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Showing posts from October, 2018

Five Photons - James Geach ****

It is generally acknowledged that Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time is one of the most common books to be bought but not read beyond the first few pages. If you are the kind of popular science reader who found Hawking hard going, you can stop now - Five Photons is not for you. If, on the other hand, you found A Brief History of Time a piece of cake and wished you could get into more depth without resorting to heavy mathematics or a tedious textbook style, Five Photons could be just up your street.

Astrophysicist James Geach starts of fairly gently with a chapter on the nature of light that mostly sets aside quantum physics, leading up to the observation that light is our vehicle for for stripping back the history of the universe to its earliest times (or, at least, the point where the universe became transparent). From here on, the five photons of the title take us on different journeys, from the oldest surviving light of the cosmic microwave background radiation to that fr…

The Life-Changing Magic of Numbers - Bobby Seagull ***

When a science book is branded as having a celebrity author it's tempting to ignore it, but presumably a good number of people buy such books or publishers wouldn't put them out - and in the case of Bobby Seagull, it is at least (we are told on the cover) someone who is famous for being on the TV show University Challenge. The format is an odd one - Seagull gives us shortish chapters on what seem to be random things that interest him, in which he finds a sometimes tenuous mathematical topic. The result is more than a touch bitty.

Each chapter also ends with a little challenge in the form of a puzzle. Some are simple algebra problems (though concealed in words), others hide away mathematical sequences for the reader to spot. These are quite fun initially, though they get a little samey after a while.

How well the topics work depend to some extent on how much your own interests line up with Seagull's. So, for example, as soon as he mentions football (which he does quite often)…

The Last Days of Smallpox - Mark Pallen ****

It's very rare that I find a medical popular science book unputdownable (in fact it's my least favourite sub-genre of popular science) - but it's an adjective I'd apply to Mark Pallen's The Last Days of Smallpox. This horrible disease was eradicated worldwide in 1977 - and a story of its background, including the last natural outbreaks in the UK, makes up the opening section of this book, but the main focus is an exploration of the last ever outbreak in the UK in Birmingham in 1978 - one year after the disease was eradicated.

Pallen takes us through in immaculate detail the escape of smallpox from a lab at Birmingham University, the sad cases of Janet Parker, a photographer who worked in the same building and died of smallpox, and Henry Bedson, the microbiologist in charge of the lab who committed suicide as a result of the stress of the outbreak. Pallen covers the possible ways that Parker could have become infected and gives a blow-by-blow account of the court cas…

Thin Air (SF) - Richard Morgan *****

Just occasionally, you come across a book where the way that the characters speak really gives the feel of being immersed in a particular vision of the future. A Clockwork Orange and Neuromancer spring to mind. And Richard Morgan's Thin Air does exactly the same thing. The setting is a familiar one of a future colony on Mars, struggling with the environment, heavy handed corporations and interference from Earth, where enhanced humans endure the harshness of the frontier life. Yet Morgan manages to bring the whole thing to life and make it feel fresh and effective.

I'm not usually a fan of chunky books, but despite this being a long read, I never felt that it was longer than it should be. Morgan keeps the pressure up, giving us a mix of thriller and detective story, gradually building a picture of the main character Hak Veil and how his enhancements have influenced his life. There's politics, military conspiracy, plenty of dubious cashflows and more, as, with Veil, we eventu…

On the Future - Martin Rees ***

When I was at school we had a great young history teacher who got everyone in the class to go out and buy a copy of Mao's Little Red Book. Some parents were decidedly unhappy, but it was a fascinating exercise, and though I found most of the contents impenetrable drivel, it was something I was really glad he did.  The Little Red Book was more formally The Thoughts of Chairman Mao and this little black book is not Martin Rees's social contacts list, but rather The Thoughts of Astronomer Royal Rees

What we get is a fairly loose collection of Rees's thoughts on life, the universe and everything, from climate change to religion - though (not surprisingly) it concentrates on scientific matters more than anything else. As the subtitle Prospects for Humanity indicates, Rees indulges a little in that most speculative of ventures, futurology, but not to an extent that the book becomes one of those interminable collections of thoughts that are either bright and bushy-tailed 'Th…

An Evil Guest (SF) - Gene Wolfe ****

Gene Wolfe is one of the world's greatest fantasy writers. He has also written some popular SF, notably the Book of the New Sun series. His SF has never really been my thing, as I prefer his fantasy work, but this is a real oddity that spans the two. Arguably it is science fiction, as the odd happenings all have 'science' explanations. And we've got some science fiction tropes such as warp drive, hyperspace and projected 3D TV. But the whole setting is a dream-like mix of periods.

So, though An Evil Guest is clearly set in a future where we have interstellar travel and have met one other intelligent race, a lot of the everyday technologies, such as the mobile phones, are distinctly early-twenty first century. Meanwhile the characters - both how they speak and act - are straight out of the 1940s. If that sounds weird, it really is - and yet, being Wolfe, it works wonderfully.

The central character Cassie Casey, a struggling actress, is thrust into a complex situation wher…

CERN and the Higgs Boson - James Gillies ****

There are plenty of books out there on the Higgs boson and its discovery. [Ed.: We recommend Higgs by Jim Baggott.] This book does something entirely different - which is a good thing. The author, James Gillies, has spent his working life at CERN, first as a scientist, then as part of the communication group, which he headed up for 12 years, and now on the organisation's Strategic Planning and Analysis unit. As such, he is unusually well placed to cover the way that CERN has come together and been run, which is the main focus of this book.

What is good about this is that we get to see a lot more of just what has been involved in setting CERN up (achieving a rare level of international collaboration) and how the various pieces of kit have been constructed, leading up to the current Large Hadron Collider that was used to discover the Higgs.

Sometimes the whole business was touch and go - whether it was the distinct possibility of funding falling through, or a piece of technology that …

Breakfast with Einstein - Chad Orzel ***

In his book How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog, Chad Orzel hit on a brilliant hook to deal with what can be a very difficult task - how to get across an abstruse topic and make it approachable for a general audience. The idea of having a conversation with a dog made a great entry point and won the book many fans. Now Orzel is back, once more giving an often surprisingly in-depth overview of quantum physics, but this time the approach he has taken is to tie the science into the everyday experience of a morning, from waking to the sun and an alarm clock, through breakfast to checking social media.

Linking complex science to everyday experiences and objects, giving it context and making it less detached from reality, is not exactly a new idea, but it is an effective one to help make the weird approachable. The trouble is here that the idea of linking it to the morning's ritual is very thinly used. After the introduction, each chapter gives us a couple of lines of context, but th…

Blueprint - Robert Plomin *****

Psychology doesn't have a good name in the science world when it comes to quality of experiments and data. All too often, practitioners have been guilty of misunderstanding statistics, data mining, cherry picking and worse. So it's refreshing to come across a book that is primarily about psychology but is driven by good quality data and where the author goes out of his way to show what the numbers really mean. The twist in the tail, though, is that although Blueprint is indeed about why we are the way we are psychologically, it is driven throughout by genetics. Which is just as well, as according to Robert Plomin, a leading researcher in behavioural genetics, we are driven far more by our genes than most of us realise.

The 'nature versus nurture' debate goes back a long way. Plomin doesn't generally go into history of science in this book, which is probably just as well as one of his few mentions of history is to say 'These environmental factors were called nurt…

The Genius Checklist - Dean Keith Simonton ***

There's something uncomfortable about the cover of this book. It's hard to read something that says 'Nine paradoxical tips on how YOU! can become a creative genius,' and not expect a self-help book, however scientifically based. However, this is not such a book, and you'd think a psychologist like Dean Keith Simonton would realise that promising something and then not delivering it is not a great way to win over your audience.

Instead what we have here is an interesting exploration of what we mean by 'genius' - a fuzzy enough concept that it covers many different abilities - and a set of nine contradictions (that's the 'paradoxical' bit) in listing possible causes for being a genius. So, for example, we are told it's good to score 140 or more on IQ test, but IQ doesn't really matter, or that it's all down to the genes, but home and school are what make it happen. The very nature of these paradoxical statements makes it clear that this…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…