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Showing posts from 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 a

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 l

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 rarel

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 Straig

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

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 philosop

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 rea

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

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

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

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 in

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

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 lik