All reviews in alphabetical order by title
"Bad Science" "The Big Picture: On The Origins Of Life, Meaning And The Universe Itself" "A Briefer History Of Time" "Deep Time" "The Demon-Haunted World" "Evolution: A Very Short Introduction" "The Greatest Show On Earth" "Higgs Discovery" "In Search Of Schrödinger's Cat" "The Little Book Of Science" "Longitude" "The Magic Of Reality" "An Optimist's Tour Of The Future" "Our Final Century" "Reality Is Not What It Seems" "Seven Brief Lessons On Physics" "A Short History Of Nearly Everything" "Space Race" "Tricks Of The Mind" "The Universe In A Nutshell" "Why People Believe Weird Things" "You Are Here"
"Bad Science" by Ben Goldacre (2008)
Goldacre is a young doctor with three degrees who is passionate about the use of evidence to assess scientific and especially medical developments and who is bitingly critical of much media coverage of medical and health issues. He writes a weekly column for the "Guardian" newspaper which I always read and he is an excellent public speaker whom I have heard twice. So, when my sister bought me his book, I did not hestitate in reading it.
In the course of just over 350 pages, he attacks public perceptions of such subjects as homeopathy ("no better than placebo"), nutritionism ("crude, unsophisticated, old fashioned"), antioxidant supplements ("ineffective"), detox ("a meaningless concept"), and Brian Gym exercises ("transparently foolish") and he takes apart the work of such public figures as the nutritionists Gillian McKeith and Patrick Holford as well as Durham Council (whose fish oil trial he brands as"unethical"). He is scathing of big pharma, an industry globally worth around £15 billion: "Because they cannot find new treatments for the diseases we already have, the pill companies instead invent new diseases for the treatments they already have".
Goldacre devotes a whole chapter to the scandal over the MMR vaccine when one small and deeply flawed trial suggesting a link with autism caused the media and parents to panic for no reason and with dire consequences for individuals and the community. There is a chapter in the paperback which was not in the hardback, attacking vitamin pill entrepreneur Matthias Rath (in between the two editions, a claim for libel was withdrawn).
He explains how proper medical trials are conducted with the use of a control group taking a placebo, the randomised allocation of subjects to the test and control groups, and 'double-blinding' where the person administering the trial and the person who is the subject of the trial are both totally unaware of whether the subject is taking the medicine or the treatment or taking the placebo. He sets out all the multitudinous ways that test results can be misunderstood or misrepresented by advocates of alternative or complementary medicine or by sloppy journalists who make no effort to understand the science. He devotes a whole chapter to the power of the placebo effect which he describes as "one of the most bizarre and enlightening areas of medical research" and "culturally specific" in its impact.
All this he does in a very accessible, even entertaining, manner that genuinely illuminates and educates.
Link: author's blog click here
"The Big Picture: On The Origins Of Life, Meaning And The Universe Itself" by Sean Carroll (2016)
Carroll is a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology and an award winner for writing science books. As the title suggests, this book is hugely ambitious with a vast and complicated subject matter. At 440 pages, it is probably longer than it needs to be and at points is a struggle to comprehend, but what makes the work so readable is the breaking of the material into 50 chapters, each of which is sub-divided into sections of a few pages at a time, plus Carroll's clear exposition and, of course, the sheer fascination of the material itself.
The core message of the book is that there is something called "the core theory" which asserts that everything consists of particles (such as electrons, protons and neutrons) and forces (such as the strong and weak nuclear forces and electromagnetism) that arise out of fields (such as the Higgs field). He offers a very brief and very simple explanation of quantum mechanics that the core theory describes and predicts, while admitting that actually nobody really understands quantum mechanics. Carroll is clear that "there is only one world, the natural world, operating according to the laws of physics" and describes his position as "poetic naturalism" which asserts that "there is only one, unified, physical world, but many useful ways of talking about it".
So existence, whether at the levels of the sub-atomic world, our human-size world, or the whole universe itself can be explained completely and only by physics. There is no need or case for any metaphysical or supernatural concepts such as God, life-force, soul, spirits, afterlife, miracles, magic, physic powers and the like. He accepts that there is still a great deal we do not know, but argues that we can only achieve knowledge through science. Those who argue otherwise have to provide evidence for the existence of metaphysical concepts and crucially explain how the metaphysical impacts the physical and can contradict the laws of physics with forces or processes that cannot be detected.
As far as the origin of the universe is concerned, Carroll conventionally subscribes totally to the Big Bang model, "an extraordinarily successful theory of the evolution of the observable universe", but distinguishes this from the Big Bang itself, which he tells us is "a hypothetical moment that we know almost nothing about". He explains that the Big Bang is "a moment in time, not a location in space" and underlines that "the Big Bang doesn't actually mark the beginning of the universe; it marks the end of our theorectical understanding". Eventually he concludes: "What is the world really? It is a quantum wave function. At least until a better theory comes along".
As far as the origin of life is concerned, Carroll admits that we do not know how life on Earth originated and how life outside Earth might originate. There are all sorts of theories, taking the cell as the basic unit of life and hypothesising about metabolism-first or replication-first processes. He is convinced that "There is no reason to think that we won't be able to figure out how life started". Meanwhile the truth is that we do not have a single agreed-upon definition that clearly seperates things that are 'alive' from things that are not. NASA has a working definition but it may be that, in the future, we find something beyond Earth yet cannot be sure whether it constitutes life or not. He quotes one Nobel laureate as defining life as "nothing but a free electron looking for a place to rest".
As far as the origin of meaning is concerned, Carroll is clear than meaning cannot come from God (because there is no supreme being in a purely physical universe) and cannot come from the universe (because this simply runs according to impersonal underlying laws), so "it's up to you, me, and every other person to create meaning and purpose for ourselves". He quotes one geochemist as suggesting that "the purpose of life is to hydrogenerate carbon dioxide" but, more usefully, in a concluding chapter entitled "Existential Therapy", he offers "Ten Considerations" which includes the advice: "Whenever we ask ourselves whether something matters, the answer has to be found in whether it matters to some person or persons. We take the word and we attach value to it, an achievement of which we can be justly proud."
So, in short, this is a challenging, but ultimately liberating, read. It underlines how much we know and how much more we do not know about our universe and how responsibility for understanding it and living a moral life in it are matters for us as humans and cannot be found in any supernatural or metaphysical externality.
"A Briefer History Of Time" by Stephen Hawking with Leonard Mlodinow (2005)
The acclaimed scientist Stephen Hawking has now made three attempts to explain to a lay readership the concepts of theorectical physics that lie behind an understanding of the complete universe from unimaginably huge bodies like galaxies to unbelieveably small sub-atomic particles like quarks. First there was "A Brief History Of Time" in 1988; then there was "The Universe In A Nutshell" [for review click here] in 2001; and now (2005) we have "A Briefer History Of Time".
This latest effort covers essentially the same material as the first book but with fewer words and simpler language plus colour illustrations by the same people as those who contributed to the second book. "A Briefer History Of Time" is certainly shorter (only 154 pages), but it is still not an easy read and the illustrations, while colourful, add little to the understanding.
However, it is worth making the effort to read the book because it addresses such huge questions about the origin and operations of the universe, the possibilities of time travel, and - most centrally of all - how one can reconcile the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, which are known to be inconsistent with one another, into a grand unified theory or GUT (the answer might be supergravity or string theory or somethimg called p-branes).
If this seems to come close to the metaphysical, then it might be significant that Hawking has retained in this book the famous closing words of "A Brief History Of Time" ("- for then we would know the mind of God") and indeed this latest work has about a dozen extra references to God.
Hawking concludes that: "There is a good chance that the study of the early universe and the requirements of mathematical consistency will lead us to a complete unified theory within the lifetime of some of us who are around today, always presuming we don't blow ourselves up first!" But he adds: "A complete, consistent, unified theory is only the first step: our goal is a complete understanding of the events around us and of our own existence".
"Deep Time" by David Darling (2013)
Originally published in 1989, this book was reprinted in 2013 with no changes at all in spite of subsequent scientific developments (such as recalibration of the age of the universe from 15 billion years to 13.8 billion years). Following a recommendation from a physicist friend, I caught up with the new edition in March 2014 as scientists announced the first clear evidence of the gravitational waves created by the inflation phase of the Big Bang.
Now this may be a short work (159 pages), but the time frame of its narrative could not conceivably be longer, stretching from 10 to the power of minus 35 of a second After Genesis (AG) when the temperature was around 100 trillion trillion degrees to 10 to the power of 100 years AG when the temperature will be essentially Absolute Zero - the deep time of the title. I have read several books of cosmology but none so elegantly written with such accessible and even beautiful language - Darling himself calls it "a prose poem".
Less than a second after Time Zero or After Genesis (AG), the temperature was around ten billion degrees and we had the basic components of the entire story of the whole universe: the fundamental particles (protons, neutrons, electrons, positrons, photons, neutrinos, and antineutrinos), the fundamental forces (gravity, electromagnetism, the strong force and the weak force), and the conservation rules (total energy before and after a reaction must balance and electric charge must always be conserved). The rest is - literally - history.
The entire narrative of the universe is told as a journey by a sub-atomic particle, a proton, described as "the paladin of this tale" (that is, ‘heroic champion’). After early adventures, the proton enters a star which eventually becomes a supernova turning our proton into an atom of gold. This atom in turn finds its way to a planet which over time gives life to humans and becomes known as Earth before being incorporated into the construction of the Voyager 2 space probe which flies past Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune before moving into interstellar space where it sails on and on and on ... Meanwhile our sun becomes a red giant and then a white dwarf, a precursor to the death of all stars and the disintegration of all matter ...
For the most part, "Deep Time" is rooted in the current scientific understanding of cosmologists but, when describing the very beginning and the very end of the universe, Darling becomes highly speculative and even mystical. At one end of the story, he hints that the origin of our universe was the breaking free of a speck from "the great priordial sea of space-time" while, at the opposite 'end' of the tale, he seems to contemplate a Big Crunch, followed by another Big Bang, with the oscillation continuing.
And what are we to make of statements such as: "The unassailable fact is this: under no circumstances can there ever have been a time when time did not exist!" or "Nothing existed 'out there' until it had been consciously observed" or "In Deep Time we shall be as one".Link: author's web site click here
"The Demon-Haunted World" by Carl Sagan (1995)
The American writer and broadcaster Carl Sagan was one of the world's most successful communicators of scientific ideas before his premature death aged 62 on 20 December 1996. This was his penultimate book and is subtitled 'Science As A Candle In The Dark'. It is a brilliant exposé of the nonsense of such commonly held ideas as demons, visions and aliens and the dangers of so much parascientific and religious thinking. It is a passionate exposition of the value of the scientific method and its relationship to democratic society. The best chapter, 'The Fine Art Of Baloney Detection', sets out the key features of rational thinking and a list of common logical fallacies.
The scale and depth of Sagan's knowledge and sources are awesome and his political stance is unfailingly enlightened and liberal. This is a book which really spoke to me because it reflects so eloquently so much of what I believe so strongly. The superiority of science over all other belief systems is that science provides predictions which are useful, testable and - generally - astonishingly accurate. If Sagan were alive and in Britain today, he would be dismayed at the level of the public debate on genetically modified food when the tabloids can talk of "Frankenstein food", Greenpeace activists can destroy trials, and scientific evidence can be ignored or even dismissed.
"Evolution: A Very Short Introduction" by Brian & Deborah Charlesworth (2003)
After reading "The Greatest Show On Earth" by Richard Dawkins, I felt the need to find a shorter and simpler explanation of the wonder of evolution. The Charlesworths - both senior academics at the Institute of Cell, Animal and Population Biology at the University of Edinburgh - have certainly produced something shorter (130 pages instead of over 400) but it is arguable whether it is any simpler.
The authors explain that evolutionary change can occur through natural selection or through genetic drift but concentrate on the former. They set out how natural selection underlies the great similarities between species and how, when species are isolated, they become different. On this basis, they set out the evidence for evolution in the patterns of species in time and space.
They do not pretend that we currently have all the answers to the theory of evolution and the last chapter is titled "Some difficult problems". They briefly examine such issues as the origin of living cells and human consciousness and why we age. Fascinating stuff.
"The Greatest Show On Earth" by Richard Dawkins (2009)
Let me be clear. I am a huge fan of Richard Dawkins: he is a wonderfully combative opponent of so much falsehood in scientific representation and a marvellously articulate defender of rationality and evidence in our fashionably post-modernist world. On television, where he is constrained by time and subject to editing, he is both a joy and an education.
The problem is that, when he is writing a book, Dawkins seems to be unconstrained by length and too weakly guided by his editor. As a result, this book is too long - over 400 pages of main text - with far too many asides and diversions which serve more to demonstrate the author's erudition than to illuminate his central arguments. At one point, he admits "I know that not all my readers like my digressions" - and he is right there.
I am utterly convinced by the case for evolution and believe that it is one of the most powerful and elegant insights in the whole of science. However, I never did a single lesson of biology at school and evolutionary biology has developed considerably in recent decades, so I was looking for a book that would set out clearly and cogently - to use the sub-title of the book - "the evidence for evolution".
Dawkins presents a mass of fascinating material covering dating techniques, the fossil record, the process of embryology, plate tectonics, and much else besides.
He explains how evolution accounts for all the known facts in a consistent and convincing manner, how present day species are related to each other, and why they are geographically distributed the way they are. He sets out the similarity - the technical term is homology - between the skeletons of all mammals which share the same bones although in different proportions, why the body plan of all crustaceans - lobsters, prawns, crabs and the like - is the same, and why the DNA code is invariant across all living creatures while individual genes vary. Furthermore he explains why animals tend to live on the same continent as fossils that are probably their ancestors and why animals share the same continent with species that resemble them.
What is sorely lacking though is a tight structure with clear summation of the arguments. I now have to find and read a shorter and simpler work on evolution.
"Higgs Discovery" by Lisa Randall (2012)
On 4 July 2012, Joe Incandela of CMS and Fabiola Gianotti of ATLAS, two research teams at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN near Geneva in Switzerland, announced the discovery of a new sub-atomic particle whose existence had been postulated almost half a century earlier: the Higgs boson. The two sets of experiments provided results at a standard deviation level of 5 sigma which means that the odds are less than one in 1.7 million that the discovery is simply background noise arising from known familiar particles.
This very short (48 pages) and rapidly produced (within a month) essay by Professor Randall of Harvard University attemps to explain simply why the announcement was - in her words - "tremendously exciting" and "inspiring". As she declares "This discovery confirms the Standard Model of particle physics is consistent" and she emphasizes that "A Higgs boson is not just a new particle, but a new type of particle". She insists on the distinction between the Higgs mechanism, which is the way elementary particles acquire their mass, the Higgs field, which is involved in this mechanism, and the (extremely unstable) Higgs boson particle itself, which is what an experiment can actualy find - which is why she uses the deliberately ambigous title "Higgs Discovery" for this helpful book.
"In Search Of Schrödinger's Cat" by John Gribbin (1984)
When I bought this book in 2007, I was astonished to find that it was originally published in 1984, but I guess that the story it tells has not dated, since this is essentially an account of the men and the methods by which the secrets of quantum physics were discovered rather than an account of the physics itself. Having said that, there is physics in this work and it is not an easy read.
The story starts with the discovery of the electron by J.J. Thomson in 1897; Niels Bohr's theory of the atom came in a series of papers in 1913; James Chadwick's detection of the neutron came in 1932; Wolfgang Pauli enunciated his exclusion principle and Heisenberg came up with his uncertainty principle; all of which led to the "Copenhagen interpretation" of around 1927. What Gribbin calls "the particle zoo" is said now to consist of more than 200 sub-atomic particles.
Two things about the quantum world are made abundantly clear from this work.
First, the sub-atomic world is almost incomprehensibly small. Gribbin explains that a typical atom is about 10 to the power of minus 10 metres across. That is, 0.0000000001 metres. Think that's small? Try this then. At the heart of an atom is the nucleus (which contains the protons and neutrons). The size of a nucleus is about 10 to the power of minus 15 metres across. That is, 0.000000000000001 metres. That means that a nucleus is 10 to the power of 5 times smaller than an atom. That is, 100,000 times smaller. Since volume is proportional to the cube of radius, it is more meaningful to say that the nucleus is 10 to the power of 15 times smaller than the atom. That is, a thousand million million times smaller. Now that's small.
Second, the sub-atomic world is almost unbelievably weird. Gribbin tells us that, in the quantum world, nothing is real unless it is observed and that the very act of observing a thing changes it. One view of quantum physics suggest that literally everything is connected to everything else and that every particle 'knows' about the existence of every other particle. This concept has led some to claim that quantum physics 'proves' spirituality, but Gribbins insists: "The people who suggest that quantum theory offers a key to practial ESP, telepathy, and all the rest are only deluding themselves". However, he does go out on limb somewhat by expressing his support for the many worlds or multiverse interpretation of quantum mechanics first developed by Hugh Everett in the 1950s. So we finish up being told that either nothing is real or everything is real - but we don't know how to establish which theory is correct.
"The Little Book Of Science" by John Gribbin (1999)
OK, so I'm interested in science and, in my last two years at school, studied maths, physics and chemistry. But everyone should be interested in science - it's why we've got the Internet. The problem is that many people find science difficult or dull and, even those who don't, have little time to read a book on the subject. For them, Gribbin's book is perfect. There have been many imitations of and variations on "The Little Book Of Calm", but this is one of the best.
As you would expect, it's short - just over 100 pages in total - and two pages each are devoted to 52 key concepts addressed in alphabetical order. Yet it is remarkably comprehensive ranging from biology (the human genome project) to geology (plate tectonics), from the utterly familiar (water) to the seemingly extinct (guagga), from the incredibly small (nanotechnology) to the incomprehensively large (wormholes). Gibbin answers the questions we all ask, such as the origin of the universe and human origins, and poses questions we would never think of, such as why the sky is dark and whether particles can travel faster than the speed of light.
"Longitude" by Dava Sobel (2005)
I bought this little book in a 10th anniversary edition (it was first published in 1995) on a visit to London's National Maritime Museum and Royal Greenwich Observatory. The observatory has on display the four brilliant timepieces that are the core of the compelling story told by Sobel, a former "New York Times" science reporter: H-1, H-2, H-3 and the much smaller masterpiece H-4.
The book is billed as "the true story of a lone genius who solved the greatest scientific problem of his time". The genius in question was the English clockmaker John Harrison (24 March 1693 - 24 March 1776). The problem was how to establish one's longitude as precisely as one's latitude. The story is described by Sobel as "forty struggling years of political intrigue, international warfare, academic backbiting, scientific revolution, and economic unheaval".
So the work reads almost like a novel rather than a book about science and I confess I finished it full of admiration for Harrison's brilliance and persistence but not much wiser about how those clocks actually worked.
Of course, the location of zero-degree latitude is obvious (the equator), but this book points out that the location of zero-longitude is a purely political decision that was placed at the Canary & Madeira Islands, the Azores, the Cape Verde Islands, Rome, Copenhagen, Jerusalem, St Petersburg, Pisa, Paris, and Philadelphia (among other places) before it finally settled down in London. No wonder I grew up as a young child thinking that Britain was the centre of the world.
Link: National Maritime Museum site on John Harrison and the longitude problem click here
"The Magic Of Reality" by Richard Dawkins (2011)
In one sense, this is a heavy book: it is printed on high quality paper to carry the coloured illustrations from Dave McKean and, especially in the hardback edition in which I read it, it weighs a bit. In another sense, it is a light book: it is aimed primarily at young adults (although all ages will enjoy it) and important scientific principles are explained in very accessible language.
The theme of Dawkins' book is that, appealing though fables, folk tales and even holy books might have been in explaining the world around us, the real magic comes from understanding reality. And what is reality? He explains that we know what is real on the basis of genuine evidence which comes from our five senses, instruments that augment our senses, or scientific models that successfully predict what our senses or instruments then confirm.
The 12 chapters have a common structure: a title in the form of a challenging question to excite the interest of the reader; samples of myths which historically have attempted to answer this question; and then the best current scientific answer to the question. This means that we have brief looks at different sciences including physics, chemistry, biology, geology, astronomy and cosmology. The whole work is an eloquent and powerful call for rationality: "We should always be open-minded, but the only good reason to believe that something exists is if there is real evidence that it does".
Towards the end of the book, one chapter asks: "Why do bad things happen?" Dawkins' answer will not appeal to the religious or spiritual but works for me: "... bad things, like good things, don't happen any more often than they ought to by chance. The universe has no mind, no feelings and no personality, so it doesn't do things in order to either hurt or please you. Bad things happen because things happen."
“An Optimist's Tour Of The Future” by Mark Stevenson (2011)This is a most unusual book in both scope and style. The scope is considerable, being a review of many new technologies that are profoundly reshaping our world - in many cases out of sight of most of us. Yet the style is very accessible, being written in a clear, even light-hearted, above all positive, manner. Stevenson – a native of south London – made a 'tour' of over 60,000 miles across four continents to talk to over 30 experts about the very latest technologies, most of the gurus – it has to be said – male, aged and American. Each of the 16 chapters is centred on a number of conversations around a particular technology and could be a weekend newspaper supplement piece. If the work has a fault, it is that the material is not really integrated sufficiently into an overall analysis. The first section is called 'Man'. It examines how ill-health can be attacked and longevity increased through medical advances such as stem cell research, synthetic biology, and personal genomics. Stevenson acknowledges that some fear how these bio-tech techniques could be misused – what he calls "the bio-error/bio-terror issue". He even mentions what has been called “the world's most dangerous idea” which is transhumanism – the notion that the human species can transcend our current bodies. The second section is titled 'Machine”. This looks at the latest developments in robotics and artificial intelligence and considers options such as the failure to achieve human-level intelligence, the attainment of sentient intelligence, and the merging of man and machine. Then it explores nanotechnology or – as some call it – molecular manufacturing which, according to Stevenson, has the potential "to end industrial capitalism, revolutionise energy production, boost the power of medicine” and more. The prospect for imminent commercial space flight is examined before, finally in this section, the future of the Net – including 'the Internet of things' and augmented reality – is discussed. The third section is about 'Earth'. How can we combat climate change? Stevenson explores various geo-engineering solutions including carbon capture & storage techniques such as the conversion of bio-mass into charcoal and new forms of solar power such as 'thin film' solar cells. In Australia, he visits farms using grazing management techniques which deliver increased levels of soil carbon. Lastly he reminds us that the world's population has gone from about 230 million two millennia ago to seven billion today and speculates that we could stabilise at just over nine billion because increased prosperity is likely to reduce fertility rates. The fourth and final section of the book is characterised as 'Re-boot' because Stevenson believes that these changes in technology require an equally dramatic change in our forms of thinking. Perhaps above all, we have to look beyond the notion of linear growth or change and recognise that many technologies – most notably info-tech, bio-tech and nano-tech – enable the output of a process to be fed back into the process itself so that we have what Ray Kurzwell calls “the law of accelerating returns”. For instance, the power of computers is not progressing arithmetically but geometrically and this is impacting many other fields of science. All this leads Stevenson to conclude: “As we learn to control the very atoms of matter, the mechanisms of biology, and the power of computation, there is in fact very little that we can't do in a physical (and indeed virtual) sense”. Or, as Ian Drury put it in the song: “Reasons To Be Cheerful”. Link: author's site for the book click here
"Our Final Century" by Martin Rees (2003)
I've not come across a book as disturbing as this, since I read "The Fate Of The Earth" by Jonathan Schell (published in 1982). That work discussed the possibility that all-out nuclear war could so damage the biosphere that all humankind could be destroyed, leaving an earth populated essentially by ants and grass. "Our Final Century" goes even further, examining seriously the extremely remote but not utterly impossible eventuality that certain scientific experiments, such as the high velocity collision of sub-atomic particles, could wipe out not just humankind, but the earth itself (because of an esoteric particle called a strangelet [click here]) or even the entire universe (because of something called a phase transition [click here). Much more likely is that what the author calls bioterror or bioerror, or rogue possesors of nuclear material, developments in global warming, a step change in robotics, or an uncontrolled outcome of nanotechnology could lead to major devastation and loss of life on a global basis.
It might be tempting to dismiss such possibilities as utterly remote or totally unlikely, but Martin Rees is a research scientist of international repute and so one has to listen when he opines that: "humanity is more at risk than at any earlier phase in its history" and "I think the odds are no better than fifty-fifty that our present civilisation on Earth will survive to the end of the present century without a serious setback". The risks are growing for three reasons: small groups and even individuals now have the capacity to unleash threats such as a biological or computer virus; society is now critically dependent on networks and systems that are vulnerable to attack or damage; and instant global communications will magnify the perceptions and repercussions of any such disaster.
How do we avoid or at least minimise the likelihood of such catastrophes? By reading books like this, by having a general understanding of science (so that, as Rees puts it, at least we understand the difference between a proton and a protein), by critically assessing risks against benefits, and by informed public debate of science and its applications.
“Reality Is Not What It Seems” by Carlo Rovelli (2016)
Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli seems to have replaced British academic Stephen Hawking as the foremost exponent of the latest thinking on basic physics in terms which are generally accessible to a non-specialist readership. For those of us who access Rovelli’s work in English, his first popular work was “Seven Brief Lessons On Physics”, but in Italian “Reality Is Not What It Seems” was in fact published first and it is definitely a longer and harder read.
When Hawking wrote his best-selling “A Brief History Of Time”, he was warned by his publisher that every use of an equation would seriously diminish his sales and in the end he only used one (Einstein’s equation on relativity). Rovelli has no such qualms and quotes lots of equations, many of which are not explained but included in case the reader has the mathematics. There is one footnote which runs to a page and a half.
So “Reality” is not an easy read, but Rovelli writes with elegance and enthusiasm and the subject matter is intrinsically fascinating, so everyone will learn something by persisting with the exercise. The Italian scientist presents his work as an historical story, starting with Democritus of Miletus in the sixth century BC, moving on to Isaac Newton, covering Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell, taking in modern giants like Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr and Paul Dirac, and arriving at today’s thinkers such as Hawking and Rovelli himself.
Perhaps the most useful feature of “Reality” is a set of diagrams which summarise the changing orthodox answers to the fundamental question “What is the world made of?” Starting with Newton’s answer of space, time and particles, Rovelli finishes with the single concept of covariant quantum fields. These fields represent what is called quantum gravity which is the latest thinking about how we can synthesise general relativity (which explains the cosmos) and quantum mechanics (which explains the sub-atomic world).
Loop quantum gravity - a theory of which Rovelli is both a leading advocate and developer - has now replaced string theory - which Hawking used to propose - as the best contender for a Theory of Everything (a term used by Hawking and others but not Rovelli).
The Italian concludes: “The world, particles, light, energy, space and time - all of this is nothing but the manifestation of a single type of entity: covariant quantum fields” which are explained as “fields that live on themselves, without the need of a space-time to serve as a substratum, as a support, and which are capable by themselves of generating space time” - so, at the most fundamental level, space and time and infinity do not exist. Indeed the theory raises the possibility that there might have been another universe before the Big Bang and that therefore the Big Bang is actually a Big Bounce - big ideas.
But, as Rovelli concedes, “Am I sure about all this? I am not”.
"Seven Brief Lessons On Physics" by Carlo Rovelli (2015)
Rovelli is a theoretical physicist and his material was originally published as a series of articles in the Sunday supplement of the Italian newspaper "Il Sole 24 Ore". In best-selling English language book form, the articles run to less than 80 pages but explore some huge and profound issues in a clear and elegant style.
The first lesson is devoted to Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity and Bernhard Riemann's notion of the curvature of space from which we derive the Big Bang Theory and the notion of black holes. The second essay looks at quantum mechanics, introduced by Max Planck, which requires us to accept that no object has a definite position except when colliding with another object.
The third article is dedicated to the universe: 13.8 billion years in the making and unimaginably huge. Lesson four moves in the opposite direction to talk about the unimaginably tiny elementary particles: electrons, protons, and neutrons with the last two further composed of even smaller quarks and gluons.
The fifth lesson admits the contradictions between relativity theory and quantum mechanics and mentions one current attempt to unify the two through something called loop quantum gravity (Rovelli is a founder of this theory). The sixth article is about time, discussing what we mean by past, present and future and why time is said to flow.
The final section discusses our existence as humankind in the light of this strange world of physics. Rovelli reminds us thst "we are made of the same stardust of which all things are made" but "we are perhaps the only species on Earth to be conscious of the inevitability of our individual mortality". As the last word of this fascinating book puts it: "breathtaking".
"A Short History Of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson (2003)
Bryson is an acclaimed travel writer, but this is a very different, yet commercially very successful, work for him - a popular guide to all the key sciences, explaining how the universe was created, how the earth was formed, how life came to be on earth, and how humankind has evolved. Whether it is accurately described as 'short' is a matter of opinion - the text runs to over 400 pages and there are almost another 100 pages of notes and bibliography. But, I guess 'nearly everything' is a big subject and, in spite of its size, it is an easy read because Bryson has such a lucid and amusing style and an infectious enthusiasm for his subject.
Out of a mass of utterly fascinating facts, figures and fun, several themes emerge.
"Space Race" by Deborah Cadbury (2005)
When the space race between the USA and the USSR burst into the public consciousness with the launch of Sputnik, I was 11 years old and my youth was given regular doses of excitement by the latest spectaculars from the rocket engineers and stargazers. Looking back now, it appears inevitable that the race to the moon would be won by the United States but, at the time, the achievements of the Soviet Union were astonishing.
It seemed as if every few months the USSR was embarrassing the USA by a new showpiece: the first object in orbit (Sputnik 1, October 1957), the first dog in space (Laika, November 1957), the first object to leave the pull of the earth (Luna 1, January 1959), the first object to reach the moon (Luna 2, September 1959), the first observation of the far side of the moon (Luna 3, October 1959), the first man in space (Yuri Gagarin, April 1961), the first women in space (Valentina Tereshkova, June 1963), the first space walk (Alexei Leonov, March 1965), the first soft landing on the moon (Luna 9, February 1966).
For years, the USA was always playing catch-up but, in the event, of course, surpassed the Soviets and it was an American Neil Armstrong who was the first to walk on the moon. I stayed up all night to see the Apollo 11 landing on the moon and Armstrong's "one giant leap for mankind". In fact, for all their earlier successes, the Soviet Union never did land a man on the moon.
In retrospect, we tend to forget (and, in the Soviet case, we did not know at the time), how this race involved repeated failures and serious loss of life, including the Soviet Nedelin conflagration in October 1960 which killed over 100, the burning of American astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee in the Apollo 1 disaster of January 1967, and the death of three Soviet cosmonauts in the failed re-entry of Suyuz 11 in June 1971.
Based on a four-part television series which I saw on the BBC in 2005, Deborah Cadbury tells the story of this historic space race through the prism of two special characters: Wernher von Braun, the German scientist who developed the Second World War V-2 rocket who was taken to the United States where he was eventually given a key role in the NASA space programme and became a media celebrity, and Sergei Korolev, a man who spent seven years as one of Stalin's political prisoners before later becoming the anonymous and mysterious Soviet Chief Designer who worked miracles with very limited resources. In fact, von Braun and Korolev never met or even communicated with one another; indeed the identity of the Chief Designer was not revealed until Korolev's death in 1966.
Cadbury's writing style is more journalistic than scientific and I would have prefered more detail and less hyperbole, but the book is still an easy, fascinating and balanced read of a period which she describes as "a defining part in the struggle for global supremacy" and "an open contest between capitalism and communism".
Link: the television series click here
"Tricks Of The Mind" by Derren Brown (2006)
This is one of the worst-written books that I have read in quite a while. Too often - and especially in the first chapter - it reflects the manic and meandering style of the Channel 4 television stage performances for which Brown has become so well-known. His vocabulary is frequently and unnecessarily esoteric (as if he is trying to display his knowledge) and periodically scatological with use of a variety of four-letter words (as if he is trying to be cool but simply sounding coarse). There are many weird personal anecdotes in the course of which he seems to mention every friend he ever had.
The whole work is too long and should have been much more tightly edited. The subjects addressed are only loosely connected and even Brown confesses "I was worried that nothing would hold the various chapters together save a cheap binding and a vague sense that they were all connected with the non-arrestable interests of your loyal and unusual-smelling author" (see what I mean about the odd writing style?). And yet ... there is some really interesting material and fascinating insights here.
The first main chapter deals with magic and trickery and demonstrates how "perception is everything". He shows how conjuring involves creating a false trail of events, while Ouija boards and table-tipping are simply manifestations of ideomotor suggestion. The next chapter deals with memory techniques such as the linking, loci and peg systems. These are more elaborate than most people would want to use in everyday life but encouraged me to create a section on my web site called "How To Remember Things" [click here].
There is then a very long chapter on hypnosis which he suggests is not really a special state induced by special powers but essentially a self-induced experience created by suggestibility. Yet, in the case of many (not all), one can generate hallucinations, alleviate pain, and cure phobias by such hypnosis and the manipulation of images is the basis of much of neuro-linguistic programming (on which he has mixed views). Next we have an odd chapter on how to spot signs of lying and unconscious communication from subtle differences in body language which is far too difficult an exercise for anyone not specially trained and experienced. Even the author admits that: "Spotting lies is a fascinating but extraordinarily tricky skill".
Finally there is perhaps the best chapter of the book where former Christian, now convinced atheist, Brown attacks anti-science & relativism, the supernatural & pseudo-science, mediums & psychics, alternative medicine, and "bad thinking". Rightly he asserts: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. That is terribly important. What tends to happen instead is that extraordinary claims lead to extraordinary convictions."
In this work, Brown does not fully explain his brilliant stage and television performances, but he tells us enough to convince us that this is brilliant trickery - or mentalism, as he calls it - and not magical powers. The message is that, if he can do such fantastic feats without any recourse to special paranormal phenomena, all the supernatural nonsense to which millions are subject and in which many believe can be understood simply as clever delusion. In this, he does us all a valuable service.
"The Universe In a Nutshell" by Stephen Hawking (2001)
Stephen Hawking is a remarkable man: Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, one of the most brilliant and best known scientists of his generation, yet virtually immobilised by the ravages of motor-neuron disease. One Autumn evening in 1995, I went to hear him lecture at the Royal Albert Hall in London on the theme "Does God Throw Dice In Black Holes?" and we were told that the last time that hall was filled to hear a lecture from a scientist the man in question was Albert Einstein.
In 1988, Hawking caused a publishing sensation when his book "A Brief History Of Time" became an immense best-seller. However, I am one of the few people I know who struggled through to the end of what was a very difficult read. Thirteen years later, Hawking revisits the same material in a new book with a similarly clever title. So, what's different?
The books look different:
If this seems complicated, wait till I tell you that a fundamental ingredient of M-Theory is the p-brane (not the pea brain!). A brane is an object that can have a variety (p) of spatial dimensions, so a 1-brane is a string, a 2-brane is a surface, and so on. The real problem occurs with the news that the latest theories suggest that there are 10 or 11 p-branes or dimensions and not just the four dimensions that we know. Hawking himself admits: "I must say that personally I have been reluctant to believe in extra dimensions" but he insists that "one should take models with extra dimensions seriously". So, now you know.
"Why People Believe Weird Things" by Michael Shermer (1997)
The American author of this lucid and persuasive work is publisher of the "Skeptic" magazine and director of the Skeptics Society in the USA. What sort of "weird things" does he have in mind? His two main topics are Holocaust denial (70 pages) and creationism (45 pages), but there are also chapters on extra sensory perception, near death experiences, alien abduction, witches, and the Ayn Rand cult. Other notions mentioned in passing include astrology, Atlantis, Noah's flood, ghosts, dowsing, the Bermuda triangle, poltergeists, levitation, psychokinesis, life after death, monsters, graphology, clairvoyance, faith healing, angels, reincarnation and regression.
Almost everyone I know believes in some of these things, but the point is that all of them have minimal or no evidence to support them. So, why do people believe weird things? In essence, Shermer argues that it is because people want to believe such things so much that they are willing to abandon application of the rules of logic and the scientific need for evidence. He points out that "Humans are pattern-seeking animals" and want to believe ideas that are simple or comforting and appear to give meaning or gratification. In one particularly good chapter, he describes and illustrates no less than 25 fallacies that lead us to believe weird things. If only we could avoid these fallacies, we would live in a saner and safer, if more secular, world.
"You Are Here" by Christopher Potter (2009)
Essentially this fascinating and lucid work covers the same sort of ground as Bill Bryson's excellent 2003 book "A Short History Of Nearly Everything" and it could be thought of as a rather shorter (less than 300 pages), bit more up-to-date (2009), and rather more philosophical history of nearly everything. The title, the cover and even the author's name seem to position this as a work of popular science - which it is - but at times it is a challenging read, especially the sections on quantum mechanics which admittedly is an impossible topic to discuss with any normal language which is how one can have a sentence like: "this is to stray into worlds of such great abstraction, even of imaginary time, that we might begin to risk madness".
The main building blocks for this hugely ambitious work, which covers everything from the furthest reaches of the universe to the smallest units of quantum physics, is a number of space and/or time series: 27 steps from the scale of 1-10 metres to that of over 10 billion light years to encompass a universe with between 30 and 50 billion trillion stars; 11 steps from the scale of 100-10 centimetres down to 10 to the power of minus 10 metres which takes us into the quantum world of quarks and electrons; seven steps from 10 to the power of minus 43 seconds after the Big Bang to 380,000 years after the mother of all explosions; 19 steps in the path of evolution from four billion years ago with single-celled life around hydrothermal vents to the present world of 6.5 billion humans and 1.8 million known species.
Surprisingly Potter is not a scientist as such - his first degree was in mathematics and his second in the history and philosophy of science - and this is his first book, but he writes with clarity and enthusiasm, exhibiting eclectic knowledge and explaining exactly what we do and do not know ("We can throw no light on dark matter"). How to summarise such a masterly exposition? As Potter puts it: "The universe seems to be a machine for processing information made out of some 10 to the power of 80 visible particles".
All reviews by ROGER DARLINGTON
Last modified on 29 July 2016
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