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Showing posts from September, 2005

What Do You Care What Other People Think? – Richard Feynman ****

Richard Feynman had an unexpected success with his superb collection of tales (some bearing a good resemblance to reality) told to Ralph Layton, Surely You Are Joking, Mr Feynman? This book is technically a sequel to that bestseller, but anyone expecting more of the same might feel a touch of the disappointment Lord of the Rings fans had when Tolkein’s next book, The Silmarillion came out. In both cases, the sequel had none of the order of the original, and was something of a collection of bits and bobs that didn’t fit elsewhere. But there the similarity goes away – for most readers The Silmarillion was deadly dull, where What Do You Care is anything but. It’s just that compared with Surely You Are Joking, it is more of a grouping of disparate short pieces of writing, plus half a book. Even so, all come through strongly in Feynman’s unmistakable accents (if you’ve never heard him speak, imagine Tony Curtis reading the words aloud). The first section contains a few interesting short me…

The Age of Scurvy – Stephen R. Bown ****

We all know that scurvy was an unpleasant affliction, that particularly hit sailors in the 16th to 18th centuries, but it’s hard to be prepared for the sheer horror of this blight of the seas as presented graphically in Stephen Bown’s often gripping history of the disease and its cure. Not only does Bown gives a vivid picture of the horrible nature of the disease itself, from rotting gums to the joints in old broken bones re-opening, but perhaps the biggest shock is the inhuman approach the authorities of the time took to seamen. We hear of Admiral Anson’s voyage in the 1740s where the crew of over 2,000 men on a flotilla of six ships was reduced to more like 200 on their return, largely by the impact of scurvy. In itself this was horrible, but at the time Anson set sail there were a shortage of able seamen – the solution? Just drag the elderly invalids from the Chelsea Hospital (for retired injured servicemen) and throw them on board. The practice at the time was to carry up to half …

E=mc2: A biography of the world’s most famous equation – David Bodanis *****

David Bodanis is a storyteller, and he fulfils this role with flair in E=mc2. The premise of the book is simple – Einstein himself has been biographed (biographised?) to death, but no one has picked out this most famous of equations, dusted it down and told us what it means, where it comes from and what it has delivered. Allegedly, Bodanis was inspired to write the book after hearing see an interview with actress Cameron Diaz in which she commented that she’d really like to know what that famous collection of letters was all about. Although the book had been around for a while already when this review was written (September 2005), it seemed a very apt moment to cover it, as the equation is, as I write, exactly 100 years old. So when better to have a biography? Bodanis starts off by telling us about the individual elements of the equation. What the different letters mean, where the equal sign comes from and so on. This is entertaining, though he seems to tire of the approach on the fin…

Taking the Red Pill – Glenn Yeffeth (Ed.) ****

It’s an odd one, this. The book is a collection of essays inspired by the 1999 movie, The Matrix. It’s not going to be for everyone, but it can be appreciated by a much wider audience than just movie or science fiction fans. That’s because The Matrix itself is cleverer than the average SF action film, and is an ideal starting point for popular discussions of science and philosophy. Having said that, it’s pretty important to have seen the movie first before reading the book (see links for DVDs below). As is usually the case with a collection of essays, it’s a mixed bag, so the impressive four star rating includes some 5 star gems, some 3 star so-so pieces and at least one dud. Even so, overall it’s a good mix. There are fascinating explorations of the different themes and inspirations that the writers very cleverly wove together in the The Matrix. Perhaps most interesting are the science/science fiction themes, particularly around artificial intelligence (don’t be put off if you don’t …

The Fellowship – John Gribbin ***

Not The Fellowship of the Ring, but of the Royal Society. This is a strange book. It starts with a section that reinforces John Gribbin’s assertion that there was no science before the time of Galileo or thereabouts (ignoring both the likes of Archimedes and medieval adherents of experimental verification like Roger Bacon and his superb Arab counterparts). We hear a condensed version of Galileo’s story, and rather more on William Gilbert (whose forays into science, and particularly magnetism, were quite remarkable for the time, on Francis Bacon with his much-trumpeted if totally impractical ideas of a scientific method, and on William Harvey with his early medical insights. This is quite interesting stuff, but there’s a feeling of “where’s it going?”, because this all predates the Royal Society, and though it is intended to lay the groundwork of where the RS came from, the content seems strangely detached. Then comes an astonishingly tedious section around the founding of the society …

Climate Change Begins at Home – Dave Reay ****

There surely are fewer and fewer ordinary people who dismiss climate change, leaving the head-in-the-sand attitude largely to big business (and politicians under the business thumb), where short-termism is an inevitable consequence of focus on the share price. This wonderfully readable book by Dave Reay brings home just how real the problems of climate change are. But, as he points out, there’s no point waiting for governments to do something – we can, and should, take individual action to cut emissions. Much of the book then looks at the different ways we use energy, and gives simple suggestions on approaches to do something about it. It would be easy for this turn into a knit-your-own-sandals-from-spare-beard-hair tract, but Reay manages to steer away from this as much as possible (even making jokes about people who wear sandals with socks). His language is down to earth, and easy to understand (at the start of the book he thanks his editor for steering him away from academic speak,…