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Showing posts from July, 2018

Rockets and Rayguns - Andrew May ****

The Cold War period saw dramatic developments in science and technology, coinciding with the flourishing of the science fiction genre. In Rockets and Rayguns, Andrew May draws on the parallels between reality and fiction, each influencing the other.

Inevitably a major Cold War theme was the threat of nuclear war, and May opens with the bomb. It's fascinating that fiction got there first - nuclear weapons were featured in science fiction when many physicists were still doubting the practicality of using nuclear energy. Of course, it's a lot easier to simply take a concept and dream up a weapon than it is to make it for real - for example, H. G. Wells' prophetic nuclear bombs from his 1914 The World Set Free were nothing like the real thing. And some science fiction devices concepts - notably ray guns and force fields - came to very little in reality. However this doesn't prevent the parallels being of interest.

May gives us a mix of the science - describing how nuclear we…

Enjoy Our Universe - Alvaro de Rújula ***

I’m going to start this review with a longish quote from the author’s preface, for several reasons. It explains De Rújula’s purpose in writing the book, as well as the audience he’s trying to reach, while giving a taste of his idiosyncratic writing style (which he keeps up throughout the book). It’s also a good starting point for discussing the book’s strengths and weaknesses. Here’s the quote:

'This book is not intended for (very) young kids nor for physicists. It is intended for anyone – independently of the education (s)he suffered – who is interested in our basic current scientific understanding of the universe. By "universe" I mean everything observable from the largest object, the universe itself, to the smallest ones, the elementary particles that "function" as if they had no smaller parts. This is one more of many books on the subject. Why write yet another one? Because the attempts to understand our universe are indeed fun and I cannot resist the tempta…

The Ultimate Interplanetary Travel Guide - Jim Bell **

Not too long ago, NASA brought out a series of spoof ‘space tourism’ posters for various destinations in the Solar System. For people like me, who have watched NASA depressingly fail to send humans to the other planets for decade after decade, it was just another painful twist of the knife. On the other hand, the posters probably have more appeal for younger and less cynical minds, by presenting familiar astronomical objects in a new and engaging way. There may even be scope for a whole book along these lines – and that’s what Jim Bell has attempted here.

The main thing I learned from it is that my brain is programmed to read either fiction or non-fiction, and can’t handle a 50:50 mix of the two – which is what this book is. It drove me mad –  not least because I could see that the same material, presented as straight non-fiction, could have made a really excellent book. Using the NASA posters as a starting point, he could have enumerated the potential ‘tourist sights’ at each location…

Is That a Big Number? - Andrew Elliott ***

This is a curious book, which has the very worthy intent of giving us more of a feel for numbers - so, as the author points out, it's not really about maths at all. It's more about statistics in the original meaning of a collection of numbers about a state, rather than the modern analytical sense of the word. Andrew Elliott approaches this problem with a very individual and amiable manner, giving all kinds of approaches, while throwing in little quizzes, tables of comparisons and more.

Broadly, Elliott divides our mechanisms for assessing numbers into five. The first is landmark numbers, which act as a known milestick - classic examples would be the approach often adopted by newspapers of measuring things in blue whales, football pitches or Eiffel Towers, though it's about far more than measuring height or volume. The second technique is visualisation - picturing the numbers in some sort of visual context. Thirdly he suggests dividing the number up into smaller parts, and f…

David Orrell - Four Way Interview

David Orrell is a writer of general audience books on science and economics, and an applied mathematician in his spare time. He has written books on topics including the science of prediction The Future of Everything, the relationship between science and aesthetics Truth or Beauty, and the problems with economics Economyths. His most recent book is Quantum Economics: The New Science of Money.

Why science (and economics)? 

I came into science through mathematics. My university offered undergraduate mathematics as part of an arts program, so you had to take half mathematics courses, but the rest could be from arts or sciences. So I combined subjects like set theory and topology with philosophy and art history. One thing I always liked about mathematics is that, being abstract, it can be applied to many different things and doesn’t lock you into a particular way of seeing the world. I became interested in economics after writing a book (The Future of Everything) about the science of predic…

Friendly Fire (SF) - Gavin Smith ****

Way back in the hoary old days of pulp science fiction, militaristic stories were common, culminating in the truly unpleasant Starship Troopers (1959). From the second half of the 60s, though, when I first got seriously into SF, far more thoughtful and interesting books began to dominate. The military SF space operas never went away, but were relegated to the backwaters. Space opera as a sub-genre became far more sophisticated with Iain M. Banks' superb Culture series. 

However, first person shooter video games such as Doom, plus movies such as Star Wars plus its successors, and the rise of superhero films, brought the militaristic aspect front and centre to the cinema and now it's relatively common again to find novels that glorify big guns and combat. With The Bastard Legion, Gavin Smith showed how to do it with style, combining a Buffy the Vampire Slayer-style subversion of the genre, featuring one woman in charge of 6,000 enslaved hard criminals, with a superb example of &#…

The Graphene Revolution - Brian Clegg ****

Graphene's one of those words that gets bandied around a lot without getting more than some vague feeling of what it's all about. In the end, it's just a material, and everyone knows that books about materials don't make for very exciting reading. But the advantage Brian Clegg has here is that graphene is not just a wonder material (which it certainly is) but it also has a brilliant story attached to it.

The two Russian discoverers of graphene (sort of - more on that in a moment), working at Manchester University are, to say the least, characters. This is particularly the case with Andre Geim, who first came to fame (or infamy) when he successfully levitated live frogs using a very powerful magnet. Geim and his co-discoverer Konstantin Novoselov had the idea that you should be able to spend some time on what they called 'Friday Night Projects' (spare time activities to look at something completely different) and they succeeded remarkably with graphene.

Clegg give…

The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being - Alice Roberts *****

A few years back, I went to see my doctor. I’d been experiencing a number of apparently unrelated minor ‘symptoms’. I wanted to make sure the symptoms really were minor and unrelated, and not due to some more serious, underlying, undiagnosed condition. One of my symptoms was a recurring, dull pain in my left shoulder. I could never work out precisely where the pain was coming from, but it was, I explained, 'definitely somewhere in the shoulder region.'

My doctor smiled and said she knew exactly what my problem was, as she experienced it too! Like me, she suffered occasional bouts of acid reflux in her stomach. When acid reflux kicks in, excess gases expand the stomach wall, putting pressure on your diaphragm. One of the nerves associated with the diaphragm runs a convoluted route via the left shoulder blade and hooks up with the rest of the nervous system in the neck. So, when my acid reflux kicked in, I experienced pain signals that seemed to be coming from my shoulder, but wh…

Totally Random - Tanya Bub and Jeffrey Bub **

It's difficult to decide just where the problems start with Totally Random. It's an attempt to communicate the oddities of quantum entanglement using a comic book format. There has already been an attempt to do this for quantum theory in general - Mysteries of the Quantum Universe, which managed to both have a bit of a storyline and get in a fair amount of quantum physics. Unfortunately the format also got in the way - so much space was taken up by the pictures that the words simply didn't manage to get the message across. Doubly unfortunately, this is also true of Totally Random, with the added negatives that it has no discernible storyline and it's rarely even visually interesting.

The attempt to explain entanglement suffers hugely because Tanya and Jeffrey Bub decided to use a set of analogies for quantum entanglement ('quoins', a kind of magic toaster device that entangles them, various strange devices to undertake other quantum operations) that don't so…

The Art of Logic - Eugenia Cheng ***

This is an important book, though I'm not sure Eugenia Cheng would agree with my logic in saying so. 

Going on the marketing, what we have here is a counter to fake news and dodgy argumentation in the form of mathematical logic. The back cover tells us 'Newspaper headlines and social media use emotions to warp the facts. Politicians and companies master rhetoric to mislead us. What one book could help us make sense of it all?' Admittedly they don't answer their rhetorical question, but I assume the answer is intended to be The Art of Logic. (Did the company behind this book realise it was using rhetoric, though presumably not to mislead us?) 

What we actually have is a combination of a lucid and interesting explanation of the basics of logic with the mathematical equivalent of those books such as Algorithms to Live By that were so popular a couple of years ago. They used the logic of algorithms (differently worded, and, to me, easier to understand), the heart of computer…

Quantum Economics - David Orrell ****

David Orrell's earlier title Economyths is one of my favourite popular science books of all time. Or, perhaps, I should say popular non-science, as Orrell shows just how devastatingly traditional economics uses the tools of science without having a scientific basis. I was, therefore, really looking forward to reading Orrell's new book - until I saw the title. As anyone involved with physics can tell you, there's nothing more irritating than the business of sticking the word 'quantum' onto something to give a pseudo-scientific boost to waffle and woo. Was Orrell doing the same thing? Thankfully, his introduction put my fears aside.

Orrell, a mathematician with a physics background quickly makes it clear that the way he is using quantum theory is not just employing magic words, but involves making use of strong parallels between the nature of quantum objects and concepts like money (more on money in a moment). Yes, this is to some extent a metaphorical use of quantum …