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Showing posts from May, 2006

Jurassic Mary – Patricia Pierce ****

We almost take fossils for granted now. The sight of a fossil might still be exciting, but we know just what we’re dealing with, and why they’re there. But Patricia Pierce takes us back to a different time, when the word “dinosaur” was yet to be coined, when fossils were much more mysterious finds. What’s more she takes us back to meet a very successful fossil hunter, who discovered several new species, or British firsts, who was an uneducated young woman – someone who therefore had to overcome a huge mountain of prejudice through sheer enthusiasm. That’s enough to make Mary Anning’s story a delight – and Pierce tells it well, embroidering a little to set the scene, but never going over the top. We are taken into the world of Victorian Lyme Regis, getting a good feel for the place at the time and Mary Anning’s achievements that would put her alongside many of the great names of fossil discovery of the period, though she herself only once left Lyme for a brief visit to London, and neve…

The Devil’s Doctor – Philip Ball ****

It’s very easy to dismiss those who laboured in areas we now recognize as science in medieval times. Some historians of science, with a brief nod to the developments in the Arab world prior to 1200, jump straight from the ancient Greeks to Galileo. But to do so reflects a fundamental misunderstanding, an incomprehension that results from looking back at medieval thinkers with a modern agenda. Strip away that bias, and surprising steps were taken. When this reviewer suggested that the 13th century friar Roger Bacon could be regarded as the first scientist, it was argued in reviews that I was over-enthusiastic about the subject and had over-played Bacon’s significance. After all, he wasn’t a very good scientist. Theology was central to his worldview and he tended to overvalue the wisdom of the ancients, even though he argued against relying on received wisdom, and in favour of the importance of experiment. But surely the point is that the first scientist would not be a good scientist – …

Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You – Marcus Chown *****

Some while ago, one of www.popularscience.co.uk’s readers asked for some advice. He’d read our dismissive review of The Dancing Wu Li Masters and wondered if we could recommend an alternative as a good introduction to the amazing world of quantum theory. To be honest, we struggled. There are some reasonable books around, but they’re mostly quite dated, and none of them are top notch popular science. Luckily, though, Marcus Chown has come to our aid with Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You, simply the best and most readable overview of the quantum world, with a great high level overview of general relativity thrown in as a bonus. Right from the beginning you know that Chown is going to make this an interesting ride. He hits you between the eyes with some of the mind-boggling consequences of quantum physics and relativity, then takes the reader spiralling into the sub-atomic world to explore the nature of matter and the seemingly impossible behaviour of quantum particles that insist on bein…

Patrick Moore: the autobiography – Patrick Moore ****

If you come from the UK, the late Patrick Moore will be very familiar as one of the first TV celebrities, even if you’ve never watched his astronomy show. A wonderful eccentric, complete with monocle, xylophone and huge enthusiasm, he presented the longest running TV show ever with a single presenter, the astronomy programme The Sky at Night, as well as writing a magnificent output of books on astronomy and juvenile science fiction. His eccentricity comes through very quickly in the autobiography. Doing away with the convention that we need to learn of the upbringing to discover the person, he pretty well skips over everything before 1952, when at age 29, his first book was published. It’s as if this was when he was truly born. In the process he also dismisses something that would, in most autobiographies, be central to the “plot”. Moore lived with his mother until she died when he was in his late 50s. This might lead to suspicions about his emotional life – but these are dismissed by…

Phantoms in the Brain – Sandra Blakeslee & V. S. Ramachandran ****

“What causes a wide range of strange mental behaviours?” asks the author at the start of the book. Traditionally many of these would have been put down as being “just madness”, but as we come to know more of how the brain works we can start to see physical reasons for the strange perceptions and behaviours. I was a little uncertain about V. S. Ramachandran’s response to a question he says he often gets asked – “When are you brain scientists ever going to come up with a unified theory of how the mind works?” They are looking for a sort of brain version of general relativity and Newton’s laws, he suggests, and that won’t happen yet, as we are more at the descriptive Michael Faraday point in the history of brain science, rather than the Maxwell’s equations stage, where things get more quantified and tied down. Ramachandran has a point, but surely the real answer is because the brain isn’t a fundamental building block of nature – it’s a bit like asking when is there going to be a unified…

The Infinite Book – John D. Barrow ****

Authors are often asked to review books on a topic they’ve written on themselves. The reasoning is sensible – they ought to know something about the subject – but there’s always that uneasy suspicion that there’s going to be a bit of bias creeping in. So I think it’s only fair to admit up front that I have written a book on infinity (of which more later). Infinity is a wonderful subject, because it’s intimately mind-bending (if the combination sounds paradoxical, that’s what infinity is all about) and gives you the chance to pull in all sorts of different concepts and assocations along the way, something Barrow does with great gusto. There’s a surprisingly large amount of coverage here for God, and for the universe, and the book jumps around from Aristotle to Hilbert’s Infinite Hotel (explained at great length), from the paradoxes of infinite sets to the paradoxes of time travel. Overall it’s an enjoyable journey that gives plenty of opportunity to be amazed and surprised. The only tr…