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Showing posts from June, 2014

The Compatibility Gene – Daniel M. Davis *****

Some of the best popular science books tell us as much about the people as the science, and that is the approach taken byDaniel Davis. In exploring the ‘compatibility gene’ (or more accurately, the ‘compatibility genes’ – I don’t know why it’s singular in the title). He takes us on a voyage of discovery through the key steps to identifying the small group of genes that seem to contribute to making that individual more or less compatible with other people, whether on the level of transplants or sexual compatibility, taking in our growing understanding of the immune system along the way.
It probably helps that Davis is a practising scientist in the field – the director of research at the University of Manchester’s Collaborative Centre for Inflammation Research and a visiting professor at Imperial College, London. Often, frankly, discovering the book is by a working scientist can mean turgid text or an inability to explain the science in a way the general reader can understand, but Davis…

At the Edge of Uncertainty – Michael Brooks ****

One of my favourite popular science books is Marcus Chown’s The Universe Next Door, where he explores scientific theories just the other side of the dividing line between sanityand madness. Here Michael Brooks, who started his ‘amazing things in science’ run with the excellent 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense, now gives us ’11 discoveries taking science by surprise’ – science that can still shock us, but is just on the sane side of the dividing line. The topics range from consciousness and chimeras to hyper computers (which go beyond the limits of Turing’s Universal Computer) and time. Where the chapters work, they work very well. I thought the chapter on the big bang and inflation, where Brooks pulls apart the fragile, held-together-by-duct-tape nature of the current theory with surgical precision was brilliant, starting from a little pen portrait of Alan Guth and then showing both how the current picture is strung together and also how various discoveries have chipped away at the so…

Einstein and the Quantum – A. Douglas Stone *****

This is without doubt a five star, standout book, though there are a couple of provisos that mean it won’t work for everyone. If you ask someone who has read a bit of popular science about the founders of quantum theory they will mention names like Planck, Bohr, Schrödinger and Heisenberg – but as Douglas Stone points out, the most significant name in laying the foundations of quantum physics was its arch-critic, Albert Einstein. You may be aware that Einstein took Planck’s original speculation about quantised energy and turned it into a description of the action of real particles in his 1905 paper photoelectric effect that won him his Nobel Prize – but what is shocking to learn is just how much further Einstein went, producing a whole string of papers that made the development of quantum theory almost inevitable. It was Einstein, for instance, who came up the earliest form of wave/particle duality. I have never read anything that gave detail on this fascinating period of the developm…

The significance of stars - Feature

Personally, I think stars are underrated. Not the ones in the sky – if it weren’t for one of them, the Sun, the Earth wouldn’t exist (and even if there was an Earth, there would be no life on it because it would be far too cold). For that matter, if it weren’t for stars in general there would be no atoms other than hydrogen, helium and a touch of lithium – making the whole concept of a planet (or a person) inconceivable. So the stars of the cosmos are seriously rated. Nor am I talking about the stars of stage and screen. Because, let’s face it, most of them are seriously overrated. I refer instead to stars in reviews. A good while ago I wrote to the journal Nature, complaining about some of the book reviews they carried. I pointed out that the (long) reviews said nothing about whether the book was any good – they merely gave the reviewer a chance to do his or her potted version of the theme of the book. They said what the book was about, but not if it was any good or whether you shou…

Out in the dice world - Brian Clegg - Feature

I’m delighted that my book Dice World has made it to the long list for the 2014 Royal Society Prize for Science Books. Like all those on the long list, I’m now juggling probabilities of getting further in my head, so I thought it would be interesting to share a little part of Dice World on the matter of casinos and probability – specifically the iconic game of roulette. There was a time when casinos were, frankly, another world for the vast majority of us. I remember walking past one on the way to school in Manchester and it seemed a totally alien concept – something I had only seen in Bond films. But now you can’t watch a digital TV channel without being bombarded with advertising for online casinos. The availability of internet gambling has changed the casino from an exclusive building most of us would never enter, to a game that’s on everyone’s phone. And of course, there is likely to be roulette in there. So what’s it all about? A roulette wheel is a rather crude random number ge…

How to be a good publicist - Brian Clegg - Feature

Here at popularscience.co.uk we get offered a lot of books for review, and often we turn them down. This should have been a review of one we said ‘Yes’ to – a book called Unification of Electromagnetism and Gravity by Selwyn Wright. Unfortunately, the book does not fit our criteria.
There are three key essentials we insist on, and this went wrong on every count. So here’s the quick guide to how to be a good publicist from our viewpoint. 1) We don’t usually review self-published books, particularly ones with new theories, unless they are by someone with appropriate qualifications. Don’t bend the truth. Clearly for a book on this topic we need a well-qualified physicist, and the press release describes Dr Wright as a ‘physicist’ and a ‘retired Stanford and NASA physicist.’ (Elsewhere I have seen him described as a ‘former professor of physics at Huddersfield University’.) But as far as I can see – I’m happy to be proved wrong – Dr Wright’s doctorate was in engineering, and his work has l…

Celestial Revolutionary – John Freely **

I was really looking forward to reading John Freely’s scientific biography of Copernicus as the man who put the sun where it belongs is someone who tends to only receive a couple of pages of aside before we get onto the meaty stuff. I knew the basics, but I wanted to know about Copernicus the man, and to discover more about his work that the concept of a heliocentric universe. Sadly, the opening chapters were a huge let-down. They consist of brain-numbingly dull history. I was reminded powerfully of the bit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, where everyone has got soaked by the pool of Alice’s tears, and the mouse says ‘I’ll soon make you dry enough,’ and goes on ‘This is the driest thing I know,’ followed by a tranche of exceedingly dull history, all names and places with no real content. Compare, for example, this from Celestial Revolutionary: The Second Peace of Thorn in 1466 had removed Warmia from the control of the Teutonic Knights and placed it under the sovereignty of the P…