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Showing posts from July, 2004

Mutants – Armand Leroi *****

A freak show. It’s not a nice term – not a nice concept, but something that has the terrible ability to fascinate at the same time as it horrifies. This is a subject where academic detachment is inconceivable. The whole concept of being entertained by the deformed is so disgusting (and so appealing to many) that it would seem a good popular science book on the subject of human mutation is practically impossible. Yet Armand Leroi has achieved it. It’s hard to believe that the accompanying TV series can manage this so well. However good Leroi’s intentions, TV can’t help but turn this topic into prurient viewing. And it doesn’t help that in the UK that the next programme in the broadcaster’s schedule is Big Brother – a show that is totally dependent on the voyeuristic enjoyment of the human condition and suffering of others. (A recent example of this was when the occupants of the Big Brother house had to sit on a roundabout that was spun until they vomited.) Arguably the TV version of Mu…

Introducing Time – Craig Callender & Ralph Edney *****

It is almost impossible to rate these relentlessly hip books – they are pure marmite*. The huge Introducing … series (about 80 books covering everything from Quantum Theory to Islam), previously known as … for Beginners, puts across the message in a style that owes as much to Terry Gilliam and pop art as it does to popular science. Many of the pages feature large graphics with speech bubbles that are supposed to emphasise a point. If you scan the shelves on popular science it is surprisingly difficult to find a book on time, which is strange when you consider what a fundamental part of the physical world time is. Yes, you’ll discover books on time-keeping, on clocks and the measurement of time. Equally you’ll find books covering subjective time. Our personal experience of time, as opposed to time as a physical entity. But there’s very little on ‘real’ time. It was a very pleasant surprise, then, to discover this entry in the ‘Introducing…’ series is a little cracker. Not only is it on…

The Earth: An Intimate History – Richard Fortey ****

It’s no surprise that this weighty geological exploration of the Earth carries an endorsement by Bill Bryson on the cover, because at times it seems more like a travel book than a work of popular science – and actually, that’s distinctly refreshing. Fortey takes us to places where the Earth exposes its workings – such as Hawaii – and to key locations in the discoveries of Earth sciences, such as the Alpine location where the surprise discovery was made of a young layer of rock sitting beneath an older one, proving that dramatic folding had taken place. It often feels very like a book version of one of those TV documentaries that flies you all over the world to fill in a story. But Fortey is at his best when walking around a location and drifting between using “you” and “I” in a pleasantly unscientific fashion. This is a much better approach than simply going into the mechanisms that make the Earth the way it is, and though occasionally (just as is the case with those TV documentaries)…

The Fly in the Cathedral – Brian Cathcart *****

The fly in question is the atomic nucleus, which Cathcart tells us was, in the early days of its discovery, compared in size with the whole atom as a fly compares to a cathedral. This is the story of the race to split the atomic nucleus, not with any application of producing power or bombs in mind, but simply because very little was known about the nucleus, theory needed a lot of help (until quite a way through the book, for example, the neutron was just a crazy idea of Rutherford’s that hardly anyone believed in), and by battering the nucleus into bits more could be found out about it. It’s terrific stuff. Centred on the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, the main players are John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton, two youngish researchers, with in the very near background the remarkable figure of Rutherford. As we follow the ups and downs of their progress in building bizarre equipment, there’s a terrific feeling of presence – it really is as if you have a view on what was happening. Many…

Eureka! The Birth of Science – Andrew Gregory *****

“Oh, no, not the ancient Greeks? Yawn, yawn, what a bore.” If this is your natural reaction to a book on the ancient Greek origins of science, hold on there. It’s easy enough to think of the Greeks as a bit of a bore because they tended to be long winded and philosophising (and they foisted geometry on us, for goodness sake) – but the fact is that their work, mostly wrong though it may be, is the foundation of all of science. What’s more, Andrew Gregory makes the whole business interesting, without resorting to any fancy literary tricks – it’s a straightforward historical tour of the Greek prehistory of science that is simply bursting with insight. If you’ve ever wondered why it was such a big deal that Galileo and others should suggest that the Earth wasn’t at the centre of things, here is part of the explanation. It’s not just a matter of selfish assumption, but the entire Aristotelian physics depended on it. Without the Earth at the centre of things, his equivalent of gravity simpl…

Nature via Nuture – Matt Ridley ****

For pretty well as long as people have pondered just what a human being is, the debate has raged over the relative contributions of biological content versus how we’re brought up. At its most trivial, as the advert puts it, “maybe she’s born with it; maybe it’s Maybelline.” Throughout history the pendulum has swung side to side on preference from nature to nurture and back again. In this exploration of a crucial human conundrum Ridley points out, for example, how the study of twins has over the years been trumpeted as a wonderful breakthrough in understanding while at other times attempts to discredit the approach have been so venomous that it would seem the researchers had made some vast politically incorrect faux pas. In covering the subject, Ridley manages to combine industrial strength research with a superb style that seems effortless, yet works superbly. The only reason the book doesn’t win the accolade of five stars is that, in the end, fascinating though the debate is, the con…

Constant Touch – John Agar *****

At first sight it might seem odd that this little book has been awarded our top, 5 star rating. A book about mobile phones? Not much science. Not all that exciting. But John Agar does all the right things. In a simply superb way he weaves together the technology, society, politics and business in a way that works wonderfully – and serves as a strong reminder that science never operates in a vacuum. In this case, of course, it’s a remarkable technology, not so much from it’s scientific wonder as the speed with which it has become pervasive. Agar argues persuasively that the mobile (cell) phone wasn’t just technologically impossible 50 years ago, but sociologically as well. He covers the phone’s introduction across the world, why the US lagged behind Europe in second generation phones and how mobile phones have even caused the overthrow of a dictator. Agar conjures up a parallel between the mobile phone and the pocket watch as a portable technology that changes our lives, though there a…

The Mould in Dr Florey’s Coat – Eric Lax ****

The intriguingly enigmatic title of this book on the development of penicillin conceals two fascinating facts. The first is Dr Florey himself. For pretty well everyone, the name associated with penicillin’s use as an antibiotic is Alexander Fleming. While Fleming does feature in this book, it’s Florey, a practically unknown name in the wider world, who is the star. Fleming was the first to notice the anti-bacterial action of penicillin, but it took the Australian Rhodes scholar and later professor of pathology at Oxford University, Howard Florey, along with co-workers, Norman Heatley (whose practical ideas made the isolation of the active material possible) and Ernst Chain, to turn it into a practical medical weapon. The other intriguing surprise is the coat. Apparently there was concern that Florey’s work, peaking as it did during the second world war, would be captured by invading Germans. Heatley had the idea of rubbing the penicillin mould into the four key workers lab coats, so a…

Einstein’s Refrigerator [A Matter of Degrees] – Gino Segre *****

Not to be confused with Steve Silverman’s book of the same name (at least, the same name as the UK version), this is an enjoyable meander through much of science using the linking theme of temperature, of heat and of cold. The only slight concern about this approach is that, while Segre is excellent on his linking theme, some of the little sidelines are too short to give a full picture. For example, when exploring the measurement of temperature he puts the development of the thermometer alongside the invention of the telescope and the microscope. This is handed to Lippershey and his contemporaries, but ignores the near certain earilier development of a hybrid reflector by the Elizabethan Digges family. Similarly, Fred Hoyle gets no mention as 20th century champion of life from space.
But this concern aside (and in the end these side-references are only the garnish, not the main dish), it’s a lovely book. Starting with body heat and its implications, humanities attempts to measure tempe…