Tuesday, 21 July 2015

The Story of Earth - Robert M. Hazen ****

Among popular science books, those that deal primarily with geology are sometimes approached with trepidation. It’s not uncommon to feel a touch of anxiety in trying to remember from past school lessons the different classes of rock and how they are formed, not to mention the chemistry involved.

Robert M. Hazen, Clarence Robinson Professor of Earth Science at George Mason University and a senior scientist at the Carnegie Institution’s Geophysical Laboratory and author of several books, makes the subject very approachable and fascinating in The Story of Earth. Published in 2012, it presents the physical and geological history of the Earth over the past 4.5 billion years. The book is remarkable for its brevity, the main text coming in at 283 pages, without giving the reader the impression that he has merely skimmed over the history of our planet. For example, Hazen manages to explain in-depth the complex attraction between elements that allowed the fine particles that surrounded the Sun as it ignited, explaining the physics and chemistry that caused small clumps of dust to gather and grow in size, eventually forming Earth. 

At times, these in-depth explanations of fundamental geological chemistry can be a bit too extensive for the reader that has forgotten much of the basics of chemistry from school. Hazen does an excellent job at keeping the story moving forward, however, and the parts of the book that have deeper explanations that cause the reader to lose focus are relatively short. It is also an inherent danger with explaining any complex area of science to general readers to lose them in the thicket of complex terminology. This isn’t a major problem, though I did find myself flipping back to the opening chapters in the book to remind myself of certain key terms of rock formations when they appeared later on as certain basic terms were too similar to remember. This, of course, could be more of a failing on my part than Hazen’s, but a gentle reminder of what terms mean would have been helpful. 

Certain areas of the book stand out as exceptionally interesting and well-written. One is the discussion of the formation of the Moon and the history of the various theories surrounding the creation of our natural satellite. Of particular interest is the dominant theory of our past twin planetoid Theia and its collision with Earth that, it is thought, created the Moon and explains the various geological differences between the Earth and the Moon. Another fascinating area is the contributions of rock and mineral to the foundations of organic life.

Hazen does an excellent job of giving the reader a great insight into how much personality and collective thinking govern the science community, like other communities in human affairs. It is also to Hazen’s credit that he removes some of the romanticism around scientific discovery and depicts the evolution of science in a more realistic light. Hazen is also to be commended for presenting numerous examples of research and geological discoveries by women. This is not to say that he gives the impression of favouritism or preferential treatment by including them for political or sociological reasons, but it is refreshing to see so many examples of excellent and important work done by female scientists highlighted. 

In the final part of the book, Hazen speculates on the future of the Earth and discusses anthropomorphic climate change. Here he makes the case that the Earth is constantly changing and will continue to survive regardless of what happens to humans. The Earth will go on, but will humans be a part of that continuing story until the death of the planet when the Sun finally exhausts itself in another five billion years? Hazen explains in-depth the threat of human actions on the climate, precisely because it is known that the Earth will react, but it is unknown how and the feedback loops that have occurred in the past and that could be triggered by ignorant human activity could have disastrous consequences for human life on the planet. His arguments and reasoning in this part of the book should be required reading for everyone, regardless of their views on climate change, as he is one of the few writers, and scientists, that I have read who puts the problem in its proper historical and Earth science context. 

In short, The Story of Earth is a highly interesting read and a great introduction to modern geological thought on the formation of our planet, both where we came from and where we might be going.

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Review by Ian Bald

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Tom Jackson - Four Way Interview

Tom Jackson is a science writer based in Bristol, UK. Tom specialises in recasting science and technology into lively historical narratives. After almost 20 years of writing, Tom has uncovered a wealth of stories that help to bring technical content alive and create new ways of enjoying learning about science. In his time, Tom has been a zoo keeper, travel writer, buffalo catcher and filing clerk, but he now writes for adults and children, for books, magazines and TV. His latest title is Chilled: how refrigeration changed the world and might do it again.

Why science?

The obvious answer is that it is the best way of finding out about how stuff works. Some of my most wondrous and satisfying moments have come when I've learned something that gave me a bit more of the 'big picture'. Things that spring to mind are the Bohr atomic model, the rock cycle, natural and sexual selection, nucleosynthesis. I’m probably too impatient to be a real scientist though—at least I was when that was an option for me. I like the stories as much as the results, following the way knowledge changes, and continues to change, and seeing the many links between it all.

Why this book?

While I was writing Chilled I would often find myself saying something like, 'I’m working on a book about fridges, but it’s not really about fridges.' Cue quizzical looks. What interested me is what the kitchen refrigerator represents. It is the fruit of a long line of discoveries that involve many of the great names of physics and chemistry plus many awesome stories of unusual goings on. The fridge has obviously altered the way we produce, purchase, and consume food, and it was fun to illustrate just how it is utterly integrated into our day to day—just imagine life without one. But I wanted to extend that further by showing that the kind of thing that a fridge does also pops up in many applications far removed from food—eg you need refrigeration to make steel cheaply and make a strong concrete dam, and the Higgs boson was found using the world’s largest refrigerator. Absolute zero had to make an appearance, of course, but what interested me most about that was the strange behaviour of materials at temperatures close to 0 K, and how that might lead to technologies of the future. So, now you can see; it’s not really about fridges!

What’s next?

Well, I work on all kinds of non-fiction projects, some for kids, some for YA or family readerships, as well as adult non-fiction titles like Chilled. My top pick for a future project would be the story of standard candles. Again, it’s not really about candles, but the objects that tell us how big the Universe is.

What’s exciting you at the moment?

The Pluto flyby just happened, so I’m excited to see the up close images that will be with us come the autumn, I think. The snapshot from the approach has certainly put the dwarf planet debate back on the table. I just think the generation brought up with Pluto as a full planet don’t like the thought of its demotion. Perhaps a better solution is the one from Alan Stern, the New Horizon chief: Pluto and Eris et al are all planets, but the eight big ones are ├╝berplanets. Does that sound better? On another vein, my friend Hamish Johnston from Physics World has been telling me about quark novae of late. I’m interested to see where that might lead.

Monday, 13 July 2015

The Lightness of Being - Frank Wilczek ****

I need to start this review with two clarifications and a proviso. The first clarification is that this quite an old book (2008), but someone just brought it to my attention. The second clarification is about the book's title. It's not about 'The lightness of being Frank Wilczek', that's just an unfortunate choice of title. The proviso is about the four star rating. This, to me, is a very mixed book. It does two things brilliantly, and quite a lot of other things not very well. If you are interested in modern physics, particularly particle physics and quantum field theory, though, it is a must-read.

Let's get the brilliant things in first. One of the baffling things about physics when you get into quarks and gluons as the constituents of particles like protons and neutrons is that the strong force that holds them together appears to be almost non-existent when the are close, but grows to be extremely strong when they try to separate (and then pretty much disappears a little further apart). As a result of this we've never seen raw, naked quarks, even though the evidence for their existence is good.

The section of the book that covers the theoretical reasoning for the existence of quarks, the experimental evidence we have for them and how this strange topsy-turvey force works the way it does (and, by the way, gives protons and neutrons 95% of their mass - take that, Higgs!) is excellent. It's by far the best explanation I've ever seen. Not entirely surprising when you realise that Frank Wilczek won his Nobel Prize for 'the discovery of asymptotic freedom in the theory of the strong interaction.' And asymptotic freedom is the rather clumsy name (Wilczek apologies for it in the book) for this odd way that the force increases as the quarks try to separate.

The other reason this book is excellent is that it gives a real insight into the kind of mental world modern theoretical physicists occupy. Once Wilczek gets going on what he calls 'the Grid' (because, he says, 'the Matrix' was spoiled as a name by the sequel movies), he is both dazzling and worrying. You might have thought that the ether went out with Maxwell and Einstein, but Wilczek shows how quantum field theorists postulate a whole multilayered collection of ethers filling space, from the assorted quantum fields to strange concepts of universe-filling condensates. I don't know if it's the impression he intended to give, but it really did come across to me as if modern theoretical physicists live in a fantasy world of mathematics which only occasionally touches base with reality when it happens to fit rather well with specific observations. The intention was, I think to show how this viewpoint is inevitable, but instead what comes across to me it that it feels like an abstraction with inevitable parallels with reality but that feels horribly like a house of cards.

Less effective are Wilczek's explanations once he gets away from quarks. I think I understand symmetry, at least to undergraduate physics level, but Wilczek's example that was supposed to show how symmetry worked for beginners totally lost me once he started talking about squeezing the sides of triangles. This, and much of the field theory explanations came across as someone who understood the topic so well that he didn't understand how to explain it to people who don't. It was more like a magician waving his hands at the end of a trick and saying 'So that's how it's done,' without revealing the actual mechanism.

Another slight problem was the writing style which tended to a kind of pompous joviality that I found rather wearing. Here's an example:
So: fully aware of the difficulties but undaunted, heroes of physics gird their loins, apply for grants, buy clusters of computers, solder, program, debug, even think - whatever it takes to wrest answers from the Grid pandemonium.
It's bearable, but hard work sometimes. So a definite recommendation, but with some significant reservations. You have been warned. 

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Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 12 July 2015

The Quantum Age – Brian Clegg *****


Updated to include paperback
There are a lot of popular science books about quantum physics, and to be honest it seemed likely this was going to be a ‘me too’, more of the same, kind of book, whichmade it a pleasant surprise.
It’s not that Brian Clegg doesn’t explain the basics of quantum theory – he does this very well – but what set this book apart for me was the way that it focussed on the applications of quantum physics – the things that have changed our lives (and made my work in computer science possible) and that Clegg labels as the ‘Quantum Age’ much as we had the Stone Age or the Steam Age.
Electronics provides the most obvious of these applications, but we also visit the quantum world of the very cold where superconductivity and superfluids come into existence – and even explore the relevance of quantum physics to biology. This is all done in a very readable, storytelling fashion. This was particularly strong when bringing in key characters, like the remarkable Heike Kamerlingh Onnes (you’d have to be good with a name like that) responsible for early discoveries in the world of super cold, and the riveting story of the development of the laser which features everything from serendipity to the weird fallout of the US fear of communists in the 1950s that meant a leading scientist was not allowed to read his own notes as he didn’t have clearance to do so.
If there’s a fault, I could have done with rather more on some of the  topics, but overall the combination of the quantum physics and the applications makes the whole subject much more approachable than simply taking on the science. As one of my favourite authors, John Gribbin, says on the back ‘Brian Clegg does a superb job of explaining complicated scientific concepts in an easily understood language. The Quantum Age is his best book yet, because the concepts he explains are central to our everyday lives in the 21st century even though most people think they are incomprehensible and abstruse.’
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Review by Peet Morris
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.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Chilled - Tom Jackson ****

I was inclined to call Chilled a good, solid, old-fashioned popular science book. But I'm concerned that people will get the wrong idea, as I meant this as a positive thing. 'Solid' is often taken to mean stodgy and dull, but here it's a matter of being comprehensive and interesting in covering the topic of cold and coldness from the earliest ice houses of prehistory to the superconducting magnets of the Large Hadron Collider. 

As for 'old-fashioned' what I meant is that the book is full of stories about the history of humanity's relationship with coldness, and producing cold where and when we want it. I've read quite a lot of trendy popular science books that are much more about the story of the writer, with only a tangential relationship to the science. While there is plenty of storytelling here, it is all about the scientific and technical content, and about the people in history (and there have been some wonderful, dramatic near failures, particular among American ice shippers) who are concerned with that science and technology. As you may gather, this is the kind of 'old-fashioned' I very much like.

Because 'cooling' is inextricably entwined with 'heating', there is a lot here about heat and thermodynamics. But still the main thrust (and most of the stories) concern our attempts to cool things down, whether it's a summertime drink or an MRI scanner. Some of the historical material is fascinating. When, for instance, the first attempts were made to take ice to the Caribbean it was a flop because no one knew what to do with it. But they did love ice-cream. And there's inevitably a lot here about fridges, where there's a whole lot of physics going on - not to mention some unintended consequences of using far too much air conditioning (really just an fridge split into two pieces). Plenty of good stuff to get your teeth into. Solid, in the sense that ice is, but water isn't.

I have a few small criticisms, but they are small. The author has a tendency sometimes to get into list mode, telling us this person did that, and this other person did the other, without enough depth to make the narrative interesting. That's by no means all of the book, but where it happens it jars a little. Also, for me, Tom Jackson writes just a bit too far towards the end of the spectrum where the science is hardly explained, but just wondered at. We don't get into enough depth in exploring the science behind the technologies of chill. 

The final irritant is probably the fault of the publisher. There are comments on both the front and back covers by Tony Hawks. Now, my first inclination was to wonder what a pro skateboarder had to do with the science of cooling. But it turns out that this is Tony Hawks the comedian and raconteur. Ah, well, it's obvious what his connection is. Well, no, it isn't. Apparently he did a TV show and/or book where he went round Ireland with a fridge, and this is the only reason for having him along to give the book a puff. It seems, to say the least, a little tenuous.

So, as long as you didn't think this was a book about the chilled sport of skateboard (man), I can wholeheartedly recommend Chilled as an exploration of the history of an under-represented science and technology.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Physics in 100 Numbers - Colin Stuart ***

I'm not generally a big fan of the popular science equivalent of those filler TV shows like 'The 50 best comedy moments' or 'The 100 TV scenes you least want to see again' or whatever. Some of these books feel no more than an easily sellable packaged concept with little imagination behind it. I'm pleased to say that Colin Stewart's Physics in 100 Numbers is not one of these - it has plenty of genuine moments of interest.

What we have here is a collection of single page items and double page spreads in slightly wider than usual hardback (though not big enough to class as a coffee table book) format in numerical order from 5.49x10-44 (Planck time) to 1x10500 (number of possible string theory 'solutions'). Occasionally the format is a little squeezed - so 1543, for instance, is not really a number, but the year that the groundbreaking book by Copernicus was published - but mostly Stuart sticks to the straight and narrow.

What the author tries to do, and at which he often succeeds, is to turn each little essay into an enjoyable expansion of the basic facts to include enough context to make it worth reading. So, for instance, for the permeability of free space (1.26x10-6, but you knew that) we don't just discover what the scientific term means, but who came up with the word 'permeability' (Oliver Heaviside, who in his photo looks scarily like an Edwardian version of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine), why permeability and its counterpart permittivity were important in Maxwell's work on electromagnetism, and how it made the prediction that light was an electromagnetic wave possible.

The reason I really can't give a title like this the four stars that some of its content deserves is that I am never really sure what such a book is for. Unless readers have trainspotting inclinations, I can't see them sitting down and reading the book end to end. I certainly found that quite difficult to do (and I was a trainspotter in my teens). But on the other hand, physics isn't necessarily the ideal topic for a dip in, dip out loo book. Perhaps the best application here is as a gift for difficult-to-buy for people.

So if you enjoy these kind of highly segmented 'n things' type books, and a lot of people must because they sell pretty well, this is without doubt one of the best of the breed. (Incidentally, it's a format that should work well on Kindle - a shame not to see it as an ebook.)

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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The Case of the Poisonous Socks - William H. Brock ***

We've often commented here that there isn't enough popular science based on chemistry. Physicists are inclined to point out that this is because all the interesting bits of science in chemistry are physics anyway (a terrible exaggeration, I'm sure), but one thing that this collection of essays on all things chemical shows is that there are plenty of stories in the history of the subject.

What we have here is a wide-ranging collection of chemical stories from the exploits of the euphoniously named Justus von Liebig to the early days of women being able to study chemistry at Cambridge.  Old Justus is a good example of why there's plenty to explore in chemistry. When I write podcasts for the Royal Society of Chemistry he is always coming up, yet I had never heard of him the way I know pretty well all the big names in the history of physics, or even biology. While there aren't many surprises in the actual chemistry, there's lots of history here that's new to me - plus a reminder of just how much chemistry has contributed to everyday life (and death in some cases) over the years.

The publisher claims that 'Light in style, this collection of essays about chemists and their discoveries will interest scientists, teachers, historians and laypeople.' And that (along with the £20 for a paperback price tag) illustrates the difficulty faced when an academic publisher - in this case the aforementioned Royal Society of Chemistry - tries to address a general audience. The result is strangely balanced somewhere between being a very readable, but lightweight, history of science textbook and popular science. A whole combination of factors make it this. Even the way it is printed somehow doesn't feel commercial. The writing style is perfectly readable, yet nevertheless retains a certain academic tone. If we were to draw a Venn diagram for that 'will interest' list it would include practically everyone in the world, yet I think it's not going to make much of a mark with the laypeople on the list. Which is a shame, because they would learn a lot.

Just a bit too specialist, then, to get four stars, and I did skip through a couple of entries, but enjoyed it overall.

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Review by Brian Clegg