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Showing posts from 2010

Michael Brooks – Four Way Interview

Michael Brooks, who holds a PhD in quantum physics, is an author, journalist and broadcaster. He is a consultant at New Scientist, and the author of  13 Things That Don’t Make Sense  and  The Big Questions: Physics . Why science? Science is simply the best way we have of understanding the world. It’s not perfect – far from it – but it has made an enormous difference: the world is a better place for its existence. You only have to look at what vaccine science has achieved to see why science is such a force for good. Why this book? It was a great chance to sit down and think about what really matters: why do physicists do what they do, what questions they are trying to answer and what we have learned so far. It turns out that we’ve learned an awful lot over the centuries. I also loved harnessing the idea that such huge issues – Big Questions – can actually be boiled down to questions that children could ask (and they do, in my experience!) What’s next? I’m working on a boo

The View from the Centre of the Universe by Nancy Ellen Abrams and Joel R. Primack

After thousands of years of abstract theorizing, cosmology is finally coming close to a testable theory to explain the nature of the universe. In this essay  based on their book  The View from the Centre of the Universe ,  Abrams and Primack argue we need the modern equivalent of a creation myth to help fix the new cosmological ideas in our minds . Those of us who are alive today have an extraordinary opportunity – the opportunity to see everything afresh through a new understanding of the universe itself. We are witnessing a full-blown scientific revolution in “cosmology,” the branch of astronomy and astrophysics that studies the origin and nature of the universe. The unrestricted, dataless fantasizing of theorists has been replaced by reliable theory tested against the entire visible universe. What is emerging is humanity’s first picture of the universe as a whole that  might actually be true . We are the first humans privileged to see a face of the universe no earlier culture eve

Justin Pollard – Four Way Interview

Justin Pollard is a historical writer/consultant in film and TV. He is a researcher for the TV show QI and the author of five books. His most recent title is  Boffinology  – the real stories behind our greatest scientific discoveries. Why Science? When I was a child there always seemed something perfect about science. It was carried out by brilliant people in immaculate white coats who would invent audacious experiments leading, inevitably, to stunning results. In this way science would take another giant step forward, the scientists would congratulate one another, then clear their benches and start all over again, on a new and even harder problem. So I wanted to become one of those scientists but somehow ended up an historian. Why this book? As a historian I get to spend a lot of time with dead scientists. There are thousands of them in history books and reading the stories of their lives taught me something about science itself. Real science is not done by the perfect whit

50 Ideas you Really need to Know: Universe – Joanne Baker **

This is another title in the same series as  50 Physics Ideas you Really need to Know , but ’50 Universe ideas you need to Know’ doesn’t really work as a title, so they’ve had to fiddle around with it. Like its predecessor, it’s a struggle to know exactly what this book is. It’s certainly not an end-to-end read, comprising of 50 short items. In fact it’s more like a children’s book in format, down to having cutesy little quotes and useless summaries for each item: ‘the universe’s warm bath of photons’ is one of the better ones, for the cosmic background radiation, but they are more style than substance. On the good side, it’s approachably written and covers all the major topics you would expect in a book about cosmology (plus rather a lot of physics to pad it out to 50). It also looks rather handsome, in a series format that seems to be based on a wooden framed slate, for some reason. However there are some significant limitations. The biggest overall one is that it is smug scienc

Virtual Words – Jonathon Keats ****

Because this book is about science and words, I’m easy prey. As a science writer, what could be more wonderful? Jonathon Keats, author of the Jargon Watch column in Wired magazine sets off on a series of riffs on different neologisms that have emerged in science and technology (more technology, if push comes to shove). Each is an elegantly written essay, light enough to make bedtime reading or a good gift book, but with enough insight to make them really interesting. Of course, if you don’t give a damn about words, it’s all a big ‘So what?’ It doesn’t really advance our knowledge of science an iota. But who couldn’t be enticed into discovering what an unparticle is, the strange history of in vitro meat, the tricky scientific oddity of a memristor, the enjoyment of a touch of crispy bacn (sic), what cloud computing, crowdsourcing or a mashup is (those irritating words that everyone else seems to know what they mean), and what the true origins of w00t are. I really looked forward

We Are Not Alone – Dirk Schulze-Makuch & David Darling ****

I am a little wary of books that make extravagant claims on the cover, then don’t entirely deliver. In this case, the dramatic subtitle is WE HAVE ALREADY FOUND EXTRATERRESTRIAL LIFE. Now, I admit ‘We think we have probably already found extraterrestrial life, though it is just bacterial, so don’t get too excited’ isn’t quite as powerful a tag line, but it would have been closer to the truth. This doesn’t stop the book itself from being excellent. In the first half there is an in-depth exploration of the findings and uncertainties that have come out of the Mars probes, with a very useful explanation of why what was found is highly suggestive of the possibility of life without being definitive. We get a real sense of the ways that lifeforms could exist in environments that were once thought uninhabitable, plus a truly fascinating set of results that seem so strange there has to be something interesting going on, whether it’s life or not. The second part is equally interesting, cove

The Darwinian Tourist – Christopher Wills ****

Biologist Christopher Wills encourages us here to look at the living world from an evolutionary perspective, and to appreciate the extent to which evolution has shaped all of life. Seeing the world in the context of evolution, he argues, enhances the richness and our understanding of earth’s species and ecosystems, and the book takes us on a wide-ranging tour of nature, based on the author’s own travels, to illustrate this point. We start by looking at the evolutionary processes which account for why individual species are the way they are, and how new species come into being. We go on to see how co-operation and symbioses between living organisms come about as a result of evolution. Later, we see how evolutionary processes have led to the huge diversity of life we find on earth, and how patterns of human migration have been shaped by, and have influenced, evolution. Along the way, we also discover that an evolutionary perspective on the world helps us understand how to protect ea

Loneliness – John T. Cacioppo & William Patrick ***

“For the last five centuries or more, Western societies have demoted human gregariousness from a necessity to an incidental.” This bold claim is the starting point for an in-depth survey of our human need for “social connection” and the perils that await individuals and societies that do not meet this need. The authors do well to narrow down this impossibly broad theme and bring it within the range of recent psychology, neuroscience, and ethology (the study of animal behaviour). The result is comprehensive and in many ways convincing. Loneliness, it seems, contaminates everything from our diet to our DNA transcriptions. The lead author is John Cacioppo, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago and Director of Chicago’s Centre for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience. As you might expect, Cacioppo takes the science seriously. And he and his co-editor William Patrick keep the narrative moving along with plenty of personal anecdotes and literary references. The result is a book

Armageddon Science – Brian Clegg ***

Initially, I thought that this book might be a lot like one I read a long time ago: Isaac Asimov’s  Choice of Catastrophes.  However, although Asimov and Clegg overlap very slightly – for example, when Asimov looks at infectious diseases and atomic bombs – Clegg’s whole focus is on how man could bring about the destruction of himself, rather than on how the Earth itself could meet its end. For example, one of Clegg’s most compelling and worrying chapters focuses on how we’re all doing our part to bring about climate change (the term Global Warming was first coined half a dozen years after Asmiov’s book appeared); whilst another looks at information meltdown (Asimov died a year or so before the Internet and the World Wide Web started in any real sense). There’s another link to Asimov though: A good writer must also be a good investigator – and Clegg is a very good writer – and that’s what is so persuasive about this book: it’s meticulously researched, requiring painstaking inquiry,

Boffinology – Justin Pollard *****

If I’m honest I started off with two chips on my shoulder about this book. The first is that the publicity made a lot of author Justin Pollard’s connection with the TV show  QI , which though enjoyable, always tends to come across as a little full of itself. The other was the writing style. The author adopts the sort of breezy near-humour that works well in children’s books, but can feel a little forced in an adult title. However, as I began to read and enjoy myself, the chips fell away. This book is simply great fun – and the style settles down a bit (much as Douglas Adams had the  Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy  do), so this doesn’t get in the way of the enjoyment. The title is probably a touch baffling, especially if you don’t know what a ‘boffin’ is (old fashion British term, roughly corresponding to a sort of middle aged proto-geek) – but in practice the book consists of a series of short and easily digested stories about scientists, their theories and their discoveries. In

The 4% Universe – Richard Panek ****

The ‘four percent’ in the title of this book refers to the apparently true but bizarre fact that only 4% of the universe seems to be ordinary stuff – from planets to stars – with twenty-odd percent of the remainder dark matter and the rest dark energy, the unknown phenomenon that is forcing the expansion of the universe to accelerate. Don’t come to this book hoping to find out what dark matter and dark energy are – because there’s a long way to go before those questions can be definitively answered – but instead you will find an in-depth history of the process by which the (probable) existence of dark matter and dark energy were discovered. Richard Panek is at his best when describing human beings in action, rather than covering the details of physics or cosmology. He really takes the reader in to experience the astronomers, astrophysicists and cosmologists (surprisingly different beasts) at work. We begin to understand how these people work, what drives them and what they really