Skip to main content


Showing posts from 2012

Molecule vs Molecule – Brian Clegg

In a number of recent posts I’ve looked at the ways that nanotechnology coatings like those produced by  P2i  can be used to make everything from mobile phones to trainers water repellent – and at the natural examples of this same phenomenon – but I haven’t really considered the science behind this technology – which is all about the electromagnetic interaction of molecules. We’re probably most familiar with this kind of interaction in an attractive way. As I write this, there is a heavy frost outside. Water is turning from liquid to solid. Yet were it not for a particular molecular interaction, this would be an impossibility because water would boil below -70 °C. There would be no liquid or solid water on the Earth and, in all probability, no life. The interaction that makes life possible is hydrogen bonding. This is an electromagnetic attraction between a hydrogen atom in one molecule, and an atom like oxygen, nitrogen or fluorine in a second molecule. When hydrogen is bonded

Thinking Statistically – Uri Bram ****

This is a delightful little book (just three chapters) introducing three of the fundamental aspects of statistics that can get us confused: selection bias, edogeneity (effectively missing external factors which are influencing the outcome) and the use of Bayesian statistics, an approach that is very powerful but makes it easy to go astray. I wouldn’t quite describe this as a popular science book – there are probably rather too many equations – but it is excellent both as providing a bit of understanding for those making use of statistical methods (it’s all too easy to just crank the handle without understanding what you are doing and thereby come up with the wrong results) and as  an introduction for the general reader who isn’t put off by a little bit of jargon and equations in what is, nonetheless, a very readable little book. Thinking Statistically  is short enough to read in a couple of hours, and I think it’s a credit to the author that I thought ‘Oh, really, I wanted more!’

The Science of Middle Earth – Henry Gee ****

When I saw this book (subtitled “Explaining The Science Behind The Greatest Fantasy Epic Ever Told!” in the original US edition), I thought it was time to put my foot down. Okay, Douglas Adams’ delirious fantasy,  The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy  was largely a science fiction parody, so  Science of Hitchhiker’s  made sense. Even  Science of Discworld  works, thanks to the conceit of treating it as the view of fantasy characters of Discworld observing our science. But  Science of Middle Earth ? Isn’t it all swords and sorcery? What’s more, Tolkien was famously a romantic who longed for a non-existent bucolic rural past, typified by the hobbits’ Shire (while conveniently forgetting the rampant disease, infant mortality and frequent malnutrition, that were just some of the joys of the real rural past). Didn’t Tolkien attack the whole idea of science and technology as the black vision of the likes of his number II baddy, Saruman? Henry Gee, a senior editor of the definitive scien

Meaning in Mathematics – John Polkinghorne (Ed.) ***

In this book a number of leading mathematicians, philosophers and physicists, each contributing a chapter, offer us a range of reflections on the philosophy of mathematics, looking at, for example, the extent to which mathematics can be considered objective, and the issue of discovery versus creation in mathematics. I really liked the format of the book. Each chapter is followed by a brief commentary by one of the other contributors to the book, with these commentaries providing alternative ways of looking at a particular issue, and encouraging the reader to engage in the debates. Further, the chapters are bite-sized and self-contained, and I enjoyed picking up the book to read, say, a chapter or two, before coming back to it later. There is an occasional problem with the shortness of the chapters. This is that sometimes there isn’t enough room for ideas to be gently introduced to those of us who aren’t professional mathematicians or philosophers. Despite the book’s aim of being a

How Pleasure Works – Paul Bloom ****

I have to start this review with a confession and an apology to the author. When the book arrived for review in 2010 (no, not a typo), I was totally fed up with books about different human emotions. We had been absolutely drenched with the things, many of them rather tedious. So I put it to one side and forgot about it. A few days ago I needed a book to read, had nothing else to hand and discovered I’d made a big mistake – because the book is brilliant. So my apologies to Paul Bloom: the only thing I would say is that as an author I appreciate reviews however late they come and I hope he will too. Bloom makes a wonderful exploration of what pleasure is and why we appreciate everything from basic animal desires like food and sex to much more complex enjoyment like reading a book or looking at an artwork. In doing so he digs into the real attachments we have – why, for example, we appreciate a ‘real’ original painting more than a perfect copy, even though the artwork itself is iden

Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age – B. Jack Copeland *****

Alan Turing is a name that has grown in stature over the years. When I first got interested in computers all you really heard about was the Turing test – the idea of testing if a computer could think by having a conversation by teletype and seeing if you could tell if there was a computer or a human at the other end. Then came the revelations of the amazing code breaking work at Bletchley Park. Now, though, we know that Turing was much more than this, the single person who most deserves to be called the father of the computer (we allow Babbage to be grandfather). All this and much more comes through in B. Jack Copeland’s superb biography of Turing. It’s not surprising this book (and its competitors) is on sale now. 2012 is the hundredth anniversary of Turing’s birth. And it is a timely reminder of just how important Turing was to the development of the the technology that is at the heart of much of our everyday lives (including the iPad I’m typing this on today). If I had to

Royal Society Winton Prize 2012

Read more about the 2012 Royal Society Winton Prize, arguably a summary of the best popular science books published in 2011. We have a winner for the prize! Best books of 2011? You decide… Winner The Information – James Gleick Shortlist Moonwalking with Einstein – Joshua Foer My Beautiful Genome – Lone Frank The Hidden Reality – Brian Greene The Better Angels of Our Nature – Steven Pinker The Viral Storm – Nathan Wolfe Longlist The Two Kinds of Decay – Sarah Manguso The 4% Universe – Richard Panek The Address Book – Tim Radford Pricing the Future – George G Szpiro Race? Debunking a Scientific Myth – Ian Tattersall and Rob DeSalle The Folly of Fools – Robert Trivers and here are our favourites that didn’t make the long list: Brain Bugs – Dean Buonomano Discoverers of the Universe – Michael Hoskin From Eternity to Here – Sean Carrol l Incognito – David Eagleman Inflight Science – Brian Clegg The Edge of Physics – Anil Ananthaswamy The God Species – Ma

Butterflies and toilets

What do a South American butterfly and motorhead TV presenter Richard Hammond have in common? Both have a need to avoid close contact with water. In his 2012 BBC programme  Richard Hammond’s Miracles of Nature , Hammond demonstrates an all too common problem: dropping a phone down the toilet. Apparently 19 per cent of us admit to having had this accident occur at some point. It’s all too easy, particularly if you have a phone in a breast pocket and bend over – or simply slip while holding your handset in the smallest room. We won’t resort to Hammond’s dodgy statistics: he combines the 40 per cent who admit to taking their phones into the loo in the first place (what do the other 60 per cent do with their phones, leave them by the door?) with that 19 per cent to suggest half of those who take their phones drop them down the pan. However, there is no doubt that the toilet and all the other water hazards we face from puddles to simply using our phones in the rain put those most essentia

Seduced by Logic – Robyn Arianrhod ***

Though there still aren’t enough women involved in physics, there are certainly are far more than there used to be. When I look back at my 1976, final year undergraduate group photograph at the Cavendish in Cambridge there are probably only around 5 per cent of the students who are female. (It’s a little difficult to tell, given the similarities in hair length favoured at the time.) Now it would be significantly higher. But go back over two centuries and what’s amazing is to find any woman who dared to make herself visible in the scientific arena. Yet despite the widely voiced concerns that women’s brains would practically explode if faced with anything more than the fluffiest of science popularisation (the father of one of the main characters in this book, discovering her interest in maths, said ‘We must put a stop to this, or we shall have Mary in a straightjacket one of these days’) the two individuals at the heart of Robin Arianrhod’s book managed not just to learn about the p

The science they didn’t teach you at school

We’ve got a new sister site,  – it contains short pieces from our editor, Brian Clegg, on the science they didn’t teach you at school. The really interesting bits. The bits that make you go ‘Wow!’ It’s early days, but there’s new content going up every week. The material is a mix of short written pieces and videos. These videos don’t set out to be all hi-tech and broadcast quality. The aim is just to get the ideas across quickly and simply. Please do  click through  and take a look at the site, but for a taster here’s one of the videos, answering the question ‘If time travel is possible, why aren’t we inundated with visitors from the future?’

Caleb Scharf – Four Way Interview

Caleb Scharf is Director of Astrobiology at Columbia University in New York. He is the winner of the 2011 Chambliss Astronomical Writing Award from the American Astronomical Society, and the Guardian has cited his Life, Unbounded blog at Scientific American as one of the “hottest science blogs,”. His extensive research career has covered cosmology, high-energy astrophysics, and exoplanetary science, and he currently leads efforts to understand the nature of exoplanets and the environments suitable for life in the universe. He has also served as consultant for New Scientist, Discovery Channel, the Science Channel, National Geographic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and others. His book  Gravity’s Engines  explores the influence of black holes on the universe. Why science?  So many evolving reasons. Curiosity, obsessiveness, and a love of stories. The more science I work on the more I see it through the lens of storytelling, and it’s hard to do better than the story o

Gravity’s Engines – Caleb Scharf *****

Black holes are the rock stars of cosmology. With the possible exception of the Big Bang, nothing gets better press. And there has been plenty written about the guts of black holes – but in  Gravity’s Engines , Caleb Scharf turns the picture on its head and explores the interaction of black holes with the environment around them. The result is stunning. I can’t remember when I last read a popular science book where I learned as much I hadn’t come across before. In particular Scharf’s descriptions of the super-massive black holes in the centres of galaxies and how they influence the formation and structure of the galaxies is truly fascinating. What’s more, this is no workmanlike bit of dull scientist droning, like some books by astronomers. Scharf can wax lyrical when taking us on a journey through space. I particularly loved the cosmic zoom fairly early on in the book, where he follows X-ray photons from a distant galaxy 12 billion light years away, very cleverly linking their fli

A Little History of Science – William Bynum ***

Doing all of science in one book is not an easy task, nor is it obvious how to go about it. William Bynum has chosen to provide us with a breezy high speed canter through the history of science, with the keyword being ‘history’. There is a lot of about the people involved and the context, always good from a popular science viewpoint. Bynum manages to do this in an approachable way – almost too approachable sometimes as the style veers between writing for adults and for children. The bumf says ‘this is a volume for young and old to treasure together,’ but it really is neither fish nor fowl. The approach generally speaking is one that works best for adults, but then you get a sentence like ‘Galen was very clever and was not afraid to say so,’ that sounds ever so Janet and John. Perhaps my biggest problem with the book is that while the history side of it was usually fine, the science was not always so. Some of it was just little factual errors – stating that the human appendix has