Saturday, 30 July 2016

Dragonflies - Pieter van Dokkum ***

I am immediately a touch suspicious of any book in a landscape format - it says 'I'm not really to be read, just to be flicked through' - it's a coffee table format at best. Sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised by the content, where far more is delivered that the format suggests - but here, I'm afraid the result is pretty, but only scratches the surface of what really should be inside.

Dragonflies are fascinating creatures and what Pieter van Dokkum - rather oddly an astronomy professor - does well is to capture their nymphs and mature forms in close up in every possible activity from metamorphosis to catching prey. However it's hard to escape that this is essentially a picture book without even the kind of text support you might get in something like a Dorling Kindersley book. 

In the past I've been pleasantly surprised by what I thought was going to be little more than a set of good illustrations with a book like The Buzz about Bees, because that contained lots of fascinating material about bees and their lives, and the nature of super organisms. Yes, I enjoyed the closeup pictures - but I learned a huge amount too. From the small amount I do know about dragonflies, they too are a topic that should have been rich in fascinating factoids and engrossing stories. But sadly Dragonflies does not deliver in this way.

Unless you are a dragonfly groupie, I think this is the kind of book you might want to borrow from a library and flick through, but not to buy to read from end to end. Perhaps it would even work as a loo book. But it could have been so much more.



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Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Make Way for the Super Humans - Michael Bess ****

There have been plenty of books about human enhancement - the pros, cons and possibilities - so Make Way for the Super Humans (Our Grandchildren Redesigned in the US) needed to do something quite different, and I am pleased to say that it does.

The opening section is fairly standard fare, describing the basic possibilities for pharmaceuticals, bioelectronics and genetics/epigenetics to change the nature of humans and human life, plus a bonus chapter on what Michael Bess refers to as 'wild cards': nanotechnology, AI, robotics and synthetic biology. The most original part of this section is that Bess attempts to give some structure to the concept of futurology, splitting predictions into long structural processes, short structural processes and conjectural processes. He rightly points out the difficulties of getting it right with technology prediction. Look, for instance, at how far out the movie 2001 was, despite every effort being made to get it right. For that matter, I remember being at the launch of Windows 95: when I asked Microsoft why there was nothing about the internet in their presentation, they said 'that isn't going to be commercially significant.'

Despite making it clear just how difficult futurology is to get right, Bess does fall into the trap of assuming that when someone did get it right, there was a reason for it, where in reality it was far more likely they just got lucky. It's like trying to understand why some people choose the right numbers to win the lottery. So even with this clever analysis, I can say fairly confidently that a lot we read here will simply not happen - it will be different in a way that we can't currently predict. Another slight issue with this opening section is that it's written in a rather stiff academic style, counting off arguments and generally coming across as stuffy reading. However, it's worth persevering, as when Bess reaches the next sections his writing takes off.

In sections labelled 'Justice' and 'Identity', Bess examines key issues that could arise from human enhancement and how we might deal with them. He does this by opening each chapter with a short piece of fiction, a vignette that shows the technology in action. I cringed when I read that this was going to happen, as fiction used this way is often clumsy and badly written, but in fact the vignettes are delightful - very readable and packed with useful insights. Bess then expands on what might be possible and what we need to think about in terms of implications. These two sections really make the book, giving the reader a chance to think through the nature of some potential enhancements.

The final section, 'Choices' drops back a little to the academic style, but by now we are more carried along and it's less of an obstacle. Here Bess examines whether and how much we can hold back on enhancement, what happens to human values in a world of moderate enhancements and what we as individuals can do.

Overall, this is a thought-provoking book that builds on the existing literature to help us think more about future scenarios, however unlikely some of them will be. Bess makes some genuinely interesting points - for example, how there is very little science fiction handling the implications for society of enhancement, and contrasting the impact of nuclear technology which came from a weapons direction, making us naturally wary, with the more insidious move towards enhancement, which comes from a medical direction and so is treated with less suspicion. It was also interesting reading the book at a time there is so much fuss about the Russian doping scandal leading up to the Olympic Games - Bess takes in competitive sport and whether we will eventually end up with two versions for enhanced and unenhanced athletes. 

It's a shame that the whole book hasn't got the readability of those middle two sections, but it's worth making your way through the whole to push to the forefront some thinking we are all going to have to do in a relatively short timescale.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 23 July 2016

The Planet Remade - Oliver Morton ****

We've had plenty of books on climate change - its impact, what we can do about it and so forth. But one of the aspects that tends to be treated very narrowly is that 'what we can do about it.' Specifically, solutions tend to be about reducing production of greenhouse gasses. But all the evidence is that this will not be enough, and that there will be a requirement for geoengineering - taking on active changes to reduce warming or to get carbon out of the atmosphere or both.

Many green organisations don't like geoengineering, because they see it as more of the same - humans interfering with the environment which they should leave alone - but if you take a logical, rather than emotional approach, then some form of geoengineering will almost certainly be necessary.

Oliver Morton makes a persuasive case for this in an odd book, which meanders between the factual and unnecessarily poetic in a way that readers will either love or hate. Considering the content, the book is far too long - padded out with an awful lot of prose that doesn't do much, often making tangential references to some kind of geoengineering activity. So, for instance, on the last page we get this paragraph:
Up above and far away, too far for any eye but the mind's, a future lifted on long, strong wings starts a graceful, cautious turn. It seems almost beyond the bonds of Earth, but it does not fly in freedom; there are things it cannot do and must not do - many ways for it to slip and fall. The future is hemmed in on one hand by its design, on the other by the unforgiving laws of nature. But its heading and height can, with skill, be changed.
What? Really? Haven't a clue, and that's 30 seconds of my life I won't get back. There is far too much of this meandering waffle, and were it not for the power of the argument when he does stay on topic, I would only give this book three stars. But, the fact is that when Morton does focus we get lots of great material on geoengineering. He spends a lot of time on modifying what he calls the 'earthsystem' by 'veilmaking' (as you may gather, he likes making up words, or using these neologisms if someone else dreamed them up) i.e. spraying material up in the stratosphere which will reduce incoming energy from the Sun and hence reduce warming.

There is also a fair amount - probably the most interesting part of the book - on cloud science and manipulation of clouds and their impact on warming or cooling. By comparison, most of the methods of taking carbon out of the atmosphere get short shrift. Carbon capture and storage is, probably correctly, dismissed as simply not doing enough, and most of the mechanisms for taking carbon from the air at large are simply too expensive in money and/or land usage to be meaningfully deployed.

I came out of the other end of the experience of reading this book convinced we ought to be doing more on geoengineering, but without a clear picture of the way forward, in part because of the obscurity of the writing. I think this book will delight someone who wants to get all touchy feely about the concept, but it left me wanting more. Even so, it is doing something that no one else has, and so is worth a try.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 22 July 2016

Stargazer’s Almanac 2017 – Bob Mizon et al ****

* UPDATED * To 2017 edition

If your idea of an almanac is a thick old book full of folk wisdom (‘If ye plant in October, your crops will fall over’), phases of the moon and tide times, you’ll only get one thing right about this almanac – it does contain phases of the moon. But the Stargazer’s Almanac is much more.

The format is one of a large month-by-month calendar, but instead of having spaces to write in when you take the dog to the vets, the children to the cinema or vice versa, it has two big spreads of the horizon, looking North and looking South on the 15th of the month at 10pm GMT from a UK viewpoint. With this in hand you should be able to explore the night sky and sort out Andromeda from Perseus. As well as constellations it shows the positions of planets, points out interesting stars, and, yes, shows the phase of the moon through the month.
After the charts there are a couple of pairs of pages of information, as additional reading. This year, we get a page on the astronomer Charles Messier, one on the 'great American eclipse one 2017 (handy if you can get there) and a regular feature on the effects of street lights and light pollution general. But these are a minor addition - the important thing is the maps. I really felt that with this in hand I could find my way around the sky as I never have before. I can spot a couple of constellations and three planets, but with the help of the almanac, much more of the sky opens up.
I have now seen several of these almanacs and I continue to be slightly disappointed with the production values – the almanac is not particularly cheap, but the paper is matt, quite dull in appearance (probably very eco-friendly). On the plus side there's a metal rim on the hanging-up hole, so it's unlikely to get damaged. And there could have been more help on what you do if it’s not 10pm on the 15th of the month, though to be fair there is a bit of guidance, but more handholding would have been appreciated.
As it is, though, this is a really valuable asset to the amateur astronomer and a good gift for anyone with even the slightest interest in the stars. It’s the kind of thing that over time is likely to be pushed out by smartphone and iPad apps like SkyView, but it does have the advantage that you can still sit and enjoy it on a wet Tuesday afternoon, and it's much more decorative than that old Abba calendar.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 21 July 2016

The Caloris Network - Nick Kanas ***

As the subtitle 'a scientific novel' suggests, this is another in Springer's innovative series attempting to combine science fiction and science fact, but is sadly not one of the stronger entries in the series.

In this novella (despite that subtitle, I can't really bring myself to describe 100 pages of fiction as a novel), we join the crew on a mission to Mercury - but they haven't been told the whole truth about their mission, lives have already been lost, and what they discover there proves quite a shock - a totally alien form of life.

On the good side, we discover quite a lot about Mercury, not often written about in science fiction (perhaps, in part, because it's a touch boring). There's also a bit about astrobiology, and the possibilities of life that isn't carbon-based. Of itself, this is nothing new, but the approach taken by Nick Kanas, slightly bizarrely a psychiatrist who used to work for NASA, is relatively novel.

The biggest problem, perhaps, is this book's functioning as a novel. For a large part of the opening section we are waiting for this part of Mercury to warm up in the sunlight, and, frankly, very little happens. To counter this, Kanas resorts to a whole lot of jumping around, with assorted flashbacks, which tends to confuse more than than they succeed in keeping the story going. There is also the classic weakly-written fiction assumption that in order for a character to have an idea they have to be inspired by remembering or seeing something. Here there was a particularly painful example where the main character 'remembers' that her Alzheimer's suffering father responded to music and lights more than speech. 'So, we tried sending out a radio hailing frequency to the [alien], and it responded to us.' Huh? Not only is it a gratuitous 'I remembered X and it gave me an idea,' the resultant idea is a total non sequitur.

So it's certainly not a book I'd recommend reading for entertainment as pure science fiction - it was no page turner. However, the combination of the aspects described in the text and the additional factual information in the 'science behind the fiction' section at the back about Mercury and silicon-based life was interesting enough to make this worth a look.

As I've commented on other books in the series, the pricing, in this case £15 for a 100 page novella plus about 20 factual pages in paperback, means this is very unlikely to be justifiable as a personal purchase - the publisher points out it is accessible free to academics and students through Springer's ebook deals.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 18 July 2016

The Hunt for FOXP5 - a genomic mystery novel - Wallace Kaufman and David Deamer ****

I've read a good few novels that attempt to provide edutainment - to work as a good story while simultaneously providing the reader with the kind of interesting information about science you might find in a popular science book. Most don't work at all. Either they fall over on the fiction writing, painfully lathering on the facts and writing amateurish prose, or they are so science-light that they are, in effect just straightforward hard science fiction, perhaps with a 'science behind the story' at the back. This title by Wallace Kaufman and David Deamer, I would say, is the best I've ever read in terms of achieving a balance of the two.

In the Hunt for FOXP5 we meet genetics professor Michelle Murphy and her extremely intelligent daughter Avalon (yes, really), adopted from a Kazakhstan orphanage, the way you do. In a mix of archeology, genetics and nationalist political intrigue we get a feel for how the FOXP2 gene may have resulted in human language ability distinguishing early humans from the other humanoids - and how a later single mutation, producing the (fictional) FOXP5, could result in extraordinary human intelligence. This change is something that the scientific leader of Kazakhstan wants to make a national treasure, so we end up with plenty of fun involving capture, escape and rescue attempts to give the plot action.

The book isn't without flaws. The writing is workmanlike, but fails to take the advice 'show don't tell' rather too often. There's also a bit of a plot weakness when none of the highly intelligent main characters appear to notice that it's probably not a great idea to take an orphan, who was removed from a not-entirely-democratic country in a process involving lots of dubious bribery, back to her country of birth. There is also the usual issue that when reading such a book, that the reader is never quite sure which bits are real science, and which are fiction. Admittedly the short 'scientific appendices' section does try to fill some of this in, but it's an inevitable difficulty. I sometimes wonder if there should be a 'science accuracy level' thermometer in each page margin. It's also a bit disappointing when a science-based book makes as basic an error as referring to 'absolute temperature expressed as degrees Kelvin'. (No degrees in the Kelvin scale, just kelvins.)

Despite these concerns, I rattled through the book, enjoyed the adventure, which hovered between adult and young adult in apparent audience level, and felt I was really gaining something from the science content - so a good thumbs up to Messrs Kaufman and Deamer.


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Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Information Theory: a tutorial introduction - James V. Stone ***

Information theory is central to the technology that we use every day - apart from anything else, in the technology that brings you this review (though ironically not in the book being reviewed as it doesn't appear to have an ebook version). As in his Bayes' Rule, James Stone sets out to walk a fine line between a title for the general reader and a textbook. And like that companion title the outcome is mixed, though here the textbook side largely wins.

The opening chapter 'What is information?' walks the line very well. It gradually builds up the basics that will be required to understand information theory and though it would work better if it had a little more context (for example, more about Claude Shannon as a person) to anchor it, the general reader will, with perhaps a few pages that needs re-reading, find it approachable and providing more depth than a popular science title usually would. I like the way that Stone uses variants of a photograph, for instance, to demonstrate what is happening with different mechanisms for compressing data. Unfortunately, though, this is pretty much where that general reader gets off, until we get to chapter 9.

The main bulk of the book, pages 21 to 184, cross that line and plonk solidly into textbook territory - they may cover the topic rather more lightly than a traditional textbook, but they simply don't work to inform without requiring the kind of investment of mind and mathematics that a textbook does - and, with a few brief exceptions, the writing style feels no different from the better textbooks I have from university. At chapter 9, the subject is brought round to information in nature, and there we get enough application and context to make what we learn seem more approachable again, though not to the same level as the equivalent part of Bayes' Rule. It's also a shame that (unless I missed it) there is no mention of Omega, Greg Chaitin's remarkable non-computable number.

So where Bayes' Rule is suited to popular science readers who want to stretch themselves and put in some extra effort, Information Theory can only really be regarded as a readable introductory textbook - it doesn't work in a popular science context. (Why then am I reviewing it? The author kindly provided the title for review in the hope that it would work for popular science readers.) If you are about to take a university course encompassing information theory - or are contemplating doing so - I can, however, heartily recommend this title as an introduction. 


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Buy direct from the author here.
Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 2 July 2016

The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century - Hugh Aldersey-Williams ***

I first came across this book in an interview that the author gave in which he said about the readers of popular science: 'There’s no point in making ultra-subtle points about how science is done, you have to bang them over the head with it.' I thought this was an unfair comment and suggested I'd give his books a miss. The author pointed out this was petty, so I've taken the plunge into Sir Thomas Browne, and I'm glad I did - though it isn't a book that worked all the way through for me.

Browne was a seventeenth century man with a strong interest in science in the widest medieval sense of being 'knowledge of the world'. It's equally possible to regard him as a dilettante or someone with an enormous appetite for finding things out, who was prepared to question some of the beliefs of his day to an unusual degree.

Hugh Aldersey-Williams comes close to a kind of hero worship of the man, admiring his writing style, his thoughtfulness about the world around him, and his ability to challenge false beliefs without any of the nastiness that seems common in the approach of Richard Dawkins and others today. This is put across to us in an interesting style, which covers major areas that Browne considered, such as medicine, animals, plants and science, but also meanders pleasantly around topics, sometimes giving us Aldersey-Williams' modern attempt to follow up Browne's often faint trails, and even at one point adopting the ancient style of a conversation with the dead man.

I'll be honest, I struggle to agree with Aldersey-Williams' enthusiasm for Browne's writing, which to the modern eye seems pompous and overblown. The view you take can by identified from your reaction to a quotation that the author gives as an 'especially fine paragraph.' In it, Browne, giving proverb-like advice, is telling the reader to seize the day. But what he says is:
Since thou hast an alarum in thy Breast, which tells thee thou hast a Living Spirit in thee above two thousand times in an hour; dull not away thy Days in slothful supinity & the tediousness of doing nothing. To strenuous Minds there is an inquietude in over quietness, and no laboriousness in labour; and to tread a mile after the slow pace of a Snail, or the heavy measures of the Lazy of Brazilia, were a most tiring Pennance, and worse than a Race of some furlongs at the Olympicks.
There's no doubt Browne was not a man who liked to use five words where 20 would do, or short ones where he could go polysyllabic. (He was, indeed, a great coiner of new words, including electricity, medical and precarious.) While I can see there is something dramatic in Browne's style, and some would love it, it's not one that I can find anything but hard work to read.

The sections of the book itself were very variable. The two on animals and plants, which primarily reflected Browne's descriptions of what he met in his native Norfolk, were too much collections of descriptions and suffered accordingly, but others were far more interesting, particularly when Aldersey-Williams compares Browne's attitudes to scepticism to the modern day heavy scientific approach. The author is rightly down on the unpleasantly personal and belittling approach that Dawkins takes to adversaries, though he is also unnecessarily negative about Simon Singh, who I have never found to make his points in a heavy preaching style.

In many ways I'm all in favour of Browne's more amenable attitude, to argue without insult in a gentlemanly way, and I applaud Aldersey-Williams' support for it. (Not one, I suspect, that would have been popular with Newton.) I think the author goes too far towards the 'it doesn't matter what you believe as long as you are sincere' point of view, but there is not doubt that we would encourage more people to take a positive view of science and scientists if some of the discipline's representatives weren't so ferocious in their dogma.

All in all, it's interesting to find out more about this little remembered man. He might not have done much to further science, but his interest in the world around him can feel infectious across the centuries, and more of his supportive, positive approach would be a welcome addition to the skeptical (with a K) movement. At its best, Aldersey-Williams' writing is enjoyable and thoughtful, though the interest did not remain consistent throughout. The result might not have been a total success, but it is refreshing to see a book in which the author tries to do something different.


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Review by Brian Clegg