Wednesday, 14 December 2011

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, starting with basic arithmetic, taking us on to fractions and powers, roots and logs, percentages, algebra, geometry and even a brief intro to probability and statistics. Each of the sections is quite short, easily digested, well laid out and illustrated and finished off with a little quiz that’s not too taxing but helps reinforce the message. I suppose the only question is whether it’s best to arrange such an introduction by the structure of maths itself (as this book is) or by application, taking the reader through typical mathematical chores from checking a shopping bill to calculating odds at a bookies. That way you could cover the same ground but perhaps make it seem more real world. However, Elwes doesn’t resort to an excess of mathematical jargon, keeping the focus simple – and at least by structuring the book on the maths itself it can have the most logical progression of experience.
As I mentioned at the start, this isn’t popular maths. A popular maths book is not a tutorial in how to use it, with tests, but an exploration of some aspect of maths, the people involved, the history and its significance. This is much more a practical book. I would it see it being particularly useful to an adult learner who had trouble with maths at school and now wants to come back to it and take it on. It is a lot less condescending than most modern maths textbooks and would appeal more to a mature reader. So for this particular audience it is definitely an option well worth considering – and it’s excellent value, priced like cheap paperback but actually a good size and well-made book. Just not really for someone wanting a voyage of discovery about the history or nature of mathematics.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

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 them. Even as they are, they contribute hugely to the understanding of the information that is being put across.
There’s certainly plenty covered, despite the book’s thinness. In part this is because the text is crammed in – there’s very little white space, making it a little difficult to read. Unfortunately there are quite a few typos as well – for example the section on why the sky is blue refers to the particles of light more than once as ‘protons’. The author clearly knows better, but this kind of error can leave the reader a little confused.
The book also doesn’t quite come across as being for the general reader. In part this is pricing – £20 for a slim paperback is not mass market – and in part the way the book is written. It is in numbered sections, more reminiscent of a textbook than a popular science title, and concentrates on putting across fact, which is fine, but lacks a certain storytelling flair. This is an interesting book, with a lot crammed into it, but it is unlikely to escape from a specialist niche.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 8 December 2011

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 interested for 250 pages. Because of the deviations mentioned above, however, and the gentle, easy to follow way in which the book is written, it kept my attention throughout.
The most interesting section, that which the book builds up to, is the one on maglev trains. (And given that I read much of this book whilst on a slow, bumpy train journey, the notion of high-speed, frictionless travel felt particularly exciting.) The science behind the trains is a little more complicated than I had previously believed. It’s unlikely you’ll be travelling on one soon, however. There are a limited number around and, unfortunately, as the book explains, many plans around the world for maglev trains to be rolled out have ultimately gone nowhere.
There are concerns over safety (largely unwarranted, the author suggests), but mainly the problems is cost, meaning that, though we have the technology, most high-speed trains rolled out in the next few years will still run on rails. The scrapping of two projects in Germany seemed particularly disappointing, for instance. Both cases reminded me of, and seemed similar to, what happened to the Superconducting Super Collider planned for Texas, cancelled in 2003. After so much effort and money spent on the project, in the end the plans went nowhere.
I can easily recommend this title, then. It’s a good insight into an aspect of much of modern technology, with enough surrounding material to keep it entertaining to read.
Hardback:  
Review by Matt Chorley

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 and turn the page.
To name but a few, what does the following have to do with time travel?: near-light speed travel, an infinitely long cylinder built from dust – or a less ambitious one (!) built from neutron stars, wormholes, paradoxes, black and white Holes, antimatter, dark energy…? If you’re like me when presented with such a list – appetite whet to the point of drooling – this is a book written with you in mind!
One last and very important point: Clegg is both a writer and a physicist; and it’s as a writer – one who is able to communicate physics to the non-specialist – and that makes this book so very enjoyable. The hard stuff is there, between the lines, but we’re not asked to deal with it – Clegg leads us through, in his own inimitable style. There are just two equations: Einstein’s E=mc2 (of course), and Maxwell’s – the latter because they’re so ‘beautifully spare and simple looking’. Perfect. I’m sure I’ll go back and re-read it. If only I had the time – or a time machine perhaps?
Hardback:  
Review by Peet Morris
Please note, this title is written by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion – and we could hardly omit the book – but do want to make the connection clear.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

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.
Having written a book about quantum entanglement (The God Effect, which I’m delighted to see was in the author’s bibliography) I was interested to learn more about this group’s contribution. I think it’s fair to say, in the words of the great Paul Daniels it was ‘not a lot.’ But, to be fair, some of it was quite entertaining, if only in a kind of ‘weren’t those hippy types funny’ way. In fact by far the most interesting and absorbing part of the book (and it is a significant part) is the story of the lifestyles and strange goings on from nude discussion groups to murder.
The author also gives us quite a lot about entanglement, especially on the Bell inequality which was used to demonstrate that entangled particles really do seem to act non-locally, instantly communicating at a distance. Mostly this is fine, and provided significantly more details than many popular science accounts. This is important physics and deserves to be well covered. The only slight disappointment is a misunderstanding of the original EPR paper that started the whole quantum entanglement business.
This paper deals with two entangled particles, looking at their position and momentum. A lot of people misinterpreted it, thinking because it refers to these two properties that it’s about violating Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, suggesting it’s possible to measure both accurately and simultaneously (something the uncertainty principle forbids). David Kaiser falls into this trap. But Einstein (the E of EPR) was dismissive of this idea. He said of the use of both position and momentum ‘Ist mir Wurst!’ (literally ‘it’s sausage to me’), meaning ‘I couldn’t care less.’ The intention was to show you could do this with position or momentum – there is no suggestion in the paper that you would attempt to do both simultaneously and undermine uncertainty.
In the end, Kaiser doesn’t make a great case for the Fysics (ugh) group contributing anything significant to our knowledge of physics – they’re always on the fringe. He certainly doesn’t justify the book’s title as anything other than very cheeky hyperbole. But it is a mildly entertaining oddity in the history of science – and as this can be a little dull sometimes, it’s not at all a bad thing that it has been covered.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 1 December 2011

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, because there is the kernel of a good book here. I particularly liked the way Andrew Steane used some of the paradoxes of relativity to explore the subject. These are so good (except where he gets over-precise on us and loses most of us) that I could envisage a whole book just based on the paradoxes. Some, of course, are well worn, but I particularly liked the bug and rivet paradox (see my blog post about it here).
What this looks like is a closeted academic’s idea of what the general reader can cope with. You have to admire the author’s braveness – but ultimately it is a futile exercise because no one who isn’t about to embark on a physics degree would get anywhere with this book.
The title makes this book sounds like a Disney ride, but it’s anything but that. In the end it’s not a popular science book at all, it’s a watered down text book. And that isn’t the same thing at all, I’m afraid.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

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 be.
Like many academics, there’s a suspicion that Dr. Stein has forgotten what it’s like to look at the world as a normal person. There’s quite a lot to glean from these pieces – in effect each chapter is a separate article – but it could have been significantly more approachable for the general reader.
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Review by Peter Spitz

Thursday, 24 November 2011

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 factoids to expand on the topic. Some of these can be quite surprising – at one point Brian May from Queen pops up, looking like a fantasy wizard in his doctoral robes, with a comment about his PhD thesis on the movement of solar system dust.
Perhaps to keep the translation from the app simple all the pages are black, which gets a little depressing (I got over my ‘decorate in black’ phase in my teens, thanks), but this is more than compensated for by the lush photography, with some superb imagery of the different components of the solar system. It was interesting to compare one of the pages of the book with the app – I randomly selected ‘Exploring Mars’. The basic text was the same (so as with my main criticism of the app, it could have done with a bit more meat), as was one of the key photographs (which could be panned on the app). The book then has four other photographs while the app has a rather more engaging speeded up video of the Mars rover Spirit in action. On other pages, some of the photographs not in the app were well worth having to expand the general feel of the content, so it wasn’t at all bad in the comparison.
Overall, then, an excellent photographic guide to the solar system and the astronomical basics behind it. Not as much fun as the app, and perhaps could have done with some more text (and fewer black backgrounds for text) – but an excellent book for any astronomy beginner, and would make a great gift.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 21 November 2011

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 everyone, but for those who can keep going through a lot of hard mental work the rewards are great too.
More than anything, I wish this book had been available when I started my undergraduate course in physics. It would have been a superb primer to get the mind into the right way of thinking to deal with quantum physics. Using Feynman’s least action/sum over paths with ‘clocks’ representing phase, the authors take us into the basics of quantum physics, effectively deriving Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle from basic logic – wonderful.
They go on to describe electron orbitals, the mechanics of electronic devices, quantum electrodynamics, virtual particles in a vacuum and more with the same mix of heavy technical arguments, a little maths (though nowhere near as much as a physics textbook) and a lot of Feynman-style diagrams and logic.
The reason I think I would have benefited so much is that this book explains much more than an (certainly my) undergraduate course does. Not explaining why quantum physics does what it does – no one can do that. But explaining the powerful logic behind the science, laying the groundwork for the undergraduate to then be able to do the fancy maths and fling Hamiltonians around and such. It is very powerful in this respect and I would urge anyone about to start a physics degree (or in the early stages of one) to read it. I would also recommend it for someone who is just really interested in physics and is prepared to put a lot of work into reading it, probably revisiting some pages several times to get what Cox and Forshaw have in mind – because they don’t ease up very often.
What I can’t do, though, is recommend this as general popular science. It isn’t the kind of excellent introduction that gives you an understanding of what’s going on in quantum theory, a view of the mysteries and a broad understanding of what the topic is about. This book is just too hard core. I’d suggest that 90% plus of popular science readers shouldn’t touch it with the proverbial barge pole. If that sounds condescending, it isn’t meant to be. Good popular science can and does have a lot more content and thought provoking meat than a typical Brian Cox TV show – but this book goes so much further still than that, inevitably limiting its audience.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 17 November 2011

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 effective analysis of making risk decisions, risk perception and communication and the interaction between risk, culture and society. There’s perhaps not as much that’s practical as you might expect, but I think that is fairly inevitable in this format. The book certainly gives a clear overview to the way theory has developed to help understand and manage a risk component to decision making.
I suppose my biggest disappointment with the book is that it isn’t really about risk, it’s purely about risk-based decision making, and particularly that it is only concerned with negative risk. I make this distinction because I think there is a lot to be said about risk in a positive sense. By positive risk, I don’t mean the kind of thing where someone risks their life trying to hop up Everest without oxygen – that’s just stupid showing off. What I mean is the kind of risk involved in creativity.
Every time someone is creative there is an element of risk. Whether it’s a new work of art or the product of business creativity – perhaps bringing a new product to market or a new way of working – there is risk involved, which still needs to be analyzed and considered. But this is good risk – there can be no creativity without it. Arguably it’s this type of risk that stops life from being bland. Yet this aspect of risk doesn’t come across at all in the book because it is so focussed on the assessment of negative risk and its impact on decisions.
What it does, it does well. But it doesn’t do what it says on the tin.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 13 November 2011

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 conversion between different forms of mass-energy in nuclear reactions, and for convenience we conventionally label some aspects of this as matter and some as energy. It’s not folklore, it’s scientific convention. It’s hard not to think ‘get a life.’
Similarly in the second chapter, Alba-Juez gets all heated about the famous Einstein quote about time passing quicker with a pretty girl than sitting on a stove, suggesting that this throw-away line is generally considered an attempt to explain relativity to the common man. But it’s obviously not that. Come on, the acronym of the supposed journal is JEST. It was always supposed to be a joke – has the author no sense of humour?
And so it goes on. While the philosophical musings about the words used in relativity are mildly interesting to those who already know the area quite well, and there is a lot of good basic science in here, I can’t recommend this as a science book for the general reader. Perhaps because it’s a translation, it is just too turgid and heavy handed. Although a lot of relativity is explained, the approach is often through extremely wordy and impenetrable prose. My undergrad textbook on relativity, which I still have (A. P. French) is often more readable.
The book, with its densely packed text (the layout has too little white space), doesn’t fill the reader with the delight of science but instead is like sitting through a rather dull and decidedly nit-picking science lesson. It’s an interesting idea, but the execution disappoints.
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Review by Brian Clegg