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Showing posts from June, 2012

Genome – Matt Ridley *****

The output of the human genome project is a heavy duty subject – just understanding what’s involved in the process is not easy; interpreting the results operates at a wholedifferent level. As for writing about the human genome in an accessible and enjoyable way – this is a particularly drastic challenge. Ridley not only succeeds but does so in a rather cute fashion. This is ‘an autobiography of a species in 23 chapters’. The number 23 is no random selection – it corresponds to the number of chromosome pairs we have, and Ridley picks out a gene to feature from each chromosome pair in each chapter. This approach enables his book to be far reaching, looking at our relationship to other owners of the gene, from bacteria to great apes, spanning from the earliest forms of life to the genes that could be responsible for intelligence and language. Evolutionary theory, biology’s great triumph, is put across very effectively alongside good background material on genetics, and of the many books …

Ian Watson – Four Way Interview

Ian Watson is a professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Auckland New Zealand. His latest book is The Universal Machine: from the dawn of computing to digital consciousness, exploring the legacy of Alan Turing, the inventor of the computer. He is a keen blogger and is currently researching in Game AI. Why science? I’ve never felt it’s a matter of choosing science over something else. At school I specialised in Biology, Chemistry and English Literature for my university entrance exams. My school said, “You can’t do that! You’ve got to specialise in either the sciences or the arts.” I replied, “I can do that. The timetable permits it – I checked.” Going from a chemistry or biology lab to an English Lit. class or vice versa was constantly refreshing and stimulating. Steve Jobs was often photographed in front of a mythical street intersection: Liberal Arts and Technology. He famously said “In my perspective … computer science is a liberal art.” I agree with him; to be inve…

Elephants on Acid – Alex Boese *****

I went about this what was officially the wrong way round, reading the sequel to Elephants on Acid (if you are wondering, Electrified Sheep) first – but for me it worked well because I preferred the original. Both books have the same basic premise – a collection of tales of the weirdest and most bizarre experiments that real scientists have undertaken – but Elephants has the advantage of both coming first, and hence probably getting the cream of the crop, and also lacks the format issue I had with the sequel, because it doesn’t have the lengthy, slightly irritating dramatised intros to the stories. On the whole the entries are shorter too – this does make the book a little bitty but with this kind of concept it actually works better. Some of the experiments described are mildly horrifying (if you get upset by vivisection, look away in the section describing a kitten having its head cut off and its spinal cord replaced with a metal amalgam, or attempts to keep two heads alive on the s…

Techno Sport – Brian Clegg

Anyone who knows me will be aware that I am as enamoured with sport as the next geek, which is to say not at all. I have attended one football match, just to see what it’s like, and I have no intention of going again. The Olympics will pass me by as an irritating disruption of the TV schedule and an even more irritating financial burden on the country. Yet the subject of using technology to enhance sporting prowess is one that interests me immensely, because like my book Upgrade Me it is all about using human inventiveness to go beyond the built-in capabilities of the body. In Upgrade Me I identify five primary ways we have used technology to produce a kind of artificial evolution. They are in lengthening our lifespan, making ourselves more attractive to other members of our species, increasing physical capabilities, enhancing the brain and making physical repairs to the body. While there are some inputs science and technology for sport have made to this last category, it’s in increas…

The Address Book – Tim Radford ***

I have to admit, I opened this book to immediate disappointment. Our editor mentioned he’d got a book for review by Tim Harford, the undercover economist on the excellent More or Less radio programme. Expecting Harford’s light, bright style I ploughed into the dense, wordy first chapter like hitting a brick wall. Why had he changed his style so much? And then I realised the mistake – wrong Tim. The Address Book has a lovely basis. Like many of us, Tim Radford felt the urge when at school to do one of those unconsciously set theory based addresses, starting with his street address, town, county, country, continent, hemisphere, planet, solar system, galaxy and, you guessed it, the universe. This book parallels his address structure with a chapter on each of these. And each of those chapters makes use of the particular subject to take us an a whole host of delightful side steps and deviations. So far so good. But then we hit two big problems. One is that I really don’t like the verbose, …

A farewell to Lonesome George

Sad news today of the death of Lonesome George, the only known survivor of the Pinta variant of the giant tortoise. We very much enjoyed Henry Nicolls’ book on Lonesome George, subtitled ‘the life and loves of a conservation icon’ – sadly he is now an ex-conservation icon, but the book is a great story, and is still worth taking look at to find out just why the death of a single animal in a remote location has made it onto the national news.

The Universal Machine – Ian Watson ****

I have to admit upfront that I’m a big computer geek and lap up anything about the history of computing, so this could be a slightly biassed review - but even if you don’t have a lot interest in computers per se, their influence on the modern world is so huge that this has to be a book you will at least consider. Because The Universal Machine follows the development of computers, as it says in the subtitle, ‘From the dawn of computing to digital consciousness.’ Ian Watson takes us on this journey with a charming if slightly amateurish personal style (the first line of the book is ‘Hi, you probably don’t know me, but assuming you stick with this book then we’re going to be spending quite a bit of time together.’) – don’t be put off by the introduction, the style settles down. Bearing in mind my bias, I found it absolutely fascinating, from one of the best section’s on Babbage’s work I’ve ever read, through the development of the electronic computer, into PCs and the web. On the whole, …

The Wonder of Brian Cox – Ben Falk ***

Poor old Brian Cox. Many scientists are already very snippy about his media success – they will be even less delighted to see he now has a biography on the shelves, putting him up against the likes of Einstein, Dirac and Feynman. (Or more accurately the members of One Direction.) ‘But why?’ they will moan. ‘He’s nothing special as a scientist.’ And there they will have missed the point entirely. What is special about Brian Cox, a point this book brings out superbly well, is that he is ordinary. He’s the bloke down the pub who can really explain science to you. (And it doesn’t hurt that the ladies like him.) As Zaphod Beeblebrox’s analyst says of him in Hitcher Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, ‘He’s just this guy, you know?’ I ought to say straight away – and it’s the reason it only gets three stars – that this isn’t a scientific biography. Ben Falk is straight about this. Referring to a talk by Cox and his long-time collaborator Jeff Forshaw, Falk says ‘Personally I struggle to understand…

Electrified Sheep – Alex Boese ****

It’s difficult to read this title without thinking of Philip K. Dick’s story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep which was (very loosely) translated in the movie Blade Runner. Actually it’s difficult to read the title of this book at all because of strangely wordy cover. But what’s inside is not a freak show, but rather an exploration of some of the more bizarre experiments that scientists have in all honest decided to take on. This is a field that is already covered by the igNobels (annual awards for real scientific papers that make you laugh and then make you think) and the Darwin Awards for people who do such stupid things they end up removing themselves from the gene pool. But Alex Boese treads a middle line of real scientific experiments – often major pieces of research – that sound mind boggling or just surely would never happen. But did. (Apart from nuking the Moon which ‘nearly happened’.) If it wasn’t such an overused simile I’d say it was a roller coaster of a read – a very …

Paul Zak – Four Way Interview

Paul J. Zak has PhD in economics from the University of Pennsylvania and postgraduate training in neuroscience from Harvard. He is now Professor of Economics, Psychology and Management (3 for the price of one!) at Claremont and Clinical Professor of Neurology at Loma Linda University Medical Center in California. He has recently written The Moral Molecule on his work and adventures with oxytocin. Why science? Early in my life I rejected the “thou shall” and “thou shall not” top-down view of morality, and then being conned as a teenager led to an interest in human behavior.  Could there be a scientific reason why people are good or evil?  I spent 10 years in the laboratory and doing field studies to figure this out and discovered the key role for  little-studied neurochemical called oxytocin as a key governor of moral behavior. Why this book? I have had so many inquiries about my work from the general public, from patients and their families, and from lawyers and judges that I thought it…

Mark Henderson – Four Way Interview

Mark Henderson is Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health by supporting the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. His latest book, The Geek Manifesto, contains his personal views, not those of the Wellcome Trust. Before joining the Trust in January 2012, Mark was Science Editor of The Times, where he built a reputation as one of Britain’s foremost science journalists and commentators. Why science? I came to science late. I did humanities A-levels and a history degree, and embarked on a career in journalism fully expecting to become a foreign correspondent or political reporter. But then something serendipitious happened – rather as so often happens in science – that took me off in an entirely new direction. Ben Preston, then my acting editor at The Times, asked / told me to become the science correspondent. I knew it would be interesting, but nev…

Brian Clegg – Four Way Interview

Brian Clegg is the editor of the Popular Science website and has written books on subjects including light, infinity, quantum entanglement, inflight science and time machines. His latest titles are The Universe Inside You, exploring science using the human body and Gravity on the force that shaped the universe. Why science? Science fascinated me as a child and I’ve never lost that sense of wonder. For me it’s a no-brainer of a question: I’d almost rather ask ‘why not science?’ This is a subject everyone should be fascinated by – for goodness sake, it’s how our world, our universe (and us) works – and presented right, I believe science can excite anyone. Why these books? They’re very different. The Universe Inside You is a follow up to Inflight Science. Like that book I wanted to use something familiar as a starting point to thinking about the science of the world around us. With Inflight Science that starting point was a plane flight, and with Universe Inside it’s our bodies – arguably …

The Moral Molecule – Paul J. Zak *****

You wait years for a book on empathy and two come out within days. But the contrast with Simon Baron-Cohen’s book could not be greater. The Moral Molecule is popular science as rumbustious personal story telling – it is a highly enjoyable exploration of Paul Zak’s journey from economist to neurobiologist and of his almost obsessive interest in the molecule oxytocin and its influence on trust and empathy – in effect on human goodness. Although oxytocin is the star, this is a tale of two molecules, with testosterone in the black hat to oxytocin’s white. Testosterone it seems doesn’t just counter oxytocin’s beneficial effects, it encourages us towards behaviour that could be considered evil – though to be fair to Zak things are nowhere near so black and white in reality: we need both for different reasons. But Zak makes a wonderful fist of selling the benefits of the trust and empathy that arise from an oxytocin high (even though I’m not sure I’m sold on Zak’s enthusiasm for hugs). The …

Zero Degrees of Empathy [The Science of Evil] – Simon Baron-Cohen ***

I’ve been a real fan of previous books by Simon Baron-Cohen like The Essential Difference, so opening this was one was a pleasant prospect. What I found was a book that wasn’t bad… but that could have been a lot better. I got the impression of a book that had been rushed out without a lot of work going into it. The thesis at the heart of the book – that one of the important ‘circuits’ of the brain is the one dealing with empathy, and that individuals sit on an empathy spectrum, with some residing at zero degrees of empathy – is an interesting one. Baron-Cohen introduces us to three key personality types he defines as ‘zero-negative’ including psychopaths, plus types that are ‘zero-positive’ like those with Asperger’s. In a way both of these definitions are odd, in that his zero-negatives can actually have a lot of the kind of empathy that involves being able to read another person’s emotional state, and his zero-negatives can have a lot of the kind of empathy involved in sympathising…

Nuclear Power: a very short introduction – Maxwell Irvine ***

The ‘very short introduction’ series from OUP is decidedly variable in its content. Some are really readable pocket popular science books. This one isn’t. However I would say it is an absolutely essential little book for anyone who wants to get the facts straight in a discussion of the pros and cons of nuclear power. In effect it’s a fact book on nuclear. And being a collection of facts it isn’t always incredibly readable (not helped by the industry’s delight in acronyms). The pages on different reactor types in various countries, for example, provide little more than a long, detailed list. Yet it’s all valuable  information. The way, for example, in the UK pretty well every reactor is a prototype, so we never got the benefits of scale that France did from mass production. The book is modern enough to cover the 2011 Japan tsunami disaster and its impact on the power plants, though doesn’t mention the painful knee-jerk political reaction in countries like Germany. It is clear and fact…