Thursday, 5 November 2015

How Many Moons Does the Earth Have - Brian Clegg *****

Science and fun go together like… well, like things that don’t often go together at all.  So it’s no mean feat to find that Brian Clegg has managed to combine the two so skilfully in How Many Moons Does the Earth Have.  
The book is in the format of a pair of pub quizzes, but unless you’re drinking in a pub favoured by geeky academics in either Oxford or Cambridge (I would have just said Oxford, except that Brian went to the other place!) I would say that 99.99% of readers (I can say that confidently as no one can check it) will just read the book through like I did, to entertain and test themselves.   
Each question is cleverly laid out, in that each is posed in the form of a puzzle, problem or brainteaser, augmented with a few related ‘while you wait’ fun facts on a single page; giving the reader the space to test themselves.  Once done, the reader then turns the page to find the answer - complete with a detailed explanation.  This makes each question an interesting standalone read in its own right.  For those who want to go further, each answer also has a ‘read more’ suggestion of a book that expands on the topic.
The biggest problem with this book is being able to put it down, as each item is very short, it’s tempting to go for just one more… and another until you’re half-way through in a single sitting.  
The subjects are widespread, though all encompass science and technology; from the title question of the book (not as straightforward as it seems) to who invented the gramophone (ditto) - there are also some great picture and puzzle sections.  In fact the majority of the questions have a little twist or surprise that mean they continue to delight all the way through, and I must say that I don’t believe that I’ve ever uttered ‘Well I never’ so many times and in such a short space of time before.
If you like QI or the New Scientist books like Why Don’t a Penguin’s Feet Freeze, you’ll just love this one!  It’s a great book for anyone with an interest in science and at a really good price that makes it an excellent stocking filler.  I am certainly going to be buying a whole stack as Christmas presents for my Oxford chums.

Review by Pete 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.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Gut Feelings - Gerd Gigerenzer *****

Although this book dates back to 2007 (it was shortlisted for the Royal Society Science Book Prize in 2008), the information within doesn’t seem dated. Psychologist and behavioural expert Gerd Gigerenzer has written a number of books about risk and probability in recent years, and while this book has some of that, this book is focused on the secrets of fast and effective decision making. That is not to say that it is a self-help book, but rather a description, based on neurological and psychological research, of how the brain uses heuristics in order to make decisions with limited information, though readers will find much of the information useful when thinking about decisions.
Gigerenzer explains how intuition works in easy to understand terminology and also uses numerous examples throughout the book to illustrate how intuition is the basis for decision making, such as how we are able to catch a ball without conducting calculations of its speed or distance. 
In short, Gigerenzer describes the processes of 'system 1' to use the terminology from Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. Interestingly, Gigerenzer takes issue with the ‘Linda is a bank teller’ puzzle that Kahneman and Tversky used to illustrate the ‘conjunction fallacy’. Gigerenzer argues, very effectively and persuasively, that such logical puzzles are ‘content blind' as they ignore the content and goals of thinking, and that our intelligence has developed to operate in an uncertain world and not the artificial certainty of a logical system. In any event, it is the first persuasive and rigorous counter argument to many of the premises of Thinking Fast and Slow that I have come across.
In another chapter, Gigerenzer discusses the ‘string heuristic’ ideas as related to how people choose which party or politician to vote for. Basically, voters arrange the complexity of the political landscape to one dimension: left-Right. They then arrange the parties like pearls on a string and, by picking the up the string at one’s ideal point, the voters arrange their preferences for other parties. I found this idea quite fascinating and an excellent explanation of when polls show how voters move between parties that are not close to each other ideologically; the parties may be close on the given issue that the voter has based his decision on.
Gigerenzer has written an excellent book and has a real talent for using examples and terminology that make these interesting ideas accessible for the everyday reader. If you’re interested in risk, probability, logic and how our brains weigh such things, and how we are more astute than we think we are, then this is a top quality read.
Review by Ian Bald

Monday, 2 November 2015

Seven Brief Lessons in Physics - Carlo Rovelli ***

This strikes me as the kind of book that would really impress an arts graduate who thought it was giving deep insights into science in an elegant fashion, but for me it was a triumph of style over substance - far too little content to do justice to the subject. It is, in effect, seven articles strung together as a mini-book that can be read comfortably in an hour, but is priced like a full-length work.
Don't get me wrong, Carlo Rovelli knows his stuff when it comes to physics and gives us postcard sketches of a number of key areas, mostly in the hot fields like cosmology and quantum gravity (though interestingly focussing on the generally rather less popular loop quantum gravity). However he's not so good on his history of science, and can, as scientists often do when writing for the general public, over-simplify.
The last of the articles is different from the rest - rather than take in a specific field (quantum physics, say) as the earlier articles do, it looks at how people and science interact. In some ways this is the freshest and most interesting part of the content... it's just hard to see why it's a 'lesson in physics.'
This book came across to me like a taster menu from a fancy restaurant. It will certainly hit the mental tastebuds, and contains a number of delights - but it is insubstantial and leaves you wanting far more. I can see the title doing very well as a gift book. It looks pretty and is handsomely bound, but there are plenty of better options out there if a reader really wants to be introduced to the wonders of modern physics.
Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Light: A Very Short Introduction - Ian Walmsley ***

It's fitting that light should be added as a topic to the OUP's growing range of mini-guides in 2015, as this is the International Year of Light (though, to be honest, the year seems to have been a nonstarter of an event). Light is a remarkable phenomenon and one that we rarely think about considering how big a part it plays in our lives.

Ian Walmsley begins by outlining the reasons why light is so important, over and above the mechanism of sight, and gives a very brief historical view of some of the ideas on the nature of light. I was not impressed by his characterisation of Roger Bacon as the 'mad friar of Oxford', but that apart, though fleeting, the historical section was a reasonable gallop through the topic.

For the rest of the content, Walmsley describes optics, light as particles, waves and as a duality in the form of a quantum field. He takes quite an unusual route in doing this and I think it would be easy for a non-technical reader to get somewhat lost along the way. There is quite a long section on special relativity, which, while light-related, is not really the topic of this book, but too little on some aspects of light itself, such as how its speed was first established and measured over the years before settling on the current exact figure. Given the weight that is put on the quantum field description of light, the explanation of quantum fields was too summary, given they remain outside the awareness of most readers.

So, a few key omissions and an approach that in some ways isn't ideal for an introductory guide, but still a solid little collection of material on the nature of light.
Review by Brian Clegg