Thursday, 29 October 2015

Chance - Michael Brooks (Ed.) ****

New Scientist has had a great success with its books filled with extracts from the 'Last Word' column where readers pose and answer questions. Titles such as Why Don't Penguin's Feet Freeze have proved very popular for a number of years. However, while no doubt they are building up more Q&As for the next such title, the New Scientist staff have come up with a different format that brings together a collection of articles based on an interesting topic. We've already seen this with Nothing - now there's a second outing with Chance.
Generally speaking, I am not a huge fan of books made up of a smorgasbord of articles by different authors. The outcome is often bitty and lacks any narrative flow - it just doesn't read well as a whole. The New Scientist books suffer a little for this problem, but the good news is that the vast majority of the articles in Chance on randomness, probability and the like are very readable in their own right, and there isn't too much overlap between them.
Where the book really shines is when dealing with the way that randomness and probability influence our everyday lives, from legal miscarriages, where probability has been misused to falsely convict, to the good old classic applications of probability like the lottery (it's a shame the number of balls has changed since the book was written) and the different games in a casino. I'm also always genuinely happy when there's a discussion of Bayes' theorem, which comes up a number of times. There are also some tantalising mentions of the kind of unlikely coincidences we've all encountered, like meeting a colleague in a strange location, though I would have liked a specific article giving these kind of events more of a heavy duty going over.

Less successful, for me, were what felt more like padding articles, brought in because there weren't quite enough topics to cover on pure probability, so the authors had to resort to rather tenuous connections of probability with biology and the statistical chances of life existing. I know some people love this kind of thing, so I understand why it's here, but it didn't work for me.
So, I reached the end a pleasantly surprised reader. It's no Dice World, but it is an interesting and entertaining collection of articles covering many areas of randomness and probability.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 24 October 2015

The Character of Physical Law - Richard Feynman ***

This was a late discovery for me amongst Richard Feynman's books, and it's something of an oddity. Like all the books with his name on, this wasn't a case of Feynman sitting down to write a book; he never wrote a single book - in this case it's a transcription of a set of lectures Feynman gave at Cornell University which were broadcast in the UK by the BBC.
What the great physicist sets out to do is to explore the nature of physical laws. Where this works best (and he would probably have hated this suggestion) is where he was at his most philosophical. In the first lecture he explored just what was meant by physical laws and this is genuinely interesting stuff, especially as it's something we rarely give much thought to.
After that he goes on to cover specific areas, with lectures on gravity, maths, conservation, symmetry, the arrow of time and probability, before pulling things together in a final lecture on the search for new laws. For me these chapters don't work quite as well in book form, partly because we miss the visual aspects of Feynman's talks, and partly because they are perhaps a little too summary for the topics covered. The other slight problem with specifics is that inevitably some of the content (from the 1960s) is quite dated - particularly in the 'new laws' section, where he covers particle physics at a point before quarks and when the particle zoo seemed out of control. It's interesting from a historical perspective of what the understanding was like at the time, but it's not an ideal way to find out about particle physics.
Overall, an essential if you want to have a complete picture of Feynman's output, and fascinating in that opening chapter, but not the best of the Feynman books.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Moonstruck - Ernest Naylor ***

There is something uniquely beguiling about the moon. The sun might be the serious luminary power source of the solar system, but it is simply too bright to be aware of any detail without specialist equipment. But everyone can admire the full moon in all its glory. In writing Moonstruck, subtitled 'how lunar cycles affect life', Ernest Naylor keeps us very aware of this human awareness of the moon, constantly throwing in moon myths and beliefs alongside detailed information on the way that the moon, and more often its indirect influence through the tides, influences mostly aquatic behaviour.

While Naylor is sticking to sealife he is on home territory and authoritative, though for the general reader there is perhaps rather too much cataloguing of how various species behave or mate or whatever in subtly different ways dependent on the phase of the moon and the state of the tides.

Where things get a lot more slippery is when Naylor moves onto land animals, and particularly humans, where the general feeling seems to be that most studies show no evidence of an influence. When there is an apparent correlation, there is usually a conflicting study that doesn't agree. This topic seems to have the same problem that ghost hunters have with taking a scientific approach. In the scientific method, the null hypothesis is interesting in its own right. If, for instance, physicists discovered that there were no gravitational waves, it would have a major impact on general relativity and would be fascinating (and possibly Nobel Prize winning). But if ghost hunters consistently discover no ghosts, they just get dispirited. (Sorry.) So there is a higher than usual temptation in such circumstances to cherry pick data to support the researcher's desired outcome. Unfortunately the whole business of finding ways that the moon might influence sleep patterns or libido or whatever seemed exactly the same. A field where enthusiasts are in search of supporting evidence.

It didn't help that Naylor repeatedly told us that 'sceptics think this' and 'sceptics would point out there is no evidence yet' which began to grate after a while. Throw in a decidedly dubious timing of the Big Bang at 9.5 billion years ago, plus a surprisingly short book for an £18.99 hardback, and we have something of an oddity that read less like a commercial popular science book and more like a personal project.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 17 October 2015

The Quotable Feynman - Richard Feynman (Ed. Michelle Feynman) ***

If you asked people who did physics degrees in my generation - or who were working physicists for that matter - to name their favourite physicist, while there might have been a few dissenters going for, say, Fred Hoyle, the vast bulk would say Richard Feynman. (I honestly don't know if it's the same for young physicists now - it would be interesting to find out.) The reason I mention Hoyle is that the two shared a lot of characteristics. Neither of them sounded like a physicist. Both were, to a degree, iconoclastic. And both came up with delightful quotes. So given all that, it should be no surprise that we get here a collection of Feynman's best snippets, edited by his daughter Michelle.
This isn't the first book of this kind - there was also The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, and like Einstein, Feynman was both a brilliant physicist who was able to see the world differently and a master of the witty remark, often pithy and pungent, each managing to get to the heart of their particular areas of science in a few words. I don't suppose this book will do as well as the Einstein one because Feynman is less well known to the public in general - but in the physics community it will be lapped up.
The collection was certainly fun to dip into, and with sections on everything from nature to philosophy and humour to war it has plenty of range. However, I have a couple of problems with this as a book. The first is that this kind of thing can become a hagiography, and having prefaces by cellist Yo Yo Ma and TV scientist Brian Cox made it seem even more so that this was the case. In a sense, a daughter is not necessarily the best person to edit a collection like this. Because the book cried out for a section labelled 'Things he got wrong'. Feynman himself would have cheerfully admitted that this a major route to getting to better answers and there are bound to be some quotes that were heartily adrift from later developments, whether in his own field or others.
My other issue is quite what to do with the book as a reader. I have made the attempt to read it through for this review, but frankly, even with a man of Feynman's wit, there are only so many snippets out of context that you can read without getting bored. I think it would have been better to have stripped out all but the best quotes and given each a page of context to make it more interesting. Given the volume as it is, the main use I would have thought it had was a dictionary of quotations. I often dig out the Oxford Dictionary of Scientific Quotations when writing, and it's poor on Feynman (just 7 entries) - so having another 500 is, in theory, excellent.
I say 'in theory' because the publishers have made an attempt to shoot themselves in the foot. In the front material they comment 'Requests for permission to reproduce material from this work should be sent to Permissions, Princeton University Press.' (I wonder if I should have asked permission to reproduce that?) But that takes away about the only real point of having the book. In practice, I don't think they can get away with this on anything other than items that aren't themselves quotes from other books, TV appearances etc, such as personal letters and notes, as quoting publicly available sources has long been accepted without permission. But even so it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Poor move, Princeton University Press.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 16 October 2015

Is it always one thing or the other in quantum theory?

Image © EPFL 2015
We have a report from the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) of 'a photograph of light as both a particle and a wave.' HT to Ian Bald for pointing this out - the paper dates back to March, but I didn't spot it at the time.

It's interesting to dig in a bit and see a) is this true and b) is it the end of Bohr's assertion as part of his concept of complementarity that light could act like a wave or a particle but never both at the same time?

The experiment is complex enough that it's a little fuzzy when it comes to the interpretation. What the experimenters did was reported by the EPFL's press people as follows. The experimenters fired a laser at a metallic nanowire. Some of the energy from the photons in the light stimulated electrons in the wire, which meant that 'light' travelled along the wire in two directions. When these waves met they formed a standing wave which generated emitted light. They then shot electrons at the wire which interacted with the emitted light in a quantum fashion, slowing down or speeding up and producing the rather pretty image.

The argument in the press release is that this simultaneously demonstrates the wave and particle nature of the light - the wave in the standing wave and the particle aspect is in the interaction with the incoming electrons that produces the image.

This is a really interesting experiment. As Fabrizio Carbone, the leader of the EPFL team says, 'This experiment demonstrates that, for the first time ever, we can film quantum mechanics – and its paradoxical nature – directly. Being able to image and control quantum phenomena at the nanometer scale like this opens up a new route towards quantum computing.' However I'm a bit hesitant to say that we are simultaneously observing wave and particle behaviour in the same bit of light.

Unless I'm misunderstanding what's going on, we have waves in the nanowire, which strictly speaking are plasmonic, i.e. quantised vibrations rather than themselves conventional electromagnetic waves. These waves are causing electrons in the wire to accelerate, generating photons which are emitted and then interact with the incoming detector photons. So the wave-like process is generating the photons. But they are totally different entities. Of itself this kind of mix isn't uncommon - wave-like behaviour in a radio aerial generates the photons of the emitted radio - but being able to see the impact of both in the same image is. So complementarity is safe.

Whatever the correct interpretation, we must not fall into the trap of confusing models with reality. Light is not a wave, nor is it a particle (nor is it a fluctuation in a quantum field) - these are models that help us get a grasp of its behaviour, but in the end light is light, where waves, particles and fields are all models based on our experience of the macro world. However, it's certainly interesting stuff! You can read the full paper here.

The Magic of Maths - Arthur Benjamin ***

There are broadly three types of popular maths. There are books like A Brief History of Infinity which introduce mathematical concepts and history without actually doing any maths - and these can be fascinating. There are books of recreational maths, like Martin Gardner's classic Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions, or Ian Stewart's Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities, which explore the weird and wonderful of maths, with a need for a bit of practical working out, but almost always provide plenty of fun along the way. And there are book like the Magic of Maths. (Could I say, by the way, how grateful I am that the UK edition has that 's' on 'maths'.) Almost always written by mathematicians, such books set out to prove to the masses who think that actually getting your hands dirty and doing mathematics is too hard or too boring that it's really easy and enjoyable too.
To give him his due, Arthur Benjamin makes a good stab at this - one of the best I've seen. He tells us we're going to learn clever little tricks that will allow us to do amazing things with mental arithmetic - for instance multiplying surprisingly big numbers in our heads. And he delivers. It really works, and we can amaze ourselves, though probably not our friends, because if other readers are anything like me they will have forgotten most of the techniques by the time they finish the next chapter.
Benjamin also takes on the likes of algebra, Fibonacci numbers, geometry, trigonometry, imaginary numbers, calculus and more. And going on the pages of testimonials from maths professors in the front, this is the kind of thing maths-heavy people love. And that's fine. But for most of us I'd say 80 per cent of the book is not going to be appreciated. Early on, Benjamin tells us we shouldn't mind skipping pages or even chapters. But when you find yourself skipping most of the content, it begins to feel as if it wasn't a great thing to read in the first place.
In one of those fruitless exercises in saying the whole world is your audience, Benjamin comments that the book is for anyone who will one day take a maths course, is taking a maths course or is finished taking maths courses. I'd say the audience is a lot tighter. It's for people who one day will take a maths degree, or took one years ago and wants to reminisce. It's just too number heavy and narrative light to work for me. And I have taken a maths course. But I certainly don't want take another - and this has reminded me why.
I have to emphasise that the book is by no means all bad. Benjamin does introduce some fun, and weird and wonderful stuff, like the apparent demonstration that infinity is equal to -1/12 (though I've seen better explanations of why this demonstration falls apart). But far too often what Benjamin thinks is fun is just 'So what?' to us lesser mortals.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Origins: the scientific story of creation - Jim Baggott ****

Every civilisation has its creation myths. These often beautiful stories describe how the world came into being and, most importantly in terms of the reason the stories exist, explore how we as humans relate to the wider universe. Jim Baggott, who is one of the few science writers able to make the Higgs boson comprehensible, has taken on an even greater challenge in writing a creation myth for the scientific age.
Origins is a weighty tome - literally. Oxford University Press either incorporate a chunk of heavy metal into the spine or (more likely) use a particularly heavyweight glossy paper in books like these, which mean that they are a positive drag for bedtime reading or posting, but look undoubtedly handsome. But what of the contents?
Baggott takes us chronologically from the origins of the universe, through the formation of stars and galaxies, on to the solar system coalescing and the Earth forming, through our planetary ages, bringing in the beginnings of life and the eventual evolution of homo sapiens. That's a whole lot of science to pack in. And because he almost entirely concentrates on current best theories, sticking to the chronology of 'creation' this does mean that he has to plunge in with heavyweight science from the start (general relativity is out of the way by page 20 or so), rather than easing us in gently with some history of science background to show the way the theories have developed over time.

It also means that there is limited opportunity for story, for narrative - and that the biggest drawback of this book. It's a creation myth without the backbone story, just leaving the bare bones of theory and observation, and it is diminished by that lack. Luckily, Baggott is too good a writer not to use as much friendly language as he can, and does throw in the limited stories behind some observation and discovery where appropriate - the Alpher, Bethe, Gamow paper springs to mind - but overall there is an impression of the reader being overwhelmed with a huge quantity of fact and theory. After all, in taking us from the Planck epoch to the present day, he not only has to encompass 13.8 billion years but also pretty well every bit of important science we now know.

Traditional creation myths were presented as fact, though they could be charmingly inconsistent. Genesis, for instance, contains two conflicting myths, while the Ancient Egyptians had a whole collection of incompatible variations, though this didn't really matter, because these were stories with a message, rather than an attempt at history or science. You might expect that a scientific creation myth would do away with such uncertainty, but though Baggott does present us primarily with the best accepted current theories, he points out that alternatives exist - and that there are some points, such as the very beginning of the universe, or the first instance of life, where it's still most honest to say 'We don't know.'

Overall this is a brave and impressive attempt at an almost impossible task. I have given Origins four stars because I think that Baggott has made an excellent stab at this, but the result is not a book that can have the inspirational storyline and narrative power of the very best popular science. It's just the nature of the beast.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 3 October 2015

13.8: the quest to find the true age of the universe ad the theory of everything - John Gribbin ****

If we had such a thing as a science writers' hall of fame, John Gribbin would be one of its first inductees. As one of the UK's most respected veterans of the field, and with a background in astrophysics, Gribbin is uniquely placed to take us on a guided tour of the history of attempts to establish the age of the universe, and to combine the general theory of relativity and quantum theory, almost certainly necessary if we are to have an effective picture of the earliest moments of existence.

It says a lot for Gribbin's grasp of the topic that he can write a book where, to be honest, the only real new aspect is changing the generally accepted age of the universe from 13.7 billion years to 13.8 and yet still make his content feel fresh and approachable. One of the ways he does this is to avoid going into too much depth on stories that have been told many times before. It's always a difficult balance. Do you, for instance, tell the story of the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB) in any detail, as any regular reader of popular science will have seen it many times before? But on the other hand, there will be some readers for whom it is a new and interesting story.

 The only downside of the trimming of the stories to their bare bones is that they lose a certain personal flavour and intrigue. So, for instance, in the CMB case, although the infamous pigeon droppings are mentioned, we don't hear the rather bizarre story of the way that the pigeon problem was dealt with. There is one point where this brevity is definitely overplayed. In the prologue, Gribbin tells us how Gamow, Alpher and Herman were upset when the discovery of the CMB was announced without any mention of then. He then goes on to say 'The resulting recriminations have been well documented by John Mather and John Bgoslough, two later players in the cosmic background game: there is no need to elaborate on them here.' In this case, we don't just missed the story, we're told there is a story but that we aren't going to hear what it is. That's just frustrating.

If I have one other slight complaint it is that the author rather repeatedly throws in remarks about having worked with somebody involved, or that he has been supervised by somebody involved, or been on a team that worked on something connected... this doesn't really add anything to the telling, but leaves the reader feeling as if there's an unnecessary attempt to make this history personal.

Overall, 13.8 is a very solid account of how we came to the currently accepted age of the universe. It may not offer much on the alternative theories of the origin of the universe, but it's not trying to do this. Instead it gives powerful insights into a detective story that is attempting to perform the ultimate cold case CSI - uncovering what happened 13.8 billion years ago - and that has over the years had many false starts and misapprehensions before reaching our current state of knowledge. What's more, as a handsome hardback it is an attractive addition to any popular science shelf. Once again, Gribbin delivers.

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Review by Brian Clegg