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Showing posts from September, 2011

The Calculus Diaries – Jennifer Ouellette ***

Popular maths is a pig to write – much harder than the rest of popular science. Unless you are dealing with one of the glamorous aspects like infinity or Fermat’s last theorem, there are two big problems in grabbing a reader’s attention. One is that the maths itself can be more than a little impenetrable, and the other is that the applications (if there are any) can seem more like mental doodling than telling us something mind blowing about reality, as is the case with something like physics. Jennifer Ouellette sets out to address both these problems in a very personal take on calculus and its importance to us. She is a self-admitted fearer of calculus, an English graduate for whom it was once all a mystery – but with help from her physicist husband, she sets out to tame this powerful mathematical tool. It’s a recipe for a really enjoyable book, and it kind of works. Ouellette takes us on a very personal journey, so there’s a lot about her and her husband and their adventures th

The God Species – Mark Lynas *****

The God Species  is an unusual book: a review of the environmental challenges ahead of us that manages to give a balanced and optimistic approach. In GodSpecies he moves on from the general prediction of doom in Six Degrees to taking a look at what can be done. Some of his conclusions are surprising. His approach is in terms of boundaries. These are limits that scientists have estimated we must not exceed in order to prevent ecological disaster (or, in fact, planetary catastrophe). The first boundary is biodiversity. Mark Lynas says that the ‘Anthropocene’ (caused by man) Mass Extinction ‘and the death toll will soon rival that at the end of the Cretaceous, when the dinosaurs (and of the half the rest of life on earth) disappeared.’ The solution is to put a value on ecosystems as places of recreation, clean water and air and bring them into the marketplace. Quite often Mark Lynas advocates using capitalism to solve our problems. As he says, preserving biodiversity makes economic

Brain Bugs – Dean Buonomano *****

There are far too many popular science books around about emotions and pleasure and goodness knows what, so it might seem that the whole idea of writing about brain-related issues has got a bit tired… and then along comes  Brain Bugs , which is an absolute delight to read and truly fascinating. Dean Buonomano identifies the places where the brain gets it wrong, either because of technical problems – a classic example being optical illusions (there’s one of the best optical illusions I’ve seen in the book) – or because it was ‘programmed’ for life on the Savannah 100,000 years ago and doesn’t have a great fit with modern life. Along the way we’ll find things like memory (and why it gets things wrong), incorrect estimation of the rate of passing of time, fear, advertising, probability and the supernatural (Buonomano argues that religion is probably so strong for evolutionary reasons). I really enjoyed all the sections talking about the way our brains get into a pickle. The only

Lone Frank – Four Way Interview

Lone Frank is the author of The Neurotourist: Postcards from the edge of brain science. She holds a PhD in neurobiology and was previously a research scientist in the biotechnology industry. An award winning science journalist, she has written for many top publications. She lives in Copenhagen. Her latest book is  My Beautiful Genome . Why science? I was always fascinated by knowing about and understanding the world, especially the living world. Then, in high school I was completely bowled by the first taste of the mysteries of the nervous system. I knew right then that I wanted to work with brains and went through university with that goal in mind. Having gotten my Ph.D. by way of killing rats and slicing up their brains for three years, the specialisation of a research career would stand in the way of seeing the bigger picture. So I quit practical research and went into science communication in order to concern myself with that more general understanding which was the original

The Magic of Reality – Richard Dawkins ****

A surprising number of scientists feel that Richard Dawkins does the public understanding of science real harm through his belligerent attacks on religion, which turn off a good half of his potential audience, but no one can doubt that he has a talent for getting science, particularly biology, across to a general readership. This is his first attempt at a children’s book (or rather a ‘family’ book, which is why we're covering it, as it is aimed at a wider readership) and it has much to praise. The Magic of Reality is a solid feeling hardback, half way between an ordinary non-fiction book and a coffee table book in format. Every page is illustrated by Dave McKean, with a mix of full colour photographs and diagrams, and heavily stylised line drawings – these last were perhaps a little angular and abstract for the younger audience, but overall the illustration is a good balance of supporting the text without overwhelming the page. The approach that Dawkins takes is an excellen

The Human Body Close-up – John Clancy ****

Sometimes a set of pictures can be so stunning that they make a book worthwhile in its own right – and that’s the case with John Clancy’s book. It’s sort of biomechanics porn, allowing you to drool over the detail of cells and muscles, nerves and invaders in the form of viruses and bacteria. On this micro-tour of the body you will be taken around the basic building blocks, circulatory and respiratory systems, nervous and endocrine systems, digestive and urinary systems, the reproductive system and body problems. Described like that it sounds, dare I say it, a bit dull – but Clancy takes us in at a hugely detailed level with colour manipulated images that emphasise the complex and amazing components of the body. It’s not all pretty pictures, though. There is a solid enough text covering what you see, though this tends to be more descriptive than informative. So it tells you, for instance, what all the component parts of a muscle are called, accompanied by magnification 360 and 5,

My Beautiful Genome – Lone Frank ****

After getting over the nagging conviction that this was a book about a Galapagos tortoise (the author’s name, Lone Frank, is more than somewhat reminiscent of Lonesome George), I found this a fascinating exploration of a subject that is not going to go away – the influence of our genes on the way we are both medically and socially, looking at it as much from a commercial viewpoint as a scientific one. In some ways the early promise of genetics has not delivered. After the initial idea that hoped that once you knew someone’s genome you could map out all kinds of illnesses, susceptibilities and personality traits, it turned out that things weren’t anywhere near as simple as first thought. Not only is it rare that a single gene acting alone is responsible for a particular trait, the whole business of epigenetics – genes being switched on and off during a person’s lifetime – makes it immensely difficult to draw straight conclusions from genetic information alone. Nonetheless, compan