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Showing posts from August, 2015

The Meaning of Science - Tim Lewens ***

It's traditional for scientists to get the hump about philosophy of science. As Tim Lewens, Professor of the Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge points out, the great Richard Feynman was highly dismissive of the topic. But most of us involved in science writing do recognise its importance, and I was very much looking forward to this book. I'll get the reason it doesn't get five stars out of the way first. 

This is because the book misses out a whole chunk of philosophy of science in favour of dedicating the second half to 'what science means for us', which primarily seems to be more a summary of some areas of soft science rather than true philosophy. We have some great material in the first half on what science is and on the work of the terrible twins Popper and Kuhn (of whom more in the moment), but I was left wanting so much more. What came after Kuhn (whose work is 50 years old)? We only get a few passing comments. There is nothing about peer rev…

How Not To Be Wrong - Jordan Ellenberg ****

In the preface to Jordan Ellenberg's chunky maths book (441 pages before the notes in the version I read) we are introduced to a hypothetical student moaning about having to work through a series of definite integrals and complaining 'When am I going to use this?' What Ellenberg sets out do is to show how we use mathematics all the time - and how important it is to understand it if we are not to get the wrong idea about the world. We'll see how well he does.

It was very interesting to read this book quite soon after Richard Nisbett's Mindware. Both cover how to interact with life better thanks to the support of mathematics. Nisbett drives from the psychology side and improving decision making, while this book drives from the maths. Perhaps surprisingly, How Not to be Wrong is the easier read of the two. Ellenberg has a delightful light touch and is often genuinely funny (it's important to read the footnotes, which Ellenberg, like Terry Pratchett, uses for a lot …

On the Move - Oliver Sacks ****

I’m rather ashamed to say that this is the first book that I have read by Oliver Sacks, despite being a regular consumer of popular science books. Sacks, now in his 80’s and suffering from terminal cancer, has written some classics of popular science, but I somehow have never gotten around to reading them. After reading On the Move, a memoir of his life and his life in science, more of his books will make their way on to my reading list.

Sacks has an engaging and fluid writing style and is a great storyteller. He is also refreshingly honest about his own conditions (for instance, Sacks suffers from prosopagnosia, known popularly as 'face blindness') and is as frank about his experimentation and subsequent drug addiction as he is about his shyness, a trait that has led him to live alone for much of his life. 

In On the Move he writes of his social awkwardness as a factor that led to his great interest in science, eventually becoming a keen amateur chemist as a child. He also refe…

Power Shift - Robert Arthur Stayton ***

Reviewing this book is frustrating because it does a really important job - but doesn't do it in a particularly effective fashion.

Let's get into that important job first. The book is about the need to move to solar energy, driven by the impact of manmade climate change. The most impressive thing about Power Shift is that it persuaded me that we should produce significantly more of our energy from solar. I've got some problems with Robert Stayton's assertion that all our energy could come from solar for a couple of reasons. Most of his information is sweeping and global, but I think really it is US-based, assumed to apply globally. It would be much harder to get all of the UK's energy from solar than the US quite simply because we don't have frequent enough sunny days. It is also a little cherry-picking, taking pessimistic views of the alternatives and optimistic on solar. While I think we could produce a good percentage of UK energy from solar given sufficient …

Mindware - Richard Nisbett *****

There's no doubt that Richard Nisbett's book, subtitled 'tools for smart thinking' is great, despite two issues. I want to get those issues out of the way first before we get onto the good stuff, with which it is packed. One issue is the writing style. This is a touch clumsy and could do with a little professional help. Nisbett has a tendency to overuse unnecessary jargon in sentences like this:
Our construal of objects and events is influenced not just by the schemas that are activated in particular contexts, but by the framing of judgments we have to make.Nor ideally worded. The second issue I suspect comes more from the publisher, which is the attempt to frame this book (sorry, couldn't resist the italics) as a self-help title as much as popular science. It doesn't work particularly well as a practical self-help toolkit - it's not structured in a way to make this a good use, particularly because a large part of the book is focused on how we get things wro…

The Wonders of Light - Marta Garcia-Matos and Lluis Torner **

I am very fond of Cambridge University Press, so it truly pains me that I can't say much that is positive about this glossy, slim book which claims to help us explore the multitude of ways that light-based technologies are shaping our society. There's a certain class of book sometimes called in the trade 'business vanity publishing', where a company or organization pays for a book to be produced about themselves. Inevitably no one ever wants to buy them, they are just given away as promotional items. And that's exactly what this book feels like.

The book consists of 16 sections (it calls them chapters, but they're too short for that), all in the same format. To pick one at random, titled 'Virus Attack - but don't panic', it starts with a page of text about a virologist using a microscope to study virus-cell interactions, in the form of supposed plot of a science fiction movie (though possibly the dullest movie ever made). There's then a page with…

Planck - Brandon R. Brown ***

Max Planck, the physicist who started the quantum revolution, is a fascinating character, poised as he was between nineteenth century science and the transformation wrought by relativity and quantum theory in the twentieth century. In this new biography of Planck, physicist Brandon Brown provides genuine insights into Planck, the man.

This isn't primarily the standard form of a scientific biography. The book does, of course, mention Planck's science, but it doesn't focus on giving us an in-depth understanding of entropy, blackbody radiation and the emergence of the quantum. What we have here is a study of Planck as a human being, family man and conflicted nationalist who found the Nazi Party, with whom he reluctantly collaborated in, for instance, the removal of Jewish scientists from German academia, uncomfortable and unsophisticated bedfellows.

What the book does well - better than any other book on Planck that I have read - is fill in the detail of his family life, both t…

Skyfaring - Mark Vanhoenacker ***

Skyfaring is, strictly speaking, not a popular science book. It is first and foremost a memoir by a current British Airways 747 pilot. However, the author does include passages that concern the engineering of aircraft, the mechanics and physics of flight, and a great deal about meteorology.

At the outset it should be noted that Mark Vanhoenacker is an excellent writer. He has a real gift of language and of description and detail. The book contains a number of stirring passages about the wonder, glory and romanticism of flying and travel. Interspersed with these passages are interesting insights about how it is to live as a pilot flying long intercontinental flights. He also provides a rare glimpse of air travel from the perspective of the cockpit. Vanhoenacker is also very adept at weaving stories from his childhood and international upbringing to give colour and flavour to how he came to be a pilot and why he loves his occupation as he does. 

Despite his obvious writing ability, there …