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Showing posts from April, 2010

Sand – Michael Welland ****

I don’t know who the commissioning editor for this book was, but I want this person on my side. Imagine, going into a commissioning meeting saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got this proposal for a great book.’ ‘Really, what’s it about?’ ‘Erm, sand.’ And yet still (s)he managed to sell it. And that’s a good thing – because Michael Welland’s book is fascinating. This is much more than a book about what sand is – though that’s covered in considerable depth – it’s about its physical nature, how it is made, how human beings have responded to it and much more. We plunge into the detail of a single sand grain and zoom out to take in vast deserts. Two chapters are titled ‘Sand and the Imagination’ and chronicle how sand has influenced our thinking, from Archimedes’ The Sand Reckoner to art and literature inspired by sand. This is sand for the sand enthusiast – but also sand for anyone who has sat on a beach and built sandcastles, or let dry sand drift through their fingers. I am giving this book four s

The Martian Rice Pudding Programme and the Art of Why – Richard Lester ***

We get sent a lot of self-published books and few of them end up being reviewed, because frankly they are rarely worth it. This is an exception. Richard Lester’s book is a professionally bound hardback that looks better than some of the titles we get from mainstream publishers. There are a couple of clues inside for the initiated – the spaces between the lines of text are too big and there’s an inconsistency of use of inverted commas between single and double that you wouldn’t see in a professional title, but otherwise it’s excellently produced, and there are no more typos than I typically notice in a book from the big boys. Lester sets himself the daunting task of covering all science, giving us the opportunity to see it in a new light – almost as another of the arts, something to be appreciated for its own sake. It partly works. He covers biology and chemistry in a fairly summary, but reasonably effective fashion (as far as content goes), but concentrates most of the book on physi

Deep Down Things – Bruce A. Schumm ***

I was looking forward to reading this, as it’s difficult to find a treatment of the Standard Model of particle physics that is both thorough and accessible, and this is exactly what Bruce Schumm aims to provide in  Deep Down Things . Unfortunately, it ends up being a little too technical in parts, and ultimately I don’t think I can justify giving it more than three stars. But I do like this book, and it’s definitely worth a look. Schumm builds up to a long discussion of gauge theory, and since this is rarely touched on in popular science books, the coverage is useful. The amount of detail Schumm goes into here, however, makes it necessary for him to first give the reader a detailed grounding in the Schrödinger wave equation, internal symmetry spaces and Lie groups. Schumm is quite good in these earlier sections at defining the important ideas and concepts. But the level of understanding he then encourages the reader to reach means that it can be easy to get lost amongst the speciali

Glen Murphy – Four Way Interview

Glenn Murphy received his masters in science communication from London’s Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine. He wrote his first book whilst managing the Explainer team at the Science Museum in London. In 2007 he moved to the United States. He now lives and works in North Carolina, with his wife Heather and an increasingly large and ill-tempered cat. Why science? It is without a doubt the best method we have for making useful sense of the world around us. And it delivers a sense of wonder unmatched by anything else you could ever hope to study. Once I’d figured that out as a teenager, there was no going back. Why this book? With the first two books,  Why Is Snot Green?  and  How Loud Can You Burp? , I was responding to the random questions of visitors and e-mailers to the Science Museum in London. In doing so, I explored a wide range of scientific disciplines and theories, and achieved great success with the format. But I often felt that I was cutting my ans

30 Second Theories – Paul Parsons (Ed.) ***

Books are pretty much of a muchness physically, so it’s really nice when a publisher comes up with something different, as is the case with  30 Second Theories . It’s shaped like a small coffee table book, and the dustcoverless outer cover is a textured brown stuff that makes this elegant hardback feel rather special. Inside, glossy pages pit a page of text against a full page of illustration – a sort of adult Dorling Kindersley format, except the pictures, though artistic, rarely convey a lot of information, which makes them a bit of a waste of space. The challenging task the book sets out to fill is to cover all of science in 50 snippets that can be read in 30 seconds each. There are some worries about this format. One is that it just isn’t practical to do anything useful in that amount of text. My pocket  Instant Egghead Physics  covers physics alone in 100 rather longer snippets – to do the whole of science in 50 seems an unlikely possibility. There’s also the value for money ar

The Genius in All of Us – David Shenk **

I have to be totally up front and say I don’t like this book. From the very beginning, its attitude is negative. It keeps telling you over and over again, ‘This is what you thought – well, you were WRONG!’ What was I wrong about? Well, I thought, apparently that genius was hereditary. I thought that what we are is produced by either our genes or our environment. But I was WRONG! In fact, amazingly revealed for the first time, genes and environment work together. Environment influences the way the genes are expressed. Wow, I never knew that. Or rather, I did. I suppose I ought to have a little sympathy for David Shenk, because you do still see books and articles blaming things uniquely on genes or environment, but I really don’t think it’s as much a fundamental shock as Shenk suggests. Or rather YELLS AT US. He uses the expression GxE to indicate that it’s genes and environment operating on each other, rather than G+E – genes plus environment, operating separately. I don’t think th

Cows in the Maze – Ian Stewart ****

When I was a teenager I delighted in Martin Gardner’s books like  Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions , taken from his  Scientific American  columns. British mathematician Ian Stewart has taken over Gardner’s role and continues to amaze and boggle the mind with the possibilities of recreational maths in his latest collection. For me it was rather a mixed bunch. The best were great fun – the worst would only really engage the sort of person who thinks calculating pi by hand is a form of entertainment. I think to some extent Stewart has a problem because Gardner had already picked off the really entertaining, truly amazing stuff, and Stewart is left with either more of the same, or things that aren’t so engaging. Even so it’s an enjoyable read for anyone who finds mathematical puzzles fun – just be prepared to skip over one or two bits. In a few of the sections Stewart adopts a story-telling form, and these are the weakest, as he’s not a great fiction writer and the result is too wh

Collider – Paul Halpern ****

The Large Hadron Collider at CERN is set to give us deep insights into the nature of matter and the origins of the universe. It could provide evidence of extra dimensions, and give us an idea of whether string theorists are on the right track. This is fascinating stuff, and it is what Paul Halpern aims to explain in Collider, after first giving us a history of high energy physics and particle accelerators. I wasn’t very optimistic about the book at first. It jumps straight into the Higgs mechanism and spontaneous symmetry breaking without explaining these concepts in much detail for the layperson. I was a little worried the book was going to turn out to be over-technical, and only fully understandable to those with a physics degree. Luckily, this wasn’t the case at all, and when the book gets on to talking about the LHC in detail, and how it works and what it will be looking for, the concepts are fleshed out clearly and simply. In fact, Halpern has a knack of explaining tricky ideas

The Origins of Meanings – James R. Hurford ***

This is unquestionably an academic book, more useful to the layperson as a reference than a bedtime read. But it is saved from 2 stars by the down-to-earth style of the author, which means that non-scientists can come to grips with its fascinating subject matter without too much effort. The grand-sounding title shows just how ambitious is the task that Hurford sets himself in this volume. His aim is nothing less than to show how the ‘semantic’ and ‘pragmatic’ sides of human language – roughly, concepts and conversations – grew out of the non-linguistic abilities of our distant ancestors. But anyone who expects a blow-by-blow narrative of how this happened, with the dates of each key development, will be disappointed. Instead Hurford describes the cognitive and behavioral abilities of non-humans that stand out as precursors to language, and then describes the evolutionary mechanisms that could have transformed these primitive capacities into the rich array of concepts and conversatio

The Canon – Natalie Angier *****

In  The Canon , Natalie Angier introduces some of the fundamentals of science she argues everyone should know. The book has in mind people who struggled with or lost interest in science when they were young, and is very accessible and readable. I’m incredibly enthusiastic about this book and have no hesitation in giving it five stars. The book covers more than I thought would be possible. After outlining what science is and how it works, Angier takes in turn physics, chemistry, evolutionary biology, molecular biology, geology and astronomy, and explains in some detail four or five key ideas in each field. In the section on physics, for instance, she goes through the nature of atoms, the four fundamental forces, thermodynamics, and how electricity works. The chapter on molecular biology is the best in the book, and here the role of DNA and how cells work are explained particularly well. Elsewhere, there is a very good section on the misunderstanding by some of the word ‘theory’ in

How Many Licks? – Aaron Santos ****

Author Aaron Santos takes on the rarely considered but entertaining job of solving Fermi problems: making back-of-an-envelope estimates of numbers that range from the trivial, like the number of licks need to reach the centre of the lolly in the title of the book, to questions like ‘How many babies are born every day?’ The full title is ‘How many licks, or how to estimate damn near anything.’ I thought this might prove a bit samey after a while – there are 69 problems in all, ending in estimating which uses more silicon in the USA, computer chips or silicone implants (I know silicone isn’t the same as silicon, but it does contain it). In fact, each time I wanted to turn on and get to the next one. The more enthusiastic may want to try to work out some of these as they go along. I was happy to take Santos’ word for it and just enjoy the ride. I do occasionally do this sort of thing for real, but I didn’t particularly want to do so for the problems cited here. If there’s any compl

The Lives of Ants – Laurent Keller and Elisabeth Gordon *****

We’re in the habit of moaning about OUP popular science because it’s often the case they have great subjects, but written by academics making the books often poor to read. The recommendation is that they get their academics to link up with a writer, and in effect that is what has happened here, as the book is a translation (probably from French) – and benefits hugely, because unlike many of its fellows it is a joy to read. It would be ironic if that enhanced readability were coupled with a less than inspiring subject – but not here. The subject is, as it says on the tin, the lives of ants, and they are truly incredible. At risk of sounding like the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you may think you know about ants, but that’s nothing when you see the sheer variety and complexity of ant life. The different species indulge in all sorts of behaviours, from rearing insect ‘cattle’ to capturing slaves and invading others’ nests and pretending to be of that species. We discover a queen an