Wednesday, 21 April 2010

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 physics – as a physicist I can only applaud this decision. Along the way he deals with practically all the key areas of physics from the relatively mundane like mechanics and thermodynamics, to the exotica of cosmology, relativity and quantum physics. With a couple of exceptions the science is fine, and pitched at the right level for the absolute beginner.
Perhaps I should get those technical errors out of the way. There’s a small one in cosmology, where he argues against the conventional Big Bang wisdom, saying ‘if it came from a point source, then by definition the universe has a centre we’re expanding away from.’ This would only be true if the universe were matter expanding within space. In fact it’s space itself that is expanding – so every point in the universe was once the centre. The Big Bang happened (if it happened at all) at the end of my nose – and your nose – and anywhere else you want to select.
More worrying was the relativity section, which was heavily flawed. Lester seems to confuse the relativity of simultaneity (the fact that relativity makes two events that are simultaneous stop being simultaneous if the locations are moving with respect to each other) with the time lag for light to cross big distances. He illustrates the fact that two events cease to be simultaneous if they don’t share a frame of reference by talking about the light from a distant star taking many years to arrive – but this would be equally true if you shared a frame of reference with the star. He gets special relativity wrong saying ‘the faster you travel, the slower time passes relative to those who are stationary in your frame of reference.’ But you are by definition stationary in your frame of reference. He doesn’t mention that time dilation is symmetrical: if you are on a spaceship blasting away from Earth, your time is slow as seen by the Earth – but it’s also true that the Earth’s time is slow as seen by you. (This is confusing because the twins paradox is often used to illustrate special relativity, but the asymmetry in the paradox is not a special relativity effect.) And he gets general relativity the wrong way round, saying ‘the further away from Earth’s gravity you get, the slower time passes relative to those on the surface.’ In fact, the weaker the gravitational field, the faster the time passes.
This needs clearing up, but doesn’t undo the good stuff in the rest of the book. However, I did find the style uncomfortable. Lester has tried to aim the book at everyone from young teenagers to adults – but it doesn’t quite work for either audience. The pace is much too slow and wordy for a young reader. You may have to read four lines of woffle to get one bit of substance. This can work for adults, but doesn’t for children. Many adults, though, will find the constant jokey tone too much. The humour is a mix of Douglas Adams pastiche (usually, unfortunately the bits of Adams where he is taking the mickey out of the Hitchiker’s Guide for being too overblown), the Beano and a curiously old fashioned use of words. Some of the language, though not very strong, would raise eyebrows in children’s book circles – there’s a lot of ‘bugger’s, for instance.
The other aspect I have a little problem with is the thesis that science is an art. Lester spends quite a lot of time on this, frequently referring to it in passing and dedicating a whole chapter to it. This is much more a matter of opinion that the scientific errors, but I can’t see it myself. If you take the original definitions, art was about stuff made by people, while nature was about the rest. Science is the study of nature, not of artifice. In a more modern sense, the problem seems to arise from confusing art with creativity. Both science and art require creativity. But just because something’s creative doesn’t make it art. As Koestler pointed out, there are very different types of creativity employed in the different fields. Yes, science requires creativity, but that doesn’t make it art. Sorry.
So all in all, the book has good intent and plenty of interesting content, but I find the ‘art’ theme unconvincing, and the presentation a little wearing.
Review by Brian Clegg

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