Skip to main content

Quantify! – Göran Grimvall ***

There’s a class of book that isn’t really a popular science book, yet is likely to be to be of interest to many popular science readers. This is just such a book. It’s an excellent piece of work with lots of fascinating information inside, yet fairly large chunks of it are more of interest to those who study the workings of science, or who use numbers, than readers who are looking for entertaining reading.
The concept is simple. To look at how numbers are used in science and in presenting information to the public and to pull apart the disciplines involved to get a good understanding of what’s going on. The result is highly informative and sometimes fascinating. I loved, for example, the way he demonstrates that the 5,000 metre athletics record is effectively meaningless, because the times measured are much more accurate than the distance – to the extent that any measurement of time below half a second is worthless. I also was bowled over by the counter-intuitive section on how we get it wrong when we try to combine the speed of a plane with a wind on a return journey.
However there is an equal amount of information in here, in fact probably the majority of the little essays, where the response is either ‘Huh?’ or ‘So?’ I think a lot of the aspects of the application of number covered are a touch esoteric or downright boring, when seen as popular science. I also think the text can be a little dry.
Occasionally, also, the author is a touch sneery. For example he talks about what is sometimes called ‘the Baywatch principle’ (though he doesn’t use this term). This is the idea that if you see someone drowning in the sea and have to run across the beach and through the water, the fastest route is not towards them, but at an angle away from them initially, so you spend more time running on sand (fast) and less time running through the water (slow). He points out how this principle of least action – extremely useful in optics and quantum electrodynamics – makes relatively little difference on the beach rescue in a way that makes it seem like he is looking down his nose at people who make use of this approach.
I’d say there will be a real split on this book. If you like your popular science fun and light, this probably isn’t the one for you. But if you are the kind of person who actually works out the solutions at the end of a chapter in a book that has some ‘try it yourself’ problems, then you will find it wonderful. The decision is yours.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

De/Cipher - Mark Frary ****

I was a little doubtful when I first saw this book. Although it has the intriguing tagline 'The greatest codes ever invented and how to crack them' the combination of a small format hardback and gratuitous illustrations made me suspect it would be a lightweight, minimal content, Janet and John approach to codes and ciphers. Thankfully, in reality Mark Frary manages to pack a remarkable amount of content into De/Cipher's slim form.

Not only do we get some history on and instructions to use a whole range of ciphers, there are engaging little articles on historical codebreakers and useful guidance on techniques to break the simpler ciphers. The broadly historical structure takes the reader through basic alphabetic manipulation, keys, electronic cryptography, one time pads and so on, all the way up to modern public key encryption and a short section on quantum cryptography. 

We even get articles on some of the best known unsolved ciphers, such as the Dorabella and the Voynich ma…

Paul McAuley - Four Way Interview

Paul McAuley won the Philip K. Dick Award for his first novel and has gone on to win the Arthur C. Clarke, British Fantasy, Sidewise and John W. Campbell Awards. He gave up his position as a research biologist to write full-time. He lives in London. His latest novel is Austral.


Why science fiction?

For one thing, I fell in love with science fiction at an early age, and haven’t yet fallen out of love with it (although I have flirted with other genres). For another, we’re living in an increasingly science-fictional present. Every day brings headlines that could have been ripped from a science-fiction story. Giant robot battle: Who knew a duel between chainsaw-armed mech suits could be so boring? for instance. Or, Roy Orbison hologram to embark on UK tour in 2018. And looming above all this, like Hokusai’s famous wave, are the ongoing changes caused by global warming and climate change, which is just one consequence of human activity having become the dominant force of change on the planet…

Karl Drinkwater - Four Way Interview

Karl Drinkwater is originally from Manchester, but has lived in Wales half his life. He is a full-time author, edits fiction for other writers and was a professional librarian for over twenty-five years. He has degrees in English, Classics and Information Science. When he isn't writing, he loves exercise, guitars, computer and board games, the natural environment, animals, social justice, cake and zombies - not necessarily in that order. His latest novel is Lost Solace.

Why science fiction?

My favourite books have always been any form of speculative fiction. As a child I began with ghost stories, which were the first books to make me completely forget I was reading. By my teenage years I was obsessed with fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Although I read literary and contemporary books, non-fiction, historical works, classics and so on, it is speculative fiction that I return to when I want escape and wonder. When I read reviews of my last book, the fast-paced novella Harvest Fe…