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Showing posts from February, 2013

The Visioneers – W. Patrick McCray ***

It may sound like a job at a Walt Disney theme park (where designers are called imagineers), but ‘visioneer’ is Patrick McCray’s portmanteau word combining ‘visionary’and ‘engineer’ – not a hand-waving futurologist, but a scientist or engineer who is coming up with blue sky ideas that are, nonetheless, based on the projection of solid science and engineering. The two key figures here are physicist Gerard O’Neill, who devised space colonies, and engineer Eric Drexler who was at the forefront of the nanotechnology movement, both dating back to the heady days of the 1970s. Their ideas are put in the contrasting context of limits – an influential group, the Club of Rome had recently published dire warnings of the limited resources available to human beings, and arguably both these threads were about ways to escape the limits, either by reaching outside the Earth, or into the microcosm. The opening of the book promised a lot – it looked as if it was going to be really exciting and engaging…

The Quantum Divide – Christopher C. Gerry & Kimberley M. Bruno ***

Broadly speaking, science books are either popular science or textbooks. The popular science book is aimed at a general audience with little or no science background required and fills in the basics in a far more interesting way than science was every taught at school. The textbook does the business of educating with the theories, while not worrying too much about the historical context, with readability always coming a distant second. It assumes the reader has science and maths education to the required level. But The Quantum Divide, perhaps in keeping with the concept of quantum superposition, manages to be a bit of both at the same time. What we have here is an exploration of quantum physics and the divide between the world of quantum particles and the macro universe. It is pitched in a way that I have simply never seen before. For a very narrow band of readers this book is absolutely superb. If you have been fascinated by a book on a quantum subject, like my own The God Effect on…

The Scientific Sherlock Holmes – James O’Brien ***

I’m a fan of Sherlock Holmes in every form from the original stories to the modern day TV version Sherlock, so it was with some enthusiasm that I came to The Scientific Sherlock Holmes. What I hoped for was something along the lines of one of the better ‘the science of’ type books – but in reality this is something quite different. As the understated cover suggests, this feels like more of an academic book that a popular title. This comes through in a number of ways. James O’Brien is too interested in cataloguing every instance of something, rather than giving an interesting narrative. He also uses an infuriating approach, apparently common in academic writing about the Holmes stories, of using a four letter code to represent each story. So after a first reference to, say, The Hound of the Baskervilles, it is thereafter designated as HOUN. Similarly, A Study in Scarlet is STUD and so on. Unless you are a devotee, this makes the text rather impenetrable. Another academic tendency that …

Frankenstein’s Cat – Emily Anthes ****

In my experience, more scientists like dogs than cats (a dangerous assertion, I admit), which is why, perhaps, a cat ended up on the receiving end of the most famous thought experiment in history, Schrödinger’s Cat. Although the cat in Emily Anthes’ title obviously owes its existence to its hypothetical quantum cousin, though, this isn’t a book about thought experiments, but the real things. From fluorescent fish to cyborg animals, this is the story of what we are really doing – or planning to do – to modify nature. For me, Anthes gets the balance just right in the book (though that ‘Frankenstein’ in the title is totally misleading in this respect). There are real moral issues to be considered in what we do to animals for our own benefit, but provided we take animal welfare into account, there is really no reason why we shouldn’t modify animals for our purposes. After all, we’ve been doing it for millennia through selective breeding – this is just a matter of doing it much more quick…

R & D is War – Clifford L. Spiro ****

Industrial research and development is arguably the cinderella of science and technology, yet without it we wouldn’t have all the remarkable stuff we use  – from high tech gadgets to apparently trivial pieces of technology like a light bulb. Clifford Spiro (who, if his author photo is anything to go by, is the Bruce Willis of R&D) gives us an engaging insider’s view of the realities of industrial R&D, working on a range of product areas in his career from coal technology through light bulbs to artificial diamonds. It isn’t an easy road – time and again there’s a struggle with a difficult problem, a solution is produced… and then not used. Just occasionally, though it’s a multi-million dollar winner. Spiro gives us real, coal face experience of the power of R&D, the difficulties of getting it right and the practicalities of using the scientific method in the real world, without the academic’s ivory tower protection. When it works well, this book works really well. It featu…

Anatomies – Hugh Aldersey-Williams ***

Author Hugh Aldersey-Williams had a real success with his chemical elements book Periodic Tales, so was faced with the inevitable challenge of what to do next. He has gone for a medical tour of the body, intending to reach into the bits we don’t normally find out about to uncover the hot research topics. After a quick canter through the history of the way we view our bodies he breaks it down for a bit-by-bit exploration. If I’m honest, basic biology (especially human biology) is not a topic that thrills me, but there is no doubt that Aldersey-Williams manages to bring out some enjoyable, quirky and interesting subjects. Admittedly some of these are covered better elsewhere – so, for instance, his brief foray into what made Einstein’s brain special can’t match Possessing Genius – but the idea that they were already performing nose jobs over 100 years ago or the weirdness of synaesthesia certainly catch the attention. I like plenty of historical context – and this book has it in spades …

Near-Earth Objects – Donald K. Yeomans ****

As I write this there has just been a meteor strike in Russia leaving hundreds injured, so it is very timely to be considering, as the subtitle puts it, how we can find ‘them before they find us.’ Donald Yeomans’ book introduces us to the origins of the solar system (including a relatively recent update on the traditional model with the ‘Nice model’) and explains why there is so much debris out there that has the potential of crashing to Earth from the tiny bits of dust and pebble sized rocks that burn up harmlessly as meteors to the impressively large and scary kilometre scale asteroids and comets. While in no sense scare-mongering, Yeomans makes it clear just why we need to be on the look out for incoming material, explains what the risks are and explores the opportunities for intervening and preventing potential disaster. It’s not all doom and gloom, though, as Yeomans also gives us chapter and verse on the potential to make use of relatively accessible near Earth objects, either …

Thinking in Numbers – Daniel Tammet ****

This collection of 25 essays by Daniel Tammet, probably best known for his feat of memorising vast quantities of digits of pi, is an enjoyable light way of getting an introduction to some of the reasons that maths is more than just a mechanism for doing science or adding up your shopping bills. Some essay collections don’t work so well in book form, but these make excellent bite-sized nuggets, with Tammet ranging far and wide over a landscape that successfully pulls in poets, authors and playwrights as much as it does mathematicians. I loved, for instance, the parallels Tammet brings out between Tolstoy’s view of history and calculus. Inevitably in such a collection there will be some pieces that appeal less to an individual reader. I was less interested in the more autobiographical essays, but I am sure they would appeal to others. If I’m being picky I’d also say Tammet is occasionally a little loose factually. So, for instance, he says the odds of him being in a particular location…