Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Time Reborn – Lee Smolin *****

As I write this we are a third of the way through 2013 (time is important here) and I can say with hand on heart this is the best popular science book I have read all year.
Lee Smolin’s book is largely accessible (more on this later) and simply mind-boggling in its scope. What he does here is take on time, and specifically the position of time in physics. Even taken as a simple book on time this is brilliant. The fact is, the majority of books that claim to be about time tell you nothing. It’s striking that A Brief History of Time tells us that amongst a list of deep scientific questions that have answers suggested by ‘Recent breakthroughs in physics, made possible in part by fantastic new technologies’, is ‘What is the nature of time?’ But you can search the book from end to end for any suggestion of what time is or how it works. There is plenty on how we observe time, and how interaction with matter can change these observations, but nothing deeper.
Smolin gives what is, for me, the best analysis of the nature of time from a physics viewpoint in a popular science book I have ever seen. He goes on to describe how most physicists consider that ‘time does not exist’, and comes up with an approach where time becomes real in physics. Now I do have one issue with Smolin here. He says that amongst his non-scientific friends ‘the idea that time is an illusion is a… commonplace.’ This is garbage (or at least his friends are non-representative). The vast majority of people who aren’t physicists or philosophers would say ‘Of course time exists.’ However, Smolin sets off to first persuade us it doesn’t, using the most common arguments of current physics, and then to show how this is a mistake.
In fact, I think the reason most people wouldn’t agree is because it isn’t really true that modern physics says time doesn’t exist. What it says is that the idea of time as a moving present that heads from the past into the future isn’t real, and that there are plenty of concepts in physics like natural laws that appear to be outside of time, and so time isn’t as fundamental as people think. Nor, relativity shows us, is it absolute. This isn’t the same as something not existing or being an illusion, and I think the physicists who use this label have spent too much time talking to philosophers. Dogs aren’t fundamental to the laws of physics, but this doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
Nonetheless, current mainstream physics does prefer time to be kept in a box – and this is where Smolin breaks out. He shows us that pretty well all of physics is based on the idea that we are dealing with closed systems, where in reality there is no so such thing – meaning that it is quite possible that pretty well all existing physics is just an approximation. And he comes up with a mechanism where time, something that actually ticks by and has a universal meaning, can exist (though at the expense of space being quite so real as we thought).
In doing this, Smolin will have irritated a whole lot of physicists. Some will simply not agree – any string theorists, for example, would dismiss his loop quantum gravity viewpoint. Many others will simply not be able to cope. Physicists are, on the whole, a fairly conservative bunch (with a small ‘c’) – they aren’t very good at coming with radical shifts in viewpoint like this. Of course this doesn’t make Smolin right, but it is a fascinating bit of speculation.
The book isn’t perfect. Smolin’s writing style is workmanlike, but suffers from too academic a viewpoint – he doesn’t have the common touch. Oddly, it’s not so much that he baffles us with science, but rather he baffles us with labels which don’t have enough science attached. He has a tendency to use terminology and then say effectively ‘but you don’t need to know what that’s all about.’ I think popular science is much better if you avoid the jargon and instead explain what lies beneath. Also he uses really scrappy hand-drawn illustrations that I suspect are supposed to make them look more friendly and approachable, but actually makes them practically incomprehensible.
These are minor moans though. Whether or not you agree with the physics, this is a book to get you thinking, awash with ideas and totally fascinating. It isn’t the easiest popular science book to understand – it is very much of the ‘read each sentence slowly, and some times several times’ school, yet it is a superb contribution to the field that really puts that cat among the pigeons. Three cheers for Lee Smolin who is, for me, apart from lacking that common touch, the nearest thing we have in the present day to the late, great Fred Hoyle.
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Game – Guesstimaster ****

Some while ago on our old site I reviewed a game called The Art of Science, which was a science-based quiz. Although I thought the game was great, I have had a lot of troublepersuading a large enough group to play it – those who usually resort to any question but science in Trivial Pursuit (and that’s quite a lot of people) would struggle hugely. The trouble is that unless you are playing in an academic institution, the chances are there will be a proportion of people around the table who just aren’t interested in science.
Now we have another game from the same people where numbers are at the heart of things, but I think (I hope) that it will be more of a general interest. That’s because it (thankfully) isn’t a mathematical general knowledge quiz, but instead a quiz where the aim is to guess closest at the size of a number (how many hairs on a typical human head, for instance), with points for getting in the right order of magnitude and for being closest, plus an optional equivalent of the old Monopoly Chance cards.
Apart from the name, which like The Art of Science is a bit clumsy I think this game has great potential. I love the board which is a logarithmic spiral growing from 1 to vast numbers – it even has little hints along the way to the kind things that are on that scale.
Time will tell if it will be as difficult to get people to play Guesstimaster as its predecessor… but I hope not, because it’s a great idea. It’s not cheap – £39.59 including shipping – but it is something that is different and well worth a look.
Available from the Academic Board Games web shop.
Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Fatal Flaws – Jay Ingram ****

There is no doubt that Jay Ingram knows how to make a story dramatic, and he does so with all guns blazing in Fatal Flaws, the story of the discovery of the (probable) causes ofprion-based diseases kuru, scrapie, CJD and BSE.
The first half or more of this book reads wonderfully well at a good pace, exploring the detective story behind the suspicions that these diseases were some how transmittable despite not appearing to involve bacteria or virus – in fact any sign of conventional infection. Ingram focuses on two fascinating areas: what prions are and how they could cause such terrible diseases, and the nature of scientific discovery, warts and all. He profitably spends plenty of time on the less salubrious aspects of academic rivalry and the vastly different approaches of some grandstanding scientists and other solid, behind the scenes workers.
From the offset I thought this was a great book. I have a low tolerance for medical matters, but prions and the nature of their means of attack and transmission are so fascinating that this pushed any medical squeamishness out of the way, as did the biographical detail. After all these appear to be proteins with no DNA component that somehow manage to reproduce, running contrary to what could be regarded as a dogmatic aspect of biology. In a horrible way, prions and their ability to interfere with the way other proteins fold are things of wonder.
Only one thing grated – Ingram insists on telling us over and over again what he is doing and how he is going about it. This is mildly irritating. Also the later part of the book, where he looks at the deer equivalent of BSE and goes through a whole set on chapters on brain diseases that are like prion-based diseases with no obvious prion contribution gets a little tedious and lacks all the storytelling and drive of the earlier section.
All in all, despite these minor failings it’s a gripping read on prions, kuru and BSE, and really gives food for thought on the way we go about science. Recommended.
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 4 April 2013

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.
Large Paperback:  
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.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Mariposa Road – Robert Michael Pyle ***

If there is one quotation all physicists love more than any other it is Rutherford’s magnificent put down ‘All science is either physics or stamp collecting.’ And frankly, when it comes to science, Mariposa Road sits firmly in the stamp collecting class. To be fair, Rutherford’s remark was not quite as negative as it seems – ‘stamp collecting’ in the sense of collecting and collating information as is typical of natural history is an essential part of science – but to make for something to get your teeth into it helps to have the other bits too.
The trouble, then with this book, which according to the subtitle is ‘the first butterfly big year’ (if that is as meaningless to you as it is to me, I think the idea is that it is the account of year spent trying to spot as many different butterflies as possible within the United States), is that unless you are deeply interested in butterflies (and I am afraid I only have a passing interest), the excitement palls after about the fifth species. Don’t get me wrong. There is really interesting science in butterflies – just read the excellent book Metamorphosis – but not in cataloguing butterflies someone else has seen.
You might wonder why I bothered at all. It’s because I love the right kind of personal travel narrative. Pretty well any of Bill Bryson’s travel books, for instance (all better than his popular science book, for all its sales), or even something more quirky like Stuart Maconie’s Pies and Prejudice. But sadly not the approach taken by Robert Pyle. It’s not bad, but it is simply too gentle, too much a personal journal than an entertaining narrative. I just wasn’t that interested, I’m afraid.
Not one for me then. If you love butterflies, you may find it makes all the difference… but otherwise a less than exciting read.
Large Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Creation – Adam Rutherford *****

It is not often that a book jumps out at you as being fresh, original and excellent within minutes of starting to read it – but this was definitely the case with Adam Rutherford’s Creation. It is about both the biological origins of life and how we are artificially changing the nature of life with synthetic biology.
I have read plenty of books on basic biology, but Rutherford triumphs uniquely by giving us a clear exploration of the nature of life, breaking it down to its simplest components and seeing how these could have come into being. This goes far beyond the old ‘organic soup plus lightning’ concepts and takes us across that most difficult of jumps from a collection of organic compounds to something that has a living function.
To be honest, that would be enough on its own, but Rutherford also gives us an excellent and eye-opening look at how we are modifying and constructing life, from Craig Ventner’s synthetic bacterium, through ‘programmed’ bacteria to the practical applications of modified life. This synthetic biology is much more than the basics of genetic engineering and is totally fascinating, perhaps even more so than the ‘origin of life’ part.
What’s more, Rutherford has a breezy approachable writing style that never intimidates and manages to making information entertaining – no mean feat. Just occasionally he overdoes the bonhomie, particularly in his asides in footnotes. I was particularly unhappy with one about Fred Hoyle. Rutherford was rightly pointing out what a big mistake Hoyle made with his 747 from a scrapyard analogy, but Rutherford gets his history of science all wrong by demonstrating Hoyle’s iconoclastic ‘vocally rejecting mainstream ideas’ by saying ‘He disputed the universe’s origin being the result of the Big Bang, which is the overwhelming scientific consensus view.’
The problem with this is that at the time Big Bang was a seriously flawed theory, and arguably Hoyle et al’s alternative Steady State theory was better – Big Bang was certainlynot the overwhelming consensus view. It was only later data, combined with a much hacked about and improved Big Bang theory that made it become that. To put it as Rutherford does totally misrepresents the significance of Hoyle’s theory at the time.
The other moan I have is the way the book is put together (I don’t think this applies to the US or Kindle versions). The two parts of the book, exploring the origins of life and looking at the synthetic future, are in two totally separate halves, begun at opposite ends of the book, one printed inverted to the other. This implies the two sections are independent and can be read in any order – but they aren’t. This is obvious as the introduction of the forward looking section has several references to reading the other section for detail. It should, without doubt, be read ‘origin of life’ first then ‘future of life.’ The flip book format is a silly gimmick that detracts from the outstanding quality of this book.
Without doubt one of the most important popular science books of 2013 and highly recommended.
Review by Brian Clegg