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Showing posts from February, 2010

Born to be Good – Dacher Keltner ***

There has been a spate of books over recent years on the science of morals, happiness and more. In this book, joining the crowd, Dacher Keltner examines the science of a meaningful life. He starts off in a way that immediately raises suspicions. I’m sure what he’s trying to do is be more approachable – and perhaps that works for some audiences – but for me, the way he brings in Eastern philosophies and is always relating things to the Confucian concept of ‘jen’ which apparently ‘refers to kindness, humanity and reverence’ is worrying. In many aspects of science, the tendency to bring in Eastern philosophies is a red flag that this the rest of the contents are pseudo-science, based on vague similarities between, for example, Daoist ideas and quantum theory. So we then get a fusion of misplaced quantum physics terminology and woo. That isn’t really what’s happening here – Keltner just wants to emphasize the importance of what was represented by jen in real, scientific observations on

From Cosmos to Chaos – Peter Coles ***

There are times when I think there’s a ‘Shoot Ourselves in the Foot’ department at Oxford University Press. It might seem the only explanation for the frequency with which they produce popular science books that are brilliant concepts but terribly executed. In fact, I think the reason is down to their choice of authors. They seem to choose authors on their academic background, rather than their ability to communicate. So what the reader often ends up with is a book that is replete with promise, but that fails to deliver in catastrophic fashion. This book is perhaps the most dramatic example of this I have ever seen. The subject is fascinating, both in its intellectually engaging nature and its applicability. Yet the contents are a disaster for the popular science reader. Anyone attempting to read it who isn’t at least a student on a maths or physics degree course is doomed to frustration. It simply doesn’t explain enough, and what it does put across makes much too heavy use of maths

Number Freak – Derrick Niederman ***

Things didn’t start well with me with this self-confessed ‘mathematical compendium from 1 to 200′. On the front it has a quote from Carol Vorderman. ‘This book is a complete joy. It made me smile. A lot.’ Is it really a recommendation that a book made  Carol Vorderman  smile? This started me off in a nervous disposition. When it comes down to it, this is one of those books that takes a theme and batters it to death. ‘I’ll list every number between 1 and 200 and write something interesting about it,’ thought the author. (Except he couldn’t find anything at all to say about 183.) Oh, good – a bit like counting sheep. Inevitably this format leads to a forced style, but to be fair, Derrick Niederman does manage to dig up some quite interesting material (occasionally it feels like wading through one of the worse episodes of QI) about the numbers in question. At these points it can be entertaining. But all too often I found myself thinking ‘not another…[insert mathematical structure of yo

Predictably Irrational – Dan Ariely ****

There is a certain breed of popular science book, often around the social sciences or economics that sets out to shock us by revealing that human nature doesn’t work the way we expect it to. I suppose a good example would be  Freakonomics . This books is very much of that ilk, but is more based on science than the purely observational approach of Freakonomics, and manages to produce a similar level of fascination. In a sense, although not presented as such, it’s a wholesale attack on economics as it is traditionally practised. This is, let’s face it, an easy target. I’ve never understood how economics can compare itself to real sciences, when Nobel Prizes are regularly awarded for totally opposing theories. Real science is built on observation and experiment, while economics seems more based on the Ancient Greek approach of coming up with a top-of-the-head theory to explain something, then defending it by argument. At the core of the book’s attack is the assumption in traditional