Thursday, 28 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 broader context. For example, Chapter 12 is a 30-page biography of Fritz Haber, Germany’s unrepentant 'father of chemical warfare', but only six pages of it deal with his activities during the war. Chapter 14, about mustard gas, starts in WW1 but then fast-forwards to WW2 and the Bari tragedy.

The title of Chapter 1 is 'Much More than Chemical Warfare', and that could really have been the book’s subtitle. Explosives are chemicals too, after all, and chemists were in demand to keep a step ahead of the opposition in this area too. Sometimes the link between a problem and its solution was far from obvious, and it’s here that the book can often become unexpectedly fascinating. Why did the British government suddenly urge children to collect conkers (horse chestnuts) for them? The answer was a state secret, but it came down to the fact that they could be converted into acetone – a key chemical needed in the manufacture of cordite. There was also a sudden upsurge in the demand for whale blubber, which could be used to make nitro-glycerine, and even chamber-pot urine, which proved to be a useful source of the nitre needed to make gunpowder.

Although the author is a professional chemist, this is very much a history book rather than a science book. 'Chemistry', as far as this book is concerned, simply means 'chemicals' – and chemicals are always referred to by name rather than formula. There is nothing about chemical reactions, and no explanation of why certain chemicals have the effects they do. Personally I was disappointed by the lack of scientific explanation or insight the book provides, but I guess that for a general readership it’s safer to err on the side of too little technical detail rather than too much.

The blurb on the back cover says 'The book will appeal to the general reader as well as the many scientists and historians interested in the Great War' – and I wouldn’t disagree with that.

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Review by Andrew May

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 that Dirac stared into the fire for an evening then came up with the whole thing, which misses out a whole lot of duplication of other people’s work and near misses. But more importantly, this book is very much focused on the importance of symmetry and suggests that Dirac’s equation predicted the positron through symmetry considerations. In fact the equation predicted negative energy electrons, which brought Dirac to his outrageously bold suggestion of the negative energy sea, which is anything but symmetrical, and then to the idea that there could be holes in the negative energy sea which could be interpreted as positrons. A very different chain of thought.

However, the reason I eventually overlooked these foibles is that this book fills in the gaps that Higgs misses. In the review for that book I complained 'Like every other book I’ve read on the subject it falls down on making the linkage between the mathematics of symmetry and the particle physics comprehensible.' Although there a few bumpy moments (and I wish the author had given more detail on symmetry groups, which he never actually names) I would say that Nicholas Mee has achieved the impossible, and made a generally clear and (relatively) easy to follow explanation of the significance of symmetry and symmetry breaking that I'd say no one else has really managed. This is an extremely impressive feat. It leaves the description he gives of the various particle accelerators and the actual discover of the Higgs particle feeling rather flat - the book could easily lose a chunk of that, because by comparison it is mundane.

There's one other section where this book absolutely hits the spot: in its description of Feynman diagrams. Many books cover these, and show how they represent, say, the interaction of a photon and an electron - but Higgs Force has by far the best description of Feynman diagrams I’ve ever seen in a popular science book, properly explaining the interface between the diagram and the associated calculations, which is brilliant, and again pretty well unique.

So not a uniformly brilliant book (I also question the relevance of putting puzzles for the reader in a book like this), but where Mee does hit the spot, he achieves a remarkable ability to communicate complexity, and never more so than the fundamental aspect of symmetry and how it has shaped modern particle physics.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 23 May 2015

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 often repetitive to the point that I strongly felt that I was being talked down to.

I suppose it's a big point to make, but the author repeats the importance and presence of information so many times in the first few chapters. He also makes statements that just aren't true. He says, for instance, in one of those tedious personal story examples American authors seem programmed to start chapters with that his daughter's birth was 'facilitated not by objects, but by the information embedded in those objects'. What he really meant was 'by objects and the information embedded in them' because the information alone wouldn’t have achieved the goal. There’s a fuzziness here in the expression of the thesis, combined with not particularly effective examples in explaining, for instance, the relationship of information theory and the second law of thermodynamics that gives the book a feeling of something that is imagined to be a lot more effective than it really is.

It’s not a bad book in intent. It is really important to think about the nature of imagination, and the idea that the manufactured objects we use are ‘crystallised imagination’ would be excellent if we were only told it once, rather than what felt like 50 times. It’s also interesting to consider how imagination has shaped our modern world and how it has an impact on national economies. But the Media Lab treatment, rather than illuminating, dazzles us to the extent that it’s hard to see what lies beneath.

Things get a little better, if duller, when Hidalgo focuses primarily on economics - though here the clear flaw is in the description of economics as a science (can anything so inconsistent be a science?), which comes through strongly. What is well worth doing is the examination of why different parts of the world have very different economies, though I don’t think Hidalgo gives enough consideration to aspects like natural resources, stable and (relatively) uncorrupt government and health.

Definitely a book that’s worth a look, but with strong provisos.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 16 May 2015

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 insistence that it should always be the 'special theory of relativity', not the useful shorthand 'special relativity' (and likewise for the general theory), because it is the theory that is special/general, not the relativity.)

If I am honest I wasn't looking forward to yet another set of biographical information on Einstein. Not long ago, a reader sent me an email commenting that he had enjoyed one of my books, but he was a bit fed up reading yet another potted biography of the great man. There seems an obligation to do it, yet when you've read a few popular science books about relativity (or gravity, or light, or quantum theory) it does seem that, like Douglas Adams' bowl of petunias, the natural response to reading about Einstein's life should be 'Oh, no, not again.' But somehow, as if by magic, Gribbin manages to make the same old personal history interesting, with real insights that show the links between the man's life and work.

If anything, the biographical sections are a little more successful than those that concentrate on the physics. Gribbin knows his stuff (forwards, backwards and upside down), but the book's approach is just a bit too summary to give the best insight in the special theory and particularly the general theory of relativity. For instance, he gives the usual rubber sheet/trampoline with a weight analogy for matter producing a warp that bends a straight line path, but doesn't explain why this warp should cause a stationary object to start falling. The compactness means he doesn't show the actual equations of the general theory, which in compact form are beautiful and aren't difficult to be guided around, if not comprehended in detail. And he perpetuates the myth (as, I confess, I often have) that John Wheeler coined the term 'black hole.'

This isn't, then, a book for someone who wants to get their brains entangled around the nitty gritty of Einstein's theories of relativity, but it is an excellent way to get a feel for Einstein the man, and a simple, easy to grasp overview of relativity theory - an ideal marker for this centenary year.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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 to believe in it. Mysterious objects seen in the sky are just part of a complex belief system that has evolved over the last seventy years into a remarkably robust edifice. The psychological term ‘cognitive dissonance’ – whereby a firmly held belief may actually become stronger when the believer is confronted with conflicting evidence – was originally coined in the context of a UFO cult in the 1950s. The X-Files went on to provide one of the most powerful tools in the cognitive dissonance arsenal, by popularising the idea that ‘They’ (the government, NASA et al) are actively concealing the truth about UFOs. This hypothesis – which Clarke points out is unfalsifiable – allows any awkward counter-evidence to be dismissed as ‘disinformation’.

The X-Files was just one of many science fiction works that influenced the way people think about UFOs. When Britain’s Ministry of Defence began to release its own UFO-related correspondence under the Freedom of Information act, David Clarke took on the role of consultant to the National Archives on the subject. He discovered that the bulk of the material consisted of sightings reported by members of the public, and ‘realised there was no escaping the link between what people said they saw in the sky and the fantasies of pop culture. The yearly statistics the ministry had compiled since 1959 suggested there was a correlation between the popularity of science fiction movies and UFO flaps.’

The mainstream media, like science fiction, has been instrumental in shaping the UFO phenomenon. Before the term ‘UFO’ was coined, unidentified flying objects were commonly referred to as ‘flying saucers’. Sightings were invariably described as being exactly that – flying objects in the shape of saucers. Yet the term ‘flying saucer’ originated as a journalistic misunderstanding, before anyone ever reported seeing a flying disc-shaped craft. In June 1947, a pilot named Kenneth Arnold observed a strange formation of nine semicircular or crescent-shaped aircraft moving ‘like a saucer would if you skipped it across water’. The journalist who first wrote up the story used the term ‘flying saucer’ – and it was only after this that people began to see saucer-shaped craft.

The book’s ten chapters cover all the major themes of ufology, ranging from lights in the sky to crashed saucers, government cover-ups and alien abductions. David Clarke is a strong advocate of Occam’s Razor, arguing that in all the cases he has encountered there is a simpler, more mundane explanation than the (admittedly more appealing) extraterrestrial hypothesis. That may sound all very dull and negative, but actually the opposite is true – it’s a fascinating account of the way perfectly normal people can have their perceptions and preconceptions shaped by what has become, as the book’s subtitle says, a modern myth.

Most of the material in the book is drawn from the author’s own interviews and investigations, which inevitably gives it something of a British bias. That’s not a bad thing, though, because many of the incidents described will be new to readers more familiar with American ufology. A case in point took place as long ago as 1967, when six ‘crashed saucers’ were discovered spread out across a large swathe of southern England one morning. This was a hoax perpetrated by a group of engineering apprentices, but its significance lies in the consternation it caused to the British authorities. There was no hint of any attempt to ‘cover up’ the evidence, or of a high-level contingency plan to deal with alien invasion. To quote the exact words of the RAF Group Captain sent to investigate one of the saucers, the immediate response in Whitehall was 'Shit! What shall we do?'

This isn’t a book for UFO believers, who will see it as a systematic attempt to kick over all their carefully constructed sandcastles. The fact is, however, that Clarke doesn’t kick over any sandcastles at all – he simply looks at them with closer scrutiny than their builders would like. To continue the metaphor, it’s a book for people who are prepared to admire sandcastles without needing to make-believe they’re real castles. If you’re the sort of person who would never dream of buying a book with ‘UFO’ in the title – this is the one that ought to change your mind.

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Review by Andrew May

Sunday, 10 May 2015

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 the corner. In 1996 a Russian scientist named Evgeny Podkletnov made headlines with his announcement that a rotating superconductor could act as a kind of 'gravity shield'. One of the many strands of the Greenglow project was an attempt – an unsuccessful one – to duplicate Podkletnov’s experiment in a UK laboratory.

The driving force behind Greenglow was Dr Ronald Evans, a senior engineer in BAE’s Military Aircraft division until his retirement in 2005. His own expertise lay in the more conventional fields of aerodynamics and electronics, but the idea of 'gravity control' was something that had fascinated him since the 1980s. Dr Evans eventually succeeded in persuading his superiors at BAE Systems to set up a research project on the subject, before moving on to the equally difficult task of convincing academic researchers to take on what must have looked suspiciously like fringe science. The story of how all this drama unfolded, together with the ensuing highs and lows of Project Greenglow itself, would probably make a great book – but it’s only a relatively minor thread running through the book Ron Evans has actually written.

As I said at the start, this is an unusual book. It isn’t any of the things you might expect it to be. It isn’t a narrative history of Project Greenglow, although some of that does come across in passing. It can’t really be classed as a popular science book, because there are too many equations – although most of these can be skipped over without any great loss. It isn’t a textbook, because textbooks focus on what is known and understood, while this one repeatedly draws attention to what is not known or not understood. Most emphatically, however, this is not a crackpot’s book. It pushes on boundaries without going over them. The author points out gaps in current theories and describes other people’s speculations (rarely his own), but he doesn’t make any unsupportable assertions, or claim that such speculations are correct and that mainstream science is wrong.

So if the book isn’t aimed at the typical pop-sci reader, the typical textbook reader or the typical alternative science reader, who is going to enjoy reading it? The answer is all the above! The writing, if you’re prepared to skip over the (generally unnecessary) equations, is as lucid and well-structured as the best popular physics books I’ve read. The technical content, for the most part, really is textbook stuff – but presented in a fresh, innovative way (with crystal-clear diagrams) that draws attention to analogies and problems that many readers, even those with a solid grounding in physics, may never have encountered before. As for those alternative souls desperately looking for the next breakthrough or paradigm shift, this may not be the kind of glib, anti-establishment fare they’re used to, but they’ll certainly find plenty of food for thought.


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Review by Andrew May

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

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 material is put across in a reasonably approachable way. But then, suddenly, the reader comes up against a question that isn't about the material in the book, but rather is testing the reader's readiness for chemistry A-level, for example:
Q1. Assign an oxidation number to sulfur in each of the following compounds: SO2, SO3, H2S, (CH3)2S, (CH3)2SO, FeS, FeS2 and CaSO4.2H2O.
It might seem that it would be easy enough to skip over the questions, but it really isn't, and as they occur on pretty well every page they take up a significant portion of the book.

So, should you fit in that very tight audience (or if you are someone who teaches at this level), this is a book that could well make chemistry significantly more approachable and meaningful, making the title very much recommended. But for the rest of us, it's probably not likely to be a worthwhile addition to your collection.


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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 4 May 2015

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 has related aims, though it lacks the first part about the development of humans. Without doubt Mlodinow's book is by far the more readable. And Weinberg has been slated in some sources for being unforgiving of the lack of modern insights in the likes of Aristotle, where arguably they should be allowed to be people of their time. But for me, Weinberg delivers a more challenging and stimulating read. Even so, Mlodinow's book is certainly more of a natural read for a popular science audience.

The Upright Thinkers is divided into three sections, and for me the beginning and end work far better than the middle. As an author, I can see the sense behind the low point being the middle section, but the worry might be that some could give up part way through. The first part shone brightest for me. This is the most original section, with really interesting consideration of the very early development of maths and culture. Despite that intrusive Styrofoam, I challenge anyone not to find this section genuinely fascinating. In the middle we plod rather heavy handedly through the likes of Galileo and Newton. Then things liven up with quantum theory (oddly there is very little about understanding the cosmos per se). There isn't a huge opportunity to gain insights into quantum physics itself, but there is plenty of context and a good feel for the way that modern science has moved away from hands on science to the indirect and theoretical. 

Like Weinberg, one of Mlodinow's failings is  not putting across the best understanding of history of science. He doesn't seem to realise, for instance, that Newton's 'If I have seen further' comment in a letter to Robert Hooke was not supposed to be a compliment. And, yes, there's the hackneyed old claim that Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for the heresy of declaring 'that the earth revolved around the sun.' (He wasn't, it was common or garden religious heresy.) And, for that matter, the family of Gilbert Lewis will be surprised to discover that Max Born introduced the term 'photon'.

Overall then, a solid overview with some interesting novelties on early civilisation, but probably more a book for those who don't generally read popular science than those who do - and that's not a bad thing. 

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Review by Brian Clegg