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Showing posts from July, 2009

Johnny Ball – Four Way Interview

Johnny Ball has written a number of books on mathematics for younger readers. He has long been a British TV favourite with shows like Think of a Number, which have made maths, science and technology accessible and fun. His latest book is Mathemagicians. Why Maths? I had a disastrous secondary education in Bolton, leaving school at 16 with just 2 ‘O’ levels. However it was pretty certain that I got 100% in maths. I gained three more subjects and joined a business course with De Havilland Aircraft Corp, Lostock, Bolton, heading for Cost and Works Accountancy. I also trained myself to multiply double figures instantly and generally played around with maths concepts. However, I joined the RAF for 3 years, which was in effect my University. All through this period, I had been collecting books on recreational maths and it has been my lifelong hobby. The main influence was Martin Gardner, who wrote for Scientific American. Incidentally, when he retired, the magazine’s circulation dropped by a…

Froth – Mark Denny ***

This is, without doubt, one of the most curious popular science books I’ve ever read. Subtitled ‘the science of beer’, it sort of does what it says on the tin (or, rather, the bottle), but in the strangest way. I make no secret of the fact that I like beer (see this entry from my blog), so I opened the book with eager anticipation, and to begin with things went quite smoothly (a bit like some pints of beer). In the introduction and first chapter, Denny explains that he’s a physicist and home brewer, and proceeds to give us a very effective potted history of the making of beer in which I learned a lot. Then, in the second chapter, things start going downhill. He tells us how to make beer. I don’t want to make beer. I want to learn about it, yes. I want to drink it, certainly. But I can’t be bothered with making the stuff. I skipped through that chapter, hoping to get back to the real thing… but then he goes all physics textbook on us. The remaining four chapters: Yeast Population Dynam…

The Selfish Genius – Fern Elsdon-Baker ****

Those who have only come across Richard Dawkins from his books or TV shows may not be aware just how much mixed feeling he generates in the scientific community. There is a respected scientific journal editor who refers to Dawkins as HWMNBN (he who must not be named), likening him to the scientific equivalent of Voldemort in the Harry Potter books. The reason for these mixed feelings is that, while Dawkins is very good at writing accessibly on science, he sometimes presents his personal views on evolution as if they were the pure scientific truth, rather than one interpretation of the science, which isn’t held by everyone in the field. Equally, Dawkins tends to tie his loud and scathing attacks on religion into evolution and science, as if it were not possible to accept evolution and a scientific viewpoint without being an atheist. What Fern Elsdon-Baker sets out to do – and does brilliantly – is to identify just how Dawkins’ views sit within the latest scientific theories on evolutio…

Mathematicians – Mariana Cook ***

Oka-a-y… a book of pictures of mathematicians, right? I can just imagine the response at the commissioning meeting in the publishing house (though not how it got through). Stated baldly, the idea isn’t a winner. Like most people, I’ve been quite interested in pictures of Einstein (and with the geeks, I’m also interested in Richard Feynman). This is because they weren’t just great scientists, but celebrities too. But even then, I wouldn’t buy a book of their photos. When it comes to mathematical celebrities, erm, well, there’s, erm, Pierre de Fermat – but he predates photography – and, well, oh, I don’t know. So what are we to make of this coffee table format book, subtitled ‘an outer view of the inner world’? When it came down to it, the reality was better than the anticipation. Apart from the inevitably pretentious introductions, the book is a series of Dorling Kindersley-style two page spreads. On the right is a black and white portrait, on the left a page full (with a lot of white …

Living with Enza – Mark Honigsbaum ****

There was something chilling about reading Mark Honigsbaum’s account of the 1918 flu pandemic at a time when the world is threatened with another pandemic, of a similar type of influenza (at the time of writing, the 2009 swine flu outbreak has recently been declared a pandemic). There are distinct parallels – in 1918 there was a mild early outbreak before a crushing attack in the winter that killed millions worldwide. What’s fascinating in Honigsbaum’s account is the way he intertwines the story of the flu pandemic with the story of the First World War, an era in history that for my generation was largely forgotten (we studied the Second World War in school, but not the first). It’s essential to make this link as it has, at least in part, to explain why the flu pandemic was given such scant regard at the time – there is very little written up about it – and it also adds pathos as we see these two terrible killers side by side. It also seems to be the case that, despite being called Sp…