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Showing posts from 2017

Mathematics for the Million - Lancelot Hogben ***

This is one of the strangest maths books you are ever likely to encounter. Written in the 1930s and reissued in 2017, it's an attempt to provide mathematical instruction up to around A-level standard (though obviously the curriculum has changed a lot) for someone who, perhaps, doesn't respond well to the classroom and works better from self-teaching.

It's telling of the way popular science was considered in the period that apparently the author delayed publication as he was up for election to Fellowship of the Royal Society, which back then was dead against science popularisation. 

Hogben, in a distinctive, mellifluous (if sometimes prolix) style, starts with the basics of arithmetic and leads us all the way through to calculus. Unlike his contemporaries, who were all for working through hundreds of geometry proofs for completeness, Hogben fills in the parts at each stage of mathematical development needed to reach the next stage and gives us no more. 

The narrative here is v…

Mysteries of the Quantum Universe - Thibault Damour and Mathieu Burniat ***

When I first saw Mysteries of the Quantum Universe, I was distinctly wary. I'm not a great fan of comics and graphic novels, and based on the few examples I've come across of trying to put across science using this format, I suspected what we'd get is a very shallow 'Gee, wow, whizzy!' approach that was a kind of Horrible Science for adults. In practice, although some of the language does raise an eyebrow for its clunkiness, possibly due to being translated (did I really see the main character Bob say 'Egad!' at one point?), if anything the problems are more about either having nothing at all happen, or concentrating some quite deep physics material in just a few frames.

We begin with the sad death on the Moon (where else?) of Bob's faithful (and talking) dog, Rick - which immediately sets up in the mind of anyone with some familiarity with quantum physics the idea that we are going to get heavy mentions of both Schrödinger's cat and the many worlds …

Europa's Lost Expedition - Michael Carroll ***

I've now read a good few in this Springer series of titles that attempt to bring science fiction and science fact together. Some are straight non-fiction, but many, like this one, are science fiction with a  'science bit' at the end - and of those, this is one of the best I've come across.

I thought I was having deja vu to start with, as one of the first in the series I read involved an ill-fated expedition to Saturn's moon Titan, while this involves... an ill-fated expedition to Jupiter's moon Europa. (At the time I didn't realise that On the Shore of Titan's Farthest Sea was even written by the same author.) Although the struggles of existence on a remote, cold moon were a bit samey, luckily the plot was sufficiently different to mean that this wasn't the end of the world.

The reason I say this is one of the best in the series is that there is some depth to the plotting. Mysterious deaths occur on the expedition. We have a flashback to an earlier ex…

Mass - Jim Baggott *****

Jim Baggott is one of the UK's best popular science writers and never disappoints. As the book's name suggests, Mass is about what seems at first sight a straightforward and ordinary aspect of matter. It's just a property that stuff has that makes it behave in a certain way. But the further we get into the book, the less obvious the nature of mass becomes - as a reader, it can feel a little like following Alice down the rabbit hole.

We begin with a run through the history of our growing understanding of what matter is, and the nature of mass. Apart from repeating the myth that Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for supporting a heliocentric cosmology, this is fairly straightforward stuff, but then Baggott makes the interesting step of not just making the transition from a philosophical view to a scientific one, but continuing with the philosophy to include, for example, Kant's 'Ding an sich' or 'thing-in-itself' concept that underlines the way that w…

Black Hole Blues - Janna Levin ****

I came across Black Holes Blues rather late, when Kip Thorne mentioned it as somewhere you would discover the difficulties the management of the LIGO gravitational waves detection project went through. It's slightly weird reading it now, after the first gravitational wave detections, as the book was clearly written before anything had been found (though there's a rapidly tacked-on afterword to deal with the discovery).

Despite the author being a physics professor, this is classic US journalistic popular science writing in the style that was arguably typified by James Gleick's classic Chaos - like that, Black Hole Blues is a book that is driven entirely by the people involved, based strongly around interviews, visits and fly-on-the-wall descriptions of historical interactions between the main characters. The science itself plays a distinctly supporting cast role to the detail of the people, their background and their psychology.

I absolutely loved this approach when I first c…

Guerrilla Science - Ernesto Altshuler ***

I think it's fair to say that there has never been a science book quite like this slim hardback. Ernesto Altshuler sets out to describe his experience over a career of doing physics under the Castro regime in Cuba, in a kind of make do and mend environment that seems more appropriate to the physics laboratories of the nineteenth century than the twentieth or twenty-first. Indeed, some of Altshuler's photographs of his cobbled-together technology is distinctly reminiscent, say, of the look of the equipment Faraday was producing in the early years of the Royal Institution in London. 

In itself, this seems a wonderful opportunity for storytelling, but unfortunately this is where the book doesn't make it as popular science. Altshuler opens with a dramatic (if not obviously relevant) story of trying to save his car as floods struck his building. But once we get into the main thread of the book, what we get is a lot of detail (admittedly largely kept at a semi-technical level) of…

Poisons and Poisonings - Tony Hargreaves

There was a time when artists who had, for example, never seen a rhinoceros, would draw a rhino based only on a description. The result was certainly interesting - but equally like no rhino you've ever seen. There's something about this book that makes it feel like a popular science book written by someone who has never seen one. Even the way Tony Hargreaves describes it in his introduction 'This book is written in the style of popular science, rather than of an academic text' underlines this. It's also sometimes rather old-fashioned, ignoring any tendency to gender neutrality. We read 'Mankind was then faced with a new and serious problem Whilst enjoying a reliable food supply, he also had to suffer the problems of pestilence and disease.'

It's a strangely quirky text. It's probably best thought of as a kind of encyclopaedia of poisons, but not arranged alphabetically (although both poisons and poisoners are revisited briefly in alphabetical order a…

The Digital Mind - Arlindo Oliveira ***

According to the blurb, this book is a 'delightful romp through computer science, biology, physics and much else...' It certainly is no delightful romp. The Digital Mind is probably best described as an academic's idea of what a popular science book is like. The result is a strange mix of reasonably readable text with unnecessary academic terminology, some incomprehensible 'explanation' and even the incumbrance of inline references.

What Arlindo Oliveira sets out to do is certainly broad in sweep. He gives us background chapters on the development of electronics, computing, AI, cells, the brain and more, then brings them all together in a synthesis that examines the possibilities and implications of artificial minds, whether limited - for example, does Google have a kind of mind? - to being fully conscious. Without doubt there's a lot to interest the reader here, particularly once Oliveira gets to the synthesis part.

Of the introductory bits, not entirely surpris…

Psy-Q: A mind-bending miscellany of everyday psychology - Ben Ambridge *****

I came to this book late, via Ben Ambridge's more recent title Are You Smarter than a Chimpanzee? In that book, it was the human side that I found more interesting than the animal psychology, so a whole book on people in Ambridge's amiable, entertaining style seemed a good bet - as it proved to be.
There was a fair amount here that you will have come across if you've read any other popular psychology books, from the ultimatum game to common psychological illogicalities, like our tendency to give more value to something we own than something we don't. However, there was also enough that I'd never seen before to make it an entertaining read, and even the familiar was often worth revisiting.

One of the more unusual things that Ambridge did was to take in a few borderline psychology/psychiatry concepts from the Rorshach Test to Freud's dream analysis and mildly debunk them. I say 'mildly' as Ambridge doesn't tear into them, but gently points out their lac…

The Perfect Shape: Spiral Stories - Øyvind Hammer

At first sight, a book with 53 chapters all about spirals from a mathematical viewpoint sounds up there with watching paint dry in the entertainment stakes. However, there is no need for those who don't find Euclid an entertaining holiday read to turn away - because Øyvind Hammer uses the concept of a spiral as a jumping off point to cover everything from architecture to biology, from tiling to toilet paper. That word 'stories' in the title is really important. Unlike some academics, Hammer really understands the importance of narrative in getting science across.

The mathematical aspect is always lurking in the background, and Hammer is not afraid to bring in equations regularly, but to be honest, you can read the book and still enjoy it while ignoring all the maths and entirely failing to remember the difference between a logarithmic, hyperbolic or Archimedes spiral, let alone a lituus (which my spellchecker thinks should be a litmus). 

What makes the book a genuinely enjoy…