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Showing posts from 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 pro…

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 indi…

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…