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Showing posts from September, 2009

As Far as We Know – Paul Callaghan & Kim Hill ****

We don’t often associate science with conversations. Science interviews are usually short media exercises, and science seems too serious and rigorous to be approached by unstructured dialogue. “As Far as We Know”, a series of radio discussions about science between a distinguished broadcaster (Kim Hill) and equally distinguished scientist (Paul Callaghan), is not a work of science. But it does have a serious aim: to answer the question “What is science?” It may not answer the question to everyone’s satisfaction. But it does show the power of conversation to illuminate – and lighten up – science. So what is science, according to this book? It is, says Callaghan, a “means of looking at the world to try to understand natural phenomena and their causes in a way that is self-consistent and corresponds to reality.” Callaghan sees a sharp line between what is science and what is not, and doesn’t miss many opportunities to draw it. In this book, creationism, homeopathy, and phone cancer all g…

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 p…

Biohazard – Ken Alibek with Stephen Handelman ***

In places this well-crafted bit of cold war history reads like a spy thriller, so much so that I was convinced after a few pages that I was not reading a personal story, but rather the hand of a ghost writer, as a quick glance at the cover makes it clear. It’s not a bad thing, but the structure of these things, often put together by a staff writer on the big American magazines, is so formulaic that you come to expect ‘now they’re going to jump back in time’ or ‘now they’re going to slot in a surprise.’ Don’t let that put you off, though, the first person narrator Ken Alibek, a former Soviet manager in the biological weapons programme, has a fascinating and chilling story to tell. We see his growing involvement in the industrial scale sites producing the likes of anthrax and smallpox, with plenty of scares and terrifying achievements along the way. Right from the beginning of the book, where (in a classic ghost-written jump forward) he is given the challenge of providing enough anthrax…

We need to talk about Kelvin – Marcus Chown *****

The things we react to first about a book are its cover, its title and its author. This one has an eye-popping cover in a very 2008/9 comic style, a title that really grabs the attention (even if the pun is a bit wince-making) and an author that immediately gives you the reassurance that you are going to have a good time – Marcus Chown is one the most consistently entertaining popular science writers in the business. For entertainment value, and driving pace, Kelvin never lets the reader down. From the start we are bombarded with amazing facts, driven by Chown’s very effective idea of taking everyday aspects of human existence and exploring the exciting science that lies behind them. So, for instance, the partial reflection through a night-time window leads on to the consideration of the quantum theory of light and much more. Later on, we discover more about the nature of atoms and heat, thermodynamics and cosmology. Chown’s great strength is that he can counter the QI glaze effect. O…

The Demon and the Quantum – Robert J. Scully and Marlan O. Scully ***

It’s one of the inherent oddities of quantum theory that a quantum particle can be in more than one state at once – and for me, this must be a quantum book, because it manages to be both excellent and not-so-good at the same time. Let’s start with the excellent. Robert Scully, with help from his physicist father Marlan, weaves a fascinating fabric of ideas from ancient Greece and quantum physics to provide an introduction to an exploration of the overlaps between thermodynamics and quantum theory. This leads on to the description of the concept of a ‘quantum eraser’ that may (there’s some dispute among physicists) be a demonstration of the ultimate quantum strangeness – that you can change the outcome of a quantum effect after it has, in effect, already been committed. Scully starts in a gentle fashion and provides a solid introduction to thermodynamics, a subject that has rarely been given an effective popular science treatment. By using the clever conceit of a heat engine powered by…

Are Angels OK? – Bill Manhire & Paul Callaghan (Eds.) ****

This brave and playful book is a collection of stories and poems with a scientific theme. It contains some science fiction, some popular science, and some lab lit, but strictly speaking it is not any of these. The writers are bright stars of New Zealand literature who have been copiously praised for work that has nothing to do with science. And their scientist collaborators are equally luminous members of the NZ science community. The outcome, like the contributors, is mixed but brilliant. As a commentary on science, on its methods and spirit and motivations, the book is interesting but not ground-breaking. As literature, it has some fine moments and some awkward ones, where the science jars. But as an experiment in a new genre it is marvellous. It is as an attempt to answer the question: in what ways can science contribute to literature? The answer may be: not many ways. But this collection is a courageous attempt to find as many ways as possible, with varied and charming results. Th…

God’s Philosophers – James Hannam ****

If you read many histories of European science, you would think that the Greeks did some interesting thinking about natural phenomena (even if they mostly got it wrong), then there was a 1500-or-so-year gap, and then in the Renaissance, the scientific baton was picked up again. The medieval period is considered an intellectual desert. Worse, one where opinions on nature were actively suppressed by the religious authorities. James Hannam sets out to fill in clearer picture of what really happened in science (or, more accurately, natural philosophy) in this period. He takes us through some fascinating stories of characters you might not expect to find in a history of science – Abelard of the Abelard and Heloise love story, for instance – and puts paid to many myths about the way the church suppressed the study of nature, or that medieval thinkers had limited ideas of reality, such as the assumption that the Earth was flat (an idea never held by the educated since the time of the Ancient…

Doomsday Men – P. D. Smith ***

Subtitled ‘The Real Doctor Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon’, there’s an interesting mix here of history, science and fiction in tracing the origins and reality of the atomic bomb, the hydrogen bomb and the like. It’s hard to pin down what it does cover – for example it has relatively little on the Manhattan Project. Science probably takes third place of these, in a book that sometimes is hung around a biography of Leo Szilard, one of the pioneers of atomic bomb theory, and sometimes heads off in totally different directions. There’s a lot to interest in this story of an obsession with weapons of mass destruction, neatly underlined by one of the diversions into the gas attacks of the first world war. The science is there, but fairly quickly skimmed over – this is much more a history/biography than a popular science book. Smith’s style is sometimes a little grating – he tend to throw in lots of little quotes that can leave the reader reeling a little. Something that didn’t …

Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing – Richard Dawkins (ed.) ****

While it’s possible to quibble about the ‘modern’ in the title (it seems to mean twentieth century, with a bit of truly modern thrown in), this an excellent opportunity to dip a toe into the writings of a wide range of science writers, which is truly welcome. All too often a collection like this has a few stars and the rest are also-rans, but here there is a truly stellar set of names. There are great names of science itself – Einstein, Feynman, Crick and Watson, Gamow, Turing and Hawking to skim but a few – and some of the best popularizers too. Richard Dawkins himself doesn’t have a contribution, arguably a mistake, as whatever you think of his ideas on science and religion, he is a good science writer. However, we don’t entirely miss out on the Dawkins wit and wisdom, as he contributes pithy prefaces to each extract – and extracts from books they are mostly, rather than short pieces in their own right. It is very difficult to pick out favourites from such a rich collection. It isn’…

Before the Big Bang – Brian Clegg ****

It's always a bit of a struggle to know how to review books written by our editor, Brian Clegg. For this book we’ve gone for a summary of what it’s about and a few quotes from an independent review in Kirkus Reviews. This is the thesis of the book: Since astrophysicist Fred Hoyle coined “Big Bang” as a term of abuse for a theory that he despised, it has become everyday usage. Although few of us really understand what the Big Bang was, it is now accepted wisdom that this was how the universe began. But the idea of Big Bang doesn’t so much answer questions as raise new ones. If the universe as we know it originated in the Big Bang, what came before? And the Big Bang is not set in stone. It’s just the current favorite of a number of theories that explain the origins of the universe. At one time a taboo subject, science is now prepared to look back past the beginning – to answer the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything with something more satisfying than Douglas Ada…