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Mark Hurst (Bedfordshire)
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Climbing Mount Improbable
Climbing Mount Improbable
by Richard Dawkins
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Improbably entertaining, 11 Oct. 2011
Dawkins is back, and this time it's, well, more of the same, actually. This isn't a criticism, just an acknowledgement that there aren't any radical new ideas here. What we do find here is a new and very readable treatment of evolution by natural selection, a subject Dawkins has written about passionately in his previous popular works The Blind Watchmaker and River Out Of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (Science Masters). The Mount Improbable of the title is a metaphor Dawkins has used before (notably in his memorable Royal Institution Christmas lectures), and one which neatly counters William Paley's 'Blind Watchmaker' argument - as if it still needed countering after the author's earlier onslaughts!

Interestingly this book also expands on the use of computation as a tool of biology, a theme Dawkins touched on in The Blind Watchmaker (expanded as an appendix to the second edition), although disappointingly this early emphasis peters out after a while. It may sound vulgar, but I got the impression that we were going to be directed to a 'Mount Improbable' web site where we'd find copies of the programs he was discussing!

In balancing rigour against readability, the book lies somewhere between River Out of Eden and The Blind Watchmaker, being considerably longer than the former but an easier read than the latter - easier in the sense that Dawkins seems to curb his passion for exhaustive (and, it has to be said, sometimes tedious) expansion on a theme. On the whole the book covers ground already covered in exhaustive detail by Dawkins's earlier works, but because he uses new examples it's easy to be caught up, once again, in the immensity and sheer wonder of what he's saying.

I also thought the book ended rather

(abruptly).


Reverse Time Travel
Reverse Time Travel
by Barry Chapman
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars Entertainment, Jim, but not as we know it, 11 Oct. 2011
This review is from: Reverse Time Travel (Hardcover)
Sometimes you have to wonder if there's any point to reading a book: any point, that is, beyond entertainment. Chapman's book trades on 'the exciting revelation that travelling backwards through time is possible', and it's certainly a fascinating romp down the twisty, turny passages (all different) of late twentieth-century physics. Black holes, white holes, singularities and the five-dimensional multiverse we inhabit; all are scrutinised in language carefully constructed for the layman, but does any real knowledge change hands?

Cosmology is a fascinating subject, but it's an esoteric one. The origin of the universe ties with the origin of life as the Ultimate Question, but unlike the origin of life the origin of the universe probably has no answer that we laymen can comprehend. This is where Chapman's book, along with those of Paul Davies, Stephen Hawking and other contemporary cosmo-evangelists, flounders - the things they're talking about just can't be described in the language of everyday things. Mathematics is the name of the game, and there's no substitute for combating such questions as 'what happened before time began?'

But don't be discouraged by a lack of numerical know-how because although Chapman exhibits a distinct fondness for complicated equations, he assures us that we don't need to comprehend them to enjoy his book. Surprisingly he's right, although ultimately his 'truth' is as baffling as it is fascinating. There are some surprising revelations (faster-than-light travel is possible), but ultimately Chapman's triumphant conclusion - that travelling backwards in time is possible - seems less controversial than his title suggests, involving alternate universes and the like.

It's a fascinating book, even if there's little chance of us mortals understanding the physics behind it. The equations are there if you want to bring your calculator along, but most of us will take the science on trust. And if the conclusions seem familiar, it's because we've all read far too much science fiction and the parallel-universe thing has become a cliche. But why worry? Fact or fiction, we'll probably never know one way or the other. It's entertainment, Jim, but not as we know it.


Schrodinger's Kittens and the Search for Reality
Schrodinger's Kittens and the Search for Reality
by John Gribbin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mind-bending (no kittens were harmed...), 11 Oct. 2011
You know it's Christmas when that classic slice of early-eighties schoolboy humour A Hundred and One Uses of a Dead Cat ('we're still flogging it') re-surfaces in W H Smiths. Erwin Schrodinger's cat-in-the-box isn't featured - its fate probably wasn't sufficiently macabre - but its fame as the popular face of quantum absurdity guarantees this particular cat its own place in history. Sixty years on, perhaps it's time the cat was finally laid to rest? Gribbin thinks so, and reporting from the cutting edge of quantum research he explains how physicists are trying to take absurdity out of the equation.

Schrodinger's Cat highlights the consequences of quantum mechanics in laymen's terms and exemplifies the 'Copenhagen Interpretation', which has been the orthodox view of quantum mechanics since the 1930s. The main thrust of the Copenhagen Interpretation is that alternative outcomes of the experiment exist only as probability waves until an external observer checks the result. This reliance on an observer to 'collapse the wave function' leads to a morass of philosophical debate which serves to emphasise that this is a crutch for interpreting quantum behaviour, not an explanation of it. Gribbin argues that the Copenhagen Interpretation is what makes quantum mechanics hard to understand, and he leads us through the alternatives that have appeared over the last couple of decades before revealing his own 'best buy'.

The book focuses, as does much of quantum research, on what happens to electrons as they go through 'the experiment with two holes', as Richard Feynman called it. Many of the apparently strange consequences of quantum behaviour can be attributed to the fact that we still don't really know what electrons are, and it's hard to break away from classical models such as 'waves' and 'particles'. To paraphrase Feynman, things on a very small scale don't behave like waves, particles, clouds, billiard balls - or like anything we have ever seen. What quantum mechanics shows us is that waves and particles in the classical sense may be mere shadows that reveal some aspects of a higher order we haven't yet figured out.

Although billed as a sequel to Gribbin's earlier work In Search of Schrodinger's Cat , this book is complete in its own right. Gribbin updates the cat-in-the-box experiment by shooting the moggie's hypothetical offspring off to opposite ends of the universe in spaceships, but the kittens provide little more than a cute title, reappearing only briefly in the final chapter where their fate is left an exercise for the reader. I won't spoil the book by revealing its conclusions, but Gribbin's aim is to reveal the most promising explanation of the mechanics underlying quantum behaviour. 'Most promising' means an explanation that is easily understood, and one that doesn't carry around any philosophical baggage. To give you a little clue, it does at first appear to involve time travel, but this is a moot point once we've learned about how photons experience time.

This is a challenging book that repays a second reading: the subtleties of some of the experiments Gribbin describes are difficult to impart in laymen's terms and it's easy to miss some of the detail first time around. Gribbin isn't going to challenge the Dead Cat book (this year anthologised in a bumper edition with its two sequels) as a stocking filler, but if you want something to revive your intellect buds from the festive torpor, Schrodinger's Kittens is an entertaining and stimulating read.


Longitude
Longitude
by Dava Sobel
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.18

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Lacklustre, 11 Oct. 2011
This review is from: Longitude (Paperback)
This is one of those lovely little books you just want to pick up and cuddle, but sadly the style outdoes the substance. It's an account of the struggle by John Harrison to 'discover the longitude', or, more correctly, to convince everyone else that he had in fact discovered it already and to claim the £20,000 parliamentary prize.

You have to smile, in retrospect, at the 'advance praise' (a.k.a. shameless hype) for this book: three independent 'gem's and one 'sexy', but sadly the initial wonder quickly wears off when we realise that Harrison's achievements, whilst unquestionably significant, were more to do with the refinement of existing technology than with the creation of something new. I admit that I was completely unaware of the history of before reading the book, but although it's an undemanding and mildly engaging read I found it disappointing.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 7, 2012 9:33 AM BST


Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution
Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution
by Michael J. Behe
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

16 of 27 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Disingenuous, but thought-provoking, 11 Oct. 2011
Gosh, what a funny old book. Subtitled 'The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution', Behe's work starts as an intelligent dig at some apparent holes in the Darwinist literature and ends as a not-quite-overt Creationist tract.

Behe is a biochemist, and also, as we learn 15 pages from the book's close, a Roman Catholic. His argument is a compelling one: that Darwinists focus almost exclusively on gross anatomy, yet the kinds of changes they invoke on the road to, say, the human eye, are never elucidated at the detailed molecular level. This, says Behe, is a gigantic con trick since the smallest phenotypic effect can require intricate and massive changes at the level of biochemistry and hence would not be attainable by natural selection.

It's a good idea, and somewhat convincing in the context of Behe's examples. His argument centres on 'irreducible complexity', which suggests that there are systems in biology that simply could not have evolved gradually, and he eventually (on page 193) comes clean and states that the systems he's described (cilia, blood clotting, etc.) were 'clearly' designed by an intelligent being.

The examples Behe considers are deliberately complex, yet his assertion that such systems are irreducibly complex is undermined by his own attack on the 'argument from personal incredulity' - just because he considers such system irreducible doesn't necessarily mean that they are so. His mousetrap example is particularly unconvincing, although we shouldn't let this obscure his basic point, which is that if natural selection can't explain an irreducibly complex system, we must, on Darwin's own admission, discard it as a natural philosophy.

Behe certainly has some interesting things to say about questioning our beliefs and why we hold such beliefs in the first place, but ultimately his message will stand or fall on details that we laymen must take on trust. His suggestion that science must explain the actual detailed route by which any evolutionary step took place seems ill-founded, and it all goes a bit pear-shaped towards the end, when he reveals his Creationist agenda.

For all that, it's a thought-provoking read.


Nano!
Nano!
by Ed Regis
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Heretic redemption, 11 Oct. 2011
This review is from: Nano! (Paperback)
A brief history of Eric Drexler, champion of molecular nanotechnology and erstwhile pariah of orthodox science.

The book charts the growth of Drexler's vision of engineering at the molecular level against a backdrop of almost universal derision from the scientific community. Drexler's arrogant manner and an evident contempt for orthodox chemistry has done little to endear him to the scientific mainstream, whilst his decision to publish popular accounts of his ideas before testing their rigour in scientific journals has led many to dismiss them as science fiction.

Like Charles Darwin, Drexler dithered over publication of his ideas for many years until the threat of pre-emption tipped his hand. Whilst his early books were dismissed as eccentric pseudo-science and criticised for their lack of specifics, Drexler's dazzingly technical doctoral thesis made many sit up and take notice. Those chemists who bothered to read it (some refused on principle) found it unimpeachable, and most contemporary criticism is based on the view that 'okay, that might work but how do you build it?'

The book paints a sympathetic picture of Drexler's crusade, but it's not a science book. It's an entertaining and easy read, but apart from some appetite-whetting for the nanotech neophytes it is interesting mainly as an account of the politics of scientific paradigm-shifts. Drexler is a latter-day heretic and only time will tell if his ideas hold water. If you want to read about them in detail you need his own 'Engines of Creation', or, if you have a head for heights, 'Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing and Computation' (his doctoral thesis, published by John Wiley).


The Periodic Kingdom: Journey into the Land of the Chemical Elements (Science Masters)
The Periodic Kingdom: Journey into the Land of the Chemical Elements (Science Masters)
by Peter W. Atkins
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A credible attempt, 11 Oct. 2011
Question: is it possible to write an interesting book about the periodic table? This account, published in the budget-priced 'Science Masters' series, is an attempt by Dr Peter Atkins, lecturer in Physical Chemistry and author of a fistful of popular science books.

Atkins's approach is to treat the periodic table as a map of a ficticious kingdom, which allows him to illustrate trends in terms of topography. It's an interesting idea that gets off to a good start by plotting the various physical properties of atoms (mass, diameter, density and ionization energy) as altitudes on a conventional periodic table. The trouble is, after that the geographical metaphor is painfully thin, yet Atkins persists in dragging it out. He does drop his guard occasionally, lapsing into more or less conventional narrative for chapters where the geography theme just doesn't fit. On the whole the style is readable, but constant reference to regions of the table as the 'western desert' and the 'southern island' is tiresome, whilst the use of 'region' to denote an element is downright confusing. Atkins also delights in overblown English, ranting on about 'littorals' and 'assaying the phenomenology' of things. 'Complexity', he spouts at one point, 'can effloresce from subtly different consanguinity'. Such self-indulgent rubbish only distracts us from the story.

The story is a familiar one to most of us with a smattering of chemistry, but to be fair I came away with a few new insights. Despite the awkward attempt to impart a majestic, 'nineteenth-century scientific journal' feel to his account, Atkins sketches a coherent outline of the patterns of atomic structure and how they relate to the elements we see. It's a slender book at 150 pages, although the breadth of coverage (from anecdotal human interest to 'six-lobed f-orbitals') complements the lack of depth.

Where I think this book would really score is as recommended reading for an A-level chemistry course. That's not a criticism, because at that level it offers insight that transcends the unimaginative presentation of most elementary text books.

So is it possible to write an interesting book about the periodic table? I suspect that it is, and this is a credible attempt. The Science Masters series features purpose-written short texts from popular authors, written to appeal to the educated layman. I think if Atkins were to expand this into a longer, more technical work (and perhaps rethink his metaphors), it would be an interesting and educational read.


Would-be-worlds: How Simulation is Changing the Frontiers of Science
Would-be-worlds: How Simulation is Changing the Frontiers of Science
by John Casti
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Shallow, 11 Oct. 2011
It always worries me when the cover of a book bears a legend such as 'Critical acclaim for John Casti's previous book', followed by glowing extracts from said 'acclaim'. Personally I'd rather read critical acclaim for the book I'm about to buy, so are they trying to hide something? The clear implication is that this book is going to be every bit as good as the last one, and that all the comments we see here will no doubt apply equally to both. I'm not convinced.

Casti's book is a nominally a tour of computer simulation, focusing on 'the science of surprise' (complexity and emergence), but it's really little more than a shallow survey of other people's work cemented together with some dry philosophising about models and simulations. It's a reasonable idea, but at a little over 200 pages it's clear that there isn't enough meat here to warrant a whole book. It's a highly episodic read, which gives the impression that it's been compiled from shorter works; most annoyingly, though, the sort of fleshing-out that would have made it truly interesting is entirely absent and we are repeatedly directed to the references after only the briefest introduction to a piece of research.

The book reads very like A K Dewdney's 'Computer Recreations' anthologies but with far less substance and a somewhat narrower theme. As an account of the field it purports to cover it offers little that hasn't been done much better in books such as Steven Levy's Artificial Life , James Gleick's Chaos and Roger Lewin's Complexity, to name an arbitrary few.

To borrow a phrase from the anonymous New Scientist correspondent quoted on the cover, I'd suggest that Would-be Worlds is little more than a tour d'horizon.


The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier
The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier
by Bruce Sterling
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping and disturbing, 11 Oct. 2011
Sterling is most famous for his sci-fi novels, but he's also a supremely accomplished techno-journalist, as this work testifies. It's an account of 'Operation Sundevil', the US government's heavy-handed crackdown on computer hackers and other innocent bystanders (Steve Jackson Games, for example), and Sterling does a masterful job with the narrative. His publishing deal on the book is also somewhat unusual, as he demanded the right to make the text available for download at no charge. You can buy the book in paperback, or you can download it and read it on the screen.


The Cuckoo's Egg : Tracking a Spy Through a Maze of Computer Espionage
The Cuckoo's Egg : Tracking a Spy Through a Maze of Computer Espionage
by Cliff Stoll
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars The original and best, 11 Oct. 2011
A classic, of course, and getting on a bit now. Published in 1989, this is a postgraduate astronomer's account of how he stalked a German hacker who was using the university as a jumping-off point for military espionage. A great book and not too technical, but perhaps a little too self-consciously hip for its own good: I've been to California and most Californians think all that Venice Beach stuff is weird too. I saw Stoll on TV once, and at least he's a real hippy.

Still a more gripping book than Stoll's purported anti internet (but really anti computer-junkie) followup Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway.


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