Skip to main content

Posts

Showing posts from August, 2011

The Rough Guide to the Future – Jon Turney ***

This is a really interesting book, which is why I feel I need to explain up front why it only has three stars. In part it’s because this is a science website, and there is an awful lot of this book that isn’t science. ‘Futurology’ itself certainly isn’t a science – it’s collection of opinion. As the saying goes, the plural of anecdote is not data, and collecting together opinions is not science. It’s also notable that the chapter on ‘science futures’ is practically all about technology. Nothing about future discoveries in physics, cosmology, chemistry or even biology (as opposed to biotech and medicine). The other reason I can’t give the book too high a score is that it’s not always great to read. This says nothing about Jon Turney’s writing, which is great, wonderfully readable and well crafted. It’s all down to the topic and the format. The problem with the topic is that, frankly, when you get down to looking at the future (future of economics, future of politics, future of food sup…

Using Science Fiction to Stimulate Interest in Science Fact – Douglas E. Richards

Science popularizer Douglas Richards argues that Science Fiction is a great way to get kids interested in science itself. See our review of The Prometheus Project. I have a Master’s degree in molecular biology and write science pieces for National Geographic KIDS magazine. As a kid, I read nothing but science fiction, much of it by actual scientists striving to get the science correct, and I know firsthand the power of this genre to stoke interest in science. This is a widespread phenomena, with no better exemplar than Star Trek. The number of NASA scientists that were inspired by this series is well known and explains why so many real space ships have taken their names from those found in the Star Trek universe. Martin Cooper, the inventor of the cell phone, cited Captain Kirk’s communicator as his inspiration for the invention. Mark D. Rayman, Chief Propulsion Engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, developed Ion Propulsion, inspired by the Star Trek episode, “Spock’s Brain.” …

Spider Silk – Leslie Brunetta & Catherine L. Craig *****

Somewhere in Spider Silk the authors describe one of the first arachnids coming out of the sea onto the land around 400 million years ago. There was little vegetation but for 150 million years these trigonotarbids persisted. They had eight legs and they looked very much like today’s spiders, but with one very important difference: they made no silk. Silk-making arachnids, attercops, arrived, perhaps, around 20 million years later, but it was not until 290 million years ago that the first arachnids with spinnerets arrived on the scene. These were called mesotheles and 90 species survive to this day. Their mating ritual involves limbo dancing. Some of them lay trip wires. They live in burrows lined with silk and with silken trap doors, and from these they lie in wait… The mygalomorphae, which arrived 50 millions years later, are hairy and rather large (the tarantula is an example) and unlike the mesotheles, have spinnerets at the end of their abdomen which gives them greater flexibility…

Earth: in 100 groundbreaking discoveries – Douglas Palmer ****

If I am honest my heart fell a little at the sight of this book. Although publishers seem to love ‘100 best whatever’ books and the like – which presumably means they sell – I find them mostly tedious. Ok, they can be handy gift books if you can’t think of anything better to give someone, but I rarely feel the urge to buy one. Usually they are a compendium of little articles with no flow and limited readability. They are okay to dip into, but little more. Douglas Palmer’s book, then, was a considerable relief – because it can be read from end to end as a real book. It tells the story of the development of the Earth from its creation, through the formation of the continents, plate tectonics and more, to the present day. A surprising amount of the book is also about the development of life, in part through the fossil remains found in the Earth, so it’s a mix of a geology and a biology book. For good measure there is a bit towards the end about energy sources, climate change and natural…

Douglas Palmer – Four Way Interview

Douglas Palmer is a a science writer and lecturer on Earth Sciences for the University of Cambridge Institute of Continuing Education. He is the author of more than 20 books, most recently Earth: in 100 groundbreaking discoveries. He is a consultant for BBC Wildlife Magazine and a regular contributor to New Scientist and Science magazines. Why science? Whilst the sex lives of footballers and celebs undoubtedly have a certain interest, the science of planet Earth has more variety, drama and relevance in the greater scheme of things. Whilst in a year or two the shenanigans of most of our dear little celebs will have evaporated in the ether, the science of Earth will still be impacting upon our everyday lives, whether we like it or not and whether we are aware of it or not – you have been warned. Why this book? Earth’s story is an ever ending one with new insights, problems and resolutions emerging every day but still very little of the science news gets through our media quagmire. This bo…

Frank Ryan – Four Way Interview

Frank Ryan is a consultant physician and an innovative evolutionary biologist. He has pioneered the concept of viruses as symbionts. His book on tuberculosis, renamed The Forgotten Plague, was a non-fiction book of the year for the New York Times, while his Darwin’s Blind Spot created interest in academic and lay circles, leading to Frank being elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London. Frank’s new book for 2011 is Metamorphosis/ The Mystery of Metamorphosis, in the UK and US respectively. Frank’s books have been the subject of many TV and radio documentaries. He is also an occasional reviewer of books for the New York Times. Why science? I’m a physician with an interest in evolutionary biology, so science has been my life for forty years. It attracted me in the first place because it tries to answer some of the great mysteries of life and the universe through logic and experiment. Why this book? I’ve always been fascinated by the dramatic changes of metamorphosis. One of the mo…

Metamorphosis – Frank Ryan ****

Every now and then a theory comes along that challenges mainstream thinking in a scientific field and all too often the established scientists are not great at taking on board the new mode of thinking. Of course the theory could be incorrect – but often the scientific establishment don’t even take the trouble to really think about the idea, or dismiss the theory out of hand because it breaks with orthodoxy. This has always happened. Newton’s first submission to the Royal Society on light and colour was pushed aside by Robert Hooke, who later admitted that he didn’t really bother to read it properly. I’m not saying that the biological establishment haven’t bothered to read the theory that is a major part of Frank Ryan’s book, but they certainly have shown signs of sticking with the standard approach without really thinking about the alternatives, as if Darwin’s support for an idea makes it inevitably right. Come on guys, even Einstein got it wrong occasionally. The theory in question i…

Brian Switek – Four Way Interview

Brian Switek is a freelance science writer based out of Salt Lake City, Utah. In addition to writing about paleontology and natural history for publications such as Smithsonian, Scientific American, the Wall Street Journal, The Times, and others, he has published academic articles on fossils and has participated in fieldwork in Utah, Wyoming, and Montana. He also writes the blogs Laelaps for Wired Science and Dinosaur Tracking for Smithsonian. Written in Stone is his first book, and he is currently working on a follow-up titled A Date with a Dinosaur. Why science? Science is our ongoing effort to interrogate nature and understand the universe we inhabit. The more we discover, the more questions we have, and how we perceive ourselves is intimately wrapped up in our endeavour to understand reality. Science is not just the systematic accumulation of facts – it is an essential part of the human journey filled with poetry, serendipity, and surprises. Why this book? There’s no shortage of boo…

Quantum Enigma – Bruce Rosenblum & Fred Kuttner ***

Of all the wonders of physics, none is more fascinating and mind-bending than quantum theory. But there is one aspect of it that, frankly, I find tedious – and as this book is dedicated to that aspect, I wasn’t hugely looking forward to reading it. The aspect in question is interpretations of quantum theory. Such is my distaste for these speculations that my book on quantum entanglement, The God Effect, only makes passing reference to them. Quantum theory itself describes how very small particles – both matter and less substantial, like photons of light – behave. It’s a weird world, but a consistent one. The trouble comes when you try to make the bridge between that world and the ‘normal’ world we experience. For example, unless they are observed, quantum particles don’t have a precise location. Instead there is a range of possibilities, each with it’s probability predicted precisely by an equation. But until you check where a particle is, it isn’t in a single place. This is fine and …