Skip to main content


Showing posts from November, 2009

Why Us? – James Le Fanu ***

Subtitled ‘how science rediscovered the mystery of ourselves’ this is a celebration of the fact that simple reductionist science, based on mapping genes to function and monitoring individual areas of the brain, has not been able to pin down just why humans are as they are and behave as they do – and that’s not a bad thing. Because science isn’t an infallible source of truth, as some seem to think. Not scientists, I hasten to add. They are usually well aware that science isn’t about finding ‘truth’ but the best model we can devise given current data. All scientific theories and models are subject to future revision and scrapping. Which is an important lesson to learn – but it’s not really what James Le Fanu is setting out to tell us. What Why Us sets out to do is to take on both the idea that evolution by natural selection can be responsible for the origin of species (as opposed to micro-evolutionary changes like Darwin’s famous finch bills), and the idea that we can understand how t

Boyle: between God and Science – Michael Hunter ***

I was really looking forward to this book as Robert Boyle is one of the least written about of the important people in the history of science, and before picking up Michael Hunter’s book I knew very little about him. I now know a lot more – but not always the things I wanted to know. There are broadly three types of biography of a scientist. There’s the detailed historian’s biography, poring over every little document and providing an intensely detailed description of the individual’s life. The sort of biography that would make a great reference source, but frankly isn’t bedtime reading. Then there’s the populist biography, with all the rip-roaring personal details, but not enough about the science. Finally there’s the true popular science biography, which should combine the essentials about the person’s life – enough to get a feeling that you know the person without getting bored – with an exploration of the science this individual was responsible for. After all, what’s the point o

Chance: the life of games & the game of life – J P Marques de Sa ***

Chance is a fascinating subject. Probability has a huge impact on our lives, but we have a very poor natural grasp of it (hence all the people entering lotteries). In this practically sized paperback, Engineering professor J P Marques de Sa sets out to explain probability from scratch. It’s a bit of a frustrating read because it could have been so much better. Marques de Sa is occasionally quite lyrical in his description of chance processes – but very soon this book settles down into being much more of a textbook than a popular science title. Despite the famous advice given to Stephen Hawking that every equation halves the readership of a book, I don’t mind a few equations in a popular science book, but they shouldn’t be a means of driving the argument forward – you should be able to get the point of the book while skipping over the equations, and that just isn’t the case here. They are fundamental from the beginning, and soon they are most of the argument. I would also have like

Science and Islam: a history – Ehsan Masood ****

“Animals engage in a struggle for existence [and] for resources, to avoid being eaten and to breed…Environmental factors influence organisms to develop new characteristics to ensure survival, thus transforming into new species. Animals that survive to breed can pass on their successful characteristics to [their] offspring.” Is this Richard Dawkins writing in the 21st Century? Or Lamarck in the 19th? Or some godless renegade in 17th Century Europe? Not even close. The author is al-Jahiz, a science writer from 9th Century Baghdad. The surprising thing is not that an Islamic author could write such a thing so early, but that we are surprised to learn that he could – that’s what Ehsan Masood would say, at any rate. And readers of Science and Islam will probably agree with him by end of this lively and user-friendly book on Islamic science during the so-called Dark Ages and beyond. Part 1 of the book mixes a potted history of Islam with descriptions of the patrons, institutions and pra

Ice, Mud and Blood – Chris Turney ****

Anyone new to the climate change debate is bound to wonder whether a 5-6 degree increase in temperatures is really all that bad – especially if the person is cold, English, and nostalgic for summer. A good reply to this wonderment is to say that the last time the globe was 5 or 6 degrees colder, there were glaciers in the South of England, and the melting ice caused Britain to split off from France. Chris Turney, a geologist at the University of Exeter, knows as well as anyone that climates past have lessons for climates present. In Ice, Mud and Blood, Turney’s humour and expertise make for a jaunty, fascinating account of how past climates worked and how scientists find out about them. But Turney spends little time linking past climate to present climate; so, as a contribution to the climate change debate, the book doesn’t live up to its promise. As Turney points out, it’s a wonder that we know anything about past climate at all. Natural climate change occurs over vast periods, a