Sunday, 27 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 standalone read in its own right.  For those who want to go further, each answer also has a ‘read more’ suggestion of a book that expands on the topic.
US readers needn't
worry...
The biggest problem with this book is being able to put it down, as each item is very short, it’s tempting to go for just one more… and another until you’re half-way through in a single sitting.  
The subjects are widespread, though all encompass science and technology; from the title question of the book (not as straightforward as it seems) to why your fingers go wrinkly in the bath (ditto) - there are also some great picture and puzzle sections.  In fact the majority of the questions have a little twist or surprise that mean they continue to delight all the way through, and I must say that I don’t believe that I’ve ever uttered ‘Well I never’ so many times and in such a short space of time before.
If you like QI or the New Scientist books like Why Don’t a Penguin’s Feet Freeze, you’ll just love this one!  It’s a great book for anyone with an interest in science and at a really good price that makes it an excellent stocking filler.  Once again, I am certainly going to be buying a whole stack as Christmas presents for my Oxford chums (who much appreciated the previous volume).

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Review by Peet Morris
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.

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 out to our galaxy, the local group and the wider universe, ending with the most distant views, the cosmic microwave background and a good text on gravity wave astronomy (though obviously no photographs of the outcome here).

I'm always a little unsure what coffee table books are for, but there's no doubt this would make a great gift for an astronomical beginner, or simply someone who enjoys the remarkable photographs from space that are now available.


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Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 24 November 2016

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 universities and research institutions may best provide infrastructure and administrative support is critical to success in achieving scientific goals and translational outcomes.

It is in this context that Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science distils the collective thoughts of the research committees of the US National Academy of Sciences to proffer guidance on improving team effectiveness, facilitating virtual collaboration, enabling institutional backing and procuring funding. Individual sections focus on team composition, leadership and professional development of team members. How organisational research policies may help and not hinder collaborative research is also examined. This book offers robust recommendations to science research agencies and public policymakers, as well as valuable advice for university research managers, team science leaders and career researchers. It also debunks the clichéd myth that academics should be left alone in their ivory towers without any obligation to public accountability. We may prefer interacting with lab rats to engaging with the general public but society is a team effort and, for scientists, that starts with team bonding through research and research-led teaching.

A pdf version is free to download from the website of the publisher, The National Academies Press, while a hard copy book, excellent for libraries, is available for purchase.


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Review by Andrew Taylor-Robinson

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

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 book to be a beautiful object in its own right.


Why this book?

I followed science to degree level, but have made several subsequent forays into more artistic territory. Fusing art and science has always intrigued me and remains a lodestar. I’ve enjoyed talking to non-scientists about science and trying to understand, explain and illuminate the wonder and beauty of the natural world and the cosmos and it’s inner workings. I’ve long wanted to create sort-of anti-textbooks.  For some years I amused my friends (I think!) by talking of wanting to create lyrical, poetic, beautiful books about science for non-science readers, without any real idea of how you would do that. I still think that might be impossible!  But it’s worth a detour…


What’s next?

I like the idea of tackling more bite-sized chunks of science.  This book’s conceit of moving from the Big Bang to Now gave me a crash course in finding about where we are.  And while it’s a very satisfying structure, I’d love to dwell in greater, but hopefully still eccentric (!), detail on particular areas of scientific interest as there is just so much there. I’d like to do a series of smaller books like this, perhaps for a slightly younger readership. I’m also planning a graphic book that looks at the key technologies of ancient civilizations and how they link scientific insight with cultural and social flowerings. Oh… and there is the sumptuous book on artichokes that is always there on the back burner… (Don’t ask!)


What’s exciting you at the moment?

Advances in astronomy (now, including gravitational waves), high-energy particle physics and the ability to crunch big-data seems to be taking us to the threshold of another paradigm shift in our view of the Universe … well, at least that’s how it feels to me. The extraordinary fact that 95% of the Universe seems to be missing and that gravity is by most accounts inexplicably weak by many orders of magnitude, is frustrating and scintillating by turns. I’m excited by the idea of the next ‘Einstein’ to turn on the light bulb. Wouldn’t it be absolutely amazing if it happened within our lifetimes? I favour brane cosmologies and multidimensional space as the deeper reality. I mean, otherwise, how on earth could the Universe have emerged from ‘nothing’ – really… c’mon! But, perhaps, like the humble bee, we are irrevocably imprisoned within the limits of our perceptual systems and we will never get to see what ‘lies beyond’.  But it's fun trying!

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 have sprung up around the series. If anything this aspect is over-done. There doesn't seem too much point labouring over why a technology is explained differently in a later episode than an earlier one - in the end it's because they had different writers and the later one couldn't be bothered to check. There's an element of 'this is fiction, get over it,' about this kind of detail.

The level of detail on the real world technologies is impressive - I think this book will strongly appeal to an audience that loves this kind of working through possibilities systematically - for example, looking at all the different ways we can do something roughly similar to phasers. Some parts such as lasers are likely to be familiar, but others, for example the idea of using a laser to ionise a path through air, then sending an electric charge along the path - so-called directed lightning - is fascinating. All too often, though, the result deteriorates into a list approach that makes more for completeness than reading pleasure.

The sections which proved most interesting to me were mostly those where we were closest to the real thing - I found the universal translator section particularly enjoyable - though the tricorder section spent too long on assorted medical add-ons for smartphones. The transporter section (something that was also covered by Krauss) also had plenty of absorbing content, though it's a shame Lasbury doesn't mention the no cloning theorem - or more entertainingly, the objection to the Star Trek transporter raised in that brilliant film Galaxy Quest of why such an incredibly sophisticated piece of technology requires its operator to smoothly push a pair of sliders.

Pretty well all popular science books have a few errors or points where a rather odd comment is made, and there were a number here. When talking about cloaking devices, the author says 'interesting, in both [Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings], the cloaking devices were actually cloaks; I wonder if this is the genesis of the term "cloaking device?"' The only problem is that Star Trek predates Harry Potter, and the main cloaking device in the Lord of the Rings is, erm, a ring. Not all the problems are about cultural context. We're told photon torpedoes involve matter/antimatter annihilation, so no light is involved. Remind me what is produced when, particles and antiparticles annihilate? Oh, yes - photons.  Strangest of all is the description of the orbit of comet 2015 TB145; Lasbury tells us its orbit is 'very oblong.' I've seen diagrams of its orbit and - not surprisingly - it isn't at all rectangular.

If you really like getting into the detail of this kind of tech, this is going to be an excellent read for you. I can't give it more than three stars for the general reader, because it is too much of a 'listing every possible technology and how it works' book, but there's no doubt there will be an enthusiastic audience for this material.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 13 November 2016

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 and I did find that the 'rambling conversation in a bar' approach made it quite easy to get lost and rapidly became a little irritating. It was interesting that the chapter on the significance of models in science, which opens with much less input from the discussion group, was a lot more coherent than the rest.

Another problem with that discussion group approach is that there is a danger of leaving huge gaps in the content because something doesn't happen to be brought up. So, for instance, the theme of the first chapter is 'Foods we love and hate'. That's a nice idea, but it only covered taste and smell where, for instance, many food dislikes are driven by texture. Even so, despite the scattergun approach, Morris is able to cover a whole host of topics from the nature of colour and pigments (from an observation about old masters losing colour) to the nature of electricity via the role of hormones, the whole business of bacteria, viruses and antibiotics and several chapters on energy, which when you start to think about it is rather a puzzling concept. There's no doubt that a reader will get plenty to get their teeth into as they go through this book.

One concern was that, perhaps due to the very general and informal nature of the discussions, some of the science was a little iffy. So, for example, the old myth that different areas of the tongue are associated with different taste sensations was regurgitated as if it were fact. The description of the mechanism of the tides fell down on the tide at the far side of the Earth from the Moon. And there is a fundamentally incorrect description of why objects appear to be a particular colour, making it sound as if all non-absorbed light is somehow magically reflected. Let's be clear: if a photon isn't absorbed by a material it will pass through. The question is whether or not and it what direction it is re-emitted.

A final moan is that a sampler book like this should always give the reader a good range of options to read further. Here there was a very limited and vague 'further resources' section at the end, which seemed like a pinned-on afterthought. It would have been much better if each chapter provided a handful of book suggestions to read further on the topics that chapter covered, should the appetite have been whetted.

So, what we have here is an innovative idea which doesn't quite come off. This isn't a bad thing. If we are going to be innovative, then it's necessary to take risks and not everything will succeed. And for that the author and publisher should be applauded. But in this particular case, it doesn't work for me.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

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 the various groups of theropods and early birds are particularly fluid. Paul has pioneered the idea that some plainly earthbound feathered dinosaurs may have descended from flying ancestors. This is highly likely in my view, but some will baulk, say, as his placement of the extinct bird Jeholornis as an early offshoot of the huge, lumbering therizinosaurs, or Sapeornis as an early oviraptorosaur. But Paul’s ideas are somewhat different from the mainstream.

Second is the almost total lack of citation of original sources, which seems to me an enormous error in a book that might otherwise be used by scholars. There is a bibliography, but it contains precisely five items of secondary literature (I counted), two of which are by the author himself.
Third, there are no pictures of actual fossils, the primary material on which any dinosaur artist builds his or her reconstructions. This is a shame, given that some of these are truly spectacular. (**)


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Despite these problems, Paul’s book inspired the creation of the accompanying and in some ways complementary book on fossil mammals, by Prothero. Although less of a field guide and more of an encyclopaedic survey of the history of mammals, this is an altogether more satisfactory and satisfying prospect, perhaps because the subject of fossil mammals is less glamorous than that of dinosaurs and therefore less liable to attract the wide-eyed and the fannish. Prothero is pretty comprehensive and knows the subject up, down and backwards: read this, and you’ll know exactly where to go next time you confuse your borhyaenids with your borophagines, or get your pantotheres in a twist. The research is up-to-the-minute, and there is - oh joy - a long list of further reading. Pleasant restorations are supported by pictures of fossils. 

My only serious criticism relates to the seemingly arbitrary and varied schemes for creating family trees. Many of these are in the form of cladograms - the approved method for casting phylogenetic relationships, without prior presumption of ancestry and descent. So far, so good. Others, though, are the more fluid and romantic but wholly unscientific schemes in which particular genera are lined up as ancestors and descendants. Sorry, but that way of thinking died forty years ago and should have been buried with a stake through its heart. (***)

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Review by Henry Gee

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 environmentalresearchweb.org, 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 curiosity.

Matin: I love order in the world and it's a comfort to know it can be understood with some simple, scientific principles. Plus with no science, we'd be stuck in the dark ages – ignorant, ill, and with none of the comforts of modern life. Take the mobile phone – most people think these incredible devices are run by magic or fairies, assuming they even think about how they work at all. Physics lies at the heart of technology and deserves respect.

Why this book?

Liz: I’ve always loved animals and writing Furry Logic: The Physics of Animal Life was a great opportunity to talk to interesting researchers and discover more about their weird and wonderful findings. Some of the ways that animals exploit science in their day-to-day lives are mind-blowing. Nature is chock-full of physics, from giant squid that have eyes the size of dinner plates in order to spot the faint glow from plankton disturbed by sperm whales, to 2-inch long turtle youngsters that navigate round the Atlantic using the Earth’s magnetic field before heading back some 20 years later to the very beach where they hatched, to bees that sense the electric fields given off by flowers to gauge the health of their nectar stocks. 

Matin: Physics World magazine, which I edit, published a special issue on animal physics in 2012. While preparing the issue, we came across so many wonderful examples of animals that use physics to survive that Liz and I knew it would be a great idea for a book. No-one had mixed animals and physics in quite the same way before and there was no shortage of amazing animals either. Lots of people are scared of physics – or think it's not for them -- and I hope the book gives them a way in to the subject, while also appealing to those who already like physics.

What’s next?

Liz: At the moment we’re focusing on writing articles and giving presentations to publicise Furry Logic. We’ve been in The Big Issue, on the Cosmic Shed podcast and on BCfm radio, and are set to be in How it Works and Physics World magazines soon. We’ll also be talking at the Festival of Physics in Exeter on November 26th and in Bristol for the IOP Southwest branch on November 23rd. After that, maybe it will be time for another book.

Matin: As well as finding ways to promote Furry Logic – Liz and I are available for talks, media appearances and writing – I'm mulling over what the next book should be about.  The physics of food and sport are two options, but there are still so many fascinating animals out there that I want to find out about.

What’s exciting you at the moment?

Liz: I recently discovered a starling roost. Watching these birds swarm through the twilight in ever-changing configurations before calling to each other as they settle on a high perch for the night is magical. And there’s lots of interesting science examining how the flocks form. I’m also looking forward to visiting the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition and finding photos of animal physics in action. 

Matin: Apart from freaking out about Brexit and the possibility of a Donald Trump presidency, on a more mundane level I'm getting my stairs carpeted and hoping that Birmingham City get promoted to the Premier League. That's life: existential angst mixed with domestic trifles.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

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 that achieved so much, and the effort and thinking that has gone in to the ways that we have opened up knowledge on the universe, the Earth, biology, matter and more. The Gribbins aren't unnecessarily fussy about what counts as an experiment, which is excellent, so include, for example, the invention of the steam engine and the fascinating folly that was the almost unusable giant telescope, the Leviathan of Parsonstown.

We discover the way that very small ideas can spark a wider scientific endeavour - for instance KekulĂ©'s self-eating snake dream, leading to an understanding of the benzene ring, so important to organic chemistry. And how sometimes it is the absence of something that makes the difference, such as when the ability to create a near-vacuum led to more understanding of subatomic particles and the development of electronics. Usually in the history of science we see a neat (if humanly flawed) chronological procession. By taking us from Archimedes in his bath to the satellites mapping the cosmic microwave background radiation we get a better understanding of the breadth of scientific endeavour.

Infrequently, the need to condense an experiment and its implications into a brief article can result in compaction that comes close to being misleading. For instance, in Newton's famous experiments on light we are told that in the second part of the experiment a second prism 'combined the seven colours back into a single spot of white light.' In reality, while Newton did use a second prism this way, he doesn't mention its effect on colour, only shape. His actual 'Experimentum Crucis' used two boards to separate off a small section of the spectrum and the second prism was used to show that different colours bent at different angles. Where Newton did actually make something of recombining the colours, he used a lens, rather than a prism. Similarly the entry on masers and lasers only details the maser work, not even naming the person who created the (far more useful) first laser or the person who had the patent on it.

Even so, the vast majority of the entries remain informative and concise. I'm only left with my usual bafflement with this kind of book as to what they are for. Only scientific stamp collectors are going to want to read through end to end (I admit to skimming through and dipping in to read the articles that caught my eye for various reasons). There's not the satisfaction of a narrative-based read that comes in a good popular science book. My suspicion is that apart from the translation opportunities, the main target may be libraries - the book is expensive for a personal buy, but I can imagine it being popular in both public and school libraries. So it remains part of a category I don't really understand as a reader... but it undoubtedly should win 'best in class'.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 3 November 2016

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 book, but that format might have been better here, as Cabot crams so much into each spread that the text has to be small and the pages crowded. In some cases - the antimatter sub-diagram, for example - the text was so small I literally couldn't read it.

When dealing with a relatively straightforward topic, this approach works beautifully. Take, for instance, the electromagnetic radiation page. We have a full width e/m spectrum across the page with all sorts of goodies pinging off it to tell us about everything from 'Whistlers' (very low frequency radio waves, apparently) through to gamma rays, plus a sideline in explaining blackbody radiation. With more complex topics it felt as if you had to know a little bit already to cope with the complexity of the graphic layout. Take, for instance, the spread on relativity. Sensibly this only really covered general relativity (though it didn't point out that the special version was missing). There's a lot going on here and its quite difficult to pick your way through it. There's a classic 'bowling ball/rubber sheet' illustration, a really interesting gravity wave spectrum diagram, Ligo outputs and many text boxes, but no clear structure for the reader to grasp. I think part of the problem is that the classic infographic has a clear reading direction - they're tall and thin and you read down them from top to bottom. The spreads here are a splatter of information and it's hard to know how to take them in.

For me, the life/human sections were where the book really succeeded. This is because the fundamentals of the science here are a lot simpler. This might not seem the case when you look at the beautiful graphics of enzyme molecules or the human metabolic pathways, but the thing is that the concepts - the building blocks for the infographic - are mostly simple, it's just the resultant constructs that aren't. In physics and cosmology, getting the far more complex concepts into an infographic form mean they either have to be highly simplified, or presented at too high a level for a beginner - or, in practise, both of these at the same time - which makes the spread a little less satisfying.

Some of the most effective spreads are amongst the simplest - because the impact really comes through best without getting overwhelmed. I loved, for example, the 'gills versus lungs' spread which compared the two ways of getting oxygen, comparing things like viscosity, density and oxygen content of air and water in graphic form. Similarly, the 'human anatomy' spread which takes a Vitruvian Man style skeleton and tells us when the various components (e.g. strong wrist, chin, large brain) evolved. I'm sure my paleontological friends would dispute some of the evolutionary history (they always do), but it provided one of many 'Hmm, that's interesting' moments. Having said this, there could, perhaps, have been a little more variety in the way data was presented graphically - the same styles were used repeatedly without some of the familiar infographic tricks of, for example, representing populations as arrays of representative images.

There is a Kindle version of the book, incidentally, but it's not going to work on a classic black and white e-ink Kindle - go for paper unless you have a good, high resolution colour screen.

Eureka is no substitute for a 'proper' popular science book because good writing always has a core of narrative, of story telling, where an infographic is a relentless collection of facts - more akin the Guinness Book of Records than a great non-fiction title. But there is a big market for fact books, and this is surely one of the best ways to present them. Using infographics this way is innovative and fun, and is likely to bring in readers who wouldn't touch conventional science writing, which surely has to be a good thing. I think maybe it could have been pitched for a slightly wider audience, but it's still a remarkable book and scores highly for taking an original approach.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

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 put across in the book in a plodding, textbook-like manner. Early on we get effective use of specific examples, but this doesn't continue through the book.

Perhaps the biggest problem here is the classic literary agent's cry 'Is it a book or an article?' This strikes me as an excellent magazine article, but there didn't seem enough material to make a full book out of it. I learned that ignoring is an active process. It takes resources to filter out what is irrelevant. I saw how people, particularly younger people who try to multitask with devices all the time, distract themselves from tasks. And we're all being affected by the technology. And that's about it.

It didn't help that sometimes the book felt like an advertorial - I lost count of the number times 'The Gazzaley Lab' got a name check, and there did seem to be one or two products being pushed later on.

I don't want to be too negative about this book. Like The Cyber Effect before it, it genuinely has an important message about the way that information and communication technology is having an impact on our ability to concentrate. There are truly shocking statistics here, like the way that students set an urgent 15 minute task could only go about 3 minutes before they switched to checking social media or texts. We need to be more conscious of how we make use of this technology and how to forego it when we want to concentrate or let our minds wander creatively. I'm just not sure this is the ideal book to get that message across.


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Review by Brian Clegg