Sunday, 28 February 2016

Why String Theory? - Joseph Conlon ****

If, like me, you've tended to think of string theory as a way that applied mathematicians and theoretical physicists can have endless fun without ever contributing anything practical to our understanding of the universe, Joseph Conlon's is a useful book to remind us that string theory isn't quite so unlikely and useless as it can seem.

I must admit I've been strongly influenced by anti-string theory books such as Not Even Wrong and The Trouble with Physics. After reading Why String Theory? I have a more balanced view (if still being pretty doubtful of the theory's value). One thing that Conlon does, which I've never never seen elsewhere, is give a detailed description of it how the theory came into being, including the original, 26-dimensional approach that was an attempt to deal with the strong interaction. When this was trumped by quantum chromodynamics, it was almost as if the string theorists were so enamoured with their theory, which has some mathematically beautiful aspects, and a tendency to suddenly fit quite well with other mathematical constructs in physics, that they seem to have a spent a lot of time thinking 'Okay, what can we do with it?' And apart from the possibility of quantum gravity, it's remarkable in how many places it seems to have offered some use, despite its infamous lack of testable predictions to whittle down the vast numbers of potential solutions.

I won't say that this is an ideal popular science title. Like Not Even Wrong, it constantly throws out material that you just have to take the writer's word for being meaningful. It's not that there's heavy maths - there are pretty well no equations - but there's an awful lot you have to take on trust, or glaze slightly as meaningless (to the reader) terms are thrown at you. This isn't helped by a style that sometimes reminds me of a elderly schoolmaster (I was amazed that the author is considerably younger than me) with examples like referring to a person's bottom as a 'derrière' (something my grandma might have done) and throwing in 'crossing the Rubicon of physics' occurring within 2 lines of each other. I'm surprised their weren't Latin tags. Elsewhere we get 'I will, for now, let sobriety be the better part of speculation and be silent whereof I cannot speak...' Note that this is while calling pre-Big Bang ideas 'bad speculation' because they're not based on observation - unlike string theory?

There's also a touch of iffy history of science (we are told that Gell-Mann named the quark after a word in Finnegans Wake, for instance, where it was only the spelling that came from there), and the author rather sneakily compares string theory to astronomy as being 'pursued for the value of intrinsic understanding' rather than anything so grubby as commerce - but doesn't note that at least we know that what astronomers (as opposed to cosmologists) study exists. (Not to mention Conlon being unnecessarily sniffy about practical applications.)

However, I do still recommend this book for everyone who wants to get an up-to-date picture of the state of string theory with a lot of background, and is prepared to take the rather heavy approach, lacking much of an attempt to explain things in words most of us can understand. If, like me, you've tended to the anti-camp, this title (sadly, priced more like a textbook than a popular science title) is a very valuable antidote.

Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg


Friday, 26 February 2016

Jules Howard - Four Way Interview

Jules Howard is a zoologist, writer, blogger and broadcaster. He writes on a host of topics relating to zoology and wildlife conservation, writing regularly for BBC Wildlife Magazine and the Guardian, and on radio and TV including BBC Breakfast, Sunday Brunch and BBC 5 Live. Jules also runs a social enterprise that has brought 100,000 young people closer to the natural world. His second book, Death on Earth followed the successful Sex on Earth (Bloomsbury, 2014).

Why Science? 

What better way is there to solve nature's mysteries? For me personally, I'm particularly drawn to science because I really like pressing, however slightly, on the boundary between what is unknown and known. It's a real privilege to ask questions that no one in the universe, maybe, has ever before questioned. It's a greater privilege still to try and answer them. Having fun along the way (which I try to do) is an additional bonus.

Why this book? 

What can I say? I like challenging taboos. And, when it comes to death, it's about time someone did! All life on Earth today owes death. Without death, evolution and natural selection stalls. Without death, Earth's nutrients and ecosystems would falter and fade. Without death... could we even be human? It's time for a celebration of death. This is it. This is a true story of a zoologist who studied death and improved his life unimaginably in the process.

What's next?

My first book was about sex. My second book covers death. Next, I'll be shining light onto the fortunes of our own ape lineage. Was it inevitable that our ancestors would move from the trees and into the grasslands and become human? How lucky are we to be alive? Could we ever have been here without the death of the dinosaurs?  How much of our own history do we owe to mass extinctions? I have an interesting (and top secret!) way to un-weave the story. More soon...

What's exciting you at the moment?

I'm excited about death! Honestly, really and truly - I'm genuinely excited to be releasing a book about death! The most life-affirming thing in the world is to spend years working on a project about the science of zoological death; it puts this bit (the ALIVE bit) into perspective. It's a wonderful privilege to be alive, and concious of that fact, unlike perhaps every other animal on Earth. Enjoy your days everyone. They're numbered.

Beautiful, Simple, Exact, Crazy - Apoorva Khare and Anna Lachowska ***

This is a rare example of a book that is pretty much a textbook, but works well as entertaining educational maths for a certain section of the audience. To be honest, that's probably quite a small section - but for those it does appeal to, I can heartily recommend to it.

What the authors set out to do is to give those who aren't mathematicians or scientists a feel for how useful mathematics is in the real world. All too often, the maths we are taught at school seems strangely abstract. Okay, they might give you those irritating problems about people filling baths or meeting each other part way on a journey to make the 'numbers come to life' - but these aren't real world applications. And all too often we are just presented with, say, an abstract geometric or algebraic problem to solve and expected to get on with it, with no idea of what the point is in anything vaguely connected with normal life.

The authors assume that the reader has maths to high school algebra level, but then takes off down a whole host of application routes, such as velocities and accelerations, interest and mortgages, the strange behaviour of fractals, the benefits of being able to estimate, ciphers, probability and statistics.

Some of the problems still do seem painfully artificial - a question picked at random is 'Suppose an entire school goes on a picnic - as many boys as girls. The boys all wear jeans; a third of the girls wear skirts, and the rest wear jeans. Given that a randomly picked student is wearing jeans, what is the odds that the student is a girl.' There's no doubt that Bayes' theorem is hugely valuable in real life, but this probably isn't an application many people are going to make of it, so doesn't really fit the book's philosophy of moving away from the artificiality of ordinary textbooks.

Is it going to work? I think the main problem is finding an audience. It's too simplistic for most university science students, and it's too much of textbook to read for fun. (I'm sorry, it just feels like a textbook, and no one remembers those fondly - the eyes tend to skip off the page in protest unless you force them to continue.) So that limits the size of the popular science audience. However, if you have high school maths combined with sufficient drive to find out more about usable mathematics to go along with a textbook approach, you will find that your mathematical toolkit is impressively expanded by this title.

Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 25 February 2016

How long is a piece of string?

String theory is something that I've been highly sceptical about for some time, influenced by books like Not Even Wrong and The Trouble with Physics. This meant that a recent book, Why String Theory? by Joseph Conlon has proved a very interesting read to provide an explanation for the popularity of string theory among physicists, despite its apparent inability to make predictions about the real world.

I can't say the new book has won me over (and I ought to stress that, like Not Even Wrong, it's not an easy read), but what I do now understand is the puzzle many onlookers face as to how physicists can end up in what appears to be such an abstruse and disconnected mathematical world to be able to insist with a straight face and counter to all observation that we need at least 10 and probably 11 dimensions to make the universe work.

It seems that string theory emerged from an attempt to explain the strong force back in the late sixties, early seventies. The idea of particles as tiny strings, rather than point particles, seemed to provide an explanation for the strong force, however the only way to make it work required the universe to have 26 dimensions (25 spatial, one of time). This was all looking quite good (if weird, but quantum theory has showed us that weird is okay), until the new collider experiments showed the sort of scattering you'd expect from particles, not strings - and along came quantum chromodynamics, requiring only the standard 4 dimensions, blowing string theory out of the water.

However, the more mathematically-driven physicists loved string theory because it was elegant and seemed to hold together unnaturally well, even if it didn't match the real world. They continued to play around with it and eventually massaged it from what was intended as a description of the strong interaction into a mechanism for quantum gravity (or more precisely several mathematical mechanisms). The good news was that this did away with the 26 dimensions, though the bad news was it still required at least 10. Again, there was no experimental justification for the mathematics, but in its new form, mathematical things started to click into place. There was a surprising effectiveness and fit to other mathematical structures. The approach even fitted a number of oddities of the observed particle families. So the abstruse mathematics felt right - and that, essentially is why so many theoretical physicists have clung onto string theory even though it has yet to make new experimentally verifiable predictions, and has so many possible outcomes and all the other problems those books identify with it.

What Why String Theory? isn't very good at, is giving a feel for what is going on in the brains of the physicists in the way ordinary folk can understand (the author is himself a theoretical physicist), so I thought it might be useful to share an analogy that seemed to fit well for me. We're going to do a thought experiment featuring a civilisation that does mathematics to base 5, rather than the familiar base 10. So they count 1, 2, 3, 4, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 20, 21... For some obscure reason they use the same numbers as us, but only have 0, 1, 2, 3 and 4. Now these people have come across some textbooks from our civilisation. And they see all those numbers, which make a kind of sense, except there's some weird extra symbols.

Before I go into what they do, I ought to defend the base 5 idea, in case you're wondering why any civilisation would not sensibly realise they could count on the digits of both hands, but rather stuck to the 5 fingers and a thumb of a single hand. This isn't because the civilisation has a strange one armed mutation, it's because they were cleverer than us. How many can you count to on your two hands? Ten. But my civilisation can count to 30. This is because they don't regard their left and right hands as equivalent, but as two totally separate things with different names. The left hand has five digits. But the right hand has five handits. (Bear with me.) When they count on their fingers, they go up the digits of the left hand just as we do. But when the pinkie goes up, they close the whole left hand and raise the pinkie of their right hand, representing five. They then count up on the left again, but when they get a full hand they raise the second finger on their right hand, and so on. Instead of just working linearly across their fingers and thumbs, by working to base 5 their hands become a simple abacus.

So, back to interpreting our base 10 documents. Some rather wacky mathematicians in this society start playing with using bigger bases than base 5. There's no reason why, no application. It's just interesting. And when they happen on base 10 - so they're counting 1, 2, 3, 4, A, B, C, D, E, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 1A, 1B... they get a strange frisson of excitement. This isn't the same as the system used in our documents, where the 12th character in the list is 7, rather than C. But suddenly the two kinds of mathematics start to align. Calculations that didn't make any sense suddenly start to click.

In a hugely simplified analogy, this seems a bit like the string lovers' reason for sticking with their theory. It has that same kind of neat mathematical fit. It seems to work too well to be just coincidence. All those extra dimensions and intricate mathematical manipulation don't seem natural, any more than working to base 10 seems natural when you think of left and right hands as totally different things. But it doesn't mean there's not something behind it. I hope the analogy helps you - it certainly helped me to devise it!

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Hollyweird Science - Kevin Grazier and Stephen Cass ***

When reading this book I was reminded of the H. G.  Wells horror/SF novel, The Island of Dr Moreau,  which features heavily in the TV science fiction show Orphan Black (far more impressive than most of the shows mentioned in the book). This is because, like the human/animals in Wells' story, Hollyweird Science is neither one thing nor another. It's as if two entirely different books have been merged, and the result is quite disconcerting.

The first few chapters are a reasonably intense, media studies type exploration of the nature of science fiction films (and, somewhat randomly, TV). There's no attempt to put science and technology in science fiction alongside real world equivalents as in Ten Billion Tomorrows - this is much more about the nature of SF film making, the need in the end for story to overrule science quibbles and the role of science advisors. (As an aside I think movie science advisors are almost always a waste of time and money as, however well meaning, they are mostly ignored. I had coffee with Brian Cox just before he became famous, and he was really excited about being science advisor for the movie Sunshine. Cox knows his stuff, but the science in Sunshine is rightly slated in Hollyweird Science.) This part of the book worked well and probably deserved four stars, though didn't have a place in a popular science review site, as it was very media oriented.

Then, suddenly, there is a massive change of gear. The book becomes a straightforward physics and astronomy primer with occasional references to a movie to pretend that the science fiction is driving the content. But it isn't. There are frequently four or five pages at a time with no significant film references, and when they come they tend to be very shallow. The pure science bits are okay, though a touch plodding, but the problem is expectations. I thought the book would be built around the Hollywood examples, but in fact they're loosely scattered nuggets, far too infrequent to do anything but highlight their inadequacy.

The science content is generally fine, though occasionally either vague or odd. So, for instance, we are told that the observable universe has a radius of 13.8 billion light years where is actually 45.7 billion light years, a quite significant difference. Most amusingly, the book has a dig at Star Trek's use of 'degrees Kelvin' for the Kelvin scale, then messes up its correction by saying the units of the scale should be Kelvins, where they are actually kelvins. Trivial, absolutely, but then so was the original complaint.

It's a shame, but the book's lack of clarity about what it is trying to do, combined with very limited movie and TV references in the solid science part and a hefty price tag for a paperback mean that it doesn't really deliver.

Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Tom Lean - Four Way Interview

Tom Lean is a historian of science and technology.  He has a PhD on the history of computing and a particular interest in old technologies and the people who made and used them.  In his day job he records scientists and engineers life stories for an oral history archive project at the British Library, helping to preserve the memories of scientists' pasts for future generations. His new book is Electronic Dreams – How 1980's Britain Learned to Love the Home Computer.


Why Science? 

It's really more the history of science and technology for me, and particularly their interaction with the world at large. I enjoy the puzzle aspect of complex systems involving technologies, science, people, organisations, ideas and more, and seeing how all the parts fit together and interact. I'm interested in how science and technology develop over time and the way that society, the things that we think and do, helps to shape those developments. 

Why this book? 

I've been fascinated by 1980s home computing for years; I even did a PhD on it. The home computer boom was the moment of first contact between millions of people and computers, when they became everyday appliances, not just giant electronic brains for big business and Big Brother. But the whole thing was so uncertain, so gloriously messy in practice, and no one was sure how it would turn out. There were so many different ideas about what a computer in the home was for, so many idiosyncratic designs of computer available, so many agendas at work. To people learning to program for themselves, it was a fascinating logic puzzle; to the kids it turned into a video games system; to the government it was going to be the technology that dragged the country into the information age and made Britain great again. Margaret Thatcher even showed off a Sinclair ZX Spectrum to the Prime Minister of Japan! Tying all that together into a bigger story about how 80's Britain learned to love the home computer has been a joy and something of a nostalgia trip for me – there aren't many people who get to play Manic Miner and call it research!

What's exciting you now? 

I'm really into current media stories about the social impact of disruptive information technologies and automation, how robots and computers will take our jobs and how society and the economy will have to adapt. Everyone seems to forget that back in the 1970s the techno-prophets were predicting  the same things with the same consequences, brought about by the 'Microchip Revolution' sweeping the world. We're still living through that revolution now, but people talk about it like it's a new thing. The answer then was teaching people to become computer literate to avoid being left behind. These days the answer is called learning to code, but amounts to pretty much the same thing. History really does repeat itself and it's intriguing to watch. 

What's next?

Hard to say right now, I have a few ideas floating around but I'm waiting for some of them to stick. For the last few years I've roamed the country interviewing scientists and engineers about their life stories as an oral historian for National Life Stories at the British Library. I've talked to everyone from physicists and rocket scientists to electrical engineers and bridge designers – it's been a real adventure and it would be great to find some ways of telling those stories. 

Electronic Dreams - Tom Lean ****

At the end of Tom Lean's book, subtitled 'How 1980s Britain learned to love the computer' is an epilogue where he points out the remarkable success of the cheap and cheerful Raspberry Pi computer, which has sold over 6 million units in just a few years. He puts this, at least in part, down to nostalgia for the early days of home computers - and certainly any UK readers of the right age will feel a wave of that nostalgia when they read this book and come across their first home computers.

There have been plenty of books on the introduction of microcomputers in the US, but far less on the distinctive British experience, so this was a welcome addition to the field. Unlike When Computing Got Personal, it doesn't try to take on the whole PC revolution, but concentrates on the distinctive concept of the home computer. The major stars here are the output of Sinclair, Acorn (responsible for the BBC computers that were the school standard in the UK for years) and Commodore. Between them, these brands dominated the home computer market in the UK, where the likes of the Apple II hardly made a mark as they were far too expensive.

What is truly fascinating is the consideration of why this home computer boom happened, and why it ended. As Lean makes clear, early on, no one really had a clue about what a computer could do in the home. The most frequent suggestion seems to have been to use them as a way to store and organise recipes. What emerged initially was an exploratory process. Many purchasers just wanted to get their hands on a computer, to try it out and learn. Key to this was the quality of BASIC provided - because most of the early users were programming for themselves.

When the killer app came - and this is how we can distinguish home computers from PCs - it was not the spreadsheet, or anything else business oriented. Yes, people did do a spot of business work on home computers, but these limited devices were not good at page-based work, typically only displaying 40 characters across a screen. The killer app was games. Games made the home computer and then, to some degree, killed it. Because once users had moved away from that experimental phase (recaptured by the Raspberry Pi), the distinctive nature of home computers became less significant. Coupled with the rise of the IBM PC and the Mac, which began to provide games as well as their primary business-oriented uses, the likes of Sinclair and Commodore were doomed. The old home computers became relegated to the toy cupboard.

Generally, the book works well, though in a couple of chapters the author does slightly lose the audience by being too much of an enthusiast, giving us a little too much information. There is also one statement that's dubious. Commenting on the point and click interface used in the ill-fated BBC laser-disc Domesday project, Lean comments how advanced this was in a system built between 1984 and 1986, contrasting it with Apple's first attempt at a graphical user interface, Lisa, which came out in 1983, and pretty much flopped. This is true, but disingenuous, as the Mac was launched in early 1984 - and it was such a huge success that it's hard to believe the developers of the Domesday project were unaware of.

This is a book that may have limited appeal outside the UK, but for anyone who was here in the 80s and got a feel for the excitement and sheer novelty that having a computer in the home for the first time brought, it's an essential.


Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 8 February 2016

If the Universe is Teeming with Aliens... Where is Everybody? - Stephen Webb ***(*)

I started this book with a sense of foreboding. The subtitle is 'Seventy-five solutions to the Fermi paradox and the problem of extraterrestrial life'. Any premise based on giving 75 different answers to the same question - in this case, effectively 'Where are the aliens?' - sounds like a trainspotter of a book. A title that is obsessed with collecting every possible viewpoint, over and above any value that can be gained from reading it. However, the first proper chapter, giving some background to the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, and the 'where is everybody' paradox that it is named after him, reassured me hugely, as it was entertaining and well written.

I can honestly say that if Stephen Webb had continued in this vein and had written a book about the Fermi paradox and its possible solutions in the same narrative style as his chapter on Fermi and the origins of the paradox, I would have given this book four to five stars. That chapter demonstrated just how well Webb can write. But the format of 75 'different' solutions lets him down. By about the 12 mark, the whole thing was getting a trifle samey. And by solution 20, I was skip reading, searching for interesting bits.

The book has a lovely range and covers many fascinating topics - for example, it went from Bayes' theorem to stone axe manufacturing in a few pages - but the constant return to yet another solution to the Fermi paradox gets, frankly, boring. Structured as a continuous narrative, the content of this book would have been excellent, but as 75 bitty 'solutions' it just doesn't work very well. 

This proved particularly irritating when Webb goes through all the different reasons why life could be rare in the universe, and says at the end of each, over and over variants on 'but of itself, this is probably not enough to justify the conclusion.' I found myself wanting to throw the book against the wall and scream 'But why should it be taken by itself? Why not combine the solutions?' .... And then Webb cheats and does exactly that in his own 'solution', number 75.

This was so near an excellent piece of popular science (I'm not really sure why it's part of Springer's 'Science and Fiction' series, as it merely references ideas from SF, but the majority of popular science books do that), just let down by the structure. I'd also say that the publisher is making a mistake pricing the book as if it were an academic title: it's more expensive than any normal hardback popular science title, let alone a paperback. (Academics may have free access to the ebook from Springer ebook deals.)

Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

On the Shores of Titan's Farthest Sea - Michael Carroll ***

On the Shores forms part of a major initiative from German publisher Springer to produce books that cross over between the pure entertainment of science fiction and the more informative (if, hopefully still entertaining) genre of popular science.

I was initially somewhat baffled by this self-styled 'scientific novel' as it seemed nothing more than an old-fashioned (more on that in a moment) hard science SF novel. Then I spotted the appendix that gives the 'science behind the fiction'. This is certainly one way to get round the difficulty of incorporating too much technical exposition in a novel (one of the few examples that manages put learning in the text without making the fiction stodgy is the recent L. A. Math), but the 'science bit at the end' approach didn't work for me because the 'science part' had none of the readability of good popular science - it felt more like encyclopaedia content. I suspect many readers would give it a miss. It also stretched credibility somewhat in trying to ascribe too much science to the story - the weakest part of the plot featured unlikely mass delusions (psychically triggered at that) and to try to give this a scientific basis felt like the author was digging too hard.

So, really, what we have here is a pretty straightforward science fiction story. First the good news. This gets quite gripping about three quarters of the way through when there's a dering-do rescue attempt. And the whole thing feels quite like an Asimov story (if Asimov had realised he could have more strong female characters) - which any SF reader will realise is hardly an insult. This means that what we get is a heavily plot-driven story with genuinely clever ideas and mostly realistic science (though like all SF it sometimes has to distort the science for plot purposes, something that could have been usefully explored more in the appendix).

There is, however, bad news from this assessment too. As is common in Asimov's writing, the characters are two dimensional and the writing is businesslike but not exactly great. As a standalone novel, On the Shores would have been easily up to standard in the 50s, but when set against modern, sophisticated SF like Iain M. Banks or Adam Roberts, the writing style feels dated.

The nail in the coffin for this book is that Springer is treating it like an academic book, rather than fiction. This comes across in both the format (large pages with copyright details at the start of each chapter), and the pricing, which is twice what you'd expect to pay for a paperback SF novel (Academics may have free access to the ebook from Springer ebook deals). Sadly, then, the book is not going to be very popular as a straight piece of fiction, but equally doesn't do the job of popular science in the form of fiction. It's a great aim, but it has proved elusively difficult to make real.

Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg