July 2006 September 2006

Book Reviews August 2006

The Power of Chance Rupert Hart-DavisSinclair-Stevenson, 1991ISBN: 1856190773
Those of you who watch science programs in the UK will be aware of the rather quirky presenter Adam Hart-Davis. You may not know that he comes from a pretty distinguished family. 'The Power of Chance' is the autobiography of his father Rupert Hart-Davis. It starts when Rupert is 19, following the death of his mother. After a brief spell as an actor, and marriage to the well known actress Peggy Ashcroft the book gets on to his main career in the publishing business. As such he met many well-known people and the book will be of interest to those readers wanting a glimpse into the start of the careers of actors and authors who are now famous. Continued..
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The third chimpanzee Jared DiamondRadius, 1991ISBN: 0091777704
cover The small genetic distance between humans and chimpanzees means that they should all be classified together in the genus Homo. It is with this thought that Jared Diamond starts this book. He then goes on to look at many aspects of humanity, how they evolved, and how they fit in with the rest of the animal kingdom. Human sexuality, language, agriculture, war (and genocide) and art are examined from this point of view as well as drug use and environmental crises. The result is a highly readable book with interesting answers to some of the questions which humans pose for themselves. Continued..
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Life without Genes Adrian WoolfsonFlamingo, 2000ISBN: 0006548741
cover The origin of life is a fascinating subject, in particular the transition from chemicals floating about to what we would recognise as a living entity. The problem is how to convey this to readers who are not versed in the details of biochemistry. I do not think that Adrian Woolfson's book fully succeeds at this task. Certainly the first part avoids a textbooky style when dealing with multidimensional state spaces by using plenty of metaphor and even several dream sequences. If you like this sort of style then you might want to try this book, but to my mind it was too quirky and made the book too long for a bit of light reading. Continued..
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Not even wrong Peter WoitJonathan Cape, 2006ISBN: 0224076051
cover Peter Woit has a blog with the same title as this book, which has a popular following, and from the advanced sales it looks like the book's performance may be equally impressive. Woit's arguments against string theory are certainly very persuasive. One reads how initial hopes that the theory would lead to a unique explanation of quantum gravity were disappointed, and how the predictions of eventual success of the theory are being pushed ever further into the future.Woit also expresses his frustrations at some of the failings of the academic establishment, which will make the book useful reading for anyone considering a scientific career. Continued..
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Feynman's rainbow Leonard MlodinowPenguin, 2003ISBN: 0713996439
(Note that the book I read had the alternative title Some time with Feynman)

How does a scientist decide which problem is worth working on? That was the question which faced Leonard Mlodinow when he became a researcher at Caltech. How could he live up to the expectations placed upon him? Fortunately he had Richard Feynman down the corridor to talk to, and this book is the result of their many discussions. The answer seems to be that if you need to ask the question then you shouldn't be doing physics - indeed Mlodinow eventually gave up his career in the subject. Rather you should be driven by your desire to sort out inconsistencies in the current state of things. Feynman's Rainbow is a highly readable book - I read most of it in one go, and I can recommend it to anyone who wants to find out how scientists decide to do what they do. Continued..

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Information, the new language of science
Hans C Von Baeyer
Weidenfeld & NicolsonISBN: 0297607251
cover As we are always being told, we are constantly bombarded with information. We have Information technology and Information science to try to deal with it. Hans Von Baeyer's book concerns the philosophy of information - it looks at how we are beginning to see the world in terms of it. The preface describes the inspiration from John A Wheeler's ideas of 'It from Bit', that is the idea that reality can be thought of as pure information. The book is aimed at the non-technical reader. Some of the concepts may be challenging, but no prior knowledge is required of any of the subjects covered. Continued..
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Black holes and baby universes Stephen HawkingBantamISBN: 0553374117
cover
Mentioned in
Black Holes
In A Brief History of Time Stephen Hawking gave us an introduction to some of the important ideas of modern phsyics. Black holes and baby universes takes a different tack. It is a collection of essays written by Hawking, many based on lectures he has given at various times. Many of these explain his views on various issues rather than trying to teach the reader about modern physics, Hence some people might find it a gentler introduction to his work than A Brief History and more advanced readers will benefit from insight into how a brilliant scientist goes about his work. Continued..
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How the universe got its spots Janna LevinWeidenfield & NicholsonISBN: 0297646516
cover
Mentioned in
stretchy space
The study of Cosmology needs knowledge of several areas of physics - special and general relativity and quantum theory as well as much of classical physics. This requirement can be intimidating to the beginner. Janna Levin took this into account in writing 'How the universe got its spots', which is based on a collection of letters to her mother. Hence it will be useful for those readers who would like a gentle introduction to those the ideas of modern physics required for cosmology as well as anyone wanting an insight into the life of a (perhaps not so typical) cosmologist. Continued..
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Travels in a Thin Country Sara WheelerAbacus Travel, 1994ISBN: 0349105847
cover For those of us living in the Northern hemisphere, Chile is a far-away country. Sara Wheeler decided to get to know the country better. In this book she describes her journey from the one end of the country to the other (and on to Antarctica). On the way she visited some remote places with spectacular scenery, but the book isn't so much about geography, it's more about the stories of individual people living there, together with the history of the country, and in particular its path towards democracy. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to hear about the story of Chile and about life in some of the remotest areas of the world. Continued..
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Earth Time Douglas PalmerWiley, 2005ISBN: 0470022213
cover Those learning geology will learn the names of the geologic periods and these may seem to be 'set in stone'. In 'Earth Time', Douglas Palmer shows that in fact there were many disputes in the process of deciding upon the currently accepted divisions of geological time.

The first part of the book looks at the Phanerozoic eon - that is the Cambrian Period to the present, and tells mostly of the history of geology in Britain. The second part is more wide ranging, starting with the formation of the earth, and although it is based on a jorney into the Grand Canyon, in fact it takes a more global view. Continued..

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The geometry of physics : an introduction
Theodore Frankel
Cambridge University PressISBN: 0521833302
cover
Mentioned in
road to reality
Modern physics is taking more and more of a geometrical viewpoint - particle physics is full of terms like SU(2) and SO(3). Unfortunately, when students get to the point of needing to study such things in detail they are often 'thrown in at the deep end' - many books devote just a short space to the mathematics, so that they can get on to the physics more quickly. This means that students may struggle, or worse, end up with just a superficial idea of the subject. In 'The geometry of physics' Theodore Frankel goes for a more gentle approach. Rather than writing for graduate students, the book is aimed at undergraduates. It is steadily paced, and has plenty of diagrams, so that it can be worked through by the student, including those studying on their own. Continued..
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The music of the primes Marcus du SautoyFourth Estate, 2003ISBN: 1841155799
cover
Mentioned in
Full Review
To mark the start of the new millennium, the Clay Mathematics institute offered $1000000 for the solution of each of seven classic mathematical problems. The longest standing of these problems is Riemann hypothesis, concerning the zeros of the Riemann zeta function ζ(s), which is closely connected to the distribution of the primes. In 'The music of the primes' Marcus du Sautoy charts the history of attempts to prove this hypothesis. This is done via biographical details of those involved, so it doesn't require any prior mathematical knowledge. However, one can tell that it is a professional mathematician writing - he clearly knows the subject he is dealing with inside out. Continued..
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A Brief History of Time Stephen HawkingBantamISBN: 0593043162
cover
Mentioned in
Black Holes
It's getting on for 20 years since Hawking wrote 'A brief history of time', but on rereading it now it doesn't seem that dated. Possibly this is because Hawking isn't trying to tell us the latest theories of the universe, rather he's explaining the basics of the subject in simple terms. (This relates to the original 1988 edition - there is now a 1998 edition which does include some of the new discoveries). Now I know that this book has the reputation of often being unfinished by readers, but they can't be trying very hard - as science books go it's one of the easiest to follow that I've read. That said there is 'A briefer history of time' with less text and more pictures. Also 'Black holes and baby universes' is more autobiographical, and so some people might find it easier to follow. Continued..
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Where's my Space Age Sean TophamPrestel, 2003ISBN: 3791328441
cover Now that it's getting on for 40 years since the first man on the moon, the era has a strange feeling of unreality. It augered so much for the future, which never happened. In 'Where's my Space Age?' Sean Topham looks back at the how the space program affected society at the time, and in particular how designers created a fitting end to the modernist era.

A principal part of the book is the pictures, both of the space program, and of the many aspects of design which were affected. Sometimes one feels that copyright problems have prevented a particular image from being shown, but there are plenty in the book so this doesn't matter too much. The copy I read had a bright pink cover, highlighting the sense of fun and novelty that the book is presenting. Continued..

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A journey into gravity and spacetime
John Wheeler
Scientific American LibraryISBN: 0716750163
Mentioned in
road to reality
Einstein's General theory of Relativity is usually thought to be a difficult topic, not approachable by the non-mathematician. However, in 'A journey into gravity and spacetime' Wheeler gives an entirely non-technical account, using the geometrical ideas which are at the root of the subject. With plenty of pictures, and a fair amount of poetry, he uses ideas such as 'The Boomerang Project' - a shaft straight through the Earth, and 'The Boundary of a Boundary', to give an intuitive feel for General Relativity. The final chapter gives an account of Gravitational Waves and discusses the significance of the experiments designed to find them. Continued..
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Just Six Numbers Martin ReesScientific American LibraryISBN: 0297842978
cover
Mentioned in
stretchy space
In 'Just six numbers' Rees examines the question of why the universe seems so finely tuned for life. He looks at six dimensionless parameters of the universe, and explains why each had to have the value that it does in order for life to arise. The book is well written, by an expert in the subject, although sometimes I felt that it lacked the enthusiasm that a less knowledgable writer might bring. But there are no equations, and a few well placed diagrams, so I can recommend it to anyone who wants an expert view on some of the intruiging questions of life in the universe. Continued..
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A first course in string theory Barton ZwiebachCambridge University PressISBN: 05218314
Mentioned in
road to reality
This book is based on courses the author gave to undergraduates. I have a feeling that most students at this level would struggle with the material - but then its a difficult subject, and this is probably their best option. The book is in two parts. The first develops the theory, leading up to closed and open relativistic quantum strings. The second gives some applications of this theory, including a chapter on string thermodynamics and black holes. Continued..
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Our Cosmic Habitat Martin ReesWeidenfeld & NicolsonISBN: 0297829017
cover In this book Sir Martin provides the reader with a snapshot of our current understanding of Cosmology, adding historical context when he feels it is necessary. If you want a blow by blow account of stellar development, inflation, extra-solar planets or any of the multitude of other topics discussed, then this is not the book for you. However, if you want to get a feeling for the current understanding of the universe, for what are regarded as the triumphs and failures of modern cosmology, for the areas of controversy, and for what are likely to be the growth areas in cosmological research in the next decade and beyond, all explained in a clear and lucid style by somebody who has himself been a leading researcher in the field for many years, then I can definitely recommend this book to you. Continued..
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Palestine: A Personal History Karl SabbaghAtlantic Books, 2006ISBN: 1843543443
cover The Sabbagh family have a long history in the region of Palestine, and in this book Karl Sabbagh interleaves the history of his family with that of Palestine and the disputes between the occupants leading up to partition in 1947. Now there are two sides to every question and Sabbagh's account clearly takes one side. How much is this acceptable? Well, my feeling is that everyone has a right to tell their side of the story. On the other hand an author writing a historical account should try to be unbiased. So which is Sabbagh doing? The answer is: a bit of both. Continued..
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Introduction to cosmology Barbara RydenAddison Wesley, 2003ISBN: 0805389121
cover Barbara Ryden's 'Introduction to cosmology' fills something of a gap in the market for cosmology textbooks. Whilst most are aimed at postgraduate researchers, with hefty doses of tensor calculus and possibly quantum field theory too, this book is aimed at undergraduates. There's plenty of mathematics, indeed Ryden seems to introduce a new calculation at every opportunity, and I wouldn't recommend the book to anyone who wasn't willing to work through these calculations. But it's mathematics of the sort which shouldn't be too taxing for a physics undergraduate and so the book should find a place in many university physics courses. Continued..
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how to dunk a doughnut Len FisherWeidenfeld & Nicolson, 2002ISBN: 0297607561
cover Actually the question is more about dunking biscuits - how do you soften them without them collapsing into your coffee. Len Fisher has researched the question and found that the best solution is to use a biscuit with something to hold it together in the middle. There's a chapter on how to estimate your supermarket bill as you go along - interestingly the author's first method did very badly and his wife's was much more successful. Why does a boomerang come back? The book is full of such questions and how the author investigated them, and I found it a highly enjoyable read. Continued..
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July 2006 September 2006