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Showing posts from September, 2014

Gulp - Mary Roach ****

I have to be honest, I wasn't particularly looking forward to this book, and put off reading it for quite a while. In part this because anything vaguely medical makes me feel queasy, while as someone who suffers from a serious chronic gastrointestinal problem, Mary Roach's subtitle 'adventures on the alimentary canal' was not encouraging. As it happens, though, the experience was not all bad.

In her usual style, Roach pulls in a lot of characters along the way, from sword swallowers to 'fartistes' (sic) including the inevitable lighting of inflammable gasses, which is where a lot of the fun in the book comes from. Her humorous writing style lacks the subtlety of a Bill Bryson - if I'm honest, I find it a trifle irritating - but a lot of people do like it, with newspaper reviews describing it as 'seriously funny' and 'laugh a minute.'

What's more you certainly will learn a lot more about a part of our bodily system that few of us (who don&#…

Professor Stewart's Casebook of Mathematical Mysteries ***

There are broadly two audiences for popular maths books - general readers and maths geeks, and a title can appeal to one, or the other, or a bit of both. I struggle with the pure geek books (I'll give you an example of the sort of thing you have to enjoy for me to define you as a maths geek in a moment), but Ian Stewart is capable of writing a book that really does appeal solidly to general reader, as evidenced by his Great Mathematical Problems.

I haven't read (yet) his two previous books in this trilogy, Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities and Hoard of Mathematical Treasures, but my suspicion is that Stewart got through most of the really appealing stuff in those, as at least two thirds of this book fell into the 'geeks only' category. This was a real shame, as the other bits were excellent. I was, admittedly, a bit wary on reading the bumf to discover that Stewart was indulging in some Sherlock Holmes pastiche to frame some of the problems. If there's one thing s…

Scarcity - Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir ****

There is no scarcity of books about the brain and psychology and emotion. In fact, the shelves are groaning with them. But here's a psychological take on what you might regard as a problem of economics - and that makes it genuinely fascinating. So it's a shame that it doesn't work better as a book - but this is one of those titles that you will want to read despite that.

The authors Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir look at the nature of scarcity and, crucially, the effect it has on human performance. You might hear the term and think it's about going hungry - and that is one example of scarcity - but they also look at what happens when money, time and even friends are in short supply. Although they aren't exact analogues, all have related impacts on us as human beings.

By referencing the best available studies (and doing a few of their own), the authors come to some important conclusions. Scarcity isn't all bad. It concentrates the mind - gives us focus. But…

Final Frontier - Brian Clegg ****

This book takes the reader on a fascinating journey through the subject of space exploration.

After a discussion of how space travel is portrayed, sometimes unrealistically, in science fiction; this book gives us an informative and interesting breakdown of the various aspects of space travel. Whether it is establishing a base on the Moon, terraforming Mars or mining asteroids for minerals, throughout the book the ideas and concepts which are discussed are explained in a clear and engaging fashion. 

As the book says on several occasions, whether nations justify any space exploration on political, scientific or commercial grounds; the underlying reason that humans will leave this planet is because of humankind's innate desire to explore and expand our frontiers. This book is a wonderful discussion of how that exciting voyage will probably unfold.

To finish, here's what the veteran science writer John Gribbin said:
An enjoyable romp across space and time, from Cyrano de Bergerac to f…

What If - Randall Munroe ****

I am deeply suspicious whenever a book is sold on the basis that its author is in some sense famous, so I was immediately wary of Randall Munroe's What If, especially as the book was plastered with references to his internet science cartoon site xkcd. The press release gets even more excited, proclaiming 'Science's most intriguing questions answered by the web's favourite writer, the genius behind XLCD.com.' Damn him with faint praise, won't you? This isn't helped by the fact that the few times I've seen Munroe's stick cartoons, usually re-spread on social media, I haven't found them at all funny. So it was almost a disappointment when I discovered that I really liked this book.

Munro gives detailed answers to weird questions asked from readers on his website. Questions like 'If every person on Earth aimed a laser pointer at the Moon at the same time, would it change colour?' and 'How much Force power can Yoda output?' There are e…

The Copernicus Complex – Caleb Scharf ***

Gravity’s Engines, Caleb Scharf’s first book was one of the best cosmology titles I’ve ever read. In the way it explored lack holes and their relationship to galaxies and the universe it was quite stunning. The only downside was a certain floweriness of style (one reviewer described it as ‘rich language’, but, no, it was floweriness) and the occasional dip into amateur philosophising. The big problem with The Copernicus Complex is that this philosophising becomes the main backbone of the book, which leaves it without an effective narrative arc.
The good news first. There are chapters where Scharf really delivers the goods. There’s a brilliant description of the latest views on the formation of the solar system, for instance. An interesting description of the different types of planets discovered around other solar systems. And even an easy-to-grasp introduction to Bayesian statistics, though this could do with a little more meat. However, the problem is that the thesis of the book is …