Thursday, 27 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 that Ed Yong does very well. It's hardly news that we have many, many bacterial cells in us (though it does biologists no scientific favours when we discover the much used 'ten times as many as human cells' figure was just picked out of the air and has no scientific basis). However, Yong quickly takes us beyond that to explore the nuances of a very intricate relationship between bacteria and more complex life that could be summarised as 'Can't live with them, can't live without them.' Even many of our most hated bacterial foes can have positive roles at the right place and the right time.

What certainly comes across is that our knee-jerk reaction of 'germs are bad' leads to an overemphasis on removing them, where actually they are often doing a useful job. When we go mad with our antibacterial cleansers, we are more like to wipe out good bacteria, leaving space for colonisation by nasties, than we are to simply kill off a threat.  And Yong gives us a dramatic tour of the sheer variety of microbes and the environments in which different bacterial life can thrive, whether we talking black smokers or dolphin armpits.

Every now and then, we get some excellent storytelling, but the use of example after example does give the impression to the non-biologist of the kind of approach that led Rutherford to comment that all science is either physics or stamp collecting - there is a fair amount of stamp collecting here.  However, whenever the reader is beginning to feel that they are losing interest, up comes a really interesting part. I loved, for example, the story of the way that bacteria actually re-engineer the physical structure of a glow-in-the-dark squid. And it's hard not be impressed by the description of bacteria surveys being undertaken in a brand new hospital as it is brought into use, to see where the bugs come from. One of the particularly engaging observations is the emphasis on the benefits of open windows to allow bacteria to come in from the outside. Your mum's enthusiasm for getting you out in the fresh air was justified after all.

If there's one message the reader comes away with, it's that we need to be more nuanced in our thinking about bacteria - sometimes, it seems almost to be a case of 'sit back and enjoy the ride, because whatever you do will probably mess things up.' You'll never look at a probiotic yogurt drink or a bottle of toilet cleaner the same again.


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Review by Brian Clegg

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, science fiction portrayed (and sometimes believed by its originator) as fact.

Covering a wide range of fields, May shows us how pseudoscience like Charles Fort's collections of stories of odd happenings alongside his bizarre explanations have provided many plot ideas for science fiction writers, while the burgeoning science fiction market from the early pulp magazines onward started to shape new concepts in pseudoscience. Some of those magazines even carried pseudoscience 'factual' stories, including the 'Shaver' concept where the Earth is in the control of unknown external forces and the development of Dianetics by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, which soon became Scientology.

In chapters focussing on Fort, anomalous phenomena (including the infamous Philadelphia Experiment), hi-tech paranoia (they're out to get us using super-technology), flying saucers, mind power, space drives, antigravity, technology of the ancients and conspiracy theories, May takes us on a tour of the main themes of pseudoscience, always tying back to the links with science fiction. You'll find familiar science fiction films, such as Close Encounters (ripe with pseudoscience concepts), blockbuster books from fiction (the works of Dan Brown) and supposed non-fiction (Chariots of the Gods, for example) alongside obscure but fascinating early pulp works, near-forgotten authors like E. F. Russell and pseudoscience concepts that will only be familiar to the cognoscenti. As much as anything else, it's an exploration of the human imagination and psyche.

Something that comes up a good number of times, inevitably is The X-Files. This frequently makes use of pseudoscience, and is particularly interesting as it is one of the strongest influencers for a fascinating aspect of this incestuous relationship: quite a few pseudoscience ideas have emerged from science fiction rather than the other way round. The X-Files is, for instance, one of the major influences in spreading the idea to a wider audience of large eyed grey aliens - or for that matter huge triangular spaceships, which interestingly May points out only became common in the UFO community after the huge triangular spaceships were seen in Star Wars. My only regret on The X-Files is that May does not mention my absolute favourite episode, 'José Chung's From Outer Space' from Season 3, which is both hilarious and explores beautifully the nature of unreliable narrators in pseudoscience, as well as bringing in some pseudoscience concepts like Men in Black that don't usually crop up in the show.

Sometimes May leans over backwards to not be judgemental, and while clearly not agreeing with the pseudoscience, makes it sound like it hasn't been entirely dismissed. He's also quite kind to science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, who gets quite a few mentions as Dick's fiction often featured conspiracies and paranoia, which extended from his fiction into his life. May packs plenty in - the only slight issue I have is with the format of the book. Each chapter has an odd 'abstract' summary at the start as if it were a scientific paper, and the structure could do with a bit more connective narrative covering the overall thesis. This is particularly obvious at the end of the final chapter which simply stops without any attempt to pull the topic together.

This book is part of the large and interesting Springer series 'Science and Fiction' - most of these titles have been overpriced for a paperback, but this is at the affordable end of the range and the good production values mean we can have a number of full colour reproductions of gorgeous old pulp covers. Overall, May does an excellent job in presenting to us this strange two-way relationship, providing a real service both in understanding some of the roots of science fiction and the nature of pseudoscience. Recommended.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

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 the cat. (And speaking of cats, we discover that the fearsome komodo dragon only has a bite as strong as a pet cat's.)

From turtles' ability to navigate the oceans through to the way that shared body heat can be actively manipulated by snakes and the varied non-audio communication methods of insects (not to mention why elephants stand with one foot off the ground), we see the animal kingdom at its most fascinating. At the end of the book, the authors make a fairly obvious but worthwhile point that making use of physics in this way doesn't imply an understanding of physics, but rather a trial and error discovery of what helps survival - but it doesn't make the stories any less interesting.
The only problem with an approach like this, covering different aspects of physics in different chapters is that the contents can seem to be more of a list than a meaningful narrative - but generally that isn't an issue here. If I'm honest, I got more than little bored with the mantis shrimp - the entry was far too long - but that apart, there was plenty cropping up to provide new wonders and interest.
One other small moan is over humour. Editors nearly always extract the majority of the attempts at humour from the books I write, and now I can see why. It's not as easy as it looks, and there's a distinct tendency to wince-making material, particular when scientists venture into the field. So, for instance, we read about the activity of some snakes that it involves 'lots of sex and a soupçon of gender-swapping. Not among Shine and his colleagues the scientists studying them], we must stress, but the snakes themselves.' It's groan-worthy, but tolerable.
Overall this was a fresh and enjoyable take on an aspect of the workings of animals that is rarely covered - a worth addition to the popular science hall of fame.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 16 October 2016

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 and thought at length about the potential applications of Charles Babbage's innovative idea for an 'analytical engine' that was a close, if dead-end, predecessor of a programmable computer. Yet we should also remember that Ada's sole claim to fame is writing about Babbage's failed invention. This is the tightrope that presents itself to James Essinger in writing Ada's Algorithm. And the test of his effectiveness will be whether or not he falls off.
It was very interesting to read about the early life of Ada Byron (as she was before marriage), and her sad, very early death, as we usually only hear about the period when she was interacting with Babbage. The impression is of a rich young woman of enthusiasms, at a time when anyone with money was not supposed to seem interested in things (arguably Prince Albert's second problem in getting accepted, after being German). This cultural expectation to avoid serious enthusiasm was doubly strong for a woman. Ada's father, Lord Byron, had little direct impact on her, being absent from when she was very young, so the formative parent was very much her mother, who while not ecstatic about Ada's mathematical interests, at least allowed her to get some training.
Essinger's first test was in his presentation of Ada's mathematical abilities. He tells us that she had the potential to be a great mathematician. This may have been true, though no direct evidence is put to us - she certainly was not producing theorems, Noether-style. Instead, though Essinger tells us of genius, what he shows us is her enthusiasm. She certainly seems to have loved maths, and that's probably as much as can be deduced from the information presented. Several times, Essinger accuses Babbage (whom he seems to have developed a dislike for) of being a dilettante. This was probably true to an extent - though he did produce designs for his calculating engines and a part of the Difference Engine - but it also seems clear that Ada, portrayed by Essinger as the one who was more application-minded - was equally a dilettante rather than professional. You could hardly expect anything else from someone in her position at that time.
The second test is how the contribution Ada makes to the remarkable Analytical Engine idea. This was through the notes she added to the translation she made of a French description (by an Italian scientist) of Babbage's work. Lazy portraits of Ada portray her as a programmer - this clearly isn't true, though the notes include what could be considered the design for a program which appears to have been worked on with input from both of them. But the remarkable claim that Essinger makes - which in the first publication of this book led to the title A Female Genius - is that Ada understood what the Analytical Engine was, foreseeing the whole business of computing, while Babbage, it is claimed, hadn't a clue what the Analytical Engine could do, other than be a better calculator.
Although Essinger presents Ada's words in support of this, they are far too vague and woffly to be definitive, and where she does make a claim that is interpreted as being non-mathematical, she seems to be referring to the approach in (then) modern maths of using operators, which certainly resembles some computing ideas, but was quite separate. There is no doubt that Ada stresses how the Analytical Engine would be something new and transformative - but it seems a bizarre assertion that Babbage had no idea of what his own invention could do, while Ada was the only one to see it.
There is also a classic example of oversell when Essinger claims that Ada 'foresaw the digitisation of music as CDs...' This is because Ada remarked that supposing the 'fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible to [the Engine's] expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaboration and scientific pieces of music...' This is not about the optical storage of music data, but about mechanising the kind of mathematical approach Bach, for example, had played with in his work.

(I can't avoid also flagging up a strange bit of history of science, totally unconnected to Ada. When Essinger is describing the eventual development of computing, he remarks 'The dream began to start coming true in 1881, when a young engineer, William J. Hammer, who was working at Thomas Edison's laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey, made an accidental discovery that turned out to be of great importance. He discovered an inexplicable current in an evacuated vacuum tube that turned out to lead to the discovery of electrons.' Yet Crookes and others had already made wide investigations of cathode rays in the 1870s - this seems an odd re-write of history.)
Am I convinced, as the subtitle says, that Ada 'launched the digital age through the poetry of numbers'? No, not at all. She put a lot of effort into explaining and speculating on the application of a failed piece of technology. But she didn't launch anything, and certainly not the digital age. However, despite the book's flaws in emphasis (and an occasional tendency to use over-long quotes from the tedious writing style of the period), this is an entertaining biography of Ada Lovelace, and though it is in danger of over-emphasising her role, after so many years when women's real contributions were overlooked, such a response is hardly surprising.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

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 someone read this book than didn't know anything about Einstein, other than he was that crazy clever guy with the big white hair. Einstein's Greatest Mistake  isn't going to impress popular science regulars, but it is likely to appeal to many readers who would never pick up a Gribbin or a Carroll. Because of this, I think we need to overcome any worries about inaccuracies and be genuinely grateful - and just as some viewers of the movie Lincoln will go on to read a good biography to find out more, so I believe that reading this book will draw some readers into the wider sphere of popular science.

What Bodanis does brilliantly is to give us a feel for Einstein as a person. I don't think I've ever read a book that does this as well, both in terms of the social life of young Einstein and what he went through in his Princeton years, which most scientific biographies don't give much time to, because he produced very little that was new and interesting. Apart from that, Einstein's Greatest Mistake is also very good when it comes to descriptions of supporting events, such as Eddington's eclipse expeditions of 1919 or the way that Hubble made sure he got himself in the limelight when Einstein visited. Whenever there's a chance for storytelling, Bodanis triumphs.

It seems almost breaking a butterfly on the wheel to say where things go wrong with science or history, a bit like those irritating people who insist on telling you what's illogical in the plot of a fun film. But I do think I need to pick out a few examples to show what I mean.

In describing Einstein's remarkable 1905 work, Bodanis portrays this as being driven by an urge to combine the nature of matter and energy, culminating in Einstein's E=mc2 paper (in reality, the closest the paper gets to this is m=L/V2). Yet this paper was pretty much an afterthought. The driver for special relativity was Maxwell's revelations about the nature of light, while the book pretty much ignores the paper for which Einstein won the Nobel Prize, one of the foundations of quantum physics.

When covering that same area, which Bodanis accurately identifies as the greatest mistake - quantum theory - the approach taken is to make Bohr, Born and Heisenberg the 'pro' faction and Einstein plus Schrödinger the 'antis'. Although this was true in terms of interpretation, the stance means that the Schrödinger equation is pretty much ignored, which gives a weirdly unbalanced picture of quantum physics. Bodanis picks on the uncertainty principle as the heart of quantum physics. Unfortunately, he then uses Heisenberg's microscope thought experiment as the definitive proof of the principle - entirely omitting that Bohr immediately tore the idea to shreds, to Heisenberg's embarrassment, pointing out that the thought experiment totally misunderstands the uncertainty principle, as it isn't produced by observation.

This isn't, then, a book for the science or history of science enthusiast. However, I stand by my assertion that this kind of biopic popular science does have an important role - I am sure the book will appeal to a wide range of people who think that science is difficult and unapproachable. And as such I heartily endorse it.

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For more on David Bodanis see our interview and Twitter | Facebook | Instagram 
Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 9 October 2016

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 fascinating parts to the book, but sometimes, particularly in the first half, there's a danger of Shanahan becoming a fig tree bore. Doing this kind of crossover book, hovering somewhere science writing and nature writing (which is generally a far more arty, fluffy affair with little or no science involved), is a delicate balance. The Fly Trap does this superbly - in Ladders to Heaven, the approach works most of the time, though occasionally it feels all too much like a sequel to Eat, Pray, Love (though for a nature book, perhaps Eat Prey Live might be more apt).

There is too much myth and mysticism to begin with, but when, for instance, Shanahan tells the story of Corner's botanical monkeys, trained to retrieve figs from the heights of trees, although the writing style is a touch breathless, the storytelling is very effective.
What comes across powerfully is just what amazing organisms fig trees are. I find it difficult to get into the mindset of a botanist, but if you have to study plants, surely these remarkable trees make a case for themselves. Not only do some species encase other trees, which eventually rot away to leave the skeletal fig, and not only do they include that most remarkable tree the banyan among their kind, figs themselves are unique. We're all familiar with the final fruit phase of the fig, but in its early stage it is not a fruit, but a casing for its flowers, which emerge inside the case and can only be fertilised thanks to a symbiotic relationship with a wasp. That's living on the botanical edge, for sure.
So, unlikely though it may seem, reading this book you will discover that 'all you ever wanted to know about figs and fig trees' is not something you find on the back of a matchbox, but makes for a genuinely interesting story. It's not a long book - I read it on a 3 hour train journey - but if you're like me, you will feel you that it was 3 hours well spent. I've never been fond of figs to eat, but I now count myself as an honorary fan of the fig and its trees.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 8 October 2016

David Bodanis - Four Way Interview

Photo by Fran Monks
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 everything there. The walls are lined with many books, in many languages. How did they get there, and who wrote them? He doesn't know. But he does know there's some order in how they're arranged, and what they contain.

How this came to be we might never know. But trying to read even just a single page in one of those books? That we have a chance of doing....if we but work hard enough at it.

Why this book?

General Relativity is probably one of the greatest achievements of the human mind. Einstein was exultant when he cracked it, in the midst of war-torn Berlin, in the cold winter of 1915/16. But yet, the very success he had in creating it led him, just a few years later, to a deep psychological mistake. This kept him isolated from the community he loved: for decades on end. Who could resist a story like that?

What’s next?

There's a story, probably apocryphal, that the great physicist Niels Bohr had a horseshoe above the doorway to his study. A colleague said, 'Professor Bohr, surely you don't believe a simple bit of curved metal will create good luck!' To which Bohr replied, in his distinctive confiding whisper, 'I've been informed it works, even if you don't believe.'

So although I don't believe in superstitions, I do have a superstition that it's bad luck to talk about my next book before it's done! Having said that, I have two scientific projects on the go: one is another biography; the other is a more poetic account, looking at matters from a distinctive scientific angle.

What’s exciting you at the moment?

Writers are people who get excited when there's more than one person in their room, and so it's great to be released from my study, and to get to travel here and there doing publicity for my book; having the time not just to meet a range of people, but to share meals, or walks, and time to really connect. I love that.

I'm also struck at living through this moment in American political history. It's not a matter of being 'excited' of course; more of being forced to be exceptionally 'alert'; 'attuned'. I'd thought only a very few Americans - 5 percent? - would relish bullying and hatred; a world of constant resentment and vindictiveness. It's something Einstein lived through: when his books were publicly burned, and crowds in an advanced country, with the world's finest universities, relished public bullying and hate. I'd thought that was the past; forever locked away. Clearly I was wrong.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

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 better than that of the Romans - all we can say, suggest these philosophers and historians of science, is that our science is different - it makes it very clear that some academics have spent far too much time in ivory towers examining their philosophical navels and really haven't got a clue about the real world.
We then get into the main content of the gradual process of science, in the current sense of the word, coming into being. It's certainly interesting in a dry way to see this analytically dissected, though the slightly tedious nature of the exposition makes it clear why popular science has to simplify and concentrate on the narrative if readers are to be kept on track. I appreciate that an academic like David Wootton wants to ensure that every i is dotted and t crossed, but I think that all the arguments of this book could have been made in half the length by cutting back on some of the detail and repetition.
This book, then, is not popular science in the usual sense, but neither is it a textbook. If you are prepared to put the effort in, you will receive huge insights into what lies beneath: one view of the true history of science. That's why the book gets 5 stars. I've learned more about the history of science from this one book than any other five I can think of that I have read in the past. I have to emphasise that 'one view' part, though. History is - well, not an exact science. As far as I can see (I'm not equipped to criticise the content) this is a superbly well researched piece of scientific history, but in the end, the conclusions drawn are down to Wootton and he enjoys making it clear where he is strongly contradicting other historians of science.
There's a huge amount to appreciate here. Wootton convincingly demolishes Kuhn's idea that scientific revolutions require heavy disagreements among scientists, showing how exposure to experience (often thanks to new technology, such as the telescope) can swing the argument surprisingly painlessly. And he shows what a remarkable influence words have on the development of science (music to the ear of a writer). Perhaps most remarkable of all is Wootton's careful, very detailed exposition of the idea that the real trigger for 'modern' scientific thought was Columbus's discovery of America, which demolished the existing model of the Earth and made it possible to see how experience can triumph over the philosophical quagmire of authority.
If you've a fair amount of time to spare and really want to dig into the way that the scientific revolution came about, I would heartily recommend giving this title a try.

Shortlisted for the $75K Cundill Prize 2016
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Review by Brian Clegg