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Showing posts from November, 2016

What Colour is the Sun? - Brian Clegg ****

This is Brian Clegg's follow-up to How Many Moons Does the Earth Have?with the same format, but all new questions. As I may have mentioned before, science and fun go together like… well, like things that don’t often go together at all.  So it’s no mean feat to find that Brian Clegg has managed to combine the two so skilfully here. Like its predecessor, the book is in the format of a pair of pub quizzes, but unless you’re drinking in a pub favoured by geeky academics in either Oxford or Cambridge, I would say that 99.99% of readers will just read the book through like I did, to entertain and test themselves.    Each question is cleverly laid out, in that each is posed in the form of a puzzle, problem or brainteaser, augmented with a few related ‘while you wait’ fun facts on a single page; giving the reader the space to test themselves.  Once done, the reader then turns the page to find the answer - complete with a detailed explanation.  This makes each question an interesting standal…

Astrophotography - Rhodri Evans ****

This is a book that falls pretty firmly in the coffee table bracket, weighing in at over a kilo, and nearly 30 cm by 24. I'd usually be rather put off by this, but I was pleasantly surprised here.

We've seen plenty of photo-based books of space before, such as the even bigger Hubble books, but for me, Astrophotography probably has the best balance. It combines those gorgeous photographs we have come to know and love (partly because NASA and the ESA are so generous with making them freely available) with a good text by astronomer Rhodri Evans, which never dominates the images, but gives enough information to avoid this being a pure picture book. 

Even so, as the title suggests, it's the photographs that make it remarkable. Evans takes us an a tour, starting with the solar system, where as well as the inevitable planets we get some funky moons and comets (yes, it's up-to-date enough to include 67P and those great Pluto photos). 

From the limits of our solar system, we zoom …

Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science - Nancy Cooke & Margaret Hilton (Eds.) ****

Editor's note: This book is not popular science in the usual sense and the primary audience is those working in science, but it gives insights that will prove valuable beyond the science community.

Research of biological, chemical or physical sciences in all their guises is increasingly the domain of large-scale, multi-centre, cross-disciplinary collaboration. Almost gone is the era when individual investigators secured funding to undertake narrowly defined projects, replaced by a ‘team science’ philosophy in which both practical and theoretical research, basic or applied, is performed by consortia of scientists with a range of skill sets who are brought together to address so-called grand challenges. As team members are typically in geographically distinct locations, often in different countries or continents, this provides logistical obstacles to project coordination, management and implementation. Knowing how a team-based approach can function optimally, as well as how universit…

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…

The Realization of Star Trek Technologies - Mark Lasbury ***

When a popular science writer takes on the science of Star Trek, the result is inevitably going to be held up against Lawrence Krauss's The Physics of Star Trek - an early popular science book and one of the first I ever read. I'm glad to say that Mark Lasbury manages to avoid the danger of rehashing Krauss's book. Where the earlier title took key Star Trek technologies and explored whether they could be made possible with actual physics, Lasbury gives us the Star Trek explanations and some thoughts on their feasibility, but concentrates primarily on situations where real life technology can provide some of the features of the Star Trek equivalent. In doing this, unlike Krauss, he omits aspects such as the warp drive, instant communication and time travel where the technology doesn't have a real-world parallel.

It quickly becomes clear that Lasbury really knows his stuff on what happens in different Star Trek episodes and the assorted 'technical manuals' that ha…

Why Icebergs Float - Andrew Morris ***

It is challenging to find a new way to present science to the general public, and I have to start off by congratulating Andrew Morris on his novel approach of exploring the science of everyday things by following the random flow of topics at a discussion group. To an extent this isn't new - Galileo, for example, made his science books more accessible by using an ancient approach of constructing a fake discussion between three individuals: the supporter of the status quo, the supporter of new ideas and the everyman to go 'Duh,' I don't understand this' (think Dr Who companion) giving the others a chance to explain.

Although Morris's discussion group is genuine, there is still something of a flavour of Galileo's approach coming through, especially as Morris admits that what he presents is edited to fit the desired approach. Nonetheless, the idea is genuinely attractive and novel. However, there is always a danger with novelty - that it wears off pretty quickly…

The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs and The Princeton Field Guild to Prehistoric Mammals - Gregory S. Paul and Donald Prothero **(*)

Gregory S. Paul is a consummate artist whose work has influenced a generation, (including, by his own admission, my friend Luis V. Rey, with whom I collaborated in another Field Guide to Dinosaurs more than a decade ago.) His influence lies in careful groundwork. Paul treats his dinosaurs as living animals, but reconstructs them with great care, paying attention to the parts of the animals well known from actual fossil remains and using these to create a judicious portrait of creatures that no-one has ever seen alive. In this, the second edition of his own Field Guide, he attempts a fairly comprehensive coverage of dinosaurs down to the genus and even species level. This could have been a truly indispensable guide, but for three things. 

The first is that Paul’s classification of dinosaurs, especially of the small, bipedal dinosaurs closest to the ancestry of birds, is idiosyncratic. It’s fair to say that dinosaur classification is never static, and the precise relationships between th…

Four Way Interview - Liz Kalaugher and Matin Durrani

Matin Durrani is the Editor of the international magazine Physics World. After his PhD at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge (on polymers), Matin did a postdoc before moving into publishing in the late nineties. He has been editor of Physics World since 2006. 

Liz Kalaugher also has a PhD in materials science, along with qualifications in Biological Sciences. She is the editor of, a leading news resource on environmental issues. 

Their new book is Furry Logic: The Physics of Animal Life.

Why science?

Liz: Science explains – or tries to, at least – how the world and everything in it works and that’s something I think almost everybody wants to know. As people, we’re hard-wired to look for patterns and meaning so I guess finding science fascinating is part of that. And who hasn’t wondered why toast always seems to land buttered side down? Or why it often rains at the weekend? For me, finding out how physics helps animals survive was another aspect of that curi…

Science: a history in 100 experiments - John and Mary Gribbin ***

What you might call list books - 100 best this, 50 ideas on that - are not my favourite reading (in my experience they tend to be things publishers like because they get lots of translations), but anything John and Mary Gribbin are involved in is bound to have good written content, and that is true here.

Unlike some such books, where the illustrations dominate, here there is a good mix between the text, which isn't constrained to be an exact two-page spread, and the images. Though the text is never overwhelmed, those images are often excellent and this is a classy enough production to have good quality colour photographs (though this is reflected in the price).

Along the way through our 100 experiments, we see some of the best of the best. (There are actually 101, explained as being like the US 'Physics 101' type courses, but more likely added afterwards to encompass the LIGO gravitational wave experiment.) It is remarkable to see both the crudeness of some early experiments…

Eureka - Tom Cabot ****

I'm not the most visual person - words mostly work better for me - so I've never entirely understood the appeal of infographics at a gut level, though intellectually I can see that for many people they're a good way to get facts across. It doesn't help that they have a seedy image online, as they are often provided to blogs and websites as free clickbait. However, I couldn't resist the idea of a book that aims to make science more accessible via infographics.

Tom Cabot does not hold back on his topics, covering cosmology with a lot of physics thrown in, the Earth (which slightly oddly includes DNA), life and humans. By far the longest of these is life, with over 40 entries, each a two-page spread of infographics. Each section opens with a text spread and closes with an abstract graphic. When it comes to the infographics themselves, this was one of the rare examples of my thinking 'this book isn't big enough'. I'm not a great fan of the coffee table b…

The Distracted Mind - Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen ***

I would be more comfortable with the opening words of The Distracted Mind 'This book is the first of its kind to explore the daily challenges we face with the highly engaging but extremely distracting high-tech world we now inhabit' if I hadn't read The Cyber Effect a few months ago. Admittedly Distracted Mind's intro goes on 'from the dual points of view of a psychologist and a neuroscientist', where The Cyber Effect was by a lone 'cyberpsychologist'... but to be honest it's the quality of the content and the writing that counts, not the authors' specific qualifications. (Which made the repeated reference to one of the authors as 'Dr. Rosen' rather irritating.)

Still, I was determined to overlook this early setback and luckily there is genuinely interesting and different material here, starting with the way that interference (hi tech or traditional, internal and external) gets in the way of completing tasks, though sadly this material is…