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Showing posts from March, 2011

Incognito – David Eagleman *****

Popular science books often come in waves and at the moment we’re drowning in biologically inspired ‘ness’ books. We’ve got books on happiness, cooperativeness, pleasurableness (okay, I had to force that one), loneliness, competitiveness, and for all I know Loch Ness. When I see another one looming on the review shelf I tend to groan and reach for that DIY brain chemistry modifier, a pain killer. So when I saw Incognito looming there I was gritting my teeth for yet another dose of the same… but I couldn’t have been more wrong. It all starts with the UK cover, which has a lovely bit of op art in the squirly bit (not really obvious in the reduced version here), but the book was a dream to read. It explores how much of our actions are out of the control of our conscious mind and takes us through the wonders that are the various half-understood and often competing systems that handle the many aspects of thought and our interaction with our senses body as a whole. The first few chapters a…

The Little Book of Unscientific Propositions, Theories and Things – Surendra Verma ****

The two most striking things about this book are its convenient size and the fact that it’s great fun to read. The fact that it can be slipped in a jacket pocket made it ideal when being a dad’s taxi and having to have a quick coffee waiting to do a pick up – The Little Book of etc. just slipped into my jacket pocket and was there to fill in a few minutes. It’s particularly effective for this sort of use (or as a loo book) because it consists of 100 little items that can be dipped into at will. Unlike many such books, though, it feels fine to read on through, as well as in short bursts. Sometimes when I have a book to read for review, I come back to it thinking ‘Here we go again,’ but the ‘fun to read’ part of this book was in evidence that I was, instead, thinking ‘Excellent, let’s see what else is in there.’ As a foil to his excellent Little Book of Scientific etc, Surendra Verma covers a wide range of topics on the fringes of science. To be more precise, he goes from good science t…

Angela Saini – Four Way Interview

Angela Saini is an award-winning independent journalist based in London, and the author of Geek Nation, a journey through India, to find out whether the country is set to become the world’s next scientific superpower. She has written for New Scientist, Science, Wired and The Economist, and she’s a regular reporter on BBC radio science shows, including Digital Planet. Her first book is Geek Nation. Why Science? I’ve always loved reading about big scientific ideas in fields like quantum physics and genetics, but when I think about it, I’m not so much a science-lover as an engineering-lover. I used to build model rockets when I was at school, I’ve always been a bit of a tinkerer (I do all the DIY at home!), and of course I studied Engineering at university. I like to see science applied in the real world, in architecture, electronics and other inventions, and observing the kind of repercussions these things have on our lives. Why this book? Since I’m a (British) Indian geek myself and I’ve…

Sean Carroll – Four Way Interview

Sean Carroll is a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology. His papers on dark matter and dark energy, the physics of extra dimensions, and alternative theories of gravity have been widely praised. he is also one of the founders of the group blog cosmicvariance.com. His book on time and entropy is From Eternity to Here. Why Science? The best thing about science is the sense of surprise. Human imagination is a powerful force, and we can invent all kinds of crazy ideas. But studying the universe teaches us things we never would have come up with on our own. Science lets us peer into corners of the universe that are incredibly far from our everyday experience, and the amazing thing is that we are eventually able to understand what’s going on. Why this book? Time is familiar; we all use it every day. But there are still mysteries that surround it. One of the deepest mysteries – “Why is the past different from the future?” – leads us directly to thinking about the orig…

Perfect Rigour – Masha Gessen ****

I was vaguely aware of the story at the heart of this book, so it was interesting to read a full account of it here. In 2002, the Russian mathematician Gregory Perelman solved one of the biggest problems in mathematics. By proving the Poincaré conjecture, he did what numerous top mathematicians had tried and failed to do since 1904. He was awarded the Fields medal (the mathematics equivalent of the Nobel Prize) for the breakthrough; was offered $1 million by the Clay Mathematics Institute, which in 2000 had offered the sum to anyone who could prove the conjecture; and was offered numerous top academic positions. Perelman didn’t react to this in the way most of us would have, however. He turned all of this down, withdrew completely from the mathematics community, and cut contact with long standing friends, now appearing to live a reclusive existence in St Petersburg. In Perfect Rigour, Masha Gessen aims to make sense of this. For the book, Gessen interviewed many of Perelman’s (previou…

Think Like a Maths Genius [Secrets of Mental Math] – Arthur Benjamin & Michael Shermer ***

This is the kind of book you will either find really fun or deadly dull. Flick through it, and if you are put off by seeing grids of numbers and fractions and mathematical manipulations you will drop it like a hot potato. But if you actually enjoy being able to manipulate numbers in your head, and would like to learn the tips of the trade, this is the book for you. Starting gently with simple addition and subtraction it works up through levels of multiplication to division, before veering off into pencil and paper techniques, number memory techniques and mathematical magic like magic squares. Where a book like Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions picks off the most bizarre and exotic mathematical trickery, this is mostly bread and butter stuff, with much more focus on practical techniques and less storytelling. For this reason, it’s not as much a book to sit down and read as Martin Gardiner’s classic work, but if you enjoy working through this kind of exercise and building up your ment…

Life as Energy – Alexis Mari Pietak **

I am in a real quandary with this book. It has some severe problems that make it difficult to recommend, and yet at its heart is a very interesting idea that merits further thought. The author is a biophysicist, so has scientific credentials, yet at the same time the book has some worrying aspects that make it feel like what New Scientist would refer to as fruit-loopery… and let’s face it, some perfectly respectable scientists have had bizarre ideas in the past. Let’s get the good bit up front, because it really is rather impressive. As I have limited experience with biology, I don’t know how new an idea it is, but let’s give Alexis Pietak the benefit of the doubt. It goes something like this. In physics we can look at the behaviour of individual particles like atoms, and to do so we apply quantum theory to great effect. Yet quantum theory isn’t our only weapon when looking at, say, matter. We can also apply macro physics to come up with things like mechanics and thermodynamics. We ge…

The Instant Physicist – Richard A. Muller ***

Richard Muller is the author of one of my favourite popular science books of all time, Physics for Future Presidents. That book is such a neat idea, the physics you need to know about if you want to run the country. So I looked forward to his new title with interest. The Instant Physicist takes an illustrated take on getting the key points in physics across. It’s a pocket sized hardback, set up as a series of two page spreads. On the right is a colour cartoon, very professionally done by Joey Manfre, illustrating a surprising observation that forms its caption. So, for example, we have ‘If not for the notorious greenhouse effect, the entire surface of the Earth would currently be frozen solid.’ or ‘The world’s first uranium reactor is 1.7 billion years old.’ Then on the left hand page there’s a simple explanation of the surprising fact, giving the basic science behind it. It’s a glossy book throughout. The result kind of works, but there are a couple of problems. The format means ther…

What if the Earth had two Moons? – Neil F. Comins ***

There is a great idea behind this book. Why not, as a thought experiment, change the parameters ohere is a great idea behind this book. Why not, as a thought experiment, change the parameters of our solar system and see how things would be different, using this to explore cosmology on a wider scale. So, for instance, the book goes through the title scenario, but also what if: the Earth were a moon?The Moon orbited backwards?The Earth’s crust was thicker? … and so on for a total of 10 scenarios. Along the way we’ll find out more about everything from black holes to the Big Bang, but particularly lots about how planets and solar systems form and function. In principle this is wonderful, but the execution has three problems. Firstly there’s the way that the ‘What if’ concept is approached. Although the title specifically says ‘What if the Earth had two Moons?’ the chapter actually describes a planet called Dimaan that’s a bit like the Earth and has two moons. This is frustrating, as I rea…

Einstein and Relativity – Paul Strathearn ***

This is part of author Paul Strathern’s ‘Big Idea’ series, with each book in the series aiming to provide a condensed, readable introduction to a particular scientist’s life and work. The format is the same each time, so we also have, for instance, ‘Darwin and Evolution’, ‘Curie and radioactivity’ and ‘Newton and Gravity’. This offering on Einstein really is very short – at under 90 pages, it can be read in about 90 minutes. Still, Strathern manages to get in a good overview of the major episodes of Einstein’s life, encompassing his political activities and his ultimately unsuccessful work towards the end of his career on unification, and we get some insights into Einstein as a person. Clearly, given the length of the book, you will need to go elsewhere to get a full account of relativity. But, again, the book does well to fit in what it does into such a small amount of space. We get brief but useful explanations of the special and general theories, Einstein’s thinking whilst coming u…

The Hidden Reality – Brian Greene *****

I hugely enjoyed Brian Greene’s previous books, The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos, so when I saw this title had been released I was looking forward to reading it. In The Hidden Reality, Greene explores the various possibilities of there being parallel universes beyond our own. He takes us through, in all, nine conceptions of the multiverse that seem to emerge naturally from the mathematics behind some of our most successful physical theories. The book turns out to be an absolute delight. We start with the fascinating idea that, if the universe is infinite in extent, this implies the existence of an infinite number of places in the universe where physical conditions are identical to those we find around us, and therefore an unending number of worlds in which ‘you’ and ‘I’ are going about their lives in exactly the same way as we are doing, here. Later in the book, we look at, among other things, the ‘braneworlds’ scenario that comes out of string theory, and the idea th…