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Showing posts from August, 2012

The Productions of Time (SF) - John Brunner ****

When I was in my teens and early twenties, Brunner was everywhere in the SF bookshops. He was a prolific author, and frankly some of his books were poor rushed jobs. But his best were excellent, and deserve to be remembered. His most famous title is probably Stand on Zanzibar - not one of my favourites, but interesting in its use of news clippings etc to give the book a different feel. It's an over-population book and I was never thrilled by disaster novels. For me, one of his best was The Shockwave Rider . This used Alvin Toffler's extremely popular (and very inaccurate) stab at futurology Future Shock as a model. That part in itself wasn't very interesting, but Brunner gave us images like the computer virus before such things existed and made use of the fascinating if flawed concept of the Delphi principle (the idea that a group of people with no particular knowledge in a subject will improve their response to questions about it if there immediate answers are fed bac

The Black Swan – Nassim Nicholas Taleb ***

I have a strange relationship with this book. Back in 2008 I was having a talk with my then-agent about what to write next. He said to me ‘You ought to write something like  The Black Swan ,’ proving, as we shall see, that he hadn’t read the book. I duly bought a copy, had a quick flick through it, decided it was pretentious tosh and put it to one side. So it has sat there unread for four years, until I was needing a bit of light relief from physics books and decided it was time it was reviewed. I quickly discovered this is in many ways a very readable book, though with some serious reservations I’ll mention in a moment. Nassim Nicholas Taleb really only makes one point in the entire 292 pages, but it is a very important point: that there are two types of randomness, and the sort physicists and economists deal with bears very little relationship to the kind of randomness that drives everything from the weather to sales of books and the success or failure of traders. This is a huge

Meet Your Happy Chemicals – Loretta Graziano Breuning ***

You might be forgiven for thinking from the title of this book that it was designed for children, but  Meet Your Happy Chemicals  is aimed at the adult reader wanting to find more about their mental operating system, and specifically how dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin and serotonin have an impact on the human brain and how we feel. This is very different approach from Paul Zak’s  The Moral Molecule  which concentrates on oxytocin and features a whole host of experiments demonstrating the impact of this remarkable chemical on the brain along with some fairly deep thinking on the importance of oxytocin and human behaviour. Loretta Graziano Breuning is (rather oddly) a professor of management and in some ways  Happy Chemicals  is more like a management text on dealing with these aspects of the brain. Yes, there is plenty of information on the nature of these neurochemicals and their roles, but equally there is plenty to make this feel like a ‘how to’ book. For example, there are the

Mushroom – Nicholas P. Money ****

This book has done for mushrooms what  The Buzz about Bees  did for those creatures – transformed them from the everyday to the amazing. I really hadn’t thought much about mushrooms apart from knowing that they were fungi, but the variation and complexity of these remarkable fruiting bodies – and the more complex organisms that can exist unnoticed under the ground is fascinating. Nicholas Money does not limit himself to the biology of mushrooms but takes us on a trip (occasionally literally) through the human experience of them – locating them in the wild, eating them, producing myths about them (not surprising with the magical way they can spring up overnight) and, of course getting poisoned or high as a result of consuming them. Don’t get this book expecting a guide on how to recognize edible mushrooms – it is a science book, not a guide for wild mushroom hunters – but do expect to be fascinated and beguiled. I have a couple of issues with the writing. When I write a book, my

How to Build a Habitable Planet – Charles H. Langmuir and Wally Broecker ***

I have expressed before my horror at being faced with huge, megaheavy fat books purporting to be popular science – this has to be one of the chunkiest, weighing in at 1.4 wrist-crippling kilograms and with 668 pages before you get onto the glossary and index (thankfully, no notes). To be worth being this unwieldy, a book ought to do something pretty remarkable. And that’s just what  How to Build,  an updated version of a 1980s title, does, as you can tell from its subtitle,  The Story of Earth from the Big Bang to Humankind . Now that’s what you call a large canvas. The result is a rather strange mix, starting with the cosmology of the big bang, working through the formation of elements and then planets and solar systems, then leading us through the geological life of the Earth, which collectively takes up just over half of the book, leaving plenty of room for detail of the development of life, the impact of life on the planet, natural climate change, the evolution of humans and h

Nature’s Nanotech #4 – The importance of being wet – Brian Clegg

Fourth in our  Nature’s Nanotech  series The image that almost always springs to mind when nanotechnology is mention is  Drexler’s tiny army of assemblers  and the threat of being overwhelmed by grey goo. But what many forget is that there is a fundamental problem in physics facing anyone building invisibly small robots (nanobots) – something that was spotted by the man who first came up with the concept of working on the nanoscale. That man was Richard Feynman. His name may not be as well known outside physics circles as, say, Stephen Hawking, but ask a physicist to add a third to a triumvirate of heroes with Newton and Einstein and most would immediately choose Feynman. It didn’t hurt that Richard Feynman was a bongo-playing charmer whose lectures delighted even those who couldn’t understand the science, helped by an unexpected Bronx accent – imagine Tony Curtis lecturing on quantum theory. Feynman became best known to the media for his dramatic contribution to the Challeng

UFOs Caught on Film – B J Booth ***

As a teenager I was fascinated by every weird and paranormal thing that you could watch a TV programme or read a book about. I revelled in  Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World . And though books on Borley Rectory probably made ghosts my all time favourite, they were closely followed by UFOs. What was not to love about spacecraft from another world? There’s no doubt that back then I would have loved this smallish landscape format hardback stuffed full of UFO pictures or, as the subtitle puts it, ‘amazing evidence of alien visitors to Earth.’ As an adult, though, I have serious doubts. I have no axe to grind about the existence of UFOs. I am sure they do exist in the sense of being unidentified flying objects, though I very much doubt that they are extra-terrestrial craft because of the impossibly large scale of the universe. Even if you did achieve faster than light drive, there is just so much of it, the chances of a backwater like ours being regularly visited is tiny. But I am

Robert L. Wolke – Four Way Interview

Robert L. Wolke is a professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh. From 1998 to 2007, Wolke wrote the food science column “FOOD 101″ for The Washington Post. His journalism awards include the James Beard Foundation award for best newspaper column, the IACP’s Bert Greene Award for best newspaper food writing, and the American Chemical Society’s 2005 Grady-Stack Award for interpreting chemistry to the public. He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and co-author Marlene Parrish. His latest book is  What Einstein Kept Under his Hat . Why science? All told, as a student, professor and administrator I have spent more than 40 years of my life in colleges and universities. In every institution all human scholarship, like Caesar’s Gaul, was divided into three parts: sciences, humanities and social sciences. Putting aside the perennial squabble among academics of whether economics, history, political science or sociology are true “sciences,” we are left with two categories

The Beekeeper’s Lament – Hannah Nordhaus ****

This was, without doubt a very enjoyable book to read, even though it wasn’t much of a science book. If you want to find more about bees themselves, read  The Buzz About Bees , which I think is unbeaten as an exploration of the nature of bees. Here you won’t really even get a feel for what a superorganism is, or how individual bees really aren’t animals in their own right. However what you will find a lot about is beekeepers and their complication-ridden business. I was amazed at the complexity of industrial scale beekeeping in the US – how, for example, the bee people are paid large sums by almond growers to transport their hives into the almond groves to perform the pollination, then have to move out again swiftly as there is no food at all for the bees once the blossoms have gone. This whole idea of driving thousands of hives across America is one I simply hadn’t realized existed. Similarly it was fascinating to read about all the difficulties industrial beekeepers have faced.