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Will You Be Alive 10 Years from Now? – Paul J. Nahin ***

There are few mathematical subjects that are better at tantalising and intriguing than problems involving probability. In part because our natural grasp of probability is so weak, the outcomes of probability questions have an unrivalled ability to take us by surprise, to the extent that some simply deny that the outcome can possibly be right. I remember when the Monty Hall problem was first publicised a number of us were so unhappy with the right answer that we wrote computer simulations to see if the counter-intuitive solution was correct. (It was.) This is doubly apt when looking at Paul Nahin’s book as it features regular examples of computer code to check out results, and it covers a number of other problems that were publicised by Marilyn vos Savant in Parademagazine, the same source that made Monty Hall famous in the first place. Here though, sadly, Ms vos Savant is on the losing side, as Nahin points out a number of errors in her columns that have covered probability problems. …

Royal Society Winton Prize 2013

The winner of the 2013 Royal Society Winton Prize, arguably a summary of the best popular science books published in 2012 (and now worth £25,000 for the winner) has been announced: Winner The Particle at the End of the Universe by Sean Carroll (Oneworld Publications)Shortlist Bird Sense by Tim Birkhead (Bloomsbury)Cells to Civilizations: The Principles of Change that Shape Life by Enrico Coen (Princeton University Press)Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory by Charles Fernyhough (Profile Books)The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson (Granta)Ocean of Life by Callum Roberts (Allen Lane)Rest of the Longlist The Spark of Life by Frances Ashcroft (Allen Lane)The Story of Earth by Robert Hazen (Viking)Life’s Ratchet by Peter Hoffmann (Basic Books)Air: The Restless Shaper of the World by William Bryant Logan (WW Norton)The Cosmic Tourist by Sir Patrick Moore, Brian May and Chris Lintott (Carlton Books)The Life of a Leaf by Steven Vogel (The University of Chicago Pressand here…

Undiluted Hocus-Pocus – Martin Gardner ***

I was delighted to see Martin Gardner’s autobiography, as he was a great science writer. I loved his mathematical columns (mostly encountered through collections like Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions) and his annotated versions of books by Lewis Carroll – and he wrote well on the matter of pseudoscience. I ought to say straight away that the book was a bit of a disappointment. In part this is simply because Gardner had a very ordinary sort of life. I don’t say that disparagingly – it’s just like most of us. When you read a book about someone like Richard Feynman you have both the opportunity to read about his amazing work, and his remarkable life. Gardner’s work is its own tribute, while the life of a science writer is not all that exciting, certainly in this case. The other problem I had is that a lot of what’s in the book doesn’t particularly resonate. There are long sections about subtle debates in obscure (and now mostly forgotten) versions of 20th century philosophy, plus the …

UFO Investigations Manual – Nigel Watson ***

Buying a Haynes manual is a rite of passage for young car enthusiasts in the UK. These detailed illustrated guides tell you how to service a particular make and model of car. But of late there has been something of tendency to spread the field into entertainment, with manuals on the likes of the USS Enterprise and the Death Star, and more bizarre how-to subjects, including the Zombie Survival Manual.
So, almost inevitably, we get the UFO Investigations Manual. In a sense it is a bit of misnomer. Although there are a couple of pages of appendix on how to make a UFO report, this primarily isn’t a how-to guide at all, but rather an illustrated assessment of UFO history and attempts to explain them. I ought to say straight away that this less wide-eyed and trusting than UFOs Caught on Film, which merely shows photographs and comments on them with little attempt to rule out alternative causes. There is a section here on non-extra terrestrial causes, for instance. But it doesn’t stop the bo…

Beam – Jeff Hecht ***

Beam‘s subtitle is ‘the race to make the laser’ and this was a story that was crying out for a good popular scientific history. Not only is there really interesting physics behind the laser, there was a genuine tense race, strong personalities, bizarre problems with security clearances and more to make for a gripping story. I’ve come rather late to Beam (first published in 2005) because, frankly, the book doesn’t seem to have been very visible – and I’m afraid I can understand why. Although there are all the elements of a great story there, Jeff Hecht is probably not the right person to tell it. On the physics side, while there is a lot of detail of the precise excitation processes required for masers and lasers, there isn’t really enough background on quantum physics to give it context. As for the story itself, the book suffers from kitchen-sink-itis. Hecht seems to feel it necessary to mention ever single tiny contribution to the research, whether or not it had a direct impact on th…

Roger Bacon: The First Scientist – Brian Clegg ***

* UPDATED * for Kindle edition – note original hardback has different cover and was called The First Scientist Roger Bacon takes us back to thirteenth-century Europe, to the early years of the great universities, where learning was spiced with the danger of mob violence and a terrifyingly repressive religious censorship. Roger Bacon, a humble and devout English friar (not to be confused with the Elizabethan/Jacobean politician and philosopher Francis Bacon), seems an unlikely figure to challenge the orthodoxy of his day – yet this unworldly man risked his life to establish the basis for true scientific knowledge. Born around 1220, Bacon was passionately interested in the natural world and how things worked. Banned from writing on such dangerous topics by his Order, it was only when a new Pope proved sympathetic that he began compiling his encyclopaedia of knowledge, on everything from optics to alchemy – the synopsis took him a year and ran to 800,000 words, but he was never to compl…

The Rocket Man – David Darling ****

The full title of this book is ‘The Rocket Man and other extraordinary characters from the history of flight,’ and David Darling has got that right, sure enough. These are amazing individuals from the earliest days of flight, through the amazing barnstorming aerial performers, via the risk-taking test pilots of the first supersonic jets to the people who jump off buildings wearing wing suits. Two things seems to unite these people – an urge to live on the edge that puts them at very high risk of death, and remarkable stories that are both uplifting and horrifying in equal parts. I really don’t know whether to class these people as very brave or very stupid. Certainly they have to be people who aren’t too worried about their long-term survival, given the number of stories that end with the main character dead. David Darling has cleverly avoided wheeling out all the old familiar names. It’s not that the likes of the Wright brothers and Chuck Yeager, for instance, aren’t there, but they …

The Drugs Don’t Work – Sally C. Davies ****

This is a Penguin Special, a deliberately slim book that gets across a single point with devastating effect. Sally Davies (I really can’t call her ‘Professor Dame’ like the cover does - it makes her sound like a character from a pantomime) ought to know what she’s talking about when it comes to antibiotics, as she is the Chief Medical Officer for England. We start with a stark little story of life in the 2040s when all the antibiotics have failed and even what appears to be a harmless throat infection could result in isolation and death. Davies then takes us swiftly through the history of antibiotics and the various nasties we have to face up against. In case it’s not obvious by now, the theme is that our over-use of antibiotics is resulting in growing resistance building up in more and more diseases. At the same time, there really isn’t a lot of work going into the next generation of drugs, as it isn’t a hugely profitable thing for pharma companies to do. Left with only the current f…

The ultimate physics music video

We aren’t in the habit of putting quirky music videos on this site, but this description of string theory and quantum gravity to the strains of Bohemian Rhapsody is so well done – it must have taken weeks – and so brilliant – we felt it was worth including. It’s entirely possible that string theory won’t survive the attempts to develop a theory of quantum gravity, but even if it doesn’t, it will be worth its existence for this video alone.

How we feel – Giovanni Frazzetto ****

The format in this book is that we look at one emotion (anger, anxiety, love and others) per chapter, and for each one author Giovanni Frazzetto relates a (sometimes quite personal) story from his own life where he experienced the emotion. He then goes on to tell us how much me know about what’s going on inside our brains when we experience each emotion, and why each emotion has evolved. The limits to our understanding of emotions are nurmerous. Sometimes the problem is that any study of emotions carried out in a lab will inevitably lack realism; sometimes our understanding of a particular emotion is based only on aggregate data collected from a large number of brain scans, never the same as any one individual’s experience; sometimes we’re unable to determine how much genetics accounts for the existence and expression of emotions, as against social factors or an individual’s personal history. I enjoyed the book a great deal, mostly due to the fact that I finished feeling that I had l…

Autopilot – Andrew Smart ***

This handy little book explains the importance of regularly taking time to do nothing in particular, to put work and study to one side, switch off, and allow our brains to function on autopilot. By doing this, author Andrew Smart explains, we’ll be smarter, more creative, and improve our mental health. Before reading this book, I wasn’t aware just how crucial this downtime was for our brains. What we learn is that brain activity actually increases during periods of rest, and whereas in the past it was widely believed that brain activity during rest was just random ‘noise’, modern neuroscience has shown us just how purposeful it is. When we switch off, the brain’s ‘Resting State Network’ (RSN) comes into action, and our brains begin the process of organising information and making connections between disparate pieces of knowledge. RSN activity improves our memory, and the connections it creates make us more creative. Whilst the science is interesting and explained well, my only problem…

The Nostalgia Factory – Douwe Draaisma ****

I love this job… going from reviewing the less-than-subtle Poo What Is that Smell to what must be one of the most subtle popular science books I’ve ever read. The Nostalgia Factory takes on the nature of memory, particularly the memory of those who are in their 60s and older – a subject that will affect most of us, one way or another. Part way through I was going to award this book five stars, and part of the reason for this is the beautifully written translation by Liz Waters. It really was a delight to read. Douwe Draaisma takes us smoothly into the way memories change with time, how memories from youth start to surface more and become more important, and the fragile connection between memory and reality. Two parts particularly stick out to my mind (as far as my ageing memory goes) – a powerful assessment of brain training and the whole ‘use it or lose it’ thing, and some fascinating observations on the differences between the way that we see the world in our late teens/early twent…