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Showing posts from August, 2016

Matt Wilkinson - Four Way Interview

Matt Wilkinson is a zoologist and science communicator at the University of Cambridge. His work has been covered in the Telegraph, Metro, New Scientist and Nature. In 2007 he attended drama school and wrote a play about T.H. Huxley that premiered at the 2009 Darwin Festival. Restless Creatures is his first book.


Why science?

Like most scientists and science enthusiasts, I just love finding out how the world works, and uncovering its secrets!  And I've found that the deeper you look, the more beautiful it becomes.  It's a fascination that can never run out, because answering one question invariably leads to many more.

Why this book?

I studied pterodactyl flight in my PhD years, which opened my eyes to the all-pervading influence of physics - particularly the physics of locomotion - on the evolution of life.  Once I had become familiar with the basic principles of movement, many fundamental aspects of living things and their evolution seemed to fall into place.  It was and continues…

Professor Stewart's Hoard of Mathematical Treasures - Ian Stewart ***

This book has been around rather a while - in fact it has been on my review shelf for a long time, because there are enough of these books out there (think Prof Stewart's Cabinet, Casebook, Incredible Numbers...) that I thought I'd already reviewed it. The format is familiar - a series of very short articles, which could be mathematical puzzles, logic puzzles, fun mathematical factoids and so on. The chances are that few readers will find every item interesting - for me, in this book, it was about 1 in 3 - but anyone with at least a vague interest in maths will find some of it worth a read. Personally I only like the puzzles I can pretty much work out in my head in under a minute - anything requiring any more effort is too much like being back at school and being set homework. I also find the need to keep flipping to the back of the book to see the solutions a pain - it would have been much better if the solution to each puzzle was after the puzzle, so you could read the book …

Light Years - Brian Clegg ****

** UPDATED - new edition with Browsing section of classic light papers ** Light Years tells the story of light through the remarkable people who have been captivated by it. From Neolithic man’s worship of light at Stonehenge to the Impressionists’revolutionary observations of light in painting and the shattering conclusions of Einstein and Feynman, Light Years explores each stage of this extraordinary saga of discovery. Brian Clegg weaves an entertaining history of humanity’s interaction with light, combining the gradual development of our understanding of what light is, insights into the lives of those who have tried to uncover light’s secrets, and the latest applications of light, with speculation on what light is likely to make possible in the future. Clegg asserts that light is at the very heart of our existence. Without a dancing web of photons knitting atoms together, there would be no matter, no universe. Without light-driven photosynthesis producing plant-life and oxygen there …

Eyes on the Sky - Francis Graham-Smith ***

There are broadly two types of popular science book - those that pretty well anyone would find interesting, and those where you have to be a bit of an enthusiast to enjoy it. Eyes on the Sky falls into the second category - there's nothing wrong with this, but it's just a rather different kind of book, one that concentrates on piling in the facts and not worrying too much about the narrative.

What we have here is an exploration of the uses of telescopes in astronomy, from Galileo through to some instruments that are still being built. The historical side is dealt with relatively quickly - we're on to the big telescopes of my youth by page 17 out of 230. The big era begins by inevitably highlighting what we always use to call in our ignorance the Mount Palomar telescope, but is now primly insistent in its old age on being the Hale 200 inch.

From there we go on to the bewildering array of modern telescopes, land and space based, covering every imaginable bit of the electromag…

Restless Creatures - Matt Wilkinson ****

Matt Wilkinson makes the daring step for a biologist of quoting (or, rather, misquoting as we'll see later) Rutherford's famous put-down 'all science is either physics or stamp collecting'. But this risk fits well with Wilkinson's entertaining and bravura style in attempting and largely succeeding in persuading the reader that the biggest shaping factor of many living organisms, including humans, is the ability to move, with all the benefits and costs this brings.

One of the delights for the reader are the number of surprises along the way. In some cases it's something that really should be obvious, but probably never occurred to us - such as the way the basic shape of many organisms with, for example, a mouth at the front has been shaped by the nature of movement. Or the linkage of brain and movement. Wilkinson effortlessly takes us through the differences between walking and running in humans or the various ways that flying has evolved in different species, no…

Cracking Mathematics - Colin Beveridge ****

This kind of book is puzzling, though as we shall discover, Cracking Mathematics is a particularly effective example of the genre. Generally, it's difficult to be sure what a book like this is for, a bafflement not helped in this case by the Zen subtitle 'you, this book and 4,000 years of theories'.

The kind of book I'm talking about is a heavily illustrated summary of a big scientific subject - in this case the whole of mathematics - often covering each topic in as little as a pair of pages with sufficient pictures that the text can only ever be very summary. I can see this format would appeal as a gift book, something to give someone who is difficult to buy for, but I struggle to get a feel for why you would want to sit down and read a book like this from cover to cover - yet it's not a reference book either.

Such books are often big coffee table numbers, but the books in this particular series come in a virtually pocket-sized format - smart hardbacks just 17.5x15 …

Who Cares About Particle Physics? - Pauline Gagnon ****

This could be a very short book, consisting only of the words 'I do' - but a more realistic title would be 'What has the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) ever done for us?' Pauline Gagnon takes us on a tour of the standard model of particle physics, introduces the clumsily-titled Brout-Englert-Higgs field (most of us give in and accept it is more practically called the Higgs field, while recognising the other contributors), investigates the role of particle accelerators and takes us through the success with the Higgs boson, and the less successful search for dark matter and supersymmetrical particles.

The later part of the book is a bit of hotchpotch of the author's pet topics (or at least I'm guessing this, as they don't really flow from the first six or seven chapters) on the likes of a rather meandering collection of what research does for us from cancer cures to nuclear fusion (eventually), an examination of the management model used at CERN, a discussion of …