Skip to main content

Constant Touch – John Agar *****

At first sight it might seem odd that this little book has been awarded our top, 5 star rating. A book about mobile phones? Not much science. Not all that exciting. But John Agar does all the right things. In a simply superb way he weaves together the technology, society, politics and business in a way that works wonderfully – and serves as a strong reminder that science never operates in a vacuum.
In this case, of course, it’s a remarkable technology, not so much from it’s scientific wonder as the speed with which it has become pervasive. Agar argues persuasively that the mobile (cell) phone wasn’t just technologically impossible 50 years ago, but sociologically as well.
He covers the phone’s introduction across the world, why the US lagged behind Europe in second generation phones and how mobile phones have even caused the overthrow of a dictator. Agar conjures up a parallel between the mobile phone and the pocket watch as a portable technology that changes our lives, though there are also strong links made with the automobile industry.
The only glaring omission is that there is no mention of the phone’s capability to act as a portable payment device. About ten years ago, the town of Swindon in the UK was home to a fascinating experiment called Mondex, where plastic cards replaced cash. Although a lot of people never really got the hang of it, those who really got into Mondex found a huge freedom from not having to fiddle around with change, drive to cash machines, and generally handle filthy lucre for transactions too small for a credit or debit card. Mobile phones could provide all of us with instant electronic payment, with the cash coming off your phone credits – but Agar doesn’t seem to have come across this concept.
Don’t let that put you off, though. It’s simply a great little book – as with many of the Icon science books it is very short, but this is an exception where that shortness never comes across as oversimplification.
Excellent.

Paperback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty. The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science. Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a n

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under