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Showing posts from March, 2006

Darwin: Discovering the tree of life – Niles Eldredge ****

There have been a lot of books about Charles Darwin – some would say far too many. In fact, Darwin probably puts even Einstein in the shade in the way his life and work have been pulled to pieces, reassembled and made to mean pretty well anything the writer had in mind. Given this context, you have to be very brave (or foolish) to write a new Darwin book, and a very good writer to make it worth reading. Luckily for us, Niles Eldredge delivers a book that is both readable and enlightening with something new to say. His style, though filled with scholarly authority, is very reader-friendly; this is a book you can enjoy reading, which is particularly surprising as it is to some extent tied in to an exhibition, usually the death knell for any readability in a book. Eldredge begins by giving us a thumbnail sketch of Darwin’s life, bringing in some interesting details and including poignant family photographs. He then expands on Darwin’s period of change from the creationist views he held a…

Genesis – Robert M. Hazen *****

Genesis is one of those titles that could have many meanings: in Robert Hazen’s book, all is made clear in the subtitle: The Scientific Quest for Life’s Origin. It’s not exactly a new quest – in fact attempts to explain our origin go even further back than the first book of the Bible, and there have been experiments trying to recreate the “primordial soup”, perhaps with a little lightning thrown in, for many years. Then there’s the idea that the basic organic molecules that would eventually lead to life arrived on the Earth in a meteor – originally posed by the great Fred Hoyle, and after much dismissal by biologists getting something of a revival in the twenty-first century. What Hazen initially sets out to do is to test yet another theory. Now that life has been discovered around the boiling hot, high pressure vents under the sea, is it possible that life started under these sorts of conditions? It’s quite an attractive hypothesis. Getting the basic building blocks of carbon chemist…

A Mind of Its Own – Cordelia Fine *****

It might seem an obvious truism that our brains have minds of their own – isn’t that what brains do, have minds? – but Cordelia Fine has an entirely different intention here. What her excellent little book reveals in embarrassing detail is just how much our brains get away with. Brains are great at doing things that our conscious minds either aren’t aware of, or wish didn’t happen. Along the way we are introduced to the vain brain, the emotional brain, the pigheaded brain, the secretive brain and the bigoted brain. Each section picks a particular way that our brains can operate effectively separate from our conscious will – situations where the brain is effectively going its own sweet way, whatever you think is happening, something that would have Mr Spock turning in his Vulcan grave. All these behaviours are illustrated with psychological experiments, often involving tricking the subjects – as Fine says there are two morals to be drawn. “One, never trust a social psychologist. Two, …

Real Mosquitoes Don’t Eat Meat – Brad Wetzler ****

Science magazines often have a page for answering the “dumb” questions we all like to ask – and the answers make a ready-made collection for a book. Scientific American and New Scientist have both done this – now Outside Magazine‘s “The Wild File” gets its second collection (the first, called Why Moths Hate Thomas Edison wasn’t available for review at the time of writing). The style here is slightly more laid back and facetious than the columns from the general science magazines, but the effect is very readable and easily digested. Brad Wetzler is the contributing editor responsible for the column – chances are, the way magazines work, that words aren’t always his, but he’s responsible for the overall feel, and gives us some excellent insights into the natural world. Not surprisingly, given the the magazine this features in, these are mostly nature questions, though the book does begin with an astronomy section before moving on to your body, the planet and living creatures (plants inc…

Wormwood Forest – Mary Mycio ****

This is a rare and enjoyable combination of a natural history book with a personal travel tale – yet strangely a lot of the science in the book (and there is a fair amount) is physics. The reason is simple – Mary Mycio takes us on a deeply surprising tour of the flora and fauna of the fallout zone from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Mycio is an American with a Ukrainian family, so makes an ideal reporter for this mission – and she proves a worthy proponent of the sort of travel writing that throws in little personal observations along the way. This wasn’t just a two week visit and a hastily scrawled book, though, it’s a long term observation of different parts of the area devastated by the disaster at the nuclear power plant, mostly in Ukraine, though venturing for one chapter into Belarus. It would have been nice if she could have spent a little longer in Belarus. Belarus is traditionally supposed to have suffered the worst of the contamination, and though Mycio questions the statis…

The Science of Doctor Who – Paul Parsons ****

Science fiction is the flirty, flighty, naughty cousin of popular science. Although purists will tell you the only decent SF is in books, there have been some exceptions on TV, and two shows stand out like beacons. One is Star Trek, for the way it has become an integral part of modern culture. The other is Doctor Who. This British programme has driven its way ahead of the rest both because of its longevity – in 2006 it was about to start a new season 43 years after the first episode, which was broadcast the day after Kennedy’s assassination – and because of its refreshing originality. This hasn’t always been evident in its long run, but was clearly there when it captured audiences back in 1963 as something new and different, and has been evident again in its latest incarnation, started in 2005, where it took on not only modern production values, but has also inherited the slick wit of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – as is obvious from the delightful quotes in Paul Parson’s book. I have to …

The Silicon Eye – George Gilder ****

There’s a particular breed of book most often found on the business shelves – it’s a sort of business biography, where the central focus is the business itself, but we get to understand it and where it’s come from by following the lives of the key people involved. This is really one of those business bios, rather than a popular science book, it just happens that a couple of the key figures, notably Carver Mead, were scientists and academics, so it strays over into the world of science – and that’s not a bad thing as it’s a well-told story that is of real interest to anyone with an eye for technology. One of the attractive aspects of this book is the way the key personnel aren’t everyday names. As well as Carver Mead we meet Dick Merrill, Federico Faggin and Dick Lyon – for most of us, by now it’s a matter of “Who?” But then does anyone really want yet another book on Bill Gates. The technology that we see first appear as a mental seed, then gradually becomes reality as the key charact…

Just Six Numbers – Martin Rees *****

Martin Rees is probably Britain’s leading astronomer, and in this elegant book he gives an insightful view into the significance of six physical constants that are fundamental to the nature of our universe. It’s cosmology driven by the underlying physics, and so appeals beyond the traditional audience for pure (and often rather speculative) cosmology books. It’s sensible to stress, as Rees does, that these aren’t the only hugely important constants in the universe – his six doesn’t include the speed of light, for example. But crucial though the speed of light is, our existence is not so sensitive to minute variations in it, as our being here (and our universe) is to small variations in Rees’ six numbers. Rees uses constants like the cosmological constant and the ratio of the electromagnetic force and gravity to explore the nature of the universe and does so brilliantly. We travel back to the big bang and see how a small window of possibility could have brought us from the early origi…

Rats: A Year with New York’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants – Robert Sullivan ****

In Meadowlands, Robert Sullivan brought us an entertaining tour of the largely ignored wild lands out the outskirts of New York. In Rats, he does the same same, not so much for an ignored location as an unwanted co-resident: the New York rat. Sullivan’s style is to immerse himself in the subject, sometimes to an extent that many would consider obsessive. Night after night he visits a New York alleyway and watches the rat nightlife as the inhabitants of the dark side of the Big Apple pick their way amongst the ample discards of the restaurants that back onto the alley. Along the way you will learn a lot (sometimes more than you want to know) about the rat and its relationship to human beings. And, this being Sullivan, you will also learn about a whole variety of things that spin off at a tangent from the topic of rats. You might be amazed to discover that plague, the same disease that caused such disasters in the middle ages, is not only still in existence, but is carried by wild anima…

The Meadowlands – Robert Sullivan ****

We need to start of straight away with why this book is here at all, because it’s pretty borderline as popular science. Okay, the simplistic answer is because the publisher sent a review copy and we liked it – but it’s a little more than that. Meadowlands is in the same genre as Bill Bryson’s travel books – a personal account of experiences in a particular place or set of places, and though these books tend to get lumped under the travel category, they are just as much personal explorations of natural history, a crossover that was proved in Bryson’s science title. Robert Sullivan’s book is about exploring what most would consider a semi-industrial wasteland, the wilderness of tips, marshes and industrial waste on the outskirts of New York, and in doing so, the book comes across unclassifiably as a mix of industrial archaeology, travel, sociology and natural history – so it belongs here as much as it belongs anywhere else. Perhaps the biggest attraction of this book is Sullivan’s obvio…