Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Matt Wilkinson - Four Way Interview

Matt Wilkinson is a zoologist and science communicator at the University of Cambridge. His work has been covered in the Telegraph, Metro, New Scientist and Nature. In 2007 he attended drama school and wrote a play about T.H. Huxley that premiered at the 2009 Darwin Festival. Restless Creatures is his first book. 

Why science?

Like most scientists and science enthusiasts, I just love finding out how the world works, and uncovering its secrets!  And I've found that the deeper you look, the more beautiful it becomes.  It's a fascination that can never run out, because answering one question invariably leads to many more.

Why this book?

I studied pterodactyl flight in my PhD years, which opened my eyes to the all-pervading influence of physics - particularly the physics of locomotion - on the evolution of life.  Once I had become familiar with the basic principles of movement, many fundamental aspects of living things and their evolution seemed to fall into place.  It was and continues to be immensely satisfying - even exhilarating at times - to 'get' life in this way, and Restless Creatures is my attempt to share that satisfaction with others.

What’s next?

There are a few potential sophomore avenues I might explore - among them the evolution of chemical communication in all its guises, or of the voice.  I'm also thinking of putting my playwright hat on again! 

What’s exciting you at the moment? 

My current bee in bonnet is the evolution of the idea of evolution, and why it was only when Darwin weighed in that the idea - with a long pre-Darwinian heritage - achieved widespread acceptance.  The political and social currency of evolution fascinates me.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Professor Stewart's Hoard of Mathematical Treasures - Ian Stewart ***

This book has been around rather a while - in fact it has been on my review shelf for a long time, because there are enough of these books out there (think Prof Stewart's Cabinet, Casebook, Incredible Numbers...) that I thought I'd already reviewed it.
The format is familiar - a series of very short articles, which could be mathematical puzzles, logic puzzles, fun mathematical factoids and so on. The chances are that few readers will find every item interesting - for me, in this book, it was about 1 in 3 - but anyone with at least a vague interest in maths will find some of it worth a read.
Personally I only like the puzzles I can pretty much work out in my head in under a minute - anything requiring any more effort is too much like being back at school and being set homework. I also find the need to keep flipping to the back of the book to see the solutions a pain - it would have been much better if the solution to each puzzle was after the puzzle, so you could read the book sequentially.
Apart from those quick-to-work out puzzles I also enjoyed the historical and biographical articles. Most of the latter seemed to be about mathematicians being extremely eccentric and, say, forgetting who their own children or friends are - I'm not sure Ian Stewart is selling the joys of mathematics very well if this is what it does to your brain (I know, I know - correlation isn't causality).
For me, then, there just wasn't quite enough that clicked to make this a really enjoyable book. But if you like working out how to make a star from a folded piece of paper with just one snip from a pair of scissors, devising magic hexagons (magic squares are just so passé) or working out which three digit numbers are the sum of the cubes of their individual digits (still awake?) then this is very much the book for you. 
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Light Years - Brian Clegg ****

** UPDATED - new edition with Browsing section of classic light papers **
Light Years tells the story of light through the remarkable people who have been captivated by it. From Neolithic man’s worship of light at Stonehenge to the Impressionists’revolutionary observations of light in painting and the shattering conclusions of Einstein and Feynman, Light Years explores each stage of this extraordinary saga of discovery.
Brian Clegg weaves an entertaining history of humanity’s interaction with light, combining the gradual development of our understanding of what light is, insights into the lives of those who have tried to uncover light’s secrets, and the latest applications of light, with speculation on what light is likely to make possible in the future. Clegg asserts that light is at the very heart of our existence. Without a dancing web of photons knitting atoms together, there would be no matter, no universe. Without light-driven photosynthesis producing plant-life and oxygen there would be nothing to breathe, nothing to eat.
Clegg makes a good job of threading together the historical view of light, and showing how we have moved from Greek ideas of light pouring out of our eyes all the way through to quantum theory, but the best bits of the book are probably the remarkable ways that light is, or could be put to use. Whether it’s materials that can slow light to a crawl, the amazing power of quantum entanglement, or superluminal experiments, there’s fascinating stuff here.
According to Einstein nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. Of all the mind-bending theories in modern physics, that, at least, seemed a rule that the universe would abide by. Yet in 1994 at the University of Cologne, Professor Günter Nimtz sent a recording of Mozart’s 40th Symphony through a physical barrier at four times the speed of light. Yet again, light had confounded those who had sought to understand it.
Light Years is a journey through time, telling the story of the individuals who were determined to unlock the secrets of this mysterious natural force. Appropriate, really, when light enables us to look back through time and take in the past of the universe, looking deeper into time as we see further in space.
Occasionally the pocket biographies of scientists become a little familiar. It’s fine with someone relatively unexplored like Roger Bacon, but there are too many books out there with summary lives of Newton or Galileo – however this isn’t a major flaw, as the lives are woven around the science, and are always presented in an effective fashion. This is a updated edition of the book with minor modifications throughout and an extra chapter delving into some of the quantum strangeness of light. There isn’t another book out there to compare with this on the subject – recommended (in fact, I would revise the star rating up from 4 to 5 with the new edition, but it isn’t allowed).
Review by Martin O'Brien
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.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Eyes on the Sky - Francis Graham-Smith ***

There are broadly two types of popular science book - those that pretty well anyone would find interesting, and those where you have to be a bit of an enthusiast to enjoy it. Eyes on the Sky falls into the second category - there's nothing wrong with this, but it's just a rather different kind of book, one that concentrates on piling in the facts and not worrying too much about the narrative.

What we have here is an exploration of the uses of telescopes in astronomy, from Galileo through to some instruments that are still being built. The historical side is dealt with relatively quickly - we're on to the big telescopes of my youth by page 17 out of 230. The big era begins by inevitably highlighting what we always use to call in our ignorance the Mount Palomar telescope, but is now primly insistent in its old age on being the Hale 200 inch.

From there we go on to the bewildering array of modern telescopes, land and space based, covering every imaginable bit of the electromagnetic spectrum. (The book we written just too late to catch recent speculation that gravity waves might become the next generation of novel telescopy.) If, like me, you fall into the slightly nerdy second category, there are two aspects that are fascinating here - one is the sheer range of equipment out there. It's not just the big names like Hubble and Keck, but tens of telescopes you may never have heard of. The other bit that's even more interesting is finding out more about how these telescopes actually work. We're all pretty familiar with optical telescopes and radio telescopes (and good old Jodrell Bank, where the author worked, gets plenty of mentions), but may not be aware how an infra-red or X-ray telescope functions - yet these are now essential workhorses. With X-rays, and gamma rays for instance, you can't use a lens or a traditional mirror, and the methods employed are quite remarkable, especially the coded mask approach used, for example, in the Burst Alert Telescope that was mounted on the Swift satellite in use since 2005 (no, I hadn't heard of it, either). Used to spot gamma ray bursts, this looks like a vast jigsaw puzzle with about a quarter of the pieces missing.

Similarly interesting is the way that modern telescopes, particularly radio telescopes, often use a pair or an array of telescopes to either provide interference patterns or to simulate a vast telescope with a much wider reflector than could ever be built. I was aware of the concept, but the scale of something like the Square Kilometre Array is still remarkable.

Although the historical context was limited, it mostly seemed reasonable, though I'm not entirely sure of the statement that the telescope used by Penzias and Wilson to discover the cosmic microwave background radiation was built by Bell Labs to measure the radio brightness of the sky, as most sources suggest it was originally constructed for communications satellite/balloon experiments.

If you like to build your background knowledge and have an interest in how astronomy is undertaken, rather than just the results, this is the book for you. You probably won't consider this much of a holiday read, but if, like me, you have an interest in astronomy (and probably dabbled with small telescopes in your teens) it will be irresistible.

Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Restless Creatures - Matt Wilkinson ****

Matt Wilkinson makes the daring step for a biologist of quoting (or, rather, misquoting as we'll see later) Rutherford's famous put-down 'all science is either physics or stamp collecting'. But this risk fits well with Wilkinson's entertaining and bravura style in attempting and largely succeeding in persuading the reader that the biggest shaping factor of many living organisms, including humans, is the ability to move, with all the benefits and costs this brings.

One of the delights for the reader are the number of surprises along the way. In some cases it's something that really should be obvious, but probably never occurred to us - such as the way the basic shape of many organisms with, for example, a mouth at the front has been shaped by the nature of movement. Or the linkage of brain and movement. Wilkinson effortlessly takes us through the differences between walking and running in humans or the various ways that flying has evolved in different species, noting that there now seems reasonable evidence that even though birds mostly don't need to drop from a tree to start flight, their ancestors probably did.

In case we take too imperialistic a view of movement on land and in air as being what it's all about, we also are taken on an exploration of the various different forms of movement in water, and to see how animals that don't themselves move still make use of movement - plus one of the best explorations I've seen of a possible route from water to the land (noting how some land animals have very successfully made the move back to water again). And we are taken back to basics (though not at all mechanically so) with the movement of those most successful of organisms, bacteria

Let's get that misquote out of the way. Wilkinson has Rutherford say 'physics is the only science; all else is stamp collecting.' That change of wording makes it easy to misunderstand Rutherford's intent, which was to highlight that most of science outside of physics was about collecting and organising information, rather than using induction to derive laws and meaning. He didn't say the rest wasn't science, just that it was a different (and by implication lesser) part. Wilkinson goes on to suggest that Rutherford implied that nature was unruly and opaque to order - but that was clearly not Rutherford's intent; his comment was about what scientists did, not about the fields per se.

While we're in the negative, the only reason I didn't give Restless Creatures an effortless five stars was inconsistency. The best chapters are some of the most outstanding science writing I've read this year and I loved them. This comes out, perhaps not surprisingly, in a fascinating exploration of why we have our upright two-legged gait - but also, for example, in a wonderful chapter on a part of the natural world we tend not to associate with movement - plants. Yet as Wilkinson shows, not only are there exceptions like the venus fly trap, most plants make use of movement (sometimes with the motive power provided cunningly by other organisms) to spread their seed and avoid everything happening in the same place. However, there were a few places where the writing lost its impetus and became a little turgid. This tended to happen, funnily, when physics came into the story - the explanations of the mechanics of movement, for example with a bird's wing, were hard to digest, while the chapter 'A Winning Formula' on the detailed mechanisms involved in producing a biological form was by far the least readable.

Even if you feel the urge to skip those parts, though, the rest of the book is so well worth it that I very much enjoyed it. Wilkinson takes a new, refreshing look at the nature of living things, particularly animals, and convinces even the most sceptical reader of the importance of locomotion to both the form those animals take and their remarkable range and variety. For this reason, I can heartily recommend adding this book to your collection.

Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Cracking Mathematics - Colin Beveridge ****

This kind of book is puzzling, though as we shall discover, Cracking Mathematics is a particularly effective example of the genre. Generally, it's difficult to be sure what a book like this is for, a bafflement not helped in this case by the Zen subtitle 'you, this book and 4,000 years of theories'.

The kind of book I'm talking about is a heavily illustrated summary of a big scientific subject - in this case the whole of mathematics - often covering each topic in as little as a pair of pages with sufficient pictures that the text can only ever be very summary. I can see this format would appeal as a gift book, something to give someone who is difficult to buy for, but I struggle to get a feel for why you would want to sit down and read a book like this from cover to cover - yet it's not a reference book either.

Such books are often big coffee table numbers, but the books in this particular series come in a virtually pocket-sized format - smart hardbacks just 17.5x15 centimetres, so they are far more manageable as, say, a loo book, or something to keep in your bag for boring journeys to keep yourself entertained. And perhaps that format is part of the reason why this particular example works so well - that and some genuinely interesting text from Colin Beveridge.

Along the way, Beveridge takes us on a journey through the origins of mathematics, the renaissance, with the introduction of negative and imaginary numbers, calculus and the infinitesimal, powers and logs, the infinite, codes and some of the more exotic modern ideas. Unlike some of the summary maths texts I've read, it isn't a collection of dull facts, but provides plenty of little gems along the way, from the 20,000 year old Ishango bone to the mysteries of elliptic curves and John Conway's Game of Life. Sometimes the format is a little forced - there's a section labelled 'The Curious Maths of Alice in Wonderland' which certainly does contain some Dodgson maths, but equally includes things like quaternions and non-Euclidian geometry, where the connection to Lewis Carroll, let alone Alice, is rather weak.

In other places, the attempt to make the discussion populist overstretches a little. There is some great material on games and probability, with, for instance, an really good description of the famous Monty Hall problem and the controversy it caused in Parade magazine - but quite why there is a double page spread on poker player Chris 'Jesus' Ferguson, even if he did apply game theory to poker, is a little baffling. My general feeling about this was 'So what?'

Maths is often portrayed as a very dry subject - a necessary evil, rather than something to enjoy - and when maths enthusiasts such as Ian Stewart try to make it seem that mathematics is pure fun they can often misunderstand what the general reader actually finds entertaining, or even faintly interesting. Beveridge does not fall into this trap, and consistently gives us interesting material - in part because the book focusses on the people involved and the history of maths as much as it does on the actual mathematics. Because of this, this title lifts itself above the other books of this type that I've read to make it feel that it really is worth popping into your bag to lighten your next wait at the station.
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Who Cares About Particle Physics? - Pauline Gagnon ****

This could be a very short book, consisting only of the words 'I do' - but a more realistic title would be 'What has the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) ever done for us?' Pauline Gagnon takes us on a tour of the standard model of particle physics, introduces the clumsily-titled Brout-Englert-Higgs field (most of us give in and accept it is more practically called the Higgs field, while recognising the other contributors), investigates the role of particle accelerators and takes us through the success with the Higgs boson, and the less successful search for dark matter and supersymmetrical particles.

The later part of the book is a bit of hotchpotch of the author's pet topics (or at least I'm guessing this, as they don't really flow from the first six or seven chapters) on the likes of a rather meandering collection of what research does for us from cancer cures to nuclear fusion (eventually), an examination of the management model used at CERN, a discussion of the (lack of) diversity in physics and bizarrely the role of Mileva Maric in Einstein's work, before reverting to topic of the book with a final chapter looking at possible future discoveries at CERN.

What makes this book worth celebrating for me is getting a really good feel for what the scientists working at the LHC actually do, how they interpret those messy-looking blasts of data, how so many scientists can work together (perhaps ascribing rather more efficiency to the process than is strictly accurate) and why this kind of research is valuable. This kept me interested and wanting to discover more.

I am giving this book four stars for its interesting insider content and particularly its insight into the way that the LHC is used that I have never seen elsewhere. But it does have some issues. Gagnon's attempt to speak down to the general reader sometimes feels a little condescending, not least in the decision to use stuffed toys to represent fundamental particles - it feels like she's trying too hard. There's also a classic 'expert's issue' in explaining why the particle discovered was thought to be a Higgs boson. She explains how the standard model was flawed and patched up with the idea of the Higgs etc. field. This implied there should be Higgs bosons, but they didn't know the mass. So how do they know that the new particle is a Higgs boson, rather than just something else that was missing from the standard model? There is no convincing answer given for this.

The writing style was also a little too much like being lectured - a barrage of facts, lacking much in the way of narrative structure. And an oddly obvious error had crept in: a table showing the behaviour of dark matter claimed it was not influenced by gravity, which is rather odd since this is the only way it can be detected. Oh, and the author falls into the error of trying to justify the expenditure on CERN because it gave us the web - a particularly lame argument.

However, these negatives are more than overcome by the content in the sense that we get far more than the typical basic tour and explanation of the LHC - this is really insightful material on how the LHC experiments are used and how they might be extended in the search for dark matter and the (increasingly unlikely) supersymmetric particles. Because of this, it's a book that's well worth reading if you have interest in this most fundamental of physical explorations.

Review by Brian Clegg