Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Gravity's Kiss - Harry Collins *****

Though I was totally fascinated by this book, it isn't the one to read to find out everything you need to know about gravitational waves. Although Harry Collins does, in passing, mention aspects of the science and technology involved, his focus is to forensically examine the process by which a large group of scientists goes from a breakthrough discovery to releasing it the world.

Collins is a sociologist of science who has spent over 40 years working with the gravitational wave community, giving him the unique ability and insight to combine a reasonable understanding of their work and the opportunity to analyse what went on during the months from the initial observation of a possible signal to the press conference announcing the first direct discovery of gravitational waves. (Even those words 'first' and 'direct' get several pages of treatment as the community argues over whether or not they are justified.)

I have to be honest, this book won't work for everyone. Because I'm not a scientist but a science writer and interested in the process of scientific discovery and communication, it will appeal to me more than someone who's only interested in the science itself, but I found it wholly absorbing. Collins, practically the only outsider in the electronic network used by the gravitational wave consortium to discuss their work, takes us through the process almost in real time, as they react to and decide how to present their findings. One of the most absorbing aspects is Collins' real concern at the way the scientists lie to the wider community in order to protect their secret for the big reveal. While clearly the details need to be kept back, he argues convincingly that the outright misleading approach taken was unnecessary and unhelpful - leading even to the scientists holding back a second confirming observation which was already well-analysed when they made their announcement of the first discovery.

Because of his closeness to the whole process it's arguable Collins gives a bit too much detail sometimes - even I found some parts a little tedious - but that completeness is part of the power of his reporting. He also, considering his ability to spend so long on, say, those words 'first' and 'direct', rather surprisingly didn't comment on a scientist in this intensely picky process who made the hilarious statement that an astronomer 'literally exploded' during a talk. However, these are minor quibbles indeed.

If you want a real insight into what happens in one of these rare modern big science breakthroughs involving hundreds of scientists and a big budget, combined with impressive insights into the reasons why science and its communication are not as straightforward as many think they are, this is a wonderful book. Just don't buy it simply to learn about gravitational waves.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Atari Age - Michael Z. Newman ***

Subtitled 'the emergence of video games in America', Michael Newman's book aims to examine the impact of 'early video games' on culture and society. It does so to an extent, but despite covering a really interesting subject, it could have been better written. There’s a certain type of academic writing that takes pages to say something relatively simple. Here, Newman takes around 30 of them to tell us that pinball machines were considered dubious and working class, while video games were considered neater and middle class.

Strangely, it is the section on pinball machines as a precursor to the electronic gaming industry that provides the most interesting content, as we never got this 1970s resurgence in the UK. Apparently, in the US, the exposure of pinball in the Who’s Tommy, plus the introduction of more sophisticated electronic effects saw a brief pinball renaissance in the second half of the 70s, while in the UK, the games never got past that feeling of being something (wonderful if, like me, you loved them) from an earlier age.

Newman spends a lot of time on the transition in arcades to electronic machines, and then on the introduction of video games into the home, initially as extensions of the TV viewing experience, then as limited copies of the arcade games and finally blossoming as home computers - even if no one was quite sure how they would be used... other than to play games.

There are definitely some interesting observations here. About the way, for example, that initially video games were portrayed as being far better than the mind-numbing, non-interactive experience of watching TV (perhaps this says something about the quality of the TV pumped out by US networks the 1960s). We are repeatedly exposed to the idea that despite original sales pitches being family oriented, there was a shift to the young male perspective that would come to dominate the way that gaming was portrayed. This gives Newman the opportunity to single out Pacman as being something standout (probably more so than it actually was), noting that the game had far less gender bias in its users than most of its competitors.

To be fair to the author, he makes it clear that he is not trying to provide a history of video games themselves, but even so the approach taken combines piling in far too much evidence on small details for a popular account (never describing one ad campaign, when we can hear about five, for example) with a glacially slow construction of the arguments. The result is a rather frustrating take on a topic that should have been electrifying.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Soccermatics - David Sumpter ****

* UPDATED * To include paperback
I need to be honest up front - my first reaction on seeing this book was 'Let someone else review it.' I have zero interest in football, and don't understand why anyone cares about such a dull activity. But then it struck me that what better test could a book have than being tried out by someone without an interest in the theme, and I'm glad I stuck with it, because I really enjoyed it despite myself.

This is because David Sumpter may be using soccer as a hook for mathematical explorations, but the book is far more about the maths than the anything-but-beautiful game. So, for instance, the first chapter begins with the distribution of football results during a season, but quickly expands from that to explore the Poisson distribution and its much wider applications. If it weren't for the deeply irritating introduction, which is sickeningly enthusiastic about football, and a tendency to tell us far too much about players, pundits, teams and managers that mean nothing to me, I would have given the book five stars.

Even the football-oriented parts can be engaging to the non-fan. I don't care if Manchester City is better than Liverpool and I have no idea who Messi is, but when Sumpter abstracts from overpaid individuals and team loyalties, there is some distinctly interesting stuff about, for instance, patterns of flow on the pitch or the way a Mexican wave travels around a stadium. And there was certainly amusement to see that one of the football 'experts' Sumpter criticises predicted that Leicester would be relegated from the premier league in 2015/16, when, just before the book was published, they ended up as champions.

I also found Sumpter's last section really engaging. Here, he spends some time on an experiment to see if the effective use of data and mathematical models can make betting on football games more of a science than an art. Sumpter stresses that gambling is potentially dangerous and that the bookies make sure they come out on top overall - but he demonstrates that with the right mathematical approach you can possible beat the system by a few percentage points. There's almost a feel of the TV series Hustle about this attempt to take on the bookies and beat them at their own statistical game - and Sumpter puts his money where his mouth is, staking the advance for this book (at least, a part of his advance, or he was ripped off by his publisher).

Did reading Soccermatics turn me into a football fan? Absolutely not. I can see the point of enjoying a kick around, but I can't understand why anyone finds football or footballers interesting. However, Sumpter's book has persuaded me that there is a lot more to running a football team than herding musclebound athletes - that, in principle at least (it's not obvious how much teams actually apply these methods) mathematical models can improve team tactics and result in better performance - and that mathematical modelling can be just as interesting when applied to the football pitch as it is when used to analyse the movements of a flock of birds or a shoal of fish.

There may have been a few small sections I had to skip over,  when I felt that Sumpter was getting too carried away with his obvious love of the game, but mostly, as the subtitle hints, I enjoyed my mathematical adventures in the 'beautiful' game.

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Author interview
Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Beyond Infinity - Eugenia Cheng ****

Popular maths writers have it much harder than authors of popular science books. Pretty well everyone loves science at junior school, even if they're put off it in their teens, so for science writers, it's just a matter of recapturing that childhood delight in exploring how the world works. But, to be honest, maths is a relatively rare enthusiasm at any age, so the author of a popular maths book has to really work at his or her task - and this is something Eugenia Cheng certainly does, bubbling with enthusiasm and trying hard not to put us off as readers as she explores infinity.

In Cheng's earlier book, Cakes, Custard and Category Theory, food played too heavy a role for me - here that tendency reigned in, though it still rears its head occasionally. We get a quite detailed exploration of infinity, infinitesimals and some additional material such as infinite dimensions and infinite-dimensional categories (we had to get some category theory), plus the usual enjoyment of quantum weirdness. I felt sometimes, because the book doesn't build on a historical basis, we were thrown in at the deep end a little too early with assertions like infinity+1=infinity and infinity x infinity = infinity. The process where Cheng shows us how infinity can't be a real number, or an integer, or a rational fraction etc. also felt a little repetitive and drawn out. There's always a difficulty in letting go a little when you work in a field that requires total precision. But we never lose Cheng's enthusiasm and light touch.

I think this book will particularly appeal to a reader who already has an interest in maths, but not much training, because it is purely focussed on the mathematics itself. For the more general reader, I suspect a book like A Brief History of Infinity, which gives historical context, brings and people and social implications to frame the maths, would work better as an introduction. With the appetite whetted, though, they should be encouraged to go onto Beyond Infinity, which as a wider mathematical context.

I really enjoyed this book, and though the author's desire to include food did still slightly intrude - and I felt it was just a bit too much about her, rather than the maths - it's a great addition to the relatively sparse popular maths shelf.

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Review by Brian Clegg