Monday, 14 December 2015

Atmosphere of Hope - Tim Flannery *****

With the Paris summit on climate change just concluded, it's hard to imagine a better time for a new book on the subject, and the subtitle of Tim Flannery's chunky little volume is very encouraging: 'solutions to the climate crisis.' In fact it is just as well he is offering solutions. Not only are the shelves pretty full of titles telling how terrible the impact of climate change is going to be, but (misery memoirs apart) there is quite a strong feeling that doom and gloom books don't sell.

It's not that Flannery begins in cheerful mood. He takes us through the increasingly indisputable evidence that climate change is not just happening but is already having impact on everyday lives, from bush fires in Australia to flooding in the UK. After presenting a picture of increasingly disastrous implications if we choose to carry on as normal, Flannery takes us through the various key means of producing energy, their impact on the climate and where we need to be concentrating. It's fascinating that after concerns in the past about running out of fossil fuels, Flannery thinks that before long we will be moving away from them with plenty left, as the money is divested from the industry. 

When it comes to what replaces fossil fuels, he is hugely enthusiastic about wind and solar and brushes aside concerns about their limited availability (e.g. solar at night or in a UK winter) without giving a clear picture of how the balance will be maintained. He is also dismissive of nuclear, in an argument that seems more emotional than logical. One of the most interesting aspects of this section is his admission that in his previous bestselling book, published 10 years ago, he pretty much ignored electric cars, assuming that hydrogen etc. would be the preferred solution, but now he is (sensibly) wholeheartedly behind them. 

We then move onto solutions. Flannery is rightly suspicious of the kind of geoengineering that fights fire with fire, for instance seeding the stratosphere with sulfur to mimic the cooling effect of a massive volcanic eruption. But he is very positive about various techniques to take carbon out of the atmosphere (though oddly dismissive of the low hanging fruit contributed of taking carbon dioxide from power station exhausts). He also claims that where once all we could do as individuals was wait for the politicians or dabble with low energy lightbulbs, now we can do much more. However, apart from fitting solar panels (not an option for many of us), this 'action' seems to be limited to joining activist groups, which may be more likely to generate hot air than reduce carbon emissions.

There's much that I really like about this book, and I will be giving my copy to a climate change sceptic friend in the hope of converting him.  However, there are some issues. Flannery spends far too much time telling us how important he is and how influential his last book was. This kind of validation of the author is useful in the blurb, but in the content of the book it comes across as irritatingly self-serving. The book is also very Australia/US centric. I suppose I shouldn't complain, since many books by UK authors pretty much ignore Australia, but given this is a UK edition from a UK publisher, the examples could have been tweaked to better fit the market. And the last part of the book is definitely a let down, when we are promised things we can do as individuals and just get 'join a pressure group.'

However, my niggles don't prevent this being an important and thoughtful book, giving up-to-the-minute analysis of our climate situation and what can be done about it. I hope Nigella will be buying a copy for her dad.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Ten Billion Tomorrows - Brian Clegg ****

There was a time, long before the days of blockbuster sci-fi movies, when anyone professing an interest in science fiction – or who had even heard of the genre – was likely to be a science geek. These days it’s different. Everyone has heard of science fiction, and even people who automatically think ‘all science is boring’ may count themselves as sci-fi fans. This translates into a huge opportunity for science communicators. After all, how can a science book be boring if it uses ideas from science fiction as a springboard? Brian Clegg has already used this approach on two of science fiction’s best known themes: time travel (How to Build a Time Machine) and interstellar travel (Final Frontier). In his latest book he applies the same logic to a whole range of other sci-fi tropes, from robots and ray guns to clones and cloaking devices.

If the book has a recurring message, it’s that real-world technology is less impressive than its sci-fi counterpart. Present-day quantum teleportation may do pretty much the same thing as a Star Trek transporter, but it does it on approximately 1028 (ten thousand trillion trillion) fewer atoms. Modern computers may have voice synthesisers that sound as good as HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but they don’t have anything like Hal’s deductive or conversational powers. The security hologram on your credit card is, all things considered, not in the same league as the holodeck in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Of course, there’s no reason why sci-fi technology should be a feasible proposition in the real world, either now or at any time in the future. As Brian Clegg points out in the book’s first chapter: ‘Science fiction does not set out to predict the future – instead it’s about asking “What if?” for all kinds of scenarios. It doesn’t matter if those possible futures are likely to happen or not, as long as they are interesting.’ In light of this, the surprising thing is not that real-world counterparts fall short of sci-fi expectations, but that real-world counterparts exist at all.

Ten Billion Tomorrows is essentially a book about science, not science fiction, and the author doesn’t let himself get bogged down in sci-fi geekiness. Most of the chapters are focused on a well-known sci-fi concept – something that is so familiar, even to the casual movie-goer or TV viewer, that it barely needs to be described before plunging into the – usually much less familiar – scientific reality behind it. A notable exception is Chapter 13, which deals with trips to the Moon. In this case it’s the reality – Project Apollo – that is so familiar it hardly needs to be described, while the preceding centuries of fictional lunar voyages are almost forgotten. Yet these make interesting reading, if only because they never quite managed to get it right – even in the 1950s, when all the scientific groundwork for Apollo was already in place.

As the title suggests, the potential scope of this book is enormous. It’s inevitable, therefore, that some readers are going to spot omissions they feel really should have been included (a point the author acknowledges right at the start). At the same time, the book covers so much ground that everyone will find something new in it, no matter how much of a sci-fi fan or science geek they are. Brian Clegg’s books are always enjoyable and informative to read, but this one has the added attraction that it flits so quickly from one subject to another that you never quite know what’s coming next. If there’s such a thing as an ‘edge of the seat’ popular science book, this is it!
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Review by Andrew May
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.

Black Holes: a very short introduction - Katherine Blundell ***

Black holes have to be amongst the most fascinating phenomena of astronomy/cosmology and as such make a perfect topic for a new addition to OUP's vast collection of pocket guides, the 'very short introduction' books. I read my copy on a couple of 45 minute train journeys - it's long enough to give a good grounding in the basics of black holes, without being heavy or over-technical.

We are taken on a tour that includes the early black hole-like concepts, and the nature of the real thing, what would happen if you fell into one, the black hole's thermodynamics (which is more interesting than it sounds), how we discover things like their mass and spin rate, how they grow (and shrink) and plenty more. Considering this is just 93 pages, Katherine Blundell packs in the good stuff.

The writing style is generally approachable, and this is a popular topic, so I was all set to give the book four stars, but there were sufficient issues to pull it back down. The first was the errors. Almost every popular science book has at least one, but there seemed rather more than usual. The expected one, which I couldn't blame Blundell for, was in the description of Hawking radiation, which doesn't make a lot of sense. The reason I don't blame the author is that almost all popular science descriptions of Hawking radiation don't make sense, because all of us, except working physicists, assumed Hawking described it correctly in his book. Unfortunately he didn't - in attempting to simplify a messy theoretical concept, he came up with an 'explanation' that doesn't hold water, which was then, unsurprisingly, repeated elsewhere over an over. It's unfortunate timing that there has been a lot of publicity this year for this problem. 

Less forgivable were a couple of oddities. The Andromeda galaxy is described as being 6 million light years away. It is actually around 2.5 million light years. While you might argue this is order of magnitude correct, even the worst taxi driver wouldn't take you on a route that was 3.5 million light years too far. We are also told that white dwarf stars are cold. This seems to suggest a lack of understanding of stars - you can't radiate blue-white light and be cold. What might have been intended is that over time white dwarfs do cool in the way that ordinary stars don't, because there's no hydrogen fusion to heat them, but it's a very slow process and observable white dwarfs tend to be pretty toasty.

Finally, there's the matter of omissions. Most of the work on black holes is theory rather than observation, and there's a rich vein in the theory around, for instance, the concept of firewalls - whether an observer passing into a black hole would not notice the event horizon or would burn up, as some theories suggest. Other theories put the entire universe in a black hole, making the possibility of a holographic reality. It's a shame this fun speculation isn't there, both to see and be analysed, especially as so much about black holes is based on theory rather than observed data.

Not a bad book, by any means, but enough issues to raise a small flag.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Ten Physicists - Rhodri Evans and Brian Clegg ***

I have little time for list books. You know the kind of thing. Fifty things you always wanted to know about chemistry, or whatever. I used to review a lot of children's science books. The kind of 'all you want to know in an easily digestible two page spread (with lots of pictures)' approach is okay in that context, but in something aimed at adults seems downright condescending to me. They must be popular, though, because publishers keep churning them out. But I really don't understand why.

Technically, this too is a list book, but at least it's a more grown-up list with a proper chapter of real sentences on each of the ten physicists featured. There is no doubt, as the introduction suggests, that there is a fascination produced by this particular kind of top ten list, if only because it's pretty easy to disagree with the list used. We discover that both Steven Weinberg in the preface and the authors in the introduction do disagree. (This gives the rather odd outcome of a book discussing the top ten physicists, using a list that the authors don't think covers the top ten physicists. I can see the point for the fun of the argument, but shouldn't they have corrected the list?). Whatever you think of the ten, we get a pretty good pocket biography of each one, including some insightful comments on the significance of their physics, a process that highlights why Marie Curie should probably be regarded more as a chemist than a physicist.

The overall effect, then, is quite interesting, though frankly each of the individuals featured deserves (and has received elsewhere) a solo scientific biography in his or her own right. If you can't be bothered to read ten different books, which many of us can't, this does pull the whole together efficiently and might, perhaps, indicate where you want to read more (for me it was Maxwell's story that really whet the appetite for in-depth discovery). If you think of Ten Physicists as the Reader's Digest condensed book of key physicists, with a little interesting discussion on what makes a great physicist, you won't go to far wrong and you should come out the other end significantly the wiser.
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Review by Jo Reed
Please note, this title is co-authored 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, 2 December 2015

Mathematics and Art: a cultural history - Lynn Gamwell ****

I have to start by saying that I have never really understood the point of coffee table books. There is no way anyone is going to comfortably read Mathematics + Art as it's around 25 cm by 32 cm, and weighs in at a wrist-crunching 3 kg, heavier than many laptops. (The price is fairly wallet-crunching too.) Although it is heavily and beautifully illustrated, though, this is much more than just a picture book of images with a mathematical association. It is a genuinely interesting text, running across over 500 pages, which I found I liked far more than I wanted to.

While there is, as is often the case with this kind of attempt to link science and the arts, sometimes a rather tenuous link to the mathematics, it is still fascinating to discover how the influence of maths on culture at large has had an impact on the arts. Sometimes this is in a quite explicit form, where an image, say, is mathematically derived or features a mathematician at work, while on other occasions it's a much more subtle connection where a topic or context is derived from the way mathematics is influencing the world at large.

Lynn Gamwell does not shy away from including a surprising amount of detail about the maths itself, with occasional boxes explaining everything from calculus to the double slit experiment in quantum physics. Her writing style feels rather closer to that of a textbook than a work intended for a wide audience, but it is nonetheless reasonably approachable, and time and again the illustrations capture the attention and the imagination.

An oddity, then - but a genuinely interesting one.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Failure - Stuart Firestein ***

I am a big fan of Stuart Firestein's previous book Ignorance. It does a superb job of demolishing the traditional picture (as seen from outside) of scientific endeavour. As the author makes clear, facts may sometimes be interesting, but the driver behind real science is far more likely to be exploring our delicious areas of ignorance. 

This meant I had huge expectations for this follow-up title, and it's entirely possible that this anticipation resulted in an unnecessary feeling of being let down. But in all honesty I think it was also due to the writing. 

What Firestein sets out to do is to build up failure as the second parallel pillar to ignorance as a driver of science. Now, there's lots of good stuff in here about the importance of failure to science, and how too much of it is overlooked as it is very valuable, and how Popper was right but also wrong and so on and so forth, but it all seems flung together with little idea of structure and comes across as a failure (see what I did) if you consider the prime role of a book is to communicate effectively. 

As one example of many, we hear about the importance of failure in the scientific method, but that there isn't really a scientific method, what scientists do is just pootle about, except they don't really, and though they clearly gain from failure they can't be said to learn from failure because that's too like what those horrid business people say. It's all far too woffly and unstructured. That might be intentional, as a metaphor for the nature of science, but if it is, it really gets in the way of providing an effective book.

There is also a surreal moment (on page 170 in case you want to dip into a copy and enjoy it), when Firestein lumps genetically modified crops and nuclear energy in with astrology and alternative medicines as 'completely non-scientific practices.' I read this three times and still can't make sense of it. 

So there is some really interesting material here, and it is probably a must-have for Firestein fans like me, but it is hard work to extract those gems. 
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Review by Brian Clegg