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Showing posts from 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 …

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 …

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 disappe…

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 Kamerli…

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 …

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 …

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 …