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Showing posts from October, 2014

The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets – Simon Singh ****

Updated for paperback editionThrough the years we have had a whole slew of books dedicated to discovering the science or maths used in a fiction book, movie or TV show – think, for instance of The Physics of Star Trek or The Science of Middle Earth. And at first sight, Simon Singh’s new book (which he tells me has been brewing in his mind for a good few years) is more of the same, but in fact it takes rather a different approach. Where the other books look for the science etc. inherent in the world created in the storyline, Singh’s new title picks out the mathematics explicitly incorporated by the writers into the Simpsons (and in its companion show, Futurama, to which the final few chapters are dedicated). I confess I haven’t much time for Futurama, but despite having always enjoyed the Simpsons, I hadn’t spotted the unusually high level of mathematical content, the result of several of the writers having maths, science or computer science backgrounds. Sometimes it manifests in just …

I Think You'll Find It's a Bit More Complicated Than That - Ben Goldacre *****

I was somewhat unnerved when Ben Goldacre's latest arrived in the post. I generally love his work, but this is a positive doorstep of a book at 474 pages, so I recoiled a little - but I shouldn't have worried, because as always it's readable, entertaining and enlightening. I got through the whole thing in two days, admittedly helped by spending six hours reading it on two train journeys, which, as a result, flew by.

What we have a selection of Goldacre's writing on bad science and the like since around 2003 (though it's not particularly chronological, more ordered by topic). A lot of the entries are taken from his Guardian Bad Science column, so if you are a fan of that, some will seem familiar. However there was plenty enough for me that I had not seen before - and even revisiting old favourites brought a smile, rather than a feeling of 'not again.'

Topics include all the usual Goldacre targets: quacks and pseudo-science, badly reported experiments, journali…

Question Everything - Mick O'Hare (Ed.) ***

I am very fond of these New Scientist books that bring together question and answer sessions from the weekly magazine's Last Word column. The idea is simple - readers send in questions, other readers provide answers (which I assume are only used if they are reasonably correct (or funny)). The series has been very popular, but inevitably some books in the series stand out, and for me this wasn't one of the better ones.

It's not that there isn't good material. I enjoyed, for instance, entries on the spinning of cricket balls (and I hate sport), the long life of fruit cakes, skimming stones and the reason animals don't need toilet paper. But there were just too many questions and answers that didn't really give me anything new and exciting. Perhaps all the really mind boggling questions have already been dealt with.

The final question also illustrated the limitations of this approach. Someone asked how the UK TV audience figures are calculated. They clearly don'…

Infinitesimal - Amir Alexander ***

While some books have obscure titles, a combination of the title and the subtitle will usually make it plain what the book is about. But I can pretty much guarantee that most readers, seeing Infinitesimal - how a dangerous mathematical theory shaped the modern world would leap to an incorrect conclusion as I did. The dangerous aspect of infinitesimals was surely going to be related in some way to calculus, but I expected it to be about the great priority debate between Newton and Leibniz, where in fact the book concentrates on the precursors to their work that would make the use of infinitesimals - quantities that are vanishingly close to zero - acceptable in mathematics.

The book is in two distinct sections. The first focuses on the history of the Jesuits, from their founding to their weighing into the mathematical debate against those who wanted to use infinitesimals in maths. For the Jesuits, everything was cut and dried, and where Aristotle's view and the geometry of Euclid had…

Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? - Timothy Verstynen and Bradley Voytek ***

When I first opened this book I was a little unsure. My idea of a great horror film is the 1945 classic Dead of Night, which is not just genuinely spooky and unsettling but is surely the only horror film ever to inspire a major cosmological theory (the steady state theory). There is no gore in the movie, and as far as I'm concerned that makes it a much better film than any zombie tripe. I don't want to see blood and guts, thank you. The only zombie movie I've ever seen was Sean of the Dead, and though, like all Simon Pegg's output, it's entertaining, frankly the violent bits make me feel sick. 

I don't understand the appeal of zombies per se. So given that, the authors' idea that they can make biology more appealing by using zombies as the way of explaining the interactions between the brain and the body isn't really my cup of tea. It's not even the first biology-via-zombies book I've come across, following on from (though not acknowledging) Dr A…

Why Don't Spiders Stick to their Webs - Robert Matthews ***

Every publisher is on the look-out for a successful formula, and as New Scientist has discovered, its series based on the Last Word column, where readers' scientific queries are addressed by other readers, are big sellers. Another success in the 'quick answers to scientific questions' field is Robert Matthews' Why don't Spiders Stick to their own Webs, featuring columns originally published in the Sunday Telegraph. But the difference here is that, where Last Word answers tend to read like a lecture by a pernickety academic (or a scientifically inclined comedian), Matthews gives us his wisdom like a benificent and well-read uncle, entertaining his guests at the dinner table.

What is appealing here is the wide-ranging nature of the topics. On one page you might discover the best properties to buy on the Monopoly board, while elsewhere we are told (at least from Pascal's viewpoint) whether it is rational to believe in God. Matthews demolishes myths, like the sugges…

Roberto Trotta - Four Way Interview

Roberto Trotta is a theoretical cosmologist and senior lecturer at Imperial College London, where his research focuses on dark matter and dark energy. He is one of the world’s leading figures in the new discipline of astrostatistics – the development and application of advanced statistical tools to problems in cosmology and astrophysics. He has published more than fifty scientific papers and received numerous awards for his research and outreach work. He’s also worked with museums, writers, filmmakers and artists as a scientific consultant, helping to make their artistic creations scientifically sound. A passionate communicator of science, he has recently been awarded an STFC Public Engagement Fellowship to carry out an innovative public outreach programme, which aims at developing and delivering new interactive ways of bringing the excitement of cosmology to the general public. His first book is The Edge of the Sky. Why science? To think that we can find out a…

How to Predict the Unpredictable - William Poundstone ****

There's a certain kind of maths title that delights. It's not the kind of pure maths you'd find in an Ian Stewart book, where maths is an intricate, latticework puzzle like a net of spun sugar that need have no connection to the real world. No, this is maths as impure and dirty as it gets. It sneaks up behind us and takes us by surprise, because this is the maths at the interface with psychology - maths that often challenges our beliefs and understanding of the world. It can be both deeply satisfying and quite interesting in a QI fashion, all at the same time.

I suppose the classic of this field is Freakonomics, though I would also recommend The Tiger that Isn't and (in a modest way), my own Dice World. What William Poundstone does with great aplomb here is to unpick our dubious relationship with randomness. In the first half of the book he points out how we are particularly poor envisaging randomness, and how, as a result, if you understand how people get it wrong, it&…

The Edge of the Sky - Roberto Trotta ****

This is, without doubt, the strangest popular science book I have ever read or am ever likely to read. For reasons I don't quite understand, I really liked it. Let me start off by telling you why I shouldn't have liked it - but bear in mind that I did. What we have here is a book about cosmology, written in the strangest way.

Firstly it's the teensiest weeniest little book - just 12,000 words for your £10. But far more significantly, Roberto Trotta has decided, for reasons it surely is impossible to explain rationally, to write the book only using the 1,000 most common words in English. (In practice he only used 707.) When I first saw that I thought that this was an attempt to write a science book for those who struggle to read, so he was sticking to a limited vocabulary. But no - the approach means that Trotta has to go all around the houses to use words in ways they were never intended to be used. So, for instance, a planet is a 'crazy star', an atom (or more prec…

Professor Stewart's Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities - Ian Stewart ****

This is the second review of a trilogy, read in entirely the wrong order (book 3, then 1 here, and 2 to follow), so should you be feeling confused, this book is a predecessor to Professor Stewart's Casebook of Mathematical Mysteries. The format is very similar - a collection of factoids, logical puzzles, mathematical expositions and more to entertain any recreational maths enthusiast. I think it works significantly better in this first book of the series because, to be honest, by volume 3 there is probably a bit of barrel scraping going on. Here the topics are fresh and fun.

There is arguably something for everyone here, which inversely means that there are probably some bits, depending on your mathematical knowledge and interests, that you will either find too trivial or too heavy going. But the format makes it easy to skip through to the next. I personally most enjoy the logic problems (though a small black mark for featuring a near-identical "moving the cups" problem t…

Magnetism: a very short introduction – Stephen J. Blundell *****

When a writer friend of mine saw I was reading an introduction to magnetism, he quipped, 'What attracted you to this book?'

Joking aside, it’s a fair question. In popular science, and physics in particular, one doesn’t tend to think of magnetism as a particularly 'sexy' subject, lacking the instant appeal of, say, unification theories, quantum physics, relativity or the study of exotic astronomical objects. Blundell proves that this perception is completely misplaced.

Not only is Blundell’s book an excellent primer on magnetism, but in many ways it’s also a model on how to write popular science, because Blundell uses one branch of science to illuminate countless others. Magnetism underlies so many phenomena in the Universe that we actually get discussions of unification, quantum mechanics, relativity and pulsars - in addition to much else, besides, like the magnetite and maghemite in the beaks of homing pigeons, for example, or how Thomas Edison lost the AC/DC war.

One of…