Skip to main content

Seven Tales of the Pendulum – Gregory L. Baker ***

There was a time when practically every review we published of an OUP popular science book had the same complaint. What we were forced to say again and again was that this was a book with a great idea, an excellent topic, and an expert writing it. But unfortunately that expert was an academic who didn’t have a clue how to write for the general public and the result was unreadable. In the last year or so, however, things have changed. OUP has come out with a good number of titles (e.g. The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III) which have been surprisingly readable. Unfortunately, this title is a return to form. It’s a wonderful subject. It has a neat concept in the ‘seven tales’. It’s written by an expert. But it is practically impenetrable.
Things don’t start awfully well in the introduction, when Gregory L. Baker is a little condescending about producing a version of his ‘real’ book for the common herd. But he also reassures us ‘Readers may rest easy knowing that I am mindful of the warning made famous by Stephen Hawking, that every formula reduces the readership by a factor of two.’ The problem is, although it sold well, Hawking’s book has a reputation for being difficult. Yet it is vastly easier to read than this one.
This limitation is frustrating, because Baker does pack in lots of interesting stuff about pendulums. Whether it’s the basic surprise that (despite Galileo), on the whole an ordinary pendulum’s timing isn’t independent of swing size, or explorations of Foucault’s pendulum, torsion pendulums, swinging censors in cathedrals and even the Pit and the Pendulum, there is some excellent material to cover. But the writing is rarely approachable and the author simply misses the whole idea of how to write for a general audience. This is much more the sort of writing you’d find in an undergraduate physics textbook.
I opened a page at random and had a choice of at least four quotes to demonstrate this. Here’s one of them: ‘A sophisticated mathematical procedure may be used to calculate the fractal dimension for the Poincaré section of the chaotic pendulum. But our intuition can at least help demystify the result. Close examination of the Poincaré section shows that its points do not cover an area, but are really a (possibly infinite) set of closely spaced lines. Therefore the Poincaré section is more than a line and less than an area. We then expect its dimension to like between one and two. For the parameter set A(Forcing)=1.5, Q (friction)=4, ωD(forcing frequency)=0.66 the fractal dimension is found to be 1.3. In fact, it is generally true that Poincaré sections for chaotic systems have noninteger dimensions.’ That’s all right then.
The other potential quotes were more dense and impenetrable. You might excuse this because some of the terms have been explained earlier, but the problem is that the approach assumes the way to write popular science is to take a textbook and take out the maths, leaving the explanatory parts, rather than starting from scratch and putting things in terms that people will understand.
Overall, then, a useful and interesting book for physics students who want to find out more about pendulums without doing the maths, but not for the general reader.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Adam Roberts - Four Way Interview

Adam Roberts is commonly described as one of the UK's most important writers of SF. He is the author of numerous novels and literary parodies. He is Professor of 19th Century Literature at Royal Holloway, London University, and has written a number of critical works on both SF and 19th Century poetry. His latest novel is The Real-Town Murders.

Why science fiction?

Because it's the best thing in the world. I work for the University of London, which is to say: in effect, I'm paid to read books (and teach them, and write about them) and that means I read a lot of books; and that means you can believe me when I say that SF/Fantasy, and especially (even though it's not something I write) YA SF/Fantasy, is where all the most exciting writing is happening nowadays. You might wonder why I think so: but that's a whole other question, and you've already used up your four ...

Why this book?

So, I came across an account of one of Alfred Hitchcock's (many) unfinished projec…

UFO Drawings from the National Archives - David Clarke ***

This is a lovely little book that, sadly, not every reader will see the point of. If somebody’s anecdotal account of a presumed alien encounter is obviously a misperception of a mundane occurrence, or else too vague – or too far-fetched – to be taken seriously, then it’s all too easy to dismiss it as worthless. But that’s missing the point. The fact that so many incidents are reported in these terms makes the witnesses’ testimony worthy of serious study – to teach us, not about extraterrestrial civilisations, but about our own culture.

That was the core message of David Clarke’s excellent How UFOs Conquered the World published a couple of years ago. Now Clarke is back with another take on the same basic theme.  His day job is Reader and Principal Lecturer in Journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, but for the last ten years he’s also acted as consultant for the National Archives project to release all of Britain’s official Ministry of Defence (MoD) files on UFOs. Throughout the Cold…

Crashing Heaven (SF) - Al Robertson ****

There's an engaging mix of powerful thriller and science fiction in this impressive novel. After the Earth has been rendered uninhabitable, human life is limited to vast space station. Our central character, Jack, has a symbiotic artificial intelligence, Hugo Fist, designed to destroy other AIs in a mysterious collective that is said to have committed an atrocity - but with a kick in the tail that because of an unbreakable contract, Fist will take over Jack's body in a few weeks' time.

Al Robertson packs remarkable technology concepts into the cyber side of this story, from AI corporations that act as a pantheon of gods to the 'puppet' that is Fist (he usually come across as a virtual cross between Mr Punch and an evil ventriloquist's dummy). Robertson does all the cyber stuff so well that it's easy to miss that this is, in effect, a myth in electronic clothing - you could substitute the myths of 'real' Greek gods and magic for what happens here. Alt…