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Showing posts from 2004

The Fabric of the Cosmos – Brian Greene *****

Subtitled “space, time and the texture of reality”, this could be seen as yet another book trying to do all of science – but it’s more finely tuned than that – and a much better read than most of the “tell you everything” books. In fact, what Brian Greene tries to do, and largely succeeds in, is explaining the two great underlying theories of science, both developed in the twentieth century – relativity and quantum theory – then extending beyond them to the nature of time and the composition and origins of the universe. The first section of the book concentrates on relativity (mostly special, but quickly filling in general) and quantum theory. From there we pick up a description of what time is, whether “time’s arrow” is a realistic context, and how time slots into the quantum arena. The third section is more cosmologically oriented, spending a fair amount of space on the big bang and quantum fluctuations. Then we get onto the current preferred theories of matter – string theory a

Leaps in the Dark – John Waller ****

This is a very good book, which impressed me very much. I have to get this rather bland positive statement in up front, as otherwise I’d start with what sounds like a negative remark, and this isn’t a negative review. John Waller relishes shattering our illusions. He’s the sort of person who tells you that Robin Hood, if he ever existed at all, was an unpleasant murderer with B.O. Or that Richard III was really a good, well-meaning king, and all the stuff about hump backs and princes in the Tower was fictional propaganda put about by the Lancastrians to justify their coup. The reason this sort of bubble bursting is painful is that we like our stories. We exist on stories – and the best popular science has a good story at its heart. But, and here’s where we fall into line with Waller, bearing in mind we are talking about science, we shouldn’t let our enthusiasm for a good story get in the way of the truth. Yes, let’s enjoy our history of science, and make it about real people, but no

Brainwashing – Kathleen Taylor ****

Here we see a prime example of that rarest of species – a book that is both academic and readable. It makes no concessions on content, yet Kathleen Taylor writes well enough to keep the attention of the interested lay person. The topic is a controversial one. “Does brainwashing even exist?” is a legitimate question – but you’ll have to read the book to find the answer. This isn’t a “true crimes”, “revel in real human horror stories” type book, but the first section does contain a few rather unsettling case studies as it reveals examples that could be labelled brainwashing. Taylor is catholic in her coverage, though – as well as explicit attempts to brainwash by totalitarian military regimes you will find religious cults, advertising and even the apparently innocent activity of education. The book is in three sections. The first examines the different activities that could be and/or are described as brainwashing, the second examines the brain itself, its surprising fluidity and t

In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat – John Gribbin *****

This has to be one of John Gribbin’s best pure science (as opposed to science/biography) books, and has stood the test of time surprisingly well since being written in 1984. Although some of the implications and developments of quantum theory, notably quantum entanglement, have moved on a lot in more recent years, the basics of quantum theory, which this book covers, still apply, as does the historical context which Gribbin does well here. The cat in question is the one used by German physicist Erwin Schrödinger as an illustration of just how strange (and unlikely) the whole idea of quantum theory was. Because of the way quantum particles that can be in two states simultaneously until they are observed and randomly become one or the other, Schrödinger envisaged a cat in a box that would live or die dependent on a random quantum event. The suggestion was that, until the box was opened, the cat would be both dead and alive at the same time. It’s probably the best known image from th

The Dancing Wu Li Masters – Gary Zukav **

Whoa, man, this whole physics trip is like, far out! Okay, that’s a bit over-simplified, but there is a certain amount of dated charm in Gary Zukav’s 1979 book on what was then “the new physics”. To be fair, it isn’t as it might appear to be an attempt to combine physics and Eastern philosophy. It is a book on physics, but presented in a way that is supposed to be amenable to the navel-gazing generation. One requirement here is absolutely no maths, and Zukav makes this premise from the start. This isn’t Hawking’s restriction on not having equations, but rather trying to describe things in English rather than mathematics. This is all very well, but it’s a pretty frightening challenge when dealing with quantum theory, were certain aspects have very little meaning outside the maths. In fact, given its age, Zukav does pretty well at explaining the basics, but for anyone with an aversion to New Age bunkum the style will occasionally irritate – as, for example, when he uses some blatan

The Third Man of the Double Helix – Maurice Wilkins ****

This is a stunningly powerful insight into the workings of real science, and particularly of the discovery of the structure of DNA – the only reason it doesn’t have our ultimate five star accolade is that Wilkins is at best a pedestrian writer, and would have benefited hugely from a co-author. If you ignore the preface, the worst written part of the book, and skip quickly through Wilkins early life, which has little in the way of useful insights and has all the stilted lack of humanity of a 1950s newsreel (for example “Their gramophone filled their home with humorous songs, such as George Formby, with his banjo, singing (with amusing innuendo) When I’m Cleaning Windows.”), you have a chance to see the very gradual, mistake-ridden, back-biting ride that is the reality of scientific discovery. Inevitably most fascinating is the relationship between Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin, the less lionised half of the DNA quartet. Mention the discovery of the structure of DNA and two names im

Big Bang – Simon Singh *****

The cover of this big book is rather disconcerting. It looks like a pack of washing powder. And like all the best washing powder, it is splashed with a remarkable claim: “The most important scientific discovery of all time and why you need to know about it.” All I can say about that is don’t be put off by it! It’s very hard to see anything in cosmology could ever be “the most important discovery”, as to be honest it’s not going to do an awful lot to change anyone’s life. It may well be the most fundamental discovery – and it’s certainly one of the most fascinating, but surely not most important. And for that matter, do we really need to know about it? Well, no. But that’s not the point of popular science. It’s about the delight of discovery, the wonder of a very wonderful universe – in terms of need-to-know it’s in the “doesn’t amount to a hill of beans” class. HOWEVER this is all the packaging, and I stress that you shouldn’t let it put you off the contents, because this is one o

Magic Universe – Nigel Calder ****

On the whole we haven’t much time for big, fat, everything you ever wanted to know about science in alphabetical order books. A dictionary or encyclopaedia of science may be useful, but it’s hard to see it as popular science. Nigel Calder’s book is quite different. Admittedly, it does still have a structure that’s based on the alphabetic order of the articles, but that apart each is readable in its own right, providing an engaging and enthusiastic introduction to that particular topic. You might have to be an übergeek to sit in bed and read an encyclopaedia article each night, but it would be very easy to use these as effective bedtime stories for adults, or something to take in on the train to work (provided your wrists can cope with the hefty 756 pages – seriously this is a heavy book, even in the paperback version). Wherever you look there’s something that little bit different. The entry on the The Big Bang, for instance, begins with a comment from the late science fiction writ

Genius: the life and science of Richard Feynman – James Gleick ****

Richard Feynman was both one of the greatest scientists of the twentieth century (what the heck, one of the greatest scientists ever!) and was also a complex and not always likeable character. This fat biography isn’t Gleick’s best book, but it does make a better job of integrating the story of Feyman’s life and scientific work than t he competing volume by John and Mary Gribbin which tends to alternate chunks of history and chunks of science. Gleick makes you work harder to understand what’s going on, but on the whole it’s worth the work. He’s less successful when he gets all philosophical – for instance the rather tedious section where he tries to analyse genius. (He will also get up the nose of plenty of readers by dismissing, for instance, Mozart’s genius. I’m not that fond of Mozart’s music myself, but can’t fail to recognise the genius of someone who could go to the Sistine Chapel and hear Allegri’s amazing Miserere (the chapel choir’s secret weapon at the time) once, then

Aspirin: The Remarkable Story of a Wonder Drug – Diarmuid Jeffreys ****

Sometimes the subject of a popular science book is obvious – a topic like the human genome or the big bang leaps out as something we will want to know about. But every now and then a book comes along on a topic that really isn’t something you’ve ever thought about, yet the treatment makes it fascinating. That’s the case with this book – which in one way is a shame, because it may not rush off the shelf. Who wants to read a book about aspirin, you might think. Answer: you do, it’s great! Like all the best popular science, this isn’t so much a book about aspirin as a book about the people that made aspirin possible, the circumstances that led to aspirin and a whole lot of associated stuff that’s just fascinating. Along the way you will meet an Oxfordshire parson chewing tree bark (life can be quite boring in Oxfordshire) and a gifted New Zealander who brought modern advertising zest to selling aspirin, first in Australia, then around the world. Some of the most fascinating aspects o

Electric Universe – David Bodanis ****

We need to admit straight up that the four star rating is a bit of a fudge. This is both a three star book and a five star book! If we had a category for teen readers it would make five stars. As an adult book, it would only get three. Outcome – the fudged four. The book is about electricity in various different forms and manifestations, with all kinds of ventures off into interesting snippets and side alleys. Why’s it a great teen book? Because it communicates great enthusiasm for the subject. It really does make an exciting, page turning read. It never dives into any technical complication, it brings in fascinating characters and the presentation is high energy all the way. In fact it’s a natural successor to the best of the Horrid Science books and the like that we recommend in our children’s section for up to thirteen/fourteen-year-olds. Why the hesitation for adults? There have been too many compromises made in order to give it that oomph. It’s more like the taster provid

The Blind Watchmaker – Richard Dawkins ****

This is a superb answer to the old statement by Paley that (to paraphrase) he isn’t surprised when he finds a stone on the beach, but if he finds a watch on the beach then he reasonably deduces the existence of a watchmaker, because simple natural processes aren’t going to knock naturally available components into a functioning watch. That being the case, the argument goes, our own existence proves that there is a creator. As Dawkins shows, this simply isn’t true. The assumption can only be made in ignorance of the sheer timescale available to evolutionary forces, and that small changes that do occur naturally can, over many generations, result in the development of something complex, provided those changes are advantageous. Dawkins also superbly demolishes the “a partial eye is no use” argument that says we would never end up with eyes because all the intermediate steps don’t have value. It’s simply not true. There are plenty of creatures out there with almost every intermediate

After the Ice: A global human history 20,000 to 5,000 BC – Steven Mithen ****

If the sole determining quality of a book was scope, this would come top of the charts – it attempts to take in the whole world between the end of the ice age and the neolithic. It’s a noble attempt and in many ways very successful. (That sounds like a sentence that is going to be followed by a “but” – and there is a “but” later on, but let’s concentrate on what’s in it and why it’s good first.) First, though, we do need to ask “why is this book here (on the Popular Science site) at all?” It is an archaeological history, and though archaeology is a scientific discipline, it is not normally classified as science – in fact the publisher’s classification on the back of the book describes it as history. Yet it has a lot to say about the origins of modern man, and as such we can probably classify it under our “human science” biological categorization – I can only assume that’s why it got listed for the Aventis Prize. If it hadn’t, it wouldn’t have appeared here, which would have been a s

Sync: the emerging science of spontaneous order – Steven Strogatz ****

Every now and then I read a book written by a real scientist that makes me think “Wow! I remember why I wanted to work in science when I was at university.” This is one of them. Like Stephen Hawking’s  A Brief History of Time  it is a fascinating insight into the mind of a working scientist and mathematician, and that makes it a treasure. In essence, the question Sync explores is “why (and how) do things synchronize?” Why do fireflies in some parts of the world flash in unison? How do the cells that control the rate of the heart work together? Why did the millennium bridge go all wobbly? What is a Josephson junction, and what does it show us about synchronization? What is happening when we talk about six degrees of separation or a [Kevin] Bacon number? One of the great things about the book is its diversity. At times you will be in the lab with the author, seeing how a fundamental new piece of research got started. At others you will be looking with him at something completely dif

Critical Mass: How one thing leads to another – Philip Ball ***

Even though this would be a hard book to pin down to a specific category, the “overview” categorization we’ve given it is no cop-out as it pulls together everything from sociology and political economy to physics, biology and maths. It’s fascinating to learn early on in the book that those who in the 20th century worried about the application of a mathematical technique like statistics to the human populace had got things entirely back-to-front. Statistics originated as a collection of information on people, a crude form of census and developed into a mathematical discipline, rather than the other way round. It’s a big book and it’s necessary to bear with Philip Ball through the rather (aptly?) ponderous chapter on Hobbes’ Leviathan up front, but once he gets into statistical physics he takes off. There’s a lot on economics, on political power, globalization and even the Internet. Again and again the book comes back to the way that mass human action has some resemblances to the