Friday, 28 August 2015

The Meaning of Science - Tim Lewens ***

It's traditional for scientists to get the hump about philosophy of science. As Tim Lewens, Professor of the Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge points out, the great Richard Feynman was highly dismissive of the topic. But most of us involved in science writing do recognise its importance, and I was very much looking forward to this book. I'll get the reason it doesn't get five stars out of the way first. 

This is because the book misses out a whole chunk of philosophy of science in favour of dedicating the second half to 'what science means for us', which primarily seems to be more a summary of some areas of soft science rather than true philosophy. We have some great material in the first half on what science is and on the work of the terrible twins Popper and Kuhn (of whom more in the moment), but I was left wanting so much more. What came after Kuhn (whose work is 50 years old)? We only get a few passing comments. There is nothing about peer review. Nothing about fraud in science. Nothing about the relationship of maths and science - in fact there was so much more philosophising I would have loved to have read about.

What there was proved excellent. I was vaguely familiar with the two big names in the philosophy of science, but only at a headline level. I knew, for instance, that Karl Popper's ideas, while still widely supported by scientists, are frowned on by many in philosophy of science - but I didn't know why. In a nutshell it's because Popper took things too far, not just talking about scientific theories being falsifiable, which most find acceptable, but going on to the say the process of inductive reasoning, so important to science, isn't valid - which no scientist can honestly find acceptable.

Similarly, while I had got a vague idea of Thomas Kuhn and his paradigm shifts, like everyone else except philosophers I wasn't really sure what a paradigm was - apparently Kuhn used the term as a kind of definitive exemplar driven change rather than a traditional revolution. I also wasn't aware of Kuhn's rather nutty ideas that taking a new scientific view didn't just change the view, but changed the actual universe. Really.

There were still points I'd disagree with. Lewens dismisses Popper entirely because of his anti-induction views, but doesn't say what's wrong with the apparently very sensible Popper Lite approach, with appropriate recognition that one experiment doesn't make a falsification isn't acceptable. Similarly but in the opposite vein, he gives in far too easily to Kuhn's idea on changing the universe, taking the example of the subjective nature of colour as showing that the way we look at things truly does alter reality. Well, no it doesn't. A flower is giving off exactly the same photons however you look at it - it's the interpretation that changes, not the universe itself. But I don't mind this - argument is the whole point of philosophy and why it's far more fun than the grumps like Stephen Hawking who claim we don't need it any more seem to realise.

So an excellent start first half to a book that I think all scientists and those with a true interest in science should read. But I just wish that second half had filled in those missing bits rather than trying to be a mini-popular science book with a touch of philosophical justification in its own right.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 27 August 2015

How Not To Be Wrong - Jordan Ellenberg ****

In the preface to Jordan Ellenberg's chunky maths book (441 pages before the notes in the version I read) we are introduced to a hypothetical student moaning about having to work through a series of definite integrals and complaining 'When am I going to use this?' What Ellenberg sets out do is to show how we use mathematics all the time - and how important it is to understand it if we are not to get the wrong idea about the world. We'll see how well he does.

It was very interesting to read this book quite soon after Richard Nisbett's Mindware. Both cover how to interact with life better thanks to the support of mathematics. Nisbett drives from the psychology side and improving decision making, while this book drives from the maths. Perhaps surprisingly, How Not to be Wrong is the easier read of the two. Ellenberg has a delightful light touch and is often genuinely funny (it's important to read the footnotes, which Ellenberg, like Terry Pratchett, uses for a lot of his jokes).

Along the way he shows us the uses and risks of straight lines in forecasting and understanding data, the power (and danger) of using methods of inference, how to use expected value, the realities of regression to the mean and the interplay between correlation and causality, and some fascinating observations on why traditional statistics can be very misleading when it comes to public opinion. Here it is often not applied to either/or situations, and it's quite possible, for instance, for the public to both support the idea of cutting taxes while simultaneously supporting raising expenditure. Although there are a few cases where we lose the plot and the connection to the real world, mostly this all driven by real world examples - from lotteries where an appropriate strategy can result in big wins to the apparent prediction that everyone in America would be obese before the end of the century.

While I don't think is this as practical a book as Nisbett's, it is full of fascination for anyone who likes a bit of applied mathematics, but can't be bothered with the formulae - there is very little that is scary in that line here. What's more, if you have any exposure to scientists, this book contains by far the best explanation of p-values, what they really mean and where they are meaningless that I've ever seen. 

So would the student from the preface feel after reading this book that there's no need to complain? Satisfyingly for a book that doesn't limit us to predictable mathematical answers, the response is both yes and no. Yes, because it becomes very clear that maths is hugely useful in understanding the world and responding to it. No, because the vast majority of maths you will have suffered at school and may have suffered at university, isn't required here. At least 90 per cent of the content depends on probability and statistics, topics that are rarely covered well enough in the curriculum, given how important they are in getting a grip on reality.

Although it felt a bit too long and used US sports rather too often as examples for my liking, this is a book for anyone with an interest in the way that mathematics can give us a better understanding of what's really happening in our complex world.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

On the Move - Oliver Sacks ****

I’m rather ashamed to say that this is the first book that I have read by Oliver Sacks, despite being a regular consumer of popular science books. Sacks, now in his 80’s and suffering from terminal cancer, has written some classics of popular science, but I somehow have never gotten around to reading them. After reading On the Move, a memoir of his life and his life in science, more of his books will make their way on to my reading list.

Sacks has an engaging and fluid writing style and is a great storyteller. He is also refreshingly honest about his own conditions (for instance, Sacks suffers from prosopagnosia, known popularly as 'face blindness') and is as frank about his experimentation and subsequent drug addiction as he is about his shyness, a trait that has led him to live alone for much of his life. 

In On the Move he writes of his social awkwardness as a factor that led to his great interest in science, eventually becoming a keen amateur chemist as a child. He also refers to his parents careers in medicine as a spur to him and his siblings to pursue careers in science. The book has interesting and, in some parts, frightening stories about cruel headmasters during his time in the countryside during the war. Not all of the stories about his education are this way; his anecdote about the Oxford entry examination is entertaining and impressive. I also enjoyed his descriptions about how he made his way between clinical work and research and back again. An intriguing insight into how scientists sometimes struggle to find the right place for their interests and abilities.

While Sacks has been accused of turning his patient histories into bestselling books, and eventually into successful Hollywood films, I didn’t get the impression that he is a callous or unsympathetic person. He writes of the moral turmoil he felt about entering into the world of popular publishing and the pains he has taken during his career to get the stories of his patients afflictions right. He also discusses at length his goal of placing the focus on the maladies of his patients and presenting the afflicted person in the best light possible. His empathy for his patients, in my opinion, comes through clearly.

Sacks’ range of interests is also staggering, both cerebral and physical. He has certainly led a full and interesting life. I think many, like me, who have not read his previous works will find On the Move an excellent introduction to the man and his works. 

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Review by Ian Bald

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Power Shift - Robert Arthur Stayton ***

Reviewing this book is frustrating because it does a really important job - but doesn't do it in a particularly effective fashion.

Let's get into that important job first. The book is about the need to move to solar energy, driven by the impact of manmade climate change. The most impressive thing about Power Shift is that it persuaded me that we should produce significantly more of our energy from solar. I've got some problems with Robert Stayton's assertion that all our energy could come from solar for a couple of reasons. Most of his information is sweeping and global, but I think really it is US-based, assumed to apply globally. It would be much harder to get all of the UK's energy from solar than the US quite simply because we don't have frequent enough sunny days. It is also a little cherry-picking, taking pessimistic views of the alternatives and optimistic on solar. While I think we could produce a good percentage of UK energy from solar given sufficient storage, we would also need backup nuclear to fill in gaps and, most importantly to deal with situations Stayton doesn't cover, like Krakatoa-like incidents which would drastically reduce solar availability for a couple of years at a time.

However, Stayton is indubitably right in saying that solar is the obvious source and that we should be putting in far more effort both in collection and in storage technologies to iron out the daily and seasonal variation in solar capacity. Yes, we will probably need to work on carbon capture and storage to get us through to a mainly solar economy (plus the nuclear backup he doesn't like), but solar should be seen as far more significant than it currently is. And this book makes the case so strongly that if you read it, you may well be persuaded of this idea.

Now, though, the less encouraging side. I don't think anyone who isn't already convinced will read the book, because the only sensible way to persuade someone is to start with a balanced view and work towards the conclusion, where the book clearly starts from a specific viewpoint, obvious even in its subtitle. It also suffers from one of the oldest problems in publishing - the significant content is really only about three magazine articles, expanded to fill a book. You could quite easily get all the important message across in articles covering climate change, energy options and how to implement solar. The result is a lot of repetition and labouring of the point. As an example, Stayton lists out 20 'positives for solar PV [photovoltaic - i.e. solar panels generating electricity]', then proceeds to slowly explain each of these points separately. We really don't need much expansion on, for instance, 'Solar PV does not pollute our air,' but we get nearly a page.

This kind of heavy handedness is particular obvious in spending around 60 pages telling us very obvious background on how human energy use has gone from fire to modern consumption. It's neither very interesting nor highly relevant to the point of the book. Another problem is the way that the author pushes the bottom-up approach, building his argument on his own position where he generates 90% of his energy from solar panels on his house. The fact is, the vast majority of people in the UK could not do this, both in terms of the relatively tiny amount of energy generated over the darker half of the year and also because many UK homes simply aren't suitable to stick solar on the roof. We tend to have much smaller houses than in the US - and, for instance, though my roof is technically big enough, it's not south-facing, which immediately renders it pretty much useless for generation. By giving us a model that just doesn't work for most of us, Stayton hinders rather than helps the message.

While Stayton's countrymen in the US are still arguing in large numbers that manmade climate change doesn't exist, the fact is that the arguments of this book are likely to be ignored. Which is a shame, because as I noted, it has genuinely persuaded me that we ought to make solar our biggest source, provided we put enough effort into developing more efficient energy storage mechanisms. There's a lot to interest anyone serious about our energy impact on the planet here, provided you are tolerant of the book's lack of conciseness. So it's a qualified cheer for this vision of a solar future.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Mindware - Richard Nisbett *****

There's no doubt that Richard Nisbett's book, subtitled 'tools for smart thinking' is great, despite two issues. I want to get those issues out of the way first before we get onto the good stuff, with which it is packed. One issue is the writing style. This is a touch clumsy and could do with a little professional help. Nisbett has a tendency to overuse unnecessary jargon in sentences like this:
Our construal of objects and events is influenced not just by the schemas that are activated in particular contexts, but by the framing of judgments we have to make.
Nor ideally worded. The second issue I suspect comes more from the publisher, which is the attempt to frame this book (sorry, couldn't resist the italics) as a self-help title as much as popular science. It doesn't work particularly well as a practical self-help toolkit - it's not structured in a way to make this a good use, particularly because a large part of the book is focused on how we get things wrong, rather than how to do things better.

But what makes this book a pure delight is the way that it analyses our human take on the world and shows the flaws in the typical ways that we think which, if overcome, would enable us to make better decisions. Some of this is fairly theoretical, starting with the nature of inference and exploring the holes in the Popperian disdain for inference, but there's also an exploration of the results of a plethora of experiments which take everyday decisions and situations and try to understand what is happening.

One great example is over the analytic input of the subconscious. Nisbett shows us how the old saw about leaving a problem overnight to reach a better decision really works. He describes an experiment where different people are shown a range of apartments and asked to decide which is 'best'. (As always with psychology experiments, there is room for questioning here as 'best' is so subjective with accommodation, but the experimenters try their best using a series of criteria against which each apartment is scored.) The subjects are divided into three groups. Some have to make an almost instant decision, others are allowed to weigh up the pros and cons, while a third group doesn't actually think about the problem but makes their decision after sleeping on it. By far the best results come from the third group, while the 'instant' decision maker are as effective as those weighing up the options. This neatly takes the wind out of the usual moan that people make a decision about house buying far too quickly.  The subconscious can do a surprising amount of the heavy lifting for us (though, as Nisbett points out, it's hopeless at doing sums).

A very interesting section for those who are fans of Freakonomics and its successor books is where Nisbett tears apart a technique often used in the 'Freak' decision process - multiple regression analysis, where the idea is to analyse data by correcting for various unwanted variables, leaving the one being studied dominant. Nisbett, tongue in cheek, refers to it as 'eekonomics'. It's an infamously poor approach (the reason why cohort studies on diet etc. are so difficult to use), because it's almost impossible to be sure you've allowed for all the variables, and the impact of some can be little more than guesswork. Instead, Nisbett suggests, it would be much better to do far more experimental work in these fields, with proper double blind controls, even though he admits that's not always possible.

With other sections on correlation versus causality, sample sizes, the nature of logic and dialectic, and more, there's plenty of meat here in a truly fascinating read about the nature of human decision making, where it goes wrong and how (at least in principle) we could do it better. It's not always big stuff. He points out how we often fail to deal with the way that money we've spent is already written off. There's no point carrying on with something you are now getting no value out of due to changing circumstances, or a bad initial decision, just because you've already spent a lot on it. Yet we all tend to do it (as do governments).

The part contrasting 'Western' logic with 'Eastern' dialectic towards the end of the book is probably the least satisfactory as it doesn't really explain how the dialectic approach can produce specific useful results rather than fuzzy statements, but it's still interesting. Overall, an ideal book for anyone who raises an eyebrow at statistics in the press. If, for example, you are a fan of Radio 4's More or Less, this book takes the whole look at the way we make informed decisions using numbers to a new level.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 14 August 2015

The Wonders of Light - Marta Garcia-Matos and Lluis Torner **

I am very fond of Cambridge University Press, so it truly pains me that I can't say much that is positive about this glossy, slim book which claims to help us explore the multitude of ways that light-based technologies are shaping our society. There's a certain class of book sometimes called in the trade 'business vanity publishing', where a company or organization pays for a book to be produced about themselves. Inevitably no one ever wants to buy them, they are just given away as promotional items. And that's exactly what this book feels like.

The book consists of 16 sections (it calls them chapters, but they're too short for that), all in the same format. To pick one at random, titled 'Virus Attack - but don't panic', it starts with a page of text about a virologist using a microscope to study virus-cell interactions, in the form of supposed plot of a science fiction movie (though possibly the dullest movie ever made). There's then a page with an image and this rather limited text: 'Cell mechanisms can be fooled by external enemies... and perform as perfect allies for an alien invasion. How does this happen? The relevant movements occur inside a region of a billionth of a meter!' Then there's a two page spread, rather like a Dorling Kindersley book on what happens in a virus attack. Finally we've got a whole page listing 'scientific and technical advisors' for this masterpiece, a glossary covering five terms and recommended reading and photo credits.

A clear marker that this is one of those vanity publications is that 1/7th of the entire content is essentially a list of people no-one cares about. That and the confused nature of the contents. Bearing in mind, this is supposed to be a book about the applications of light, look back over the previous paragraph and see how many times light gets a mention. Okay, it was an optical microscope, but that's it.

It's a very attractive looking little book, but it's extremely hard to see why anyone would buy it. It's not particularly interesting to read through from end to end. It hasn't got the punchy, dip-in book, feel of one of those '30-Second Physics' type books. It doesn't say a lot about light. Oh, and this paperback with around 48 pages of actual text content, costs just under £20. (You can get it about £1 cheaper on Kindle - but then you lose the glossy prettiness.)

I'm afraid it just doesn't work for me.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Planck - Brandon R. Brown ***

Max Planck, the physicist who started the quantum revolution, is a fascinating character, poised as he was between nineteenth century science and the transformation wrought by relativity and quantum theory in the twentieth century. In this new biography of Planck, physicist Brandon Brown provides genuine insights into Planck, the man.

This isn't primarily the standard form of a scientific biography. The book does, of course, mention Planck's science, but it doesn't focus on giving us an in-depth understanding of entropy, blackbody radiation and the emergence of the quantum. What we have here is a study of Planck as a human being, family man and conflicted nationalist who found the Nazi Party, with whom he reluctantly collaborated in, for instance, the removal of Jewish scientists from German academia, uncomfortable and unsophisticated bedfellows.

What the book does well - better than any other book on Planck that I have read - is fill in the detail of his family life, both the positive, loving side and the disasters that saw Planck lose his first wife and all four of the children they had together, from eldest son dying in the First World War to his favourite Erwin, killed by the Nazis for possible involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler. We see a loving family, at odds with Planck's old-fashioned stiffness in public affairs. And Brown does not hold back from some of the oddity of that family life - the way, for instance, his son-in-law married one of Planck's daughters, then married her twin when the first daughter died (only for the twin to die too). Or what might now raise an eyebrow or two when Planck married his wife's niece soon after his first wife died.

However there are some issues with the approach. The science isn't particularly well explained, not helped by a tendency to overuse florid similes. Planck's letter to Hitler, trying to prevent his son's execution, for instance, is described as being 'like a pick to the mountainside, his best shot to halt a steep slide.' Although the writing style is mostly light and approachable (sometime a little too colloquial, such as in the irritating habit of using 'passed' instead of 'died') the readability of the book is reduced by the jumpiness of the timeline. The first three chapters focus on 1944, 1905 and 1943 respectively. As Brown continues, each chapter then tends to start in 1944, gradually heading towards Erwin, the son's execution, but then in the body of the chapter jumps around all over the place chronologically.

I understand the urge to avoid writing a biography steadily along the timeline, as this can seem a little dull. But this attempt goes too far the other way with far too much flashing back, forwards and for all I know sideways. It's bad enough in any biography, but where there's science involved such a fluid chronology makes it harder to follow the development of the scientific content. The approach just didn't work for me.

Overall, certainly very interesting on Planck as a character. I think his role in Nazi physics is best captured by putting it alongside others as we see in Philip Ball's Serving the Reich, though Brown does an excellent job of bringing out the inner struggle between Planck's powerful love of the Fatherland and the difficulties he had with what was happening around him and to Jewish friends like Einstein. However, I can't rate the book any higher for the reasons mentioned above.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Skyfaring - Mark Vanhoenacker ***

Skyfaring is, strictly speaking, not a popular science book. It is first and foremost a memoir by a current British Airways 747 pilot. However, the author does include passages that concern the engineering of aircraft, the mechanics and physics of flight, and a great deal about meteorology.

At the outset it should be noted that Mark Vanhoenacker is an excellent writer. He has a real gift of language and of description and detail. The book contains a number of stirring passages about the wonder, glory and romanticism of flying and travel. Interspersed with these passages are interesting insights about how it is to live as a pilot flying long intercontinental flights. He also provides a rare glimpse of air travel from the perspective of the cockpit. Vanhoenacker is also very adept at weaving stories from his childhood and international upbringing to give colour and flavour to how he came to be a pilot and why he loves his occupation as he does. 

Despite his obvious writing ability, there are some problems with the book. One is that it feels a bit too long. As adept as Vanhoenacker is as a writer, the book would have benefited from a heavier hand during the editing process. There are a number of passages that could be slimmed down or removed as they touch upon the same subject, for instance the confusion of waking up in different cities around the globe and the nomadic lifestyle of the modern commercial pilot, that are not dissimilar enough to warrant page space. Somehow the book gives the impression that the editor was either too polite or inexperienced to wield the red pen as it should have been. A tighter narrative would have been welcome. 

The science and engineering aspects of the book are interesting, even for the reader that knows a lot about flying and aircraft. The intricacies of sitting in the cockpit and of flying as described by Vanhoenacker definitely dispel the idea that anyone could land a modern airliner simply by autopilot if the crew were incapacitated. 

As someone who has previously worked as an aircraft technician and who has an abiding interest in aircraft and air travel, the book gave me a number of insights about the practical nature of the pilot’s job and the skill required to fly large commercial airliners. Furthermore, Vanhoenacker’s writing and obvious devotion to his occupation were a joy to read. Full marks cannot be given though due to the slight repetitiveness in the book, and long passages that could have been tightened up. 

If you have an interest in modern commercial aircraft, airlines and travel, this book is worth taking on your next journey.  

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Review by Ian Bald