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Showing posts from April, 2005

The Future is Wild – Douglas Dixon & John Adams ****

Subtitled “a natural history of the future”, this book (and presumably the accompanying 12 part TV series that the book accompanies) is a fascinating reverse of all those books looking backwards in time at evolution. Here the authors have beautifully speculated on how things will go in the future. The book is split into three broad sections. One, set 5 million years in the future finds a largely unchanged world in the grip of an ice age. Here the animals may be unfamiliar, but they are clearly derived from current forms. In the other two sections, looking 100 and 200 million years ahead, much bigger changes have occurred. Continental drift has resulted in a reshaping of the earth’s surface. Creatures are developing significantly, with some creatures leaving the sea (imagine a land-based giant squid), birds taking to the water, and descendents of fish flying. Highest in yuck factor is probably some of the insect life, while most striking are the envisaged developments from jellyfish, h…

Happiness – Daniel Nettle ****

At first glance this could be one of those infuriatingly smug books of uplifting sayings. It’s small (just 18cm by 13, smaller than a normal paperback [This refers to the original hardback edition - Ed.]), bright yellow and has a fun balloon on the front. But resist the urge to yell “lead me to the sick bag” – this is not what it seems (though one has to wonder slightly why the highly respected academic publisher OUP has packaged it like this – hoping for some accidental crossover sales, perhaps?). The subtitle “the science behind your smile” is the first clue that this is, in fact, a serious scientific study of the nature of happiness. As the author admits, this is quite a difficult concept to pin down, which has led many scientific studies to ignore it – but that’s a mistake. Happiness in its different forms plays a major part in our life, one way or another. Daniel Nettle identifies three kinds of happiness – the immediate, short-lived buzz of joy, the feeling of well being and sat…

Perfect Copy – Nicholas Agar ****

To clone or not to clone, that is the question. Or at least, that’s the question addressed in Nicholas Agar’s clear and well written book. He starts from the science of cloning. Pretty well all of us have opinions about the whole business without having a clue about what’s actually involved. The science isn’t as straightforward as you might think (so perhaps its no surprise it’s so difficult). For example, it’s not widely understood that the famous cloned sheep Dolly is actually less of a clone than a perfectly normal identical twin. The identical twins share the same DNA (apart from any mutations), but Dolly’s cloned material was her nuclear DNA – the DNA that normally comes half from each parent. The other, less frequently mentioned DNA, mitochondrial DNA came not from the sheep she was cloned from but from the donor of the egg. This DNA, which has proved valuable in the past for tracing the maternal line as it normally comes only from the mother, may not have much to do with the de…

Deep Simplicity – John Gribbin ***

There’s something infuriating about chaos theory. It’s a tease. It provokes you to excitement with all its promise of explaining all those complex (yet somehow simple)phenomena like weather and the stock exchange… then it fails to deliver because you can’t really do anything with it. There are already two great popular science books on chaos. James Gleick’s book Chaos not only brought chaos theory to the popular audience in a powerfully gripping way, it almost defined the genre of crossover popular science books – books in a scientific topic that appealed outside the narrow group of science enthusiasts. The follow-up book, The Collapse of Chaos by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart goes beyond chaos theory to take in complexity, simplicity and the impact on the real world. So what’s left? John Gribbin, I think, was lured by the siren song of chaos. It just seems so natural that there ought to be more “chaos and X” books – in this case, chaos, simplicity and life – that it’s easy to ignore the…

A Devil’s Chaplain – Richard Dawkins *****

The great thing about A Devil’s Chaplain – that makes it arguably Richard Dawkins’ best book – is that it’s a collection of essays. His full length books, clever though they indubitably are, have a tendency to fall off in quality in some chapters and can be a little repetitious. Here, every piece is a neatly crafted gem. It isn’t necessary always to agree with Dawkins to admire this book. In places, as usual, he is rude, intolerant and unpleasant (though in an entertaining way – for UK readers, he’s the Jeremy Paxman of science). In others he carefully weaves his argument to produce a result that arguably isn’t justified. For example, in the essay Science, Genetics and Ethics he comments “you may be being inconsistent if you think that abortion is murder but killing chimpanzees is not.” He argues this because we are on an evolutionary continuum with the chimpanzee, just as the non-sentient foetus is on a continuum with the sentient adult. But this entirely misses the point. The time-b…

Fred Hoyle: A Life in Science – Simon Mitton ****

There can be few more ideal subjects for a biography than the late astronomer Fred Hoyle. He was a larger than life character who devised a whole swathe of theories – some right, some wrong – across the span of theoretical astronomy. It’s somehow not surprising that Hoyle was from Yorkshire (the UK’s equivalent of Texas or Bavaria), but with ancestry from the neighbouring, perhaps a little more thoughtful county of Lancashire, producing a fiery but deep thinker. In this book we see the familiar Hoyle to those who remember him – the passionate supporter of unlikely causes from the steady state universe (okay, it wasn’t unlikely when he first came up with it) to life from the stars, the superb presenter of science for the masses, the science fiction author and more. But there’s also the less well-known Hoyle – for instance in his radar work during the Second World War or coming up, almost as a throw-away, with ideas the possibility of there being massive black holes at the centre of gal…