he initially pretty much accepted as normal. It's this opening section that pulls the book down a little: it is, without doubt, an interesting memoir, but hasn't got the bite and real fascination of the second section.

For anyone with an interest in alternative medicine, as an enthusiast or someone who believes that it is scientifically flawed and needs to be exposed, this is an essential book. Ernst's experiences at Exeter set the mark both for what can be done and how the forces of darkness can work through the establishment to oppose scientific investigation. Despite being rather expensive in paperback, all in all this is a highly recommended little book.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 28 March 2015

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 Sputnik moment, with no equivalent of the Moon race.

Sadly, though, there's quite a lot of negative to balance the good bits. The book is far too long (and in small print at that), with a tendency to pile on detail that would not be of use for anything other than an academic tome. It could have been enjoyably readable throughout, as was true of much of my favourite sections above, but Michael Gordin repeatedly gets bogged down in the minor to-ing and fro-ing over, say, Russian publication in German journals and suddenly the pages yawn before the reader, inviting a considerable amount of skipping.

I persevered, reading the whole way through (okay, I skipped about six pages when I got particularly bored), and I am glad that did - but it was genuinely hard work in places. On the whole, the author's analysis of the rise and rise of English as a scientific language seems to make a lot of sense, although I am slightly surprised there was no real mention of the parallel rise of the internet, which it would seem would inevitably reinforce the spread of a single scientific language.

This is a subject I've never seen written about, and one that I think will fascinate many working scientists - particularly, perhaps those who have to work in English despite it not being a first language. But it isn't a book I can wholeheartedly recommend for the general reader.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 15 March 2015

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 simple concept to making it happen, and this really opens up in Junk DNA.

I mentioned how things go wrong. As genetic medical conditions are often a key to unlocking the secret of a cellular mechanism, there is a lot about genetic failures here, some very distressing - I'm personally not a great enthusiast for things medical (I can't even watch Casualty, let alone 24 Hours in A&E), but in this context it at least wasn't gratuitous.

Of course, as the name suggests, at the heart of the book are all the bits of our DNA - the vast majority of the content of our chromosomes - that aren't genes. In her previous book, The Epigenetics Revolution, Carey had already introduced us to some of the workings of what was once referred to as 'junk DNA' - specifically how parts of it turn various genes on and off, effectively acting as the controls that work the mechanisms specified by our genetic blueprints - but in this new book we see many more processes, capabilities, wonders and failings of the super-genetic parts of the system.

I do have a couple of niggles. This is a topic that lends itself to metaphor and simile - I did it without even noticing in the previous paragraph, but Carey plunges into metaphorical mode at the slightest opportunity, and some of her similes are a little painful - when she brings in the movie Trading Places or a Bugatti Veyron, for instance, the process seems forced. (Even the subtitle is a metaphor of sorts.) Also slightly irritatingly, several times she refers to the human appendix as having no function - if she'd read my Universe Inside You, she'd have known that this concept, like classifying all DNA that doesn't code for proteins as junk, went out some time ago (the appendix does have a useful function as a kind of respite centre for friendly bacteria from the wild conditions in the stomach).

The other issue, which I also referred to in my review of The Epigenetics Revolution, and similar to the complaint I had about I, Superorganism is that we end up in Rutherford's 'all science is either physics or stamp collecting' territory. While some the mechanisms themselves are truly fascinating, when the reader gets bogged down in the detail it can begin to seem that there is far too much cataloguing and not enough narrative. Carey has usefully responded to reviews of the previous book by often moving the name of a gene into a footnote, but it doesn't prevent the feeling of drowning in labels when you read something like:
Where C is followed by G in our genome, the C can have a small modification added to it. This is most likely to happen in regions where this CG motif is present in high concentrations. The large number of CCG repeats in the Fragile X expansion provide exactly this environment.
This is by no means the most concentrated example of labellitis, and typical of quite a lot of the text. In the end I was happy to think 'It goes with the territory, live with it.' There is still so much fascinating material in here that it is well worth ploughing through the biological wordfest.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 9 March 2015

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 'On Christmas day 1640 the brilliant mathematician Pierre de Fermat wrote to the monk Marin Mersenne, and asked an intriguing question. Which numbers can be written as a sum of two perfect squares.'

In fact there are two problems with this particular extract. One is spurious context. Unless there was some relevance to it being Christmas Day, then telling us that makes it sound like we're getting context without actually doing so. But worse is the 'intriguing question' bit - because unless you are a mathematician, there is nothing intriguing about that question. 

I think a good general test of whether this book will work for you or not is how you react to magic squares - those grids of numbers that typically add up to the same value along each row, column and diagonal. It's a good example of how the book is organised, by the way, that these turn up in the section for number 9, because the smallest magic square is 3x3. If your reaction to magic squares is a mild interest that the earliest known magic square is called the Lo Shu (no date given), but then you get bored finding out about the properties of all sorts of different magic squares you will find parts of the book hard going. On the other hand, if after four pages on magic squares you think 'I wish there was more on magic squares,' rush out and buy a copy immediately. 

If I am honest I am more in the first camp - but it didn't stop me reading the whole book because there are a good few genuinely interesting bits. The ones that work for me are the historically meaty ones, like the origin of zero, negative numbers and complex numbers - my suspicion is that every reader will find some parts to enjoy. So you pays your money (in real numbers) and you makes your choice. 

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Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 8 March 2015

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 familiar with the oeuvre, try this example.)

Mostly the result is phenomenal. I love the way that Woodford thinks about things we don't normally consider, like why houses don't fall down, and goes off on a riff that compares the forces from the weight of an apple (conveniently about 1 newton), through the bite of an alligator to the Space Shuttle blast-off. He manages to make very ordinary, basic stuff like simple machines (levers, wedges, wheels and the like) and turns them into things that we look at differently and understand in more depth while still genuinely enjoying what's being covered.

The only part I'd say where things get a bit sticky are the sections where he's covering material science, which frankly got just the teeniest bit dull, although even here, thinking about, for instance, the nature of glue was quite an eye-opener. If I'm going to be picky - and you have to, really, in the communication of science - the mega-breezy approach does lead to one or two pretty well incorrect statements. Einstein came up with a baffling new theory called relativity - no he didn't (that was Galileo). Or Rutherford split the atom in his gold foil experiment - no he didn't.

Even so, there is plenty to enjoy and plenty of 'I didn't know that' moments, whether you are reading about the science of slipping or the mechanism of an LED lamp. We end up with the topic of clothing, from how different materials keep you warm and/or dry (though again materials science is the least interesting aspect of the content), why jeans wear out at the knees (contrasted with a pulley), and the science of shoes, which is fine, but just stops - I'd have liked a bit of a wind-down at the end.

One final plus point - in the 'Further Reading' in the back, rather than showing off, as some authors do, by listing eminent but unreadable tomes, Woodford lists some excellent suggestions, including several that have received five stars here.

Altogether a fun, light hearted science book that you could give to a teenager, or the sort of person who doesn't really read popular science but would like to find out a bit more about the scientific world around them - and I think they'll have a good time.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 2 March 2015

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 the language of storytelling - dinosaurs would be described as monsters and dragons. But elsewhere, fairies, for instance, became intermediaries for getting the message across. In one chemistry book, for instance, different fairies represented different elements, bonds were the fairies holding hands and so forth.

One topic that inevitably got the fairytale treatment was evolution. Although the science was sometimes watered down, with the author making sure that there was room for a creative guiding hand, evolution was a natural fit for wonderland. It was fascinating to discover, for instant that Kingsley's The Water Babies was a book that was powerfully driven by evolution. I can see that now looking back, though when I read it as a child I just found it mawkish and silly, lacking the imagination, drive and wit of the Alice books with their explicit dismissal of fiction that had a worthy message.

Unfortunately, the author hasn't learned a lesson from her topic - that a good presentation of non-fiction makes use of some of the tools of fiction. Specifically, one of the big differences between a textbook and book to sit down, read and enjoy (as I presume this is supposed to be) is that good non-fiction should have a narrative arc. This book really doesn't. It doesn't appear to be going anywhere or drawing any significant conclusions from its observations. It takes us on a random tour, littered with unnecessary academic wording (I don't think I have ever read a book with so many occurrences of the word 'quotidian') unsupported by a feelimg of purpose or direction.

Certainly an interesting topic, then - covering one of the predecessors of popular science, and a subject that is widely unknown and deserves a wider audience - but the way it is put across is not ideal.

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Review by Brian Clegg