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Showing posts from November, 2010

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 thin…

What’s Luck Got to do with It? – Joseph Mazur ****

Joseph Mazur’s aim in this book is to expose the “diabolical con” of the voice in the gambler’s ear that tells him he can win. To attack the “gambler’s illusion” Joseph Mazur brings out some big guns of modern science, from the mathematics of probability to the psychology of cognitive biases. Preaching is not his style, however, and there is much more in the book than arguments against gambling. The book sometimes loses its way through thickets of sociology, reportage, literary analysis and personal anecdotes. But the end results is Mazur an eclectic, personable introduction to the topic. The first third of the book is a potted history of lotteries, casinos, shares trading, and theories of probability. Mazur takes us from eighteenth-century Bath to nineteenth-century Mississippi, from the Iliad to modern-day Monte Carlo. Inevitably some important developments are left out. For example, the rise of private life insurance in the late 18C, and its origins in a middle class anxious to pro…

The Life and Hard Times of an Armchair Scientist by Peter Forbes

In researching his book on bio-inspiration, The Gecko’s Foot, Peter Forbes made a discovery of his own – his idea has now born fruit, but not quite in the way he’d hoped: I am not a scientist or inventor but a writer. For the last seven years I’ve been researching the new science of bio-inspiration – engineering solutions derived from nature’s own mechanisms, The Gecko’s Foot (Fourth Estate). Bio-inspiration, or biomimetics as it is often called, is a new multidisciplinary science – to get results biologists have to talk to chemists, have to talk to physicists, have to talk to engineers, and so on. An armchair researcher such as myself gets a very broad view of many subjects. You might even make a discovery or two. I did. and the results have just been published in
The gecko’s foot is one of the big stories in bio-inspiration. For centuries, people could only wonder at the gecko’s ability to climb a smooth vertical wall either up or down, to walk across the ceiling, or to rest for hal…

Piers Bizony – Four Way Interview

Piers Bizony has written on popular science and space for a variety of magazines on both sides of the Atlantic, and was shortlisted for the NASA/Eugene M. Emme Award for Astronautical Writing. He has written several books, including Atom and most recently Science: the Definitive Guide. Why science? People sometimes imagine science as a dull technical enterprise conducted by emotionless nerds in white coats. The media also gets annoyed when scientists can’t answer questions in black and white terms – or worst of all, when one scientist’s ideas conflict with another’s. The wonderful thing about science is that it’s an act of creative imagination, followed by a test of those ideas to see if they have any truth behind them. It’s a constant and often fiery process of human discovery, rather than just an abstract set of cold facts. But the facts do count for a lot. Yes, the earth is round, not flat. Yes, the earth goes around the sun, and not the other way around. Yes, there’s an evolutionar…

Once Before Time – Martin Bojowald ***

Physics has a dark secret at its heart. The two big theories that form the main basis of just about everything don’t work together. Quantum theory, dealing with the very small, and general relativity, dealing with gravity and the nature of space-time, are incompatible. Not only does this make it impossible to put together a coherent theory covering, for instance, all forces, it messes up our understanding of events that fit into both camps, like the big bang. The best known modern attempt to pull the two together is string theory – but this has huge problems as far as making useful predictions goes, and some regard it as a dead end. Its main opposition (though there are other theories) is loop quantum gravity. This breaks down space-time itself into atoms, which have something of a loop-like nature, making reality a kind of weave of these loops. This theory too has yet to make any useful predictions, and like string theory it depends on mind-twistingly complex maths. Yet it is in some…

Introducing Psychology: a graphic guide – Nigel C. Benson ***

It is almost impossible to rate these relentlessly hip books – they are pure marmite*. The huge Introducing … series (a vast range of books covering everything from Quantum Theory to Islam), previously known as … for Beginners, puts across the message in a style that owes as much to Terry Gilliam and pop art as it does to popular science. Pretty well every page features large graphics with speech bubbles that are supposed to emphasise the point. Psychology is a difficult topic for this site because, to be honest, it’s not clear that it’s science. If this book is anything to go by, the reason it has a problematic image is that it is a mix of science and philosophy, and all too often the philosophy has too much weight. Nigel Benson provides a useful summary of the different approaches to psychology (another indicator of its lack of modern scientific credentials – you certainly get disagreements about specific theories in physics, but you don’t get different ‘schools’, always an indicato…

Neutrino – Frank Close *****

At first sight you could easily overlook this book. It’s small and succumbs to that easiest mistakes when dealing with something with a passing involvement with space of having a black cover, which almost inevitably makes a book look dull. It doesn’t cover one of the big topics of the day. Why bother? Because it’s a little cracker. An awful lot of popular science passes across my desk, and it’s very rare that the vast majority of the content is new and fresh, but that’s the case here. Neutrinos are quantum particles that exist in vast quantities – many billions pass through your body from the Sun every second – yet they are so unlikely to interact with matter that the vast majority pass through the Earth as if it isn’t there. Once it became apparent that neutrinos ought to exist, the challenge was there to find some way of detecting them. But what a challenge. Frank Close presents the tale of the hunt for the neutrino, and it’s a fascinating story. Apart from anything else, it’s a gre…

The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics – James Kakalios ****

At first sight this is just bound to be one of those ‘science of’ books (the author’s own Physics of Superheroes, The Science of Discworld, The Science of Middle Earth, The Science of the Tellytubbies etc. etc.) in a different guise. For those in the know, the format of ‘Amazing Story’ on the cover is a big flag saying ‘1950s science fiction magazines are my inspiration’. And even if it’s not strictly a ‘science of’ book, the subtitle ‘a math-free exploration of the science that made our world’ seems a dead giveaway that this is very basic stuff. I’m not quite sure why they’ve done this, because we’re not dealing with this kind of book at all. Okay, there are a lot of references to comics (much more so than Amazing Stories et al), sometimes a little obscure (the author seems to assume we all know, for example, the name of the character who is the alter ego of Iron Man. Pardon me for not being a fan). But the contents of this book are in fact one of the most hard hitting attempts to pu…

The End of Discovery – Russell Stannard ****

Russell Stannard argues here that at some point in the future we will have reached a stage where no new scientific discoveries can be made. It is unlikely we will have discovered everything about the physical world – there is no reason to believe that our brains are equipped to fully comprehend nature, Stannard argues, and even where we are not held back by fundamental limits to our understanding, we will face practical difficulties in continuing to make discoveries (we can’t build ever bigger particle accelerators, for instance). Instead, we will have discovered everything we are able to as human beings. Each chapter looks at specific questions and mysteries in science that look like they could be beyond us to solve, and which may hint at where the boundaries lie of what we are capable of knowing. Some of the questions looked at may in fact soon have answers – is there a Higgs particle?; what is the nature of dark matter? – whilst some (the more philosophical questions) do indeed loo…