Friday, 27 January 2017

Chemistry in Your Kitchen - Matthew Hartings ****

As author Matthew Hartings, chemistry lecturer by day and kitchen wizard by night (well, he has things he says he's pretty good at cooking) points out, chemistry and cooking have a lot in common. You don't have to be into molecular gastronomy like Heston Blumenthal, running your kitchen more like a lab than an everyday part of the home. Whenever we deal with food and drink, we are inevitably dealing with chemistry.

As Hartings also points out, chemistry is the Cinderella of the popular science world, so it's great to see a book in this field that works reasonably well (I'll come back to that 'reasonably').

What we get here are trips through a whole host of familiar (at least, familiar if you are American) food and drink experiences, from coffee via Kraft Mac and Cheese, through meat to beer and cocktails. At his best, Hartings is an engaging storyteller, for example taking us through his experience being hauled onto a TV show at the last minute to talk about the science of bacon. He proudly records half an hour of fascinating chemistry-related bacon information - why it smells so good when it's cooking, for instance. Only to have his broadcast contribution cut down to little more than 'I love bacon.'

Hartings is equally good at little asides that you don't expect - for instance, we discover that those lovely circular vibration waves on the cup in Jurassic Park when the T-rex is approaching were produced by vibrating a guitar string under the cup. And sometimes too the chemistry itself can be surprising and interesting with a direct, understandable impact on what we eat and drink - where, for example he describes the ways that the different kinds of pectin work. But Hartings does have the classic scientist-as-writer problem that he doesn't realise when there's too much chemistry in one lump and he needs a good leavening of narrative (see what I've done there with the food metaphor?) - there are parts that are simply too chemistry-heavy.

Another issue is that some points are drawn out far longer than they really need to be - a spot of judicious editing would have helped. But it's when the chemistry gets out of control, for example in the lengthy description of the Maillard reaction. It genuinely is interesting and important in many areas of cooking - but the chemical expansion goes on far too long.

If I'm going to be really picky there was also one cosmological issue when he says that Carl Sagan’s quote ‘we are star stuff’ describes 'how every atom in our body was once made in a star.’ I'm no biologist, but I think there's plenty of hydrogen in our bodies and I'd be interested to know what stars made hydrogen from. But that's nit-picking.

Overall, I did have to skip through a few overloaded chemistry bits, but I still enjoyed the book. Hartings has a light, chatty style and brings a lot of food chemistry to life. I may have been a little generous with the star rating because of the shortage of good popular chemistry books - but there's a lot to like here. (Incidentally, the Royal Society of Chemistry really should have priced this as a popular science book - at the moment it's more like a textbook, with a cover that gives away its origins.)


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Review by Brian Clegg

Science Fiction by Scientists - Michael Brotherton Ed. ***

I'm all in favour of science fiction that puts across interesting science, but I was a little put off by the preface by editor Michael Brotherton, who seems to think that the science part is more important than the fiction, and that the best SF writers have been scientists, something that is only rarely true. I don't think it's a good idea to go into science fiction writing with the smug idea that 'I'm a scientist, so I'm bound to do this well,' because it will end in tears. Luckily some scientists are excellent writers, and some of the good ones have turned up here (along with a few of the clunkers). At least we have to admit that the title is 100% accurate.

It's interesting to contrast the first two stories as they illustrate very well some of the extremes of what can be done. The first, Down and Out by Ken Wharton, features one cracking idea (though the author seems to think he has kept it from us a lot longer than he really does), but pedestrian writing. His story, set on Jupiter's moon Europa, takes place in the sea below its surface ice. We get a nicely envisaged alien intelligent life form with a viewpoint that provide's the story's twist (though as I mentioned, this was obvious far too early), but the storytelling was very basic - little more than a 'what I did on my holidays' approach to narrative, and lacking the descriptive skill to make the scenes come alive. 

How different this was from the second story, The Tree of Life by Jenny Rohn. Here we've got sophisticated storytelling and a realisation that it's not enough to have a single change of viewpoint as the justification for your story - instead there's some proper characterisation and a clever play on the role of the apple in Genesis (though it wasn't an apple in the original), plus a good dose of information about viruses, bacteria and life in a lab. While the main premise, that the world has had all life removed so Earth can stripped of its resources (except a lab and one scientist), is far-fetched - it seems perverse to choose a planet teeming with life, and even stranger to leave behind most of the natural resources, a move that is needed for the storyline, but hard to justify. There is also an oddity in the science section at the end (each story has this, and most of them good).  It describes the Earth's pre-life atmosphere as being 'full of methane and ammonia and other harsh compounds and buffeted by lightning strikes and volcanic explosions.' This reflects the 1950s 'primordial soup' idea - but the modern assumption is that the atmosphere was primarily nitrogen, water vapour and carbon dioxide. Even so, a thoughtful well-written story.

Other stories worth a mention include Turing de Force, which cleverly explores whether advanced computer-like aliens would consider us intelligent lifeforms. Like many idea-driven stories it lacks narrative drive, but it's a fun idea (though it seems odd that the aliens, who have access to the internet, can't make any deductions about us from our published science). I will also pick out Neural Alchemist as having more character development than most (though not enough happens in the story), Hidden Variables, which has a real sense of storytelling (though I'm not sure how well it would work if you didn't know what hidden variables are, and the 'science bit' is incomprehensible), and my favourite as a sheer page-turner of a story, the ISS-based horror story Sticks and Stones.

All collections of short stories are variable, but the hope is that the editor has picked the best. The problem here is that there weren’t enough stories with a professional level of writing to carry the collection. Apart from a few stand-outs, it felt more like contributions to a student magazine than the kind of writing you would expect in a professionally published science fiction collection. It’s great having the science bits - but the stories have to be up to scratch or the premise is wasted. (As I've mentioned with this series before, the pricing is also far too high for fiction, though Springer points out that universities should have access to free e-book versions.)

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Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 22 January 2017

The Voynich Manuscript - Raymond Clemens (Ed.) ***

It might seem a little strange to review a book on a possibly fake medieval manuscript here - yet with its botanical illustrations and some-time alleged connection to Roger Bacon, the Voynich manuscript does have a history of science flavour. If you haven't come across it, the Voynich manuscript is a heavily illustrated (with a mix of botanical and really weird images) book, written in an unknown script that has never been deciphered. Some believe that the book is a genuine work, others that the writing can't be deciphered as it never had any meaning, thinking it a fake, probably with the intention of producing a saleable oddity.

What is undeniable is that this new book on the manuscript is a handsome and weighty tome, over 30 cm tall and weighing in at 1.78 kilos. It's an expensive production featuring a semi-transparent dustcover with a vellum-like texture. Closing the book are around 60 pages of commentary - but what makes this volume remarkable is that the majority of it consists of accurate full colour reproductions of the Voynich manuscript's pages, down to having fold-outs for the pages in the original that are similarly structured.

It is, without doubt, the quality reproductions of pages of the manuscript itself that make this volume of interest - it is, effectively, a picture book. The supporting text is a little disappointing. We get articles on the earliest owners, Voynich (the buyer who made it famous), physical analysis of the book itself, early attempts to de-crypt the 'cipher' as is sometimes known, a little on the alchemical tradition (represented in some of the illustrations) and an overview. But apart from the physical analysis section, which is unusually detailed, the rest is summary. Most disappointingly, the 'deciphering' section has far too little on suggestions that the whole thing is a (probably medieval) fake, which some believe to be the case based on, for example, fascinating analysis by Gordon Rugg (who isn't mentioned). I would easily give the book four stars for the reproduction of the manuscript - it's the surrounding text that pulls it down.

If you are Voynich manuscript fan, you will want a copy of this book. It may even be the case if you're a lover of heavily illustrated medieval books. If you are not quite so committed, the cost may put you off, but it's worth borrowing from a library to see what all the fuss has been about.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction - James Binney ****

For many readers, the very word ‘astrophysics’ is a daunting one. That’s ironic, because astronomy is one of the most popular of popular-science subjects, and it’s almost 100% applied physics. You can’t understand planetary orbits without invoking the theory of gravity; you can’t understand how stars shine without invoking nuclear fusion; you can’t understand a galaxy’s spiral arms without invoking the physics of waves. Yet apart from a few exotic topics like black holes and dark matter, the crucial role played by physics is all too often glossed over in popular astronomy books.

So this ‘Very Short Introduction’ is a welcome antidote to all that. It would be ideal for a reader who is already keen on astronomy, and has some basic school-level physics, who wants to see how the two fit together. Most amateur astronomers will have heard of ‘main sequence stars’ and the Hertzsprung–Russell diagram, but this book shows you how the mysteries of stellar evolution all have their roots in solid physical principles like gravitation, nuclear fusion, heat convection and black-body radiation. 

Another thing that comes across is that, although the universe is very big, there really aren’t that many laws of physics. So the same physics gets used over and over at different scales – with, for example, the same principle of ‘conservation of angular momentum’ shaping the structure of the solar system, black hole accretion discs and entire galaxies. Other areas of physics, which may not be very prominent here on Earth, really come into their own in an astronomical context. This applies most obviously to relativity – both the special and general theories – which can explain a whole range of phenomena from the stability of the solar system to cosmic rays and gravitational lenses.

A short, wide-ranging book like this is always going to lack depth, but that’s not a bad thing with a potentially heavy subject like this one – especially when, as in this case, the author is a professor of astrophysics. Fortunately James Binney doesn’t try to blind readers with science, but he doesn’t talk down to them either. That’s probably a good thing, too, since I suspect the very title of the book is going to have a self-selection effect on its readership. The sort of people who buy this book won’t want to be talked down to.

A few months ago it was mentioned to me that these OUP ‘Very Short Introduction’ books tend to be dry summaries rather than narrative-driven. That’s pretty much the case here. Essentially the author presents a long list of facts, rather than posing a series of rhetorical questions (of the sort the reader might have) and then answering them, or showing how they were tackled in a historical context. I think I might have liked that better, but I can’t mark the book down on that account because it’s obvious that it is simply sticking to the house style for the series. Even so, it’s an enjoyably easy read, and a long way from being a stodgy textbook – I mean, what textbook would tell you the Galaxy contains ‘zillions of dark-matter particles’?

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Review by Andrew May

Saturday, 7 January 2017

The Secret World of the Brain - Catherine Loveday ****

I tend to be a little wary of highly illustrated books like this, as often they can be a matter of style over substance, but The Secret World of the Brain has plenty of text content to accompany the detailed colour pictures, and Catherine Loveday packs in plenty of valuable and up-to-date information on the human brain, with a few 'users manual' elements (e.g. how to get to sleep) but mostly simply exploring and explaining what we know and don't know about the brain (and to some extent the nervous system too).

There are wide ranging sections, from very broad description to brain functions and memory through to very specific chapters on, for instance, the brain and music, why we cry at films and laugh at jokes and altered states of consciousness. If I have any criticism it's that some of these sections (for example the altered states one) felt a bit 'so what?', while I was disappointed that there wasn't a section on creativity, innovation and ideas, my personal specific interest in the brain - the closest we got was 'music in the brain', but this was all about the impact of music, rather than composing.

I particularly enjoyed the little 'myth buster' boxes, taking on the likes of the 10% used brain, people's belief that memories are accurate representations and the suggestion that women are less aggressive than men. (There's a whole section, in fact, on 'are female brains different from male brains?')

With the exception of the gap on creativity, I felt that Loveday got the balance just right - the book is detailed enough to give sufficient depth to get a working appreciation of what's going on with this immensely complex organ, but the text never feels as if it's overloaded with jargon. It's approachable without ever being condescending.

The full price is on the expensive side for what it is, but at the time of writing it has a good discount. If you want a good, modern primer on the human brain, we've now got an excellent recommendation.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life - Helen Czerski *****

As 2017 has just started it might seem presumptuous to claim that Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life will be one of the best books of the year, but I will be very surprised if it doesn’t end up high on a number of such lists over the next twelve months. 

Helen Czerski should be familiar to frequent watchers of science programmes on the BBC as she has hosted a few and has been a panel member on others. She is a lecturer in physics at University College London, specialising in the field of bubbles. 

The book aims to show the incredible amount of science that surrounds us on a daily basis and how that seemingly mundane science is an expression of far grander things on a terrestrial and cosmic level that follow the same basic principles. What I found excellent about this book was the adeptness with which Czerski moves from the physics of the everyday to a description of how a fundamental force works. An example of this is the section of the book discussing waves where she uses a toaster as a starting point for discussing the transformation of heat into light and how colour is a function of temperature. 

The book is chock full of interesting scientific explanations for everyday occurrences and ways to use science to overcome some of life’s little difficulties, such as why ketchup often gets stuck in bottles and how to get it to flow in controllable way. She also includes lots of easy and fun small experiments that one can do at home to demonstrate physical properties and why they work the way they do. An example of this is her tip of an easy way to tell a boiled egg from a raw egg. 

What makes the book stand out is that it is just as fun to read for a person who has read a lot of science literature or has a scientific background as it is for someone with limited experience of popular science. The book is full of interesting facts and examples that easily pull the reader further into well-written explanations of fundamental physics. 

It is very hard to say anything negative about Storm in a Teacup other than that the description of why a wave always lines up straight when coming into shore is a bit confusing, and possibly wrong, as I tried to diagram her description numerous times and constantly came to the opposite of her description - but I’m being very nitpicky here. 

I certainly hope that she plans to write more books about physics and science in general because she has a real knack for explaining the complex in very accessible and interesting ways, and she is an excellent writer. A great book with which to start off the new year.

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Review by Ian Bald

The Geek Guide to Life - Colin Stuart and Mun Keat Looi ***

There's no reason at all why good popular science should be heavy and loaded with leading edge theory. I've a lot of time for fun and/or practical science facts type books, which The Geek Guide to Life promises to be - the subtitle tells us its about 'science's solutions to life's little problems' with examples such as 'how to boil the perfect egg' and 'how to rock at rock, paper, scissors.'

The text by Colin Stuart and Mun Keat Looi does a solid job of covering a whole range of questions in two or four page spreads. Sometimes the titles of the articles overreach themselves - for example, there is one headed 'How to cure an hangover' which half way through, in response to 'But, I hear you cry, how do I get rid of my hangover?' remarks 'Sadly, science doesn't have a clear answer to that question.' Inevitably, that headline feels a bit overblown at this point. 

I was less enthusiastic about the illustrations - for no obvious reason other than the word 'geek' in the title of the book, the illustrator decided to provide us with highly pixellated illustrations as if they were being rendered in a 1980s video game. This probably seemed a good idea at the time... but makes for pretty poor graphics. Sometimes also there seemed to be limited coordination between the text and graphics. So, for instance, in a section labelled 'What's the best way to commute to work' the graphic is a bar chart showing relatively happiness of various commute times compared with a 1 to 15 minute travel time. There are several interesting features. People seem happier with a 31-45 minute commute that 16-30 minutes - and by far the best are working from home (not surprising) and a 3 hour or more commute (more surprising). None of this is referenced in the text, which just said the contradictory 'the longer someone's commute, the lower their level of life satisfaction.' Similarly in the 'How to Kick Ass at Monopoly' article, the text refers to the UK square names, while the illustration of the board shows the US names.

Having said that, I found the section on games (how to do better at the likes of Monopoly and Rock, Paper, Scissors) was probably the most fun part of the book. One of the problems of the more serious parts is that the short article approach is not always capable of providing effective guidance. So, if we look at 'how to save money at the supermarket' it's all about avoiding impulse buys and not buying stuff you don't need right now. The trouble is, if this is your sole tactic and you buy a product regularly with a long shelf life that is sometimes a lot cheaper than at other times, you will spend far more than if you buy extra when it is on sale.

Overall, there's no doubt the book is fun, but it does feel more than a little shallow. To be honest, I would rather Stuart and Looi had been allowed to write twice as much text and we lost the graphics. Nevertheless there were some genuine take home points here - and I expect to win at Monopoly next time I play, or I will be asking for my money back.

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Review by Brian Clegg