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Showing posts from October, 2004

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 the dif…

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 the qu…

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 blatant mistra…

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 immedi…

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 of th…

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 writer D…