Thursday, 30 March 2017

The Ascent of Gravity - Marcus Chown ****

Marcus Chown is one of the UK's best writers on physics and astronomy - it's excellent to see him back on what he does best. Here we discover our gradual approach to understanding the nature of gravity - the 'ascent' of the title - which, though perhaps slightly overblown in the words 'the force that explains everything' (quantum physics does quite a lot too, for example), certainly makes us aware of the importance of this weakest of fundamental forces. Chown's approach to gravity is a game of three halves, as they say, broadly covering Newton, Einstein and where we go from general relativity.

As far as the first two sections go, with the exception of the 2015 gravitational waves detection, there's not much that's actually new - if you want a popular science exploration of these aspects of the topic with more depth see this reviewer's Gravity - but no one has covered the topic with such a light touch and joie de vivre as Chown. 

Although Chown doesn't give us too much character detail on his two key figures, we get good mental sketches of them, enough to get a feel for what kind of personality produced the remarkable work that each was responsible for. There has been a lot written of late criticising science writers for putting too much focus on the 'heroic lone individual' in the history of science. And we certainly get a full power portrayal of this pair as solitary geniuses. But though you can quibble about how original calculus was or whether Einstein should have given more credit to others in his work on special relativity, it's hard to imagine two people in the history of science who more deserve this treatment - and it is far and above the best approach for the kind of storytelling that Chown excels at.

The third section has its highs and lows. It gives what I think is the best introduction to string theory at this basic descriptive level I've ever seen, going considerably beyond the basics of vibrating strings and rolled up dimensions. However, I was rather surprised at the total dismissal of string theory's main rival, loop quantum gravity, which literally only appears in an end note. In one sense this was refreshing. I had read so much pointing out the flaws in string theory and how it arguably wasn't even science because of its inability to make useful predictions that I had pretty much mentally dismissed it. It seemed very reasonable that the only thing that kept it alive was the large number of careers that had been dedicated to it. Chown, however, gives it a spirited defence which, while not necessarily clinching, certainly made it possible to understand why so many physicists found it attractive.

Overall, then, a very readable exploration of humanity's gradual realisation of what gravity was about with all of Chown's usual sparkle. It would have been good if we had seen a little more of the points where things aren't set in stone - for example the alternatives to dark matter or that elusive loop quantum gravity - but what we get is a delight.

Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Gravity's Kiss - Harry Collins *****

Though I was totally fascinated by this book, it isn't the one to read to find out everything you need to know about gravitational waves. Although Harry Collins does, in passing, mention aspects of the science and technology involved, his focus is to forensically examine the process by which a large group of scientists goes from a breakthrough discovery to releasing it the world.

Collins is a sociologist of science who has spent over 40 years working with the gravitational wave community, giving him the unique ability and insight to combine a reasonable understanding of their work and the opportunity to analyse what went on during the months from the initial observation of a possible signal to the press conference announcing the first direct discovery of gravitational waves. (Even those words 'first' and 'direct' get several pages of treatment as the community argues over whether or not they are justified.)

I have to be honest, this book won't work for everyone. Because I'm not a scientist but a science writer and interested in the process of scientific discovery and communication, it will appeal to me more than someone who's only interested in the science itself, but I found it wholly absorbing. Collins, practically the only outsider in the electronic network used by the gravitational wave consortium to discuss their work, takes us through the process almost in real time, as they react to and decide how to present their findings. One of the most absorbing aspects is Collins' real concern at the way the scientists lie to the wider community in order to protect their secret for the big reveal. While clearly the details need to be kept back, he argues convincingly that the outright misleading approach taken was unnecessary and unhelpful - leading even to the scientists holding back a second confirming observation which was already well-analysed when they made their announcement of the first discovery.

Because of his closeness to the whole process it's arguable Collins gives a bit too much detail sometimes - even I found some parts a little tedious - but that completeness is part of the power of his reporting. He also, considering his ability to spend so long on, say, those words 'first' and 'direct', rather surprisingly didn't comment on a scientist in this intensely picky process who made the hilarious statement that an astronomer 'literally exploded' during a talk. However, these are minor quibbles indeed.

If you want a real insight into what happens in one of these rare modern big science breakthroughs involving hundreds of scientists and a big budget, combined with impressive insights into the reasons why science and its communication are not as straightforward as many think they are, this is a wonderful book. Just don't buy it simply to learn about gravitational waves.

Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Atari Age - Michael Z. Newman ***

Subtitled 'the emergence of video games in America', Michael Newman's book aims to examine the impact of 'early video games' on culture and society. It does so to an extent, but despite covering a really interesting subject, it could have been better written. There’s a certain type of academic writing that takes pages to say something relatively simple. Here, Newman takes around 30 of them to tell us that pinball machines were considered dubious and working class, while video games were considered neater and middle class.

Strangely, it is the section on pinball machines as a precursor to the electronic gaming industry that provides the most interesting content, as we never got this 1970s resurgence in the UK. Apparently, in the US, the exposure of pinball in the Who’s Tommy, plus the introduction of more sophisticated electronic effects saw a brief pinball renaissance in the second half of the 70s, while in the UK, the games never got past that feeling of being something (wonderful if, like me, you loved them) from an earlier age.

Newman spends a lot of time on the transition in arcades to electronic machines, and then on the introduction of video games into the home, initially as extensions of the TV viewing experience, then as limited copies of the arcade games and finally blossoming as home computers - even if no one was quite sure how they would be used... other than to play games.

There are definitely some interesting observations here. About the way, for example, that initially video games were portrayed as being far better than the mind-numbing, non-interactive experience of watching TV (perhaps this says something about the quality of the TV pumped out by US networks the 1960s). We are repeatedly exposed to the idea that despite original sales pitches being family oriented, there was a shift to the young male perspective that would come to dominate the way that gaming was portrayed. This gives Newman the opportunity to single out Pacman as being something standout (probably more so than it actually was), noting that the game had far less gender bias in its users than most of its competitors.

To be fair to the author, he makes it clear that he is not trying to provide a history of video games themselves, but even so the approach taken combines piling in far too much evidence on small details for a popular account (never describing one ad campaign, when we can hear about five, for example) with a glacially slow construction of the arguments. The result is a rather frustrating take on a topic that should have been electrifying.

Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Soccermatics - David Sumpter ****

* UPDATED * To include paperback
I need to be honest up front - my first reaction on seeing this book was 'Let someone else review it.' I have zero interest in football, and don't understand why anyone cares about such a dull activity. But then it struck me that what better test could a book have than being tried out by someone without an interest in the theme, and I'm glad I stuck with it, because I really enjoyed it despite myself.

This is because David Sumpter may be using soccer as a hook for mathematical explorations, but the book is far more about the maths than the anything-but-beautiful game. So, for instance, the first chapter begins with the distribution of football results during a season, but quickly expands from that to explore the Poisson distribution and its much wider applications. If it weren't for the deeply irritating introduction, which is sickeningly enthusiastic about football, and a tendency to tell us far too much about players, pundits, teams and managers that mean nothing to me, I would have given the book five stars.

Even the football-oriented parts can be engaging to the non-fan. I don't care if Manchester City is better than Liverpool and I have no idea who Messi is, but when Sumpter abstracts from overpaid individuals and team loyalties, there is some distinctly interesting stuff about, for instance, patterns of flow on the pitch or the way a Mexican wave travels around a stadium. And there was certainly amusement to see that one of the football 'experts' Sumpter criticises predicted that Leicester would be relegated from the premier league in 2015/16, when, just before the book was published, they ended up as champions.

I also found Sumpter's last section really engaging. Here, he spends some time on an experiment to see if the effective use of data and mathematical models can make betting on football games more of a science than an art. Sumpter stresses that gambling is potentially dangerous and that the bookies make sure they come out on top overall - but he demonstrates that with the right mathematical approach you can possible beat the system by a few percentage points. There's almost a feel of the TV series Hustle about this attempt to take on the bookies and beat them at their own statistical game - and Sumpter puts his money where his mouth is, staking the advance for this book (at least, a part of his advance, or he was ripped off by his publisher).

Did reading Soccermatics turn me into a football fan? Absolutely not. I can see the point of enjoying a kick around, but I can't understand why anyone finds football or footballers interesting. However, Sumpter's book has persuaded me that there is a lot more to running a football team than herding musclebound athletes - that, in principle at least (it's not obvious how much teams actually apply these methods) mathematical models can improve team tactics and result in better performance - and that mathematical modelling can be just as interesting when applied to the football pitch as it is when used to analyse the movements of a flock of birds or a shoal of fish.

There may have been a few small sections I had to skip over,  when I felt that Sumpter was getting too carried away with his obvious love of the game, but mostly, as the subtitle hints, I enjoyed my mathematical adventures in the 'beautiful' game.


Author interview
Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Beyond Infinity - Eugenia Cheng ****

Popular maths writers have it much harder than authors of popular science books. Pretty well everyone loves science at junior school, even if they're put off it in their teens, so for science writers, it's just a matter of recapturing that childhood delight in exploring how the world works. But, to be honest, maths is a relatively rare enthusiasm at any age, so the author of a popular maths book has to really work at his or her task - and this is something Eugenia Cheng certainly does, bubbling with enthusiasm and trying hard not to put us off as readers as she explores infinity.

In Cheng's earlier book, Cakes, Custard and Category Theory, food played too heavy a role for me - here that tendency reigned in, though it still rears its head occasionally. We get a quite detailed exploration of infinity, infinitesimals and some additional material such as infinite dimensions and infinite-dimensional categories (we had to get some category theory), plus the usual enjoyment of quantum weirdness. I felt sometimes, because the book doesn't build on a historical basis, we were thrown in at the deep end a little too early with assertions like infinity+1=infinity and infinity x infinity = infinity. The process where Cheng shows us how infinity can't be a real number, or an integer, or a rational fraction etc. also felt a little repetitive and drawn out. There's always a difficulty in letting go a little when you work in a field that requires total precision. But we never lose Cheng's enthusiasm and light touch.

I think this book will particularly appeal to a reader who already has an interest in maths, but not much training, because it is purely focussed on the mathematics itself. For the more general reader, I suspect a book like A Brief History of Infinity, which gives historical context, brings and people and social implications to frame the maths, would work better as an introduction. With the appetite whetted, though, they should be encouraged to go onto Beyond Infinity, which as a wider mathematical context.

I really enjoyed this book, and though the author's desire to include food did still slightly intrude - and I felt it was just a bit too much about her, rather than the maths - it's a great addition to the relatively sparse popular maths shelf.

Paperback (US is hardback):  
Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 26 February 2017

A Brief History of Mathematical Thought - Luke Heaton ***

I had great hopes at the start of this book that we'd get a meaty but approachable history of the development of mathematics. When describing the origins of number, arithmetic and mathematical processes the opening section is pitched well, but things go downhill when we get to detailed mathematical exposition.

The problem may be that Luke Heaton is a plant scientist, which may have prepared him better for using maths than for explaining it. If we take, for instance, his explanation of the demonstration that the square root of two is irrational, I was lost after about two lines. As soon as Heaton gets into mathematical detail, his fluency and readability are lost.

There's a central chunk of the book where the mathematical content seems too heavy for the way the contextual text is written. We then get back onto more effective ground when dealing with logic and Turing's work, before diving back into rather more impenetrable territory.

One slight concern is that, in talking about Turing, Heaton presents the largely discredited idea that Turing committed suicide by eating a poisoned apple, laying the blame for this on his arrest and 'treatment' for homosexuality, a narrative that doesn't stand up (it's a shame the author didn't have a chance to read The Turing Guide). I suspect this is a one-off and much of the mathematical history is fine.

I didn't realise until I'd finished it that it has an interesting publishing history. It was initially part of the same Robinson published series as my A Brief History of Infinity, but this is a US hardback edition, just brought out by OUP. This was, then, a curate's egg book for me. I really enjoyed it when it was dealing with history and philosophy of maths, but found the technical explanations, even of mathematics I understand perfectly well, hard to follow.

Paperback (UK)/Hardback(US):  
Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 24 February 2017

The War on Science - Shawn Otto ****

If, like me, you are a consumer of popular science books, it can be bewildering when reading newspapers and following social media that there is so much antipathy, confusion and hostility towards science and scientists. Where does it all come from, is it a problem and what can we do about it? Those are the questions that Shawn Otto attempts to answer in The War on Science. While the book primarily covers science policy and politics, it contains a wealth of information on scientific topics (creationism vs evolution, the anti-vaccine movement and climate change) that feature heavily in the political debate today. 

Although the book is very US-centric, the topics and debates are of worldwide concern and, one could argue, the degradation of science in the public debate has progressed the farthest and is at its most extreme in the United States. Otto does an excellent job of describing the backstories on a number of scientific issues behind the shift in the US from a country based on the principles of the enlightenment and its veneration of reason and science to the situation today where science is often considered ‘just another opinion’. Chapters focusing on the research, corporations and political movements behind the denial of climate change on the US are particularly fascinating and extremely informative. The alignment of a wide array of different interests to sow doubt on climate science and even intimidate climate scientists could be the subject of a book of its own. Throughout The War on Science, Otto argues why this change in the role of science in society is an enormous problem, and how the scientific community and scientists have contributed to their own problems. 

Otto also makes an excellent case that ‘science is inherently political, but it is not partisan’. He describes a number of steps that the scientific community should take to move science back into the political debate so that public policy can be determined on the basis of fact to as large an extent as possible. Here, Otto uses a number of international examples, such as the New Zealand idea of a governmental science advisory office that conducts scientific reviews of policy proposals and that includes peer reviews of the advisory’s recommendations. While many of Otto’s recommendations make excellent sense, they seem more suitable for parliamentary based governments than they do for the United States with its division of powers and federalist structure. 

I found The War on Science to be an excellent and informative book and highly recommend it. Otto has a very good journalistic style to his writing and is obviously well versed in science. The book is also an important one, particularly in today’s political climate, where both the US and Europe are facing looming issues that require science to provide facts in order to inform possible options and solutions. 

Review by Ian Bald