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Showing posts from February, 2009

The Father of Forensics – Colin Evans ***

I have to state right away that this book was a cracking read – I really enjoyed it, even if the pleasure was something of a guilty one. The only reason it hasn’t got more stars is that, as we’ll see, there’s little science in it, and some really opportunities missed for that. It’s the story of Sir Bernard Spilsbury, once Britain’s foremost forensic pathologist. As the subtitle says, it’s ‘how Sir Bernard Spilsbury invented modern CSI.’ In truth (and this is why the pleasure was a touch guilty) it’s mostly a true crime book, describing the key cases Spilsbury was involved in. Yes, we are told what Spilsbury did – but the real meat of each story is the lurid crime itself, starting with the one that launched Spilsbury as a superb expert witness, Crippen. I don’t know why, but there are some historical murder cases that stick in the collective consciousness, and Crippen’s crime in 1910 (followed by his capture after fleeing across the Atlantic) has stood the test of time. So, plenty of g…

The Telephone Gambit – Seth Shulman ****

If there’s one thing that common knowledge is particularly poor on, it’s who invented what. Edison, for instance, only shared joint honours on the light bulb, and didn’t invent the gramophone (yes, he did invent the phonograph, using a cylinder, but not the gramophone). But we all know Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone… didn’t he? Seth Shulman’s book sets out to explore who really did invent it, and why after all these years, Bell still has the laurels. While Bell did win the patent battles (unlike Edison over the light bulb), there was already plenty of evidence back in the nineteenth century that Bell wasn’t the first to the telephone, and wasn’t even the first to submit his patent – but skulduggery and commercial manipulation seems to have triumphed. It’s a good story, and well told here. It’s something of a meta history – rather than plunge us into Bell’s time, Shulman tells us the story of his own discovery of a key similarity between the diagram in Bell’s notebook and…

13 Things that Don’t Make Sense – Michael Brooks *****

There are two ways to cope with things science can’t get a handle on. One is Shakespeare’s. (There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.) The slightly snide dig at science. The other is to accept this is what makes science interesting, and to come at these anomalies (as Michael Brooks refers to them) with a scientific mind. Thankfully, this excellent book, subtitled The Most Intriguing Scientific Mysteries of our Time, takes the second approach. Brooks is breezy and fun – always readable and never dull. In thirteen chapters we discover some remarkable oddities of science. Some are reasonably well-known like dark matter and dark energy. Others less so (at least to me), like the Pioneer anomaly, where the two old Pioneer spacecraft are taking a course out of the solar system that isn’t properly explained by our current understanding of gravity – and particularly in the case of the Mimivirus, a giant virus that has many of the mechanisms of …

The Strangest Man – Graham Farmelo ****

Paul Dirac was arguably the greatest British physicist since Newton. Holder of the same chair as Newton (and Stephen Hawking) at Cambridge, he took an unwaveringly mathematical approach to physics despite his engineering background, always stressing the beauty of the equations as paramount. He tends to be remembered for having predicted anti-matter and specifically the positron, but his role in the development of quantum mechanics was much more significant than this alone. That Dirac is almost unheard of (and seemingly hardly remembered in his home city of Bristol) is very sad – yet in some ways not surprising, given the unremitting lack of communication that seemed to typify his existence. Graham Farmelo’s book is full of examples of Dirac failing to communicate, whether with the general public or with other scientists – even those as great as Richard Feynman – though he does seem to have delivered some effective public lectures. This is a big, beefy biography, running to 438 pages b…

Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist – Adrian Desmond & James Moore ****

“The full enigma of Darwin’s life has never been grasped.” In their biography of Darwin, this observation leads Desmond and Moore in two directions. One is to show that Darwin’s life really was enigmatic, that is was filled with confusion, conflict, and inconsistencies. The other is to make those enigmas less mysterious by relating them to his social and political environment. Their method fits their goal: they want to open up Darwin’s inner life by sorting through his voluminous personal writings, making use of recent volumes of his letters, manuscripts, commentaries, and memoranda. On the whole the book is a marvellous success, though its richness causes it to raise new enigmas as well as settling old ones. What is the main enigma? It is Darwin’s ambiguous attitude towards evolution, especially his long delay in publicizing his ideas on the topic. And what is the main explanation, offered by this book? Darwin’s science drove him towards a radical and godless doctrine; but his upbri…

Cosmos – Carl Sagan *****

Carl Sagan’s Cosmos is one of the best popular scientific books that I have read. It was written in parallel with developing a TV series with the same name, first broadcast in 1980. Although both astronomy and the world in general have developed since then, the book is still a fascinating journey through the universe and our place in it. Cosmos has a wider span than most popular scientific books and gives a vivid introduction to astronomy as well as to evolutionary biology, geology, and the history of science. The book starts, as did all of the episodes of the TV series, with a journey through the universe. Beginning on the grand scale of the universe as a whole, the journey converges towards its final destination – our Earth. Putting our small planet, and our existence on it, into this stupefying perspective, Sagan continues to ask if ours is the only world in the universe that has life on it. To be able to at least speculate about life elsewhere he explains the prerequisites for lif…

Ecologic – Brian Clegg *****

We’ve thought long and hard in the past about how to review books written by our editor, Brian Clegg. There’s always the danger of seeming biased. So for this book we’ve instead gone for a summary of what it’s about and a few quotes from an independent review in BBC Focus Magazine. This is the thesis of the book: We aren’t well equipped to deal with green issues. Our natural tendency with such an emotive issue is to be swayed by feelings, rather than logic. And that’s fine to get us all excited – but it doesn’t make for good solutions to green problems. Ecologic uncovers the reality behind the greenwash and the eco-bogeymen. Here’s part of the review: This book crackles. Every paragraph pits your heart against your head. Those with green sensibilities and a nervous disposition may have a cardiac arrest. But the rest of us will have our synapses set alight… He rails at ‘MMR madness’ and has the notorious Channel 4 programme The Great Global Warming Swindle bang to rights as an intellec…