Saturday, 27 June 2015

The Cosmic Microwave Background - Rhodri Evans ****

In the preface to this book, Rhodri Evans describes cosmology as ‘understanding the beginning, evolution and nature of the Universe’. Probably every culture in human history has made a stab at doing this. What sets modern cosmology apart, however, is that it’s based on physical observations rather than metaphysical speculations. In a nutshell, that’s what this book is about – a chronological history of observational cosmology from the renaissance to the present day.

The first chapter describes how careful observations by successive generations of astronomers gradually built up an accurate picture of the structure and scale of the solar system, followed by the extension of the cosmic distance scale to other stars in the Galaxy. The second chapter deals with the rapid progress made during the early decades of the 20th century in understanding the structure and dynamics of the Galaxy, the distances to other galaxies, and the expansion of the universe. A lot of the material in these first two chapters will be familiar to many popular science readers, but it serves as a useful reminder and scene-setting for the rest of the book.

It goes without saying that observations of stars and galaxies are relevant to cosmology. It’s less obvious that low level, high frequency radio noise is too. Yet it turns out that the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) is critical to our understanding of the universe – so critical, in fact, that it features in the book’s title. It makes its first appearance in Chapter 3, and remains at or near centre stage for the rest of the book.  Originally predicted as an observable consequence of the Big Bang hypothesis, the CMB was detected experimentally in 1965. As well as supporting the Big Bang model, it provides a unique insight in the structure of the very early universe. When the COBE satellite (the subject of Chapter 4) detected spatial fluctuations in the CMB in 1992, Stephen Hawking described it as ‘the scientific discovery of the century, if not of all time’!

The last three chapters cover all the most recent developments in observational cosmology, from space missions like WMAP and Planck to the search for gravitational waves and cosmic neutrinos. There’s ‘the most surprising astronomical finding of the century’ – the discovery in 1998 that the expansion of the universe is speeding up rather than slowing down, leading to the suggestion that as much as 75% of the universe might consist of an unknown form of ‘dark energy’. Even more controversial was the announcement in March 2014 of ‘B-mode polarization’ in the CMB – supposedly evidence for an inflationary phase that occurred when the universe was just a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old!

This is a popular science book that is eminently suitable for general readers. The emphasis is almost entirely on observations, not theory – which should come as a relief to most people, because theoretical cosmology is notoriously mathematical! Any worries that the reader is expected to have some kind of mathematical knowledge is dispelled early in the first chapter, when the author spends a page and a half carefully explaining what an ellipse is. As with any good popular science book, there is almost as much about the people who made the discoveries as about the discoveries themselves. There are even accounts of Captain Cook in Tahiti and Captain Scott in Antarctica – both of which, surprisingly enough, played a peripheral role in the history of our understanding of the universe!

The reason I want to stress that this is a popular science book is that, from a quick glance, it doesn’t look like one. The fact that it comes from an academic publisher (Springer), that it has abstracts at the start of each chapter and no index at the back, and that sections and subsections are numbered hierarchically, all make it look like a rather dry postgraduate text. But that’s not the case at all, and it would be a shame if these little quirks put off a non-specialist reader who might otherwise enjoy it. The fact is that it’s as readable and engaging an introduction to observational cosmology as you could hope to find. The book’s only fault is its price, which at £31.99 is twice what it ought to be.

Review by Andrew May

When To Rob a Bank - Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner ****

After a certain amount of disappointment caused by the previous Freaknomics inspired book, Think Like a Freak, I was prepared to find the latest equally disappointing. After all, the authors admit this is just a transcription of parts of their blog. In economics terms, as they point out, this is the equivalent of buying bottled water - paying money for something you can get for free. However they do claim to have culled the best from their blog, so you don't have to, which is a useful service.

Like the huge successful Freakonomics and its successors, the blog is all about taking the tools of economics and statistics and using them in everyday life. Only here the uses are less thought through. Where they might have done a lot of work to get a piece together for one of the main books, here it's usually just a quick thought, without in-depth research attached. However despite this - and arguably sometimes because of this - a good number of the entries are thought provoking, challenging, fun or all three. You'll find everything from a debate with a number of experts on what you should do with $10 in your pocket when passing a drunken beggar and hotdog stall to an idea to 'fix' the UK health service (apparently David Cameron wasn't impressed) and some surprising considerations on what is and isn't good for the environment. Not to mention why most people get the answer totally wrong to 'why has consumption of shrimp gone up'... and, of course, the title question of the book.

Sometimes you do feel that they are just setting out to be provocative without any great reason to be - for example in the items on terrorism. (Though they do underline the important point that most security measures are for show, not to do the job.) Elsewhere, while what they have is an interesting theoretical solution to a problem, it's usually a classic example of economists not understanding psychology. Even though they make several references to behavioural economics, this is mostly classical economics with its undying belief in markets and assumption that we behave as homo economicus. This comes through, for example, in that UK health service 'fix', which is quite logical, but doesn't take any account of the psychology of the British attitude to healthcare free at the point of source.

For me, the biggest problem is the sport section, which I pretty much had to skip. Both participants seem obsessed with sport, and specifically with America's very parochial domestic sports, which to anyone outside of the country are likely to be as dull as all the entries on poker will be to non-gamblers. It was also quite sweet that Levitt and Dubner, for all their efforts at putting logic and numbers to the fore, couldn't overcome the US obsession with guns - so in various entries trying to see how it might be possible to reduce deaths and injuries by firearms, there is no mention of what the rest of the world sees as the blindingly obvious - get rid of the guns. Duh.

Despite the extremely boring sports bit and the gun-blindness, there is plenty to enjoy, so it really wasn't a problem. And if you get to the end and think 'I need more', you can always head over to the blog and get your fill in an all-you-can-eat Freakobuffet. Excellent!


Audio CD:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Rain - Cynthia Barnett ***

This fairly chunky book, subtitled 'a natural and cultural history' takes on a subject that causes mixed emotions: rain. We all need it, however usually it's a case of 'but not now.' I think it's fair to say that Cynthia Barnett concentrates more on the cultural side than the natural history, but there is some science here in amongst the interesting stories of humanity's interaction with this very distinctive aspect of the weather.

Some sections are particularly interesting. I was fascinated by the attempts to make rain - even now, not wholly confirmed as a scientific possibility - from firing cannons into the sky to seeding clouds with dry ice and iodide crystals. There are strange rains (Fort's frogs and the like), monsoons and, of course, the whole business of clouds, intimately tied up with rain itself.

Overall, the book proved rather too US-centric for my taste, not only having a whole section dedicated to US weather, but also spending far too long reminiscing about TV weather forecasters who would hold no meaning to anyone outside North America. In the same section is the book's biggest blooper - we are told that the UK's Meteorological Office is universally known as 'the Met'. No, it's not. That would be the Metropolitan Police.

Although there are plenty of good stories, the book lacked an overall arc - and while a random jumble of information can be endearing, it is useful to have some helpful structure. Some parts contained genuinely interesting stories, but too often there were effectively extended lists which told far too much detail of rain event after rain event. Perhaps this came across worse in the chapter 'Writers on the storm' (get it?), which after a little more interesting wandering around the influence of Manchester and Washington State on Morrissey and Kurt Cobain respectively (both apparently less rainy locations than their reputation suggests), consists primarily of example after example of writers and artists using rain in their work.

The presentation overall also lacked the humour that tends to run through the best definitive cultural/natural history books, like Sjöberg's excellent The Fly Trap. Barnett has a light touch that wanders between poetic and everyday, but rarely captures the same warmth as the experts in this field.

I didn't dislike the book, but in the end, reading through chapter after chapter that was a collection of facts, rather than a piece of writing that took me somewhere, became a touch uninspiring.

MP3 CD:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 19 June 2015

Fred Pearce - Four Way Interview

Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in London.  A former news editor of the UK-based New Scientist magazine, he has been its environment consultant since 1992, reporting from 86 countries.  He also writes regularly for the Yale e360 web site in the US, and the Guardian and other newspapers in the UK, as well as irregularly for many other outlets, including the Washington Post.  His most recent book is The New Wild: Why invasive species will be nature's salvation.  Others include: The Land Grabbers, Confessions of an Eco Sinner and When the Rivers Run Dry, which was listed among the all-time Top 50 Sustainability Books by the University of Cambridge’s Programme for Sustainable Leadership.  His books have been translated into 23 languages. 

Why science?

I was a geographer way back.  I'm never sure if that is true science, but it certainly led me to environmental reporting.  I have been doing that for upwards of 30 years now, initially writing about toxic tips and such like for local government magazines, then moving to New Scientist, for whom I still work regularly as a freelance.  I write about science for environmentalists and about the environment for scientists.  I have (I hope) been kept honest and rigorous by New Scientist's editors and readers - though I must admit to shock at discovering the laxness sometimes exhibited in research into invasive species, which many scientists seem to view through blinkers as bad as those of many journalists!

I like to keep people at the centre of what I write.  I am as interested in development issues as in the environment per se.  I sometimes say I write about everything from micro-credit to the ozone layer.  I am not a tree-hugger or people-hater.  And I like to be heretical, exploring the truth or otherwise of many environment nostrums.  In particular, I have taken on the doomsday wing of environmentalism - those who believe that the 'population bomb' will doom us all (the bomb is fast being defused) or that technology is a false solution (it is probably the only solution).

Why this book?

I have written my share of scare stories about alien species.  But I have increasingly felt they are just that - scare stories sustained by some dodgy science and unthinking environmentalism. I also came to realise two other things.  First there is little pristine out there any more.  Even rainforests are mostly regrowth.  In the Anthropocene, pretending there is pristine nature to be protected is a bit silly.  Second, there is a revolution going on in ecology.  It is become clear that conventional ideas about 'climax' ecosystems that have evolved to some kind of perfected state, where each species has a defined niche, is largely nonsense.  Most ecosystems are dynamic, constantly changing and adapting - and that was the case long before humans came on the scene.  Darwin never said evolution was producing perfection, and there is no evidence it does.  That is a myth of conservation ecology.

The real genesis for the book was the thought that, if the new ecologists are right, then that completely changes how we should think about alien species.  If ecosystems are perfected then of course they can only be disruptive; but if they are constantly changing, with new species coming and going, then there is nothing intrinsically bad about aliens.  And with the discovery that aliens rarely cause extinctions and mostly add to biodiversity, I began to conclude that these colonist, go-getter species were often part of nature's adaptive response to the ecological destruction caused by humans, rather than being part of the problem.  I guess that is the take-home message.

What’s next?

I don't know.  Journalism is the day job.  So I will keep reporting on the things that interest me until something jumps out that I think is worth a year or so of detailed exploration.  My big fear is that I commit to a book and then get bored half way through.  My big hope is that if I don't get bored, then my readers won't either.

What’s exciting you at the moment?

Climate change is the big story.  It is not the only thing going on to concern us in the environment, but it is the over-arching backdrop to everything else.  Nothing is unchanged by what we are doing to the climate.  But that leads me to think more about the great Earth systems - the ocean currents and cycles of key elements like carbon and nitrogen, that sustain our planet for life.  What the climate change story shows is that we are influencing this life-support system in fundamental ways.  We are pulling at some of the basic Gaian levers of the planet's machinery.  The carbon cycle is the planet's thermostat.  It's scary.  But, became I am a journalist, I will at any moment be onto something else.  I just wrote a story about the role of crabs in mangrove swamps.  Completely new to me, and fascinating.

The New Wild - Fred Pearce *****

If you are interested in the environment, a new book by Fred Pearce is always a red letter day, and never more so than with his new title on the bizarre portrayal of invasive species and how we need a very different picture of the 'balance of nature' and the environment.

I was a little worried when I first saw the book as it seemed to be treading very similar ground to Ken Thomson's Where Do Camels Belong? and there was certainly an overlap, as both cover the way that 'alien' species that come into a country from elsewhere are treated hysterically by some conservationists and ecologists, with very little scientific backing for their arguments. But Camels concentrates primarily on the species themselves, how transfers from place to place are perfectly normal, and just how difficult it is to define what is a native or an alien species, while The New Wild is more about the politics and big picture aspects.

You know this is going to be special when Pearce opens with the fascinating story of Ascension Island's Green Mountain, which provides a powerful illustration of the odd nature of purist, anti-immigration ecological thinking. This volcanic structure was pretty much devoid of life when Darwin saw it in the 1830s, but now it is a thriving ecostructure, with a host of non-native plants, that provides an environment that has also enabled native plants and wildlife to flourish, thanks to the 'artificial' invaders. Some ecologists think it is an abomination - and yet it supports diverse wildlife, is deeply biodiverse and provides a far richer environment than the previous wasteland.

As Pearce reveals, though some ecologists are coming around to the new way of thinking, plenty of large bodies including governments, the UN and the WWF have a peculiar idea that any particular environment has a unique and singular 'balance of nature' and allowing invaders in ruins this, resulting in devastation and destruction. Yet as the book reveals time and time again, in the vast majority of cases nature is far more robust than this suggests, and not only welcomes invaders but becomes a more diverse ecological environment as a result. There seems to be an old school of environmentalism, driven by evangelical fervour rather than science, that wants everything to return to an Eden-like original perfection that is imaginary, impossible to achieve and ludicrous as a goal.

As the book unfolds, Pearce demonstrates many times the use of bad science. There's cherry picking of data - only selecting examples where a particular 'alien' species has caused damage and never looking at the far more frequent situations where they provide benefits. There's more cherry picking when, for instance, the damage cats do to birds is costed, but there is no mention of the benefit from them catching mice. What's more, the costing doesn't make much sense. Each bird kill in the US is costed at $30, but as Pearce points out, how does a cat killing a bird have this impact on the US economy? There's poor sourcing of data - scary numbers for costs and damages that when Pearce traces them back to the source were guesses, off the cuff remarks or numbers that bear no resemblance to reality. And there's even cheating. For instance, rats are one of the few invasive species it's hard to say anything good about, so they rightly have an environmental cost. But when they are said to produce a cost of $25 billion in India alone, it isn't pointed out that the main culprit is the native black rat, not an invader at all. 

In the end, Pearce points out the apparently obvious that there is no such thing as a perfect 'balance of nature' in a particular habitat. Things have always changed and always will. Apart from anything else, there is hardly any habitat in the world that hasn't already been significantly modified by humans - including both the Amazon rain forest and apparently pristine African animal reserves - both vastly different from the way they were a few hundred years ago. The hysteria about keeping invasive species out and protecting an imaginary perfect past is totally ridiculous.

If I have one criticism of the book, there are quite long sections where Pearce just throws one example after another at us. I felt a slight urge to say 'Okay, we've got the point, move on.' But I presume the author wanted to underline how prevalent (and silly) this 'preserve in aspic' approach is. I also think he could have made a little more of the difficulty of establishing what is a native species. Pearce goes along with the conventional conservationist view that the rabbit is an alien to the UK, because it was introduced from Spain about 1,000 years ago. But he misses the point Thompson makes that it was only non-native because it was wiped out by earlier climate change. It was just a re-introduction, not an invasion by an alien. Oh and a very small whinge - the hardback has a transparent plastic cover that is very pretty, but made it slightly unpleasant to hold.

Overall an excellent book that every government minister, civil servant and NGO person involved in the control of invasive species (we spend many millions on this!) should be forced to study, and then to seriously re-evaluate their policies. And the rest of us should read it too. Fascinating.
Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Nanoscience - Peter Forbes and Tom Grimsey ***

Quantum theory proves the fascination of the science of the very small, and nanotechnology offers the potential for structures and materials at the kind of scale where quantum physics comes into play behaving significantly more impressively than we expect from something as, dare I say, it dull as materials science.

Thanks to the concept of tiny replicators and robots, nanotechnology has some remarkable heights to aim at - and some deadly lows in the form of all-eating 'grey goo' as worried about by Prince Charles. But the reality is that such technology is far beyond us, and may never be possible because of the difficulties of making engineering work at this scale, where all sorts of different influences, from unexpected forces to quantum tunnelling come into play. Practical nanotechnology started with pigments and even now is mostly about small structured particles and tubules, rather than mini-machines.

Peter Forbes and Tom Grimsey provide a good basic introduction to aspects like the self-assembly of structures, graphene and medicine making use of nanostructures in a heavily illustrated book. And sometimes the topics are genuinely fascinating. I have to mention graphene again, but I also found quasi crystals a new (to me) and interesting field.

However, there is a bit of a 'But...' I really respect Peter Forbes as a science writer, and have been very impressed with his previous titles like Dazzled and Deceived. But this book really didn't work as well for me. Although it had strong illustrations, some exceedingly beautiful, the layout wasn't inspiring and the near-coffee table book format made it clumsy to read. I do wonder if Forbes' collaborator Grimsey, an artist, was the wrong person to get involved in the project, as there was far too much focus in the text on the trivial artistic side of nanoscience  and unlike Forbes' previous books there was no real narrative flow, but rather a collection of facts that failed to provide an overall vision of the science.

There's lots of good stuff here, and it's one of relatively few books on a nanotechnology, but the way the material has been put across was a bit of a let-down.
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Cakes, Custard and Category Theory - Eugenia Cheng ****

Popular maths books are the most difficult to make interesting to those beyond the hard core readers who are happy to spend their time on mathematical puzzles and diversions, and the reason this book gets four stars despite a couple of problems is that is one of the most original and insightful books on the nature of mathematics for the general reader that I've ever seen.

Rather than simply throw mathematical puzzles and diversions at us, or weird and wonderful numbers, Eugenia Cheng takes us on something close to a journey through the mathematical mind, introducing us first to abstraction, then through the processes of mathematics, the way it generalises and the essential foundations of axioms. This is all as an introduction to the second half the the book on Cheng's speciality, category theory, which will I suspect be as unfamiliar to most non-mathematicians as it was to me.

So in terms of what it sets out to do and what, to some degree, it achieves it is absolutely brilliant. Cheng writes in a light, engaging fashion and really pushes the envelope on the way that you can explore mathematics. The basics are there - the inevitable doughnut/coffee cup topology comparison (though she prefers bagels, as doughnuts are not always toroidal), for instance, but this quickly then evolves into the much more challenging concept of 'taking the complement' of something by removing it from three dimensional space with an imaginary three dimensional eraser and examining what remains through topological eyes.

I can't totally ignore the issues. The lesser one is that as a gimmick, each section begins with a recipe which is then used to illustrate a mathematical point (though also to talk about food) - I found this a touch condescending and very irritating, though some readers will probably like it. The bigger problem is that the author isn't great at structuring a book. The first chapter particularly is all over the place, and she has a tendency to use concepts before they are explained. This is particularly true of category theory, which never really gets a clear, approachable definition, but rather is feinted at to begin with, and then introduced as example after example, which without a structure explaining just what it does is quite difficult to put together as a total picture of a discipline.

So, flawed it certainly is, but that doesn't get in the way of it being an unusually interesting attempt at doing something far more significant than most popular mathematics books do. I've always felt that pure maths was uncomfortably abstract and arbitrary, coming up with rules that have no obvious justification. This is the first book of read where it's possible to get a sense of, 'Hey, that kind of makes sense' - which surely is an impressive achievement. If you can look past the gimmicky aspect and the occasionally confusing structure you are in for a treat.
Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 7 June 2015

The Composition of Foods - McCance and Widdowson ***

I find this book hypnotically wonderful. The fact that it has three stars reflects the fact it is a book that is only going to interest specialists - and the £50+ price tag underlines this. However what you've got here is a reference that well tell you how much water and fats and sugars and nutrients you'll find in anything from a kebab (really) to an aubergine. For instance, need to know how much phosphorous there is in a creme caramel*? It's 77mg. Ask me another.

Clearly this is going to make anyone who buys a copy a surefire success at dinner parties. But more to the point it is hugely valuable if you have a professional interest in nutrition. The nutritionist's bible, you might say. Sugar in a raw onion? It's 6.2 grams. And I can, of course, give it to you broken down by sugar type, if you prefer.

Aside from its value as a reference (and as a doorstop at a chunky 630 pages), it's also something of a curiosity in that both the apparent authors are dead, which I guess is why it is 'McCance and Widdowson's The Composition of Foods' rather than The Composition of Foods by McCance and Widdowson. Their demise was not recent, either. They died in 1993 and 2000 respectively - but the title recognises their contribution.

So not one for everyone's shelf. But if it's right for you - and you know who you are - it's well worth it.

* Yes, I know all creme caramels are not the same. A typical creme caramel.
Review by Brian Clegg

Professor Povey's Perplexing Problems - Thomas Povey ****

I have a recurring nightmare where I find myself in my final year physics exam at university, but with no opportunity for revision and with practically every detail I learned forgotten. Not surprisingly it is a disaster. In fact one of the greatest moments of my life was when, on starting my first job, I realised I would never have to take another exam. So in principle this book, which is supposedly fun and according to the author ought to be entertaining, should have been my worst possible read. As I started it, I was mentally cursing Simon Singh for saying it was a cut above most popular science titles. In fact, things went rather better than expected. 

The idea is to put the reader through the kind of brain-taxing maths-based problems that are given to physics candidates applying to Oxford University. And some of these are genuinely entertaining. In particular I found the sections on logic problems, perpetual motion machines and estimating highly enjoyable - the estimating section consists of what are often known as Fermi problems, though Thomas Povey seems not to have heard of that name. (There is a whole book of these called How Many Licks.)

What I found myself doing was reading the problem, having a think about what the shape of the answer might be and then flicking though the answer without reading it in detail. If I'm honest - and this is probably why I never made it as a real scientist - I didn't really care what the actual answer was. That just seemed like grunt work. But thinking around the problem was genuinely stimulating.

However, I did find a number of the topics - geometry and various areas of mechanics for instance - sufficiently dull that even getting a vague idea of the direction that should be taken was rather meh. It's a shame that there weren't more genuinely interesting topics. Now, admittedly by limiting topics to those that high school students should know there is a natural tendency to the duller subjects, but the perpetual motion section showed you could make basic mechanics and energy considerations approachable - it's just a shame there weren't more exotic interpretations like that. 

Overall, then, I surprised myself by getting more out of the book than I thought I would, and despite expectations, I don't think I will have nightmares as a result of reading it either. I even had the delight of having recently researched one of the estimates that Povey uses in his Fermi problems, and could feel a little smug as he was almost an order of magnitude out (as long as you consider Americans rather than Brits). In the spirit of the book, I'm not going to tell you which estimate it was, or why there are special circumstances that make the answer in the book closer to correct than it should be. 

However, this book certainly isn't for everyone who would read a conventional popular science book. I'd go as far as to say that it's not for most popular science readers. But if you fancy doing physics, maths or engineering at university - or wish you once had - it is an absolute must-have buy.
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who - Simon Guerrier and Marek Kukula ***

There have been a number of books on the science of the long running family science fiction TV show Doctor Who, notably the unimaginatively titled The Science of Doctor Who, and it might be imagined that The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who is more of the same. But we are firmly told that The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who isn't that kind of book in the introduction.

The biggest difficulty following this is to say just what this book is, and who it is aimed at. The format consists of alternating short stories featuring the Doctor (in all of his incarnations) and chapters that cover 'the science bit', sometimes vaguely related to the story, but often not. So, for instance, the first story features an intriguing, but frankly hard to scientifically justify, monster that is gaseous. However, the following science bit makes no attempt to explain how this could be possible. It also doesn't correct the error in the first story where the Doctor says 'Fact: the mean temperature on the surface of Venus is 735 degrees Kelvin.' Well no, it's not, because a kelvin (lower case) is the unit - there are no degrees involved. It's just 735 K.

Let's cover the stories first. As is often the case with written Doctor Who, several of them come across as essentially for children. It's easier to do a crossover TV show that will appeal to both adults and children than it is to do a crossover short story - and the science fiction in Doctor Who has always tended a little to the juvenile and monster-laden when compared with the sophistication of much written science fiction. It's not true of all the stories here, but some are a touch wince-making.

Mostly the science in the science bits is okay, but the authors - a fiction writer and an astronomer - can struggle with history of science. They wheel out that oldest of chestnuts, that 'a monk called Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake in 1600 for agreeing with Copernicus...' Groan. (No he wasn't, he was burned for common-or-garden religious heresy.) And they fall for the old 'NASA invented everything' myth, telling us that technology invented to get to the Moon gave us computers and non-stick saucepans. As both predate NASA's existence, this is a bit surprising. Oh and apparently Archimedes used lenses in his 'death ray' which would be a surprise to him, as the design involved curved mirrors.

The most worrying part of the science bit is the statement 'We now understand that we don't feel motion but changes in motion - what's called inertia.'  That's odd because changes in motion are called acceleration in my world. That apart there is a fair amount of interesting stuff, but it's pretty random - there's no clear structure. Most of the non-fiction seems aimed at the older teen/adult audience, but there are occasional bits, particularly where it gets a touch philosophical, where I felt talked down to as an adult.

The result, then, is something of a mess. We've got 15 Doctor Who short stories of mixed quality and a series of science sections which take on broad Doctor Who-ish themes like cosmology and time travel and cyborgs, while explicitly not structuring itself around the science of Doctor Who, and so becoming piecemeal and unsatisfying. Definitely a curate's egg with good and bad parts, but it would have been significantly better if it had been structured more effectively, had a clear audience, and had science that was better grounded in history.
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 1 June 2015

The Fly Trap - Fredrik Sjöberg *****

I have to beg the popular science reader's indulgence a little with this title as there's not a huge amount of science in it - but it is the most delightful book I've read so far this year. What science there is sits very firmly in Rutherford's category of 'stamp collecting', but there are still interesting insights into the drive behind natural history and the urge to catalogue. 

Fredrik Sjöberg refers to the 'stamp collecting' aspect as buttonology, a term he takes from Strindberg, one of many literary references. Generally speaking, I hate popular science books where the author has the illusion that he is writing 'literature' and churns out a choppy mess of allusions and metaphor. But that's not at all what is happening here. Unlike those authors with pretensions of artiness, here there is nothing pretentious.

Let's get the science bit in first. Sjöberg is an entomologist; specifically he spends his days collecting and classifying hoverflies. I so wish he allowed himself to tell us a bit more about the creatures themselves. There are plenty of passing references to various Latin names and habitats and more - but like most people, I suspect, I had just thought of hoverflies as those rather poor small copies of wasps that hover about in a most un-wasplike manner. I hadn't realised there were species that imitated everything from bumblebees to hornets - and some were almost indistinguishable from the real thing without an expert eye. I genuinely wanted to read more on hoverflies and their lives.

What Sjöberg does do, though, is to give a kind of defence of the stamp collecting aspect of natural history (while gently poking fun at the collecting urge), showing how it goes beyond simple ticks of the box to the link between different species and habitat, or changes in the environment. However there is much more to the book than the science, as is made clear by the opening where we meet a youthful Sjöberg in a job as a props person in a theatre, left in charge of the live sheep required for a particular play.

In his many idle hours - because apart from simply thinking while waiting around for flies, Sjöberg seems to spend a fair amount of his time doing anything other than working - rather like an author in that respect - Sjöberg has the chance to consider literary parallels to his situation, and to fill in details on his other passion, the life and work of the Swedish entomologist René Malaise. Apparently Malaise is a byword in the business for defining the definitive large, tent-like fly trap, but Sjöberg takes up nearly half of the book on Malaise's adventures in Kamchatka, his theories on Atlantis, his life in general and his art collection. The artworks (and Sjöberg's attempt to buy one) finish the book, for me rather weakly as it's the least interesting part of the story.

Seen as a whole, the book has two main recurrent themes, collecting and islands, because Sjöberg does all his collecting, year after year, on one small Swedish island, where he has by now identified 202 hoverfly species. And for me, this is where is writing is best, evoking excellent wild country memoirs like Neil Ansell's Deer Island. But throughout the book Sjöberg maintains interest in a way it's hard to imagine the thoughts of a Swedish hoverfly collector doing. I was sad when I got to the end - fairly quickly, both because I wanted to keep reading and because the book is shorter than it looks, as the text is unusually widely spaced. In part, the accolade for keeping my interest has to go to the translator Thomas Teal, but it's Sjöberg's light but penetrating observations, gentle humour and butterfly mind (see what I did there?) that keep the reader enthralled.
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Review by Brian Clegg