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 as he departed on the Beagle to the evolutionary views that were already forming on his return five years later.
What is fascinating here is the way Eldredge analyzes the scientific process, itself in a state of evolution. During Darwin’s time there was a major change from the slightly naive approach espoused by Francis Bacon of induction from nature to the more modern approach of hypothesis, deduction from that hypothesis and test of the deductions against reality.
What enables Eldredge to get such a rich insight into the workings of Darwin’s mind is a detailed study of his notebooks, not always first hand by Eldredge, but taking as much as possible from the thoughts and ideas that Darwin captured in his many, straggling personal texts.
To traditionalist evolutionary biologists, Eldredge is something of a heretic, responsible with Steven J. Gould for the “punctuated equilibrium” theory that suggests that evolution is not a smooth process of constant change, but rather (at least in geological timescales) a process with long periods of very little change, interrupted by sudden, relatively quick developments. Although this book isn’t about this theory, he makes a very telling point how the reaction of many evolutionary biologists reflects the way geology moved from a catastrophist approach (assuming geological changes were typically like the biblical flood) to a gradual approach. Interestingly, modern geological thinking suggests things are less clear cut, more of a mix of the two with clear catastrophes happening, whether due to asteroid impact or hyper-volcanoes. It’s only a fervent support of faith in a theory over reasoning that results in the inability to consider the same possibility for evolution.
There is a section of the book that is perhaps too heavily dependent on analysis of notebooks for all but the determinedly bookish – you may wish to skim this – but later on Eldredge reverts to form and concludes with one of the best clarifications of why intelligent design isn’t a valid scientific hypothesis I’ve ever seen.
Eldredge does a good job all the way, never pushing his own theories too heavily. The book is glossy and a little on the big side (verging on being a coffee table volume in size), and perhaps could have been a little shorter – he does develop his arguments rather slowly, and a little repetitively – but overall it’s a welcome addition to Darwin literature, and well worth a look from anyone who wants to get beneath the traditional hagiography.
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 chemistry to work in a water environment is tricky without specialist catalysts – but could things be different under high temperature and pressure? Hazen, originally a geologist, is pulled in to provide an experimental test by a colleague.
Don’t be put off by the rather stodgy foreword and preface (the book would frankly have been much better without them) – jump straight to the prologue, which describes Hazen being pulled into the project, and his setting up an experimental test for the possibility in a warm narrative style. It’s very engaging, and good to hear, for example, of his struggle to seal a tiny gold pressure vessel (anyone who messed up experiments in high school or college science will feel great sympathy) and the cunning solution he resorted to.
After the prologue, things get slightly less personal as Hazen begins to expound the different ways of getting to an idea of how life was first formed, but bear with it – he’s soon back to anecdote mode. Hazen is particularly good at describing experiments. The reader gets a real and rare insight into what actually happens in a scientific experiment, as he describes using “everyday” technology ike a mass spectrometer, that’s pretty exotic to most of us. It’s impossible not to be caught up with his infectious enthusiasm as Hazen seems to skip from lab to lab, asking for a spot of assistance from different researchers, just as he himself is pulled into various pieces of work.
If this all sounds a touch idealized and lacking the less pleasant side of the scientific community, Hazen also gives us a wonderful description of a pair of scientists locking horns over conflicting interpretation of some evidence, one acting in way that verges on the scary, looming up near his rival as he gave a presentation and staring at him from beside the podium as if he were trying to put him off – it’s like a debate in the British parliament without the protective table and dispatch boxes to keep the two front benches from assaulting each other.
Although Hazen starts off with his “bottom up” attempt – start from nothing and create the elements of life, he gives plenty of coverage also to the “top down” approach of trying to work back through the fossil record to the most basic and oldest forms of life (it’s such a sample that’s under debate in the clash at the conference mentioned above). A fair amount of time is also given to emergence, the idea that complexity can develop from simplicity without guidance. The last few chapters of the book lose impetus a fraction, but are still highly readable. It’s a marvellous combination of expounding theory and leading us through the realities of experiment in a personal fashion. Highly recommended.
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, never trust your brain.”
To see the sort of behaviour that emerges, lets take the first section, the vain brain. Here Fine explores just how the brain takes Monty Python’s advice and always looks on the bright side of life. Our brains are consistently good at playing up the positives and playing down the negatives. For example, pretty well everyone is sure that they are a better than average driver (or would be if they had a licence) – yet simple statistics makes it obvious that nearly half the population has to be worse than average. As Fine points out, we have a term for people whose brains aren’t very good at making things seem better than they really are. They’re clinically depressed.
What a lot of A Mind of Its Own’s conclusions come down to is that our brains are superbly good at editing. They have to be. Just take the simple act of seeing – our eye/brain combo doesn’t work like a video camera. Instead the brain sorts out the input from the eyes how it expects things to be. Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to see fluid motion in moving pictures, for instance (forget all that stuff someone told you about persistence of vision – it’s rubbish). However, as Fine shows us, this editing, while essential, can also lead the brain to do things we really don’t want it to do, deceiving us about ourselves and the world around us.
It’s probable that Fine’s very engaging and chatty style, bringing in her young children, her husband’s habits of keeping control of the pens in the house and other details, will delight many readers, though it won’t appeal to absolutely everyone. But if you like a book that communicates like a person, Fine has got it just right. Although she is an academic, she writes like a human being (a surprisingly rare combination – the stereotype (we meet stereotypes in “the bigoted brain”) is all too often true). All in all this short and enjoyable book is a must for anyone who wants to get a better understanding of what their brain gets up to when they aren’t watching it. First class.
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 included). As is often the case with these collections, some of the most enjoyable answers are those that shatter old wives tales and “common knowledge”, such as “you lose most of your body heat through your head (so wear a hat)” – wrong. Or “does hot tea cool you in hot weather” – sorry, no. Others are just those sort of questions children delight in asking, and the child in all of us wants to know the answer to (can African and Indian elephants mate, for example). Others are just plain odd – for example, how far can you get away from a McDonalds in the US. But it’s fair to say there’s not one of these little factoids that isn’t quirkily interesting.
The only real criticisms are for the tendency to end a piece with a fairly lame witicism (e.g. on a query about the return of the “dust bowl” phenomenon referred to in the novel The Grapes of Wrath, we are told “Forget about migrating to California, and stock up on Evian while you can.”), and the missed opportunities. The answers to questions quite often seem to miss out on great opportunities to throw in a “wow factor” piece of information. For example, the question about why the moon often appears large near moonrise misses the surprising fact that the actual visual size of the moon is as small as the hole in a punched piece of paper held at arms length. And the answer to the question “I’ve heard it’s sometimes possible to see stars during the middle of the day. True?” misses the opportunity to dispose of the old chestnut that you can see stars from the bottom of a well or up a chimney. Not the end of the world by any means, but a pity.
All in all, though, an easy read of bite-sized delights, idea to fill in a few minutes on the train or simply to get some answers to those infuriatingly obvious questions that no one seems to bother answering. Something that’s amazing about this sort of book is, though there are several around, they all seem to come up with enough new and engaging questions to be well worth reading. Great fun.
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 statistics (apparently no one knows where they came from, nor is there any evidence backing them up), it certainly has suffered the worst impact in areas like thyroid cancer in the population. But the limited view into Belarus doesn’t undermine the fascination of the Ukrainian experience.
Perhaps most surprising to the reader is the sheer abundance of wildlife and the very limited visual impact on the plant life. Rather than being a blasted wasteland, much of the abandoned territory teems with wild animals – even bear, beaver, lynx and bison that rarely survive in Europe. Apart from some distortion in trees, particularly pine, whose sticky coatings tended to hang onto radioactive dust, there is little obvious mutation. No monster creatures, or fish with three eyes as those familiar with the nuclear plant in the Simpsons might expect. In fact mutation among surviving animals seems rare – apparently the most common effect is for animals to die, and those that do survive are less attractive for breeding, so mutants haven’t transformed the biological landscape.
Those used to post-apocalyptic landscapes from fiction may also be surprised that rats and cockroaches haven’t taken over. In fact rodents have a bigger tendency to die off than the larger animals, and cockroaches are apparently not very good at resisting radiation.
The message isn’t all is rosy – not in the least – and Mycio sometimes expresses very human concerns about what she is being exposed to – but it equally is not one of total devastation. There is contamination, and the influence of the metaphorical wormwood in the book’s title (a reference to the Bible’s book of Revelation) is ever present – but thanks to the absence of normal human activity, the exclusion zone has become an area of thriving natural life that is beautifully brought to life in Mycio’s book.
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 take the risky step of arguing with science fiction’s very own sage, Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote the introduction to the book. He suggests that Dr Who might really be considered fantasy rather science fiction, as some of the “science” is very far fetched. I think this misses the point – much science fiction, particularly TV science fiction, rather skimps over elements of the science: in the end, important though the science is, the plot must generally come first. (James Blish famously wrote some SF that was purely idea driven, such as his short story Beep, and wasn’t alone in this, but most popular SF needs a good plot.) The distinction between SF and fantasy can’t really be “is it likely?” or you rule out faster than light travel, matter transmitters, time travel, interstellar travel – practically everything that makes SF interesting. Instead the distinction has to be something like “are any special capabilities intended to be based on science and techology or something else?” – and on the whole Dr Who remains firmly in science fiction.
This is born out when you get into Parsons’ book proper. He may occasionally have to stretch the improbables a long way, but it’s only rarely that he has to announce something is out-and-out wrong rather than very, very unlikely. Whether it’s time travel itself, the Tardis being bigger on the inside than the outside, or the Doctor’s two hearts, Parsons can deliver an answer. Along the way as we meet wild aliens, strange robots and even a virtual reality world called the Matrix (years before the feature film of the same name), Parsons keeps the reader intrigued and entertained. You do have to have seen Doctor Who to get the most out of this book, but certainly don’t have to be a fan. If you haven’t come across the most recent incarnation of the show (at the time of writing, those featuring Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant), it’s worth trying to catch an episode or two, as the book makes frequent reference to the newer episodes (with good reason).
This isn’t the first “science of Doctor Who” book. Michael White got there first with his much more intriguingly titled A Teaspoon and An Open Mind. But White’s book had significant flaws. In particular, it failed to tie in closely enough to Dr Who itself. It took a basic concept from the show – time travel, say – then went off on a long riff on time travel. This misses the point of the “Science of” genre. We don’t want to know all there is to know about time travel, we want to know how the Tardis, the Doctor’s travel device, could work. Where Michael White failed, Paul Parsons delivers much more effectively. Although he may just occasionally go too far, going into the details of too many obscure aliens for all but the most ardent fan, mostly he gets the balance right. The science is good, the fit to Doctor Who is good and the writing is good – the result is one of the better ventures into the concept of “Science of”. If you like Doctor Who (whether a traditionalist or one of the army of new fans from the latest version) or just want to explore some weird and wonderful science, this is a must-have.
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 characters grow to maturity, is the imaging chip for a digital camera – but a very special chip, one that at the time of writing is still not widely used. Most of the digital cameras around in 2005, when this was written. were based on chips where a single sensor on the chip handles only one colour, and the overall picture is put together by interpolating between adjacent sensors – there’s always an element of guesswork, rather than a true representation. The chip produced by our starring crew ditches this idea. Instead, every tiny sensor specifies an actual colour, in principle rendering a much clearer, more accurate result.
Along the way, there is a long, long dalliance with artificial intelligence, particularly neural networks. Many companies found that it was much easier to promise a lot with AI than to do anything, and for a long time there seems to have been lots of theorizing and playing with neural nets and analogue circuitry without getting anywhere in particular. It’s interesting that the only real achievement of this middle period of the book was when the group dropped almost all their interests, using the skills they had but hardly anything from their development work, and came up with the industry’s leading touchpad for laptops.
Finally, though, comes what should be the triumph of this tale – the development of the camera sensor that can blow everything else out of the water. It’s cheaper to make, easier to push up to much higher pixel levels, and because each pixel captures all colours, rather than one of the primary colours, produces an incomparably clear image. And yet, for the moment, this killer technology has not swept the board. It’s tempting to compare the position of our heroes’ device and the inferior camera sensors most of us still use with the old chestnut of VHS versus Betamax, where the technically less able system triumphed – but it’s a very different position, and Gilder doesn’t fall into that trap. Where VHS and Betamax were on a more even footing, both backed by major corporations, and the balance was largely swung by the movie rental business, the camera sensor position is very different. Here we have all the big players on the one side, and the tiny opposition with the better technology on the other.
It’s not a foregone conclusion. Dyson did it with vacuum cleaners, taking on everyone else as a little player with superior technology. But vacuum cleaners don’t have the huge scale and ultra-fast product cycle of digital cameras and mobile phone cameras. Although the big players’ technology isn’t as good, they can throw so much weight at their products that they can keep prices down, can keep whittling away at the differential in ability, and can add all the bells and whistles that are more important in selling a camera to an average customer than is perfect image reproduction. The fight isn’t over and the result still hangs in the balance. To the unbiased reader, it seems likely that Goliath is going to beat David.
One minor moan is George Gilder’s tone which is relentlessly perky to the extent that occasionally you want to tell him to just get on with it. For example, he can’t just say that Dick Lyon borrowed the motor from his mother’s blender to help make a panoramic camera. Instead we’re told: “With the mixer blades removed, its speed could be varied, and it would not grind, blend, mince or chop his fingers.” Whoa, who’d have thought of removing the blades, and it stopping him from hurting himself… But it is only a minor thing – often Gilder’s tone is chatty and enjoyable, it only occasionally plunges over the edge.
At the heart of this book is one of the most pervasive technologies around, one with real technical fascination and with some interesting (and occasional tortured) individuals on a journey to develop a different approach. It’s a journey you will enjoy being part of.
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 origins of the universe to where we are today. We see how hydrogen and helium came out of that delicately balanced beginning, and how the stars over billions of years have acted to forge the other elements. Most fascinating of all, perhaps because it’s something we just don’t think of, is Rees’ exploration of what he describes as the constant D=3, the number of spatial dimensions, describing how three “normal” spatial dimensions are essential for our existence, but also taking the opportunity to make a comprehensible stab at string theory, and the potential other “wrapped up” dimensions. The voyage of discovery that Rees takes us on is no less sophisticated and complex than that in Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, but with the added benefit than any reader, with a little application, will be able to make it all the way through.
The only situation in which Rees is less successful is when he tries to link cosmology with metaphysics, rather than physics. Early on, when pointing out that the very fine tuning of the six constants could be taken to imply some sort of divine hand in our existence, Rees comments that he doesn’t find this compelling (along with other possibilities like pure coincidence), and believes instead something “even more remarkable” – that our universe is just one of a multitude of universes in which different constants apply. The reason this is less effective is that Rees is happy to dismiss possibilities which are, by implication more likely than the multiverse theory, simply because he doesn’t like them. This is such a common and flawed response from scientists when faced with something beyond the bounds they are willing to accept. One interpretation of the finely tuned constants is that there is something out there that tuned them. Another is the multiverse. Neither can at the moment be proved – it’s all speculation. But scientists reflexively dismiss speculation involving an outside hand, while happily accepting speculation that is “even more remarkable”. This isn’t specifically a fault of Rees’ – it is very widespread, but it is inconsistent and illogical. I’m entirely happy to say “ignore all speculation for which there is currently no proof”, but not say “ignore the speculation I habitually don’t like, and spend time on the speculation I do” – this brings science down to the level of fundamentalists.
Rant over – that is a very small part of the book and certainly shouldn’t put you off reading it, because it is both fascinating and very well written.
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 animals in the US today. You might be surprised to learn of a nearly forgotten key character of the US revolutionary war, who was responsible for the first battle in the conflict, which took place on one of Sullivan’s rat sites. You will meet the exterminators and pest control operatives who have a lot of respect for the rat. And, if you enjoy Sullivan’s sometimes poetic, always warm narrative style, you will have a great time (and become something of a rat expert in your own right along the way).
After a time, Sullivan becomes fascinated by a large rat hole in his pet alley, which descends a huge distance into the basement, ironically, of the union of pest controllers. This subject, combining as it does the wry humour of the location of the hole, and Sullivan’s ability to enthuse about something few others could find interesting – and to make it something worth reading – is brilliant.
You have to admire the effort that went into this book. Sullivan’s methods are delightfully haphazard, but he really throws himself into the subject, never seeming to worry about the human dangers of spending many hours in dark New York alleyways (though he does occasionally worry about the rats a little). It’s a fascinating read, and though the subject may occasionally make your skin crawl, it’s highly recommended.
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 obvious love for something very few could find attractive. It’s the attraction of the eccentric. The Meadowlands with its tips and foul waste is not the sort of place most people would want to spend a vacation in, yet time and time again Sullivan is enticed back to explore different parts of this strange nowhere land. And yet occasionally you can see why it’s so attractive. Here he is, in sight of Manhattan’s skyscrapers, yet he is in a place of wild marshes and wildlife (even if it’s also a place of pollution and wildfires).
This isn’t a book to read with the expectation of discovering new scientific facts, but it is one that will bring a smile to your face, fascinate and surprise – all in a gentle way. Sometimes Sullivan’s efforts seem a little odd – perhaps most notably his search for the remains of the original Penn Station, dumped in the Meadowlands when it was demolished – but they will never be less than interesting. If you like the look of this book it’s also worth checking out Sullivan’s Rats which is in a similar vein, but has more scientific content.