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Showing posts from March, 2013

An Introduction to the Physics of Sport – Vassilios McInnes Spathopoulos ***

This short title may have been self published, but it has been well edited and comes across as a professional piece of writing. The only issue I have with it is whether or not it manages to cross the divide from textbook to popular science. The topic is an interesting one – looking a how physics comes into play (see what I did there – ‘into play’) in sport. Personally I have zero interest in sport itself – I would rather watch paint dry than be a spectator at a sporting event or watch it on TV – yet there still is some interesting stuff to be had here. It is, as some sporting commentator once nearly said, a book of three halves. It opens very strongly, with some excellent material on the way people accelerate, comparing a runner with a car or a plane (people do better for a very short while). Similarly, as I had no idea about the Magnus force that enables a spinning ball to curve (although I had used it often enough in table tennis, and inevitably heard of it a la ‘Bend it like Beckha…

Henri Poincaré – Jeremy Gray ***

My first sight of this book filled me with a certain unease. It would be polite to call it chunky – in truth, at 542 pages plus appendices, it is obese. This initial feeling was not helped by a bizarre statement the author makes in the introduction. ‘This is a scientific biography of Henri Poincaré,’ he says. ‘It is confined entirely to his public life: his contributions to mathematics, to many branches of physics, technology, to philosophy and to public life. It presents him as a public figure in his intellectual and social world; it leaves the private man alone apart from a deliberately brief account of his childhood and education.’ No, no, no! This is a bizarre distortion of what a scientific biography should be. I am comfortable with keeping coverage of his childhood and education brief, as they are usually dull and not particularly illuminating. There are clear counter-examples, for example, with Newton’s formative years, which are absolutely crucial in understanding the scientis…

Unraveling the Universe’s Mysteries – Louis A. Del Monte **

As I have mentioned before, we are distinctly fussy about taking on self-published books, but made an exception in this case. ‘Unraveling’ combines an exploration of the currently accepted cosmology with some speculative alternative physics ideas and even a quick discussion of the existence of God. Although I was prepared to set aside an aversion to self-publication, it does show through quite strongly in this book, and I ought in all fairness to mention the bad side of this first. Like almost all self-published books, the print layout on the page looks wrong – more like a Word document than a book. This isn’t insuperable, but mildly irritating. What’s worse is that it is very clear that the book hasn’t been professionally edited (or if it has, the author should get his money back). There are far too many errors. So, for instance, when talking about string theory, at one point it is sting theory, and at another spring theory. Professor Ronald Mallett, who is discussed at some length,…

The Great Mathematical Problems – Ian Stewart *****

As a science writer, whose only foray into maths has been to cover infinity– by far the sexiest and most intriguing mathematical topic – I am in awe of those who successfully popularize maths.

By comparison, science is easy. We all know from school that science can be dull, but if you go about it the right way, it is naturally fascinating, because it’s about how the universe we live in works. Admittedly maths has plenty of applications, but an awful lot of mathematics is about a universe we don’t live in. It can seem that many mathematicians spend their time doing the equivalent of arguing about the dietary habits of unicorns. Not really a proper job for a grown human being. Probably the best of the current crop of popular maths writers is Ian Stewart. Certainly the most prolific – I don’t know how he finds the time for his day job. Stewart is decidedly variable in his books. Some of them are pure unicorn territory. I find myself turning page after page thinking ‘So what? I don’t care…

I want to write popular science – Brian Clegg

Last week I received a rather strange phone call. ‘Is that the popular science website?’ a female Scottish voice asked. I don’t get phone calls for www.popularscience.co.uk so Don’t assume it’ll be like this I rather hesitantly said ‘Yes.’ ‘Do I need a degree to write popular science books?’ came the reply. The conversation went on this vein for about 5 minutes. Inevitably afterwards I thought of a key question I should have asked her – ‘Why do you want to write popular science books?’ But I didn’t. My caller was a member of her local astronomical society, but had no qualifications. So what is the answer? Is enthusiasm enough? My reply had to be rather vague. It was a definite maybe. If you are going to write a book about heavy duty physics, I suspect a degree is the minimum qualification to have a reasonable chance of getting the message right. If, however, you are going to write a book about the joys of stargazing, then it certainly isn’t a prerequisite. But that doesn’t mean that …

The Universe Within – Neil Shubin ***

Having written a book called The Universe Inside You, which uses your body as a way of exploring wider science, I was rather intrigued to come across a book called The Universe Within, which ‘reveals the deep connections between the cosmos and the human body.’ As it happens, any worries about plagiarism were unfounded as this is a very different type of book. Neil Shubin doesn’t really say anything about our bodies, merely observes that the atoms that make them up came from outside and then spends the rest of the book considering the more recent source of those atoms, the Earth (and hence geology/palaeontology) and its impact on different living forms, and in the longer term origins when the atoms were forged in stars. Along the way, the book lurches from topic to topic – sometimes in what feels a very random fashion, though sometimes making a neat excursion to find out more that is very enjoyable. It’s an episodic book, with some sections far less appealing than others. The bits I r…

Neils Bohr and the Quantum Atom – Helge Kragh ***

This is a bit of specialist one. If you don’t have a physics degree, don’t bother to read any further. Neils Bohr and the Quantum Atom is not intended to be popular science (if you want a more approachable book, try Abraham Pais’s Niels Bohr’s Times), but I was very interested to read it as it’s a subject that is close to my heart. Bohr himself tends to be underrated – he tended to come across rather badly when public speaking, and some of his quasi-philosophical pronouncements on the nature of quantum physics were painfully obscure. But we must not forget the huge contribution he made to kick-starting quantum theory, starting with his key development of the quantum model of the atom. Although the book does plunge into equations on a number of occasions it is primarily a historical narrative of the development of Bohr’s model of the atom, including a fair amount of biography, from his early thoughts at Manchester in 1912 to its full fruition and subsequent transformation by the new qu…

Neils Bohr’s Times – Abraham Pais ****

Fully, if clumsily titled Neils Bohr’s Times, in physics, philosophy, and polity, this is the definitive scientific biography of Bohr by fellow physicist Abraham Pais who knew and worked with him. The good news is that this chunky title will give you an in-depth look at Bohr and his work. From his early days in Copenhagen, through his brief but fruitful stay in the UK, his return to Denmark, the rush to safety in the Second World War and his gradual move to elder statesman of quantum physics, it’s all here. As is often the case with a biography written by another scientist, the science content is quite heavy and sometimes not the easiest to digest, but it is worth battling through, and the picture of Bohr himself that comes out of this book is second-to-none. Niels Bohr sometimes gets a rough time of it, in part because his own communication was often rather opaque, but Pais will really open your eyes to Bohr’s importance. The book dates back to 1991 but is none the worse for that. I…