Thursday, 19 December 2013

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.
For the general reader, this book is a real mixed bag. There are some absolute gems – problems that you can really get your teeth into and have fun with (and then often find you took entirely the wrong path), but there are also rather too many that could only excite a mathematician. Questions like ‘Given a unit square, and two points picked at random on the square, what’s the average distance between the points?’, I’m afraid does not get me even faintly interested. It’s also the case that the computer programs, in a language called MATLAB that I suspect is only available to mathematicians, are unlikely to be valuable to most readers (they would have been more accessible if he’d used Excel’s programming language, I suspect, but even then, most readers would simply ignore them).
So I think this a book that the general reader has to be prepared to skip through parts of. But it’s well worth that effort, because the bits that are of wider interest are genuinely captivating and surprising. If you aren’t scared off by formulae and probability intrigues you, give it a go – you won’t be disappointed.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

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
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 Press
and here are our favourites that didn’t make the long list, but certainly should have:

Saturday, 2 November 2013

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 politics of the University of Chicago that is hard to get excited by. And there is also Gardner’s sense of humour, which seems to be very much of a different age. Whenever he recounts a ‘funny’ story, it’s a bit like looking at an old Punch cartoon – you can’t quite understand why it was considered humorous. This comes through strongly when Gardner spends several pages recounting the ‘hilarious’ exploits of a practical joker friend.
At one point we are told there are many examples of this practical joker at work, but Gardner is just picking out two, presumably the best. One of these involves writing to a paperclip manufacturer, complaining that the box of 100 clips only has 98 in it, and when he opened the box, it smelled funny. The punchline is that the manufacturer wrote back to say that numbers in the box varied, so it could be a couple under or over 100, and they didn’t know why it smelled funny. My, how we roared with laughter.
Attempts at humour aside, the book comes alive when Gardner talks about mathematical puzzles, magic and testing fraudulent pseudoscience – but it is a relatively small part of the content. Also of real interest is his honest explanation of why he was a deist, though no longer a Christian, and the entertainment he clearly got from winding up atheists who expected him to be one of them with his arguably irrational but very human arguments.
If, like me, you are are a Gardner fan, you will find material to interest you in here – but don’t expect it be a rip-roaring page turner of an autobiography. It is a gentle meander through a mostly unremarkable life story that produced some decidedly remarkable writing.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 27 October 2013

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 book repeatedly showing pictures with decidedly overdramatic captions (‘Glastonbury Tor: is it a portal into other dimensions’) and quite often very obvious explanations are not well explored. So, for instance, there is a section on mysterious ‘waves’ of sightings without making the obvious suggestion that people see things because they have heard other people see things. Similarly, the totally discredited concept of hypnotic regression is cited a couple of times as helping people recall abduction incidents without pointing out there is very strong evidence that the technique creates memories rather than restoring them.
One of my UFO fakes
Similarly, though there is quite a lot on the latest ways that UFO photos can be faked (there’s an app for that – really), there is very little about why and how many of the ‘classic’ photos that weren’t simply misunderstood natural phenomena or planes could easily have been faked. I did my own bit of UFO photo faking in my teens just for fun and it very obvious (though I didn’t see it mentioned in the book) that the very easy approach of throwing a metal disk tends to produce exactly the sort of odd flight angles often shown for flying saucers. I have included one of my own efforts here – it is a metal camping plate, thrown frisby style.
Most important of all, the manual lacks the feeling of that old science mantra ‘data is not the plural of anecdote.’ It gives no suggestion that extreme theories require extreme evidence, where Occam’s Razor makes the obvious assumption that UFOs aren’t extra-terrestrial without good evidence that they are. So as science it doesn’t do very well – but it is an entertaining subject, put across in an appealing and entertaining way in this well illustrated volume. Read it like the Zombie title and you are fine – but don’t take it as seriously as you would the Ford Fiesta 1995-2002 manual, because it just isn’t that sort of book.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

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 the key players. And though the story really does get interesting when, for instance, we get onto Gordon Gould’s you’d-laugh-if-you-didn’t-cry security problems that meant he wasn’t able to read his own work, much of the storytelling gets horribly bogged down and repetitive, making it hard to follow the narrative.
The final problem is limiting the book to the race to create the first laser – it would have had a wider interest if Hecht had brought in the development of the solid state lasers we all have littering our homes in CD players and the like.
All in all, there is plenty of good stuff here, and I’m not aware of anyone else who has told the story in such detail, but you have to work quite hard to get to the nuggets.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 6 October 2013

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 complete the work itself. Sadly, the enlightened Pope died before he could read Bacon’s remarkable work, and Bacon was tried as a magician and incarcerated for ten years.
Legend transformed Bacon into a sorcerer, ‘Doctor Mirabilis’, yet he taught that all magic was fraudulent, based on human ability to deceive, and we can recognise today that his books were the first flowering of the scientific knowledge that would transform our world. He advanced the understanding of optics, he demanded a new calendar that prefigured the Gregorian reform, made geographical breakthroughs later used by Columbus, predicted everything from horseless carriages to the telescope, and stressed the importance of mathematics to science, a significance that would not be recognized for 400 years. Yet his biggest contribution was to link science and experiment, to insist that a study of the natural world by observation and exact measurement was the surest foundation for truth.
Up to now all the books about Bacon have been academic texts that were frankly less than exciting and readable. This is much more a work of popular science, though it is almost inevitable that a work on Bacon will have something of an academic feel, hence the low score in stars. Even so it gives a fascinating picture of life in a medieval university, and uncovers a man whose ideas on science have been hidden to most by years of myth and ignorance.
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Review by Jo Reed
Please note, this title is written by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion – and we could hardly omit the book – but do want to make the connection clear.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

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 come in as sidelines to the more dramatic stories of others. So, for instance, it is Lincoln Beachey, showman and record breaker, we discover in the era of the Wright brothers, while Jack Woolams and John Walker take more of the X-plane story than Yeager (or Neil Armstrong, an X-15 pilot), even though we do inevitably get Yeager’s story of breaking the sound barrier.
If I’m frank there is very little science in here. The subject is all technology, and there is much less on how flight and these specific planes worked, and much more on the lives, adventures and (all too often) deaths of these remarkable individuals. But then, the stories are remarkable enough to cover them. The only slight surprise was not to have more than a throw-away one liner on the rocketbelt, given that made such a great subject in The Rocketbelt Caper. Don’t expect to learn a lot of science – but do expect a rollicking, rip-roaring tale.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 29 September 2013

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 facts we are presented with a dire situation, particularly for the next generations. However, Davies does come up with a range of possibilities for making things better, from the simplest aspects like washing our hands more effectively through to means to encourage production of the next generation of antibiotics. The trouble is, these positive bits seem to me to be primarily filled with the optimism of the scientific professional, rather than a reflection of the political reality. Specifically, I think unless we see Bill Gates and his equivalents pouring vast amounts into the research we won’t get very far until things start going horribly wrong. For instance, the use of antibiotics in animal rearing should be clamped down on at draconian levels worldwide, but politicians have fudged it again and again.
But whether or not you take solace from the practical suggestions, and the rosier picture of the future the book finishes with, there is no doubt that this is a highly important message that, for a start, every MP and GP should be reading. And wash your hands. Right now.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

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.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

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 learned a lot effortlessly – what’s great is that the science Giovanni Frazzetto discusses is in amongst engaging stories from his own life, and his expressive style of writing is very enjoyable to read.
What I also liked was the regular emphasis on the fact that, when it comes to understanding emotions and ourselves, we shouldn’t look to science as self help, and we shouldn’t expect science to be able to change how we feel. Reflection, poetry, and trial and error as we go through life dealing with emotions are much better here, the author says. Reading the book, it always felt like the author was speaking of the science in its proper place. For this, and the other reasons given above, I’d certainly recommend this title.
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Review by Matt Chorley

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 with the book was when it moves on to discuss the negative impact of modern workplaces on the brain and the need for us to drastically change economic life. The argument is that ever-increasing ‘busyness’ at work and in our daily lives, and endless productivity fads, are preventing our brains from getting the rest we need and bad for us as human beings – the book argues we need to dramatically slow down. Whilst I actually don’t disagree with much of what the author says, I just found that these sections became overly polemical, and the tone a little too depressing (the last chapter of the book is entitled ‘Work is destroying the planet’). Personally, I would have preferred more of the science, with less time spent on the political arguments.
Overall, though, this remains well worth a read as an insight into how surprisingly active our brains are whilst we rest and how important the RSN is. Regardless of any wider changes to the workplace and society, it provides a useful reminder that, individually, we should always make time for doing very little.
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Review by Matt Chorley

Sunday, 15 September 2013

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 twenties and the way we remember seeing things at that age when we are 30 to 40 years older.
The reason I’ve not gone for the whole five stars is that the book is very slow. It makes some points over and over again – it is almost as if the whole thing was a magazine article that has been extended to make a (slim) book. There simply isn’t enough in it. I also found the chapter consisting of an interview with Oliver Sacks excruciating. While Sacks is clearly a hero for Draaisma, pretty well all written interviews are boring, and this was no exception. The only thing I got out of it was seriously downgrading Sacks in my opinion because he is apparently so dependent on his psychoanalyst that he has to have sessions over the phone when not at home. That Sacks believes in this pseudo-science is worrying to say the least.
Despite the limitations, though, this is an eloquent and elegant little book with some genuinely interesting (and perhaps worrying for someone in their late 50s) observations about the way memory changes as we get older.
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Review by Brian Clegg