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The Great Extinctions: What Causes Them and How They Shape Life
The Great Extinctions: What Causes Them and How They Shape Life
by Norman MacLeod
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.99

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Clear and Detailed Overview of the Subject, 27 Sep 2013
This is the kind of book that one would expect to see displayed on the stands within the Natural History Museum in London, which is the academic home of the author. Its artistic rendition on the front cover of various dinosaurs (the modern icon for 'Extinction') together with lots of photos and illustrations within the covers, suggests it might even be suitable for younger children. However, be warned, this is not a beginner's or children's book on the subject.

The book consists of 15 chapters:
1. What is extinction?
2. Evolution, fossils and extinction
3. Patterns in extinction data
4. Kinds of extinction
5. Causes of extinction
6. Precambrian and Cambrian extinctions
7. The End-Ordovician extinctions
8. The Late Devonian extinctions
9. The Late Permian extinctions
10. The Late Triassic extinctions
11. The End-Cretaceous extinctions
12. The Palaeogene extinctions
13. The Neogene and Quaternary extinctions
14. The modern and future extinctions
15. Summary and conclusions

Having studied (as opposed to casually simply reading) other books on the subject of extinction, I found the layout and explanations in this book to be quite exceptional. The technical details are clearly described and a reader who is willing to make the effort will be able to extract a considerable amount of information from this book, which might otherwise require more academic readings.

The structure of the book allows one to firstly appreciate exactly what extinction means at a technical level and to understand its causes and patterns. It then proceeds in chronological order through the major extinction periods by following a standard formulaic approach highlighting:
* Setting
* Extinctions
* Timing
* Cause(s)
This consistency is helpful for linking the patterns together across the different periods and events.

The considerable knowledge of the author is self-evident, but the References at the back of the book provide ample sources of further information for those wishing to explore the topic further.

Overall a nicely presented and clear discussion of the topic.

If you've never read anything on Extinction, but want a great overview with reasonable depth of analysis, then this would be a good place to start.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 3, 2014 9:32 AM BST


The Mythology of Evolution
The Mythology of Evolution
by Chris Bateman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.90

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Useful Contribution to the Debate, 28 Aug 2013
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Chris Bateman's book 'The Mythology of Evolution' is a useful contribution to the debate between elements of the scientific community and those of religious faith about the topic of evolution.

For me, its greatest strength lies in a relevant set of References at the back of the book which draws about a wide landscape of opinions through the ages, all of which are addressed within the body of the book.

However, whilst Chris Bateman suggests he wishes to offer a balanced view of the debate, I think he fails to be all that impartial; especially in his conclusions at the end of the book, which tend to dissolve into a number of thoughts which are somewhat 'off-topic' ranging from the more important matter of ecological degradation (compared to debates about evolution) to his own son's education in the topic whilst at school.

Bateman suggests it is important to recognise that whilst many of us might recognise the role of myths within the various teachings of multiple religions, it is also important to acknowledge the mythologies present within science. On this point I agree. However, Bateman highlights the fact that there exists a world beyond the scientific which is the metaphysical, wherein science can have no more right to claim insight to the truth than a religious faith. Indeed, neither really can do this outside of a faith statement. This seems perfectly sensible, however, Bateman then appears to want to wrap the theory of evolution into this category and it is here that we part company.

The strong arguments put forward by Dawkins and Dennett of a gene-centric explanation for evolution are battered by Bateman in a somewhat obsessive manner; especially, since Dawkins is less rigid on this issue than often portrayed in the media. Unfortunately, Bateman swamps the reader with such a wide range of both scientific and philosophical material throughout the book that at times it can be hard to really be sure where Bateman pins his own flag in the various arguments. On the plus side, the wide range of materials and supporting references provide a useful platform for further reading. However, my suspicion is that anyone not already familiar with a fair amount of the literature quoted by Bateman would either be completely swamped by the variety of topics or simply cherry pick those parts that appealed to their preconceptions. Whereas somebody already versed in much of the scientific and philosophical literature might find Bateman's views a little suspect in places.

To some extent, I found The Mythology of Evolution a fun read and packed with other people's thoughts around the various topics relating to the topic. At another level, I found the book frustrating because I thought it lacked the logical flow and argument that Bateman no doubt felt he was contributing to the work. At times I felt like I was reading an unedited masters or doctoral thesis that needed some serious cutting, pruning and generally cleaning up in order to present a more cogent and well-reasoned work.

Notwithstanding the above criticisms, I should recommend this book to anyone with an open-mind who wants to reflect upon the nature of the scientific endeavour as it relates to the Theory of Evolution. In particular, I think Bateman makes some good points about the enterprise, however, anyone familiar with the History of Science or the Philosophy of Science and has read about the nature of myths in our literary history will find its viewpoints less original than perhaps suggested by the author.


The Future
The Future
by Al Gore
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £20.00

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Some Ideas about Possible Futures, 3 May 2013
This review is from: The Future (Hardcover)
Al Gore's `The Future' is an interesting and sometimes provocative book. However, it falls short of its potential due to a number of reasons, which is why I have only given it 3 stars.

Firstly, it is too broad in its scope: the book tries to encompass a very wide range of future trends and potential developments, ranging through political and economic changes; life sciences; geo-political changes; climate change and many others. Each is a worthy topic for a book in its own right. However, if Gore intended to be able to knit the various themes together, he fails significantly.

Secondly, although packed with up to date references and vignettes, at times parts of the book tended to read like a set of bullet points, (without the bullets) which lacked a sound or well-articulated line of reasoning. It was as if in his long experience in exploring and discussing the issues with various people in the fields covered by the book, Al Gore sat down with his `Mind-Mapping' software and let out a stream of consciousness, which was then converted into a Mind-Map to front each of his chapters. Then he appears to have started writing about all the topics on his Mind-Map, with little concern for explaining why or how they linked to his overall argument. As a result, the writing - although quite fluid - lacks an intellectual rigour.

Thirdly, as has been mentioned by another commentator on this site who allotted 1 star to the book, Al Gore cannot resist blowing his own trumpet, but more annoyingly, he seems incapable of seeing a world wherein other nations have and continue to make major contributions to his pet theme of `global leadership.' Of course, the United States is often held up as the champion of Western Liberal Democracy and I fully agree and sympathise with his lament that the USA political system (like many others) has become paralyzed over the past few decades by the unhealthy influence and indeed in some instances control of legislation in the Congress by vested interests (largely big business), who can afford powerful lobbyists and campaign funding. However, Al Gore's excessive flattery of the framers of the US Constitution shows a serious lack of appreciation of the historical record. This is all the more surprising given his past tenure of the post of Vice President. Anyone who has ever taken the time to read the Federalist Papers of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay in accompaniment to the Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Convention Debates cannot fail to be impressed by the quality of thinking and writing by both sides to the debate. However, in reading these works one cannot help but be struck by the extent to which the arguments on both sides drew upon a sound and deep knowledge of the classical political thinking of the Greco-Romans, as well as the then more recent writings of British and European political thinkers such as Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Voltaire and others: none of which get a mention by Gore. In other words, the foundations of the American Constitution and its first ten ratified amendments which form their Bill of Rights are not quite the innovative and original thinking that Al Gore would like to suggest. This does not devalue them, but it would be nice if Gore could appreciate that the basis of the US constitution is firmly grounded in a long tradition of thinking that lies outside the United States. This is but one small, albeit important example of where Al Gore seems to be carried away with the idea that the United States is the bastion of all free liberal democratic thinking and that the rest of the world meekly follows.

In much the same way, Gore keeps coming back to the need for strong leadership by the United States to `sort-out' many of the challenges and problems facing the world today. Of course, I agree that it would be much better for the United States to be `on board' and fully committed to policies concerning protection of biodiversity and the environment; but at the same time, Gore is caught between a rock and a hard place, since by his own admission, the United States is paralyzed in much of its important policy making through the influence of big business, which he claims (probably quite rightly) has little regard or recognition of the `public interest.' Hence, one is left wondering whether he believes that the world can only progress with US leadership or whether as he does acknowledge Europe is perfectly capable of crafting progressive policies on environmental issues, when the US lags behind. As an example of Gore's shortcoming in this vain, one needs only to look on the last page of his concluding chapter, where he writes:
"Finally, the world community desperately needs leadership that is based on the deepest human values. Though this book is addressed to readers in the world at large, it is intended to carry a special and urgent message to the citizens of the United States of America, which remains the only nation capable of providing the kind of global leadership needed."

Whilst I can understand why somebody of his background might take the above view, in my opinion it tends to fail to recognise how the world is changing in geopolitical and economic terms (although in fairness, Gore acknowledges this point elsewhere in his book). Given many of Gore's concerns for the future involve technologies that will diffuse beyond national borders or biological threats, such as the West Nile virus which does not care about human borders or global issues such as climate change, it is surprising that he falls back on a model of decision making dependent upon one nation. These are global issues and however hard it may be to build consensus amongst so many different interest groups and nation states, any solution that is to have a chance of working has to be global in nature, which in turn must be based upon global agreement.
In reading the book, I felt irritated with this somewhat naïve bias and in some areas simple ignorance that Gore exhibited when it came to the ability of other countries to take the lead. This was perhaps most apparent, when Gore was talking about topics around robotics, artificial intelligence, bio-electronics and genetic engineering. Anyone who has spent time working with or visiting companies in Japan or South Korea and Singapore cannot come away without a profound sense of leadership in some of aspects of these fields that leave the US in catch-up mode.
The above are just a very short set of examples of where Gore might have benefitted from the services of an international editor more familiar with the literature and achievements outside the United States, in order to add a little more balance to his arguments. They might also have invested some time in cutting down the degree to which the book `rambles' through a wide range of important and interesting topics and tightened the arguments to create a more robust set of conclusions. Also, given the amount of data in the book, it would probably have benefitted from some tables and diagrams to illustrate some of the points more clearly.

Instead, if one is familiar with even half the topics in this book, Gore does not really offer up anything particularly new or insightful. His take away message then appears to centre upon the idea that `Democracy and capitalism have both been hacked' by big business interests, whose short-term focus, fails to address the very important long-term effects of bad policies. Hijacked would probably be a more appropriate verb, but with this general argument, he has my full support.

So having highlighted some of my negative observations about the book, is it worth reading? Most certainly. Indeed, I strongly recommend the book (warts and all) since I believe whatever one's political position, Gore does make some very valid points. Furthermore, Gore provides an overview of many of the technological developments which are rapidly occurring at this time and whose impact upon societies throughout the world will be profound. Of course there are plenty of other books out there which go into much more detail about the various issues discussed and anyone seriously interested or concerned will probably have read many of them. Gore's book is unlikely to throw new light on these issues for such people. However, for those interested in surveying the vast territory of changes and challenges facing humanity at this time, Gore's book provides a good overview and introduction, albeit with his own bias. Furthermore, unlike some more subtle publications, Gore does not pretend to lack an agenda or motive for pressing home his message. Whether you agree with it or not is up to you; but it is worth listening to.

Finally, the title of the book `The Future' is rather misleading and inappropriate in my opinion, although I can see it provides a strong and catchy title for marketing purposes, which appears to be Gore's forte these days. A more appropriate, although much less attractive title might have read: `Elements and Forces Shaping some Possible Futures for Humanity.' But then, if you want to sell the book . . .


The Joy of X: A Guided Tour of Mathematics, from One to Infinity
The Joy of X: A Guided Tour of Mathematics, from One to Infinity
by Steven Strogatz
Edition: Hardcover

25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Joy of a Good Communicator in Maths, 12 April 2013
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Steven Strogatz's book 'The Joy of X: A Guided Tour of Mathematics, from One to Infinity' is just that; a relatively superficial guided tour of a broad range of mathematical topics. Like a 2 hour tour of an historical monument, the quality of the guide makes a great difference to the experience; fortunately, Steven Strogatz is one of the better guides. One can understand why he won MIT's E.M.Baker Award, which is the 'only institute-wide teaching prize selected solely by students.'

His style is relaxed and chatty, but one never doubts that he knows his subject. Even where it is not his specialisation (e.g. Probability Theory), he has the good grace to admit it. The book requires little knowledge of maths beyond a reasonable grade at GCSE in order to follow along the author's explanations of why things are the way they are in maths. This is the great differentiator of this book; it is not in any way intended as a text book on maths and anyone seeking to review their knowledge of maths in depth will need to go elsewhere. The Appendix offers some more in-depth explanation of some of the more challenging concepts or ideas, at the same time its entries include a host of bibliographical information for anyone wanting to read up on a particular topic in more depth. Hence the book provides a complementary read that explains the history and/or the purpose behind certain mathematical concepts, which marries well with the more standard explanations found in textbooks on the subjects. In this regard, the author works his way through a fairly standard range of mathematical topics starting with Number Theory, then moving through Algebra (Relationships), Geometry (Shapes), Basic Calculus (Change), Statistics and Probability (Data) before finishing with some slightly less mainstream subjects (for GCSE) in the section 'Frontiers.'

Like any good tour guide, Steven Strogatz brings the subject to life and leaves one wanting to return to some of the places visited on another occasion with more time on one's hands to dig deeper.

Overall, an informative and fun read.


A Mathematician's Lament: How School Cheats Us Out of Our Most Fascinating and Imaginative Art Form
A Mathematician's Lament: How School Cheats Us Out of Our Most Fascinating and Imaginative Art Form
by Keith Devlin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.32

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Maths is art - not science, 22 Mar 2013
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Every so often, I read a book which I cannot put down. Paul Lockhart's book is one of them. I received it this morning and finished it this afternoon, including some time to work through one or two of his 'maths games.'

As reported in other reviews, Lockhart brings a wealth of experience as a university level maths teacher, who decided to take his talents to benefit K12 level students in school. Lockhart is exactly the kind of teacher everyone should have in their maths class. His approach is simple and intuitively sound; namely, that maths as it is currently taught in most school classrooms is not really maths per se; rather it is a training process that rewards those who are good at learning a multitude of facts in the shape of formulae and algorithms, but who are not necessarily inclined towards or even competent at thinking 'outside the box.' As the Forward to the book by Keith Devlin (a maths professor at Stanford University) points out, many successful high-school mathematics students come unstuck when arriving at university to study mathematics, since the approach and character of the subject is so very different. The analogy is that pre-university maths is similar to learning to paint by numbers and that only when one 'arrives' at university is true maths introduced into the curriculum and the student is allowed to pick up a blank canvas to construct a painting. Many cannot make the transition, largely because they lack the mind-set necessary for this unstructured approach.

Lockhart appeals to us to appreciate that this transition is not something which should simply occur for a minority of students arriving at university. Rather, real maths should be the starting point of a child's introduction to the subject, so that the beauty and creativity that is at the heart of mathematics can be truly appreciated and crafted by the student. Unfortunately, the existing educational system tends to wrongly assume that maths is really a branch of science and as such should be taught to prepare students to be competent in the use and manipulation of calculus to support their studies in the sciences. In order to reach this level at school, the student is therefore 'trained' from day one in basic maths, to be followed in sequence by more maths, algebra 1, geometry, algebra 2, pre-calculus and finally calculus. Of course, many students leave school or drop the subject at aged 16 and don't really even get exposure to calculus. Unfortunately, well before aged 16, many more students have simply been 'turned off' by maths, since its method of 'training' tends to reward the students who invest in the recipe of learning a mathematical operation, then practising the skill to a level where it is ingrained into the psyche. A good example being the algebraic formula for determining the factors of a quadratic equation where x=(-b+/-SQRT(b^2-4*a*c))/2*a. Whilst useful for solving the specific kind of problem, its relevance to the vast majority of students is such that once they have sat and passed or possibly failed their 16 year old maths exam, then like all the other formulae learnt for 'the exam' it will be willingly forgotten and never used again for the rest of their lives.

However, it would be wrong to paint Lockhart as being some free thinking spirit who denies the importance of learning certain facts, even formulae. His point is however, that frequently the student at school is introduced to such topics and concepts like the above formula as simply the next thing to learn and be mastered on the curriculum. Most of the time, the most important question of why does this formula work, or what is the history and reason behind its development is never mentioned. Lockhart's argument is that without expecting a student to be familiar with everything that has been developed in mathematical thinking during the past 3,000 years, it would at least make sense to introduce students to the various areas of the subject by way of exploration; by way of playing games and looking at maths as something to enjoy and experience without artificial exercises. One example of an artificial exercise that Lockhart uses which I enjoyed was his illustration of how in algebra one might be asked to solve the 'real life' problem of the age of your friend Maria, who is ". . . 2 years older than twice her age seven years ago." Lockhart's heartfelt retort to such attempts to make the subject interesting is that these kinds of unrealistic and ridiculous examples are not what algebra is all about. Instead, simply ask the question, "Suppose I am given the sum and difference of two numbers. How can I figure out what the numbers are themselves?" Lockhart states that "Algebra is not about daily life, it's about numbers and symmetry - and this is a valid pursuit in and of itself."

Furthermore, Lockhart is not out to attack school maths teachers. He fully recognises that most are 'trapped in the system,' but he appeals to maths teachers to rethink what they are trying to achieve in their classes.

Perhaps most importantly, Lockhart's observations go right to the heart of one of the problems of modern education in general, namely, that its objective is primarily to train people for the workforce. Setting aside any Orwellian undertones to such criticism, I wish that government ministers and policy makers would take note of Lockhart's messages. Maths is an art that should inspire and encourage thinking outside the box from the youngest ages. It should not be taught as a series of facts simply to be learnt for performing computations in a series of exams. Such an approach suffocates the intellectual development that real maths can so easily nurture.

One may not agree with everything said in this book, since it is first and foremost a lament, but also a call to arms as such it is naturally subjective in nature. However, like all good ideas, anyone reading it could not possibly fail to be stimulated into thinking about these important ideas.

Well worth the read.


The Human Brain: A Guided Tour (SCIENCE MASTERS)
The Human Brain: A Guided Tour (SCIENCE MASTERS)
by Susan Greenfield
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.29

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good in parts, but . . ., 26 Nov 2012
Originally I read this book back in the late 90s, shortly after it had been published and not long after I had been to a public talk by Susan Greenfield on the same subject.
Upon recently rereading the book, I felt that it is good in parts, but also weak in others.
Clearly, given her academic position, then Susan Greenfield knows a lot about the brain (although much of her assumed knowledge is absent from this book); but the book is only intended as a guided tour as stated in the title.
The question is: tour for whom? The book is not a text book and falls into that increasingly sizeable genre of popular science; however, to really be able to follow much of what the author is describing, the reader would benefit from some grounding in the basic anotomical structure of the central nervous system (CNS: brain and spinal cord), since otherwise, I suspect a novice reader would be somewhat lost as to the position and role of the number of varied nuclei of the brain and their varoius connections and roles.
Another comment suggests that this book offers nothing in addition to basic GCSE Biology; I should have to disagree or question whether the commentator has actually looked at a GSCE Biology text book recently. Treatment of the brain in GCSE tends to be somewhat simplistic and certainly does not delve down to the depths covered by Greenfield; particularly, when one looks at Chapter 5 'With Mind in Mind', which tends to read very differently to the rest of the book. This is problematic, since Chapter 5 does not flow very well and as someone else commented appears to be a set of lecture notes strung together; rather than prose written specifically on the topic.
Some comments on this site have picked up on the etymology mistakes and I agree that these are frustrating and sadly all too common in many popular science books; one is left wondering whether the author is simply lazy or actually ignorant, since Latin and Greek have long been removed from the necessary requirement of undergraduate science students as they were in the more distant past. My suspicions are that even some top university professors tend to simply repeat what they may have read in another work, whose original comments were wrong or inaccurate.
As for the substance of the book, I enjoyed it overall and particularly through to the end of chapter 4; but thereafter, for the reasons mentioned above, I think it was poorly written, although the idea of the chapter was perfectly sound and potentially interesting.
The book is of course a little dated in 2012, which is not a criticism, since much of the material is still current and one should judge it for the time when the author wrote it back in the mid-90s. However, it is not a classic. There are many other books that have come along since which deal with the same subject more clearly, since apart from the prose issues, the book is horrendeously short on diagrams (as mentioned by another commentator). This is not to say the book is not worth reading, but probably as a complementary work to anyone studying the brain and its functions as part of a more detailed course of study. For anyone, wanting a more up to date pictorially based explanation of the brain and its fuctions, I should recommend The Brain Book by Rita Carter which is published by Dorling Kindersley and provides a rich description of the anatomy and physiology of the brain, as well as a summary of some of the brains major disorders. After digesting The Brain Book, Greenfield's book would probably be easier to read and make more sense to a novice.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 19, 2013 12:42 PM BST


Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
by Paul Torday
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Hard not to put down, 27 Oct 2012
Although I bought this book some time ago (2007 paperback version), I have only just got round to reading it; largely, since I plan to watch the DVD. Having now read the book, I am not sure that I still want to watch the DVD, except I have been told the film is different. Hopefully, the film will be vastly better.
The book is one of those literary offerings which places one in the uncomfortable position of being torn between putting down to discard to the 2nd hand shop and valiantly turning the pages, in the vain hope (which past experience suggests is always hopeless) that things might get better. Sadly, they never did: yet again!
The outline story has been told many times in previous commentaries, so I shall not repeat the storyline. Suffice it to say that for me the characters remained uninteresting and two dimensional; as one other commentator has said, the style smacks of a 14 year old (average) school writing competition standard where this entry was definitely not shortlisted; whilst the technique of e-mails, committee notes, interrogation records, etc. did not work well for me.
It is always interesting to see how tastes are varied and like others scoring this book in the 1 to 2 star range, I am surprised at the high number of readers who found it worthy of 5 stars; but then it is fortunately a free society on Amazon reviews.
Personally, I would not recommend this book to anyone, given that there are only so many hours in the day and a great many better novels to enjoy with one's time.


Atom: An Odyssey from the Big Bang to Life on Earth
Atom: An Odyssey from the Big Bang to Life on Earth
by Lawrence M. Krauss
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Blend of Science and Fantasy, 19 Aug 2012
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This book is an interesting blend of science and fantasy; by which I mean that it is strong on providing a wide range of scientifically based insights carried along on the vehicle of a fantasy story. But this is fantasy at its very best - namely, a fantastic story. The protagonist is a single oxygen atom made up of 8 protons, 8 neutrons and 8 electrons whose ancestry can be traced to its earlier incarnations as part of the Big Bang who sets out on a journey across the cosmos literally through space and time.
Krauss adopts a technique used by the great Primo Levi towards the end of his seminal book on the Periodic Table, but in Atom the 'experiences' of our oxygen atom are far more fully explored, although as Krauss himself admits, perhaps with less literary talent.
Although the book is easier to follow for a reader with some educational background in science, it is devoid of mathematics and an intelligent reader would be able to follow the general events and ideas without much problem.
Atom is an inspiring book and reflects the enthusiasm Krauss clearly feels for his subject as anyone who has watched him on U-tube can see.
If I had one criticism of the work it is that it is possibly a little too long for what the author has to say and a bit of tighter editing would have helped in parts. That said, overall the book still deserves 5 stars in my opinion.
I should recommend it to anyone who has an interest and some knowledge about these subjects and likes to look at the Big Picture. For whilst dealing with the very small at the scale of an oxygen atom, the journey undertaken by our protagonist takes it from the Big Bang to the possible end of the Universe through time and across vast distances and regions of space ranging from the outer shell of stars, through gas clouds and recombinations with all sorts of other elements on our own planet Earth for about 10 billion years of its potential multi-trillion year journey.
Along the way, one is introduced to ideas about nucleosynthesis, star formation, planetary formation and of course life, as well as the inevitable end of the universe. There are plenty of textbooks and specialist books where one can study any of these topics in considerable depth. What Krauss contributes in Atom is a pulling together of a variety of interrelated subjects in an intriguing and at times for some perhaps perplexing story. Nevertheless, it is a story well worth reading for above all else, it reminds us that nothing is permanent, not even our hero the oxygen atom. Furthermore, by allowing a good dose of anthropomorphism to be given to our oxygen atom, we are able to share its story and appreciate what a fantastic and varied life it has led up to the present. It is also intriguing to remember as Krauss reminds us in the book that along the way, we too participate in this journey by perhaps breathing in our little oxygen atom at some point in our lives.


How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities
How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities
by John Cassidy
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.49

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not only How but Why Markets Fail, 27 April 2012
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How Markets Fail by John Cassidy provides a detailed review of economic theories relating to the operations of markets and illustrates the power of ideas; sometimes - bad ideas.
Cassidy provides the reader with a highly relevant historical journey that weaves the development of economic theories (particularly in finance and macroeconomics) with their practice in the real world leading up to the breaking of the financial crash of 2008-2009 centred on the US housing bubble. Key characters include economists from both sides of the spectrum together with pivotal policy makers.
This is definitely one of the better books I have read on the financial crisis since Cassidy illustrates how we came to be in this dreadful place through a combination of factors. Grounded in a fair representation of the conflicting theories of finance and macroeconomic policy this books avoids the kind of ranting witnessed in certain other publications on the subject.
Perhaps most valuable in this book is the way in which Cassidy traces the thinking of theoreticians about how markets operate from the classical to the contemporary period and illustrates how these various theories were adopted by politicans and financiers in the real world. Sometimes with disastrous results.
Hence whilst the book goes to some lenghts to explain the relevant theoretical constructs of the economics community, it is complemented by an equal consideration of the psychology and political economics at play amongst some of the key players.
As recorded in other publications on the financial crisis the book reinforces the sense that the demise of millions of people results from the games played by a relatively small number of players at the top of the power pyramid.
Sadly, although the conclusion of the book offers up some suggestions on how the crisis might be turned into an opportunity for significant reform in banking (particularly investment banking), the intervening three years since the book was published witness very little has been changed. A seriously missed opportunity.
At its heart this is a book that revisits the intellectual struggle by top economists from Adam Smith to Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, from the ideas of Karl Marx to the insights of John Maynard Keynes. But it also includes some less well known figures whose contributions have greatly enriched our understanding of how people behave in market situations, in particular Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in their contributions from psychology and Hyman Minsky's grasp of reality of how markets really work.
It reminds us that as students of political economics, there are two sides to consider; namely, the political (in particular the use of power) and the economic. The same can be said of financial economics, where there are the increasingly mathematically based models to consider, but there are also the psychological and political elements of the players. At its heart, this book reads as a review of the ideological battle between those (both theorists and practitioners) who believe in the efficiencies of the market and the need to minimise government intervention, versus those who take a more pragmatic approach that acknowledges the realities of market failure and the need to insulate society from its excesses. It is of course a conflict that continues to this day.


The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos
The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos
by Brian Greene
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.69

13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hard work but worth the effort, 17 April 2012
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If you ever wonder what possessed the medieval world to defend and embrace the Ptolemaic view of the cosmos against all comers until the time of Copernicus and for some time thereafter, then this book should provide many people with that same level of discomfort that the defenders of Ptolemy must have felt when faced with the idea of a heliocentric cosmos. It is relatively easy to be wise after the event and scorn the ignorance and stubborness of Ptolemy's guard; even Einstein found the idea of an expanding universe (which is what his original equations told him was happening) to be unacceptable; at least until Hubble provided him with the proof. In a similar vein, Brian Greene's The Hidden Reality takes one on a mind-expanding journey through contemporary versions of Parallel Universes held within the community of astrophysicists and mathematicians who spend their time delving into such matters. At first blush, one might be foregiven for thinking that such concepts are to be taken no more seriously than the world of Alice in Wonderland; at least in terms of their representing our 'Hidden Reality.' However, Greene leads us through each proposal in a clear and concise manner to reveal such concepts as:
The Quilted Multiverse
The Inflationary Multiverse
The Brane Multiverse
The Cyclic Multiverse
The Landscape Multiverse
The Quantum Multiverse
The Holographic Multiverse
The Simulated Multiverse
The Ultimate Multiverse
Along the way, ideas from quantum mechanics and string theory are addressed, along with consideration in the final chapter to the question of the Limits to scientific enquiry about these concepts; most of which might prove impossible to ever actually 'test' in a scientific manner.
This book is not an easy read, although given the nature of the concepts under discussion this is hardly surprising. However, Greene manages to provide a relatively clear explanation of the concepts, without resorting to the need to drown the reader in complex equations and mathematics. At the same time, anyone with a reasonable grasp of scientific methodology and some background in physics and mathematics will probably find this a fascintating read. To really get to grips with the subject matter would involve a more careful rereading and study of the contents, but for an overview of the ideas an initial diligent read will suffice.
Certainly, I should recommend this book to anyone interested in finding out about current thinking and ideas around this subject. I totally disagree that this book could have been reduced to 20 pages and that the remaining 95% is waffle as suggested by one other reviewer. This is not light reading, but nor is it waffle. Indeed, it is impressive precisely because it keeps focused throughout and ties the various ideas together in a coherent and meaningful manner. Above all, even if you regularly read books about philosopy of mind, metaphysics, epistemology, science fiction relating to parallel universes, newtonian and quantum mechanics the ideas in this book will certainly provide some stimulating and entertaining food for thought.


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