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Showing posts from January, 2005

The Velocity of Honey – Jay Ingram ****

Science isn’t just about fundamentals like quantum theory or how DNA works – there’s plenty of science in the oddities of everyday life, and that’s what Jay Ingram sets out to put in front of us in this enjoyable book. How does honey flow, why does toast land butter side down, and why do trees put a lot of effort into turning leaves red, only to have them fall off soon after? These and many other questions are Ingram’s delightful areas of investigation. Some examples are rather better than others. Chapters about the way we “echo locate”, sensing the presence of objects in the dark by reflected sound like a poor cousin of a bat, and on what Ingram calls the “tourist illusion”, where a journey to a new place in a car always seems to take longer than the journey home, proved surprise hits. There’s also something particularly fascinating about the whole business of six degrees of separation – the idea that pretty well everyone on the planet is, on average, just a chain of six contacts awa…

Parallel Worlds – Michio Kaku ****

Some have argued that our tendency to think of a single universe demonstrates, like the medieval idea of the Earth being at the centre of the universe, an over-inflated sense of our own importance. Others suggest that, given we really know nothing, Occam’s Razor should keep the single universe theory central until any better evidence comes along. In this fat book, Michio Kaku explores the possibilities that, in universe terms, we are not alone – and ventures into some of the wildest cosmological speculation that billions of years from now, faced with the death of “our” universe, intelligent life may travel to another one. He starts very well with the WMAP satellite results of 2003, giving a remarkably accurate age for the universe, and with Alan Guth, the inventor of inflation theory, pointing out that if inflation is true, it’s very likely that the universe keeps blowing new bubbles, so different parts of the universe, well out of view, may be suddenly inflating into whole new univer…

Mathematics with Love – Mary Stopes-Roe *****

Admittedly it’s early days (this review is written in January), but this, for me, is the surprise hit of the year so far! I approached this book with trepidation, but found it absolutely delightful. It is described on the cover as the “courtship correspondence of Barnes Wallis, inventor of the bouncing bomb”, and contains a series of letters between Wallis and his cousin and eventual wife Molly Bloxham, along with some useful annotation by their daughter, Mary. The courtship itself is not without difficulties, as Wallis was 18 years older than the 17-year-old Molly at the start of the correspondence, and her father, not surprisingly, wasn’t too pleased about the interest of such an elderly suitor, but that isn’t the only reason the letters are interesting – it’s also because of maths, and Wallis’s position in the UK as the engineering hero of the Second World War. (Incidentally, it seemed very strange to see letters addressed to “Barnes” – I had always assumed Barnes Wallis was a bit …

Venomous Earth – Andrew A. Meharg ****

“How arsenic caused the world’s worst mass poisoning” reads the subtitle – and this book is quite a shock when it comes to the way that this natural element has a habit of turning up in the wrong place, making people ill and all too often killing them. To be honest, the first part of the book, on the aforementioned mass poisoning, isn’t the best bit, although there are some horrifying revelations, such as the way the “safe” level for chronic exposure to arsenic in Bangladesh is in fact the UK’s historical safe level for a short acute exposure. Despite the fact (or perhaps even because of the fact) that Andrew Meharg, Professor of Biogeochemistry at the University of Aberdeen, had a direct involvement in some of the testing of water from tube wells in coastal Bangladesh that had picked up horribly high levels of arsenic, his account of the disaster putting tens of thousands at risk doesn’t read like the first person input of someone who is active on the front line, but rather a measure…

The Elegant Universe – Brian Greene ****

The precursor to Brian Greene’s excellent The Fabric of the Cosmos, this is a good introduction to the current cosmological favourite, and attempt at linking general relativity and quantum theory, (super) string theory. Written it 1999, it has dated a little, but still gives a good laypersons view of string theory and its relationship to the two pillars of 20th century physics. It’s a shame, in a way, that there’s so much overlap between this and Greene’s more recent book – so much so that unless you want to go into string theory in considerably more detail, you might as well go for The Fabric of the Cosmos, which has a lot more detail on those fundamental essentials, relativity and quantum theory, and does the job a little better. However this shouldn’t undermine the fact that this is a very good book on the attempt to produce an overarching theory for the fundamentals of space, time and matter. Greene is always approachable (if occasionally irritatingly folksy) and makes a good eff…