Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Print is Dead – Jeff Gomez ***

It doesn’t take genius to spot the irony of reading a solid, ‘dead tree’ (as the author would put it) version of a book saying that the printed book is on its last legs. (It is available in ebook form, but as will become clear, the author isn’t too impressed with those either.)
Jeff Gomez is an industry insider, though one with a bias – he’s responsible for internet marketing for Holtzbrinck, the publisher that includes Henry Holt, Picador, St. Martin’s Press, Farrar Strauss & Giroux and more. He makes a telling argument that there is a generation coming through that has less patience with books, less interest in books themselves as a physical medium.
Where he’s particularly good is at demolishing many of the typical responses of those who defend the printed book. Book lovers often go into paens about the physical joy of using a book: the smell, the feel of the binding and so forth. The fact is, for most people books are semi-disposable paperbacks with no real intrinsic value. He also shoots down the ‘can you read in a bath argument’ so popular with many. Printed books, he points out, don’t like getting wet either. Have you every tried reading in a shower? (A better argument is whether ebooks are any good to read in bed. Without a good book-like reader (is the Kindle the answer?), ereading is hopeless.)
Equally, those who want to shoot down Gomez’s idea point out that ebooks have not done well commercially. It’s true. But we haven’t had the ebook equivalent of the iPod yet and (and this is Gomez’s best point), it’s not either/or. There’s more to reading that the printed book and an Adobe Reader ebook. There are many ways to read electronically. We do it all them time, whether it’s searching in Google or reading a Word document. The current ebooks aren’t a great way to read a novel, but there is plenty of electronic reading going on, and gradually, with the right approaches, it will increasingly marginalize print.
However, there are some real problems with this book. The first is the classic trap of non-fiction. It’s an interesting idea, but there isn’t enough to support a whole book. It’s really a magazine article (or a blog entry!) – and this means that Gomez is forced to repeat the same argument over and over again in subtly different ways to fill what is a pretty slim book. Then there are the parallels Gomez draws in the way he expects print to go. He says, for instance, that we’ve already seen the decline of newspapers thanks to the internet. This really isn’t true. A generation before the ‘download generation’ Gomez keeps referring to, newspapers were already in decline because of TV news. I’ve never subscribed to a newspaper, because I can get all the news I need, fresher, from the TV. I read newspapers occasionally for entertainment and in-depth insight – and that role change had already come well before the internet, it’s just that there were plenty of older newspaper subscribers propping them up.
Similarly, he beats to death the parallel between reading and what the iPod and digital downloads have done to music. But these are very different products. More often than not, iPod music is sophisticated Musak. It’s music that’s in the background while you do something else. Reading is a very different exercise. I’m not saying that it has to be from a printed page – couldn’t care less – but it isn’t the same as listening to music.
Finally, he makes the frequent mistake of the enthusiast of assuming that everyone else is too. He says that what the ‘download generation’ want to do is to mash up their own products, to create and interact, not just to consume. Yet this is a picture of a small percentage of the market. It’s telling that he uses examples of experimental writing and music where the reader or listener can change the content. This isn’t mainstream. It’s for the geeks. And books where you fiddle around and jump from place to place and rearrange the story are for literary geeks. Most readers want to pick up something and read it, whether it’s Heat Magazine or a great novel – they don’t want to reshape and mould it. They want some rest and recreation. So a flawed message in a compromised vehicle. But still interesting for the questions it raises.
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Different Engines – Mark L. Brake & Neil Hook ***

I looked forward to this book with great anticipation. In my younger days I was a great fan of science fiction, and am fascinated by the overlap and influence that flows between ‘real’ science and fiction that uses science as its backdrop, its hook or its foil.
I think, for this reason – the intense anticipation – and one other reason, I was rather disappointed, so I want to get that negative part out of the way first. One problem was the style. Books about science fiction are usually written in a very approachable fashion, as is good popular science. This felt a bit too much like an academic work, rather than an engaging read. (This might have been the authors’ intent, but Macmillan Science is supposed to be a popular science imprint.) I found myself skipping bits where I was getting bored, never a good indicator.
The trouble with the anticipation is that there is so much key science fiction missing. This falls out of the structure of the book, which looks at a particular era in science, then matches up science fiction to that science. But the trouble with this is that many of the SF greats don’t fit that timetable well, and so aren’t really featured. The 1950s/early 1960s were a rich period in SF greats, but we’re limited because this has been labelled as the ‘atomic age’, so it’s all about the rather dull post-apocalyptic writing of the period. I could moan, for instance, about the lack of coverage of Blish or Pohl or Wyndham, but I really only need to point out that Isaac Asimov gets only two tangential references to say enough.
Given this worrying start, it might seem that three stars is a generous rating. Yet the book has some likeable features. It takes science fiction seriously, it provides a lot of detail on the often overlooked pre-H.G. Wells proto SF, and it brings out the relationship between fiction and science well.
A final amusing thought. Although actually published in 2007, the book claims to be published in 2008 – could it be the authors have access to that stalwart science fiction prop, the time machine?
Review by Martin O'Brien

Friday, 16 November 2007

The Void – Frank Close ***

It’s tempting to wonder why anyone would want to write a book about nothing. It would, I presume, be a short book. This is certainly a slim volume, but packs plenty in, because ‘the void’ is a more subtle and complex concept than mere nothingness. Even so, as an author, this is a title that smacks to me of ‘edge hunting’. Any popular science book needs a special something to hang the book on, whether it’s a person, an event or some special aspect of the science itself. It’s easy to imagine Frank Close having a eureka moment when he hit on the void as that special edge for his book, though as we will see, it’s one of those subjects that sounds great as an initial idea, but is hard to provide with much substance.
As a topic, the void isn’t quite as empty as it seems – at the quantum level, a vacuum is anything but empty – but there really isn’t enough in it to support a whole book, and in practice, though there are bits about vacuum and the void, this is really a book about the development of quantum theory, including the evolution of ideas about the nature of matter and light, using the idea of the void as a hook.
Sadly, it doesn’t work awfully well. Frank Close does not provide enough detail to allow the history of science in the book to be anything other than fleeting, nor does it make it possible to really explain the physics, with too much jargon for a true popular science book. Strangest of all, this is a book that seems to sit solidly in the ‘light is a wave’ historical camp. Although Close makes a passing mention of photons, nearly all the book operates on the assumption not that light has wave-like behaviour, but that it truly is a wave, presumably because Close feels this is easier for the non-technical reader to deal with. This is an unhelpful image, especially when getting into quantum theory – it’s almost as if quantum electrodynamics, describing light’s interaction with matter, and all of Feynman’s work showing how all the wave-like properties could be explained using photons, had never happened. I know we often still speak as if light were a wave for convenience, but a book operating at this level should leave the reader with a less classical view.
Overall a book that failed to satisfy, in part because what seemed like a very interesting hook proved, ironically, to have very little to it.
Review by Brian Clegg

Max Perutz and the Secret of Life – Georgina Ferry *****

There are some books that, when they arrive on the reviewing shelf, tend to get pushed to one side because, frankly, they don’t seem very interesting. After a spate of DNA-related titles, it was very easy to think ‘oh, yes, another molecular biologist, but they’ve done the famous ones and now they’re scraping the barrel.’ I don’t mean that in any way disrespectfully of Perutz – he was, after all, a Nobel prize winner – but there are plenty of Nobel laureates out there and they certainly aren’t all in the Feynman class when it comes to science-changing achievements or having an interesting life. However, in this reaction I was reckoning without two things – there was more to Max Perutz than meets the eye, and Georgina Ferry does a riveting job, producing a biography that is a joy to read.
It’s hard not to like Perutz if you’re British – because we all love people who come from another country but prefer ours – and this is doubly amazing considering the way he was treated during the Second World War, when as an enemy alien he was imprisoned and packed off to Canada (nothing against Canada, it was just not where he wanted to be, especially in a prison camp). Although he had his failings, he comes across as a likeable person without the ego problems that some Nobel prize winners have suffered from.
One of the strengths of Ferry’s book is the way that she doesn’t whitewash over Perutz’s failings – in fact he could be quite obtuse, and is never portrayed in the sort of quixotic genius mode we are used to with the Nobel greats, but rather as a systematic (you might even say plodding) but tenacious follower of his lines of inquiry. Once he goes off the rails in a fairly big way in pursuing those who disagree with him, but you never lose sympathy with Perutz as a character.
The other strength of this book is that though there is enough of his sometimes abstruse branch of science, concentrating on haemoglobin and aspects of protein structure for most of his working life to get a good understanding of what his work was about, Ferry never makes it obscure, always keeping the subject approachable to the non-biologist. Fascinating also for its description of the life of a top scientific laboratory from the 30s onwards, including a touch of the politics involved, and some larger than life characters, this is one of 2007’s better surprise finds.
Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 10 November 2007

The Myth of Mars and Venus – Deborah Cameron ***

We all know that men and women communicate differently, and that’s why they don’t understand each other. That’s why there’s the battle between the sexes and all those occasions where men have to think of their ‘feminine side’ and so on. But do we really know this in a scientific sense, or is it more a myth? Deborah Cameron believes it is.
As she begins to dig into the literature, broadly divided between the populist self-help books like the one referred to in the title of this, and popular science books like those by Steven Pinker and Simon Baron Cohen, Cameron finds a surprising amount of ‘fact’ that it has no scientific basis. She finds that all the key ‘facts’ that these books build theories on – that women talk more men, that women are more verbally skilled than men, that men talk more about things and women about feelings, that men’s language is competitive and women’s language cooperative, and that men and women misunderstand what their partners mean in relationships causing stress – are all either entirely false or only partially true, in certain circumstances.
This is a real revelation and fascinating, but unfortunately, this is what I’ve heard called an ‘article book’. Its content is really more suited to a good magazine or newspaper article, rather than a whole book. Once Cameron has got this key point across, the rest of what is anyway a slim volume (something we normally applaud) is taken up mostly by repeating the same thing in many different ways. This lack of substance isn’t helped by the fact that the author seems rather ambivalent as to whether these theories help suppress women or are supportive and enlightening.
Great idea, then, and one that should (but won’t) kick the whole “men are from Mars, women from Venus” industry into touch (while also encouraging those more scientific authors to think twice) – but not enough to make a whole book out of.
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

The Tiger that Isn't - Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot *****

Leaving aside the fact that the authors of this book sound like a location from Doctor Who ("I stared across the barren waste of the Dilnot Blastland"), reading it is a great experience. The premise is simple, but effective. All the time we are bombarded with numbers, with statistics, that we tend to take as gospel. But both the numbers themselves and the way they are used should always be subject to a little light questioning.

The authors point out how easy it is to bamboozled by very large numbers, that can be checked out with only a few moments thought. Often what is required is to put the numbers into terms we can better understand. For example, if you heard that £3.12 billion was being spent on the UK population, it sounds an immense amount. But as the authors point out, when you take around 60 million people in the UK and 52 weeks in a year, this amounts to spending £1 a week on each person - not quite as dramatic as it seems.

I've found myself being a little bit more thoughtful about the headline figures I see in the media since reading the book. The same day I saw a newspaper headline telling how some serious crime was up 50% - a huge increase. But when you looked at the actual numbers, there were only 20 more cases. Tragedies, each one, for the people involved, but still a very unlikely occurrence, blown out of proportion by the power of percentages.

Averages, too, come in for a good deal of stick. After all, the average person has less than 2 feet (think about it), so should we change the way we sell shoes in pairs? Probably not.

Very readable, always informative and often entertaining, this is a book that every politician, civil servant and ... well, everyone... should read. It is unashamedly UK-based in its examples, which I guess explains why there isn't a US edition - but that shouldn't put anyone off. The message is universal.


Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Why People Believe Weird Things – Michael Shermer ****

Michael Shermer is probably best known as Scientific American’s resident sceptic – a man who has what seems the wickedly enjoyable job of going around finding fault with other people’s beliefs – a sort of modern day court jester without (presumably – I’ve never seen him) the funny costume and bells. In this classic, originally published in 1997 but reviewed in a new UK edition, he gives a powerful argument for taking the sceptical viewpoint.
Although along the same lines as Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World, this book works alongside Sagan’s masterpiece, rather than competing with it. It focuses more on why we believe strange things, and also very usefully expands out from the paranormal and pseudoscience to include pseudohistory, a topic I hadn’t even realized existed.
Shermer is something of a convert to scepticism, so has a convert’s fervour, but none of the unpleasant aggressiveness of the likes of Randi and Dawkins. Instead he gently shows us how strange beliefs come into being, and why they have such a strong hold. Inevitably strong on the paranormal and UFOs, he is particularly good when looking at the likes of modern accusations of satanic rituals, and the remarkable cult of Ayn Rand. The section on creationism is a little weaker, partly because it isn’t quite up-to-date enough, and also because there has been so much material going into this in more depth (see, for example, Scientists Confront…)
In some ways I was most impressed by the next section on pseudohistory, in part, I suspect, because of not having really thought about this as a concept before. The chapters on holocaust denial were fascinating, and perhaps even more surprising was the self-deception of the ‘all ideas originated in Africa’ movement (again new to me).
The only reason that this book doesn’t get 5 stars is that I found the last section before getting to the summaries, on a scientific idea that its originator says gives a mechanism for a form of eternal life, irritating. It just isn’t the same sort of problem as the other topics covered in the book. Here someone is speculating wildly based on extrapolating scientific theories to the extreme – but that’s a very different game to having an unshakable belief in concepts with no support in evidence, and I think Shermer does himself and the reader a disservice by confusing the two. However, the book doesn’t entirely end on this mistake, as there are a couple of short chapters pulling together the whys and wherefores of belief in weird things, so this small glitch doesn’t destroy the flow, and certainly shouldn’t detract from the fact that overall this is a book, alongside Sagan’s, that ought to be on every thinking person’s shelf.
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Avoid Boring People – James D. Watson ***

An autobiography by as big a name in science as James Watson, one of the discoverers of the structure of DNA, is one of those rare moments that perhaps can be over-anticipated to the point of disappointment when it arrives. Sadly, this was the case with Avoid Boring People.
It covers the period from his birth to the mid 1970s, but does so in a strangely detached, rather affected style. You never get the feeling that you are seeing the real person, but rather a dim view into the past through fogged lenses. As is often the case the early family history is a bit dull, but things liven up when Watson gets to school – but rather than soaring from here, it’s only certain little areas, such as political battles at Harvard, that shine through with any great brilliance.
Perhaps most surprising is the almost summary approach to the DNA work. One suspects that Watson thinks it has all been done before – not least in his own The Double Helix, written when he was much younger, and with huge vigour. It’s easy to imagine that it seemed sensible to deal with this episode in a summary fashion – but then you’ve taken the heart out of why this isn’t a book about just any scientist – and the result is inevitably disappointment.
Watson’s social life is also skipped over rather – before meeting his wife, he mentions quite a few young women, but without giving any idea what their relationships were. A more detached biographer would probably have seen fit to point out that as Watson went from an undergraduate to the 40-year-old he was when he married, he mostly seemed interested in women around the undergraduate age, and perhaps to draw some conclusions.
Worst of all, though, is the approach to the science. There is no attempt to make this interesting to the general reader. There’s not enough explanation, and too much ready throwing in of jargon. In the end it provides little more than a teenage ‘we did this, they did that’ account of the scientific work he is describing. This is not how popular science should be undertaken.
The whole structure is not helped by ending each chapter with a series of trite aphorisms as ‘lessons from life’. One of these is the title of the book. Unfortunately, this is more a case of “avoid boring book.”
Hardback (US is Paperback):  
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 4 October 2007

A Certain Ambiguity – Gaurav Suri & Hartosh Singh Bal ***(**)

This is one of the very few books we have been unable to give a straightforward star rating. The reason is that it has been important to separate the idea and the execution. More on this later.
A Certain Ambiguity is a novel, but a novel with the explicit intention of putting across information about mathematics. This might seem a very new thing to do, but in fact has plenty of historical precedent. For example, when Galileo wrote his two great books, they were in the form of dialogues between fictional characters. Of course they weren’t novels – the novel form didn’t exist – but they did make use of human discussion to help get across complex points to a more general reader.
In A Certain Ambiguity we meet Ravi Kapoor who travels from India to America to further his education, and finds himself increasingly fascinated by both maths and his grandfather, who was a mathematician and had been in the US himself. The storyline interwines Ravi’s experience at college with a gradual uncovering of the reasons his grandfather was jailed for blasphemy, and how his grandfather discussed issues of maths and philosophy with a judge.
First the good stuff, the reason A Certain Ambiguity gets those bracketed five stars. It is a wonderful idea. Popular science is all about getting the joy and wonder of science across to general readers. This is easier with, say, physics or genetics than with maths, which many might find cold and off-putting. Yet Suri and Bal set out to show the genuine joy of discovery that can be there in mathematics, and how knowing about maths can help us understand how human beings understand everything. This is a truly noble aim. Anything that can be done to make science and maths more approachable is well worth the effort. And there are some very effective moments in this novel where Suri and Bal manage to get across mathematical intuitions in a fashion that’s better than anything I’ve seen elsewhere.
However, and there has to be a “however”, it’s a flawed enterprise. Firstly it just isn’t a very good novel. There’s no real feeling of identity with the protagonists – I don’t really care what happens to them – and there’s much too much fake quotation and concentration on jazz that is simply boring. Then there are one or two factual issues that are a little uncomfortable. We hear a Stanford professor say that Galileo invented the telescope – painfully wrong. A judge in the US finds it shocking to have music in church – unlikely unless he was a Quaker, which other comments he makes seems unlikely. The whole lengthy argument over religion gets in the way of both the plot and the maths. The fictional journal entries are both banal and boring. To have Spinoza say “Today I was excommunicated,” is just too like a school essay attempt at a historical character’s journal.
There’s also too much mathematical exposition – more than I would expect in a straight popular maths book, let alone a novel where it breaks the flow. And in the end, the premise that seems to take everyone by surprise – in effect that the “truth” of mathematical systems can’t necessarily be equated with how the physical world works, but stands as a construct in its own right, certainly shouldn’t be a shock to any scientist, and I would have thought wouldn’t take any of the characters in the book by surprise either.
I can’t, in all sincerity, recommend this book either as a novel or as a way to get an understanding of the maths it contains, but I can and do wholeheartedly celebrate the value of the authors’ attempt.
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Leaving Earth – Robert Zimmerman ***

There have been some excellent books on manned space missions, such as Deborah Cadbury’s Space Race and my own, more recent Final Frontier, and Robert Zimmerman has found an obvious gap in the coverage of the space stations that have been planned as stepping stones to exploration of the solar system, or made real as flying laboratories. There is a good coverage of the Russian side of the story, often slightly overlooked, but so important when it comes to space stations. Zimmerman gets across the mix of professionalism and make-do that characterized these missions.
Mostly the book is very readable, but it is a little too obsessed with detail in covering every mission and every small modification made to space stations, and this is occasionally a touch tedious, but shouldn’t detract from what is a book that anyone interested in the real significance of manned exploration of space should read.
Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 14 September 2007

Vanity, Vitality and Virility – John Emsely ***

This is one of those “seemed like a good idea at the time” titles. It’s a glance behind the scenes at all those chemicals that influence our appearance and health, from the materials that make lipstick shimmer to the mechanism behind Viagra. In principle this should be fascinating, and Emsley does his usual good job of putting the message across in an approachable way – but the whole package looks dull and simply doesn’t entice the reader in.
It should be a good book – it’s by a good writer on a potentially interesting topic – but there’s just something about the topic that makes it less than a sum of its parts.
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Atom – Piers Bizony ****

Sometimes the simplest ideas make for the best popular science books – quite possibly because one of the wonders of science is that many of apparently simple ideas are anything but simple when examined closely. Atoms are the building blocks of all matter – a substantial part of the universe, and decidedly significant to us in our atom-constructed bodies – so they prove a substantial topic, and yet one that brings in plenty of history, intriguing characters and weird science, once the quantum age is reached.
It’s worth contrasting this book with Marcus Chown’s The Quantum Zoo, which so elegantly explains quantum theory (and general relativity for good measure). Where Chown’s book wins hands down is the effectiveness with which it explains quantum theory in surprising depth, yet in a way that is comprehensible to the general reader. Piers Bizony takes a different approach in Atom, rather more skimming the technical side, but including more historical context and details of the human beings who have made contributions to our understanding of atoms over the years. This makes it an easier read than Chown’s, though ultimately not as rewarding if you really want to grasp what quantum theory (inseparable from understanding atoms) is all about. Similarly for a much more in-depth exploration of how atoms were formed in stars, and how this discovery was made, see Chown’s The Magic Furnace, which has significant similarities in content, but considerably more richness.
A really good popular science book that takes a history of science approach will immerse the reader in the characters and the lives of those making the discoveries, so the science is almost absorbed by osmosis as you go. Atom doesn’t quite achieve this. I think the fault, perhaps, is not so much Bizony’s writing, which is effective and enjoyable, but the fact that this is a book of a TV series (to be precise, according to the cover “a major television series” – have you ever seen the book of “an insignificant television series”?). This must to some extent shape the structure and level to which Bizony can go down to, though I would guess (I’m afraid I haven’t seen the BBC series) the book manages to get in much more detail than was shown on screen.
The result is that there is more biographical information than you need to set the context, but not quite enough to really become immersed in the individuals. One example – Richard Feynman gets a lot of biographical coverage, yet his second marriage, an important reflection of his character at the time, is never even mentioned, as if it never existed. There’s often a feeling that Bizony is holding back, not giving us the colour that will make the person come alive, and so the biographical parts can seem a little detached.
The only other moan about this book is the final chapter, which seems to be a tacked on collection of little essays, and doesn’t really fit with the structure or feel of the rest of the book. I would rather have lost it, and gained more insights into the individuals involved in what is, without doubt, a fascinating exploration of one of the most fundamental aspects of nature, and one that Bizony brings alive in an effective way. A good popular science book for those who are taking their first, tentative steps into the genre.
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

The Equation that Couldn’t be Solved – Mario Livio *****

A book we recently reviewed (Unknown Quantity by John Derbyshire) claimed to provide an engaging history of algebra, but failed to deliver. This book, by contrast, does much more than it claims. Not only does provide a genuinely readable history of algebra, but this is just a precursor to the development of group theory, its link to symmetry, and the importance of symmetry in the natural world. (If you are wondering what this has to do with an equation that couldn’t be solved, along the way it describes how it was eventually proved that you can’t produce a simple formula to predict the solutions to quintic equations – if that sounds painful, don’t worry, it isn’t in this book.)
I can’t remember when I last read a mathematics book that was so much of a page turner. Mario Livio has just the right touch in bringing in the lives and personalities of the mathematicians involved, and though he isn’t condescending in his approach, and occasionally readers may find what’s thrown at them a little hard to get their mind around, provided you are prepared to go with the flow and not worry too much if you understand every nuance, it is superb. Just an example of the throw-away brilliance – I’ve read a good number of books on string theory, but this is the first time I’ve seen it made clear how the mathematical basis of the theory is put together. Just occasionally it’s possible that Livio is skimming over a point in a little too summary a fashion – but that’s rare.
If you have read any other maths histories, you may already have come across some biographical detail of Abel and Galois, two very significant men in this story, who have the added biographical mystique of dying young. However, I really felt that Livio has added something to what has been said before, especially in his exploration of Galois’ mysterious death, and also in the way he sets the scene in France at the time, entirely necessary for those of us who haven’t studied history.
The one disappointment with the book is its final chapter, in which Livio tries to examine what creativity is and why some people are creative mathematicians. It sits uncomfortably, not fitting with the flow of the rest of the contents, and it’s clearly a subject the author knows less about than maths and physics. He makes a classic error (which may be one that mathematicians are particularly prone to) of assuming there is a single right answer to a real world problem. Livio challenges us with this problem: “You are given six matches of equal length, and the objective is to use them to form exactly four triangles, in which all the sides of all the four problems are equal.” He then shows us “the solution” in an appendix. The fact is that almost all real world problems, outside the pristine unreality of maths, have more than one solution. In this case, his solution (to form a 3D tetrahedron) is not the only solution, and arguably is not even the best solution.*
However, despite the aberration of this chapter, the rest of the book is a tonic – absolutely one of the best popular maths books we’ve ever seen. Highly recommended.
* Here’s one other solution. For four equilateral triangles, you need 12 identical length sides. So cut each matchstick in half. You now have 12 identical length pieces and can make the four triangles. This is arguably a better solution because it is freestanding – Livio’s solution has to be held in place – and because it is more mathematically pleasing. If you take one triangle away from this solution (4-1=3) you end up with 3 triangles. if you take one triangle away from Livio’s solution, you end up with 0 triangles. (4-1=0). We can think of at least one other solution, and there are almost certainly more.
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Four Laws (that drive the Universe) – Peter Atkins ***

There’s something rather Victorian feeling about the concept of universal laws – and Peter Atkins rightly recognizes in his introduction that thermodynamics – the subject of this slim volume – is a word that tends to conjure up Victorian images like steam engines and pistons, but there is much more to the four laws of thermodynamics (confusingly starting with the zeroth law) than the answers to all the questions a Victorian engineer might ask. In fact, as Atkins suggests, these laws are an absolute fundamental when it comes to understanding how the universe works, and everyone ought to have a rough idea of what they are about. Apparently C. P. Snow once said “not knowing the second law of thermodynamics is like never having read a work by Shakespeare.” Now, leaving aside the fact that reading much Shakespeare is rather dull (at least compared with watching a Shakespeare play, put on by a decent cast), which I don’t think is what Snow meant, there’s an element of truth here.
So a slim book, painlessly introducing the big four to the innocent reader, more familiar with Shakespeare than physics, would be a great thing indeed. Unfortunately that’s not quite what this book is. Even most popular science fans will find it both over-complex and rather hard work. That’s not to say this isn’t a good book for a certain audience. It would be excellent to help first year physics undergraduates get to grips with the ideas behind thermodynamics before they have to plunge into doing all the calculations that go with it – and I would highly recommend it for that audience – but for the general reader, neither the style nor the content cuts in, in terms of getting across thermodynamics as accessibly as other books have managed to explain (say) relativity or quantum theory for the general reader. What a shame.
Review by Brian Clegg

Is There Life After Death? – Tony Peake ***

Don’t ignore this book because you think it’s not about science – it is, and that’s why it’s here. Tony Peake is not in the business of peddling religion, but examines the possible impact of the strangest aspects of quantum theory and modern concepts of consciousness to see if there’s a scientific way of looking beyond our normal idea of a 70 year lifespan. In a sense the title of his book is misleading (I don’t think he chose it) – it’s not so much about life after death, as life outside of the conscious existence we all familiar with.
What is really interesting about this book is the way that Peake uses legitimate (if not always mainstream) scientific theories to weave a beguiling picture of what we might be, as beings that live in a very different universe to the one we perceive (we know our perception of the world is a construct of the brain). Inevitably it brings in the many worlds interpretation of quantum theory, but also many other ideas to make a powerful and exotic suggestion of how Peake believes we can exist outside of our apparent earthly life. It’s unfortunate that he brings in “data” from pseudo-science from Nostradamus’s predictions to hypnotism, but that doesn’t stop there being a lot of very interesting ideas here. To make his case, Peake has to combine scientific theory with subjective stories, which means ignoring that excellent quote “data is not the plural of anecdote” – but that doesn’t stop this being a genuinely interesting excursion into “what if?”
The biggest concern I have about this book is not the topic itself, which is fascinating, or even the anecdotal evidence, but rather the way that the whole edifice is built on shaky foundations. There are a number of errors in the basic science at the start of the book that make it worrying just how safe the rest of the conclusions are. For instance, early on we are told that Einstein called the particles of light he dreamed up photons. Unfortunately it was Planck, not Einstein, who came up with the idea of quanta, and Einstein didn’t call them photons – the name was devised by chemist Gilbert Lewis. We are also told that according to quantum theory, matter is nothing more than a probability wave – this is a rather odd interpretation. The probability wave describes the chances of a particle being in a particular position, but this doesn’t mean the particle is a probability wave. There is also some doubtful inclusion of woffly philosophy among the science. For example, Peake asks us where the redness of a red coat resides, given it doesn’t look red in moonlight, so the red nature can’t reside in the coat. This is a doubtful interpretation. The redness is a property of the chemical constituents that decide which frequencies that it will emit and which it will absorb. The fact that it doesn’t look red in some lights or absence of light is irrelevant – redness is a property of the chemical components that is revealed by using certain lights and that’s an end to it unless you want to play philosophical games.
Perhaps most worryingly, the whole basis of Peake’s argument is that according to quantum theory there needs to be a conscious observer to make the waveform collapse and the world to be become real. While some have argued this, it certainly isn’t a view held by most physicists, whichever interpretation of quantum theory they subscribe to – most would assume that an “observation” can be as little as an interaction with another particle. Just to be clear that I’m not being picky, here’s an example of fundamental scientific errors on just one page. We are told “most gamma ray primary particles are photons” – gamma rays are electromagnetic radiation: they are entirely made up of photons. A little later we are told “these primary particle photons carry so much energy they can travel at 99.9999999 percent of the speed of light.” No, photons are light – they travel at 100% of the speed of light. A little later there’s talk of time dilation and photons. “A clock moving alongside this particle would tick at one hundred billionth of the rate of a clock on Earth.” Unfortunately, the whole basis of special relativity is that nothing can move alongside a photon. However slow or fast you move alongside a light beam, it always comes at you at the same speed. A little later: “usually charged objects such as photons will be deflected by our galaxy’s magnetic field.” Unfortunately, photons aren’t charged particles.
Overall, then, this is a fascinating book and a great subject, well worth reading if only to see if you are inclined to argue with the author or agree with him. There is some doubt about the fundamental physics – perhaps there are one or two leaps of imagination too far – yet it doesn’t stop in being a book that should be on many more people’s shelves.
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 2 August 2007

The Time Traveller – Ronald Mallett & Bruce Henderson *****

The idea of travelling in time has been a science fiction standard for at least a hundred years, but it’s one of those subjects that real scientists tend to avoid like the plague. The fact is, scientists can be quite conservative about what they discuss, and though several have postulated that it could be possible to travel in time using impractical suggestions like wormholes, to dare to attempt to design a time machine for real is putting yourself in a real state of risk. Yet this is exactly what physics professor Ronald Mallett has done – and got away with it.
This charming book explains how a boy from a poor family was driven into science by the urge to go back and visit his dead father – it really is the stuff of fiction – and though he was worked on various topic along the way, underlying his progression has always been the belief that he would find a way to travel through time.
The book is superbly readable – it once again shows how academics can benefit from getting the help of a co-author. What might seem fairly unpromising stuff – boy grows up to be academic (yawn) – into a real page-turner. All along the way you want Ronald Mallett to succeed, such is his determination.
The book isn’t perfect. Although the asides explaining the science along the way are generally quite effective, the attempts to put things into historical context by, for instance, summarizing Einstein’s life are just too summary – they make a big thing about Einstein’s children, but don’t even mention the first one, for instance. If you are going to give historical context, it should be better researched. The other big problem is the ending. In a sense, the book has been written too early. Mallett, a theoretical physicist – has devised a means that could enable time travel, and has got an experimenter willing to put something together, but that’s as far as they’ve got, so just when you get to the chapter where you expect the big reveal, in fact the book ends with a rather wishy-washy chapter with such fillers as “what I’d ask Einstein if I could go back.” This was a real disappointment. Without the experimental results, it’s not possible to tell if it would work at all – and if it does work, whether the shift would be big enough to use. Mallett doesn’t mention the faster-than-light experiments of Nimtz, Chiao etc., which do provide a very small time shift, but one that can never be practically used, and this could be the same. (For a broader exploration of time travel, see my How to Build a Time Machine, which features a chapter on Mallett.)
Perhaps the most poignant moment is the realization of a limitation in the approach (one that’s common to many hypothetical time travel mechanisms, so it’s surprising Mallett didn’t realize sooner – maybe this was shifted later for dramatic purposes). His time travel device could never move back earlier than when the device was first made, so couldn’t be used to visit his late father.
Despite those flaws, though, a hugely readable book, a fascinating subject and a delightful story.
Review by Brian Clegg