Skip to main content

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 fact there really isn’t much more to say.
Even so, it starts well, and it seemed as if Gribbin was going to give us an enjoyable ride through chaos and the real world, but once he gets into mathematical explanations he gets bogged down and frankly doesn’t do himself justice in putting across what is going on to the general audience – in places it’s downright boring.
There are a few insights here, especially on the overlap between chaos, complexity and the formation of life – as many others have pointed out, DNA is much more a recipe than a blueprint, and the wonder of complexity is the way a very simple set of repeated instructions can result in a complex formation. And there’s some interesting bits towards the end about using complexity effects to detect life on remote planets. But the combination of rather poor exposition of the mathematical aspects of the theory and the feeling that there’s not a lot that’s new makes it difficult to get too enthusiastic.
There’s still something very frustrating about a theory that says “this is why things are like this” but then won’t let you predict anything based on the theory. And frustration is what readers may well end up with. Stick with the classics.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …

The Best of R. A. Lafferty (SF) – R. A. Lafferty ****

Throughout my high school years (1973–76) I carefully kept a list of all the science fiction I read. I’ve just dug it out, and it contains no fewer than 1,291 entries – almost all short stories I found in various SF magazines and multi-author anthologies. Right on the first page, the sixth item is ‘Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne’ by R. A. Lafferty, and his name appears another 32 times before the end of the list. This isn’t a peculiarity of my own tastes. Short stories were much more popular in those days than they are today, and any serious SF fan would have encountered Lafferty – a prolific writer of short fiction – in the same places I did.

But times change, and this Gollancz Masterworks volume has a quote from the Guardian on the back describing Lafferty as ‘the most important science fiction writer you’ve never heard of’. Hopefully this newly assembled collection will go some way to remedying that situation. It contains 22 short stories, mostly dating from the 1960s and 70s, each w…

David Beerling - Four Way Interview

David Beerling is the Sorby Professor of Natural Sciences, and Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation at the University of Sheffield. His book The Emerald Planet (OUP, 2007) formed the basis of a major 3-part BBC TV series ‘How to Grow a Planet’. His latest title is Making Eden.

Why science?

I come from a non-academic background. None of my family, past or present, went to university, which may explain the following. In the final year of my degree in biological sciences at the University of Wales, Cardiff (around 1986), we all participated in a field course in mid-Wales, and I experienced an epiphany. I was undertaking a small research project on the population dynamics of bullheads (Cotus gobio), a common small freshwater fish, with a charismatic distinguished professor, and Fellow of the Royal Society in London. Under his guidance, I discovered the process of learning how nature works through the application of the scientific method. It was the most exciting t…