Skip to main content

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 ‘middle world’ rather than fighting it is fascinating.
Mark Haw writes in a very approachable fashion – certainly without any of the problems many scientists writing on their topic have. If this book has any faults it’s that it is too short – very rarely a complaint from me, but it’s true here – and that he can try just a bit too hard to be a bit of lad and in touch, meaning that just occasionally we get the sort of sweeping generalization in a biographical/historical statement that’s typical of a cheap TV documentary – but that apart it’s excellent. It might be too late to recommend, but I hope it’s not – go for it, it’s excellent!
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Rockets and Rayguns - Andrew May ****

The Cold War period saw dramatic developments in science and technology, coinciding with the flourishing of the science fiction genre. In Rockets and Rayguns, Andrew May draws on the parallels between reality and fiction, each influencing the other.

Inevitably a major Cold War theme was the threat of nuclear war, and May opens with the bomb. It's fascinating that fiction got there first - nuclear weapons were featured in science fiction when many physicists were still doubting the practicality of using nuclear energy. Of course, it's a lot easier to simply take a concept and dream up a weapon than it is to make it for real - for example, H. G. Wells' prophetic nuclear bombs from his 1914 The World Set Free were nothing like the real thing. And some science fiction devices concepts - notably ray guns and force fields - came to very little in reality. However this doesn't prevent the parallels being of interest.

May gives us a mix of the science - describing how nuclear we…

Galileo Galilei, the Tuscan Artist – Pietro Greco ****

Near the beginning of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, he refers to a ‘Tuscan artist’ viewing the Moon through an optic glass. He’s talking about Galileo – one of history’s greatest scientists, but not the most obvious person to slap an ‘artist’ label on. Yet Galileo lived at a time – the Renaissance – when it was fashionable to dabble impartially in both the arts and sciences. Look up ‘Renaissance man’ on Wikipedia and you’ll see Galileo’s picture right there underneath Leonardo da Vinci’s. It’s a less well-known side to his life, but it crops up again and again – interspersed among his many scientific achievements – in this excellent new biography by Pietro Greco.

If you’re looking for interesting trivia, you’ll find plenty in this book. Galileo’s father was a musician with scientific leanings, who carried out some of the first experiments on musical acoustics – which Galileo may have assisted with. As a young professor of mathematics, Galileo delivered a couple of lectures on …

Meet Your Bacteria - Nicola Temple and Catherine Whitlock ***

There have been a good number of books on our microbiome - the bacteria and other tiny organisms living in our body - from The Wild Life of Our Bodies throughI, Superorganism to I Contain Multitudes. Each of these is a traditional popular science book format, and all, to some degree, suffer from the same problem - in part, they have a tendency to present collections of facts, little more than bullet points of information strung together, rather than providing an effective narrative. As Meet Your Bacteria is in a significantly different format, there was a chance to imbue the subject with more dynamism and interest.'

When I first looked at the book, I assumed from its shape and cover that it would be in the style of highly illustrated, two-page spreads with large illustrations and the text little more than captions. In reality, Nicola Temple and Catherine Whitlock manage to subvert that format - it is, indeed, presented as a series of separate two-page spreads, but there is far more…