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Showing posts from July, 2017

The Telescopic Tourist's Guide to the Moon - Andrew May ***

Once the potential reader gets over the concern of folding up like a telescopic umbrella, and realises that this book is about doing a tourist trail on the Moon using a telescope, this is a fine title, which deserves more than three stars if you are in the relatively small target market who will make use of a telescope - the three star rating treats it as a general popular science title - as an amateur astronomer's guide it gets five stars.

It's hard to imagine an aspect of science that is so relatively easy to get immersed in when you are young, whether it's simply naked eye stargazing or using basic binoculars, but if you are to take things a little more seriously you need a telescope, and, as Andrew May points out, once you've got one the Moon is the star attraction (pun intended). Of course it's nice to be able to make out more of Jupiter than a dot - but you can explore so much detail on the Moon. When I was about 12, my dad bought a 6 inch reflector, and by fa…

Significant Figures - Ian Stewart ****

Ian Stewart's books can be excellent, but sometimes he forgets that much maths that excites mathematicians produces from the mere mortal a response of 'So what?' When he's on form, though, he's very good - and in this book he definitely hits the spot.

Inevitably with a book like this, giving short summaries of the lives and works of leading mathematicians, it's easy to question the gaps. Where are John Wallis and assorted Bernoullis, for example? And there is one entry, frankly that seems bizarre. I can see no reason whatsoever for Ada King to be here (though I appreciate his use of her surname, rather than using her title). Whatever Stewart's thinking, there is absolutely nothing in this entry to suggest that King was in any sense a 'trailblazing mathematician' (as the subtitle puts it).

However, I really enjoyed the range of mathematicians covered, with a good mix of familiar figures (Archimedes and Newton, for example) to those I'm ashamed to s…

Rebecca Nesbit - Four Way Interview

Rebecca Nesbit studied butterfly migration for her PhD, then worked for a start-up company training honeybees to detect explosives. She now works in science communication and her projects have ranged from a citizen science flying ant survey to visiting universities around the world with Nobel Laureates. Her first novel was published in 2014, and her first popular science book Is that Fish in your Tomato? was published in July 2017.

Why science?

Because truth can be counterintuitive. If we agreed 'facts' simply based on what feels right, we would often be mistaken, so we need evidence to help us out. Take weed control. Intuitively, you would think that ploughing is an environmentally friendly way to control weeds because it is 'natural', yet it releases greenhouse gasses from the soil. The gap between what we feel and what science tells us is even wider when it comes to being human. I feel as if I have rational control over everything I do, but this is an alluring story m…

Forgotten Science - S. D. Tucker ***

The reader needs a strong stomach to cope with the introduction to this collection of weird, wonderful and often obscure scientific endeavours. S. D. Tucker spends a fair amount of the 37 pages (that's a long introduction) on animal (and human) experiments involving vivesection. But once we're past this, although we hit on the occasional stomach churner, there are more palatable if misguided attempts at science to enjoy that were mangled, muddled or simply mad. 

Tucker has a conversational style, which is sometimes dry, but at others could do with a little reining in. So, for instance, when describing the unfortunate treatment Tim Hunt when he made an unwise joke about women in the lab, we are told that Hunt was 'chased out by a gaggle of self-righteous harridans, puritanical Twitter mobs and other such ranks of the professionally offended', which probably is not an ideal description. 

Things don't get a lot better when Tucker gets on to climate change. Although he d…

Basic Instincts - Pete Lunn ****

I don't know why it took so long to review this book - it has been on my shelf for a few years and now it's out of print. But I'm still reviewing it, because it should still be on the shelves. It's just possible that in that time it has become a little out of date... but I have a horrible suspicion that it hasn't. Pete Lunn (himself an economist) absolutely tears the guts out of traditional economics.

Although much of the central argument is also made in the excellent Economyths, there was more here I've never seen before.  What Lunn shows is so disastrous is the way that economics clings onto the bizarre idea that people always act in a way that is selfish, rational and based on perfect information. And what's particularly fascinating about this book is the way that Lunn shows that economics, which calls itself a science, behaves rather like the ancient Greeks often did - depending on a clash of theories, without ever doing any experiments to test those the…

Space Oddities – S. D. Tucker ****

Of all scientific subjects, space is the one that seems to hold the most fascination for non-scientific minds. Think of astrology and the cosy Earth-centred cosmologies of pre-scientific times, or ufology and those tediously regular predictions of cosmic apocalypse today. For the more scientifically minded, such ideas can have an equal and opposite fascination, simply by virtue of their sheer nuttiness. That’s the rationale behind this excellent new book by S. D. Tucker.

One of my all-time favourite books is Patrick Moore’s Can You Speak Venusian?, written in the 1970s. To a first approximation, Tucker’s book can be thought of as a modern-day reworking of that (something Tucker himself acknowledges). In all respects, however, the new book is heavier than its predecessor – it’s more than twice the length, written in a less frivolous style, and much more thoroughly researched and referenced. While there’s overlap in the material – for example flat Earth theories and flying saucer cults –…

Andrew May - Four Way Interview

Andrew May obtained his PhD in astrophysics from the University of Manchester in 1982. After a 30-year career spanning academia, the civil service and private industry he now works as a freelance writer and science consultant. He has written on subjects as diverse as the physical sciences, military technology, British history and the paranormal. His recent books include pocket-sized biographies of Newton and Einstein and an eye-opening study of the relationship between pseudoscience and science fiction. He lives in Somerset and his latest title is Destination Mars.

Why science?

I hate getting into arguments. If you write about art or literature or history or politics, then it's all a matter of opinion and some people are going to disagree strongly with anything you say. You're never going to see eye to eye with them, so you wind up in endless, fruitless arguments. Of course you can have disagreements about science, too - you can make mistakes, or readers might get the wrong end …

Is That Fish in Your Tomato? - Rebecca Nesbit *****

Like almost anything that gets the attention of the green movement, the genetic modification of food is a subject on which it's very difficult to find good, balanced coverage - so Rebecca Nesbit's book is a breath of fresh air. From the title you might think it takes the 'horror stories of GM' approach, but the concept of fish DNA in tomatoes is only mentioned in passing as an example of how misleading information is used - this is a far more nuanced and well-written book.

Throughout, Nesbit gives us the science, the potential benefits and the potential threats. She describes from practical experience the protest side (she was anti-GM as a student), but also interviews plenty of scientists involved in GM foods and now has a much more balanced view. She takes us through the early days of GM foods, when it all turned nasty, what's involved in the various processes labelled as GM and much more. In crops there are whole chapters on insect resistance and herbicide tolera…

Is the Universe a Hologram? - Adolfo Plasencia ***

This is a very strange book - it reads like a cross between a collection of totally unrelated science essays and Waiting for Godot. Each essay is in the form of an interview with a scientist (the term is stretched a bit to include architects and human resources experts) and the Beckett-like nature is occasionally emphasised by interviewees who don't have English as a first language who scatter the unedited interviews (complete with painfully polite introductions) with interest terms such as 'teletransportation.' Even the book's subtitle 'Scientists answer the most provocative questions' has a touch of the Google Translate about it.

In his introduction, interviewer Adolfo Plasencia explains the use of dialogue in teaching. He tells us that when Lewis Carroll has Alice think 'what is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?' Carroll was criticising the teaching of his day which 'ignored the example of great teachers such as Plato and Rousse…

Destination Mars - Andrew May ****

There's something special about Mars. It's partly the way that it introduced interplanetary travel and SF aliens to so many through fiction such as War of the Worlds, but also it looks so distinctive to the naked eye - and it presents us with our best hope of a new Star Trek-like frontier in our home solar system.

Andrew May makes effective use of the novel/film The Martian to pull us into the story of Mars and expeditions to it. Weir's book is both engaging fiction and superbly researched, making an excellent teaser for what is to come. Throughout Destination Mars, May ensures that we get a balance between the astronomy, the practicalities of such a distant voyage - particularly if people are to be involved - and the stories. So, for example, there are plenty of references to both science fiction and some of the more dramatic occurrences in the many ill-fated attempts to get probes to Mars.

Although the book does cover the planet in an astronomical sense and the many unmann…

Thinking Like a Phage - Merry Youle ***

This is a remarkable book about a remarkable subject, although it's not going to be for everyone. Merry Youle gives us chapter and verse on phages, the remarkably diverse range of viruses that specialise in making use of bacteria (and archaea) as their hosts. These incredibly prolific viruses range from the classic 'moon lander' structures to strange blobs and filaments. Some simply reproduce in a bacterium then destroy it, while others can keep their host alive indefinitely. But they are all worthy of our interest.

Youle picks out around 20 variants who will star throughout the book. They are what she refers to as the 'pheatured phages', reflecting a slightly cringe-making tendency to go for fake 'ph' spellings on a regular basis. And should you read the book end to end you will find out a huge amount about them. You will also delight in the illustrations, which range from watercolour-enhanced diagrams to detailed sketches of complex virion structures to el…

Angela Saini - Four Way Interview

Angela Saini presents science programmes on BBC Radio 4 and the World Service, and her writing has appeared all over the world, including New Scientist, the Guardian, Science, Wired and the Economist. Angela has a Masters in Engineering from Oxford University and has won a string of awards, including the ABSW Best News Story and the  AAAS Gold Prize for radio. Her most recent book is Inferior: how science got women wrong, and the new research that's rewriting the story.

Why science?

I didn't think it would be necessary to write a book about how science can get things wrong but, surprisingly, it is. Social scientists have understood for ages that we need to be careful when we think about data and evidence to place it in context. It's strange that the public still so commonly believe that we should take published scientific papers as 'the truth' simply because scientists wrote them. 

Why this book?

I only wanted to understand myself better. We get so much conflicting inf…

A Mind at Play - Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman ****

If you are familiar with the history of computing, there are a few names that you'll know well enough biographically to turn them into real people. Babbage and Lovelace, Turing and von Neumann, Gates and Jobs. But there's one of the greats who may conjure up nothing more than a name - Claude Shannon. If Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman get this right, we're going to get to know him a lot better - and get a grip on his information theory, which sounds simple in principle, but can be difficult to get your head around.

If you haven't heard of Claude Shannon, you ought to have. He was responsible for two key parts of the theoretical foundations that lie beneath the computing and internet technology most of use everyday. Arguably, without Shannon's theory, for example, it would be impossible to slump down in front of Netflix and watch a video on demand.

I suspect one reason that Shannon's work is less familiar than it should be is that it lies buried deep in the ICT archite…