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Showing posts from May, 2015

The Chemists’ War 1914-1918 – Michael Freemantle ***

From the title of this book you might expect it to be a chronological history of the First World War told from the point of view of the chemists involved in it, most likely focusing on the chemical weapons that played such a controversial role in that conflict. But actually it’s much broader in scope and more loosely structured than that. As the author says in his preface: 'It was not my aim to write a book that could be read from cover to cover but rather one for the reader to dip into. Each chapter is intended to be self-contained and can be read independently of the other chapters.' The result is a remarkably diverse collection of essays whose only common thread is some kind of connection with both chemistry and World War One.

I was surprised to find that only one of the chapters – Chapter 13: 'The World’s First Weapons of Mass Destruction' – is focused entirely on chemical weapons and their use in WW1. The subject crops up in other chapters, but only as part of a br…

Higgs Force - Nicholas Mee *****

There are plenty of books about the hunt for the Higgs boson, most notably Jim Baggott's excellent Higgs, so at first sight, Higgs Force, might seem to be more of the same, but in a couple of areas it is unparalleled in anything I've read in the field.

Where Higgs is very much the story of the hunt with a bit of physics thrown in, Higgs Force takes us on a journey through our developing understanding of the nature of the components of the universe, putting the eventual origin and significance of the Higgs field (and boson) into context.

It's not perfect, by any means, and I was on course to give it four stars rather than five. This is because it has a tendency to concentrate on the bit of the history of science that fit the picture that is being developed, and rather skims over, or even slightly distorts, those that don’t. A good example is the description of Dirac’s relativistic equation for the electron, and his prediction of the positron. The book gives the impression tha…

Why Information Grows - César Hidalgo ***

Something that is absolutely essential to understand this book, subtitled 'The evolution of order from atoms to economies', on the fascinating topic of the nature of information in the world, and its relationship with the economy, is that the author is an academic at M.I.T.’s Media Lab.

When I first got involved in IT in the 1970s, we were in awe of the Media Lab and all the ultra-clever, way-out technology concepts that they rolled out, convincing us that we were seeing the future in the visionary work. But over time, none of their concepts really seemed to become a reality. They might have inspired others, but they continued to be ultra-clever, way-out oddities that rarely managed to cross the divide to the real world.

I felt the same about this book. It started out, like a visit to the Media Lab, as a dazzling mix of information theory and economics and philosophy - but in the end it all appeared to be on the surface. It never really got anywhere. And along the way it was oft…

Einstein's Masterwork: 1915 and the General Theory of Relativity - John Gribbin ****

Of the various anniversaries turning up in 2015, none is as significant to science as the development of Einstein's general theory of relativity. As the C. P. Snow quote on the back of this compact and highly readable book suggests 'If Einstein had not created the general theory (in 1915) no one else would have done so... perhaps not for generations.' The acclaimed British science writer John Gribbin is the ideal person to guide us through this key period of Einstein's life - after all he was co-author with Michael White of the less tightly focussed Einstein: a life in science.

Because this a relatively small book (physically) it sits somewhere between a full scale scientific biography and a short introductory guide. It's quick to read, compact and highly accessible. Gribbin makes a good tutor, providing an experience that is not unlike being lectured to by a slightly pernickety but insightful and friendly professor.  (Pernickety, for instance in his careful insiste…

How UFOs Conquered the World: The History of a Modern Myth – David Clarke ****

Strictly speaking the term UFO refers to any ‘unidentified flying object’, but in the minds of almost everyone it means just one thing: an advanced spacecraft visiting the Earth from another planet. Despite the absence of unambiguous, objective evidence this notion has become a mainstay of popular culture, tabloid journalism and the internet. How did this extraordinary situation come about? That’s not a question for an astrobiologist or aerospace engineer, but for a social scientist like David Clarke – a senior lecturer in journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, with a Ph.D. in cultural tradition and folklore. In this well reasoned and carefully researched book, Dr Clarke focuses on what he calls the UFO syndrome: ‘the entire human phenomenon of seeing UFOs, believing in them and communicating ideas about what they might be’.

The phrase ‘I want to believe’ was popularised by the TV show The X-Files in the 1990s, and it encapsulates the very heart of the UFO phenomenon: people want t…

Greenglow and the Search for Gravity Control - Ronald Evans ***

This is an unusual book with an unusual back-story. It’s no surprise, of course, that Britain’s largest aerospace company, BAE Systems, has a vested interest in countering the force of gravity – rockets and aircraft are designed to do just that. But over a period of about ten years, starting in the mid-1990s, BAE decided to take on the law of gravity itself. In what became known as 'Project Greenglow', the company sponsored fundamental research in university departments around the UK. In effect, they were looking for loopholes in the current understanding of physics which might point the way to radically new forms of gravity control.

Extraordinary as it was, Project Greenglow was in tune with its times. On the other side of the Atlantic, NASA was running a 'Breakthrough Propulsion Physics' programme which was similarly concerned with potential aerospace applications of new, as-yet-undiscovered physics. There were tantalising hints that such things might be just around t…

Around the World in 18 Elements - David Scott ***

I don't think I've ever reviewed a book with such a tightly focussed audience before. If you are doing A-level chemistry or perhaps are in the first year of a chemistry degree (and I say that as someone who did chemistry A-level and the first two years of a chemistry degree), the book will be a genuine delight. But for anyone else it may prove a challenging read.

At first sight, what the reader gets is a more detailed equivalent of the Royal Society of Chemistry podcast series Chemistry in its Element, featuring the history, nature, uses and oddities of, in this case, 18 of the elements. There is a lot more here than there is in the podcasts on the actual chemistry of the selected mix of nine metals and nine non-metals - so, for instance, on sulfur we stray into alchemy and the earth's crust, sulfuric acid, sulfates, thiosulfates, organic sulfur and the mysterious hydrothermal vents. 

Though the text is noticeably heavier on facts than a typical popular science book, this ma…

The Upright Thinkers - Leonard Mlodinow ***

Leonard Mlodinow is probably best known as co-author of a pair of books with Stephen Hawking (for example, The Grand Design), so it was interesting to see his writing away from the great man's shadow. Generally his style is light, slick and enjoyable, though he sometimes tries too hard to be witty, peppering the  book with a jokiness that gets wearing. I could do with a little less of remarks like
The first cities did not arise suddenly as if nomads one day decided to band together and the next thing they knew they were hunting and gathering chicken thighs wrapped in Styrofoam and cellophane.However, what we have here is an easy reading and a sometimes inspiring gallop through the development of human thought and particularly the way that science has emerged from our questioning nature. As the subtitle puts it 'The human journey from living in trees to understanding the cosmos.'

It's interesting to compare this book with Steven Weinberg's To Explain the World, which …