Skip to main content

Posts

Showing posts from April, 2011

Time Travel: a writer’s guide – Paul J. Nahin ***

Time travel is an absolutely fascinating aspect of physics, if only because few people realize that it’s not fantasy – not only does time travel fail to break the laws of physics, we even have to deal with (very small scale) time travel on the part of GPS satellites to make them work properly. Paul Nahin doesn’t point this out, quite possibly because this is a surprisingly old book – although reissued in 2011 with a new preface, it dates back to 1997. GPS might not have been part of everyday life back then, but most of the time travel science has survived pretty well unchanged. There are a few time-based omissions. No mention of superluminal tunnelling experiments or laser-based frame dragging, for instance. But the biggest omission in the science due to the age of the book has nothing much to do with time travel – it’s the casual dismissal of the cosmological constant, showing a predating of the discovery of dark energy. But luckily this is more a side-comment than of any great signi…

Introducing Evolution: a graphic guide – Dylan Evans & Howard Selina ***

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. It is easy for the reader to get a little confused about which book to go for here as you can also choose Introducing Evolutionary Psychology and Introducing Darwin, the latter of which has significant overlaps with the current book. Of the two, I’d say this was probably the better choice for getting the basics of evolution – although both feature Darwin’s life and work, this covers the science better and makes better use of the illustrated ‘Introducing’ format. The text flows nicely and the book works well as an introduction to the subject. …

Black Genesis – Robert Bauval & Thomas Brophy ***

A long time ago, the archaeological world was turned on its head by Stonehenge Decoded, a book by an astronomer that suggested Stonehenge was a complex astronomical calculator. The archaeologists didn’t seem too pleased at the intervention of an outsider, but they did eventually take on some of the ideas from the book (it seems to be accepted that other of the ideas were taking astronomical alignments too far). The same thing seems to have happened with some aspects of Robert Bauval’s theories, excellently laid out in the highly readable The Egypt Code. In that book, Bauval put forward astronomical explanations for the positions and alignments of many Egyptian structures (including the great pyramids), and even for special shafts in the structures that allowed for certain sightings to be taken. Once again, the initial reaction was dismissal, but since then the Egyptologists seem to have grudgingly accepted some of the astronomical data, while still leaving some of it out in the cold. …

The Intelligence Equation – Stephen Pincock ***

This book presents the reader with a rather nice concept slightly strangled by a format. The idea is to look at factors that can add or subtract to your brainpower. This could make for an interesting book if presented the right way, perhaps looking at the pros and cons (and there certainly are some cons in this business) of intelligence enhancement – but the format requires it to be in the format of 100 snippets each of which is given + or – points as a score in the way it influences your intelligence. This makes for a rather bumpy ride of a read. The book doesn’t really flow, and there is little connection between the individual mini-articles. It can’t really decide if it’s a self-help book (eat more fish to be more brainy) or an analysis of the status quo which you can’t do anything about (if you are born this way, you will be more or less intelligent). To be fair to the author, Stephen Pincock does do his best to take a good, analytical approach to the various factors, as this is a…

Here on Earth: a new beginning – Tim Flannery ****

Sometimes great books on a particular subject are like busses – you can wait for ages, then two come along together. In this case it’s Curt Stager’s Deep Future and Tim Flannery’s Here on Earth. After reading Deep Future I was feeling surprisingly positive about global warming. Not in a ‘no need to bother’ sense. But Stager points out that in the long term, the global warming we’ve had so far will have some beneficial effects, and if we can cut back on emissions, we should be able to cope with what it will throw at us. Now Tim Flannery has given me a reality check by pointing out that it still could be fairly horrendous. Don’t get the idea, though, that this is just a ‘woe, woe, and thrice woe!’ climate change misery memoir. Flannery starts with an absolutely brilliant introduction to evolution, the development of Earth and life on Earth, and the development of human civilization. Taken on its own this would be a superb (if rather short) five star book. Flannery’s writing style is sup…

Deep Future – Curt Stager ****

This is a most remarkable book. For one thing, it’s a book about global warming that in some senses leaves you feeling optimistic – which surely is pretty well unique in the history of publishing. I’m feeling better about climate change after reading this than I have for years. It’s not that Curt Stager denies the impact of global warming, nor does he doubt that man-made global warming is happening, but instead he takes the big picture, something no one else has really done. By looking back at what happened in the past, both in terms of warming and cooling, and the impact it had on life at the time, he points out that predictions of doom are probably not realistic. After all, human beings survived the last ice age, a climate change event on a bigger scale than anything man made global warming can hit us with – there is no reason to think that we are going to be wiped out by the upcoming change. Of course, this doesn’t mean there won’t be an impact, which Stager points out in terms of …

The Beautiful Invisible – Giovanni Vignale ****

Whereas you might think of science as the opposite of art or literature – perhaps just as a collection of matter-of-fact observations and laws, lacking in emotion – there is just as much expression, imagination and beauty in our physical theories as there is in any poem or painting, physicist Giovanni Vignale argues here. It is fundamental limits to our understanding that allow us to be imaginative, the book conveys. Reality is, at a deep level, inaccessible and unknowable, so we can only hope to describe it indirectly. We are forced to think creatively, to come up with stories and analogies, and to understand through metaphor and abstraction: scientific theories, the author says, “lie at the interface between the fictional and the real world.” This may seem most obvious in the quantum mechanical world, where observations and experimental results don’t make intuitive sense, so we have to think outside the box when coming up with theories to make sense of them. But it is the same acros…

Planets: a very short introduction – David A. Rothery ***

Like any other pocket summary, David Rothery’s Planets – a very short introduction is limited by the format. The book never goes into excessive detail, but it is surprisingly comprehensive and though sometimes quite dry, it is readable throughout. To give a feel for the way the author brings a little life into what could be a dull collection of facts, consider this extract: visualize a pock-marked potato scaled up to any size between tens of metres and a few hundred kilometres, and you should have a serviceable mental image of a typical asteroid… Generally, rotation is at right angles to their length, so they rotate like sausages twirled on a cocktail stick. Rothery takes an appropriately balanced view on the demotion of Pluto to a minor planet. He leads us on a quite detailed tour of each of the planets and their moons, throwing in some bonus material on asteroids, comets and exoplanets. This kind of pocket guide is never going to set the world in fire, but it does an excellent job o…

Inflight Science – Brian Clegg *****

The first thing to mention about this book is the cover. So often I come across dull looking books that would have benefitted from a little splash of colour on the front - a book’s outward appearance shouldn’t affect our judgement of it, but it can and often does. There is absolutely no problem here, though – I like the colourful design and the book really grabs your attention. I suspect this is going to help sales significantly. And I hope it does, as the contents don’t disappoint, either. This is an interesting look at the science behind the technology we come across at the airport and on the plane, and the different features of the world we can see out of the plane window during the journey. We look at many of these pieces of technology and aspects of the world in the order we come across them on a real journey, so you could easily read the book during your next wait at the airport and during your flight, observing as you go the various features discussed, and using the book to ge…

The Little Book of Mathematical Principles – Robert Solomon **

This is a pocket book in the same series as the entertaining Little Book of Unscientific propositions etc – but there is a fundamental difference between the two. The subject matter in that other title was fun and entertaining, making the little articles on different subjects an enjoyable read, but here it’s more a case of plodding through mathematical history picking out the main features. Frankly it is dull, not aided by the relentless chronological order, which puts all the boring basics at the beginning. Even when the book moves out of straightforward maths into historical context there are some issues because the history of maths parts don’t always seem particularly well researched. So, for example, the book says that the Pythagorean who let slip that the diagonal of square to be irrational is unknown, but that he was taken out and drowned. The usual version is that we have a name for the man (Hipparsus) but that there is only a legend that he was drowned. Similarly, Newton is id…

Genius – a very short introduction – Andrew Robinson ***

One of OUP’s pocket series ‘a very short introduction’ (books with a cover design that says ‘dull’), this title takes on the thorny topic of genius. It’s hard to say whether or not this subject is science at all. There is certainly some science in the book – when looking at studies of the way the brain works and the nature of intelligence – but the concept of ‘genius’ itself is such a fuzzy one that is probably more a media label than anything meaningful. Apart from anything else, as Andrew Robinson makes clear, we can’t agree on what genius is, nor on who is a genius. There are a few exceptions – few people could argue about Newton or Einstein – but in many other cases the validity of the claim is open to question. What I found fascinating was that Robinson says that in some cases genius is disputed – for example Picasso – while in others it’s undisputed – for example Mozart. I was surprised that Picasso is questioned while at the same time (I know I’m in a minority) I really don’t …

Super Cooperators – Martin Nowak & Roger Highfield ***

We’re all used to the Darwinian perspective of nature being about raw competition, fighting tooth and nail for survival – but the reality is much more complex. Specifically, cooperation is a major feature of life, and mathematical biologist Martin Nowak, aided by journalist Roger Highfield, sets out to explain just what is going on. What is particularly interesting here if you are used to biology being all about field studies of the interaction of lesser spotted mole rats (or whatever), is that Nowak takes a modelling approach, making heavy use of game theory and other mathematical techniques to simulate the nature of cooperation. This really is interesting, though some of the topics covered (like indirect reciprocity and group selection) can leave the reader a little bogged down. The trouble is, the authors are rather fond of flowery, hand-waving language and make some very broad assertions up front (like cooperation has to be put alongside mutation and selection in evolution) witho…