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Showing posts from 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. Paperback:  Review by Brian Clegg

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. Paperback:  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 bei…

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 lit…