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Showing posts from March, 2020

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…