Saturday, 24 December 2016

Murder on the Einstein Express - Harun Siljak **

I've seen a fair number of books that try to combine science fact with fiction, but fewer in the world of mathematics. This extremely slim collection of just four short stories attempts the maths/fiction crossover, and is one of the strangest collection of stories I have ever read. I am honestly not sure if this is a good or bad thing.

The collection begins with a conceit that can in some ways be compared to Edwin Abbott's Flatland. That book had geometric shapes as its main characters. In the first of Harun Siljak's stories it is equations and mathematical concepts that take the leading roles. But where Abbott uses mathematical concepts in a story that any reader can follow (if few can honestly enjoy, in one of the dullest pieces of fiction known to man), Siljak produces a story that only a mathematician can love (or for that matter understand). It's a bold move. And for most of us, that leaves just three readable stories.

These are certainly more interesting. We meet a collection of computers that write mathematical theorems, a confusing Arabian Nights-ish storytelling story and the title story, which as you might imagine by now is not so much a murder mystery as a series of nine mini-lectures that might be thought as a good way to put across physics concepts (we've definitely strayed into physics here), but are fairly impenetrable. It may seem that the later stories are more conventional than the one based on equations, but in practice it's difficult to get any feeling of identification with the characters and the plots seem very much designed to get the point across without necessarily giving a lot of thought to how the narrative should develop.

In the end, the biggest problem throughout is the quality of writing. It's very much at high school level, and even there, the author clearly hasn't grasped the English use of articles. The likes of Isaac Asimov have shown that you don't have to be a sophisticated writer to be a great science fiction writer, as sheer weight of ideas can carry the reader past cardboard characterisation and so on. And it's true that Siljak has some genuinely interesting ideas, particularly computers taking over the generation of mathematical proofs, but working on a flawed basis and so getting it wrong. However, the author clearly needs considerably more practice before his writing is publishable, so it's slightly strange that it appears in print.

In summary, interesting ideas, but dire fiction, and at over £3 a story, it's a no from me.

Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Reality Is Not What It Seems - Carlo Rovelli ***

I was no great fan of Carlo Rovelli's flowery, overpriced previous title, and the introduction to this book on loop quantum gravity has a similar style, but thankfully it settles down a little. However, there is still rather too much of the woffle, reverting to floral form on Lucretius and his atomist poem on nature. For those who remember How to be Topp, this is the Fotherington Thomas school of popular science - all 'Hullo clouds, hullo sky!'

We then get onto Galileo. At times, Rovelli's history of science goes wildly astray - he says, for example, that Galileo was the first experimenter -  what of William Gilbert or the medieval optical experiments, for example? Similarly, Rovelli tells us that no one from Newton to Faraday tried to come up with an explanation for action at a distance - which just isn't true. Not only did Newton himself have an idea, there were plenty of mechanisms proposed. This isn't a matter of obscure history, you can read about it in Wikipedia. Best then to move on from mangled recounting of the past and get on to the more recent physics.

Here, in a gallop through special and general relativity and quantum theory we get far more rigour, though oddly it often comes in ways that aren't always obvious - for example we jump into to general relativity with the idea that spacetime is a field, without any of Einstein's far more accessible route using the equivalence principle. It fits better with the model that Rovelli is using, but it doesn't help the reader understand what he is talking about.

The last part of the book takes in what has been its goal all along - loop quantum gravity. In his opening, Rovelli remarks that a book (for the public) on loop quantum gravity didn't exist which is why he had to write it. This isn't true, there was Martin Bojowald's Once Before Time - but that failed singularly to explain the theory in a comprehensible way. This is where I hoped I could finally get the point of Rovelli's writing. I desperately want to see a good, accessible introduction to loop quantum gravity.The good news is that Rovelli on the topic reads a lot more smoothly than anything I've so far read - but he still fails to bring the topic to a level the general reader can get his or her head around. The book should have had an editor brave enough to keep sending it back until Rovelli had got there, but it clearly didn't happen.

You may gather I had problems with this book, but I have to congratulate Rovelli for trying. What was most frustrating was that if loop quantum gravity were as obvious to physicists and as complete as it's presented, it would be quantum gravity solved and no one would be bothering about string theory (which Rovelli only gives a passing mention to). Tick. Next problem? We know it's not really like that. Also, like many physicists seem to do, Rovelli either doesn't realise a model isn't the same as reality, or forgets to explain this to his readers. Even so, it is an interesting book despite its problems.

Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 12 December 2016

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First there's a foreword. Then there's another foreword. Then there's a background preamble. Then there's an introduction. And then, finally, we get to the content. But once you've run this gauntlet, we discover the seven obscure scientists referred to in the title, each of whom arguably made a contribution to our understanding of atomic structure and its implications for chemical behaviour, but all of whom are pretty much forgotten.

Specifically, we are talking about John Nicholson, Anton Van de Broek (no, not that bloke off Strictly Come Dancing), Richard Abegg, Charles Bury, John D. Main Smith, Edmund Stoner and Charles Janet, only one of whom I'd heard of, and that was for his main body of work, not this. Although A Tale is only a slim book, we find out a lot about the theories each of these developed. Almost all of these theories could be described as 'wrong' - and yet each contributed with incremental changes to thinking on the subject, influencing the big names such as Bohr (whose own theories were also arguably 'wrong' for much of the time).

That's a book in its own right (if a very specialist one with limited appeal), but far more interesting is Scerri's motive for introducing these characters - not to suggest that we ought to add them to the familiar names, but rather to illustrate that our model of the nature of scientific discovery and theory building is wrong. Of course, one of the differences between science and philosophy is that in science it is less common to have several theories in constant contention - there's more of a tendency to settle for a 'best supported current theory'. And so we don't have a single widely accepted theory of scientific discovery - but Scerri is pushing here for a new one, or at least one that is less supported - specifically that scientific discovery is like biological evolution - a gradual development based on lots of small changes, where it isn't meaningful to identify a single owner of a theory.

In a sense, like biological evolution, there's an element of this that is so obvious it's a surprise anyone argues about it. Clearly no scientist works in isolation but is constantly influenced by what he or she learns of the work of others. Newton famously made his 'shoulders of giants' remark, and though it was probably intended as an insult to Robert Hooke, Newton nonetheless at least once had to admit that Hooke introduced a concept to him (the nature of orbits). However, since Thomas Kuhn's work on the philosophy of science about 50 years ago, there has been the idea of sudden revolutionary changes in science - so-called paradigm shifts - which Scerri suggests don't exist.

Part of the problem Scerri identifies is our tendency to label a theory 'right' or 'wrong' where this is rarely possible to do. This sounds like woffly philosophising of the 'What is truth?' variety - but it's not, because theories are very rarely about finding the truth. They are more about developing the best model to fit observation. All theories are probably 'wrong' in a sense - because they are just models. But some fit beautifully and so we hang onto them until something better comes along.

I understand why Scerri includes his seven scientists, but there is far too much detail on their work, which for me gets in the way of the far more important thinking on the nature of scientific discoveries. While I'm not sure Scerri is right in entirely dismissing revolutions - it's hard not to see, for example, the shift to the general theory of relativity as anything other than revolutionary - he surely has an important point in the evolutionary model, which could have been more interestingly developed at greater depth in the book. And that would also have given a chance to explore his plea to dismiss scientific heroes further.

There's no doubt that popular science in particular, in simplifying the picture, tends to pick out a handful of individuals as the greats of science. But I'm not sure this is a bad thing. Just as the Apollo missions couldn't have happened without a vast number of individuals we know nothing about - but it's still worth celebrating what the astronauts did. This doesn't mean we should ignore the others. Their stories can be interesting in their own right, as Margot Lee Shetterley shows in Hidden Figures - but we still need the scientific equivalent of the astronauts in figures like Bohr or Einstein or Newton to keep a narrative interesting. We just need to bear in mind that superstars, whether in movies or in science, aren't the whole story.

In A Tale of Seven Scientists, Eric Scerri has a genuinely interesting story to tell, but he also demonstrates why, on the whole, we focus on certain figures in popular history of science, because the work of his seven scientists is sufficiently incremental that only an expert could love them. I hope he considers writing another book for a general audience that concentrates on the evolutionary nature of scientific discovery more - and develops it further, as here the same assertions are repeated rather frequently. As it is, the current book is something of chimera, but rewards the effort of reading it with some real topics for thought, if you are interested in what science does and what it is.

Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Are Numbers Real - Brian Clegg *****

To use Brian Clegg's own words, the question as to whether numbers are real seems, at first, 'like a crazy question.'  In my mind, numbers are somewhat like natural language, in that one could argue that we don't consciously think about our native language when using it - it just happens and flows out of us.  When we have thoughts, it's interesting to ask whether one was thinking those thoughts in words, and, therefore, whether one can have a thought without having available a language in which to structure them.  

As numbers obviously don’t exist in a physical sense - you can't trip over the number ‘2’ in the street - one might conclude that, as in the language case, numbers exist only in thought.  To answer such things one might decide to conduct an experiment, to observe the reasoning process.  Sadly, to do so is like observing which slit a particle passes through in the famous double-slit experiment from quantum mechanics; when an observation is made, the effect of the observation crashes the experiment.  It would seem that the machine (the mind) cannot watch itself in operation and observe its own subtle workings.

UK edition
In the book, Clegg takes us from aspects of mathematics which seem very natural - even suggesting in an entertaining way how a basic number system could be developed as a result of lending someone your goats - to those which certainly do require conscious thought and seem very far removed from the world, though paradoxically this kind of mathematics is used to drive the way that physics currently explores reality. It's both a brief history of the human love-hate relationship with maths and a look at the way that what was once clearly a direct representation of the physical has become a language and reality of its own.

In Are Numbers Real? Clegg tackles what is a very deep question in his usual way: with clarity, wit and a wonderfully clear narrative writing style.  Not only does he tackle a wide variety of subjects to seek out the truth of the matter, he does so in an engaging and hugely accessible way.  I personally couldn’t put it down and as an active researcher in the field itself, it has provided me with some very, um, real food for thought.

Hardback (UK paperback):  
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.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Welcome to the Universe - Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael Strauss, Richard Gott ***

One of the first things a writer is encouraged to do is to be aware of his or her audience. I think it's interesting that this book, like many written by physicists, mostly has comments on the back from physicists, because the book is written as if they were the audience. Not as serious reading - more the equivalent of a heavy literary fiction reader indulging in a bit of Agatha Christie for light relief. The trouble is that this isn't the audience it's supposed to be for. To make things worse, each of the three authors pitches their writing differently.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is his usual ebullient self, using a style that mixes the shouty with a touch of condescension. However, his content is more detailed than usual with a strong smattering of equations - enough that this sometimes feels like an introductory textbook. The opening has something of the manic 'space is really big' approach of the Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but then settles down to a quick rattle through '3,000 years of astronomy.' However, to ensure it's not too interesting he also tells us that he is not going to include details of people and discoveries. To be fair, this may be because Tyson has been slated in the past for poor history of science.

Despite the style, Tyson manages a reasonable balance of general observation and introduction of physical concepts. There is one odd chapter, about the demotion of Pluto from a planet which doesn't fit with the rest at all - it seems a bit of a vanity project for Tyson - but the rest fits together quite well. We've already come across Michael Strauss in this first section on 'stars, planets and life' as he interposes a few chapters amongst Tyson's, but he comes into his own in the second, shortest section, 'galaxies'. This is probably the least technical section of the book, being mostly descriptive. In a dry, but generally accessible fashion, Strauss takes us from the interstellar medium to quasars and supermassive black holes.

Finally we get to Richard Gott's section, 'Einstein and the Universe'. This the heaviest section of a literally heavy book (1.35 kilograms - get the Kindle version), but in some ways the most satisfying. Gott is not a great explainer, and does perpetuate the myth that Wheeler named the black hole (a common enough misunderstanding 10 years ago, but generally done away with by now), however he gives us a brisk introduction to special and general relativity (John Gribbin would not be impressed that he refers to 'the theory of special relativity'), going on to the implications of these theories for astrophysics and even time travel. Reading Gott is hard work, but it is rewarding. However, this section feels like a completely different book - the first two parts very much fit with the subtitle, 'an astrophysical tour', but the final part is very much physics with astrophysical applications.

Overall, there's a lot going on in this book, with more equations and working out than I've ever seen in a book from a mainstream publisher aimed at a popular science audience. I think it will work well for a segment of that audience - high school students who are already specialising in physics, and regular popular science physics readers who want more depth (provided they can get through the Tyson section). But the book's inconsistent approach and heavy content won't be for everyone.

Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 2 December 2016

Ecotopia 2121 - Alan Marshall ***

This is, without doubt, one of the the strangest books I have ever reviewed. Around 500 years ago, the cleric and politician Thomas More wrote a book called Utopia that brought a new, and much misused, word into the world. Now, Alan Marshall has used some of the concepts of utopia (which he points out combines the meanings 'good land' or 'nowhere land') to provide a vision of an ecologically minded future 100 or so years from now.

The title emphasises that ecological aspect (it has been used before), though for me it's too close to 'ectopic' to be comfortable. In the book, Marshall takes 100 world cities and gives us a vision of what they might be like in 2121. Each has a rather beautiful image, plus between one and five pages of text which typically combine a bit of historical context, an idea of why he has chosen the particular approach he has used for that city and some details on what the future city is like.

The choice of cities is quirky. The obvious world capitals are there but we also find, for example, Andorra la Vella (with a very retro feel and a banning of nanotechnology). Inevitably the urge is strong to pick out the cities in your country first. For the UK we get the fairly obvious London and Birmingham, combined with Bristol, Oxford, Plymouth and Wolverhampton. Inevitably, also, the first response is 'Why these? Where's Cambridge and Manchester? What happened outside of England?' but in the end, the choice is the author's.

The range of environmental futures awarded the cities is impressive - and like all good utopia stories, there are some darker reflections. Paris, for example, is portrayed with the Eiffel Tower collapsing as the remains of a space elevator collapses from the sky (Marshall doesn't like space travel) and Palo Alto (is that really a city?) is a monstrous hi-tech future environment. Many, though seem impossibly wonderful. Marshall's cities seem largely redesigned from the ground up - yet history suggests that this rarely happens, with evolutionary change more likely than revolutionary.

All in all, like most books where you get 100 anything, it's difficult to read from end to end - it's more of a dip in book. There are some interesting environmental ideas here - for example, the Bristol entry concentrates on a tidal barrier to Cardiff, which is wide enough to be a very narrow city in its own right - and I think the future cities will also prove a rich source of settings for science fiction writers. There's not a lot of science here, so I can't score it more than three stars - but at the very least it's a book that's worth taking a look at for its imaginative vision of a very unlikely but inspiring set of future possibilities. It is available on Kindle, but I'd go for the hardback to get a better feel for those illustrations.

Review by Brian Clegg