Skip to main content

Dice World – Brian Clegg *****

As human beings we are adept at seeing patterns. It’s how we Dice World makes plain, reality is all too often driven by randomness, without a pattern in sight. At an entertaining canter, Brian Clegg takes us through the way superstition turns correlation into causality; why economists are so bad at predicting real human responses; and how the power of statistics can reveal hidden truths that, if it weren’t for the logical walkthroughs, you just wouldn’t believe. The book starts by showing us how the world seemed an ordered place – briefly in-line with Newton’s clockwork universe – and then how the cracks began to show when it proved impossible to accurately predict the movement of just three bodies in space.
Chaos and randomness intertwine – chaos technically predictable but practically impossible to do so, while true randomness, the behaviour at the heart of quantum theory is totally unpredictable but often fits neat distributions. You’ll meet the smartest person in the world – and strange creatures like Schrödinger’s cat and Maxwell’s demon; see why a window at night is a fiendishly complex quantum device with randomness and probability at its heart; and find out what’s going on with entropy, the end of the universe and free will. Oh and discover how to get the best prediction of whether or not someone owns a golden retriever.
In equal parts fascinating and mind-boggling this is a real revelation if you have any interest in why things happen (and why they go wrong). We’re no good at probability and we hate randomness. We rarely see either of them at work – and yet they’re everywhere. Clegg has a gift for making this kind of thing approachable and informative but still fun. With this book to hand
you’ve got your best chance of understanding just what’s going on in the universe; and to have some laughs along the way. Not to mention discover how to win a sports car rather than a goat. Which can’t be bad.


Review by Peet Morris
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.


Popular posts from this blog

Rockets and Rayguns - Andrew May ****

The Cold War period saw dramatic developments in science and technology, coinciding with the flourishing of the science fiction genre. In Rockets and Rayguns, Andrew May draws on the parallels between reality and fiction, each influencing the other.

Inevitably a major Cold War theme was the threat of nuclear war, and May opens with the bomb. It's fascinating that fiction got there first - nuclear weapons were featured in science fiction when many physicists were still doubting the practicality of using nuclear energy. Of course, it's a lot easier to simply take a concept and dream up a weapon than it is to make it for real - for example, H. G. Wells' prophetic nuclear bombs from his 1914 The World Set Free were nothing like the real thing. And some science fiction devices concepts - notably ray guns and force fields - came to very little in reality. However this doesn't prevent the parallels being of interest.

May gives us a mix of the science - describing how nuclear we…

Galileo Galilei, the Tuscan Artist – Pietro Greco ****

Near the beginning of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, he refers to a ‘Tuscan artist’ viewing the Moon through an optic glass. He’s talking about Galileo – one of history’s greatest scientists, but not the most obvious person to slap an ‘artist’ label on. Yet Galileo lived at a time – the Renaissance – when it was fashionable to dabble impartially in both the arts and sciences. Look up ‘Renaissance man’ on Wikipedia and you’ll see Galileo’s picture right there underneath Leonardo da Vinci’s. It’s a less well-known side to his life, but it crops up again and again – interspersed among his many scientific achievements – in this excellent new biography by Pietro Greco.

If you’re looking for interesting trivia, you’ll find plenty in this book. Galileo’s father was a musician with scientific leanings, who carried out some of the first experiments on musical acoustics – which Galileo may have assisted with. As a young professor of mathematics, Galileo delivered a couple of lectures on …

Enjoy Our Universe - Alvaro de Rújula ***

I’m going to start this review with a longish quote from the author’s preface, for several reasons. It explains De Rújula’s purpose in writing the book, as well as the audience he’s trying to reach, while giving a taste of his idiosyncratic writing style (which he keeps up throughout the book). It’s also a good starting point for discussing the book’s strengths and weaknesses. Here’s the quote:

'This book is not intended for (very) young kids nor for physicists. It is intended for anyone – independently of the education (s)he suffered – who is interested in our basic current scientific understanding of the universe. By "universe" I mean everything observable from the largest object, the universe itself, to the smallest ones, the elementary particles that "function" as if they had no smaller parts. This is one more of many books on the subject. Why write yet another one? Because the attempts to understand our universe are indeed fun and I cannot resist the tempta…