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Showing posts from November, 2011

Cosmic Numbers – James D. Stein ***

Basing a popular science book on some of the key constants of the universe is not original, but it’s a powerful approach because were it not for having some fixed values science would be practically impossible. What’s more a fair number of the constants here haven’t featured so strongly elsewhere, which is a good point for James Stein. Everything from the speed of light to the universal gravitational constant, with some more obscure figures too, features here. We get a fair amount of historical context, some of it highly entertaining. But this isn’t a science book and there is a bit of a problem with the scientific content. I don’t know if it’s because Stein is a mathematician, but there is more use of equations than I would expect in a popular science book, and the approach taken seems so strongly oriented to a mathematical mindset that it’s quite easy for the reader to get lost what is supposed to be an explanation, but actually makes a physical concept more complicated than it need…

Solar System – Marcus Chown ****

We’ve all seen the book of the movie, and even films based on theme park rides and computer games. But this could well be the first ever book of an iPad app. Not long ago I had a chance to take a look at the Solar System for iPad appand now we’ve got the book based on it. Let’s get the downside out of the way first. I can’t be as enthusiastic about the book as I was about the app. Not only does it cost three times as much (before discounts) and threaten serious damage to the wrists from its weight, but also the book can’t compete with the interactive aspects of the app which work so well with this material. I also found that, compared with the iPad version, it was eye-straining to read the relatively small white text on a black background. But even so, there’s plenty to like here. What we’ve got is a coffee table format book, which feels not unlike a Dorling Kindersley book in the way it uses two-page spreads with a bit of text, some great photographs and various graphics and little …

The Quantum Universe: everything that can happen does happen – Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw ****

Brian Cox has picked up a lot of fans (and a few parodies) for his light and fluffy ‘here’s me standing on top of a mountain looking at the stars’ TV science shows – no doubt a fair number of them will rush out and buy his latest collaboration with Jeff Forshaw. They will be disappointed. So, I suspect, will a number of My Little Pony fans, as with its rainbow cover and glittery lettering it only needs a pink pony tail bookmark to complete the look. The reason The Quantum Universe will disappoint is not because it is a bad book. It’s brilliant. But it is to Cox’s TV show what the Texas Chainsaw Massacre is to Toy Story. It’s a different beast altogether. As they did with their E=mc2 book, but even more so here, Cox and Forshaw take no prisoners and are prepared to delve deep into really hard-to-grasp aspects of quantum physics. This is the kind of gritty popular science writing that makes A Brief History of Time look like easy-peasy bedtime reading – so it really isn’t going to be for…

Risk: a very short introduction – Baruch Fischhoff & John Kadvany ***

I have to confess to a personal interest in the subject of one of OUP’s pocket ‘a very short introduction’ guides. My first job was in Operational Research, which is very much about optimising decision making, and this book is strongly focussed on the difficulties of decisions where risk is involved. Not all difficult decisions do involve risk – for example anything comparing apples and oranges. I might be deciding between two products, one of which is very stylish and the other very practical. The comparison is not easy, but there’s not really risk attached. But this book is all about those decisions where we have to factor in risk – how to insure cars, for example, and the decision whether to try to keep a very premature birth alive are discussed early on. The reason I confessed the interest is that I find this stuff fascinating, but I suspect this may be to some extent my inner geek coming out, and to the general reader it might be less interesting. The book contains is an effectiv…

Galloping with Light – Felix Alba-Juez ***

I’m more than a little wary of self-published books, especially ones with subtitles like ‘Einstein, relativity and folklore’, but this looked like a book that would be different from the masses – and it is. It’s not one of the interminable ‘Einstein was wrong’ books, but rather one that tries to really give an in-depth understanding of Einstein’s ideas to the general reader. Unfortunately, Felix Alba-Juez seemed far too obsessed with the definitions of words to give us useful insights into what is going on. In the first chapter he bangs on and on about nuclear power not being based on E=mc2. It’s certainly true that, contrary to popular belief, the equation isn’t a central part of the effort to make a nuclear bomb. But his repeated assertion that the idea of converting mass to energy is folklore totally misses the point, probably because of his obsessive pursuit of the term inertia, something that in some senses doesn’t exist but is merely a reflection of Newton’s second law. There is…

Stephen Hawking – Kitty Ferguson ***

It’s apt that I’m writing this review on the train to Cambridge, Stephen Hawking’s home turf. A good few years ago we were taking a young German on a tour of Cambridge. He had no interest in science, but when we saw Hawking trundling along King’s Parade in his powered wheelchair our visitor instantly knew who he was. If you ask a person in the street to name the two most important physicists of the last 100 years they would probably name Einstein, then Hawking. Which is odd, because I wouldn’t put him in the top 20. That sounds harsh, but I think Hawking is to physics what Katherine Jenkins is to opera. To the general public, Jenkins is obviously a great opera singer, after all she’s always on the TV. But those in the opera world will point out she has never sung a complete role. It’s not that she’s a bad singer, she just isn’t what the public thinks she is. Similarly by saying I might not put Hawking in my top 20 I’m not saying he’s not a great physicist. But bear in mind that well o…

The Edge of Physics – Anil Ananthaswamy *****

When I first came across this book, I groaned a little. Yet another ‘story of the mysteries of cosmology’ title. Was there anything left to say? I’m pleased to say that my groan was unnecessary – this is one of the most enjoyable popular sciencebooks I’ve read all year. Although there’s nothing new in the science itself, the main thread of Anil Ananthaswamy’s book is a tour of the remarkable places where the expanding universe, dark matter, dark energy, the Higgs boson and more are being pursued. At each location we get some excellent historical context – I loved, for example, how he puts across the feel of the early days at the Mount Wilson observatory. What makes this so enjoyable are the extremes of the locations where this leading edge physics takes place. One moment we are perched on a snow-covered mountain in California, the next we are in a deep mine. As we reach CERN we are plunged into a vast underground empire that any Bond villain would be proud of… only to contrast this wi…