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Showing posts from October, 2016

I Contain Multitudes - Ed Yong ****

Famously, according to Douglas Adams, The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy (not the novel, the 'actual' guide) begin by telling you at length how big space is, but then 'After a while the style settles down a bit and it starts telling you things you actually need to know' - and the opening of Ed Yong's exploration of the microbiome, the complex world of bacterial life inside us and generally in living things and around the world, is rather reminiscent of this. 

In the first couple of chapters, we are fed fact after fact in a staccato collection of information that has no sense of narrative or flow, rather like a set of frenzied bullet points, which becomes wearing for the reader. For example there are two paragraphs in a row, one with practically all the sentences starting 'They', and the next with almost all beginning 'We'll'. Thankfully, though, like the HHGTTG, We Are Multitude then settles down and gets on with job in hand.


It's a job t…

Pseudoscience and Science Fiction - Andrew May ****

There are a number of books covering the links between science and science fiction, such as Ten Billion Tomorrows, but the is the first that I have come across considering the relationship between pseudoscience and science fiction - and as Andrew May points out, this is important, because the relationship between the two is strong. Pseudoscience uses the language of science, but rather than testing a hypothesis, only accepting it if the tests hold up and seeing how the concept fits with the current understanding of science, pseudoscience simply comes up with hypotheses which are clung onto despite evidence to the contrary, and largely ignores current scientific thinking. Although science fiction is often based on the science of the day, it almost always stretches it, adding in some 'What if?' that can't be tested because it has no basis in reality. That's fine for fiction, but worrying when treated as fact. As May makes clear, pseudoscience is often, effectively, scienc…

Furry Logic - Matin Durrani and Liz Kalaugher *****

The title of Furry Logic doesn't give much away. With nothing more to go on, I would have guessed that this play on the IT/OR concept of 'fuzzy logic' was a book about animal psychology. But the subtitle reveals it's something quite different: the physics of animal life.


This is a clever move. It's always difficult to find a new way of looking at a perennial topic like biology, but to do so by exploring the way that animals exploit physics, from cats to dragons, gives genuine insights into an otherwise well-trodden subject. By bringing in all kinds of physics, from simple mechanics, through electromagnetism and light, to quantum theory, we see the ways that animals make use of the possibilities that physics offers to survive and thrive. Sometimes the details are pleasingly small and domestic. I found, for instance, the comparison of the way cats and dogs drink water (neither is able to suck it up as we can) delightful, particularly in the sophisticated approach of t…

Ada's Algorithm - James Essinger ***

Women in science have, without doubt, had a bad press, though thankfully this has now been reversed. There was a time when the likes of Caroline Herschel, Henrietta Leavitt, Emmy Noether and even relatively modern figures such as Rosalind Franklin and Jocelyn Burnell would have had their roles played down by the science writing community. Now, these individuals are rightly feted. But there is also the danger that, in the rush to right past wrongs, we overemphasise some individual's roles - not helped by science writing's urge to focus on individuals where science is often a collaborative venture.


Perhaps there is no individual subject where that tightrope has to be walked more carefully than with Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, who has become such a symbolic figure that we need to be really careful not to inflate her actual role out of all proportion. We shouldn't hide Ada away, nor should we suggest she wasn't an intelligent person. She had a strong interest in maths a…

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…

Ladders to Heaven - Mike Shanahan ****

There are two ways to title a book - either say what it actually is (the 'does what it says on the tin' approach), or have a nice but totally uninformative title, but give away what it's really about in the subtitle. Mike Shanahan opts for the second approach in this handsome hardback, produced by the Unbound book crowdfunding site. Without knowing it's 'How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future,' you would be pretty lost. (The US title of 'Gods, Wasps and Stranglers' may leave you even more baffled.) Shaping history, feeding imaginations and enriching the future are dramatic claims, which seem rather remote if you grew up in those parts of Western Europe where figs are things that come in little boxes and you can go your whole life without seeing a fig tree - but Shanahan makes a compelling case for the significance of the fig and the fig tree in at least the first two of those topics.
There are some genuinely fasci…

David Bodanis - Four Way Interview

David Bodanis is the bestselling author of The Secret House and E=mc2, which was turned into a PBS documentary and a Southbank Award-winning ballet at Sadler's Wells. David also wrote Electric Universe, which won the Royal Society Science Book of the Year Prize, and Passionate Minds, a BBC Book of the Week. His newest work, Einstein's Greatest Mistake, will be published in October 2016. David has worked for the Royal Dutch Shell Scenario Prediction unit and the World Economic Forum. He has been a popular speaker at TED conferences and at Davos. His work has been published in the Financial Times, the Guardian, and the New York Times, and has appeared on Newsnight, Start the Week, and other programs. 


Why science?

Einstein once used a wonderful image to describe how he felt about the world. It's one that's driven me in my interest in science as well. 'We are,' Einstein said, 'like a little boy entering a big library.' The room is dim: it's hard to see e…

The Invention of Science - David Wootton *****

This is no lightweight book - both literally and metaphorically. It packs in nearly 600 pages of decidedly small print, and manages to assign about 10 per cent of these simply to deciding what is meant by a 'scientific revolution' (the subtitle is 'a new history of the scientific revolution'). While warning of the importance of being aware of the change in meaning of some terms, the author successfully demolishes the arguments of those who argue that terms like science, scientist and revolution can't be applied to the seventeenth century because they're anachronistic. (He doesn't say it, but this is a bit like saying you shouldn't call a dinosaur a dinosaur because the word wasn't in use when they were around.) What's also very apparent in a section on history and philosophy of science is why so many scientists are dubious of philosophers and historians of science. When an adult can seriously suggest that we can't say that current science is …