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Showing posts from 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, th…

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 …

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 att…

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 s…

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 specie…

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 applicati…