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Feature - Can you discover the periodic table?

I follow the excellent historian and philosopher of chemistry Eric Scerri on Facebook and a recent post of his intrigued me.

In it, Eric uses the verb 'discovered' for what Mendeleev did with periodic table. When I queried this, he suggested that the use of the term depended on whether or not you are a realist. But I'm not sure if that's true.

Let's take a simpler example, then come back to the periodic table. Specifically, we'll use the star Betelgeuse, the distinctly red one of the four main stars of Orion.

If I'm a realist*, then I think there is something real out there that I am labelling Betelgeuse. In good Kantian fashion, I can't know the reality - the 'Ding and sich' - but I can report on the sensory data from Betelgeuse and believe that I am talking about something that really exists. As it exists independent of humanity, we can discover it. However, Betelgeuse is also a class M star on the endearingly random looking stellar classificatio…
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The New York Times Book of Science - David Corcoran (Ed.) ***

If I'm honest, I didn't have high hopes for a collection of newspaper articles on science, as, sadly, even the best newspapers tend not to do science very well. And these doubts were born out with the more modern articles here, which were often over-verbose (presumably in an attempt to win the Pulitzer Prize) and not very good at explaining the science. But I had reckoned without the sheer delight of the pre-1950 pieces.

There was no attempt at clever-clever writing back then - it was good, blocky, solid, gum-chewing journalistic writing, with just that little edge of 'gee-whizz, wow!' from a time when science was perhaps more amazing to the general public than it is now.

I won't go through a whole list of favourites, but just point out three to show the kind of thing I mean. The very first entry in the book (by no means the oldest, but they're ordered by topic first before date) is the magnificently titled 'Tut-Ankh-Amen's Inner Tomb Is Opened, Revealing…

Logan's Run (SF) - William Nolan and George Clayton Johnson ****

If you've only ever seen the rather pallid and denatured 1976 movie, the original 1967 novel of Logan's Run will come as a sensory overload. Sometimes when I re-read a book of this vintage it's a let-down, but Logan's Run has really held up well (with a couple of small exceptions). It's pleasantly short - not a wasted page - and drags the reader from glittering set piece to set piece with a relentless power that makes it obvious that this could be made into a much better movie these days.

Having said that, even 21st century Hollywood would struggle with the sexuality and brutal shortness of the lives of the characters who are required to submit to euthanasia on their 21st birthday (the film opted for the less controversial 30) - however the sheer fact that all the 'adults' here are aged between 14 and 21 adds to the visceral nature of the plot - especially in a sequence where the main characters are attacked by the sub-14 'cub scouts.'

It's hard t…

Strange Chemistry - Steven Farmer ***

There is a dire shortage of popular chemistry books, so it's always a pleasure to find a title that is undoubtedly chemistry, yet is also likely to be of interest to the general reader.

Steven Farmer's subtitle for this book is 'the stories your chemistry teacher wouldn't tell you,' making it intriguingly suggestive of the interesting bits of chemistry that for one reason or another are considered to risky (or morally dubious) to feature in the chemistry classroom. It's a neat idea - and in many cases, it works very well as a way in.

There's a lot here on drugs, whether they are over the counter medication, prescription drugs or the illegal stuff. This certainly fits into the category of 'unlikely to be taught at school' with a few exceptions like aspirin (of which more in a moment), though after a while it did get to feel a bit samey, especially when having already had a couple of long sections on them we then get chemistry in popular culture, and we…

Ten Great Ideas About Chance - Persi Diaconis and Brian Skyrms ***

There are few topics that fascinate me as much as chance and probability. It's partly the wonder that mathematics can be applied to something so intangible and also because so often the outcomes of probability are counter-intuitive and we can enjoy the 'Huh?' impact of something that works yet feels so far from common sense.

I think I ought to start by saying what this is isn't. It's definitely not an introductory book - the authors assume that the reader 'has taken a first undergraduate course in probability or statistics'. And though there's an appendix that claims to be a probability tutorial for those who haven't got this background, it's not particularly reader-friendly - in theory I knew everything in the appendix, but I still found parts of it near-impossible to read.

As for the main text, if you pass that first criterion, my suspicion is that, like me, you will find parts utterly fascinating and other parts pretty much incomprehensible. Th…

Thinking Big - Clive Gamble, John Gowlett and Robin Dunbar ****

When I was young, my main exposure to popular science was through my Dad's collection of Pelican paperbacks, where academics expounded on the likes of animals without backbones or some archeological wonder such as Howard Carter's discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb or Schliemann's adventures uncovering Troy. On the whole I preferred the archaeology titles, as they tended to have more of a story - but when I read Thinking Big, I was plunged back into that world.

The topic helps - we've got a combination of archaeology, palaeontology and psychology here - but there's also something about the feel of the book. The authors are generally rather serious about what they're doing, there's that same small, finicky print and the reader does have to work reasonably hard to get much out of it.

Part of the difficulty is that the thread of the book is quite meandering and the underlying science sometimes feels distinctly vague. At the core is the 'social brain hypothes…

The Dialogues - Clifford Johnson ***

The authors of science books are always trying to find new ways to get the message across to their audiences. In Dialogues, Clifford Johnson combines a very modern technique - the graphic novel or comic strip - with an approach that goes back to Ancient Greece - using a dialogue to add life to what might seem a dry message.

We have seen the comic strip approach trying to put across quite detailed science before in Mysteries of the Quantum Universe. As with that book, Dialogues manages to cover a fair amount of actual physics, but I still feel that the medium just wastes vast acres of page to say very little at all. This is brought home here because quite a lot of the sections of Dialogues start with several pages with no text on at all, just setting up the scenario.

As for using a discussion between two people to put a message across, Johnson makes the point that, for instance, Galileo's very readable masterpiece Two New Sciences is in the form of a dialogue (more accurately a discu…