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Showing posts from February, 2011

How Old is the Universe? – David A. Weintraub ***

There’s an old test often applied by agents when presented with a book idea. Is it just a magazine article? It might seem terrible to suggest that your hard-worked on book is really just an article – but the point is that there are some stories that people want to read about in depth and others where a magazine article is really all that you can make of it and keep readers with you. The story of putting an age to the universe certainly has plenty of twists and turns along the way, so there’s is no suggestion that this just a magazine article of a story – yet we have to face up to the fact that most books on cosmology will cover this in a chapter, so David Weintraub really does have to work hard to keep us going through a chunky 363 page volume. Does he succeed? Yes and no. The first part of the book is probably the best. Here we are working up gradually, putting together the clues that will give us a best indication for an age of the universe, starting with fixing a timescale for

Seven Wonders of the Universe – C. Renée James ***

There is a certain approach to writing popular science that I come across a lot in reviewing children’s science books. They belong to what I think of as the ‘Hey isn’t the universe wonderful!’ bright and breezy style. This often works well for children, but in a book for adults I can find it a bit wearing. If not pitched just right, it can feel rather condescending, as if the readers are being treated like children. Whether or not it’s condescending we will discover, but ‘Hey, wow, gee whiz!’ is certainly the style of this book. We start with a little trip out into the backyard, doing a mundane task (putting out the trash), but Renée James reveals to us that there is nothing mundane about the experience when you really take in what’s going on. This is rather nice. From it, she derives seven ‘wonders of the universe’ which will form the structure of the book. The division into these seven topics is sometimes a bit arbitrary, so the section on Night (not exactly much of a science conc

Hugh Aldersey-Williams – Four Way Interview

Hugh Aldersey-Williams studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge. He is the author of several books exploring science, design and architecture, and has curated exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Wellcome Collection. His latest book is  Periodic Tales . Why Science? Science is ultimately the only way of knowing our world. It is also a major part of culture – not something on one side from it or opposed to it as some scientists seem to think. Anything I write about science will always be guided by that. Why this book? I feel we have lost touch – often literally – with the elements. I wanted to give readers a real sense of look and feel of the elements, their colours, their weight, their smells, their sounds. It is through these qualities that most of us come to know the elements far better than we think – not by crossing the threshold of a chemistry lab. In other words, we know the elements culturally, through the way they’ve been wrested from the ground, worked

Waterstones, Science Museum – Brian Clegg

Our editor gives a portrait of an unusual book store. Most of the time when you go into a book shop, the popular science section is a disappointment. Our local branch of the stationers W. H. Smiths (admittedly not known as a great bookshop) has a whole bookcase dedicated to misery fiction, and only a handful of popular science books. Others are restricted to a single shelf. Although the Popular Science site is a great source of information, we can’t review every book, nor can we give the experience of browsing through the real things. Sometimes you just want to get your hands on some books – there’s nothing like it. I’m pleased to say that Londoners have an alternative to science bookshop misery. Just nip along to South Kensington and slip into the Science Museum – there you will find a Waterstones that (apart from a couple of bookcases of generic children’s books) is dedicated to science and popular science. It’s your actual popular science Alladin’s cave.Manager Kirstin and her

Zero: the biography of a dangerous idea – Charles Seife ***

There are two books on zero,  The Nothing that Is  by Robert Kaplan, which we reviewed in a rather summary fashion some time ago, and  Zero , which slipped through the net first time around, but is now out in a new paperback edition. In  Zero , Charles Seife tells us very effectively why zero is so important to mathematics (and would help the calendar be less confusing). He gives us a good, if relatively short, exploration of the origins of zero, how it came from Indian mathematics, through the Arab world into European maths. So far, so good. Seife writes in a very approachable and enjoyable fashion. He does have a major weakness, though, which is a tendency to imply wildly overblown consequences to provide dramatic tension. So, for example, he tells us ‘Zero was a the heart of the battle between East and West.’ Really? That battle had nothing to do with trade, power and religion, it was all about zero? Again we are told that because Western calendars do not have zero (the number

From Eternity to Here – Sean Carroll *****

I have a big claim for this book – almost scarily big. This is the book Stephen Hawking’s  A Brief History of Time  should have been. Let me explain. Despite being the absolute classic of the genre, Hawking’s book has two huge flaws. Firstly it doesn’t do what it says on the tin. It has lots of great stuff to tell us about relativity and black holes and much more. But it doesn’t really tell us anything much about time. Secondly, BHoT isn’t the most readable of popular science books. It is infamously a book that many have started but few have finished. When you look at the concepts it covers there’s nothing too scary (at least, by modern popular science standards), but it isn’t put across in a way that’s easy to pick up. So we come to Sean Carroll’s book. And it is a joy. It really does tell us about time, better than anything I’ve ever read. To be fair, most of the content is about entropy and the second law of thermodynamics (which ought to be better understood, and is strongly t

Geek Nation – Angela Saini ****

We are always hearing how China and India are going to overtake the West in everything from GDP to scientific discovery, but it’s rare that there’s any substance behind this assertion – so it was wonderfully refreshing to read Angela Saini’s  Geek Nation , which sets out to show just what is happening in science and technology in the thriving nation of India. Picking up on the stereotype of the Indian as a rather serious, geeky individual, Saini (English-born but of Indian parentage) takes us on a very personal exploration of hi-tech India. I was reminded in some ways of Bill Bryson’s  A Short History of Nearly Everything . So many books get compared to Bryson’s in an attempt to hitch a lift on the coattails of its success, but the similarities here are real – the very personal touch, a combination of travelogue and investigation through interview and a real sense of humour. I loved, for instance, the line ‘It’s the biggest thing to happen to the Western Ghats since the Cretaceous p

The Age of Empathy – Frans de Waal ****

Primatologist Frans de Waal aims to remind us in this book of the caring and empathic side of human nature. This is often neglected, he argues, by political ideologies, economic theories and scientific ideas, which have tended to over-emphasise the competitiveness and struggle for existence in nature. As the subtitle (Nature’s lessons for a kinder society) suggests, the book looks at how the caring behaviour and kindness we observe in animals can illuminate our own capacities for such behaviour. The book is best seen, however, just as an exploration of empathy in the animal world in general. As such, it is fascinating, informative and difficult to put down. Given the author’s area of research, we look largely at primates for examples of empathy in animals, and the numerous stories of animal kindness are often heart warming. Particularly interesting were the instances of animals helping and acting empathically towards members of other species – the story de Waal relates that stands o

The Killer of Little Shepherds – Douglas Starr ****

The cover of this book shouts ‘historical true crime,’ so I didn’t expect to be reviewing it here. True crime is a genre I generally feel uncomfortable about – at least, as long as it’s in living memory. Somehow, Victorian true crime is rather entertaining, with that Sherlock Holmesian feel to it. I assumed then, that the Killer of Little Shepherds would be another Slaughter on a Snow Morn, a book I found fascinating when reviewing for my blog. I was half right. Around half the book is the story on the man described as ‘the French Ripper’, though in fact he killed significantly more people than Jack the Ripper. It is a fascinating tale of the way a tramp could wander round France, killing with impunity thanks to considerable cunning in his approach, plus the ability to be considered ‘one of us’ almost by the police because he was ex-military. I’d never heard of Joseph Vâcher, but his story makes great reading. However, the reason the book is here is that interwoven with Vâcher’s e

Chariots of the Gods – Erich von Daniken **

When I saw this book in a publisher’s catalogue, I couldn’t resist reviewing it. It was a book that blazed large in the bookstores in my childhood, though for some reason I never got round to reading it. Many would argue that it has no place here. But it was an attempt at popular science. Those who have never ventured into its pages would, perhaps, be surprised to learn that within a few pages we have a brief explanation of special relativity and even the formula for time dilation. Of course you may well dispute von Daniken’s thesis and/or methods, but I think it is bad practice to criticize a book you haven’t even bothered to read. So here goes. I was a little unnerved by the introduction, which is rather heavily spattered with exclamation marks in a way that rather suggests ‘here be crackpot theories’, but I persevered. Von Daniken starts fairly well. He argues that there is a good probability that there are planets with life out there in the universe. He then, rather cleverly, po

Energy: the subtle concept – Jennifer Coopersmith ****

There are many reasons why, by rights, this shouldn’t be a great popular science title. Physicist Jennifer Coopersmith makes clear at the very beginning that a background in the physical sciences is assumed for parts of the book. We have quite a few equations, and throughout the book Coopersmith does not hesitate to mention such words as tensors, integrals and vectors, with little in the way of definitions for the layperson. In addition, there is a lot packed in here – at 360 pages, whilst there are certainly longer books out there, I wondered when starting the book whether the non-specialist might suffer from information overload. And yet, the more I read this book, the more difficult it was to put it down, and I was always excited about returning to it. (To give some indication of how much I enjoyed the book: I am often unable to get down to reading until 8 or 9 o’clock at night during the week, because of a long commute. For this book, however, I got up especially early on one oc

Periodic Tales – Hugh Aldersey-Williams ****

Nothing gives an author a sinking feeling more than noticing that someone else has brought out a book on the same subject at more or less the same time – yet it happens all too frequently. It’s not some evil conspiracy (usually), but it is more a matter of the author searching for an idea that hasn’t been covered too much already and that seems to be timely, and producing a book that has immediate competitor. From the reviewer’s point of view, it’s quite different, of course. It’s rather handy to have something to use for direct comparison. This rather lengthy introduction is to point out that we’ve only just reviewed a book on the chemical elements when along comes another, just like those famed London buses. Sam Kean’s  The Disappearing Spoon  was a big hit here, so it’s fascinating to be able to put Hugh Aldersey-Williams’  Periodic Tales  alongside it.  Periodic Tales  is a chunky book that has a classy look and feel. Like Kean, Aldersey-Williams doesn’t go for the obvious and