It is interesting that Brian Switek starts his impressive look at our interpretation of fossils with a reference to the way the influence of a TV company called Atlantic Productions had made a scientific paper more like a TV documentary than science – as we had a similar complaint in our review of the book Dino Gangs, also steered by Atlantic Productions, being more like a shallow TV documentary and less like popular science writing. (Switek was also unimpressed by Dino Gangs.)
This is a powerful exploration of the way fossil discoveries have changed our understanding of the development of animals, taking us from the old idea of a chain of more and less advanced creatures (so we, for example, were further up the chain than the apes, and where parts of the chain are currently unknown there is a ‘missing link’) to a Darwin-inspired picture of a tree of life on which we are one of millions of twigs, with common ancestors, but rarely a direct connection to other existing animals.
The book is pitched at those who are already interested in the topic. I was amazed at the ignorance on a radio programme the other day when they were discussing American bison. They were told its Latin name was Bison bison (bison). The presenters were really surprised that a bison had a Latin name, and didn’t understand why it had more than one ‘bison’ in it. So a basic introduction has to be really basic. This is (perhaps thankfully) going in at a higher level.
After taking us through the discovery of the existence of fossils, and how they were interpreted through to and past Darwin, including a passable potted history of Darwin’s life and work, the book is divided into chapter on different types of fossil finds. There is inevitably one on mammals, but also, for example, on birds, whales and their predecessors and equally inevitably culminating in a chapter on human beings. Each of these is, in effect, a chapter of two halves. We start with the history of the discovery and gradual understanding of the fossil history, and segue into a description of a good number of fossil forms and how they can and can’t be structured into some kind of relationship.
For me the first part of the chapter was generally the most interesting bit. Switek really brings the historical context alive and immerses us in the sometimes petty squabbling, sometimes deep-felt beliefs that split the community investigating fossils (and still does to some extent today). This is inevitably a science that is feeling its way in the dark, dependent on random finds and requiring sometimes quite speculative interpretations of the evidence. It not only means that there will inevitably be points in history where the science has to back up and scrub away a chunk of its past, but also it’s easy to have two scientists both having good reasons to have opposing views about a fossil. The later parts of the chapters can occasionally descend into rather too many of those Latin names, discussing relatively minor differences between bones, something that is essential for the science, but doesn’t always make for entertaining reading.
By far the best chapter was the one on fossils from the same tree as humans. This was enthralling to read, in part inevitably because we have a special interest in these remains. It was brilliantly written and (in part because there aren’t too many appropriate finds) not overwhelmed in the later part.
All in all, a wonderful book for anyone who wants to get a real feel for how our understanding of fossils has developed over time and why science thinks the things it does about the development of animals on the Earth. Almost inevitably, because of the interpretative aspect of the science, there will be positions taken by Switek that won’t be agreed by every palaeontologist, but it’s hard to fault the insight that the reader is given into this remarkable science. Recommended.
There is nothing like a bunch of puzzles and factoids to help the reader recover from some heavy duty popular science reading. Although not all the puzzles and quite interesting facts in this book fall within the remit of science or maths, it has enough to qualify here.
Paul Williams has organized his book into five sections – easy, moderate, tricky, difficult and fiendish. This doesn’t necessarily reflect how puzzling a topic is, but often refers to the amount of mathematical effort involved – so most of the ‘fiendish’ topics are straight mathematical proofs.
Each item in the book is standalone, making this a good dip-in book (dare I say it, handy to install in the toilet). It is best described as eclectic. There are quite a lot of mathematical conundrums, but there are also logic problems, little bits of science and a collection of items that could best be described as ‘quite interesting’ from palindromes to ways of doing quick calculations in the head.
Some of the entries are entertainingly surprising. I liked, for example, a little piece on words that can’t be spelled or can’t be pronounced, where basically the verb applied to two different activities and sounds the same but is pronounced differently or vice versa. The problem arises when trying to use a single verb to cover both activities. This was rather neat. Elsewhere things were less effective. This was either because there wasn’t enough material, or what there was seemed feeble. We have a section that tells us, for example about what would happen if you fell down a hole through the centre of the Earth, but it doesn’t mention the really interesting point that the time is constant whether you go through the centre of the Earth or miss it and take a shorter route.
To give an example of a couple of feeble entries, we are told how everyone got it wrong by celebrating the millennium in the year 2000 – come on, this is hardly news. Worst of all is the entry that starts: ‘Poetry is fun. Some people like reading poetry but many people also write poetry.’ This seems like the kind of statement a 9-year-old would write. We are then subjected to four poems that Williams likes. What has this to do with either mind bending puzzles or fascinating facts? It’s self-indulgence, and suggests this book is in need of a good editor.
Probably the biggest fault with the book is bringing it out as hardback. This isn’t the kind of thing to be cherished, it’s a cheap and cheerful kind of subject and it would have been better to have made it a cheap and cheerful paperback rather than a hardback retailing at £12.99 (at the time of reviewing it is a bit cheaper on Amazon) – the only thing to be said for this is it makes it a good gift book.
Overall then, a real curates egg of factoids, puzzles and straightforward mathematical proofs (the last of which are hardly mind bending or fascinating). At its best, very entertaining, but all too often it’s not so much ‘quite interesting’ as ‘faintly interesting.’
This book is a little more wide-ranging that I first expected. I had thought the book would be purely about the microscopic life inside of us – species of bacteria and such things – with which we form symbiotic relationships, and how it has shaped us as human beings. Whilst much of the book focuses on this, we also look at the general ways in which how we live and respond to stimuli in the modern world still reflects strongly our historic interactions with all of life, especially predators. All kinds of areas of life – from the way we construct buildings and streets – seem to have been influenced to an impressive extent by the interactions we had with other life when in a more pure state of nature.
What it comes down to with this book – and it’s probably one of the best things you can say about a book – is that I learned a lot and had great fun doing so. There are many interesting little nuggets of information that I wasn’t aware of – I had no idea, for instance, that even today most human births take place during the night, with the likely explanation being that this is the time when, in the past, other members of the community would have been around to provide protection if necessary from predators during those first few moments of the child’s life.
Then there are the big, new ideas that perhaps most of us won’t yet have heard of. One of these is the interesting possibility that many diseases we suffer from in modern times are the result of our losing our intestinal worms and internal bacteria. The argument is that our bodies evolved in such a way as to accommodate this life inside of us, and even to benefit from it – so now we’ve removed some of this life, through the overuse of antibiotics and so on, our bodies can’t function as they were supposed to. This is one reason why, the book argues, that we need in some sense to return to nature, and to restore relationships with other organisms that we have lost.
There are fascinating human stories to compliment the science – which, I should say, is always well presented. We meet Crohn’s disease patients, for instance, who, desperate to get better, travel far from home to seek out worms in order to ‘re-wild’ their bodies, often with a lot of success. And when Dunn is retelling the stories of how some of the new ideas in the book were investigated, there’s suspense in the writing as we eagerly wait to discover the results of experiments, and whether evidence for these new ideas comes up.
Add to this that there is humour and a sense of fun in Dunn’s writing – and this is a book well worth reading. If you want to understand how living things inside of us and around us have shaped and continue to shape human beings, I would recommend this.
There is something interesting about the capacity of words on a page to transport you to another time and place, to evoke such strong emotions, and to draw you in completely and make you forget about what’s going on around you.
This is what happens on many occasions throughout this book with the dramatic eye-witness accounts of earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and other natural disasters. We relive from the perspective of those who were there at the time some of the worst natural disasters ever to have hit us. These accounts are powerful and harrowing, and it’s impossible not to become fully immersed in them.
Possibly the most powerful account is that of Charles Davy, living in Lisbon during the 1755 earthquake that destroyed the city. It is difficult to imagine what it must have been like to witness such a huge amount of destruction and chaos among those living in the city at the time. As in some of the other events that we look at in the book, it’s the death tolls that are most shocking. Between 60,000 and 100,000 people died in the 1755 Lisbon quake (with tens of thousands beyond the city also losing their lives). In the Indian Ocean tsunami of Boxing Day, 2004, the figure was 250,000, with millions also misplaced. It’s difficult to get your head around these numbers.
Each kind of extreme geologic or weather event – we also look at landslides, floods and volcano eruptions, among others – is given a chapter of its own in the book. In each chapter, after reading accounts of specific disasters, we go on to look in some detail at the science behind the phenomena, and touch on issues around predicting disasters and planning for them. The horrific accounts of particular disasters really make you want to read these sections to understand their physical causes, and they emphasise how important it is we are well-prepared for future disasters.
One theme running through the book is our powerlessness in the face of these extreme events. Prediction is difficult and sometimes impossible, author Donald Prothero explains (and this is something the book rightly argues the public need to appreciate to a greater extent). As for planning for disasters, there seem to be two big issues. Firstly, where good planning is possible, sometimes governments have been unwilling to take the necessary steps to protect their citizens. Second, even where we do try to mitigate the effects of disasters, the measures we choose are often counter-productive – levees, for example, may contain flooding in a particular region but they often concentrate flooding downstream.
As a combination of dramatic, personal accounts of recent and historic catastrophes, the science behind these disasters, and other surrounding issues, this is probably as good an introduction to natural disasters as you’re likely to find. You’ll be left with a good appreciation of the causes of these extreme events and of the power of nature and, perhaps most importantly, an understanding of the impact these catastrophes can have on human beings.
Occasionally I review a book that makes me think ‘I wish I wrote that’ – and sometimes I nearly did. The subject of Sharon Bertsch Mcgrayne’s book, as the rather lengthy subtitle tells us is ‘how Bayes’ rule cracked the Enigma code, hunted down Russian submarines and emerged triumphant from two centuries of controversy.’ There is no doubt that Bayes’ theorem is the most intriguing piece of maths most people have never heard of, and I did once write a proposal for a book about it, but the publisher said no one would get it. I believe they should get it. But Bayes’ theorem, though simple, is famously difficult to keep in mind. So a significant test of this book is how well Mcgrayne gets across what the theorem really is.
The good news is that this isn’t a stuffy book of heavy mathematics – Mcgrayne has a light touch and an airy style. I did worry early on if it was too airy as she resorts to language that is a little cringeworthy. She says ‘In 1731 [Bayes] wrote a pamphlet – a kind of blog’ – now if she had said ‘if he was alive today he would probably have written a blog’ I would have been comfortable. But to put it the way she does… I can imagine her writing about Shakespeare: ‘Around this time, Shakespeare wrote his first play – a kind of movie.’
This is mildly worrying, but what is more concerning is the way she handles the topic of another pamphlet Bayes wrote. It was, it seems, a response to George Berkeley’s ‘The Analyst: A discourse addressed to an infidel mathematician.’ The infidel in question was Edmund Halley, an atheist, and concerned calculus. Berkeley’s points out that Halley mocks believers for taking things on faith, yet supports a mathematical concept that requires you to do maths with something that disappears, as Berkeley puts it ‘The ghosts of departed quantities’, which also takes faith. In his quite detailed analysis, Berkeley points out a legitimate mathematical flaw in the basis of the calculus, as practised at the time.
But Mcgrayne’s take is quite different. She calls it an ‘inflammatory pamphlet attacking Dissenting mathematicians and… “infidel mathematicians” who believed that reason could illuminate any subject.’ That is patently wrong. Halley was not a Dissenter in the usual sense of the word, and Berkeley’s attack on the basis of calculus was, mathematically, correct. Berkeley was, in reality, arguing for the use of reason and at the same time attacking Halley’s lack of Christian faith, something Bayes would have heartily agreed with. What worries me is if the reality of Berkeley’s pamphlet could be so distorted to fit a particular viewpoint, how many other historical facts have been misused? This might be a single instance, but it was a bit worrying, coming as it does on page 4.
The bulk of the book concerns the 200 year battle between two types of statistics. Broadly there is frequentist statistics, the one you are likely to be familiar with, where you gather lots of data and spot trends, calculate means and all that good stuff. Then there is Bayesian statistics. This starts with an prior knowledge, or probabilities you might have, even if not directly about the problem in hand, then transforms this prior knowledge with new data as and when it is available. This means it can produce useful results with far less data – a more typical real world situation – but the maths can be quite messy, and it has a degree of subjectivity that mathematicians have always shied away from.
I did a masters in operational research in the 1970s, a discipline that Mcgrayne tells us was founded on Bayesian statistics, but never once heard anything about them on my course. This shows just how much fashions have often swung against Bayes.
So how does the book do? Not brilliantly. It is irritating vague about how Bayesian statistics works, combining a totally opaque formula early on with example after example that really just describes the inputs without ever saying how they are used. To make matters worse there is chapter after chapter of what is basically two bunches of statisticians arguing and Bayesian statistics sort of being used in rather uninspiring circumstances. It only really came alive for me when the author was describing its use in the hunt for mislaid nuclear weapons – and even then it is not at all clear how the technique was used from the way she describes it.
Most frustrating of all is that the second appendix contains a very clear example of a simple Bayesian working with a remarkable result. This is the first time in the whole book that it becomes fairly obvious what is going on with Bayesian statistics. This example should have been right up front, not in an appendix that half the readers won’t even bother with, and there should have been similarly clear examples of some of the more complex applications. Not in full detail, but enough to get a feel for what is happening.
Overall, then, it seems the publishers who didn’t want me to write about this made the correct call. I am the ideal audience – I worked in operational research, for goodness sake. And I still found most of it uninspiring and hard to understand how Bayesian methods were being used in the particular examples. What a shame.
I have a real problem reviewing a book like this. I’m the sort of person who can listen to a speech by practically any non-extremist politician and think ‘Yes, that makes sense.’ I am quite easily swayed by political argument, and in essence, The Rational Optimist isn’t a science book at all, it is a political polemic that happens to be by a science writer. Even so, it’s interesting enough that I feel it is worth covering here.
The majority of Ridley’s book is pointing out that we really have never had it so good. And it’s a very convincing argument indeed. He points out that those people who look back to pre-industrialization with a fake rosy glow of a time when we lived happy lives, better in tune with nature is just rubbish. The fact is, most people scraped a living and had short (at least on average), nasty lives. Ah, someone is bound to pipe up, that’s because agriculture itself was one technology too many. People were better fed and happier when they were hunter gatherer’s.
Ridley pops this bubble very effectively too. It’s true that hunter gatherers were usually much better fed than subsistence farmers. The problem is that hunter gatherers still suffered from all the untreated illnesses. And they needed a phenomenal amount of space per person. To achieve this, they were in a constant state of war with practically everyone else in sight. Most of them would not make old age even if they survived childhood diseases because of being murdered. (In fact it’s true of all our ‘idyllic’ past – homicide rates were much higher than now.)
We have a grim picture of people being forced into dark satanic slums to feed the industrial machine, but as Ridley also points out, most people moved to the slums because they were better than their living conditions in the country. It was horrible, it was rubbish, but it was better rubbish, and a step on the ladder.
The theme throughout the book is one of rational optimism. He argues than many – most? – thinkers through the ages have been pessimists with disaster always around the corner. For thousands of years, the popular stance has been, ‘Yes, it’s okay now, but soon it will all go wrong.’ Ridley suggests that the reason it doesn’t go wrong is that we invent ourselves out of the problem. The reason we won’t run out of energy or food, for example, is we will find ways around it. And he’s right, despite all the gloom and woe-mongers, on the whole we do.
This is not a Panglossian treatise suggesting we have the best of all possible worlds – Ridley accepts we’ve a long way to go – but simply that we have achieved a much better general standard than our forebears, and there is every chance we will continue to do so. The big driving factor, he suggests, is the interbreeding of ideas, fuelled by trade. As long as you try to do everything yourself, you can never progress very far. Self-sufficiency is a dead end. Try making an iPad out of twigs from your allotment. You need to be able to trade with others, to develop specialists and so on to be able to invent your way out of disasters.
Ridley takes on the big problems of Africa and climate change, not necessarily offering total solutions, but pointing out some of the changes that are needed if we are to address these issues more constructively. He has a media image of being a climate change denier. This isn’t quite fair – he does downplay the impact, but also believes we are much better at coping with slow change – which climate change is – than we are generally given credit for. The final section of the book, which attempts a bit of futurology is very weak in comparison with the rest and doesn’t add a lot to the rest.
Overall, then, the message of the book is encouraging and I’m all in favour of it. At times the way Ridley gets that message across is tedious with statistic after statistic being hurled at us in a barrage, but perhaps he feels he needs to do this, so strong is the underlying ethos that the modern world is terrible, rather than the best we’ve achieved to date.
I confess I very much liked what I read. I can’t give this the full five stars as I don’t see why it is being regarded as a popular science book – but it should be required reading for environmentalists, politicians and professional doom mongers.
This is one of those books that is very well done – but it’s difficult to like the outcome. Michael Brooks sets out to show that real scientists are not at all like the hyper-rational, logical, conformist Mr Spock caricatures we know and love. This is fine, as long as he doesn’t also demolish scientific heroes along the way – we all need heroes.
Whether it’s using drugs to stimulate ideas, or being selective results, it seems many a scientist has been prepared to stray from the straight and narrow in order to get to their desired ends. We see how dog eat dog the battle to publish can be, but also how a kind of ‘acceptable fraud’ is all too common – not the outright making up of results, but rather going all out to pursue an idea, possibly a spark of genius, even if it means temporarily ignoring an experimental result or interpreting the data in a slightly selective fashion.
Parts of the book feel a bit forced. The suggestion that many (or even any) great scientific ideas were the result of being on LSD or other drugs seems a little unlikely. Apart from anything else there is reasonable evidence that effective creative thinking is suppressed by drug use – users may well think they are being creative while high, but in reality aren’t. The capability to come up with new directions and see things in different ways seem to be better served by going for a walk or sleeping on a problem, rather than tripping – it’s difficult not to get the sense that Brooks is just out to shock the reader here.
There is also rather too much emphasis put on the tedious postmodernist views of Paul Feyerabend and his ilk. I thought that Alan Sokal’s brilliant hoax had put paid to all that rubbish, but Brooks was prepared to drag it into the argument. However there is no doubt that scientists’ tendency to take risks (whether with themselves and other people or with their theories), to support a theory far outside what is suggested by experiment and to be harsh to opposing theories are real and often hidden behind the ‘rational people of science’ facade. Brooks makes clear that sometimes a scientist will be so convinced with a theory that they keep on ignoring the evidence for years… and they are eventually proved right. How often this happens compared with occasions when they don’t get it right he doesn’t say.
Perhaps the most important message is the need for mavericks in science, not just conformists. All too often modern academic science is far too rigidly bound to make big progress. If we are to make real breakthroughs again, perhaps there needs to be more opportunity to go out on a limb. At the same time, and this is something Brooks doesn’t really pick up on, we need a lot more education of the public (and of journalists and politicians) in the realities of science – an understanding that it is very rarely about certainty, and is all about probabilities – and that it is much easier to disprove something than to prove it. The public expects science to be black and white, where it is really shades of grey. We just need education to understand that this doesn’t discredit it. They are by far the best shades of grey available. But we shouldn’t expect certainty.
In the end the advice I would have given to Michael Brooks if asked before he wrote the book would be ‘Tread lightly for you tread on my dreams.’ There is no doubt that this is an interesting subject, and it’s important that we understand that scientists are human. But you don’t improve matters by simply pushing them off a pedestal. They still have the best view around.
Reviewing a Rupert Sheldrake book is a little like sitting on the jury in the trial of an infamous murderer (sorry, Rupert). As such a juror it is very difficult to ignore all that you have read in the press and to take an impartial line. Similarly, although this is the first time I have read one of Sheldrake’s books, I approach it in a cloud of awareness that this may be flaky science.
Nothing typifies this better than the rather weasely reaction from that usually superb publication New Scientist. The book’s publisher has put a quote on the cover from NS in a review of the original 1988 edition of this book (this is the 2011 second edition). The quote reads ‘Engaging, provocative… a tour de force.’ Yet NS felt compelled to write ‘It’s usually a pleasure to see [our] reviews being mined for promotional pull-quotes. But not always. Sometimes it feels like desperate barrel-scraping on behalf of the publisher.’ In fact there is no barrel-scraping going on here – it’s a straightforward pull quote which, as always picks out the good bit of the review. Yet New Scientist is backpedalling at high speed, trying to make it look like a misrepresentation.
So I will do my best to come at this without blinkers, but I can’t guarantee not to be influenced. First reactions were not great. In part this is just because it’s a very long book at 484 pages, and in part because it is a popular science book about a person’s own theory. In my experience this hardly ever works, especially if it is a theory that challenges conventional scientific thought, as it tends to come across as a demented rant. This feeling isn’t helped by the opening where in his second sentence Sheldrake uses one of the key identifiers of crank science writing: he refers to ‘The so-called laws of nature…’ That expression ‘so-called’ always raises the baloney antennae.
As I continued to read I was also rather irritated by two other things. One is the amount of tedious repetition. In the first sixty pages or so he makes a single point that could have been made in a paragraph. No wonder it’s so long. The other is a repeated (much repeated) assertion that we have moved from a picture of an unchanging clockwork universe to an evolving universe. This totally misunderstands the nature of a ‘clockwork’ universe. Just because a universe is deterministic (or obeys probability driven rules) does not make it unchanging. Clockwork inherently moves and changes, otherwise it wouldn’t be much of a clock.
There is always a huge danger of drawing loose parallels with a different branch of science, and to describe the changes that have occurred in the physical universe as evolution, something Sheldrake repeatedly does, is simply wrong. Evolution (in the scientific sense) does not mean changing alone, but developing in a way that is driven by reproduction incorporating random mutations and subject to conditions where some variations survive and some don’t. Physics and cosmology do not work this way. They don’t evolve.
Still, we can cope with the loose generalizations if the theory itself stands up. Sheldrake’s central assertion is that through a process he calls morphic resonance, nature builds up habits, making it easier and easier to do the same thing over time. This means that things that have been around a long time (like atoms) will appear to always work the same way (approximating to natural laws), but things that haven’t been around long will not have settled into habitual paths and so will be more random. He applies this to everything. Not just atoms, for example, but particularly species of bird, chemical compounds or pieces of music (for instance).
Here is the first real problem with this theory. Sheldrake gives the example ‘… when animals such as rats are trained to learn a new trick in one laboratory, other rats of the same breed everywhere else should subsequently tend to learn the same trick more quickly.’ It seems this morphic resonance only works in the same breed. But how does it know to do so? Breeds are a fairly arbitrary human concept. Each rat is different in terms of its DNA – each is a mutant (just as we all are). So it can’t depend on having identical DNA. But how else can the morphic field know to work just on that one breed of rat? It doesn’t make any sense.
I frankly don’t know enough about biology to say for certain, but it seemed to me that Sheldrake’s description of genetics (and epigenetics) was very much a 1980s view. There is hardly any mention of the role of junk DNA, or of other known extra-genetic factors. When it came to physics it seemed his need to emphasise fields was too strong. Yes, fields are central to modern physics but we would describe the light from a distant galaxy reaching us in terms of photons, not a field extending between the two as Sheldrake seems to suggest.
A lot of my problems with the book are about feel rather than substance. Too much is based on ancient Greek philosophy, with endless debates on the benefits of a Platonic versus an Aristotelian view, which has very little to do with science. But there are some key scientific problems too. He tells us that crystal formation relies on morphic resonance, so a newly formed chemical is difficult to crystallise and doesn’t have a standard form. But over time, influenced by statistical combination of past crystals, the form becomes more and more standardised. If this were the case we would expect that after billions of years of ice crystals forming there would be a standard shape for a snowflake, not the vast array of six-pointed forms we see.
Talking about the ‘morphic resonance’ that he believes underlies the shaping of everything from animals to molecules, Sheldrake says ‘unlike [normal physical] resonance, morphic resonance does not involve a transfer of energy from one system to another, but rather a non-energetic transfer of information.’ Whoa! Thermodynamics malfunction alert! To have a non-energetic transfer of information would break the second law of thermodynamics, and to quote the great Arthur Eddington, If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations – then so much the worse for Maxwell’s equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation – well these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.
In the end, I think those who dismiss Sheldrake as a charlatan or a crank get it wrong. This is a carefully argued idea that has every right to be heard. The author makes some interesting points, like the way geographically separated animals appear to learn behaviours without any means for those behaviours to be transmitted (though of course there is always the ‘time was right’ idea of simultaneous development).
As a world picture, Sheldrake’s vision suffers from being a biologist’s viewpoint, rather too easily led down hand-waving paths involving airy-fairy fields, and there seems little reason for thinking Sheldrake is right. But we do science a disservice if we take the New Scientistview and dismiss him out of hand. It is a turgid, over-long book, but it is an interesting idea that deserved to be heard.