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Showing posts from July, 2012

What Einstein Kept Under His Hat – Robert L. Wolke ****

First things first – this book has nothing to do with Einstein, for which I ought to dock it several stars for gratuitous use of the great man’s name, but I can’t because it’s such a good book. And it’s about the chemistry of food. The format is simple. Robert Wolke gives us a series of questions about food that have a chemistry-based answer and… he answers them. Interspersed there are a fair number of recipes, vaguely relevant to the question. And that’s about it. But it’s the way he tells them. Firstly, Wolke is genuinely funny. I would advise any science writer not to use humour, because on the whole it just doesn’t work. The writer comes across as smug and/or silly. But for some reason, Wolke’s funnies (painful though some of them are) hit the spot for me. Take this from the opening: What are the first two things a server says to you as soon as you’ve been seated in a restaurant? (1) “Hello, my name is Bruce/Aimee and I’ll be your server.” (2) “May I bring you something to drink?”

Nature’s Nanotech #2 – The magic lotus leaf – Brian Clegg

The second in our Nature’s Nanotech series. Living things are built on hidden nanotechnology components, but sometimes that technology achieves remarkable things in a very visible way. A great example is the ‘lotus leaf effect.’ This is named after the sacred lotus, the Nelumbo nucifera, an Asian plant that looks a little like a water lily. The plant’s leaves often emerge into the air covered in sticky mud, but when water runs over them they are self cleaning – the mud runs off, leaving a bare leaf exposed to the sunlight. Water on a Lotus leaf – image from Wikipedia Other plants have since been discovered to have a similar lotus leaf effect, including the nasturtium, the taro and the prickly pear cactus. Seen close up, the leaves of the sacred lotus are covered in a series of tiny protrusions, like a bad case of goose bumps. A combination of the shape of these projections and a covering of wax makes the surface hydrophobic. This literally means that it fears water, but more accuratel…

Ignorance: How it drives science – Stuart Firestein *****

This is a delightful little book that really gets you thinking. I stress the ‘little’ part not as a negative, but as a good thing. There is nothing worse than fat, bloated popular science books where the author feels they have to get 120,000 words to be taken seriously. This is the sort of book that can be read in a couple of hours – but you will get so much more out of it than one of those tedious doorstops. The premise underlying the book is in once sense extremely simple, yet is fundamental to an understanding of what science is and what scientists do. And it is an understanding that is totally at odds with the typical way science is portrayed both in university lectures and popular science books. As Stuart Firestein points out, what is important is not the facts, but rather the area of ignorance. The interesting part and the fundamental heart of science is not about what we know, but about what we don’t know and where we want to look next. Take this lovely quote: ‘Working scientis…

Nature’s Nanotech – Brian Clegg

When we think of nanotechnology, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that we are dealing with the ultimate in artificial manufacturing, the diametric opposite of something that’s natural. Yet in practice, nature is built on nanotechnology. From the day-to-day workings of the components of every single biological cell to the subtle optics of a peacock feather, what we see is nanotechnology at work. Not only are the very building blocks of nature nanoscale, but natural nanotechnology is a magnificent inspiration for ways to make use of the microscopic to change our lives and environment for the better. By studying how very small things work in the natural world we can invent remarkable new products – and this feature is the first in a series that will explore just how much we can learn and gain from nature’s nanotech. As I described in The Nanotechnology Myth the term ‘nanotechnology’ originates from the prefix nano- which is simply a billionth. Nanotechnology makes use of objects on th…

The Star Book – Peter Grego ****

This attractive landscape format book combines an excellent introduction to the stars and basic astronomy with a set of star maps, plus in depth looks at some of the stars featured, with a  bonus section on the solar system. Amazon says it’s a hardback, but in fact it’s a paperback with a rather ingenious cover – you can’t tell from the photo, but the words ‘The Star Book’ are punched through as a series of holes that show the white paper of the next page beneath. Like many astronomy/space books, the cover lacks shelf appeal because it is mostly black, but at least there is some original thought here. Unlike many books in this format which tend to concentrate on the pictures, there is a good deal of excellent text by Peter Grego, so there was no feeling that you were only getting the star maps and star ‘biographies’, something these days much more suited to an iPad or smartphone app. Instead, the opening 30 or so pages give a very good introduction that would be valuable to any begin…

Radioactivity – Marjorie C. Malley ****

Don’t judge a book by its cover, my old gran used to say (and some of the covers of the books she read certainly proved she believed what she said), but in practice it is difficult advice to follow. Covers have a huge impact on our approach to a book – and combined with an old-fashioned feeling title this one screamed ‘dull textbooky kind of thing at me.’ Luckily, though, I resisted the urge to lose it at the bottom of the review pile, because Radiationhas a lot going for it. Marjorie Malley divides her book into three main sections. The first, biggest, and best gives us the history of the discovery of radioactivity and the development of the theory of what was going on. The second, which is quite interesting, looks at the applications of radioactivity. And the third, which isn’t very interesting at all, seems to be a sort of ‘put radioactivity into context’ that did very little for me. But that doesn’t matter, because that first section is so good. It’s not that the material itself w…

The Violinist’s Thumb – Sam Kean ****

I was a great fan of Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon, so it was excellent to see a followup in The Violinist’s Thumb. The violinist in question was Paganini who had a genetic disorder that enabled him to bend his thumb back far beyond the usual limit. And this is an indirect hint about the subject of the book – DNA and our genetic code. This is, without doubt, a very good book. A quote from New Scientist on the front compares Sam Kean’s writing to that of Bill Bryson – I think this delusional, and possibly a little unfair on Kean. I’d say he is, as a pure writer, better than Bryson, but lacks Bryson’s superb comic touch. Kean attempts humour, but it certainly isn’t up to Bryson – the comparison just doesn’t make sense. The good news is that once again Kean has brought an aspect of science alive with a ton of excellent anecdotes about the individuals involved, in this case in everything from studying the fruit flies that form the fingerprint on the cover of the book to cracking our g…

Who Invented the Computer? – Ian Watson

Ian Watson is the author of The Universal Machine and featured in a recent Four Way Interview. Saturday June 23 2012 was the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing, the troubled genius who invented the modern computer. Why though do so few people recognize his name and his great achievements? In 1936 English mathematician Alan Turing, published a paper, On Computable Numbers, with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem. This became the foundation of computing. In it Turing presented a theoretical machine that could solve any problem that could be described by instructions encoded on a paper tape. A Turing Machine could calculate square roots, whilst another might solve Sudoku puzzles. Turing demonstrated you could construct a single Universal Machine that could simulate any Turing Machine. One machine solving any problem for which a program could be written – sound familiar? He’d invented the computer. Then, computers were people who did calculations. As the Allies prepared for WWI…

Congratulations to our editor on Inflight Science

Congratulations to our editor for his book Inflight Science making it to the heady heights on Kindle to rank alongside assorted Shades of Grey:
Paperback:  On Kindle: 

Nature’s Nanotech #3 – Hanging with the Gecko – Brian Clegg

The third in our Nature’s Nanotech series. If you’ve ever seen gecko walking up a wall, it’s an uncanny experience. Okay, it’s not a 40 kilo golden retriever, but we are still talking about an animal weighing around 70 grams that can suspend itself from a smooth wall as if it were a fly. For a gecko, even a surface like glass presents no problems. This is nature’s Spiderman. It might be reasonable to assume that the gecko’s gravity defying feats were down to sucker cups on its feet, a bit like a lizard version of a squid, but the reality is much more interesting. Take a look at a gecko’s toes and you’ll see a series of horizontal pads called setae. Seen close up they look like collections of hairs, but in fact they are the confusingly named ‘processes’ – very thin extensions of the tissue of toe which branch out into vast numbers of nanometer scale bristles. These tiny projections add up to a huge surface area that is in contact with the wall or other surface the gecko decides to encou…