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The Maths Handbook – Richard Elwes ***

I can’t score this book more than 3 stars because it’s not really popular maths, but it does what it sets out to do rather well, so it should be seen in this context. As Richard Elwes points out in his introduction ‘I was never any good at maths,’ is something you hear all the time. What he sets out to do – and succeeds in admirably – is taking the reader step by step through the basics of maths to be able to manage those slippery figures with ease. The approach is not as heavy as a textbook, though occasionally I did get the feel of a slight older, fussy teacher at work. (It’s notable that the precise expression we’re told Elwes has heard from ‘a thousand different people’ is ‘I was never any good at mathematics.’ Hardly anyone would say ‘mathematics’ rather than ‘maths’. Now it’s possible he was trying to avoid the UK/US maths/math split – but it still fits that slightly fussy precision we meet on a regular basis through the text.) I really can’t fault the step-by-step progress, sta…

Air: the excellent canopy – Frank Fahy ***

Considering how important it is to us, air has had relatively little coverage in popular science. Frank Fahy’s slim book aims to set that right, exploring every aspect of this essential medium. We begin with the nature and basic physical properties of air, going on to look at how it supports life. From there we come onto a meaty section on aerodynamics and flight, providing the most comprehensive description of all the components that go into making flight possible I’ve ever seen in a book for the general reader. We also discover a lot about sound and about meteorology, where air and its flows are responsible for vast swathes of the weather phenomena we experience. There’s even room to look at some air-based technology, notably wind instruments and pneumatics. Along the way there are a lot of useful diagrams and photographs. These are not always particularly well reproduced – often a problem with inline printing of photographs – and I believe that an attempt is being made to improve t…

Rising Force – James D. Livingston ****

James Livingston examines the various uses of magnetic levitation in modern technology, from medicine to the production of nuclear weapons, having first considered the historic fascination people have had with levitation, and the basics of gravity and electromagnetism. As well as covering the science of magnetic levitation (which includes us gradually being able to reduce the number of supports needed to keep an object ‘up there’ and to keep it from being displaced in any direction), there’s much more. We have biographical information on some of the key players in the development of the science of maglev, fascinating stories of bitter copyright feuds between makers of maglev toys, and humorous examples of maglev products whose sales have failed to get off the ground (sorry) – there’s the levitating bed, for instance, which, costing thousands, has yet to have one buyer. I must admit to having some concerns when starting the book about whether the topic of maglev could keep me intereste…

How to Build a Time Machine [Build Your Own Time Machine] – Brian Clegg *****

If you remember James Burke (‘Good evening. [thoughtful pause; turn from one camera to another; raise an eyebrow] Or is it?’), you’re going to love How to Build a Time Machine!
James Burke is one of my heroes: the BBC’s moon-shot programmes, The Burke Special, The End of the Beginning, Tomorrow’s World, etc. However, it was his Connections programme that really got me. The way that one idea seeded some inkling of another – a tantalising Connection. It was a master-class in how to sneak up on a subject and then to hook the audience with a single line. Brian Clegg is surely cast from the same mould; he’s our contemporary JB. In How to Build a Time Machine we start each chapter with an affirmation: ‘Yes, time travel is possible …’. There’s clarification, ‘ifs’, often detailed historic references; consequences; and then the practicalities – at which point you might have the feeling that it’s not possible after all. But then there’s the ‘Or is it?’ moment, and one cannot but take the bait a…

How the Hippies Saved Physics – David Kaiser ***

I have to be honest here, the approach taken by the author is not one I was totally comfortable with. He expresses regret that physics moved from requiring students to write philosophical essays about the interpretation of quantum theory to concentrating on the physics and maths. I have to say this doesn’t strike me as a problem. Similarly he is very enthusiastic, working very hard to find something good scientifically coming out of the counter culture. Again I don’t think this should be an end in itself. It’s interesting if true, but not something you should shape history to try to prove. Much of the book is concerned with two things: quantum entanglement, and an obscure group of US scientists who called themselves the ‘Fundamental Fysics group.’ I’m sorry, but every time I saw that ‘Fysics’ it made me cringe and want to dunk someone’s head in a toilet and flush it. That kind of spelling is just about acceptable if you are selling doughnuts, but not if you want to be taken seriously. …

The Wonderful World of Relativity – Andrew M. Steane ***

This book has what is possibly the worst cover of any popular science title I’ve ever seen (even worse than the old Macmillan edition of my own Light Years, which is saying something). It’s muddy and dark – even the yellow lettering is muted. The illustration is a line drawing apparently by a ten-year-old that is just about visible on the black background. This doesn’t bode well, but of course the author isn’t responsible for the cover. Unfortunately, the text is often equally impenetrable. The subtitle is ‘a precise guide for the general reader’ and the problem here is that there are two words in that sentence that really don’t fit well together. If you are going to be precise with a subject like special relativity, you will need to go into more maths than the general reader is comfortable with. Stephen Hawking was famously told that he would half his readership for every equation included – I reckon there are sufficient equations here to take the readership down to one. It’s a shame…

Cosmic Numbers – James D. Stein ***

Basing a popular science book on some of the key constants of the universe is not original, but it’s a powerful approach because were it not for having some fixed values science would be practically impossible. What’s more a fair number of the constants here haven’t featured so strongly elsewhere, which is a good point for James Stein. Everything from the speed of light to the universal gravitational constant, with some more obscure figures too, features here. We get a fair amount of historical context, some of it highly entertaining. But this isn’t a science book and there is a bit of a problem with the scientific content. I don’t know if it’s because Stein is a mathematician, but there is more use of equations than I would expect in a popular science book, and the approach taken seems so strongly oriented to a mathematical mindset that it’s quite easy for the reader to get lost what is supposed to be an explanation, but actually makes a physical concept more complicated than it need…

Solar System – Marcus Chown ****

We’ve all seen the book of the movie, and even films based on theme park rides and computer games. But this could well be the first ever book of an iPad app. Not long ago I had a chance to take a look at the Solar System for iPad appand now we’ve got the book based on it. Let’s get the downside out of the way first. I can’t be as enthusiastic about the book as I was about the app. Not only does it cost three times as much (before discounts) and threaten serious damage to the wrists from its weight, but also the book can’t compete with the interactive aspects of the app which work so well with this material. I also found that, compared with the iPad version, it was eye-straining to read the relatively small white text on a black background. But even so, there’s plenty to like here. What we’ve got is a coffee table format book, which feels not unlike a Dorling Kindersley book in the way it uses two-page spreads with a bit of text, some great photographs and various graphics and little …

The Quantum Universe: everything that can happen does happen – Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw ****

Brian Cox has picked up a lot of fans (and a few parodies) for his light and fluffy ‘here’s me standing on top of a mountain looking at the stars’ TV science shows – no doubt a fair number of them will rush out and buy his latest collaboration with Jeff Forshaw. They will be disappointed. So, I suspect, will a number of My Little Pony fans, as with its rainbow cover and glittery lettering it only needs a pink pony tail bookmark to complete the look. The reason The Quantum Universe will disappoint is not because it is a bad book. It’s brilliant. But it is to Cox’s TV show what the Texas Chainsaw Massacre is to Toy Story. It’s a different beast altogether. As they did with their E=mc2 book, but even more so here, Cox and Forshaw take no prisoners and are prepared to delve deep into really hard-to-grasp aspects of quantum physics. This is the kind of gritty popular science writing that makes A Brief History of Time look like easy-peasy bedtime reading – so it really isn’t going to be for…

Risk: a very short introduction – Baruch Fischhoff & John Kadvany ***

I have to confess to a personal interest in the subject of one of OUP’s pocket ‘a very short introduction’ guides. My first job was in Operational Research, which is very much about optimising decision making, and this book is strongly focussed on the difficulties of decisions where risk is involved. Not all difficult decisions do involve risk – for example anything comparing apples and oranges. I might be deciding between two products, one of which is very stylish and the other very practical. The comparison is not easy, but there’s not really risk attached. But this book is all about those decisions where we have to factor in risk – how to insure cars, for example, and the decision whether to try to keep a very premature birth alive are discussed early on. The reason I confessed the interest is that I find this stuff fascinating, but I suspect this may be to some extent my inner geek coming out, and to the general reader it might be less interesting. The book contains is an effectiv…

Galloping with Light – Felix Alba-Juez ***

I’m more than a little wary of self-published books, especially ones with subtitles like ‘Einstein, relativity and folklore’, but this looked like a book that would be different from the masses – and it is. It’s not one of the interminable ‘Einstein was wrong’ books, but rather one that tries to really give an in-depth understanding of Einstein’s ideas to the general reader. Unfortunately, Felix Alba-Juez seemed far too obsessed with the definitions of words to give us useful insights into what is going on. In the first chapter he bangs on and on about nuclear power not being based on E=mc2. It’s certainly true that, contrary to popular belief, the equation isn’t a central part of the effort to make a nuclear bomb. But his repeated assertion that the idea of converting mass to energy is folklore totally misses the point, probably because of his obsessive pursuit of the term inertia, something that in some senses doesn’t exist but is merely a reflection of Newton’s second law. There is…