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Showing posts from 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.

Different Engines (SF) – 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

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 develo

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 S

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 s

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 littl

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 i

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 hug

A Certain Ambiguity (SF) – 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 unco

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. Paperb ack :    Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you Review by B

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. Paperb ack :    Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you Review by Brian Clegg

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

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

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 sli

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 suggest

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 hel