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Showing posts from June, 2006

If Dogs Could Talk – Vilmos Csányi ****

Sometimes a truth is so close under our nose it’s difficult to spot. We are so used to dogs and their behaviour that we don’t really notice just how remarkable they are. Vilmos Csányi challenges us to think about the canine mind. Once you do, it’s obvious that dogs are quite remarkable. This is an animal which, with human help, has become so modified from its natural form that it prefers the company of another species – humans – to its own. We are familiar with the concept of the dog as “man’s best friend”, but this book challenges us to think more about the mental processes required to enable a dog to do the remarkable things it does. Remarkable, dogs? Surely all they do is mess on the pavement and bark a lot? Hardly. Csányi, a confessed dog lover, shows us with a combination of personal anecdote and the outcome of a wide range of experiments just how flexible the dog’s mind can be, giving it capabilities that no animals other than humans – not even the other primates in some cases –…

The Future of Food – Brian J. Ford ****

Anyone who attempts to keep on top of what we’re supposed to eat, what’s important in our diet, the debate on natural versus processed foods, infections from foodstuffs, and how trends are developing into the future, is liable to be confused. This slim volume from Professor Brian Ford aims to put us all straight. What’s good about the book is that Ford pulls no punches and makes it clear just how spurious the whole “natural food” sales approach is, given that familiar “wholesome” foods like bread and butter are anything but natural, but the result of long-term human interference with nature. He is particularly unnerving on the subject of the various bacteria that can be found in food, and how the move away from cooking ourselves to ready meals and eating out puts us more at risk from the dangers of food poisoning. He also spends a fair amount of the content on an essential consideration for everyone with a conscience – feeding the world. As Ford points out, it is entirely practical t…

The God Effect – Brian Clegg *****

We are used to hearing about “Einstein’s greatest mistake” being his throwing in the cosmological constant to explain the expansion of the universe. These days this seems less of a mistake than it was first thought. But there’s one thing he definitely didn’t get right – that’s quantum entanglement, a concept so bizarre, that Einstein used it as an example of why quantum theory had to be wrong. In fact it was Einstein who for once was mistaken, and entanglement has proved, as Brian Clegg’s subtitle suggests, to be one of science’s strangest phenomena. Imagine a link between two particles that is so low level that you can separate them to either side of the universe and a change in one particle will be instantly reflected in the other. Forget special relativity – the spooky connection of entanglement doesn’t know about the light speed barrier. The God Effect (the title is a reference to the Higgs boson, also known as the God Particle, which it has been suggested requires entanglement to…

Viruses vs Superbugs – Thomas Häusler ****

If ever there was a book that wasn’t for the faint hearted, it’s this one. I don’t mean that it’s painful to read. Despite being a translation (I’ll come back to this), it’s fluent and easy to get through the words – it’s just the contents that are nerve wracking. We’ve all heard the news stories about “superbugs” – bacteria like MRSA (originally short for methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus, but now, in sinister fashion, the MR means multi-resistant) that stalk hospitals and elsewhere, killing patients and refusing to respond to antibiotics. The first part of Thomas Häusler’s book concentrates firmly on scaring us to death about just how unstoppable these simple, but deadly bacteria, always around ready to take on a suitable wound, are becoming. The trouble is that bacteria breed very quickly. That means it doesn’t take long for a variant to occur that happens to be able to resist an antibiotic, and once the mutation crops up, natural selection means it may well have a better…

No Two Alike – Judith Rich Harris *****

This is an absolute stunner of a popular science book – without doubt one of the best of 2006. The author does a brilliant job of demolishing the academic psychology establishment, by questioning a fundamental assumption that was made without properly checking it – that nurture would influence personality. She does all this in a very personal, human fashion, with as much reference to the way traditional crime fiction works as to scientific research. This side of the book is handled superbly well. The key point that Judith Rich Harris makes is that while it can be shown that a percentage of our behaviour and personality comes from heredity, once you eliminate that genetic portion (just under half), it is very difficult to explain the rest. Specifically, she lays into those who just assume that this as a result of the way that our parents/carers mould our personality, pointing out that this bears no resemblance to reality – the reality for instance of identical twins, or even conjoined …