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Q&A: Cosmic Conundrums and Everyday Mysteries of Science – Robert Matthews *****

This is a little cracker – not what you’d call heavy duty popular science, but a wonderful bit of light reading that throws in some genuinely fascinating facts. This is what you could call Last Word Lite. New Scientist magazine has for a number of years had a Last Word page at the back where individuals write in with questions and readers come up with sensible answers. (Though they’ve always resisted our half-humorous question, if black is defined by a lack of reflection of any colour, what colour is shiny black.) The trouble with Last Word is that the answers tend to be a touch tedious, not generally being written by professional writers, and can be over-technical. Robert Matthews does the same job, but his responses are pithy, light and enjoyable. The book is divided into a number of sections, but to be honest they don’t make much difference. Each is just packed with those sort of questions that we all ask ourselves, but lacking the straightforwardness of children, we don’t actually…

The Little Book of Scientific Principles, Theories & Things – Surendra Verma *****

This is an absolutely delightful little book. (I say “little” largely because that’s what the title says. It’s as wide as any normal paperback, and not overly slim at 222 pages. It’s just a little vertically challenged. The idea is simple, but effective. It contains 175 theories or key principles in science. Each gets one (or occasionally two) pages, stating what it is and giving some background. Put as bluntly as that, it doesn’t sound very exciting – but Surendra Verma makes each little section a vignette that brightly illuminates both the idea itself and the people who were responsible for it. We get little glimpses into people’s lives – it’s an entertaining scientific peepshow that works wonderfully well. At first sight, some of the entries are a bit scary. Unlike Stephen Hawking, Verma takes no notice of the infamous advice that every equation halves the numbers of readers. The introduction to each section, which says what the principle is before going on to put it in context an…

The Double Helix – James D. Watson *****

This is the daddy of them all. There have been attempts at popularising science for many a year, but James Watson’s very personal account of the discovery of the structure of DNA started the trend for popular science bestsellers, books on science that would be read by “ordinary people” not just science enthusiasts. In some quarters it is popular to denigrate Watson’s book – but this entirely misses the point. Yes it has sexist elements, yes it supports a particular version of history that puts a Watson and Crick’s efforts in a good light – but that’s hardly surprising given that it was written in the 1950s by one of the protagonists. But if you can see past the inevitable fact that the book doesn’t have a 21st century outlook, it’s wonderful. Firstly, it really doesn’t show its age, thanks to Watson’s excellent, personal narrative style, featuring none of the stiffness of most of the writing of the period. Secondly, Watson may give us a biased picture, but it gives a feel for the rea…

Why the Toast Always Lands Butter Side Down – Richard Robinson ****

Richard Robinson’s delightful book is an exploration of the science behind Murphy’s Law (the truism that can be roughly stated as “if something can go wrong, it will”) – not just the simple probability tricks that fool our brains with such consistency – if we were any good at probabilities, there wouldn’t be a casino business – but also the many ways our brains can fool us. Robinson begins by giving a little background to the brain itself, then moves onto our interactions with the world, and the misunderstandings that arise from them. We learn, for example, the way our eyes (and other senses) can so easily be fooled. Robinson misses one trick when talking about the way the moon appears so much bigger in the “real world” than it does on a photograph – the most amazing fact here is just how small the apparent size of the moon really is, about the same as the hole in a piece of punched paper, held at arms length (if you don’t believe it, try looking through such a hole at the moon) – but…

The Single Helix – Steve Jones ****

If you talk to fiction publishers, you’d get the impression that no one likes short stories. Short story collections, it seems, just don’t sell. Yet you would think with today’s hectic lifestyle, that they’d be ideal. You can slip one in on the tube/metro/subway. You can fit one into your lunch break. Or maybe read a couple at bedtime. And unlike working through a small section of a novel, you have the reward of completion and closure. I find the public’s reluctance to read short stories odd – I love them. Similarly, in non-fiction, and popular science in particular, there’s a certain wariness of collections of short pieces. When they’re written by different people, this wariness can be justified, but in a book like The Single Helix, where Steve Jones has collected short pieces he wrote for a newspaper, the effect is very pleasing. Each piece is short enough to fit into that frantic lifestyle. Although there’s inevitably a slight bias towards the biological side, Jones manages to cove…

The Rocketbelt Caper – Paul Brown ****

There’s something hypnotically attractive about the concept of a rocketbelt – a device to enable an individual to fly through the air. This aspect of flying without a plane seems to tie directly into our dreams. (UK readers may be familiar with comedian Paul Merton’s occasional rant about his desire for a jetpack, one of the many alternative names for this unusual technology.) In this book, Paul Brown brings the topic alive. It has to be one of the most readable science/technology focussed books of the year. Brown has an excellent journalistic style, and pulls the reader on relentlessly through the tales of technical inspiration and human weakness that litter the history of the rocketbelt. Starting with its science fiction origins, we learn how a practical rocketbelt was first constructed, how the most famous appearance of a belt – in the James Bond movie Thunderball – was real, even though most moviegoers assumed it was pure special effects, and the convoluted history of the rocketbe…

Our Inner Ape – Frans de Waal ****

Here we go again, I thought, yet another “where did humanity come from” book, a subject that was very heavily covered in 2005 when this book was published. Luckily, I was wrong. It’s true that Our Inner Ape, byleading primatologist Frans de Waal, does provide plenty of comparison between human beings and the apes, but the search for where we came from is not really the driving force. Instead, de Waal’s love for the apes comes through strongly in his warm, well written description of how different groups of chimpanzees and bonobos, our two closest relatives in the primates, behave, and what we can learn about our own behaviour from them. One of the useful things about this book is bringing out the differences between chimps and bonobos. Because it was only realized that bonobos were a separate species in the 1920s, there has been much less written on them than other great apes, yet it is so important, as de Waal emphasizes, to compare the aggressive approach of the chimps with a more c…

Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life – Nick Lane ****

I am all in favour of giving popular science books titles that grab the attention – so three cheers to Nick Lane for the title of this book, even though it does make it distinctly embarrassing to read on the train to work, risks a review like this being banned by parental controls, and even in the bowdlerised version we put into Amazon’s search (Power Suicide Lane) has an ominous ring to it. Never mind, though – because I defy anyone (who doesn’t know about mitochondria in detail already) to read this book and not come out amazed by the incredible subtly, complexity and downright unlikeliness of the mechanisms of biological construction. The subject at the heart of this fat book is a fascinating one: mitochondria, the energy source of the cells of animals and plants, a vital part of every one of us, yet far back in history, an invader from the outside – a once separate, symbiotic entity that has became an essential part of our cells’ functioning. Unless you are already steeped in the …

The Gecko’s Foot – Peter Forbes *****

The great thing about reviewing popular science is that there’s always something new coming along. Just when you begin to think that every book being published is about the origins of human beings or some aspect of human development, out pops a gem like The Gecko’s Foot. And it’s no ordinary gem, it’s a brilliant one. Peter Forbes proves an excellent expositor of the science behind some of nature’s most remarkable capabilities and the efforts to produce technology that doesn’t so much mimic those capabilities as use an understanding of the physical effects involved to inspire wonderful technological possibilities. Most of these technologies are still to be fully developed, though two are fully commercial – the familiar Velcro and its imitators, inspired by the stickiness of a burr, and more amazing self-cleaning materials like paint and glass that dirt simply roll off – given a kickstart by the ability of lotus leaves to repel water and mud. The gecko’s foot of the title is one of the…

A Briefer History of Time – Stephen Hawking (with Leonard Mlodinow) ****

When the original Brief History of Time came out in 1988 it caused a sensation. It was the book to have on your shelves (though there was a certain tendency to admit to not having read it). And it was, justifiably, a great popular science book – yes it got hard towards the end, but it was well worth the effort. The idea of Briefer History is to repeat the success of the original, but to do it in a more painless way. It’s a mixed success. In part it delivers. It’s a sprightly canter through modern cosmology and the associated science, and it does it largely with flair and in a highly approachable fashion. After telling us the goal of science is a unified theory of everything (rather a doubtful proposition, but we’ll overlook that), we take a rapid trip from Newton through relativity to the expanding universe, the big bang, black holes, wormholes and all the traditional menagerie of the modern cosmologist. Because the book comes 17 years after its predecessor there’s a whole lot of new …

Space Race – Deborah Cadbury *****

We have seen snippets of the story of the race to get people into space – and eventually to the moon – particularly about the way the US took in the Nazi scientist Wernher von Braun to kickstart its rocket programme – but this book provides a wonderful opportunity to see both sides of the story, and to uncover much more of the sometimes sordid details of what lay behind the race for space. The first section opens up von Braun’s work in the Second World War. One small surprise is the deceitfulness of US intelligence, taking the essential information provided politely by the British, but failing to share anything in return and even rushing to grab documents from the British sector before their “allies” arrived. But the shocking impact comes from the realities of the slave labour camps used to build and man the secret factories for the V2 rocket weapons and the disgusting conditions the liberating armies found there. Next comes the early days of the Russian side. Disadvantaged initially …

Signor Marconi’s Magic Box – Gavin Weightman *****

Wireless communication is much more romantic than pumping information down a cable. There’s still something exciting about being able to access the internet from a wireless connection – and an even stronger thrill was felt towards the end of the nineteenth century when the shackles of wired telegraphy were removed to allow messages to fly through the ether thanks to Marconi’s work on radio. All too rare in a popular science book, Gavin Weightman’s Signor Marconi’s Magic Box is a real page turner. It has all the right ingredients to become a Hollywood blockbuster. The young, dynamic Marconi, taking everyone by surprise both in his debonair looks and his command of English (though an Italian, Marconi had an Irish mother and did all his significant work in the UK and the USA). Then there’s the awesome impact of the new technology. The race to conquer huge technical barriers like getting a signal across the Atlantic. The fraudulent and dirty dealing companies that set up to make money out…

Monkeyluv – Robert M. Sapolsky ****

There’s something delightfully sardonic about Robert Sapolsky’s writing – you can imagine him penning some of the phrases in this enjoyable collection of articles with an eyebrow firmly raised. This is evident whether he is commenting on the film star Sandra Bullock (“One needs merely to examine her work – for the example the scene in which she first takes the wheel of the bus in Speed – to detect the undercurrents of this radicalism in her oeuvre”), or pointing out in a footnote that the habit of referring to animals making a choice to maximize the survival chance of their offspring (or whatever) isn’t referring to a conscious action, but is just a convention for describing unconscious tendencies, “agreed upon to keep everyone from falling asleep at conferences”. Like most collections of articles, there can be a degree of overlap. The first set of six, for example, could easily be summarized as “it’s not all in the genes; it’s not all down to environment; it depends on the outcome of…