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Showing posts from May, 2005

The Elements of Murder – John Emsley ****

This darkly framed book is subtitled “a history of poison”, which on its own is a bit misleading, as it’s actually a history of elements that have been used as poisons, omitting many poisons that aren’t based on pure elements and some highly poisonous elements (such as plutonium) that haven’t been used as such (unless you count the TV show, Heart of Darkness). In niggle mode, I was slightly surprised to be told that molten antimony has the unique property of expanding as it solidifies – the same is, of course, true of molten ice. However, that shouldn’t distract from the fact that this is a very readable and intriguing plunge into the history of our relationship with these darkly dangerous chemicals. John Emsley is at his best when he is plunging with gusto into a historical tale of poisoning and intrigue – for example the romantic if gruesome story of the lengthy (and eventually successful) attempts to poison Sir Thomas Overbury in the early 1600s, not for some Machiavellian politica…

The Long Summer – Brian Fagan *****

Subtitled “how climate changed civilization”, The Long Summer is a fascinating trip into the past and the impact of the most recent periods of ice and global warming on the development of human civilization. Unlike Stephen Mithen’s huge After the Ice, Brian Fagan does not make the mistake of producing a book so long that it feels as if you have lived through an ice age. Fagan’s book is short enough to be readable, and though it covers a similar period in time, does so without going into so much mind-numbing detail that the reader loses the will to go on. Although there’s plenty of scientific and historical fact in here, Fagan keeps us interested with an excellent narrative approach, whether he’s describing the experience of being tossed on a small boat in the Bay of Biscay, or of seeing the remarkable wall paintings of the Niaux caves in southern France. Like Jared Diamond’s How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, Fagan explores the fragility of civilization, but the context here is …

Fred Hoyle’s Universe – Jane Gregory ****

Fred Hoyle, the theoretical astronomer who came to fame in the 1950s with both his theory of the production of the elements in stars (since widely adopted) and his collaboration in the steady state theory of the universe (since abandoned for the “big bang” that Hoyle himself named) is a natural for a science biography. It’s not amazing that there have been two in the past few months – it’s rather more amazing that it has taken so long. In photographs, Hoyle looks solidly old fashioned, but his Yorkshire temperament, dramatic imagination and unparalleled ability to communicate scientific ideas to non-scientists broke the stuffy mould of 1950s science. Like Simon Mitton’s competing Fred Hoyle: A Life in Science, this is a book that could have been a little better. Jane Gregory, like Mitton, is an academic, and Hoyle’s story needs a good journalist to make the most of it. Having said that, Gregory does a slightly better job. There’s more feeling for the personal tensions between the play…

The Tipping Point – Malcolm Gladwell ****

This little book is highly entertaining. There’s frankly not a lot in it, and certainly nothing original. The concepts Gladwell puts across were being taught on my Operational Research masters in the 1970s. But what he is so good at (and did again in his second book Blink) is taking a very simple but powerful concept and transforming it into a great little book by providing very clear, engaging stories that put the idea into context. It’s the stories that are fresh and powerful. In this book the idea is the mechanism for the spread of a concept, a fad, a virally marketed product is like an epidemic. The mathematical mechanisms are well understood, but because they aren’t ones that come naturally to us they take us by surprise time and time again. Gladwell shows how different types of interconnects between people spread ideas, and finding a relatively small number of people with the right connections can make a huge difference. Covering everything from six degrees of connection to Sesa…

Blink – Malcolm Gladwell ****

Malcolm Gladwell hit the big time with his previous book The Tipping Point. Now he’s done it again (though perhaps not to the same extent) with Blink. The premise of the book is very simple. We often make decisions very quickly – in a second or two. In some cases these decisions are good. In others they’re bad. And sometimes experts, after years of study, can become good at the ones the rest of us are bad at. Probably they do this by unconsciously selecting a small but significant part of the data we are presented with in any situation. That’s it. That’s the whole book, as far as significant content goes. So how come it scores so highly? Because Gladwell does it so well. What makes the book are the stories, illustrating the different points. There’s no great wisdom here, nothing really new, but Gladwell’s presentation is so good that it’s an enjoyable book to read that feels as if it’s giving you something even when it does much. The stories that are used to illustrate the points are …

Don’t You Have Time to Think? [Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track] – Richard Feynman ****

Richard Feynman is a unique figure in the history of science. One of the few physicists most are comfortable putting on a par with Einstein, he combined a superb intellect with a human touch. His lectures dismissed the stuffiness of academic tradition. Even the way he spoke was different. (This book contains a letter complaining that he had the temerity to say “you guys” on a TV broadcast.) If you haven’t heard a recording of Feynman lecturing, imagine how it would sound if Tony Curtis had been a physicist. Feynman has written some superb science books, but also was a great storyteller, with the best of his tales, edited by his friend Ralph Leyton recorded in the remarkable Surely you are joking, Mr Fenyman. This book, a collection of Feynman’s letters edited by his daughter Michelle, makes a superb addition to the collected Feynman writings. If you decide to read it, don’t be put off by the first section, which is by far the worst. Many of Feynman’s early letters were during the dev…

The Friar and the Cipher – Lawrence & Nancy Goldstone **

The subtitle Roger Bacon and the Unsolved Mystery of the Most Unusual Manuscript in the World should be a bit of a giveaway here. There isn’t going to be a satisfying conclusion to this book because it’s about an unsolved mystery. In fact, the text is largely concerned with two subjects – the 13th century proto-scientist Roger Bacon, and the Voynich manuscript, a strange enciphered text that has been ascribed to Bacon on flimsy evidence, though most scholars now believe it to be several hundred years too modern for Bacon. The manuscript has never been deciphered – many “translations” have been hopelessly based on anagrams that could mean anything – and it may well never be, or even be capable of meaningful translation.

So the manuscript itself – by appearance a mixture of a bizarre herbal that contains some plants that may be of New World origin with strange astrological images – isn’t exactly news. Neither, frankly, are the chapters that the Goldstones dedicate to Bacon and the man of…

Science of Discworld III: Darwin’s Watch – Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen ****

When the whole “Science of…” or “Physics of…” business started off it all seemed pretty logical. Titles like Physics of Star Trek were eminently sensible. Star Trek may be fiction, but there’s a whole lot of science in there. Discworld, though, is a different kettle of kippers. This is fantasy – in fact such pure fantasy that the Discworld’s physical laws aren’t the same as ours. It would see at first sight that this is a huge disadvantage – but the trio of Discworld originator Pratchett, and technical duo Stewart and Cohen turn the whole thing on its head and make it a great plus – so much so that this is the third volume in the series, and doesn’t suffer despite this. The way the Science of Discworld books work is quite different from other members of the genre. The narrative alternates between fiction chapters, in which the magicians of Discworld merrily interfere with the workings of a toy universe they keep in little ball (it so happens to be our universe), and non-fiction chapte…