Skip to main content

Shapes – Philip Ball ***

This is a bit of an oddity, in that Philip Ball has taken an earlier book (The Self-Made Tapestry), split it into three, of which this is one part, and updated it – but going on what’s in this book it was a good move, as there’s plenty to be going on with. (The other parts are Branches and Flow.)
A lot of the content is driven by an early twentieth century work, On Growth and Form by the Scottish zoologist D’Arcy Thompson. Thompson’s thesis was that the new-fangled Darwinian thinking was all very well, and not incorrect, but it wasn’t the right explanation for many of the natural forms of things, which were more driven by the physics and chemistry of the processes that made them than any evolutionary adaptation. Ball doesn’t always agree with Thompson, but primarily demonstrates this again and again from the shape of beehive cells to the patterns on animals’ fur.
There’s a lot to like here. This whole aspect of why, for instance, a snail’s shell is a particular shape, with a certain pattern on it is not something many of us think of, but it needs explaining once you it occurs to you. I particularly liked the strange way that some cicadas seem to benefit from a very strange pattern, finding survival benefit from having a life cycle that is a prime number of years. We also see quite a lot on the strange oscillating chemical reactions that change colour or produce shifting patterns time and again.
Unfortunately, though the subject is excellent, Ball’s prose, which starts off very approachable, gets a bit bogged down and stuffy in later parts of the book. There’s too much technical detail on some of the processes and the whole thing gets a trifle dull and textbook like. This is a shame after an excellent opening. It will, however, make an excellent introduction for any one hoping to study more on the subject.

Hardback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you  
Review by Peter Spitz

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lucy Jane Santos - Four Way Interview

Lucy Jane Santos is an expert in the history of 20th century leisure, health and beauty, with a particular interest in (some might say obsession with) the cultural history of radioactivity. Writes & talks (a lot) about cocktails and radium. Her debut book Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium was published by Icon Books in July 2020.

Why science?

I have always been fascinated by the idea of science especially our daily interactions with and understandings of science – especially in a beauty context. I could spend hours pondering the labels of things on my bathroom shelf. What is 4-t-butylcyclohexanol (as a random example)? Do I really understand what I am putting on my face and spending my money on? Would it change my purchase habits if I did?  

Why this book?

This book came from an accidental discovery – that there was a product called Tho Radia which contained radium and thorium. I found out about it because I actually bought a pot of it – along with a big batch of other produc…

Rewilding: Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe ****

Those who are enthusiastic about saving the environment often have a mixed relationship with science. They might for example, support organic farming or oppose nuclear power, despite organics having no nutritional benefit and requiring far more land to be used to raise the same amount of crops, while nuclear is a green energy source that should be seen as an essential support to renewables. This same confusion can extend to the concept of rewilding, which is one reason that the subtitle of this book uses the word 'radical'.

As Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe make clear, though, radical change is what is required if we are to encourage ecological recovery. To begin with, we need to provide environments for nature that take in the big picture - thinking not just of individual nature reserves but, for example, of corridors that link areas allowing safe species migration. And we also need to move away from an arbitrary approach to restricting to 'native' species, as sometimes…

Is Einstein Still Right? - Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes ***

If there's one thing that gets a touch tedious in science reporting it's the news headlines that some new observation or experiment 'proves Einstein right' - as if we're still not sure about relativity. At first glance that's what this book does too, but in reality Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes are celebrating the effectiveness of the general theory of relativity, while being conscious that there may still be situations where, for whatever reason, the general theory is not sufficient.

It's a genuinely interesting book - what Will and Yunes do is take experiments that are probably familiar to the regular popular science reader already and expand on the simplified view of them we are usually given. So, for example, one of the first things they mention is the tower experiments to show the effect of gravitational red shift. I was aware of these experiments, but what we get here goes beyond the basics of the conceptual experiment to deal with the realities of d…