Monday, 28 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 the solar system on the logical assumption that it can hardly be older than the universe. Then we go through the ages of other stars, getting older, heading back, and finally to the whole expanding universe with all the joy of dark matter.
There is certainly a lot of matter here – not just the dark stuff. Weintraub pours in the information relentlessly. Once I had got into the middle, age of the stars, section, I began to feel ‘This is too much.’ Writing popular science is a delicate art. You have to balance representing the facts and theories as accurately as possible with making the material accessible and, well, enjoyable. I’m afraid that by the time I was about half way through the book it felt like too much hard work.
Just one example. There is a whole chapter on how to read a Hertzsprung-Russell diagram (the archetypal astrophysics plot showing how the different stars vary in temperature against brightness and providing a ‘main sequence’ that describes the evolution of many stars, plus a whole range of other good things). I did an astrophysics option in my undergraduate degree and we spent 5 minutes on the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram. Here we’ve got a whole chapter. I’m not doing down the importance of the diagram – it’s a critical tool – but just emphasising how much detail the author takes us into.
Overall this is a book I would highly recommend if you are an amateur astronomer who really wants to get into the nitty gritty of the hardcore side of the subject, or someone on an undergraduate course. But I can’t really recommend it for the general reader who wants to know more about the story of how we can state that the universe is very probably around 13.7 billion years old.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

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 concept) ends up skating around gravity ( which is another section) when talking about tides (no, I don’t know what tides have to do with night either).
What is certainly true is that despite the breezy approach, the author manages to pack a lot in, and doesn’t shy away from relativity and quantum theory and all those good things, even though she also tackles the more mundane aspects of science. In this respect it’s excellent (although there have been so many ‘all of science’ books recently that it’s perhaps time we got back to focussing in on a bit more detail). However to do this in the book’s style does tend to result in over simplification. So, for example, she blithely says that because of the expanding universe all galaxies are moving away from ours, which isn’t really factually accurate.
To help make it more approachable and cuddly it is scattered with rather strange illustrations by Lee Jamison. These are full page sketches in a sort of comic form, often anthropomorphising physical objects like particles, giving them rather hideous faces. I’m not sure there is a lot of benefit from the illustrations, which don’t really add much, other that to emphasize that this is an ‘approachable’ view on science.
There seems to have been limited communication between the writer and the illustrator. I deduce this because on a little section on ‘Why is the sky blue?’, James gives the correct explanation – because the light is scattered by the air molecules, and blue light is scattered more than red. (It’s a good illustration of the writing style that we are told: ‘Because of its longer wavelength and easy-going personality, red light tends to be bothered less… than more energetic, hyperactive blue light… Blue light [...] has a panic attack when it hits molecules in the air…’ Easy-going personality?? But on the whole, apart from one slip, the main text correctly ascribes the blue sky to interaction with air molecules. But the illustration says that ‘Longer wavelength photons, like red are disturbed less by dust in the air.’ It is reverting to the incorrect Victorian explanation that the blue sky is caused by dust. (The main text mentions dust once, but seems to have been corrected to air molecules elsewhere.) Practically every book has a few mistakes, but this is made more glaring by the illustration.
Overall, in terms of the information that’s put across there really is a lot going for this book, but the style is one that you will love or hate, and it tends to be too summary in many aspects of what it’s covering (an almost inevitable side effect of trying to cover everything). It’s not a bad book by any means, but I find it difficult to be enthusiastic about it. I would much of preferred with half the content and more detail, or reworked as a children’s book.
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Review by Jo Reed

Sunday, 20 February 2011

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 and traded.
I think chemistry as it is taught can sometimes be its own worst enemy, and since giving readings of Periodic Tales I’ve found people coming up to me complaining that their son or daughter is having ‘to do the periodic table’ at school. Teaching this artificial construct by rote, as if to equip a child for some trivia quiz, is a disaster.
To use some horrible marketing-speak, I think chemistry’s brand needs refreshing. It seems that chemistry is losing popularity, but in fact what is happening is that its thunder is being stolen by ‘sexier’ fields – environmental sciences, nanotechnology, forensics, molecular biology etc. It doesn’t really matter though. The elements will always be there and we will always depend on them.
What’s next?
Too soon to tell. Probably something that gives me an excuse to learn more about some area of science I know even less about than chemistry.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
My eleven-year-old son’s piano-playing. Where has it comes from?

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 staff can help with ordering in anything that’s not on the shelves – or just general helpful enquiries. They have regular signings by popular science authors (look out for Signed Copy stickers on stock), and the museum is free to get in, so they’re easy to access.
The shop is open from 10am to 6pm every day of the year except 24th, 25th and 27th December (I’m not sure why, but if you have a desperate need for a science book on Boxing Day, you can get one. A chance to use those book tokens that Santa left.)
You can contact them on 020 7942 4481 or enquiries@sciencemuseum.waterstones.com, or just pop along to Exhibition Road (they’re down the end of the long underground passageway from South Kensington tube). Inside the museum, follow round to the right and they’re tucked away against the left wall, just before the space section.
Oh, and there’s a pretty good museum to look at, thrown in at no extra charge.

Friday, 18 February 2011

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 line goes straight from -1 to 1), it was an oversight that would cause problems millennia later. These problems seem to amount to the argument over whether 2000 or 2001 was the first year of the new millennium.
The other problem with this book is that at least three quarters of it isn’t about zero. A lot of the early part is about the void and infinity. He goes on and on about the Greeks’ dislike of a vacuum and of the infinite, making this such a big thing that he totally plays down Aristotle’s very important concept of potential infinity. But these aren’t zero. ‘The void’ is the concept that before creation there was a vast, perhaps infinite nothingness into which a creator brought light, matter and life. (Seife never mentions that most of these ‘voids’ actually had water in them in the original myths, because this doesn’t fit with his shaping of the story.) But that isn’t zero. And, of course, infinity isn’t zero either. Nor is the vanishing point in perspective drawing, yet, this too, he equates with zero.
Much of the rest of the book is about infinity, black holes, relativity and wormholes in space. Interesting stuff, quite well presented apart from the very dated looking line drawings, but covered better in other books – and in the end not about zero. So, it’s a real paradox. It is a good, readable book, even if the author is given to grand gestures, but most of it doesn’t do what it says on the tin. If you want a book that concentrates more on the subject, take a look at Kaplan’s – if you want a whistle stop tour of infinity, black holes et al with some zero thrown in (and a lot of woffle about infinity and the void) this is the one for you.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 13 February 2011

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 time-related) with a good dose of relativity and quantum theory thrown in. But it really does explore the nature of time.
As for the second issue with BHoT, there is good news and bad when we put From Eternity to Here (I title I hate, by the way) alongside it. This book explains significantly more complex matters than Hawking’s does. But it does so much more clearly. I’m not saying it is all an easy read. You have to read it slowly and carefully – so some readers will definitely be put off – but it hugely repays the effort. I particularly like the way that Carroll not only presents with the orthodox picture, but his own personal views, making it clear where these vary from many other physicists and cosmologists, but nonetheless making powerful points.
Of course it’s not perfect. It is occasionally a trifle obscure. There are occasions the mask of accessibility slips and he forgets who he is talking to. The section on coarse graining, microstates and macrostates, for example, would be better suited to an undergraduate lecture than the intended readership. And I particularly disliked Carroll’s cat and dog analogy for quantum theory, which I found more confusing than just talking about the particles that feature in the theory. The analogy was both cringe-making and confusing.
I also think Carroll (to be fair, like quite a few scientists) needs to take a look at his dictionary when it comes to his approach to paradoxes. ‘Paradoxes are impossible,’ he bluntly states. No they are not – you are thinking of fallacies. Although paradox is sometimes applied in this sense, the better meaning is something that appears impossible but is actually true, something that runs counter to common sense. (Which is why the author is also wrong moaning about EPR being called a paradox.)
A final mini-moan – I wish he had told us how the ekpyrotic universe (see Endless Universe) fitted with his entropy-based analysis of different models of the universe, as he totally ignored it. But these are minor concerns in what is a tour-de-force of popular science writing in the ‘you really need to read this carefully and think about it’ school (as opposed to ‘sit back and enjoy it.’) Highly recommended.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 10 February 2011

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 period.’
I had expected, if I’m honest, this to be a constant celebration of the achievements of Indian science (something that is placed in the mind by the subtitle of the book, ‘How Indian science is taking over the world’), but in fact it’s a much more balanced assessment. Saini is sometimes a little downbeat when faced with a lowest common denominator IT revolution. All too often, it seems, it’s an effort to do more of the same every cheaper, rather than a true sense of innovation. But she also finds many things to show positive developments and promise for the future.
Where I was a little disappointed was in the lack of actual science. This comes through in two ways. One is that the book is almost all about technology and engineering, rather than science. There is hardly any (for instance) physics, astronomy, cosmology, or even biology except in medical applications, which arguably are more technology than true science. Also, enjoyable though the descriptions of the people and places are, I would have liked to see a bit more depth in the explanatory sections, which tended to have the very summary approach of broadcast science, rather than a popular science book. The book seems to be addressed at people who don’t read popular science. Once this summary approach produced something rather worrying. ‘The challenge [in building a nuclear reactor]‘ we are told is controlling the reaction ‘so it doesn’t run away into an explosion.’ This suggests a runaway reactor would cause a nuclear explosion – but that just isn’t physically possible.
I’d also liked to have seen more analysis. Two examples. At one point India is compared with Japan in the early days of its move into technology, when it was making cheap knock-offs and did nothing original – but based on Japan’s subsequent success, Saini suggests that India could soon replace Microsoft or Google. Two problems here. Yes, today, Japan makes superb leading edge technology – but they tend to be really good versions of a product that originated elsewhere. And secondly Japanese software has never made the grade. You may have a Japanese laptop, but I doubt very much you are running a Japanese operating system or word processor.
Secondly, though there are some thoughtful words about the contrast of the poverty in parts of India and the high tech software HQs, there could be more analysis on this strange disparity. For instance, is it right to be spending many millions on a space programme when India is expected to receive over $1 billion in aid from the UK in the three years to 2011? I can absolutely see the argument for spending money on technology that will help people out of poverty, but not on manned spaceflight, which is always a political gesture rather than a pure scientific goal. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, but I would have liked to have seen more analysis.
Don’t get me wrong, though, there is much to enjoy in this book. I found it fascinating the way that pseudo-science is tolerated alongside science much more than in the West with, for example, a government funded project dedicated to discover science, flying saucers and more in ancient writings. In some ways it’s rather sad, but at the same time reminds us that everywhere in the world is not the same. Two bits of technology that stood out as particularly fascinating were the speech-based internet concept (out of IBM’s Indian arm) and the use of thorium in nuclear reactors, not an original concept, but one that has been stupidly largely ignored in the West.
All in all this is an engaging and eye-opening exploration of a subject that traditionally we rely on clichés to understand, providing a much more informed and effective understanding of the progress of Indian technology. Recommended.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

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 out is where a bonobo takes an injured bird to the top of a tree to set it free.
What comes through constantly, apart from the extent of empathy among animals, is how acts of kindness that many have been thought to be uniquely human are clearly not. It is true that humans have a greater capacity for empathy, and a greater capacity to act with others in mind, than other animals – we can reason, and can feel empathy for others after an intellectual process has taken place (“this has happened to so-and-so, and I know they must feel bad because this is how I would feel if I were in the same position, so I empathise and should help”). But when it comes down to it, the book explains, this isn’t the fundamental basis for empathy in humans. The example scenario given is a baby drowning. We don’t reason in this situation – we just dive into the water. Observations of animals show they act in a similar way.
The most interesting section of the book is on how empathy evolved. We read how empathy has its origin in animals’ imitating each other, as it has often been evolutionary advantageous for groups to co-ordinate their actions. (Imitation has developed so much that, as the book explains, and as you will probably know, when you see somebody yawn, it’s likely you will yawn yourself.) This imitative behaviour led to emotional contagion, where if you witnessed a member of your group in distress, for example, you would feel some of the distress yourself.
The book is easy to read and it always kept my attention, mainly because of the author’s enthusiastic writing. There is a good mix of de Waal’s own personal anecdotes of endearing animal behaviour, the more empirical work that has been carried out on empathy, and the theories we have come up with to make sense of empathic behaviour. And it’s difficult not to like a book with such an uplifting theme, that celebrates the caring side of human and animal nature.
de Waal’s argument that human societies need to appreciate much more the empathic and social side of human nature is probably less relevant outside the United States, where de Waal is based. The conservative views that have held sway and which he explains he is concerned about, based on a kind of Social Darwinism, are more pronounced in American politics and society, and the European states, for instance, are in general more empathic than the US state, which in comparison has a less generous social security system, has larger inequalities, and doesn’t have universal health care.
But de Waal is a scientist, and whilst the political message of the book is a little less significant than the author might think, the science in this book is covered incredibly well. If you want a comprehensive look at empathy in animals written accessibly and endearingly, read this book.
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Review by Matt Chorley

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 exploits and the attempts to catch him is the history of the development of forensic science in France, which, in essence means the development of forensic science in the world, as many of the basics seem to have come out of this period in France. So we see Bertillon and his stress on detailed measurements for identification and most of all the remarkable Alexandre Lacassagne who seems to have single-handedly dragged the practice of autopsy and forensics into the scientific age. Lacassagne would be a key figure in Vâcher’s prosecution, hence the neat intersection of the two stories.
In a way there is very little actual science in forensic science. It almost bears the same relationship to human biology as engineering does to physics. Forensic science makes use of scientific information, and crucially applies the scientific method to the investigation of crime scenes and corpses, but involves little original science in itself. But this doesn’t mean that the book lacks interest to the popular science reader, as it aptly portrays the difficulties and frustrations of bringing the scientific method to a field that previously was little more than guesswork, rumour and old wives tales.
The book won’t appeal to everyone. The crimes are gruesome, and though Douglas Starr is not sensationalist in his presentation of them, he doesn’t hold back on the unpleasant detail. Yet the context of the hunt for Vâcher and the need to be sure exactly what happened in his crimes is important and it gives the book an appeal that it would not have if it were the story of the development of French forensic science alone. Without doubt a riveting read.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 3 February 2011

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, points out what it would be like for the inhabitants of a planet who are at an equivalent development to our stone age if astronauts turned up. Leaving aside the rather cringe-making 1960s ideas of what such astronauts might do (including ‘A few specially selected women would be fertilised by the astronauts. Thus a new race would arise that skipped a stage in natural evolution.’), the picture he paints isn’t stupid.
Admittedly the predictions of technology seem quaint now (and this is part of the book’s entertainment value). He suggests that by 2100 a giant spaceship could be constructed on the moon, the size of an ocean liner. (Apparently we would have the technology to build spaceships on the moon by the 1980s.) This ship would be powered by a ‘photon rocket’ that enabled it to get to nearly the speed of light, which sounds more than a little imaginative.
The other point von Daniken has that makes a lot of sense is that prehistory (he says history, but I think he primarily means prehistory) has been assembled from a lot of pieces like a puzzle, and the way it was assembled was based on certain assumptions. He argues that we should use modern science to transform our view of prehistory, which I think, to be fair, we have done since his day.
Then things start to get a bit worrying. He comes up with the first of a number of assertions about ancient wonders that he says show that ancient people had capabilities far beyond those that were possible without the help from extra-terrestrial astronauts. In reading this now we have a huge advantage over the reader of the 1960s, who could only absorb these claims in wide-eyed wonder if they had not got appropriate expertise. Now it’s easy to nip onto the internet and check them out. So, for example, his first wonder is the Piri Reis map, a 16th century map that von Daniken claims is uncannily accurate and even shows the contours of the Antarctic, which would be unknown for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, even a brief Google search comes up with plenty of information demonstrating that the map isn’t uncannily accurate, but is quite wrong in many places, and shows that the part interpreted as the Antarctic is much more likely to be (and a better fit to) parts of South America.
Then he gets onto what is probably his best known assertion – that the Nazca lines in Peru are a stone age landing strip for spacecraft. Indubitably he is right that they were not roads (as he tells us they were identified at the time by archaeologists – I don’t know if this is true) but sadly his explanation is unnecessary. As has been demonstrated time and again, just because an earthwork can’t be seen in all its glory from ground level, doesn’t make it unattractive to make. A much more likely model for the Nazca lines is the massive markings on the sand that children often make at the seaside. They aren’t trying to attract spaceships. (For that matter, it is very unlikely that a space travelling vessel would need an airstrip.) It’s fun for a moment, but von Daniken has very little to argue in favour of his idea other than a slight visual resemblance.
Much of what follows falls down on the classic error of assuming that everything recorded in the past was literally true. Human beings are story tellers. We tell stories that aren’t true, both for education and for entertainment. We paint pictures of non-existent scenes. We read books, watch TV and movies where hardly anything bears resemblance to reality. Yet those who fall for this mistake, von Daniken included, assume that everything portrayed in ancient cave paintings, carvings and writing had to be true. Remove this assumption and much of his argument through most of the book falls away.
Overall, then, it would be impossible to call this a good book. Yet it is fascinating to read, in part because it is now such a period piece, but also because it had such an impact at the time. von Daniken was putting forward a theory that wasn’t unreasonable, but that in the end didn’t have much in the way of solid evidence to back it up. What we are left with is something rather like the works of Freud. These ideas have no scientific basis and are mostly nonsense, but we can’t ignore the impact they had on twentieth century culture.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

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 occasion to continue reading so I didn’t have to wait until the evening.) This is because, despite all the shortcomings mentioned above, the book also has a fascinating story to tell about the development of our understanding of energy as a physical quantity, and overall, the way Coopersmith describes this development means that these shortcomings, while never going away, become less significant.
We begin with Liebniz’s concept in the 17th century of vis viva, or ‘live force’, defined as some kind of ‘activity’ that was conserved and which was ‘the cause of all effect in the universe.’ After tracing developments in the 18th and 19th centuries, we go on to consider our modern understanding of kinetic and potential energy, via discussions of quantum mechanics (where we find that, contrary to what we had believed, the principle of conservation of energy can be violated due to the uncertainty principle) and relativity (a consequence of which is that we understand energy as being interchangeable with mass). Along the way, we meet a varied cast of characters who have contributed to our understanding of energy, and the biographical sections we get on the scientists involved complements well the explanations of the science, and makes the book, on the whole, very readable. Particularly interesting is the section on Sadi Carnot.
It is also the case that, whilst the science can often be challenging, if you put in the effort you will be more than compensated for your trouble, and it is possible to get real insights into the nature of energy, which, unlike less abstract physical quantities like mass or momentum, can be difficult to get a feel for. Yes, there are equations, and yes, there are tricky concepts which could have been introduced more gently. But if you persevere, and continue reading where you may otherwise be liable to get a little stuck, it is worth it, and you always get, at the very least, a good idea of the big picture.
I can’t completely overlook the drawbacks mentioned above, so am unable to give the book the full five stars. But I would still highly recommend this. Although perhaps ideal for physics undergraduates, this book is still of great value for the layperson, who would be likely to get a lot out of it.
Hardback:  
Review by Matt Chorley