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Showing posts from November, 2007

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 scie…

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 developm…

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 Sec…

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 str…

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 mor…