Thursday, 23 November 2006

The God Particle – Leon M. Lederman & Dick Teresi ****

 I have something of an embarrassing confession to make. When I titled my book on quantum entanglement The God Effect, not only had I not read Leon Lederman and Dick Teresi’s book, I had never even heard of it. I had, however, seen the hypothetical particle the Higgs boson referred to as ‘the god particle’ in the press, and it was this term that inspired my title.

The hook that The God Particle hangs on is this yet-to-be-confirmed particle that may be responsible for the mass of the other, more familiar particles, and it does give some information about it at the end, but this book is much, much more. Actually almost too much more. It is densely packed with information – you come out of the end feeling like you’ve been on an undergraduate course without the equations, though to be fair, it’s a very good undergraduate course, one of those where you think you are really lucky because the lecturer is witty and fun to listen to, even when you don’t quite follow what he’s talking about.

What The God Particle will give you is a superb introduction to the way the particles that make up matter were gradually broken down and understood, and how the “standard model” came into being. I have never seen another description that gives such great insights – helped, no doubt because Lederman was in there getting his hands dirty, and has the Nobel prize to prove it.
I felt I had to keep reading this book, even though it is really rather over-long. Lederman and Teresi’s description of all the different accelerators in the middle of the book becomes a little tedious after a while, but there is always enough in there to keep you interested, and there’s no doubt that you get a feel for big science from the coal face.
The book is now quite old – written in 1993 – but the historical aspects of its content are unchanged by this, as is much of the particle physics. It is, perhaps unfortunate that in his national pride, Lederman makes a big thing of the the Superconducting Super Collider at Waxahachie in Texas, even showing a timeline from Democritus’s Miletus (where the atom was first postulated) running all the way through via Burger King (there’s always humour here) to Waxahachie. It’s unfortunate because after the book was written and after Lederman’s hilarious efforts to get a video explaining the need for the accelerator dumbed down enough for Ronald Regan to understand it, the project was cancelled, leaving CERN in Europe to take over the lead (though at the time of writing, still not being there on the Higgs boson). There is also an excruciatingly bad bit of prediction of how things will be different in the laboratory of 2020, not exactly that far ahead any more – but these can be forgiven. The God Particle is an essential for anyone who wants to understand modern particle physics and where it has come from.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 19 October 2006

The Cosmic Verses – James Muirden ****

To be honest, the thought of a science book entirely in rhyme filled me with dread – it seemed like a cross breed between William McGonagall and John Gribbin, a terrifying thought. In practice the reality is much better. The Cosmic Verses is a charming read in which James Muirden manages to pack a surprisingly broad view of the history of our ideas on the universe into verse form. The style is a loose rhyming structure, though occasionally he has a little section in a different form, such as limerick. There are also short side notes where a point needs a little more explanation – where these are more than a couple of words, they too rhyme.
The book is largely chronological, only having major hiccups by ignoring the timing of the Judeo-Christian inputs to ideas on creation and slotting them in to later interpretations, and in a decidedly unbalanced portrayal of religious impact on science that conveniently forgets, for example, who was responsible for the final destruction of the library at Alexandria. Muirden is also a little harsh on medieval science, which had more ideas about (for instance) the shape and size of the universe than he represents, although he does brings out some partially forgotten names like Grosseteste.
Wisely, Muirden makes strong use of personalities along the way. There are the expected figures like Copernicus and Kepler, but it’s good to see him bringing in other, perhaps less known, individuals like Annie Jump Cannon and Henrietta Swan Leavitt, whose undoubted contribution to scaling the universe is sometimes forgotten. Amazingly, and it’s a real mark of just how good Muirden is, some of the text explains the science better than any other book I’ve come across. For instance, Muirden’s explanation of Ole Romer’s method for calculating the speed of light is the best I’ve seen.
If I have a moan it’s the gratuitous use of Stephen Hawking who only seems to be in there for the sake of mentioning him – and if you really want to be picky, Muirden is over-dismissive of Fred Hoyle and the steady state theory: “He called his scheme the Steady State… support for it was never great.” This is something of a misrepresentation: there was real uncertainty between big bang and steady state for years, and for a period of time the evidence seemed if anything to favour the latter.
This is a lovely little book – it doesn’t take too long to read, the verse is charming, and the content is surprisingly thorough. As a portrait of the universe, I have suffered many worse…
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Review by Jo Reed

Coincidences, Chaos and all that Math Jazz – Edward B. Burger & Michael Starbird ****

It’s not often someone manages to write a book on the topic of maths and makes it light, easy going and fun – yet Edward Burger and Michael Starbird have done just that.
In a relatively slim volume, the authors manage to cover a whole host of topics, without ever becoming terrifying. It’s not just the probability and chaos theory suggested by the title – though of course they make an appearance – but much more. Often, without resorting to formulae, there are simple, clear examples – for example, when dealing with chaos there is a demonstration of how easily number sequences can deviate that uses Excel as the generator of the chaotic sequence.
Again, series are illustrated using a wonderful physical example involving stacking playing cards that seems absolutely impossible if seen through the eyes of common sense – as often is the case with good popular maths, common sense, which is hopeless at maths, takes a battering. There’s a good section on topology too, a subject that is rarely well explained in popular books which tend to make confusing statements like telling the reader that a doughnut is the same topologically as a tea cup without explaining why, or spotting that this is only true of some doughnuts and some cups. Burger & Starbird manage to get the message across while maintaining the precision required for maths.
I do have one hesitation about this book. Because it has such a breezy manner, and speeds through topics so lightly, it can sometimes oversimplify. Sometimes surprising mathematical results are just stated plonkingly, without explaining why it’s the case. Elsewhere, the high speed delivery results in information that is only partially true. Take the example of airline safety. After pointing out how easy it is to misuse statistics, this is arguably what the authors proceed to do. They compare deaths per passenger mile by plane and deaths per passenger mile by car. But this overlooks the fact that more fatal crashes take place in the take off/climb and descent/landing parts of the journey than do in the cruise segment – distance isn’t the issue with airline crashes, it’s number of take-offs and landings.
If, instead, you make a comparison of the chance of being killed on a single journey in a plane with the chance of being killed on a single journey in a car (and most people want to know “will I survive this journey?”), then the car is actually safer. Taken over a year, of course, there are many more car journeys, so the plane becomes safer – but the difference between the two modes of transport is much less significant than basing the comparison on deaths per mile. The authors also take a rather parochial view, arguing that if people didn’t fly they would drive. This may be true in the US, but in most of the world, the long distance alternative is likely to be don’t go at all, or go by train. Try driving from London to New York. This, then, was an unfortunate example to use, because it hides a huge can of worms.
Such problems, though, are few and far between. This a great across-the-board intro to the fun of maths. Having read it, I would then recommend the reader to find a good popular book to get more depth on any topics of interest (for instance, my own A Brief History of Infinity inevitably goes into a lot more than is possible in this book’s short dabble with infinity) – but do start here.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 18 October 2006

The Egypt Code – Robert Bauval *****

When this book dropped onto the doormat, my first inclination was to dump it in the bin labelled “new age garbage.” But I am very glad I didn’t. Robert Bauval came to fame over 10 years ago with the theory that the great pyramids represent the three stars of Orion’s belt, and that shafts in the pyramids align with historical star positions – that the function of these incredible structures was very much as part of a star and sun oriented religion rather than simply as fancy tombs. Now he takes his ideas much further.
One quick consideration – should this book even be on a popular science website? In a word, yes. Although archaeology studies historical subjects, it is itself a science – doubly so here, where both archaeology and astronomy come into play.
I have to confess to a weakness for books of this kind. I have had on my shelves since my late teens two books of absolute rubbish which are nonetheless delightful because they have the same sort of appeal. They are The Old Straight Track by Alfred Watkins, the man who came up with the idea of ley lines, and The Pattern of the Past by Guy Underwood, an exploration of a thesis that ancient monuments in the UK are oriented to underground springs and other sources detectable by dowsing. I don’t accept for a minute either of the premises. Although Watkins thought of ley lines as old pathways, not giving them the mystical surroundings of the modern new age approach, his ideas mostly reflect the inevitable coincidences that will build up when you consider so many points on a map. It would be much stranger if there weren’t alignments of places on a map. And Underwood’s book is based purely on subjective responses, rather than science. Yet both are very appealing.
The reason they are enjoyable is that both books come up with a hidden theory of the past, something that links us with our ancestors, but is testable in the modern day. The Egypt Code has that same attraction. Here is an exploration of an ancient pattern that has been sitting under our noses, but we haven’t seen, with the big advantage over my old books that Bauval has based his theory on proper science and practical observation, not coincidence or something as lacking in rigour as dowsing. It’s exactly the same attraction that something like The Da Vinci Code has (does the similarity of the title surprise anyone?) – ancient secrets uncovered as a sort of large scale puzzle – all the more exciting because this is for real, not Dan Brown’s overblown fictional world.
In The Egypt Code, Bauval takes his original theory and makes it part of an epic concept – that a whole sweeping set of construction is a reflection of the sky on Earth, and that the locations of the various major religious sites reflect the positioning of various celestial events at certain times in history. Although this is reminiscent of Gerald Hawkins’ largely discredit attempt to suggest that Stonehenge was a complex astronomical calculator, not just having the accepted handful of sun and moon alignments, it actually makes a lot more sense than the Stonehenge theory, given the Ancient Egyptian obsession with the sun and the stars. Bauval’s arguments are very convincing.
It was fascinating reading this book shortly after Nancy Abrams and Joel R. Primack’s book The View from the Centre of the Universe with its stress on the importance of having a cosmology as a way to establish your place in the universe. The Ancient Egyptian world that Bauval describes shows just how much a cosmology contribute. The Egyptian cosmology seems strange now, but it served its function at the time as way of incorporating the best “scientific” view into everyday life, and as Bauval points out, this is an interesting lesson for us today.
Bauval may or may not be right, but it certainly would be wrong to dismiss his ideas out of hand. They are practical, scientific views and they explain a lot that is otherwise difficult to understand. Most of all, this book is imbued with the sense of wonder that is essential for good science, plus the intrigue of a good thriller. Everyone is familiar with the pin-ups of the egyptology world – the great pyramids and Sphinx, the temples of Karnak and Abu Simbel and Tutankhamen’s tomb, but The Egypt Code reveals a whole cluster of structures that are less well known, including the totally bizarre tilted observational “bunker” (my words) at Saqqara. It makes it clear that egyptology has been unwise to ignore astronomy as much as it has to date.
Bauval is an outsider – but the best ideas generally do come from outsiders. After all, experts are great at telling us what’s not possible. Outsiders can often make silly mistakes, but they can also stumble upon original ideas that wouldn’t occur to those who are blinkered by accepted wisdom. You may find Bauval’s sometimes rather self-congratulatory style a little irritating, but I would still highly recommend this book.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 6 October 2006

The View from the Centre of the Universe – Nancy Ellen Abrams & Joel R. Primack ****

Not another book on cosmology, you might be inclined to cry – don’t worry it’s not. That’s to say, it is about cosmology, but it’s certainly not just another book. You may or may not agree with Nancy Ellen Abrams and Joel R. Primack’s thesis, but there’s no doubt it’s a topic worth reading about and discussing.
We’ve got a problem, they tell us. For most of civilization, humanity has had creation myths that link to the human race’s best understanding of where the cosmos came from, and that fixes for us, as human beings, a place in that cosmos. The myth in this sense isn’t just a fairy story – it’s a folk understanding of a complex concept, supported by metaphor and imagery. But here’s the strange thing. We believe we are now the closest we’ve ever been to an understanding of how the universe really works – yet we have no mythos to match the scientific theory. Abrams and Primack believe that (just as it always was) it’s important we have a myth to cling on to, and we need one that is integrated with the best modern science.
One of the most effective parts of the book is the way it helps put things into scale, to help us as humans establish our place in the universe as something different from Douglas Adams’ idea of driving people mad by showing them what an insignificant speck they were. I particularly liked the scaling comparison that we are as much bigger than one of the cells in our body, as the Earth is bigger than us. (Though the warm glow was slightly cooled when reading in John Allen Paulos’s highly respected book Innumeracy that the ratio was actually the same as that of a human body to Rhode Island – not quite as impressive as the Earth.)
Overall we get the picture that we are, once more at the centre of the universe – only no longer on a static Earth, but rather at the centre of the universal range from the largest to the smallest. And Abrams and Primack show how our material connection to the Big Bang and ancient supernova as the source of the atoms that makes us up also gives us that cosmic anchoring.
One concern about this book is that it’s too gung ho about how wonderful scientists are, and that it describes something like dark matter/ dark energy as if it were fact, rather than current best accepted (and still seriously challenged) theory. The authors comment “There is a popular idea that scientists get stuck in a paradigm and persist in their favorite (even if wrong) theories until the die. This has convinced many people that once scientists begin to think about something in a certain way, they won’t change… Today getting stuck in a paradigm is actually more likely among non-scientists.” This seems hugely over-optimistic. Take, for instance, the whole superstring/M-theory business – there is increasing concern that this is a classic case of scientists being stuck with an incorrect paradigm, and books like Not Even Wrong eloquently explain why this is likely to happen – because once a scientist has invested the first 10 years of his/her working life into a theory, they can’t afford to start again from scratch.
Despite this real concern about the over-enthusiasm of the authors, though, this is without doubt a stonking idea. (That’s a good thing, for non-UK readers.) Reading about our lack of a position in the universe makes a lot of sense, and with the dark matter proviso, the authors’ suggestion for a new cosmological myth works well. This proved to be nearly our second ever unrateable book, because it is based on such a great idea, but isn’t very well written. It’s much too long, repetitive and rambling. But don’t let that put you off a superb central theme.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 2 October 2006

Being Me – Pete Moore *****

Doing something really different with a popular science book is both difficult and risky. Pete Moore has largely pulled this off in this unusual and personal exploration of what it means to be human.
The book is divided into sections, each addressing a different aspect of our human nature – embodied, conscious, genetic, historic, related, material, spiritual and so on. In each, Moore gives us a view of a different part of the complex mix that is a human being. If the content had just been Moore’s thoughts, the book would not have been particularly inspiring (not a criticism of the author’s ability to think, just the limitation of one person’s view), but what makes it so successful is that each of the sections is developed around one or more interviews with people who Moore sees as embodying the particular component (though, of course, like all of us, they have the other components as well).
Mostly this works remarkably effectively. Moore gives us a mix of scientific and philosophical theory, the interviews, and his personal view, including enough detail from his viewpoint of the interviews to make them more than a sterile set of quotes. The section that works least well, emphasizing the importance of the real people featured in the book, is the one on “the conscious being” which piles in too many pages of theory and isn’t so strongly based around the interviews.
This is a very personal book. The chances are you won’t agree with everything. But that’s not a bad thing with a topic like this. The section that most raised my eyebrows in this respect was the “social being” one, where a lot of focus is put on how modern society is lacking the social thread that is part of human nature, and that this isn’t good for us. Moore contrasts this with the African concept of ubuntu, which describes an intertwining of a human being with his fellow men and the environment, which Moore suggests leads to a much better support mechanism. This may be true, but makes a doubtful example. Moore does point out the paradox of the sometimes endemic violence in the same communities, but brushes this aside. I’m not sure this is wise. If part of the requirement for ubuntu is tribalism (which seems highly likely – it’s much easier to have strong social loyalty when it’s “us versus them”), then it comes at too high a price, as Rwanda and many other strife-torn nations can testify. This isn’t an ideal contrast to the isolation of the Western individual.
Inevitably – and Moore notes this – the book can’t be comprehensive. There are plenty of defining characteristics (Moore mentions language; I would think of creativity) that aren’t covered. That doesn’t really matter, though. The fact is that Moore has managed to paint a superb picture of the human being, using a scientific perspective, but admitting that science alone isn’t enough. If you thought you had seen it all when it comes to popular science, think again.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 26 September 2006

Just Another Day – Adam Hart-Davis ****

A couple of months ago I was writing an article about how to put science across for children, and commented that one of the ways to do so is to relate science to their everyday life. As if by magic, Adam Hart-Davis’s latest book Just Another Day, subtitled “the science and technology of our everyday lives,” does just that.
It’s a great concept. Hart-Davis takes us through his day, or rather an amalgam of all his days, and along the way uses each and every little detail, from his alarm clock and his homemade garden urinal to his bicycle and his interest in photography, to explore the many ways science and technology impacts life. Obviously not everyone has a life like Hart-Davis’s, but there is enough genuine everyday here to make a good impact.
As is often the case with Hart-Davis’s books, it is hard to tell if it is aimed at children or adults – arguably this is because he is appealing to that sense of wonder we all have (though it tends to be more deeply buried in the older reader). The book is largeish format and glossy, loaded with pictures and with text that is acceptable for an adult but won’t over-stretch the reading skills of an 11-year-old. As the only part of the Hart-Davis life that’s missing is what goes on in the bedroom, you might suspect it is for the younger audience. Going on the pricing, though, it is firmly aimed at adults.
The core freedom to jump around as inspiration hits the author is both the book’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. It is wonderfully engaging to be able to flit off in half a dozen different directions in a page or two, but then spend several pages on the history and technology of shaving, something few of us have thought about. The word serendipity springs to mind. At its best, the book positively bubbles with ideas and enthusiasm. On the down side, this can sometimes lead to a disjointed text which becomes a list of expanded factoids without much of a thread. It’s interesting that Hart-Davis says he wrote a lot of the book in bits on train. Although he tells us this to demonstrate the wonders of modern portable computing, it also might have influenced that occasional lack of flow.
Because this is very much Hart-Davis’s “just another day”, there is a lot of the man in the book. If you have never come across him, Hart-Davis is a UK TV presenter, specializing in an eccentric exploration of history of technology. Even if you didn’t know him before, you will after reading this book. You will find out how he likes a cup of tea, why his shoes are different colours, what he has for breakfast, how he feels when he gives a presentation and much more. As Hart-Davis fits strongly into the marmite category – you either love him or hate him – this means that the four star recommendation is for Hart-Davis fans. Others might find this man, whose calculated naivety, over the top jollity and unusual clothes sense makes him reminiscent of a geriatric Noddy too irritating to enjoy what is without doubt a clever idea. Only you can tell.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 18 September 2006

Francis Crick – Matt Ridley *****

A new Matt Ridley book is always a looked-forward to event, and in this latest title, he has taken on one of the big names of twentieth century science, who has had surprisingly little direct coverage to date: Francis Crick.
It’s interesting to see how Ridley copes, as his previous books have focussed on the science, where this is essentially about the man, though of course his discoveries in the structure of DNA, the way base coding works and much more play a huge part in the story. The first chapter is a little worrying – Crick’s family background and early years verge on the dull, but it’s important not to be put off by this. Once Crick gets to university the story takes off and the book is excellent from there on.
Perhaps surprisingly, the most interesting part of the story happens after what most of us would think of as the big discovery. We’re used to books about the structure of DNA making a big thing of the circumstances of the analysis of the double spiral, of the shaky relationship between Crick and Watson at Cambridge and Wilkins in London, and particularly of the difficulties between these three and Rosalind Franklin. But much of this reaction comes from 20:20 hindsight. At the time, the discovery of DNA’s structure caused little public reaction and life went on. It was Crick’s subsequent work, working on the way that DNA functions and how the DNA code is interpreted, by the biological machines in the cell, that Ridley makes more of, and justifiably, as it is much less well known and equally as absorbing.
Although Ridley doesn’t remark on it, Francis Crick comes across as something of an English equivalent of Richard Feynman, with that same talkativeness, that talent of grasping an idea quickly and that frightening ability to make the intuitive leap. He also shared Feynman’s distaste for some authority figures – in Crick’s case including the church and royalty – which was sometimes taken to extreme lengths, as when he withdrew his association with the (then) new Churchill College in Cambridge because they decided to build a chapel (even though no educational funds were used) and he felt that a chapel was a backward step in what he believed was an increasingly secular society.
What Ridley does bring out well is the way that Crick’s abundant creativity combined with a lack of inhibition made Crick someone whose constant stream of ideas and challenges to other people’s thinking could be quite a threat. Ridley describes how having Crick in the audience of a lecture could be terrifying – if very entertaining for onlookers. And like William Shockley (see Broken Genius), Crick risked his career with his tendency to outspoken remarks about genetics and his feeling that not everyone should be allowed to have children – though unlike Shockley, Crick’s dabbling with eugenics seems to have been largely ignored, relieving Crick of the vilification that Shockley received.
Perhaps because this is a biography, Ridley doesn’t bother to explain some of the science along the way. While this is justifiable in some of the better known aspects of DNA, when he uses a term like “tautomer” with very little explanation, the reader really could do with a little more exposition. Ridley gets away with it by keeping things so brisk that you shrug it off, but it would have been better to slow down a little and expand.
All in all, Crick is very well served by this biography, which brings to life a man whose name is well known, but whose life has been something of a mystery.
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Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 8 September 2006

How Slow Can You Waterski? – Simon Rogers (Ed.) ****

There has been a rash of these collections of pithy and often witty science articles in the last few years. They tend to emerge from newspapers, as a handy way of squeezing a little more money out of columns and this is no exception – taken from a column called “This week – the science behind the news” in the Guardian, probably the best of the UK’s national newspapers when it comes to science coverage. This cut and paste book production can produce very mixed results, but I’m pleased to say that this particular offering stands up very well.
When short pieces like this are readable and not too patronising (or painful in their weak humour) they can be real page turners. It’s very easy to think “I’ll just read another”, then “maybe one more” and before you know it, you are half way through the book. Oddly, the weakest sections were the earlier ones, concentrating on health and babies and such – perhaps these were deemed to be the ones most of interest to the non-science reader. But all are good and some are excellent. (I can’t help pointing out, though, the danger of making scientific predictions. In What Makes a Planet a Planet, we’re told “it’s probably too late” to stop calling Pluto a planet, even though it’s now hard to justify it being one. Sadly the book came out just a week or two after Pluto was demoted.)
One puzzle that might have occurred to you is why they picked out that particular topic as the title of the book. It’s certainly not one of the more interesting topics. I think it’s because, unlike some of the competition, they don’t concentrate on really weird scientific questions, but ones of genuine interest. The Guardian has something of a history of coming up with witty headlines, but these haven’t been applied here – they’re straightforward labels on topics that are genuinely interesting, but don’t have that bizzaro feel beloved of those who choose titles for this type of book. So I can tell you that (in a random sample) Do Cats and Dogs Need Sunscreen, How Heavy Can a Baby Get, Do Badgers Spread Bovine TB, Why Do Aircraft Wings Now Go Up At The Ends and How Can I Learn to Hold My Breath Like a Freediver are all excellent, even if they don’t necessarily shout out “book title” (I’d have gone with the cats and dogs rather than the waterskier, though).
It’s not going to give you any great insights into the big scientific questions of the day, but that doesn’t stop it being good scientific fun.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 27 August 2006

Children of the Sun – Alfred W. Crosby *****

We all know that the Sun is responsible for our light, and most of us would throw in our warmth as well, but Alfred Crosby’s sweeping adventure of a popular science book reminds us that in fact we owe practically all our energy to the Sun. Through each of the phases of the book, looking at energy from our own muscles (burning plant life, which gained energy from the Sun), from steam power (typically burning coal, which was plant life) through internal combustion (yes, oil from plant life) we have been dependent on the Sun’s energy.
Hydroelectric power? From the Sun, of course, evaporating water that can fall as rain to fill the reservoir behind the dam. Wind power? The Sun again, which powers the weather. The only rogue contributors are nuclear, wave power and geothermal (and a lot of that heat came from the Sun).
By now you should get the idea that this is really a celebration of humanity’s relationship with energy, most of which has come from the Sun, looking both at the ways we produce energy and the ways we use it – these days at a huge rate. Crosby isn’t afraid to spend significant time in building the picture. The first section spends a long time on agriculture, our taming of both plant and animal sources of energy, and later steam gets some equally interesting consideration. At the end he points out that wind and wave aren’t going to do everything we want. So the choice is stark. Give up what we want to do (not much sign of that), or bite the nuclear bullet. He goes on to give a rare balanced picture of the pros and cons, and leaves us with a touch of hope for nuclear fusion.
There are a couple of small concerns. Crosby’s style sometimes veers to the pompous. Take this example, where he explains that he will finish most chapters with a touch of detail: “As an amulet against oversimplification, at the end of most of the following chapters I will add a coda about a person or event with the texture and grain of specificity (and occasionally with something that may even contradict my most recent pontifical pronouncement).” Although largely his sweeping style is quite effective, drawing the reader through dramatic technological developments with ease, it can sometimes result in oversimplification that verges on error. Edison, for instance, is proclaimed the inventor of the electric light bulb, despite his losing the patent priority dispute to Swan.
The other irritation is the use of dates. It’s bad enough to go for the painful political correctness of BCE and CE rather than BC and AD, but the dates here aren’t even consistent. Much of the text uses BP (before present, we presume), but the illustrations are labelled BCE/CE. Then the text strays into BCE/CE as well, and just to add piquancy there’s at least one AD thrown in, presumably by accident.
However these details really don’t matter. This is one of those books that you can love despite – almost because of – it’s faults. And I do. It’s excellent.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

The Triumph of Numbers – I. B. Cohen ****

Numbers are central to the building of our civilization, and it might seem at first sight that I. B. Cohen’s book fills us in on their creation and use. This could also be true from the subtitle “how counting shaped modern life”. To confuse things more, the cover illustration shows Euclid, at work on geometry, so you might think it’s a history of mathematics (not quite the same thing as numbers). In fact it’s neither – Cohen’s book is really a history of statistics, and none the worse for that: it’s a fascinating subject, but perhaps the “s” word was considered too off-putting for the general reader.
Although written by an academic, this isn’t by any means a dull, uninspiring textbook of a tome. It’s short, pithy and often surprising. There is just the occasional point where Cohen has been allowed to slip into academic habits – notably in some rather uninspiring quotes and a couple of unnecessarily long lists – but for the rest it is a highly readable book, picking up on some key individuals as well as giving the broad sweep of the way statistics have influenced life.
Some of the individuals will be unknown to the general reader, like the great Quetelet, but others are big names you might not associate with the field. Perhaps the first to make an impact is King David. The Biblical consequences of David taking a count of the people had such an impact that they will still getting in the way of censuses in the 1700s. Then there were characters like Dickens and Florence Nightingale, both of whom get a chapter practically to themselves.
Dickens weighs in against statistics, championing the individual against statistical figures that make a few people’s suffering seem unimportant against the whole. It’s a technique that is still strongly used by TV. We are shown an individual’s plight and it doesn’t matter that that the company says 99% of their customers are satisfied, or the hospital says that the drug this person wants is only available for people who are (statistically) likely to benefit. The message is, the individual is more important than statistics. While in a sense it’s true, it is also misleading. Unless a medical system or a welfare system or an aid organization has infinite resources, there will always have to be prioritization and dealing statistically. It’s not nice, but the alternative is treat those who shout loudest and get most media coverage – which isn’t right either.
Florence Nightingale, who we generally remember for her nursing, comes through as a huge supporter of statistics. It’s fascinating seeing Nightingale’s demand that hospitals should be compared to see which is better and which worse on a statistical basis, that they should have standard record keeping and so forth – all requirements that have recently surfaced again in modern medicinal management. Nightingale was also a pioneer in the use of graphics to present statistics in a more approachable way.
Even if you find statistics boring, don’t be put off. This little book (just the right length for a popular science book of this kind) will make you realize how important this branch of mathematics is to everyday life, and will surprise and amuse you along the way. Not a bad achievement for a topic like this.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 12 August 2006

Not Even Wrong – Peter Woit ****

Before plunging into Peter Woit’s remarkable Not Even Wrong it’s necessary to explain why this is the only book on the site that is unrated [NB - it was subsequently rated four stars from Michael Bycroft's review]. This is an assessment of just what is wrong with string theory/superstrings/M theory – but it would be unfair on the reader to describe it as a popular science book in the conventional sense. For much of the book, I’d suggest, you need a physics degree to be able to read it without really understanding it, but getting a gist of what’s going on (a bit like some of undergraduate lectures). To truly get the whole contents will probably require a postgraduate degree in physics or applied maths.
And yet… bits of it are tantalisingly good even without those qualifications. Woit provides a detailed explanation of how superstrings, M-theory et al – the only real attempt on the table at pulling together particle physics and gravity – came about. He also blisteringly tears apart what he suggests is perhaps not even science – the reason being that despite being around for over 20 years these theories are yet to make a single testable prediction. It really is stunning that these theories are given the attention they are. Woit makes a good case for this being down to the system. As it’s pretty well the only game in town, new particle physics have little choice but to go into it – and once in it, have committed too much time to head off in a totally new direction.
The worst part of the book is where Woit gives a detailed history of a range of particle accelerator projects, and his history of quantum mechanics is rushed and confusing, but there is much to learn in his assessment of the development of the standard model, and his description of where superstrings and M-theory came from.
So this is a hugely recommended book, but one that is extremely difficult to understand. The popular science audience is used to supporters of superstring/M-theory writing excited books that tell how wonderful these ideas are, without every bothering to point out they don’t actually have any connection with reality. It’s such a shame that Woit didn’t get a co-author who knows how to write for a general audience – or perhaps he can work with someone on a Not Even Wrong lite. (Since writing this review, The Trouble with Physics was published, which fulfils that aim.) This is a story that needs to be widely told – and Woit has a powerful voice in doing so, which is why the content deserves 5 stars, but the complexity of the book makes it, as popular science, extremely low rated. Perhaps it was chickening out to leave it unrated, but I felt there was no other choice.
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Review by Brian Clegg
Believe it or not, back-flap endorsements can reveal something about the true content of a book. For example, the back cover of Not Even Wrong tells us that Roger Penrose found the book “compelling reading.” When a revered theoretical physicist finds a book stimulating, you might expect the average layperson to find it incomprehensible. In the case of Not Even Wrong, an attack on string theory backed by a history of mathematics and particle physics in 20th century, this is not far from the truth: about half in the pages in this book would be hard-going even for someone with an undergraduate degree in physics. But for a popular audience the book is saved by the care of Woit’s exposition, the clarity of his prose, and above all the strength and passion of his argument.
Before looking at the book’s content, it’s worth dwelling on it’s difficulty. Woit’s history of particle accelerators (at the start of the book) is approachable because it is rooted in concrete events, and his critique of string theory (at the end of the book) is easy on the reader insofar as it is about how science works rather than the science itself. But the science itself (the middle and longest part of the book) is really hard. And Woit has no wish to make it look easy. Here is a sample sentence from the middle chapters of the book:
“Just as Witten’s first topological quantum field theory did not actually tell topologists anything about Donaldson invariants that they did not already know, the topological sigma model also did not actually tell algebraic geometers anything about numbers of analytic fields that they did not already know.”
As hard as this sentence looks, however, it is written to be understood. Take away the technical terms in the sentence and it is written in the simplest possible English. Flick through the previous 10 pages and the technical terms in the sentence will all be explained in equally simple English. Go back to the start of the book and Woit says that there are two key things to know about quantum mechanics:
“1. There is a mathematical entity called a “state-vector” that describes the state of the universe at a given time. 2. Besides the state-vector, the other fundamental mathematical entity of the theory is called the Hamiltonian. This is an operator on state-vectors, meaning that it transforms a given state-vector into a new one.”
So, we have a state of the universe and something that changes the state. What could be simpler? Trace back the definitions of Woit’s many other terms — from mirror spaces, self-duality and Kac-Moody groups to non-abelian gauge theory, Lie Groups and heterotic superstring theory — and you will find them as simply described as the state-vector and the Hamiltonian. The care of Woit’s exposition means that although the book is dense, it is not impenetrable. I did not understand most of it, but with enough patience and concentration I am confident that I could do so. “Make things as easy as possible, but no easier,” to paraphrase Einstein. This is what Woit does — it just happens that his topic is not very easy.
For those (like me) who have low reserves of patience and concentration, the writing is well-enough sign-posted that one can understand the general landscape without scrutinising every detail. In his early chapter on the history and current prospects of particle accelerators (“Instruments of Production”), Woit guides the reader through the maze of particle accelerator acronyms, from CERN to SPLAC to SPEAR, SLAC, ISABELLE, and of course LHC. The next series of chapters are Woit’s efforts to set up a comparison between the “standard model” of particle physics and the alternatives to it. Readers who just want a good round of string theory fisticuffs could skip about half of this background. But for those want to learn about the complex interweaving of maths and physics since 1950, and about Woit’s two heros of that history (Hermann Weyl and Edward Witten), these chapters are worth the struggle.
At page 167, Woit changes gear. What follows is a sober, systematic assault on string theory and the ideas behind it. Despite the technical details, Woit says, “the hope is that the broad outlines of what is at issue here will remain clear to all readers.” Woit’s gift for clear summarising means that this hope is realised. In broad outline, the problem is that “string theory isn’t really a theory, but rather a set of reasons for hoping that a theory exists.” String theory can generate results, of a kind. These results have numerous gaps and errors that string theorists hope to fix. But attempts to fix them either result in baroque layers of new theory, or appeals to a semi-mystical theory called M-theory that no-one knows much about. And insofar as string theory gives a picture of particle physics, it gives us a choice between so many possible pictures that it explains nothing about why one particular picture is true.
Woit drives his case home in four persuasive ways. He describes typical ways of defending string theory (it is “beautiful”, the maths is very difficult, etc.) and attacks them. He discusses the scientific method and how string theorists abuse it (to his credit, Woit does more than just invoke Popper and falsifiability here; he also goes into the anthropic principle and acknowledges the value of speculative science). He gives an explanation, in terms of job markets and funding patterns in particle physics, of how string theory can have so little success as science yet so much popularity among scientists. And he gives evidence of intellectual rot in the string theory community, in an entertaining account of the “Bogdanov Affair,” the physicist’s version of the famous Sokal hoax. All this adds up to a devastating case.
Devastating, but cool, Woit’s steady prose is a challenge to the excitement surrounding string theory, the excitable physicists who practice it, and the excited books they write about it. Brian Greene’s books are “inspirational”, says Woit, but that’s just the problem: string theorists get carried away by their own excitement. Woit, despite his penchant for quotes, anecdotes, and quirky asides, may be the least excitable author in popular science.
Nevertheless, he is also one of the most passionate. The reason he builds up such a patient account of string theory is to show as clearly as possible why the whole field is a mistake. He sincerely believes his case and backs it up with a deep knowledge and appreciation of his subject matter. The book, like the introduction, has a personal touch. As a result, his first-hand accounts of mathematical heroics by Edward Witten and Sir Michael Atiyah convey as much excitement as any popular writer could with a more colourful reproduction of the same events. And his point-by-point rebuttal of string theorists has extra force because he is so concerned that their work is leading physics into disrepute. And he has a heart-felt (though not very precise) vision of what could replace the “ossified ideology” that string theory has, in his opinion, become: he invites string theorists to discover “that the marvellously rich interaction of quantum field theory and mathematics that has so revolutionised both subjects is just a beginning.”
Some points in the book could be clearer. On the one hand Woit criticises string theory for not actually being a theory. On the other hand he identifies some predictions that a supersymmetry theory can make, which suggests that supersymmetry at least is a theory (if not a very good one). Also, after giving the two main arguments for supersymmetry, Woit makes things hard for the reader by going into a long digression about a particular supersymmetry theory (MSSM) in which a number of other arguments and counterarguments appear. And the relation between supersymmetric quantum field theories and string theory is not very clear, so it is not obvious why string theory inherits the problems with supersymmetry (problems that Woit describes at length). Woit’s foray into the philosophy of science is also inconclusive – at one point he seems to say, despite himself, that string theory is still worth doing because the majority of particle theorists think it will be eventually bear fruit. Lastly, it would be interesting to know more about what Witten – who Woit clearly reveres – thought about string theory two decades after he fathered the field.
Overall, however, Woit’s passion means that the second back-flap endorsement on my copy of this book is as true as the first: the book is a “call to arms,” as New Scientist put it. To write a book that Roger Penrose finds compelling is one thing, and to write a book that New Scientist finds rousing is another. But to do both with the same book is quite an achievement.
Review by Michael Bycroft

Tuesday, 18 July 2006

The Long Tail – Chris Anderson *****

I ought to explain why something that some would see as a business book is turning up on a science site. Like a number of “crossover” titles (take Gladwell’s Tipping Point for instance), this is a book on the application of science to a business topic – in this case the science is a combination of economics and statistics, while the topic is the way we buy and sell things. Like all the best such books, the style is fluent, readable and packed with people and real examples (though it’s rather sad for a book on a subject where the global market is such an important component, that Chris Anderson takes such a parochial, almost purely US approach).
The message, like all the best big ideas, is very simple. Until very recently our whole approach to business has been to aim for the small number of big sellers and really push them. In fact we’ve seen a strong trend in that direction. It used to be you bought books in a bookstore with thousands of different titles. Now you are just as likely to buy the latest Harry Potter (or whatever) at a supermarket stocking perhaps as few as 200 titles. But the Internet, Anderson argues, is changing the game. As well as offering the big sellers, online retailers like Amazon and iTunes, and even more so Google (we’ll see why Google in a moment) have expanded into the tail of the distribution of sales (hence the book’s title). These virtual and semi-virtual stores can contain tens, hundreds or thousands of times as many titles as a normal bricks and mortar shop. It doesn’t matter if only a few copies sell, because the stockholding cost is so low.
In the early days of online shopping, retailers got it wrong in a big way. I can remember the excitement of discovering that there was an online CD store in the early days of AOL… and then the big disappointment that they actually carried less stock than the equivalent physical shop. The wonderful thing about Internet shopping is that you can have a vastly bigger catalogue and search through it, rather than browsing shelves in a shop. And this is producing a very different approach to shopping. Anderson describes his epiphany when asked to guess what percentage of the albums on a 10,000 album jukebox that takes its music from the Internet got played (after someone paid money for it). Anderson realized the usual answer of around 20%, from the 80/20 idea that says 20% of your stock produces 80% of your revenue, was too low for a digital device, and went for 50%. In fact the answer was 98%. Practically everything was of interest to someone – and the Long Tail idea says if you can get all those small sellers out there, the result will be a big market.
There is some argument that too much choice is a bad thing – people just get confused. This is true if all you do is present them with a huge bewildering array of options, with no way to make a practical choice. But the other part of the Internet success story is information and communication. You don’t just get vast amounts of products, but a swathe of information and filters to help support finding the right stuff for you. Some of it will come from the big sellers, but other parts will come from Anderson’s Long Tail, the niche stuff that may only be of interest to you and a few others. This is partly where Google comes in as a way of finding the stuff you want – but the company has also been very clever in the vast number of ways it makes use of the Long Tail, from its tailored advertising to its Google Video outlet.
Take two quick examples of dipping into the Long Tail. I have no trouble selling science books to publishers, but it’s much harder if I come up with a different idea. I wrote a book containing 12 murder mystery events, a bit like the murder mystery party kits, but there are 12 events for less than the price of one kit, and they are much more flexible. (See www.organizingamurder.com) No publisher wanted it. They said “it’s a great idea, but we don’t do books like this.'” No one does – that was the point. But by addressing the Long Tail directly it’s now selling well.
Similarly when an organist in Nottingham, UK came up with the idea of CDs of hymn backing tracks to sing along to when you don’t have an organist, he couldn’t get a company to produce them. But making them himself and selling direct (including individual tracks by email, a sort of iHymns, which no one else does) has made www.hymncds.compopular. Interestingly, he approached iTunes about carrying these tracks but they weren’t interested – as Anderson points out in the book, they are one of the less flexible suppliers to the Long Tail market, and still miss many opportunities.
I do have a couple of concerns. There is one example in the book that is just wrong in a big way. Anderson uses the example of astronomy to show how what used to be the preserve of a few professionals is now pushing out into the tail of amateurs, making real discoveries. Now if it had been almost any other science, this would have been a legitimate point. All sciences started out as amateur activities. Up until Victorian times, both professionals and amateurs could make a contribution, but in the 20th Century, science got too complex, too specialized for the amateur – and largely remains so today. But astronomy was always an exception (actually meteorology is another example, where amateur observers collect data for the professionals).
All through the 20th Century and up to the present day, amateurs have continued to make contributions and discoveries. There is just too much sky for it to be otherwise, and the techniques of observation remain relatively simple, compared with most scientific research. A good example is the UK’s favourite astronomer, Patrick Moore (see his autobiography for more details). Moore is an amateur (admittedly he has made his living from writing and broadcasting on astronomy, but he has never been a professional astronomer), yet he is the best known astronomer in the UK, and has made significant contributions to the study of the Moon.
The bigger concern is with Anderson’s assertion that the Long Tail effect is good for everyone. Specifically he asserts it’s good for the producers of what’s being sold (writers, artists etc.), as many more of them get exposure. But the trouble is, the Long Tail effect is an economy of scale thing, as Anderson himself identifies. The people who benefit are the big portals, through which buyers get to the niche items, because they have millions of little hits. The individual producer only gets a very small income. Isn’t that better than nothing? Yes, if you had nothing. But for good professionals who earned a living from writing or music, but weren’t in the blockbuster category, it’s a nightmare. You can’t live on the earnings from a small niche in the Long Tail – it’s an occupation for spare time enthusiasts. And it makes the route to success more of a lottery. Where once, the effort required to (say) get a book published was such that if you made that effort with a good product, yours would be relatively visible, and have a fair chance of becoming a big seller, going through the Long Tail route puts your product alongside millions of others – the outcome is much more random. Anderson might say we shouldn’t care – you don’t need a big seller if you’ve got the Long Tail. Again that’s a corporate view. Individuals still need something more than a few cents here and few cents there.
There is one significant flaw, then, but it doesn’t stop this being a great read and a superb assessment of what’s happening under our noses without many of us realizing. TV companies, movie companies and book publishers are still largely chasing the blockbuster. What the Long Tail says to them is: fine, don’t ignore the big sellers, they are still important – but give equal emphasis to providing access to that astounding choice that resides in that long, thin tail.
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Review by Brian Clegg