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Outbreaks and Epidemics - Meera Senthilingam ****

This book was written before the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, though it has been updated to include it: it's certainly not any kind of attempt to cash in, but rather a sober reflection on how outbreaks and epidemics work, what process the world has in place to deal with them and how a changing, globalised world has magnified risk.

If I'm honest, I'm not a great fan of medical books, but Meera Senthilingam gives an important introduction to disease outbreaks and epidemics, giving enough detail to make sense of them without ever being too technical for the general reader. This is careful journalism, which can sometimes come across as rather dry, but that's not necessarily a bad thing given the topic.

The book starts by plunging us into the beginnings of the 2003 SARS epidemic, then brings in COVID-19 (as of, by the look of it, around the start of March 2020) and measles before plunging back to smallpox and the origins of vaccination. There is a strong section on disea…

Jim Al-Khalili - Four Way Interview

Jim Al-Khalili hosts The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4 and has presented numerous BBC television documentaries. He is Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey, a New York Times bestselling author, and a fellow of the Royal Society. He is the author of numerous books, including Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed; The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance; and Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology. The paperback of his novel Sunfall is published in March 2020 by Transworld. His latest book is The World According to Physics.


Why physics?

I fell in love with physics when I was 13 or 14, when I realised not only that I was pretty good at it at school – basically common sense and puzzle solving – but because it was the subject that answered the big questions I had started contemplating, like whether the stars in the night sky went on for ever, what they were ma…

Sleight of Mind - Matt Cook ***

I can't remember when I was last so frustrated that a book could have been so brilliant... but then managed to cut out 95 per cent of its potential audience. Matt Cook's book promises to deliver '75 ingenious paradoxes in mathematics, physics and philosophy'. And it does. Some are familiar, from Russell's paradox to the Monty Hall problem, but quite a few weren't to me. I absolutely loved reading about the paradoxes. But. There's a big but.

The problem is that Cook does two things that make the book unreadable to many. One is to forget Richard Feynman's assertion that there's no point just learning labels for things. (Ironic, as Cook frequently cites Feynman, and even has a dedication that includes 'To Richard Feynman, who saved my father's life'.) Yet Cook insists on telling us all the technical language and what it means - which is totally unnecessary to explain the paradoxes. Who cares that something is called a bijection? We don't…

Quantum Entanglement (Essential Knowledge) - Jed Brody ****

An entry in MIT Press's pocket-sized Essential Knowledge series, this is an attempt to take on one of the strangest and most mind-bending aspects of physics - quantum entanglement - in a new way.

There are several books describing the historical development and implications of quantum entanglement, but what Jed Brody does is take an experimentalist's view and helps the reader understand what is involved in a Bell inequality and how a test of quantum entanglement in this fashion really works.

There are other bits as well - a very rapid introduction and a rather tagged-on feeling bit about quantum theory and relativity, plus a too-brief-to-understand trip into the unlikely world of quantum Bayesianism. But the crucial part of the book, and the reason it gets four stars, is that experimental bit. Specifically what Brody does, something that I have never seen before in any other book on the subject, is give an explanation of a specific Bell inequality that proves why the outcome of …

The World According to Physics - Jim Al-Khalili *****

There is a temptation on seeing this book to think it's another one of those physics titles that is thin on content, so they put it in an odd format small hardback and hope to win over those who don't usually buy science books. But that couldn't be further from the truth. In Jim Al-Khalili's The World According to Physics, we've got the best beginners' overview of what physics is all about that I've ever had the pleasure to read.

The language is straightforward and approachable. Rather than take the more common historical approach that builds up physics the way it was discovered, Al-Khalili starts with the 'three pillars' of physics: relativity, quantum theory and thermodynamics. In simple language with never an equation nor even a diagram in sight, the book lays out what physics is all about, what it has achieved and what it still needs to do.

That bit about no diagrams is an important indicator of how approachable the text is. Personally, I'm no…

30-Second Zoology - Mark Fellowes (Ed.) ***

Zoology (as distinct from biology) was one of those sciences that was always most in danger of suffering from Rutherford's old taunt along the lines of 'all science is either physics or stamp collecting' - consisting as it largely seemed to do for a number of centuries of simply cataloguing animals and their behaviour. However, like all the sciences it has evolved, and as someone with very little background in zoology apart from visiting the odd zoo, it was interesting to get this overview of what today's zoology entails.

Inevitably the introductory section (origin and evolution) has a fair amount that is more generally biological in feel (for example, with spreads on genes and natural selection). We then move on to separate sections on invertebrates and vertebrates, handling quite broad groups (mammals, for example, get a single entry), then broader topics of physiology and behaviour, before moving onto perhaps the most interesting sections on ecology and on conserva…

Something Doesn't Add Up - Paul Goodwin ***

If there's one thing that's better than a juicy statistic, it's enjoying the process of pulling apart a dodgy one. It's why the radio programme More or Less is so excellent - so Paul Goodwin's book, subtitled 'surviving statistics in a post-truth world' was something I was really looking forward to - but for reasons I find it hard to put my finger on, it doesn't quite hit the spot.

Goodwin, a maths professor at the University of Bath, starts with a series of chapters telling us what's wrong with many of the statistics we see everyday. And he makes good points. We discover the dangers of rankings and trying to summarise a complex distinction in a single measure. We see why proxies are poor (essentially, if you can't actually measure what you want to, using something else that might be an appropriate indicator, but often isn't). We explore why polls are problematic. And there's a bit on Bayesian statistics and how it still tends to be disre…

Disaster by Choice - Ilan Kelman ***

At the heart of Ilan Kelman's book is a striking claim - 'natural' disasters don't really exist. Instead, it's suggested, there are natural hazards and we choose by our actions (or often inactions) whether or not to turn these into disasters.

The book starts really well with a gripping description of the Haiti earthquake and its aftermath. Kelman makes a good job of telling the story and using it to powerful effect. He goes on to effectively describe some of the possible natural hazards that can lead to disasters, this time focusing his story on the mundane-seeming protection of Canvey Island from the Thames and on Australian bushfires (in a book written before 2019's devastating fires). We see how a combination of economics, politics and the human ability to not think to clearly about the future encourages a repeated failure to learn the lessons of past events.

This is no cold, scientific assessment - Kelman does not prevent emotional language from entering h…

Scotland in Space (SF) - Deborah Scott and Simon Malpas (Eds.) ***

This is one of the strangest books I've ever read, and that isn't necessarily a bad thing. On the one hand, it's a genuinely interesting and original concept - on the other hand it costs nearly twice as much as a typical paperback, but only has two readable shortish stories in it.

One of the reasons for the book's odd feeling is that it isn't a straightforward collection of SF short stories. There are three stories (I'll come to the disparity of number later), four short non-fiction pieces, and three pieces of literary criticism based on the short stories. Even though the stories are themselves long for the format, that is still not a lot of material for the price. The oddity also extends to the format of the book itself. Inside it has a stylish layout with clever use of colour. But the cover screams 'self published' - it just doesn't look like like the cover of a professionally produced title.

Let's get onto the content. As you might guess, it is…

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (SF) - Robert Heinlein ****

Revisiting this 1966 classic, which despite a few issues is Heinlein’s best novel, showed that it holds up surprisingly well. Amongst the big names of science fiction's ‘golden age’, Asimov may have had the edge on ideas, but Heinlein was a far better writer and this shows from the very beginning when the narrator comments of a self-aware computer ‘I had nicknamed him for Mycroft Holmes, in a story written by Dr Watson before he founded IBM.’ 

It might come as quite a surprise to those familiar with Heinlein’s politics, but in this study of colonial revolution, the author doesn’t shrink from including some communist ideas and terminology, while coming relatively soon after the McCarthy era, arguably Heinlein was brave in scattering speech with Russian terms and a tendency to drop the definite article. He was also critical of the US for institutional racism.

The story itself plays out the transformation of a prison colony on the Moon into a self-determining republic. The reluctant ce…