Finding Fibonacci by Keith Devlin

The knowledge of all sums…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

A few years ago, Keith Devlin published The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution, which combined a biography of the famous mathematician with an explanation of what his fame rests on. This book is the story of researching and writing that book, also telling the little that is known about Fibonacci’s life and describing his arithmetical legacy.

It’s a strange little book. It reminded me of being left with bits of leftover wool after knitting an elaborate sweater and deciding to use them to make a matching scarf. It feels like an amalgam of all the things Devlin would have liked to have included in his first book, but didn’t think quite fitted. Knowing nothing whatsoever about Fibonacci, I found it reasonably interesting since it gave me the basics about his achievements, but I’m not sure of how much interest it would hold for anyone who already knows about him, or indeed, who has read Devlin’s earlier book. Devlin starts with an introduction in which he describes his own career as an “expositor” of math in print and on radio. He tell us he is known as the Math Guy in America (hence the misspelling of maths throughout 😉 ). This is partly why he is so interested in Fibonacci, since he too was an early expositor of arithmetic.

Example: 6X + Y = Z
If X = chocolate truffles and Y = FF, then find Z. Answer below.

Real name, Leonardo of Pisa, (Fibonacci was a nickname given to him by a much later mathematician), his fame rests mainly on his major work, Liber Abbaci (The Book of Calculation), which explained the Hindu-Arabic number system (the use of numerals 1-9). Prior to this, arithmetic in the west had relied on an elaborate finger-counting system or the use of the abacus, both of which required a high level of skill. The system of using numerals was easier to learn and also provided a written record, hence an audit trail. Although Leonardo was not the first man to introduce this system to Europe, his book appeared just at a point where trade was about to take off exponentially in the region, so became hugely important and influential. Leonardo also wrote a follow-up book that included many worked practical examples, so that it could be used as a basis for learning how to use arithmetic even by people who weren’t interested in understanding the underlying principles. This was hand-copied thousands of times and was translated into many different regional languages and with the examples converted into local currencies, making it the most important text for spreading the use of arithmetic throughout Europe and beyond.

Monument of Leonardo da Pisa (Fibonacci), by Giovanni Paganucci, completed in 1863, in the Camposanto di Pisa

Devlin intersperses this information about Fibonacci with descriptions of how he, Devlin, went about researching his earlier book. This is sometimes interesting – Devlin writes well when, for example, he re-imagines the Pisa of Leonardo’s time: a trading hub, with sea-transported goods being brought into the town via the river Arno. But there are also parts where my interest level fell away almost entirely – for example, when he gives immensely detailed accounts of visits to libraries to look at ancient manuscripts, and includes blow-by-blow accounts of conversations with librarians about opening times, etc. Leonardo’s work was almost forgotten for centuries till a few researchers brought him back to prominence, and Devlin gives the story of them and their researches too. Again, these accounts varied in interest level, but overall I felt Devlin was trying too hard to make it seem more exciting than it either was or, indeed, needed to be.

Keith Devlin

When it comes to the arithmetical stuff, Devlin explains things simply enough for my decidedly non-mathematical brain to cope with. He gives some of Leonardo’s worked examples, which taught me two things: 1) I’ve forgotten what little algebra I ever knew and 2) thank goodness for Excel. However, I was pleased to see I can still usually get to the right answer eventually with my own elaborate finger-counting method (which also involves sticking out the tip of my tongue – a widely-recognised technique which oddly both Fibonacci and Devlin overlook), so this will undoubtedly be a handy skill after the apocalypse…

In the end, I suspect I might have been better reading Devlin’s earlier book rather than this one – the meat of the story for me was Leonardo’s achievements, and the rest felt a little extraneous. However, I certainly got enough out of it to make it a worthwhile and informative read overall, and the other aspects of it may appeal more to people who are intrigued to see how a biographer goes about his research process.

Answer: Z = 0
(*throws out empty chocolate box*)

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Princeton University Press.

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Book 4 of 20

The Traveler’s Guide to Space by Neil F Comins

Turning dreams into nightmares…

😐 😐

the-travelers-guide-to-spaceThe ultimate adventure of space tourism is likely to become a reality within the next few decades, at least for the very, very rich. It’s not something I ever actually anticipate doing now – too old, too poor – but a girl can still dream! And I’ve dreamed of going into space all my life, having grown up during the great space race era of the ’60s and early ’70s. One of my most wonderful memories is of crowding round a small TV in a boarding house (we were on holiday at the time) watching the grainy pictures of the first moon landing. I anticipated that, by the time I was an adult, we’d be visiting the moon as easily as popping over to Europe.

In this book, Neil Comins sets out to describe the realities of what a space tourist might expect. He starts off with a clear, simple description of the objects in the solar system that we may one day soon be able to visit, from sub-orbital flights, to the International Space Station or commercial equivalents, to the Moon, comets, the moons of Mars, and possibly Mars itself! Inspiring, huh?

Approaching Dust Storm on Mars by Ludek Pesek
Approaching Dust Storm on Mars by Ludek Pesek

Well, no, unfortunately. Comins clearly is one of those travellers (I’ll revert to the correct British spelling of the word now) who is so busy thinking of all the things that could possibly go wrong, he forgets to stop and look at the view. From sick-bags to radiation poisoning, no potential pitfall is left unexamined. It all starts OK, with him giving a realistic idea of the training a traveller would be expected to undergo, what they would wear, eat, etc. But then he starts a catalogue of woe. Where it might be sufficient to say that people on long flights would have to contend against boredom, Comins goes on to talk about the features and symptoms of boredom at great length (somewhat ironically, I felt). While it might be useful to point out that group dynamics have to be carefully controlled, he chunters on about all the various personality clashes that might make life intolerable. When talking about the type of food that will be available, he doesn’t neglect to point out the dangers of flatulence. From speeding particles piercing the optic nerve to the symptoms of PTSD, no misery is left unexplored.


He picks it up towards the end by talking about space photography and the joys of sex in microgravity, but sadly by that time I was exhibiting all the symptoms of anxiety, depression and boredom, so was incapable of anything other than a desire to get back to terra firma. So when he went on to explain that the effects of microgravity might make sex quite problematic for both men and women, I barely had enough strength left to be disappointed. I’m afraid I skim-read the last third or so.

Given my undying love for Star Trek and my belief that life on Mars crab-cartoonhas to be better than life on Earth (no Brexit, no Trump, no soccer – bliss!), it amazed me that Comins could actually make a wet weekend in Bognor sound exciting in comparison to space travel. Though I’m sure if he wrote a book about Bognor, he’d warn of flu germs, the drying effects of the salt in seawater, and lethal crabs lurking in the sand to nip unwary toes.

More seriously, the book is extraordinarily dull, with lengthy bullet point lists of symptoms of everything from anxiety to bipolar disorder, and even of things you should try to see from space, starting with

  • the Earth
  • the Moon
  • the Sun…

Gosh, that’s helpful! I’d never have thought of looking out for any of those things! He has taught me one invaluable thing should I ever be lucky enough to go into space – to check the passenger list to make sure Comins isn’t going on the same trip. I fear those group dynamics may well task the most conciliatory captain. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going out to gaze at the stars and resume my dreaming…


NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Columbia University Press.

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Welcome to the Universe by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss and J. Richard Gott

From 2+2 to Superstring Theory and beyond…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

welcome-to-the-universeThe preface explains that this book arises from a course run by the three authors at Princeton University – a course on the universe for non-science majors; indeed, for students who perhaps had never taken a science course before. My knowledge of science is pretty basic and my maths is, if anything, even dodgier. So although the idea of the book intrigued me, I feared it might be way over my head.

The book is divided into three sections, each written mainly by one of the authors with the occasional contribution from one of the others. The first section is Stars, Planets and Life with Tyson as the main author and a couple of chapters from Strauss. It starts brilliantly for the beginner, with an introduction to the very simplest stuff, like how long it takes for the Earth to revolve on its axis. At this early stage, Tyson assumes no prior knowledge and lays down some terminological groundwork for the more difficult stuff to come later. For example, he explains exactly what an Astronomical Unit is and that it is abbreviated to AU. He’s very funny, so that these chapters are entertaining as well as informative.

Yay! Finally I understand what 'parallax' means! Credit: J Richard Gott
Yay! Finally I understand what ‘parallax’ means…
Credit: J Richard Gott

Each section takes the history of scientific discovery as a template for explaining what scientists know about the universe today and how they know it. All through the book, the authors are careful to credit those who came before, even when subsequent discoveries may have proved them wrong in some aspect. They show how even disproven theories contributed to the advances made by later scientists. There are a couple of chapters in this first section that are very heavy on maths and, truthfully, lost me so badly that I wondered whether there was much point in continuing. But I decided to struggle on and happily discovered that most of the book is perfectly accessible even to those of us whose eyes glaze over at any equation more complex than 2+2=4. On the other hand, there’s loads of very well explained maths in there for anyone whose mind works that way, or who wants to get a feel for whether they would like to study astrophysics at higher levels perhaps.

...and why humans don't glow in the dark! Credit: Michael A Strauss
…and why humans don’t glow in the dark!
Credit: Michael A Strauss

Tyson takes us through how scientists learned to measure distances between stars, how they work out their composition and age, and goes into considerable depth on the lifecycles of stars. It’s fascinating stuff and made me realise how often popular science books just tell the reader something and expect us to accept it. Not this one – every statement is backed up with detail of how we know these things and what they mean in the broader context of the universe. Throughout, the book is superbly illustrated, not just with pretty pictures (though most of them are) but with clear, beautifully designed and explained diagrams and charts that are hugely helpful in understanding the text and visualising things like size comparisons. This section finishes with a chapter on the search for planets that could support life, explaining exactly what scientists are looking for and why, and how they’re going about it.

From simple... Credit: Robert J Vanderbei
From simple…
Credit: Robert J Vanderbei

Strauss takes over as the main author for the second section on Galaxies. He takes the reader through the history of how our own galaxy was first mapped and then the discoveries that led to scientists realising that the Milky Way is only a tiny part of the universe. This section has some fantastic images from the various exploratory missions like Hubble, but the really great thing is that Strauss explains in detail what we’re actually seeing – how to interpret the images rather than just admiring them. He then goes on to explain the discovery that (almost) all galaxies are moving away from each other, proving that the universe is expanding and enabling scientists to estimate its age and speculate as to its future. There is a fair amount of maths again in this section, but I found it easy to ignore for the most part while still grasping the concepts Strauss describes. sublime... Photo credit: Adam Block, Mt. Lemmon Skycenter, University of Arizona
…to sublime…
The Trifid Nebula – Photo credit: Adam Block, Mt. Lemmon Skycenter, University of Arizona

The final section is by Richard Gott and takes us from Einstein’s relativity back to the Big Bang and beyond. I hold my hands up – it’s at Einstein that my brain always closes down and I find myself overwhelmed with an urgent desire to giggle, somewhat hysterically. However, Gott actually explained the whole E = mc 2 thing well enough for me to more or less grasp, plus for the first time I now kinda understand why nuclear bombs work (not sure of the usefulness of that knowledge, but you never know when it might come in handy). His explanation of black holes and spaghettification is both humorous and clear. speculative. I do like the idea of a multiverse of bubbles... Credit: Adapted from J Richard Gott (Time Travel in Einstein's Universe, Houghton Mifflin, 2001)
…to speculative. I do like the idea of a multiverse of bubbles…
Credit: Adapted from J Richard Gott (Time Travel in Einstein’s Universe, Houghton Mifflin, 2001)

He then takes us through all the stuff that sound more like Star Trek plots than science (to my limited mind) – cosmic strings, wormholes, time travel, superstring theory, inflation, etc. While I’ll never fully grasp this stuff and retain a large degree of cynicism about a lot of it, Gott’s explanations are great, and hugely enhanced by some of the best and clearest diagrams I’ve come across, including a spectacular six-page spread in full colour showing Gott’s own map of the universe. He finishes with some speculation about the beginnings of the universe and even what may have come before the Big Bang, and shows how these (crazy-sounding) ideas arise out of the most recent science, while making very clear which bits have been confirmed by observation missions and which haven’t yet. Fascinating stuff! His final plea is for Earth to look quickly at colonising Mars to increase our species’ chances of longterm survival.

The three authors discuss the book…

This is a great book, managing to be both hugely informative and entertaining – undoubtedly the best and most comprehensive of its kind that I’ve come across. It seems to me it is indeed suitable for a beginner so long as s/he has an enquiring mind and either the ability to understand the maths or the willingness to skim over those bits that are maths-heavy. Highly recommended, but do get the hardback rather than the Kindle – it’s beautifully designed and produced, and the illustrations are an essential aid to understanding the text.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Princeton University Press. All illustrations are from the book.

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Eureka! 50 Scientists Who Shaped Human History by John Grant

Giants’ shoulders…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

EurekaThis is a collection of mini biographies of some of the great scientists who have contributed to our current understanding of ourselves, our world and the universe we live in. In his introduction, John Grant points out that any selection is going to be subjective to a degree, but all the major names are here – Galileo, Newton, Einstein, etc. – as well as several who are less well known, certainly to me. The book is aimed at teens and young adults, but frankly it works equally well for older adults like me, who have only a superficial knowledge of the history of science.

Each section follows roughly the same pattern. Grant quickly places the person in the overall timeline of scientific discovery, gives a short personal biography showing how they got involved in their particular area of science, and then explains their major achievements and, in some cases, their failures. The chapters vary in length, from a couple of pages for those people who made one specific contribution to science – like Edward Jenner, the man who discovered that cowpox could be used to create a vaccine for smallpox, leading eventually to its worldwide eradication (why didn’t I know about him?!) – to perhaps ten or so pages for those, like Newton or Einstein, who fundamentally changed the perception of the fields in which they worked. The book is structured chronologically, which allows Grant to show very clearly how each generation of scientists built on the work of those before them – in Newton’s words: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Grant’s writing style is clear and very approachable, never talking down to his audience, and with a good deal of humour laced through the book to prevent the science becoming too dry. He makes the science side clear enough on the whole for even the more scientifically challenged amongst us to understand, at least until we get to relativity and quantum thingummyjigs, at which point my eyes began to roll in my head and my tongue lolled out. However, that’s my normal reaction to these things, so I don’t hold Grant to blame – he almost got me to sorta understand why the whole E = mc2 thing was important, which is more than many science writers have done. And I briefly felt I’d grasped the Schrödinger’s cat thing too… but the moment passed. (I’ve always felt it would have been of more practical benefit if Schrödinger had explained how to get a cat in a box, myself…)


But the science is only part of it. The book is as much about the history of scientific research and gives an unvarnished glimpse at some of the jealousies and backstabbing that happen in that world as much as in any other. Grant shows how sometimes female scientists would be sidelined or have credit for their work taken by their male colleagues, often only being given recognition decades or even centuries after the event. To be fair, this happened to plenty of male scientists too, either because they were outside the snobby scientific community or simply from professional rivalries getting out of hand. Men heavily outnumber women in the book, but this is to be expected since, as Grant points out, until very recently (and still, in some parts of the world) science wasn’t considered a suitable occupation for the “gentler sex”. Hah! Tell that to Marie Curie, or Émilie du Châtelet! Mostly, though, the story is one of co-operation and collaboration, especially when the book brings us towards the present day.

Each chapter ends with a little summary of factlets, such as whether the scientist has had any comets, craters, prizes etc named after her/him, plus suggestions for further reading, and information about films or music that may have been based on or inspired by her/him. These sections, I should warn you, can be fatal to your to-be-read and to-be-watched piles…

John Grant
John Grant

John Grant and I are regular visitors to each others blogs – he blogs about movies over on Noirish under his blog name, realthog – and he kindly provided me with a copy of this book. So obviously you will have to consider whether there may be some bias in my review. But in truth, I think this is an excellent book, informative, well written and well presented, that gives an overview of the science and scientists which is easily digestible without feeling superficial. Science has changed since I was a girl (they’ve discovered the Earth isn’t flat, for a start) and scientific writers have realised they have to make the subject interesting if they want young people to be attracted into it. This book does that – Grant writes with a warm enthusiasm and respect for the work these scientists do, without ever setting them up as unapproachable objects of reverence. He includes not just the great theoreticians whose ideas about the workings of the universe may be quite hard for the layperson to really grasp, but also more practical scientists, making a difference to our day-to-day lives, in medical research, climatology, computing, etc.

I read it straight through and enjoyed getting a feeling for the timeline of science, but this would also work very well as a reference book to look up or remind oneself of what a particular scientist is noted for. Highly recommended for any young person from about 13 up, I’d say, and for any adult who would just like to know a bit more about the subject.

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PS John, I forgive you for the American spelling… but will Aberdeen??

Atmosphere of Hope: The Search for Solutions to the Climate Crisis by Tim Flannery

A roller-coaster ride…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Atmosphere of HopeIn December this year, the next United Nations Climate Change Conference will convene in Paris to make decisions on how to cap carbon emissions at a level that will ensure that global temperatures will rise by no more than 2° Celcius compared to pre-industrial levels. This book is a summary of where we are now and an action plan for the future.

The book is heavily polemical, very much Tim Flannery’s personal attempt to influence the decision makers. As a scientist and leading environmentalist of long-standing, Flannery is Professorial Fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne, a member of the Australian Independent Climate Council and chairman of the Copenhagen Climate Council; so he’s certainly qualified to speak authoritatively on the subject.

This was a bit of a roller-coaster read for me, both in terms of style and content. In the introduction, Flannery lays out his stall. Taking as his starting point his own earlier book The Weather Makers, he sets out to show how things have developed over the decade since, where his opinions have changed over the years, and what he now thinks are the best ways forward if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change. At this stage, I was concerned I might find the book unreadable. His style is abrasive, self-aggrandizing and arrogant and much of the introduction and early chapters read like a piece of self-advertisement. He mentions his previous book umpteen times, dismissing anyone who has criticised any aspect of it over the years, and spends far too long justifying his then conclusions. In fact, at times there is a sense almost of paranoia – as if he is the victim of a conspiracy of vested interests trying to discredit his work. He is vitriolic about the Abbott government in Australia – still in power when he was writing but now gone. Of course, as the cliché goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you…

Hard to believe people are still building them...
Hard to believe people are still building them…

However, having vented his spleen, Flannery then settles down into a series of well-written chapters where he lays out the current situation very clearly. He starts with a bleak picture of what may happen if temperatures are not contained to the 2°C target – to the Arctic and Antarctic, to forests, wildlife and oceans, and not least to humanity in those parts of the world most sensitive to rising temperatures. It’s all stuff we’ve heard before, but brought up to date with the latest science. Flannery assumes throughout that by this time only those with vested interests in the carbon industries are still denying the link between man’s activities and climate change, and so is dismissive and even occasionally virulent about deniers. There is throughout a feeling of urgency – no time left to waste preaching to the unconverted, let’s just ignore them and get on with what needs to be done. Fine by me, but this is not a book to win over waverers with charm.

The next few chapters take us through individual aspects of energy production, starting with the dirty ones and moving on to the clean. This was the part of the book that gave me a sense of hope – assuming Flannery’s figures are correct, and I see no reason to doubt them, then fossil fuels seem to be losing their overwhelming attractiveness as renewables become both more efficient and cheaper due to economies of scale. We’re nowhere near out of the woods, but Flannery made me feel as if perhaps we’ve spotted the path.

North Western Glacier Alaska - 1940 and 2005
North Western Glacier Alaska – 1940 and 2005

In the final section, Flannery discusses how he believes we should proceed. His position is that, even in the unlikely (but not impossible) event that we reduce fossil fuel use to zero over the next few decades, we will still have the problem of existing CO2 in the atmosphere to deal with. He discusses the difficulties of the task and goes into some detail on some of the schemes that have been put forward. To my unscientific mind, lots of these sound like pie-in-the-sky schemes, or actually poison-in-the-sky, to be more accurate. Flannery himself isn’t keen on the kind of geo-engineering scheme that suggests pumping other stuff, like sulphur, into the atmosphere in order to induce cooling, on the grounds that firstly, we can’t foresee all the possible implications and secondly, the underlying problem of too much carbon still remains.

Hope - Harnessing solar power in Spain
Hope – Harnessing solar power in Spain

He suggests what he calls a ‘third way’ – a mixture of preparing for climate change by making necessary adaptations at a local level while attempting to remove CO2 from the atmosphere by a variety of schemes, from massive seaweed farms to storing carbon in rocks and plastics, that he feels could be effective without the risks of geo-engineering. To be honest, much of this sounded impractical and a bit like wishful thinking to me, but hey! Most of it was well over my head scientifically and he’s an expert, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. It’s always been my opinion that it will have to be the scientists who solve this problem in the end, and the role of governments and the people should be to give them the finances and resources they need, while trying to stop any of them accidentally blowing up the galaxy in their enthusiasm.

Tim Flannery
Tim Flannery

However, after cheering me up in the earlier chapters, I’m afraid this final section plunged me back into gloom – the sheer scale of the task and the short-termism of so many governments make it all seem pretty overwhelming. I comforted myself with the thought that perhaps Flannery had done this deliberately, so that no-one would be approaching the Paris Conference feeling over-confident. Overall well worth reading – a good introduction for anyone new to the subject and a thorough update for those with a little more knowledge. Let’s hope the politicians attending the Conference will pay attention to the science more than the politics for once… the world will be watching. Won’t we?

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Grove Atlantic.

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Resurrection Science by M. R. O’Connor

“To be or not to be, that is the question…”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

resurrection scienceIn a period called by scientists the ‘Sixth Extinction’, the question of conservation has never been more relevant or immediate. But what exactly are we conserving for? What are the moral, ethical and philosophical questions that surround the various types of conservation? In this excellent book, M.R. O’Connor highlights some of the species on the edge of extinction and uses them as jumping off points to look at some of the arguments, from the practical to the esoteric, that surround the whole question of species conservation.

It is a truth that should be universally acknowledged, if it isn’t already, that the most interesting books, especially in the field of science, are also the hardest to review. There is barely a page in this book that didn’t have me pausing for thought, taking a note, nodding in agreement, becoming outraged, puzzled, saddened, inspired. I could write 20,000 words on it (but I won’t!) and still only give the briefest flavour of the ground O’Connor covers. So rather than try to do that, I’m going to look in depth at the first chapter and then restrict myself to a brief overview of the rest.

Kihansi spray toad and baby at Bronx Zoo, one of only two remaining colonies, both in US zoos.
Kihansi spray toad and baby at Bronx Zoo, one of only two remaining colonies, both in US zoos.

The Kihansi spray toad has evolved to live in one tiny area of the world only – in the spray zone of a waterfall in the Udzungwa mountains in East Africa. Previously an unknown species, it was only discovered when plans were being developed to use the waterfall as a massive hydro-power project. In line with global rules, a biodiversity survey was carried out to assess the impact of the project, and the little toad suddenly became famous in conservation circles. In short, the project went ahead and despite all the technological efforts that were ploughed, at considerable cost, into saving the toad, it went extinct in the wild. But two colonies of them still exist in separate zoos in the US with hopes that they may one day be reintroduced into a specially adapted environment in their original habitat.

A common enough little story, but O’Connor uses it to raise some of the ethical and philosophical issues around the whole question of conservation…

Should the project have gone ahead knowing the likelihood of it causing the extinction of the toad? O’Connor discusses the desperate need for more electricity if this region of the world is to develop out of its current poverty. Hydro-power is clean energy – is this not exactly what we privileged Westerners want the ‘third world’ to develop rather than turning to fossil fuel? How will we eradicate poverty if we put biodiversity above human need?

The last remianing male Northern white rhino in the world being prtoected by armed guards. His horn has been removed to make him less attractive to poachers.
The last remaining male Northern white rhino in the world being protected by armed guards. His horn has been removed to make him less attractive to poachers.

Which leads to the next question – is nature there to ‘serve’ man or does it have an intrinsic value of its own? Are we its master or its caretaker? Was the toad’s existence important before we knew about it? O’Connor ranges fascinatingly through philosophy and ethics in an attempt to elucidate the arguments around this fundamental question.

Can a species really be said to exist if it can’t survive in its own habitat? In other words, if the only remaining members of a species are in captivity, is not that species effectively extinct? This leads on to other questions. How quickly do animals in captivity evolve to suit their new surroundings? One of the scientists working with the toads claims that there are already differences between the two colonies. So can they really be said to be the same species as the one in the wild? If they are reintroduced to the wild, what impact will that have? The habitat has in the meantime been evolving to take account of their absence – are we interfering more by trying to turn back the clock?

In order to create a liveable habitat for the toads, a sprinkler system has been installed at enormous cost – this in a region where children routinely die from poverty and preventable diseases. Could the money have been better spent? Bluntly, is the life of a toad worth more or less than the life of a child? How much are we prepared to spend to conserve a species that can no longer survive without perpetual human management? In these circumstances, can it really be considered ‘wild’ any more… or even ‘natural’?

Florida panther How important was the sense of wilderness to the formation of the American character? What will the loss of 'wild' animals mean for the American psyche?
Florida panther
How important was the sense of wilderness to the formation of the American character? What will the loss of ‘wild’ animals mean for the American psyche?

Along the way, O’Connor discusses the suspicion that sometimes greets conservation efforts in Africa caused by the fact that it has so often been done for the benefit of a white elite – for example, safari parks were originally preserved as private hunting grounds, and to create them native people were frequently driven off their traditional lands. And she shows how divided conservationists are over all these questions – with the pragmatic element feeling that the arguments will go on for ever in academia while on the ground extinctions will continue at an ever more rapid rate.

In later chapters, O’Connor goes much further into genetic conservation – gene banks containing millions of samples, including of species already extinct. Should we try to resurrect these species? How far back should we go – the toad? The passenger pigeon? The mammoth? Neanderthal man? We have the genes for them all. The science is nearly there, but what would the impact be? Are genes alone enough, or is a species defined as much by learned behaviour as genetics? And will these resurrected species be considered ‘real’ or ‘artificial’ – the answer to that will affect how far people are willing to go to conserve them should the species approach extinction again. Will the idea that extinct species can be resurrected in the future make governments less willing to spend money on conservation today?

Hunting and loss of habitat caused the passenger pigeon to go extinct over 100 years ago. Now some people plan to resurrect them...
Hunting and loss of habitat drove the passenger pigeon to extinction over 100 years ago. Now some people plan to resurrect them…

I hope I’ve been able to give a tiny flavour of how fascinating I found this book. O’Connor is an investigative journalist rather than a scientist and this shows through in her ability both to present complex arguments clearly enough for the non-academic reader, and to take an objective view of the subject. She raises and debates the questions, detailing the arguments put forward by the leaders in the field, but she doesn’t force answers on the reader. She leaves us to think it through for ourselves, and shows us that each case is different, creating its own unique set of questions. From Northern white rhinos and the effects of war, to the panther in the south-eastern USA and its impact on the American character and psyche, the book is stuffed to bursting point with the most current thinking on the ethics of conservation, all written in an immensely readable and accessible way. Without exception, the most interesting and wide-ranging book on the subject I have ever read and one that has made me much more aware of the complexities of the debate. Earns my highest recommendation.

Serious moves are already afoot to clone mammoths by creating an embryo from genetic material and implanting it in the womb of a donor elephant. Good idea? The elephant doesn't get to express an opinion...
Serious moves are already afoot to clone mammoths by creating an embryo from genetic material and implanting it in the womb of a donor elephant. Good idea? The elephant doesn’t get to express an opinion…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, St Martin’s Press.

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Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences by James Lawrence Powell

four revolutions in the earth sciencesThe weight of evidence…

😀 😀 😀 😀

In the introduction, Powell tell us he was inspired to write this book when a friend, discussing the fact that the vast majority of scientists accept that the activities of man are contributing to global warming, remarked that scientists have been wrong before. Accepting the undeniable truth of that, Powell decided to look at the recent history of four important theories in earth sciences, showing that though scientists may have been wrong at first, they “eventually came to be right”.

The history of the four discoveries confirms the cardinal virtue of science: it is self-correcting. Scientists pushing the boundaries of knowledge are often wrong, but they do not stay wrong.

Considering the fair amount of depth Powell goes into on each of his subjects, the book is surprisingly accessible to the non-scientists among us. I found I only got lost occasionally and, when reading books like this, I accept that there are things that are too complex to simplify down to my level! In each section Powell starts at a point before the theory he is discussing was developed, explaining the existing state of knowledge and supposition. He then introduces us to the scientists who contributed to the development of the new theory, along with those who opposed it, and finally to those who ‘proved’ it. He provides little anecdotes of their lives, or their friendships or quarrels with each other, which prevent the book from becoming too dry a read.

James Larence Powell
James Lawrence Powell

There are two types of enjoyable popular science books as far as I’m concerned – those that clearly explain something and convince me of it, and those that clearly explain something and provoke me to argue with the author’s conclusions. This one falls firmly into the latter category. Oddly, I started out a fairly firm believer in all four (five really, or six if you include the extinction of the dinosaurs) of the theories in the book, and ended up only fully convinced of two – or two and a half at a push. Throughout, Powell is critical of scientists who accepted theories and held onto them despite lack of proof or even once discoveries had been made that clearly invalidated them. But I felt Powell fell into that same trap himself too often, claiming a thing as being so when in fact the proof isn’t yet there. The very subtitle of the book – From Heresy to Truth – is a prime example of this. His basic position seems contradictory – that scientists of old were stubborn and foolhardy to stand by their theories without adequate proof but that we should accept the theories of current science, also often without final evidence of their validity. And he makes generalized statements that are clearly an expression of his opinion rather than of ‘fact’…

The discoveries from astronomy and earth science expose the infinitesimal standing of the human race in time and space. They force us to admit that we are the products of, and the potential victims of, random events.

Do they really? I would imagine that the billions of people who believe in some form of God might not feel forced to admit that. Indeed, Powell himself points out in the course of the book that even many scientists are willing to admit that science and religion can co-exist. But this is just one example – there were several occasions when I felt he expressed himself more forcefully than the evidence justified, or substituted opinion for fact.

Continental Drift
Continental Drift

However, despite finding I was treating his conclusions with some caution, I found the book interesting and informative, and felt that overall he more or less made his case. Perhaps had he been a little less ambitious to prove the rightness of so many current theories, he might have been more convincing overall. Here is a brief summary of the theories he discusses…

Deep Time

Powell shows how the assumed age of the Earth has changed over the last century or so, as scientists made discoveries – such as evolution – that negated the previous assumptions. As he does in each section, he highlights the scientists involved, including those who fought strongly to retain their existing position even when the evidence became overwhelming. He also points out that, in the end, it was physicists rather than geologists who made the most important discovery – how to determine the age of rocks through developing ways to measure radioactive decay.

My verdict: Not proven – an old Scottish verdict which means basically ‘I believe it, but I don’t think you’ve really proved it’. I admit the main reason for this verdict is that the stuff about radioactive decay went largely over my head – but it seemed to me that, as Powell described it, there were still too many assumptions involved for this to be a theory incapable of being overturned by further future discoveries.

Giant Impact Hypothesis for creation of the Moon Pciture credit: National Geographic
Giant Impact Hypothesis for creation of the Moon
Picture credit: National Geographic

Continental Drift and Plate Tectonics

In 1911, Alfred Wegener noticed that the east coast of South America was a great fit for the west coast of Africa, and speculated that they had once been joined. The then greats of the scientific world largely dismissed this idea, even when the fossil records between the two coasts showed a remarkable similarity. Powell takes us through all the experimentation that gradually proved the truth of the theory, as geologists speculated that continental drift and plate tectonics were the likely cause of mountain formation and of the mid-Atlantic ridge.

My verdict: Proven. With GPS, scientists have now been able to measure the rate of drift – that’s the kind of proof I like!

Meteorite Impact

While discussing the theory that meteorites have impacted the Earth, on occasion with catastrophic results, I felt Powell got himself a bit side-tracked into both the extinction of the dinosaurs and the impact theory for the creation of the Moon.

My verdict – the jury is still debating. I don’t think any of us who watched Shoemaker-Levy 9 crash into Jupiter some years back could doubt that major meteor strikes happen, nor be unconvinced of their catastrophic potential; and I was convinced of the evidence that they have happened here on Earth. However I felt Powell’s certainty that this was the cause of the extinction of the dinosaurs was too strongly expressed – again, I tend to believe it, but don’t think it has been ‘proved’. And as for the Moon creation theory, even Powell had to admit that this one needs much more evidence before it moves from theory to fact. (Oddly enough, I thought that one had been proved – Powell unconvinced me.)

Dinosaur extinction Credit: Mark Garlick, Science Photo Library Photo??? It must be true, then...
Dinosaur extinction
Credit: Mark Garlick, Science Photo Library
Photo??? It must be true, then…

Global Warming

So this is the crucial one – Powell’s starting and finishing point. Although he refers to it as Global Warming, in fact the crux of his argument is proving that it’s caused in large part by man’s actions. Again this one got a bit ‘sciency’ for me, but for the most part I was able to follow the arguments.

My verdict: Proven. It seems to me the weight of measurable evidence – such as from atmospheric measurements over time showing the rapid rise in concentration of carbon dioxide to be almost exactly parallel with the increase in emissions – makes this one as close to proven as it’s likely to be. And given the potential impact, I’d rather err on the side of caution anyway. But, although Powell’s position is that this one is beyond doubt, he also makes it clear that estimates of the likely impact are still subject to debate. Personally, I feel we’re probably safest to assume a worst-case scenario and act accordingly…and on that final note, I think Powell and I finally reached agreement.

An interesting book, despite Powell’s occasional forays beyond the evidence, and one I would recommend to anyone who is still in doubt as to the reality of man’s impact on the environment.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Columbia University Press.

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What Galileo Saw: Imagining the Scientific Revolution by Lawrence Lipking

what galileo saw“What people saw then, what people see now, depends on the kind of story they might choose to tell.”

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This quote, taken from the preface, is a good summary of Lipking’s argument in this interesting and original look at the period known as the Scientific Revolution – running roughly between the publications of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory (1543) and Newton’s Principia (1687). He sets out to show that the discoveries that were made in this period were interpreted through the prism of the existing ‘imagined world’ while at the same time, and on into the future, contributing to its gradual change – a process he suggests is continuing to the present day. To make his case, he expands beyond science to look at literature and philosphy, showing the interconnection of all three in interpreting and re-interpreting the new discoveries.

Some of this is fairly well covered ground, especially the beginnings of the religion v. science debate – the resistance of the Church to anything that impinged on existing doctrine, the attempts of many scientists to fit their discoveries into the contemporaneous religious view of creation, and the failure of some to do so, leading to accusations of heresy.

Galileo's drawings of the phases of the moon
Galileo’s drawings of the phases of the moon

But what is much less familiar, to me at least, is Lipking’s argument that artistic creativity had as great an impact as rational thought in driving and making sense of the new revelations in all the major fields of science. To argue his case, Lipking spends as much time analysing the work of poets, writers and philosophers as he does looking at the achievements of the scientists. Starting with Milton, he shows how poetry and philosophy dealt with the passing of old myths in favour of the new science – sometimes with regret and nostalgia, but also helping to formulate a newly ‘imagined world’ to take account of the discoveries. He takes extracts from Shakespeare, Donne, and Wordsworth, amongst others, and convincingly shows how symbolism in poetry changed over time, as poets took account of the realism that science had introduced into views of the natural world. This is done in depth, usually using well-known passages, and I found it made me see them afresh with much more awareness of their historical context. And he also shows how philosophers such as Descartes and Bacon contributed to the creation and interpretation of the ‘imagined world’ in which both science and art operated.

Milton was well informed: he had met Galileo and seems to have looked through telescopes and read some recent astronomy books. Apparently the angel Raphael had also read them. He answers Adam’s questions about the universe, in book 8 of ‘Paradise Lost’, with a brief version of Galileo’s ‘Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems’, comparing Ptolemaic or geocentric explanations with Copernican heliocentrism. But unlike Galileo he does not take sides, and in the end discourages Adam from choosing…

But Lipking also argues that art was essential to the progress of science, partly as I’ve already mentioned by imagining the world anew, but also because scientists themselves were obliged to be able to draw and write in order to disseminate their findings. He also highlights the distinction between the ability to see and the ability to perceive, suggesting that the latter was as important in science as in art. For example, he points out that some people couldn’t see what Galileo saw when he looked into the sky, even using the same equipment, suggesting that part of the reason for this is that our perceptions are governed by our expectations. Galileo and the other scientists were open to the possibility that existing perceptions were wrong, so were able to ‘see’ past them. But he also shows that, having made their discovery and built a new ‘imagined world’ around them, many of the scientists then took just as entrenched defensive positions as the ones they had helped overturn.

Sir Isaac Newton
Sir Isaac Newton

As a final strand, Lipking looks throughout at how the Scientific Revolution itself has been perceived over time, showing that its story has also been re-imagined by succeeding generations. He draws attention to the fact that many of the scientists who are today revered as the forerunners of rational thought held some views that would now seem to us to be superstition: for example, Newton’s obsession with alchemy. And he also discusses some of the great discoveries of the period which have subsequently been disproven or, more often, proven to have been misinterpreted. Overall, the book gives a good reminder that the scientific certainties of each generation might only last until new information becomes available – or until a new world is imagined around them. The thrust is forward, but not always in a straight line.

Lawrence Lipking
Lawrence Lipking

This is a complex book which I feel requires the reader to have at least a basic understanding of the major scientific advances of the period – that is, to understand them in general, rather than in scientific, terms – since Lipking seems to make the not unreasonable assumption that interested readers will have an existing level of familiarity with them. Some knowledge of the poetry, plays and philosophers of the period would be helpful too, though I felt Lipking explained and illustrated these aspects more fully as he went along. Personally, I found I was struggling from time to time through lack of background knowledge, especially on the questions of philosophy – hence the loss of 1 star for me, though I suspect it would be a five-star read for someone coming to it better informed. But for the most part I found the book both fascinating and thought-provoking, full of ideas that are still very relevant when looking at how scientific advances are treated today.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Cornell University Press.

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Thirteen: The Apollo Flight that Failed by Henry SF Cooper

Houston, we have a problem…

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thirteenOn April 13, 1970, two bare wires created an electrical current that caused an oxygen tank to explode. Bad enough if this were to happen on Earth, but much worse when it happens on a small spacecraft hurtling towards the Moon. This is the story of what went wrong on Apollo 13 and how the flight controllers and astronauts managed to bring the badly damaged craft home.

Cooper’s writing style is plain but clear. He has had access to most of the people involved in the mission and gives an enthralling picture of these men retaining their professionalism under extreme stress, working as the ultimate team to bring their colleagues home. He gives a minute-by-minute account of the immediate aftermath of the explosion, when neither the astronauts nor mission control knew what had happened or how severe the damage might have been. At that stage, the thought was still that the planned moon landing might be possible, but as various systems began to fail, it became clear that the task would be to ensure the survival of the crew. Cooper shows the seat-of-the-pants planning that made this possible, as the scientists and engineers in mission control scrambled around inventing previously unthought-of solutions, using computer equipment that seems laughably inadequate to our modern eyes.

Apollo 13 Launch
Apollo 13 Launch

Meantime, he also shows us the astronauts becoming increasingly exhausted as the flight continued, and suffering dehydration as they rationed their drinking water to dangerous levels. We see the crew gradually finding it more and more difficult to carry out the instructions coming from mission control, with mistakes creeping in both in space and on the ground as the crisis went on. But Cooper also shows the patience and commitment of each team member, battling to find ways to overcome each new problem as it arose.

Cooper explains how the accident came about – that as the moon flights proceeded a certain level of over-confidence had crept in, meaning that pre-flight checks and simulations hadn’t been carried out quite as thoroughly as they perhaps should have been. And we are shown how the fickle public, already bored with moon landings, suddenly tuned back in in droves when the flight went wrong.

Gene Kranz, Flight Director
Gene Kranz, Flight Director

The over-whelming feeling that I got from the book was one of intense admiration, not just for the courage of the astronauts, thousand of miles away in a tiny inadequate-seeming craft, but for the mission controllers, truly like heroes from sci-fi, coming up with ideas and workarounds of which Geordie La Forge himself would have been proud. We all know the outcome, but I still found I was holding my breath as the crew plunged towards earth’s atmosphere with no-one knowing whether the heat-shield would hold.

There’s a lot of fairly basic science in the book, which Cooper explains simply enough for anyone to grasp. I’ve seen a couple of reviews criticising some aspects of the science – mainly misuse of terminology – but I wasn’t aware of that while reading, and don’t feel it was anything particularly significant. I thought Cooper got the balance just about right between the technical and the human in the telling of the story, and the shortish book contains no unnecessary padding. An informative and exciting read – recommended.

The crew - Fred Haise, Capt James Lovell and John Swigert
Fred Haise, Capt James Lovell and John Swigert

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Open Road.

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The Future of the Mind by Michio Kaku

the future of the mindScience, sci-fi or fantasy?

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As a theoretical physicist, Michio Kaku may not be the obvious choice to tackle the subject of the science of the brain, but he undoubtedly has a gift for writing about complex subjects in an accessible way. In this book he looks at the history of neuroscience, where we are now, and then spends a huge chunk of the book speculating about where the scientists may take us in the future.

He starts by describing the physical properties of the brain, explaining how over the last century or so scientists have discovered how the various parts interact with each other. He speculates in an informed way as to why the human brain should have evolved as it has, and defines the main difference between humans and other species as our ability to consider possible futures as a way to inform our decisions.

I call this the “space-time theory of consciousness,” because it emphasizes the idea that animals create a model of the world mainly in relation to space, and to one another, while humans go beyond and create a model of the world in relation to time, both forward and backward.

He then looks at some of the experimentation that is currently taking place, with major pushes from both the EU and the US to discover possible treatments for the growing problem of dementia caused by our ageing populations, together with other kinds of mental illness, which he suggests quite firmly are in the main caused by physical factors.


So far, so good. His writing style and enthusiasm for the subject make for an interesting and informative read, though his descriptions of much of the animal experimentation that is going on also left me feeling uncomfortable and conflicted. Although he continually emphasises the aim of treatment for illnesses and brings up the subject of ethics repeatedly, it seemed fairly clear that many of the scientists, Kaku included, are really interested in knowledge for knowledge sake, and don’t always have strong personal ethical constraints in how they pursue it. Frankenstein, it appears, is alive and well, and is being heavily subsidised by our governments. Let us hope he is also being subjected to close scrutiny…although, as Kaku makes clear, much of the research is going on in the name of ‘defence’ – never a field noted for its sensitivity and humanity.

frankenstein's monster

Dr Nicolelis starts by connecting the motor cortex of rhesus monkeys to mechanical arms. These mechanical arms have sensors on them, which then send signals back to the brain by electrodes connected to the somatosensory cortex (which registers the sense of touch). The monkeys were given a reward after every successful trial; they learned how to use the apparatus within four to nine trials.


But what Kaku seems really interested in is the future, and here he goes into so much wild speculation that I found my credulity creaking at the seams. For a start, every speculation he comes up with seems to have its roots in an episode of Star Trek, which he mentions repeatedly throughout. Like him, I have a love for the series – unlike him, I don’t believe it’s a blueprint for the future. He moves rapidly through the remotely possible – creating a human-like robot such as, for instance, Commander Data – to inserting technology in our brains to allow us to read minds and act as one unit – à la the Borg – and on to one day uploading our consciousness into computers and living a disembodied and eternal life, possibly with holodeck-type avatars acting on our behalf. Uh-huh! (I’m guessing he’s read Frederik Pohl too.) At the point where he speculated that one day we will be able to send our consciousness out into space travelling on laser-beams and with the ability to assemble our own avatars on arrival, I was frankly chuckling. But in a horrified kind of way, because I think he actually means it. Fortunately, given that they’ve been working on robots for over half a century and so far have only achieved a not particularly effective vacuum cleaner, I feel I’m unlikely to live long enough to be forced to live forever as a computer programme. Phew!


More worrying than these far-distant speculations is the near-future idea that scientists will soon be able to ‘enhance’ our intelligence. Kaku’s rather casual view of this is that it’ll be OK if those with power and wealth are the first to have their brains enhanced, since a) they probably won’t misuse the advantage this confers (uh-huh! Though the idea of intelligent politicians is a novel and rather appealing idea, I admit…); and b) eventually, as with all things, the technology will soon become available to everyone. He bases this on things like medicine and computers gradually becoming available to all – I wondered if he was unaware or just didn’t care that, in fact, at least a fifth of the world’s population is still living at extreme poverty level without access to adequate health care and education – even in the rich US people still die for want of drugs that are available to the well-off. It all gave the impression that science is recklessly headed on a path without full consideration of where it may lead.

If skills can be implanted into the brain, it would have an immediate impact on the world economic system, since we wouldn’t have to waste so much human capital. (To some degree, the value of a certain skill may be devalued if memories can be uploaded into anyone, but this is compensated for by the fact that the number and quality of skilled workers vastly increase.)

Michio Kaku
Michio Kaku

Overall, I found the first half of the book interesting in knowing where the science stands at present, and in reminding me of the need to ensure that scientists are kept firmly under control. The speculative second-half was enjoyable but failed to convince me that most of it was more than the fantasy of sci-fi scriptwriters. And I’m rather glad about that, since it seems that Kaku and his fellow scientists are much more willing to consider the benefits of creating monsters than I am. An entertaining read, but not a wholly convincing one.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Books.

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Nearest Star: The Surprising Science of our Sun by Leon Golub and Jay M Pasachoff

nearest starThe 380,000,000,000,000,000,000 megawatt furnace…

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In the excitement of modern cosmology – when we can see back almost to the Big Bang itself, when we are discovering exoplanets with the capacity to sustain life, when mankind has just taken its first tentative robotic steps beyond the solar system – it can be easy to forget how much there still is to learn about the objects closer to hand. In this book, the authors set out to explain what we know, and what we don’t, about our own star, the Sun, and about its effects on us in the past, present and future. Originally published in 2001, this 2014 edition has been fully updated to take account of the most current knowledge on the subject. The book is presented as a series of eight chapters, each looking at a separate aspect of the science of the Sun.

The first three chapters provide a general introduction to the Sun, explaining its origins and impact on the development of life here on Earth. The authors don’t just tell us what we know, however; they also tell us how we know it, showing how the science has gradually developed from naked eye observations through to the hugely sophisticated and complex space observatories we have become almost blasé about today. This is quite a technical book in parts, so there’s a lot of information on how these machines are built and controlled, even down to the size of lenses and lengths of exposures in the photography of the Sun. The fourth chapter takes us one step further, explaining the development of scientific methods to allow us to ‘see’ those things beyond our visual capacity and ‘look’ inside the Sun.

The Moon partially eclipsing the Sun - imaged by NASA's Solar Dynamic Observatory (SDO)
The Moon partially eclipsing the Sun – imaged by NASA’s Solar Dynamic Observatory (SDO)

The four remaining chapters each look in depth at a separate subject: eclipses, space missions, the effects of the Sun on Earth climate, and space weather. As is often the case with scientific books, the authors’ desire to inspire enthusiasm for their subject comes through very clearly in these chapters. As well as describing the complexities of cutting edge solar physics, they take the time to describe, for example, how an amateur photographer should go about getting the best photos of an eclipse with standard equipment. Solar winds, auroras, carbon-dating, even how winds are affected by the Sun, influencing trade routes throughout history – all of these diverse subjects and more find a place in here. And in the chapter on Earth climate, they explain some of the science that allows scientists to differentiate between the natural effects of solar cycles and the actions of mankind on the current trend of global warming.

Aurora Borealis  © Philippe Moussette (Obs. Mont Cosmos)
Aurora Borealis
© Philippe Moussette (Obs. Mont Cosmos)

Popular science books have to tread a fine line between being so simplified that they irritate anyone with any level of scientific education or being so ‘sciency’ that they lose the novice completely. This book steps over that line several times in the direction of too sciency for this uneducated reader. While the authors carefully avoid bringing in too many mathematical formulae etc., they do use fairly technical language a lot of the time and though they are very good at explaining a technical term on first usage, they then assume the reader will remember that concept chapters later. I don’t know about other casual science readers but I really don’t take in scientific concepts that easily and found that more and more I was having to backtrack or go to the (very useful) glossary of terms at the back – or, being something of a lazy reader, beginning to skip the passages that would have required too much work. That’s not a fault of the book – I would not for one moment suggest that all science books should be written simplistically enough for the novice. But I would say that this book is probably more suited to someone with an existing familiarity with physics to at least high school standards. I was a little hampered by the fact that in the ARC copy I was given to review many of the graphs were not included – I would think they would probably have been very helpful in clarifying some of the more complex stuff. (Why do publishers give out ARCs of scientific books before they are complete? I find that nearly as baffling a concept as relativity.)

Full disk multiwavelength extreme ultraviolet image of the sun taken by SDO - NASA
Full disk multiwavelength extreme ultraviolet image of the sun taken by SDO – NASA

Having said all that, despite getting lost along the way a few times, I learned a lot from the book and on the whole found it an enjoyable and very informative read. So highly recommended to anyone with a reasonable basic knowledge of physics or to anyone who, like me, is happy to skim through the more difficult bits and enjoy the rest.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Cambridge University Press.

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Silent Witnesses: A History of Forensic Science by Nigel McCrery

“All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand…”

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silent witnessesNigel McCrery has had an interesting career – an ex-policeman turned screenwriter, he’s the man behind such successful TV dramas as Silent Witness and New Tricks, and has also written several crime novels. All of which makes him perhaps the ideal person to write a book on the history of the contribution of forensic science to crime detection.

Each chapter looks at a different aspect of forensics – ballistics, blood, fingerprinting, the human body, DNA etc. McCrery introduces us to the scientists and detectives who developed the techniques and tests that gradually led to the current state of play where forensics is one of the major planks of detection. In less skilled hands, this could be a very dry subject indeed, but McCrery writes flowingly and interestingly, making the people come to life and explaining the science in a way that is easy to understand.

What makes the book most interesting is that McCrery tells the stories of the true crimes that were the earliest to be solved by each individual technique, and he ranges widely across the world to do so. He takes us back in time to the earliest days of detection to give a picture of the primitive, sometimes barbaric, methods that were used prior to the development of scientific methods – so we learn, for instance, of the suspect forced to share a bed with the bodies of his supposed victims to see if guilt would produce a confession. Or how about the early method of identifying an unknown victim…

“The head was presented to local magistrates, who ordered that it should be cleaned up and its hair combed. After it had been prepared in this way it was taken to St Margaret’s Parish Church and stuck on a pole for all to see. The queue to view the remains was apparently so long that traders worked the crowd selling food and water.”

Nigel McCrery
Nigel McCrery

McCrery uses a chronological approach to telling his story, so in the chapter on the gun, for instance, we learn about its history from its earliest appearance as a Chinese ‘fire-lance’, through the invention of flintlocks and on to revolvers. At each step he explains what methods could be used to match a particular gun with its bullets and, while I must admit my lack of knowledge about ‘rifling’ has never kept me awake, I found it unexpectedly interesting. On the subject of blood, McCrery takes us back to the days when there was no test to differentiate between human and animal blood, and then leads us through the development of blood-typing and the increasingly sophisticated tests that could be used to match samples. The chapter on poison reveals, amongst other things, why it’s often thought of as a ‘woman’s weapon’ as he tells us about the history of women in the days of forced marriages forming little societies to get rid of their unwanted husbands…

“During the 1650s there was a noted increase in the number of young, rich widows in the larger cities of Europe…A group of young wives, some from among Rome’s first families, were meeting regularly at the house of Hieronyma Spara, a well-known witch and fortune-teller. She was training these women in the art of poisoning. Papal police arrested La Spara and she and several other women were hanged. A further thirty young wives were whipped through the streets.”

And finally, McCrery ends with a look at DNA and how this has revolutionised detection, both as a means of catching the guilty but equally importantly of clearing the innocent. The cases he uses throughout as examples are interesting and well-told, though as we reached closer to the present, I felt a little uncomfortable with the thought of using murders still within living memory as part of what is really an entertainment. However, he does it with a good deal of sensitivity and due respect for both victims and their families.

A fascinating and informative book that is also well-written and enjoyable. Recommended to anyone with an interest in murder…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.

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The Cosmic View of Albert Einstein: Writings on Art, Science, and Peace

Edited by Walt Martin and Magda Ott


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A joy to possess…

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”

the cosmic view of albert einsteinThis is a beautifully produced little book in which the editors have collected some of Einstein’s thoughts and writings on a diverse range of subjects and put them together with some wonderfully awe-inspiring pictures of the Universe he did so much to explain. But fear not, fellow scientific innocents – there is barely a mention of relativity and nary a formula in sight. Instead, this book introduces us to his convictions and beliefs – about pacifism, the social responsibility of scientists and his desire to see the replacement of the nation state with an overarching world government.

“Technology has also shortened distances and created new and extraordinarily effective means of destruction which, in the hands of nations claiming unrestricted freedom of action, become threats to the security and very survival of mankind. This situation requires a single judicial and executive power for the entire planet, and the creation of such a central authority is desperately opposed by national traditions.”


But most of all the book concentrates on his spiritual views or, as he calls it, his ‘cosmic religion’. The tendency of atheists to quote Einstein’s discoveries as proof that there is no god angered him in his lifetime; and his writings, as given in this book, show that while he didn’t believe in conventional religion – a ‘personal’ God – he was a deeply spiritual man who felt that the harmony and perfection of the universe argued just as much against atheism.

“My religiosity consists of a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveals itself in the slight details we are able to perceive of the knowable world with our frail and feeble minds. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.”


The writings the editors have chosen show him as a man who gave the subject of religion and religiosity much thought, and his expressed opinions, while they may not please either the very religious or the extreme atheist, are reasoned and coherent. The given extracts suggest that he believed in a Creator, but one who does not then involve himself in the individual affairs of man – does not punish or reward. As a consequence, man is responsible for his own morality; and that belief feeds into all his other views – of the responsibility of scientists to ensure that their actions do no harm, of the evils of war, of his hatred of militarism.

“Whatever there is of God and goodness in the universe, it must work itself out and express itself through us. We cannot stand aside and let God do it.”


My cynical nature couldn’t prevent me wondering how carefully the extracts had been selected to support the emphasis the editors clearly wished to place on the two main subjects; that science and religion should be able to co-exist – are in fact co-dependant; and that all nations should give up their atomic weapons. There is an afterward revealingly written by two former co-presidents of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, Ron McCoy and Gunnar Westberg. However I have no reason to think that Einstein’s views have been misrepresented and there is a bibliography should any reader wish to look further.

“The unleashed power of the atom bomb has changed everything except our modes of thinking…the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind.”


But while the written content is interesting, (if occasionally a little repetitive), the illustrations are both lavish and superb. Nearly every second page has a glorious colour picture of some aspect of the universe, with a little explanatory note, and there are many double page spreads too. My photos do it no justice. The book is beautifully made, with carefully selected typefaces on gorgeous quality paper. I have no choice – I have to use the dreaded words ‘Perfect Christmas Gift’. A joy to possess.


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Dreams of Other Worlds by Chris Impey and Holly Henry

“There is music in the spacing of the spheres.” Pythagoras

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dreams of other worldsLast week, NASA announced that Voyager 1, launched 36 years ago, has finally left our solar system and entered interstellar space. A mind-blowing achievement which will allow scientists to confirm some of their theories and expectations of what we will find beyond the reach of our Sun. But Voyager, impressive though it is, is only one of the amazing journeys we are making into space, some with great fanfares and trumpets, like the Mars Rovers expeditions, some less well known but no less important and inspiring for the information they send back. In this book, the authors tell us about eleven of these missions, what scientists have learned from them and how they have impacted on the popular imagination and culture.

The main thrust of the book is on the search for conditions suitable for life either on planets within our solar system or on the exoplanets that are now being identified exponentially. The early chapters cover the missions to planets and objects within our own solar system and the later part of the book is given over to the various observational missions looking beyond our little bit of the universe and back through space-time to the earliest observable point after the big bang. The enthusiasm of the authors is infectious and the book is written in such a way that it is easily accessible to the non-scientists among us. It is liberally illustrated with diagrams to help explain some of the concepts as well as pictures from Hubble and other observatories.

Voyager 1
Voyager 1

The authors start with a look at the Mars missions – the Viking and MER Rovers. They explain the technical marvels that got us there and contrast that with the extremely limited computing and camera facilities that were available, particularly on the Viking Rovers. While sadly the rovers have not found any little green men, they have found clear indications of water in the past and perhaps even still. We get to find out a little about the team behind the mission and how the information sent back changed how scientists thought about the conditions necessary to support life. The style is almost conversational and the authors very enjoyably anthropomorphise the robotic rovers, making this reader at least feel sorry for their little ‘broken arm’ and ‘limp’ – indeed, when one of the rovers finally ‘died’ (very bravely, I might add) I had to suppress a little tear!

The Voyager mission itself takes us first to Uranus and Jupiter before heading out beyond the edge of the solar system, while Cassini and Huygens study Saturn and its moons. As the journeys unfold, we are told how the power required to travel these distances is achieved through ‘gravity assist’ – using the gravity of the planets themselves as a kind of slingshot. The authors discuss how the real science of these missions inspired programmes like Star Trek and were in turn influenced by them. In fact, NASA used Nichelle Nicholls (Uhura) as a figurehead to inspire more women and minorities to enter the field.

Lt. Uhura (
Lt. Uhura

The Stardust mission successfully captured dust from the tail of the Wild 2 comet. In this fascinating chapter, the authors explain how comets are seen as the bringers of life and also the harbingers of destruction. They explain in relatively simple terms that we are indeed stardust, as the song says. They remind us of the thrilling pictures of Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashing into Jupiter and how those images encouraged the US government to authorise NASA to monitor possible comet threats to Earth. As well as particles from Wild 2, Stardust also captured particles from the surrounding space, and the authors explain how ‘open science’ projects have been used to involve the public in locating these tiny, sparse particles in the aerogel that trapped them. And we are told that we have the technology to ‘capture’ comets into Earth orbit should we choose and use them for mining precious metals or also as a means to provide a lift off point and all the fuel required for future space missions. Apparently although international law prevents states from claiming ownership of comets or asteroids, a loophole means that the same does not apply to individuals…

‘A small world might seem limiting, but think of the pleasure in owning a world the size of a small town and surveying the domain like a colossus. The gravity of Wild 2 is so weak you would literally be as light as a feather. A small push and you could escape your world and sail into deep space. And think of the glittering minerals – a hoard magnificent enough to power all the dreams ever dreamed.’

Artist's impression of Wild 2 as seen by Stardust (NASA)
Artist’s impression of Wild 2 as seen by Stardust

The later chapters cover the observational missions – SOHO, Hipparcos, Spitzer, Chandra, Hubble and WMAP. These missions have expanded our knowledge of the universe and shed light on its origins, confirming some of the theories that had been posited while forcing re-evaluation of others. At the same time, they are daily discovering exoplanets that may be able to support life. The authors take us back through the history of cosmology from its earliest days and bring us up to date on the current theories, clearly differentiating between what is known and what has not yet been proved. We hear of the amazing technology behind these missions, the people who in some cases have spent an entire career on them, and what they have taught us. The near-disasters are covered too – the early days of the Hubble mission dogged by technical problems which led to some of the most inspiring spacewalks to date. This whole section is much more science-heavy and I struggled a few times to really grasp the concepts, but not often – on the whole, the authors were able to simplify to a level that allowed me to follow along.

Spiral Nebula NGC 5194 (Hubble)
Spiral Nebula NGC 5194

A very accessible and hugely inspiring book – inspirational not just about the sheer glory of the universe, but about the amazing people who are allowing us to learn about it through them. The concluding chapter looks ahead to the exciting future missions that are on the horizon, as well as some that have already begun – the possibility of bringing samples back from Mars, better studies of Jupiter’s moons, observational missions to discover ‘first light’ and investigate the theory of ‘inflation’ following the big bang; and of course the continuing search for extraterrestrial life. Stirring stuff! If you have even the smallest shred of geekiness in your soul, I heartily recommend this to you.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Princeton University Press.

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Cat Sense: The Feline Enigma Revealed by John Bradshaw

cat senseStepford Cats…

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Bradshaw starts his story of the domesticated cat by taking us back to 10,000 or so years ago, explaining that probably the relationship between man and cat began when humans started to store food, thus requiring rodent control. He discusses the ongoing genetic links between domestic and wild cats and suggests what steps may have taken place over the history of the cat to lead to today’s level of domestication. He regularly informs us that his views are often no more than educated guesswork, since far less research has been done on the cat than the dog.

In the last few chapters, Bradshaw discusses the place of the domestic cat in today’s world, suggesting that the cat will have to change if it wishes to survive in an increasingly urbanised society where many people see cats as wildlife-murdering pests. He points out that most pet cats, especially males, are neutered before breeding (with the exception of pedigrees) and that this may have the unintended consequence of demand for kittens being met by rescued feral litters or by mating between wild males and domestic unneutered females. He proposes that in fact cats should be bred carefully for personality and trained to live happily, either as indoor cats or as non-hunting outdoor cats. He makes valid points about the lack of territory available to each cat in an overcrowded world and about the increased levels of anxiety this can cause.

Tuppence says: Go on, tickle my tummy! I dare you...
Tuppence says: Go on, tickle my tummy! I dare you…

While there is a lot of interesting stuff in here, there are a couple of things that prevent me wholeheartedly recommending the book. I found the presentation of the first section about the history of the cat quite dry and often repetitive – it may be of more interest to someone with a scientific interest in the subject, but for this casual cat-loving reader there was too much concentration on genetics, while there was little new in the tale of how the cat became a domestic pet.

The second section was more interesting to me, but here I found I disagreed fundamentally with the thrust of his argument – that we should be trying to breed cats to be more domesticated. He makes the point himself that cat owners love them because of their independence and relatively easy care, while suggesting that that independence should be bred out of them and that they should be subjected to intensive training. I would suggest that, in that case, might as well get a dog. As someone who’s not very keen on selective breeding of any (domestic) animal, I was also uneasy about messing with the breeding to produce something that would really end up looking like a cat but not behaving like one. If we as a race decide cats are not suited to our environment (and I don’t accept that) then surely better to stop keeping cats rather than to play god. When one considers some of the horrors that selective breeding has produced in both dogs and cats, can we really want to go further down that route?

Tommy says: Why would anyone want to change us? We're perfect...
Tommy says: Why would anyone want to change us? Don’t you love us just the way we are…?

So Bradshaw’s assumption that this is the way to go meant that instead of, as I had expected, giving us advice on how to make sure our existing cats are well cared for, in fact he seemed to be suggesting the demise of the cat as we know it to be replaced with designer Stepford Cats. A reasonably interesting read but, for me, more of a warning of why scientists should never be allowed out without a bell on their collar than a convincing argument for the future of the moggie. And Tommy & Tuppence agree with me…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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Ocean of Life by Callum Roberts

‘There is a tide in the affairs of men…’

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Ocean of LifeIn this book, Callum Roberts sets out to argue the case that man is damaging the oceans of the world in ways that may be irreversible if not addressed quickly and determinedly. Prof. Roberts’ track record as a marine biologist and environmentalist is impressive – as well as a Hardy fellowship in conservation biology at Harvard University, he was awarded a fellowship by the Pew Environment Group, (one of the organisations behind the setting up of the new Global Ocean Commission) in marine conservation.

Roberts starts with a history of the oceans since the planet was formed, showing how previous episodes of warming, changes in acidity levels, etc., have had huge effects on the animals that live there. He then gives a very detailed account of the history of man’s interaction with the sea, through fishing, shipping and pollution amongst other things. As he piles detail on detail, his argument that we are causing major and probably irreversible damage is completely convincing and thoroughly depressing.

Tyre ‘reef’
(Source: Wikimedia)
Some of the images he provides, of mass piles of discarded plastic gathering in the ocean gyres, of dead zones caused by chemical pollution, of coral reefs bleaching and dying, of life at the bottom of the seas being destroyed by trawling, are stark and horrifying. Of course we knew all this, but Roberts pulls it all together for us and shows us the consequences, so that no-one reading this book could be left feeling that this is a problem that can continue to be ignored.

It is only in the last couple of chapters that Roberts offers solutions and not unsurprisingly these are fairly straightforward – to set up protection zones, to reduce the flow of chemicals and rubbish into the seas, to combat global warming. Straightforward but not easy, though Roberts also gives examples of some major advances that have been made over the last decade or so. (Who would have expected George Dubya to come out of a book like this as one of the heroes? Apparently he set up huge protected zones before he left office.) Roberts finishes the book by listing some of the many organisations working towards marine preservation and giving an idea of the approach each organisation is taking.

Callum Roberts
I did not find this an easy or enjoyable read. It was hard work in places as Roberts piled on more and more evidence to back his arguments, sometimes with greater detail than I felt necessary. However, the message of the book is a vitally important one and Roberts has succeeded in getting that message across. I would highly recommend this to anyone with an interest in environmental matters – and that should really be everyone, shouldn’t it?

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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Gravity’s Engines: The Other Side of Black Holes by Caleb Scharf

Gravity's Engines42

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‘What I’d like you to take away from Gravity’s Engines is both a sense of the cosmic grandeur we have discovered and a feel for the great scope and ingenuity of human ideas at play.’

So says Caleb Scharf in his introduction to this very accessible account of the current thinking on black holes, how they formed and the effect they have on the universe.

Scharf starts with the stirring story of photons journeying across space and time bringing with them the information that scientists are using to reveal the answers to the questions of how the universe works. He then takes us back to the earliest days of scientific enquiry describing some of the people, experiments and discoveries that have led, stage by stage, to our current understanding of the impact that black holes have on the formation of galaxies, stars and perhaps even of life on earth itself.

nasa image
nasa image
As someone with zero scientific education and knowledge, I found on the whole that Scharf’s use of analogy made the complex concepts relatively(!) easy to follow, while his style of writing and boundless enthusiasm made this a fascinating and enjoyable read. There were parts where he nearly lost me, when he explained some of the science around the more difficult theories, but without in any way ‘dumbing down’ he managed to clarify and simplify things enough to allow me to follow him on this exhilarating journey.

Caleb Scharf
Caleb Scharf

Perhaps not the complete answer to life, the universe and everything but a pretty good stab at it; and, as Scharf intended, I am left in awe of these massive and mysterious ‘dark stars’ and of the scientists who have gone so far towards understanding and explaining them. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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The Kingdom of Rarities by Eric Dinerstein

Kingdom of Rarities“To be a Naturalist is better than to be a King”

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This book has taken me on a joyous jaunt round the world in the company of some amazing creatures and a guide whose enthusiasm and love for his work shines through every word. A storyteller of extraordinary skill, Dinerstein could make the smallest, greyest rodent fascinating if he chose. But since he has a world full of rare species to tell us about, instead we are treated to tales of the golden-fronted bowerbird, the scarlet minivet, the red panda, the jaguar, Mrs Gould’s sunbird…

Mrs Gould's Sunbird
Mrs Gould’s Sunbird

There is a serious purpose to this book: to look at why rare species are rare and to determine what intervention is required to conserve them and their habitats. Dinerstein shows us the effects of Big Ag in the rainforests of South America, of war in Vietnam and Cambodia, of species invasion in Hawaii, and speculates on the possible effects of global warming on these threatened rarities. Sometimes such books are read with a sense of duty and a heavy heart – but not this one. All through Dinerstein highlights the positives as much as the negatives, offers solutions, tells us of the amazing things that are already being achieved both by nature and by man; and left this reader, at least, with an enormous sense of hope.

Red Panda
Red Panda

Generously Dinerstein name-checks many of the naturalists and ecologists, past and present, who have and are doing so much to reverse the trend towards extinctions, and plays down his own role as a leading conservationist and Lead Scientist at the WWF. The sciency stuff is slotted in so seamlessly amidst the glorious descriptions of flora and fauna that it’s easy for a non-academic to absorb – especially if a dictionary is close to hand! Dinerstein’s writing style is natural and flowing, sometimes ascending to the lyrical – it’s like listening to a friend tell you all about his greatest enthusiasm, with his thoughts, passion for the subject and plenty of humour all on display.

One-horned Rhino
One-horned Rhino

The book has some lovely little pencil drawings of some of the species discussed and maps of the various regions visited. I would have loved there to be more pictures, but so many wondrous things were discussed I could see the impossibility of having pictures of them all. A combination of Google Images and youtube filled that gap, though it slowed my reading rate to a crawl as every chapter is crowded with rare, fascinating and quite amazingly beautiful things. I feel as if I’ve had a glorious holiday and come back relaxed, refreshed and with a sense that the future for these fragile rarities is in the best of hands. Highly recommended as an informative and wonderfully enjoyable read.

This book was provided for review by the publisher via NetGalley.

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