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Showing posts from November, 2015

How Many Moons Does the Earth Have - Brian Clegg *****

Science and fun go together like… well, like things that don’t often go together at all.  So it’s no mean feat to find that Brian Clegg has managed to combine the two so skilfully in How Many Moons Does the Earth Have.   The book is in the format of a pair of pub quizzes, but unless you’re drinking in a pub favoured by geeky academics in either Oxford or Cambridge (I would have just said Oxford, except that Brian went to the other place!) I would say that 99.99% of readers (I can say that confidently as no one can check it) will just read the book through like I did, to entertain and test themselves.    Each question is cleverly laid out, in that each is posed in the form of a puzzle, problem or brainteaser, augmented with a few related ‘while you wait’ fun facts on a single page; giving the reader the space to test themselves.  Once done, the reader then turns the page to find the answer - complete with a detailed explanation.  This makes each question an interesting standalone read in…

Gut Feelings - Gerd Gigerenzer *****

Although this book dates back to 2007 (it was shortlisted for the Royal Society Science Book Prize in 2008), the information within doesn’t seem dated. Psychologist and behavioural expert Gerd Gigerenzer has written a number of books about risk and probability in recent years, and while this book has some of that, this book is focused on the secrets of fast and effective decision making. That is not to say that it is a self-help book, but rather a description, based on neurological and psychological research, of how the brain uses heuristics in order to make decisions with limited information, though readers will find much of the information useful when thinking about decisions. Gigerenzer explains how intuition works in easy to understand terminology and also uses numerous examples throughout the book to illustrate how intuition is the basis for decision making, such as how we are able to catch a ball without conducting calculations of its speed or distance.  In short, Gigerenzer descr…

Seven Brief Lessons in Physics - Carlo Rovelli ***

This strikes me as the kind of book that would really impress an arts graduate who thought it was giving deep insights into science in an elegant fashion, but for me it was a triumph of style over substance - far too little content to do justice to the subject. It is, in effect, seven articles strung together as a mini-book that can be read comfortably in an hour, but is priced like a full-length work. Don't get me wrong, Carlo Rovelli knows his stuff when it comes to physics and gives us postcard sketches of a number of key areas, mostly in the hot fields like cosmology and quantum gravity (though interestingly focussing on the generally rather less popular loop quantum gravity). However he's not so good on his history of science, and can, as scientists often do when writing for the general public, over-simplify. The last of the articles is different from the rest - rather than take in a specific field (quantum physics, say) as the earlier articles do, it looks at how people…

Light: A Very Short Introduction - Ian Walmsley ***

It's fitting that light should be added as a topic to the OUP's growing range of mini-guides in 2015, as this is the International Year of Light (though, to be honest, the year seems to have been a nonstarter of an event). Light is a remarkable phenomenon and one that we rarely think about considering how big a part it plays in our lives.

Ian Walmsley begins by outlining the reasons why light is so important, over and above the mechanism of sight, and gives a very brief historical view of some of the ideas on the nature of light. I was not impressed by his characterisation of Roger Bacon as the 'mad friar of Oxford', but that apart, though fleeting, the historical section was a reasonable gallop through the topic.

For the rest of the content, Walmsley describes optics, light as particles, waves and as a duality in the form of a quantum field. He takes quite an unusual route in doing this and I think it would be easy for a non-technical reader to get somewhat lost alon…