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Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

Inferior - Angela Saini *****

There are times when a book comes along that is perfectly timed for the zeitgeist - and that's true of Angela Saini's Inferior. Most of the educational and scientific community would, I'm sure, protest their absolute lack of gender bias - but the fact remains that the scientific establishment is still predominantly run by men, even if in some disciplines there are more female students and postgrads than male. And some scientists tell us that there is evidence to underline why this is the natural order, due to brain differences between males and females.

Saini systematically pulls this assertion apart, showing how many of the apparent brain differences (and even physical modification of the brain) can be the result of cultural influences. It's not that there are absolutely no male/female differences in the brain, but they are small - in fact significantly smaller than the differences from individual to individual, a comparison that should mean that they are considered in…

Unsolved! - Craig Bauer ****

This chunky book proved to be an unexpected pleasure. Craig Bauer introduces the reader to a host of mostly unsolved ciphers, from historical greats to the latest computer-derived puzzles. Although he tells the complete story of each cipher he deals with before moving onto the next, the chapters are cleverly structured so he is able to introduce us to increasingly sophisticated mechanisms for hiding messages - and techniques for attempting to break them.

We start with the Voynich manuscript, a whole book, probably from the fifteenth or sixteenth century in cipher form - though as Bauer points out, some believe it's a meaningless hoax. After a dabble with ancient ciphers, we next discover that Elgar was a cipher fan. I'd heard about his playful concealment in the Enigma Variations, but wasn't aware of the Dorabella cipher, which remains unsolved to this day. (Bauer also takes us through Elgar's own workings to solve a public cipher challenge, which is fascinating.) Then …

Time Machine Tales - Paul Nahin ***

This book has the feel of two different books that have been shoehorned together - which isn't entirely surprising, as the author tells us that he has combined a simplified version of his earlier title Time Machines with material on time travel in philosophy and science fiction.

I expected to find the science fiction part more interesting, as I've read far too many books on the physics of time travel, but it was actually the other way round. By reducing the maths content of his earlier book, Paul Nahin has made the physics of time travel bits significantly more approachable (there are some pages full of equations, but they're nowhere near as scary as they may appear at a glance). It'd probably help to have physics and maths A-levels, but it certainly doesn't require an undergraduate training. There is plenty here that I have never seen presented in such an effective way for that kind technical-end popular audience, and it's worth buying the book for that alone.

B…

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…