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Showing posts from April, 2009

Einstein’s Telescope – Evalyn Gates ***

Subtitled ‘the hunt for dark matter and dark energy in the universe’, this is a book that doesn’t fulfil its promise. It does have a quite reasonable explanation of general relativity, but that’s just a sideline for the main topic of dark matter and dark energy, and the problem here, I think, is that it is, as yet, a failed hunt. It’s a bit like a true crime book about a murder that was never solved – tantalizing, but never delivering. Because we don’t know what dark matter and dark energy are, it’s a difficult one to carry forward. This isn’t helped by a certain fixedness of viewpoint. It would have been more interesting if Evalyn Gates had opened up some of the many uncertainties in cosmology, but she presents the Big Bang as effectively certain, telling us ‘[the cosmic microwave background] effectively nailed the case for the Big Bang model’, when it equally supports pretty well all the main alternative theories, and though she briefly opens up the MOND ideas of variations in gravi…

Science: a four thousand year history – Patricia Fara *****

This is the rare case of a weighty tome (literally – at over a kilo, my wrists were like jelly by the end) that’s also a page turner. Patricia Fara has managed the near-impossible: a history of all of science. It has been tried before. John Gribbin, for instance, made an attempt with Science: A History – but his book limited itself to Galileo onwards, was 600+ pages long and frankly not all that readable as popular science. Fara’s, despite the weight, slips in at a more manageable 384 pages, covers the whole span of science and was a delight to read. I have elsewhere been a little heavy on academic authors, which Fara is. All too often, their books read like a transcript of a lecture – and a dull one at that. They never use three syllables when they can get away with four. The writing here isn’t like that. It’s modern, easy to digest and superbly informative. But that’s not to say that the book is simplistic in its approach to science. It’s not just a catalogue of scientific breakthr…

Pavlov’s dogs and Schrödinger’s cat – Rom Harré ***

Sometimes the subject of a book suggests itself immediately to the writer, but at others you struggle to find a hook to hang it on. This has a feeling of a book with a manufactured hook – subtitled scenes from the living laboratory, it’s about the rather contrived concept of experiments involving living things – but not in the sense of experiments on living things, but rather those where the living things (animals or plants) act as an instrument or apparatus. The opening chapter is intensely dull, and I urge you to skip through it as quickly as possible – once Rom Harré gets onto actual examples, his writing style lightens up a bit. While never more than pedestrian, it at least ceases to put you to sleep every few lines. Each of the chapters then looks at a different way that living things have been used as experimental instruments or equipment. Some of these are quite indirect, such as the use of the remains of ancient creatures in sediment to study the temperature of the period – o…

Atomic: the first war of physics – Jim Baggott *****

The best popular science book of the year to date by far (April 2009), this is an epic journey through the development of atomic power and the atom bomb during the second world war. It’s a seriously chunky tome at nearly 500 pages, but for once this length is justified. It isn’t padded out by repetition and rhetoric, this really is such a big story that it needs this kind of length. It might seem there really isn’t much of a story left to tell. What with Richard Feynman’s superb reminiscences of the Manhattan Project and many, many books on that first real example of big science, you might be inclined to say ‘what’s new?’ – but Jim Baggott more than pulls it off by covering not one, but four stories of the development of the terrifying power of the atom – in Germany, the US, the UK and the USSR. He takes us back to the first concept that fission could produce a chain reaction and leads us through the gradually realization in the UK and then the US, that Germany could be building atom…