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Showing posts from June, 2013

Extra Sensory – Brian Clegg ***

As a subject, extra sensory perception, ESP, psi or whatever you want to call it hovers on the frivolous edges of science. And yet there certainly is something for science to investigate, whether it is an actual physical phenomena or the oddities of the human mind that make it susceptible to believing in such possibilities. The editor of this site, Brian Clegg, has decided to take the scalpel of science to areas of the paranormal where an attempt has been made to make a controlled and scientific assessment, limiting himself to those areas that could have a scientific explanation, as opposed to those that rely on the supernatural. So we are talking about the likes of telepathy, telekinesis, clairvoyance and remote viewing. I had always got the impression that the first to take a really scientific approach was Rhine in the 1930s – in reality it seems that athough these early investigators employed the trappings of science, a lot of the tools, particularly the controls and the maths

The Spark of Life – Frances Ashcroft ****

I think most of us are aware that the human body uses both chemical and electrical signalling to control its inner functions, but until I read this book I had certainly never realised that extent to which a rather strange electrical process (strange because it involves the flow not of electrons as in ‘normal’ electricity, but of ions) is handled by ion channels. After a preface that is a little confusing as she uses terms that aren’t really explained until later, biologist Frances Ashcroft, who spends her days working with ion channels, gives us a brief introduction to electricity. This physics part is by far the weakest bit of the book. For example she doesn’t differentiate between a flow of electrons and the electromagnetic signal in a wire – and some of the history is a little out of date (she says, for instance, that Franklin did the ‘kite in a thunderstorm’ experiment, which is thought unlikely now). But this is only an introductory phase before we get into the meat of the bo

Symmetry and the Beautiful Universe – Leon Lederman & Christopher Hill ****

Although it won’t appeal to everyone, as I will explain in a moment, I think it’s fair to say this is one of most valuable popular science books I have ever read. Symmetry is at the heart of much modern physics, but it is generally concealed under the surface, and when it has to emerge, for example when talking about the standard model of particle physics, every book I have ever read on the subject fails to explain the subject properly. This book doesn’t  quite  make it, but it is by far the closest I have ever seen to a comprehensible explanation. Nobel laureate Leon Lederman (the man behind the dreaded ‘God particle’ term) and his usual co-author Christopher Hill pack a huge amount of information into this slim paperback. We begin with an exploration of symmetry itself, bring in the laws of physics, meet Emmy Noether in some detail and specifically her concept that each of the conservation laws corresponds to an underlying symmetry. From there Lederman and Hill bring in classical

New Stars for Old (SF) – Marc Read ***

I have said many times that there must be a way to combine fiction and popular science – to get a message across and provide a great story to enjoy as well. But it is a horriblydifficult thing to do, as the many failures fallen by the wayside have shown. In  New Stars for Old , Marc Read takes the most original approach to this I have ever seen, and it holds out real promise to deliver on the dream. In his introduction, Read points out that science is done by people, and as such we can’t really separate the achievements of science from the lives and times of the people making the discoveries. This is true, though his suggestion that the people are usually ignored applies more to textbooks than popular science – many popular science books spend a fair amount of time on the scientists and their lives. Read takes this one stage further, though, by giving us a series of fictional vignettes of the lives of people who have carried astronomy a step forward. Their scientific achievements co

The Cosmic Tourist – Brian May, Patrick Moore, Chris Lintott ***

If I am honest, this book combines two of my least favourite approaches to writing a popular science book – celebrity authors and list books that have (in this case) 100 short entries around a particular theme. But in part because of the rather clever format (and also because, as scientific celebrity authors go, the late Sir Patrick Moore had a lot going for him), this particular example bucks the trend and works rather well. The conceit is simple – our three voyagers, a rock musician (who admittedly has a doctorate in astrophysics, though this doesn’t necessarily make him a good science writer), a TV astronomer and an academic voyage through the universe, visiting the 100 must-see sights. Just over half the topics are in the solar system, with the rest given over to the usual stunning Hubble images and the like. In reality, the ‘tourist’ model wears a little thin sometimes, and it does just become a collection of 100 interesting astronomical articles – so, for instance, the las

Einstein on the Road – Josef Eisinger ***

There is a huge industry of books that have Einstein as their subject, more so than any other scientist. And not just biographies. There is even a book that consists entirely of quotes from the Sainted Albert. So it is no entirely surprising that someone has found a new way to slice and dice the Einstein legend – by retelling the great man’s travel diaries. In a relatively slim 165 pages (once one has extracted the notes and index), Josef Eisinger takes us with Einstein on his visits abroad from the exotic far East to the less bewitching Pasadena. And it is faintly interesting. Einstein, for instance, really struggled with Japanese music, because for him harmony was so important in the construction of music. And pined for his violin when he didn’t get a chance to play it (but not for the fjords). There is a lot more of the social niceties here than any scientific insights. It is distinctly surprising just how much Einstein was feted as a superstar as he travelled the world. And ho

The Paranormal Equation – James Stein ***

I  really wish I had my hands on a copy of mathematician’s James Stein’s book  Paranormal Equation  when I wrote my own  Extra Sensory , as there is some fascinating material here taking a whole new slant on the supernatural that I have never seen before. It wouldn’t be too much to say that Stein has developed a whole new theoretical approach for dealing with supernatural phenomena (with a proviso), based on his mathematical background – and that is quite a feat. Having said it would be useful, the two books are actually addressing almost unconnected areas of thought – ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ as Stephen Jay Gould might have put it. I deal with aspects of the paranormal that could have a natural explanation – I don’t cover the supernatural at all – where Stein is focussed on events that don’t have a possible natural explanation. After giving us a fair amount of information as to how most paranormal events can’t happen, Stein provides a loophole with a fascinating conjecture th

Stuff Matters – Mark Miodownik ****

In my head there is a spectrum of interestingness for science that runs from geology to the really weird bits of physics. I have never yet found a popular science writer, however good, who can make geology truly interesting, while something like quantum physics is so fascinating (and strange) that it takes little effort to make it fascinating (though it’s hard to make it comprehensible). Materials science – what I call ‘how stuff works’ when talking to junior school children generally sits near to geology on that spectrum. But Mark Miodownik has managed the near-impossible and made it a deeply enjoyable read. I thought things were going to be a bit dire when he starts with the story of how he was attacked as a teen with a razor blade on the London Underground and developed a fascination with the nature of metal, an opinion that wasn’t helped by the rather self-indulgent approach of basing the book around a photograph of the author sitting on his roof terrace. But very soon the su

Denying Science – John Grant ****

This is a cracking book, a really excellent exposé of the extent to which science is under threat from multiple directions. John Grant dissects the anti-science efforts of religious extremists, big companies, legislators and more in a whole range of fields from evolution to climate change. The book comes in a long tradition of attempts to support rational thinking in a sea of hogwash. I think, for instance, of Michael Shermer’s  Why People Believe Weird Things  and Carl Sagan’s classic  The Demon Haunted World . But Grant’s book benefits from being up-to-date and particularly politically aware, emphasising those that actively deny science, rather than concentrating solely on the scientific nonsense of many silly beliefs. The book takes in complementary medicine, the anti-vaccine brigade (including AIDS/HIV deniers), self help books (yes, really), and has lots on evolution and climate change. Although it can sometimes be a little heavy going in the sheer volume of examples that G