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Showing posts from April, 2008

Powering Up – Rebecca Mileham ****

This is one of a small series of books linked to the Dana Centre at the Science Museum in London. I’m a great fan of the Dana Centre – it’s a stylish cafe bar, where most evenings there is an informal and interactive session on once science topic or another. Like the Café Scientifique movement, it’s a great way of getting the science message across in a non-threatening way. The point of the Dana Centre is to explore science and society and to get across aspects of science through the sort of thing that grabs people’s attention – and like it or not, computer games provide an excellent platform for such an analysis. Unlike the companion volume Being Virtual, which has very little science in its exploration of the online world, Rebecca Mileham’s book makes a point of going into the science behind different aspects of our relationship with computer games, from whether they effect your health and mood to their potential for helping us learn, and for changing our views on the world. (It wa…

Being Virtual – Davey Winder ***

This is one of a small series of books linked to the Dana Centre at the Science Museum in London. I’m a great fan of the Dana Centre – it’s a stylish cafe bar, where most evenings there is an informal and interactive session on once science topic or another. Like the Café Scientifique movement, it’s a great way of getting the science message across in a non-threatening way. However, there is a problem with the Dana Centre – and it comes through to some extent in this book. When I look at the Centre’s programme, there’s rarely anything I would want to go to. There is very little hard science – although I’ve taken part in couple of excellent hard science events there, their brief is strongly around science and society, which means the topics are often so soft they are positively mushy. That’s really why this book only scores three stars. It is highly enjoyable to read, but contains very little science, and doesn’t even, I would suggest, go to the heart of the topic it is covering – the …

The Human Story – Charles Lockwood ***

It’s not totally clear at first glance just what kind of book this is. The combination of large format and a thin content (just over 100 pages) with lavish colour illustrations gives the impression of a children’s book, but the text isn’t particularly aimed at children. It reads well, but without the narrative drive of a good popular science book – in some ways it’s more like a good introductory text book – but don’t be put off by this, as it is readable, with good content. Broadly, the book divides into five sections – the earliest hominins, Australopithecus, Paranthropus, Early Homo and Later Homo (including, of course, us). If this isn’t a subject you’ve followed, it’s interesting to see just what a range of pre-humans there are now, though inevitably there is still dispute over what’s what, especially when (for instance) you are trying to decide if a creature walked upright based solely on its skull. There’s plenty of absorbing detail to be got out of teeth, too – which might com…

The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments – George Johnson ****

I really like the premise of this book. When I studied experimental physics, I was put off staying in the discipline, in part because I wasn’t very good at it, but also because it was a bit of a let down. Real physics experiments all seemed to be about reading numbers off black boxes (later computers), rather than ever actually getting your hands on something truly tangible. George Johnson has identified what he regards as the ten most beautiful experiments in history, where these have to be ‘real’ old fashioned hands-on experiments that you could undertake without a team of 500 and a billion dollar budget. That’s great. Of course, inevitably you could argue about the choice of that top ten – and, yes, he’s got it wrong in places. For example, Pavlov’s in there. If you really wanted to have a dog-oriented experiment, I’d go for the amazing experiment by Dimitri Belyaev, where over forty years he did to foxes what ancient man did to wolves, breeding them for characteristics that turned…

Bright Earth: the invention of colour – Philip Ball ***

It might seem that colour is too much of a physical property to be invented – but this is very much a subject open to debate, as the concept of colour – as opposed to the wavelength or energy of light – is certainly to a degree subjective. However Philip Ball’s chunky volume is not concerned purely with colour in an abstract sense but very specifically with the colour used by artists throughout the ages. There is some fascinating stuff in here. For example, that until the 19th century ‘pink’ was not a colour at all, but was a type of paint in the same sense a lake (crimson lake etc.) was a type of paint. You could have green pink! But most of the pinks died out, leaving us with rose pink which is, of course, pink. How did little girls manage in pre-Victorian times without pink? It is also sobering to the non-artist to realize just how much care has to be taken in the selection of pigments – and the nasty surprises that awaited artists who were too quick to try some new colour without …

Your Money and Your Brain – Jason Zweig ****

It might seem a book about investing isn’t really suited to a popular science site, but hold on – Jason Zweig’s book is much more than a ‘how to make money on the stock market’ tome. Yes, it does give some lessons for would-be investors, but the subject of the book is much more interesting (with a scientific hat on). In fact the investment advice, when you come to it, is fairly bog standard stuff like the need to investigate a company before buying shares, not just relying on the shares’ track record on the stock exchange. This book is almost back to front. What it really is, is an in-depth exploration of why the way our brains work make us hideously unsuited to playing the stock market. Before assessing the book as a whole, I do need to clarify one issue that nearly stopped me reading it. There’s an example on page 20 that just doesn’t make any sense. It is supposed to show how people make the wrong assumptions about the evidence they need to make a decision, but unfortunately the wa…