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Showing posts from 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 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

Unknown Quantity – John Derbyshire ***

There is something rather fascinating about the little quotes you see on a the cover of a book. Sometimes they are intriguing, sometimes banal. In this case of this particular book, I had to wonder if someone writing for New Scientist, who commented “even algebraphobes will struggle to fault” was reading the same book. To be fair, “struggle to fault” is such a suspiciously ugly phrase that it’s hard not to suspect that there was more to that sentence in the original form than meets the eye. Whatever – as it stands it is very misleading. To be fair, John Derbyshire does intertwine the mathematical bits of this history of algebra with a bit of context, telling us about the people involved, and those bits work rather well, but the fact remains there is no way you can describe this as a popular maths book. The suspicions are immediately raised by the way the book is divided up into numbered sections. There’s nothing like seeing §3.2 to bring all the joy of reading a textbook flooding ba