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Showing posts from September, 2012

The Science Magpie – Simon Flynn ****

I have a list of popular science book ideas that I occasionally revisit – things I quite fancy writing in the future. Now I have to cross one of them off the list, because Simon Flynn has written it for me. My list describes it as a popular science version of Schott’s Miscellany, but Flynn has called it by the (to me, rather clumsy) title The Science Magpie. At least, that’s what I assume it is, because I have to confess, I’ve never read Schott’s Miscellany, so I don’t know what it contains – I merely assume it’s this kind of kaleidoscopic mix of all manner of facts, from the quite interesting to the downright weird. It’s the sort of book you can imagine Stephen Fry curling up with of an evening before hosting QI. Inevitably in such an inspired hotch-potch there will always be some entries that inspire more than most. I loved, for instance, real molecules with silly names, the 1858 Cambridge University exam questions and the curly snail periodic table. Other parts are more ‘Hmm’ mome…

The Signal and the Noise – Nate Silver ****

It was really interesting coming to this book soon after reading The Black Swan, as in some ways they cover similar ground – but take a very different approach. I ought to say straight away that this book is too long at a wrist-busting 534 pages, but on the whole it is much better than its rival. Where Black Swan is written in a highly self-indulgent fashion, telling us far too much about the author and really only containing one significant piece of information, Signal and Noise has much more content. (Strangely, the biggest omission is properly covering Taleb’s black swan concept.) What we’re dealing with is a book about forecasting, randomness, probability and chance. You will find plenty about all the interesting stuff – weather forecasting, the stock market, climate change, political forecasts and more, and with the exception of one chapter which I will come back to in a moment it is very readable and well-written (though inevitably takes a long time to get through). It has one …

What Next for the Higgs Boson? – Jim Baggott

by the author of Higgs On 4 July 2012, scientists at CERN announced the discovery of a new elementary particle that they judged to be consistent with the long-sought Higgs boson. The next step is therefore reasonably obvious. Physicists involved in the ATLAS and CMS detector collaborations at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) facility will be keen to push ahead and fully characterize the new particle. They will want to know if this is indeed the Higgs boson, the one ingredient missing from the so-called standard model of particle physics. How will they tell? Physicists at Fermilab’s Tevatron collider and CERN’s LHC have been searching for the Higgs boson by looking for the tell-tale products of its different predicted decay pathways. The current standard model is used to predict both the rates of production of the Higgs boson in high-energy particle collisions and the rates of its various decay modes. After subtracting the ‘background’ that arises from all the other ways in which the…

Air – William Bryant Logan ***

This is a rather poetic book, something of a rarity in popular science and not necessarily one that fits well with the genre. The author, who has a botanical background, tries to give the reader a portrait of the air as it influences mostly living things on the planet. I’m afraid that for me it just didn’t work. I found the attempt to be arty in descriptions simply plodding and hard work. I just wasn’t getting anywhere quickly enough: I found myself making excuses for why I wasn’t coming back to the book every time I put it down. I can see it will work for some people, but it didn’t for me. Apart from anything else, the title is a bit misleading. The book is called ‘AIR – the restless shaper of the world’ – but very little of it is actually about the air, it’s much more about how living things on the Earth make use of the air. Even when you get a section labelled ‘Shining’ with chapters like ‘Why the daytime sky is light’ (which spends most of its time explaining why it’s not about w…

Higgs – Jim Baggott *****

Whenever someone famous dies or there’s a major royal event you will see a book arrive in the shops with undue haste. It’s hard to imagine it wasn’t thrown together with minimum effort – and with equally minimal quality. So when I saw that Jim Baggott had produced a book on the Higgs boson all of five weeks after the likely detection was announced following several years work by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, it seemed likely that this too was a botched rush job. But the reality is very different. In one sense it has to be a rushed job – the announcement was made on 4 July 2012 and the book was out by mid-August, featuring said announcement. So that bit of the book could hardly have had much time for careful editing, bearing in mind publishers usually take at least a couple of months from final versions of the text to having a physical book. (Much of the rest of the book was written well in advance.) But the remarkable trick that Baggott and OUP have pulled off is that the rush do…

Nature’s Nanotech #7 – Behold the Peacock – Brian Clegg

The final entry in our Nature’s Nanotech series There is something stunning about the colours of a peacock feather. It’s not just a simple matter of the sort of coloured pigments an artist mixes up on a palette. The colours in the feathers almost glow in their iridescence, changing subtly with angle to catch the eye. To produce this effect, the feather contains a natural nanotechnology that has the potential to transform optics when this remarkable approach is adapted for use in human technology.
Both the iridescence of that peacock’s tail and the swirly, glittering appearance of the semi-precious stone opal are caused by forms of photonic lattices. These are physical structures at the nano level that act on light in a way that is reminiscent of electronics, like the semiconductors that act to switch and control electrons, giving unparalleled manipulation of photons. The colours of the peacock feather bear no resemblance to those of a pigment. In blue paint, for example, the pigment is…

Nature’s Nanotech #6 – Silk Elevators – Brian Clegg

Sixth in our Nature’s Nanotech series
Anyone who talks to young children about science knows that there are two things that really grab their attention – dinosaurs and space. While I’m not aware of any antediluvian nanotechnology, there is certainly an absolutely stunning potential space application that has some natural inspirations. (I’m aware, by the way, that the word ‘antedeluvian’ is both anachronistic and unscientific… but it’s a lovely word that we really shouldn’t lose from the language.) Nature has some amazing, extremely fine fibres. Take, for example, that everyday wonder, a spider’s web. The spider silk that makes up the web is a spun fibre constructed from proteins. Though light, these filaments are extremely resistant to fracture – tougher than steel. Spider silk is typically 3,000 nanometers across, but its toughness is down to its structure at the nano level. A team at MIT discovered that the unusual strength is down to a substructure of ‘beta sheet crystals’, which ho…

Jim Baggott – Four Way Interview

Jim Baggott is a freelance science writer. He trained as a scientist, completing a doctorate in physical chemistry at Oxford in the early 80s, before embarking on post-doctoral research studies at Oxford and at Stanford University in California. He gave up a tenured lectureship at the University of Reading after five years in order to gain experience in the commercial world. He worked for Shell International Petroleum for 11 years before leaving to establish his own business consultancy and training practice. He writes about science, science history and philosophy in what spare time he can find. His books include Beyond Measure: Modern Physics, Philosophy and the Meaning of Quantum Theory (2003), A Beginners Guide to Reality (2005), Atomic: The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb (2009), The Quantum Story: A History in 40 Moments (2011) and, most recently,Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ (2012). Why science?
I guess I’ve always had an inn…

Homo Mysterious – David R. Barash ***

There is an interesting premise (and a dubious assumption) underlying this book. The premise is that some of the most interesting bits of science are the bits where we don’t actually know the answers – in this case, in the ‘evolutionary puzzles of human nature’ to quote the subtitle. The dubious bit is the author’s assumption that this is a new idea. David Barash comments ‘One of these days I will design a course titled something like “What we don’t know about biology,” hoping that my colleagues in chemistry, physics, geology, mathematics, psychology, and the like will join in the fun.’ It may be true that biologists often present their science as if it were all known facts, but I think physicists, for example, have always emphasized the gaps in out knowledge in their courses. If you think of cosmology, for example, with about 95% of the mass-energy of the universe unexplained, or the uncertainty over the standard model or quantum gravity, I think that it’s clear that in at least some…

Nature’s Nanotech #5 – Catching a Cure – Brian Clegg

Fifth in our Nature’s Nanotech series
Isaac Asimov was a great science fiction writer, but even the best has his off days, and Asimov’s low point was probably his involvement with the dire science fiction movie Fantastic Voyage. Asimov wasn’t responsible for the story, but provided the novelization – and he probably regretted it. The premise of the film was that miniaturization technology has made it possible shrink a submarine and its crew down to around 1,000 nanometres, sending it into a man’s bloodstream to find and destroy a blood clot on his brain. Along the way the crew have various silly encounters with the body’s systems – but strip away the Hollywood shlock and underneath is an idea that has been developed in a lot more detail by IT pioneer and life extension enthusiast Ray Kurzweil. Based on the idea of miniature robotic devices – nanobots – Kurzweil believes that in the future we will not have a single manned Proteus submarine as featured in Fantastic Voyage in our bloodst…