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Showing posts from August, 2008

Einstein: His Life and Universe – Walter Isaacson *****

While it seems a statement of the obvious, this book is about Albert Einstein. It is not really about his famous equation E=mc2 although that is part of it. Neither is the book about Special or General Relativity, which is also part of it. This book is about the man, his youth, his family, his friendships and his relationships and not the least about his scientific genius and his discoveries. From his earliest childhood, to his miracle year of 1905 to his Nobel Prize to his political activism, Walter Isaacson discusses these diverse topics is an erudite yet thoroughly readable and entertaining book. There are a few parts of the book that really stand out. Isaacson strives to explain those things that are most perplexing about Einstein. These include his statements about God and his stubbornness in refusing to accept quantum mechanics. He had been a steadfast believer that equations without physical meaning were not worthwhile yet in his later years; his struggle to develop a unified …

How to Fossilise Your Hamster – Mick O’Hare ****

After a couple of successful books such as Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze spun off from the Last Words column in New Scientist, editor Mick O’ Hare has now turned to the more practical aspects of the questions there, with a whole range of practical experiments to try using mostly household items, and explaining the science behind them. Just occasionally there’s a ‘no you can’t’ where the suggested experiment is an old wives’ tale, which adds to the fun. For me this works even better than Sean Connolly’s Wholly Irresponsible Experiments, because they are much more varied and more oriented to the adult reader (quite a lot seem to involve alcohol). As for the title, yes, it does kind of tell you how to turn your hamster into a fossil… but the approach is a bit disappointing as it does involve waiting millions of years. There’s even that most famous of DIY experiments – the Mentos in cola fountain – very satisfying. The only thing I would say is, enough, thank you. These books have been…

Seven Years to Save the Planet – Bill McGuire ***

There are a lot of ‘how to combat global warming’ books out there, so to be worth reading, a book needs a new twist, and it’s fair to say that Bill McGuire has achieved this. Seven Years is divided into five parts – Where are we now? What will climate change mean for my children and their children? What can I do? What should others be doing? and Is it already too late? In each section there are a series of mini-chapters, each with a question, a little commentary and the answer, from ‘Will the Arctic Ocean soon be ice free?’ to ‘What is my carbon footprint?’ Of the main sections, the first two are far and above the best. McGuire is director of the Benfield UCL Hazard Research Centre, giving him ideal placement to be aware just what the threats are and their potential impact on our planet and our lives. He tells it straight, making it clear just how conservative the IPCC can be in its predictions, and how even relatively small changes can be enough to have a big impact for our children …

The Big Necessity – Rose George ****

Strictly, this book shouldn’t be here at all as there’s not a lot of science in it – but taking the original, wider definition of scientia, I certainly feel that I gained a fair amount of knowledge from Rose George’s excellent book, on a subject that certainly needs more exposure than it usually gets – the essential job of dealing with human waste. Of course there is a lot of science in the subject, but George’s book concentrates on the practical – it’s more about the engineering and sociology than the pure science. She’s at her best when describing excursions down the sewers with the men who work there, or venturing into water treatment plants. At the heart of the book is the horrendous statistic that 2.6 billion people don’t have sanitation – not even a trench latrine – terrible because there’s no point giving access to clean water if someone can’t get away from their faeces. Equally fascinating to western eyes was the amazing story of the Japanese ‘high function’ toilet with seated…

Middle World – Mark Haw ****

This is a classic case of judging a book by its cover. I have been putting off reviewing this book for ages, because, frankly it looks very dull and the title, sounding like a compromise between Tolkein and Middle England, is equally uninspiring. I should have followed the old adage, and not been too influenced by the cover, because it’s an excellent read. In part it’s the subject. Mark Haw starts with Brownian motion and goes on to explore the nanoscale world of (mostly natural) objects too big to be quantum particles, but too small to be everyday macro world – they tend to be constantly in motion, buffeted around by the atoms that are hitting them, always in a random dance. The two most interesting parts for me were getting some information about Robert Brown, who I’d come across but hadn’t really absorbed any details about, and the remarkable biological machines on this scale that make muscles work, do jobs in cells and much more. The way these make use of the random walk of the ‘m…