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Showing posts from May, 2009

Plastic Fantastic – Eugenie Samuel Reich ***

Sometimes popular science books can rightly be accused of lacking a story. But not this one – it’s a gripping tale of scientific fraud, as a scientist who was regularly published in the world’s two top journals, Nature and Science, repeatedly pretended to do experiments he hadn’t, and made up data that was an impossibly good fit to theory (sometimes not even the right theory). I know a little bit about scientific fraud, because I participated in it. When I was ten, we were supposed to do an experiment where you blew between two suspended ping pong balls and reported on what was observed. I couldn’t be bothered to do it, and just wrote down what I thought would happen (I was wrong). The dressing down I got from my teacher would stay with me forever. It’s not a mistake I would make twice. But it was quite different for Jan Hendrick Schön, the subject of this book. He would add fraud upon fraud, digging a deeper and deeper hole for himself as he went along. The book makes some good p

The Book of the Moon – Rick Stroud ***

Don’t get the idea that this is a bad book because it only gets three stars. It’s an excellent compendium of information about our nearest and most spectacular (if you don’t count the sun) heavenly body. The book is divided into sections, beginning with a general facts section, before going onto an ‘astronomers’ section that takes us through the timeline from the very first possible recordings of the moon in prehistoric carvings to observations from the Apollo missions. Some sections are better that others. One called ‘Gardening and the Weather’ for example smacks a little of desperation, going into the weird ideas of biodynamics at considerably more length than this fringe concept deserves. By contrast, the book finishes with a delightful selection called miscellany that pulls together all sorts of odds and sods from moon-oriented cocktails to moon hoaxes and musical references. It’s no wonder there’s a comment from Ben Schott of Schott’s Miscellany on the front. Delightful thoug

The Talent Code – Daniel Coyle ****

I started off as something of a sceptic with this book – I wasn’t sure if it was an ‘improve yourself’ manual or a science book, and to begin with it is very, very repetitive. (If I see ‘skill is a myelin insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows according to certain signals’ one more time I’ll scream.) But it grew on me as an approach, even though I have some issues with the message, which I’ll come back to. The odd thing about it is that the central scientific concept has been known about for decades – what happens is not at all new – but why it happens is a revelation. The idea is that through reinforcement – ‘deep practice’ as Daniel Coyle calls it – particularly when things go wrong in ways we can pick up and learn from – our brain develops pathways that become more efficient. This has been talked about for a long time in terms of the brain being a self-patterning system, where the more we use particularly pathways the more bandwidth they carry – the only new bit of

Natural Acts – David Quammen ****

Somewhat over half of this book dates back more than twenty years, while the final 130 pages or so are twenty-first century additions. It’s a collection of (mostly) short pieces – and this is something David Quammen does superbly well. There are occasions when he seems to realize how well he does it, but apart from this occasional smugness it’s excellent writing where the topic interests him – patently obvious when he’s talking about wildlife. Sometimes the approach can take you by surprise – speaking in defence of the mosquito, for example – and always there’s something to delight. I particularly liked the piece that puts across the idea that crows are bored underachievers, and the paean to the bat. In his earlier writing, there’s only set of pieces where the lustre fades a little, and that’s when he talking about geology rather than natural history. It clearly doesn’t work for him quite the same way. When I got onto the more modern section, I thought that Quammen was suffering