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Brian Clegg "Brian Clegg" (Wiltshire, England)
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I, Superorganism: Learning to Love Your Inner Ecosystem
I, Superorganism: Learning to Love Your Inner Ecosystem
by Jon Turney
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.08

4.0 out of 5 stars Beset by bugs, 26 Feb. 2015
I need to say straight away that I like this book, as my first comment otherwise would be a complaint. Because I don't like the title. For me, a superorganism is something very specific. It's a collection of individual organisms that come together to act as a single being. None typically has the full range of functionality and none seeks its own benefit. Instead they act more like the cells of a body. This kind of lifeform sounds like an alien in a sci-fi movie. But bees, ants and termites are all such superorganisms. Humans aren't.

I'm not saying humans aren't amazing, with lots of parasitism and symbiotic action going on with all the many non-human inhabitants of the body, but we aren't real superorganisms. Jon Turney does make a quick reference right at the end of his book to this 'other' use of the term, but for me that is the definitive use - so for this phenomenon they should choose a new term like metaorganism or hyperorganism. I don't care, just hands off the bees.

With that moan over, this is a very important book because it covers a phenomenal topic, which practically no one knows much about, and Turney does the best possible job in covering it. As the book's subtitle suggests it's about 'learning to love your inner ecosystem' - or probably more accurately, becoming more aware of just how amazing the colony of bacteria (etc.) that co-occupies your body is, where it comes from, and all the remarkable things it does in terms of your body's everyday working.

Only a few years ago, it was amazing enough to be able to say that we have around ten times as many bacterial cells as human in our bodies - but these figures are relatively dated, it seems. It's not so much that we have a better feel for the numbers, but rather a better feel for how little we really know. Whatever the actual figure, there are certainly far more bacterial cells in us than our own, and they occur pretty well everywhere, even in areas like the surface of the eye that were once thought to be sterile. (Part of the problem with pinning down bacteria is that they don't all flourish in a petri dish, so before DNA sequencing it was hard to be sure what was present, and even now it's all decidedly vague.)

Among the revelations are that our systems are built around supporting bacteria far more than we once thought. For instance, a major part of our very sophisticated and complex immune system seems to have been developed not to protect us, but to protect all the useful bacteria that inhabit our cracks, crevices and innards. And then there's the sheer diversity - because different individuals can have almost entirely different proportions of onboard flora and fauna - in fact each of us can be as different as different continents. Which all means that even though our DNA sequencing techniques are hugely improved, and can now routinely make deductions from a whole mess of DNA, rather than that of an isolated bacterium, we are largely in the dark about the whys and wherefores of any particular human ecosystem.

Which leads me on to the negative side. Quite a lot of the book is, well, dull. This might seem a contradiction to my earlier comment about Turney doing the best possible job in covering it - but the point is that the subject itself manages to be hugely important... and boring, all at the same time. Part of the problem is the Rutherford effect. The great physicist Ernest Rutherford famously (and very effectively) wound up by biologists by saying 'all science is either physics or stamp collecting,' meaning that biologists, and to some extend chemists, spend most of their time collecting information, cataloguing it and structuring it, rather than developing any fundamental underlying science. And while biology now has its mega-theories, this study of these bacterial colonies and their interaction with their human host is very much in the stamp collecting phase, even if it's done with brand new, high-tech approaches.

So we get page after page that is telling us about the type of bacteria that may (or may not) be found in different parts of the body and the chemical systems they use to interact and the molecular... zzzz. Of course I may be biased, having a physics background, but I've read and enjoyed plenty of popular biology books. I like this one, I find the underlying 'wow factor' of the sheer scale and importance of our associated bacteria amazing, but the detail is rather tedious.

I also didn't get an answer to the question that was at the back of my mind, raising a hand for attention, all the way through. What do the different antibiotics we get given do to our bacterial landscape, and what does this mean for its recovery afterwards? There is a specific section about the impact of antibiotics on young children, but no insights into the specific action of, say, amoxycillin on our gut bacteria. (And someone should have spotted the howler where a paper is quoted as saying as a sample was 'placed in a cooler and... stored at 280°C until DNA extraction.' That's not storage, that's cooking. It should have read -80°C.)

Given that, what should I conclude? I think even if you end up, like me, skipping through a few pages where things look to be carrying on in the same fashion, it is still a really important milestone in our understanding of the complexity and variability of our inner landscape, and as such is a must-have addition to the popular science bookshelf.


The Endless River
The Endless River
Price: £7.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars One for the collectors, 23 Feb. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: The Endless River (Audio CD)
As a Pink Floyd fan I had to have a copy - and I'm glad I bought it. But taken as an album in its own right it is pretty insubstantial, being essentially cutting floor bits and pieces that never made it to the final recording.

It's good ambient background type music, but without the biting edge you'd expect from Pink Floyd (in part because there are hardly any lyrics). An oddity, but not a disaster.


Disc Makers HP Premium 52x LightScribe CD-Rs - Tub of 50 LIGHT SCRIBE PRINTABLE RECORDABLE CD 700MB 80MINS (Superior Quality from Taiwan)
Disc Makers HP Premium 52x LightScribe CD-Rs - Tub of 50 LIGHT SCRIBE PRINTABLE RECORDABLE CD 700MB 80MINS (Superior Quality from Taiwan)
Offered by Blank-Discs-Com SuperSaver
Price: £42.94

3.0 out of 5 stars Reliable Lightscribe CDs, 23 Feb. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Rather shocked to discover that Lightscribe CDs seem to be being phased out as there aren't many for sale any more. Came quickly and does the job fine. The CDs seem pretty reliable - very few duds. The only reason I've not given a higher rating is these were quite expensive, but as the blanks get scarcer the price seems to be being pushed up dramatically, so still one of the best prices for this quantity I could find.


Half Life: The Divided Life of Bruno Pontecorvo, Physicist or Spy
Half Life: The Divided Life of Bruno Pontecorvo, Physicist or Spy
by F. E. Close
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.00

4.0 out of 5 stars A lot of detail in a mix of history of physics and did-he-didn't-he? spy drama, 23 Feb. 2015
It would be easy from the title of this book to suspect that physics professor Frank Close is writing about... well, radioactive half lives, but the subtitle tells us this is really on a more complex topic: 'The divided life of Bruno Pontecorvo, physicist or spy'. (I feel there ought to be a question mark at the end of that.)

Frank Close is a familiar name, with a string of excellent books focusing on specific topics in physics like Antimatter, The Infinity Puzzle and my particular favourite, Neutrino. This last title is particular apt, as neutrinos feature heavily in Half Life too, but this is a very different beast. In Half Life we get a scientific biography of Bruno Pontecorvo, the Italian physicist who worked on nuclear reactors during the Second World War, moved to Harwell in the UK soon after, but then, in 1950, mysteriously disappeared without trace. Five years later he appeared in the Soviet Union where he lived and worked for the rest of a long life.

What's very welcome about this book is that it gives us the chance to put Pontecorvo in his place in the annals of physics. Arguably he would have been a Nobel Prize winner if he hadn't disappeared into Russian obscurity, and he continued to do important work at Dubna, particularly around neutrino theory. But Pontecorvo's disappearance meant that a) speculation about this dominated any popular writing about him and b) his scientific work didn't really get the credit he deserved.

There are really three strands here - Pontecorvo's life, his work and the nature of his relationship with the Soviet Union - and Close covers them all in some detail in over 300 pages before you reach the notes. Apart from finding out more about Pontecorvo's work on neutrinos there is some fascinating material on his time in Fermi's lab in Italy. I hadn't realised, for instance, that Fermi and his team took out a patent on the slow neutron process that made nuclear chain reactions practical. One of the reasons that some of Pontecorvo's former colleagues gave him the cold shoulder after his defection was that his disappearance damaged their lawsuit for a large payment from the US government.

I'd still say that the Neutrino book is the best way to read up on these fascinating particles - here the scence parts tend to be a bit disjointed, because some aspects of the development involved messy overlaps and the chronology flips back and forth, and the science is fitted around the people part. But you will certainly gain some insights. There is also the key mystery that has never been solved - was Pontecorvo a Soviet spy who defected when he was in danger of being revealed, or just a naive communist who thought he was heading for a better life?

Close isn't able to provide us with a definitive answer to that question, but he pieces together evidence that gives a strong suggestion of Pontecorvo's role, which Close admits was totally different to his own expectation. (You'll have to read the book to get the answer.) The detective work is painstaking, perhaps giving us rather more detail than we really want. But the story of the key few days when the Pontecorvos (his wife and children disappeared with him) gave every appearance of being on an enjoyable European motoring holiday before things suddenly become strange is told very well.

This was a part of the history of physics that has never been properly explored in popular science, with a good mix of biography and the key science behind it. While I can't go as far as one of the quotes on the back which refers to it as a 'gripping scientific spy mystery' - the grip is mostly quite loose - it is essential reading for anyone who wants to get a good feel for what Fermi's team did before the war, the machinations of wartime science spying and the development of neutrino theory. Close does a great job of putting Pontecorvo in his proper place in the history of physics, and (as much as is possible) draws back the curtain of mystery that has always covered his relationship with the Soviet Union.


The Library of Isaac Newton
The Library of Isaac Newton
by John R. Harrison
Edition: Paperback
Price: £29.33

3.0 out of 5 stars A historian of science's dream tour of Newton's book collection, 20 Feb. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Clearly not popular science, in fact, very much one for specialists - but for historians of science this is an extremely valuable look at the 2000+ books that Isaac Newton collected.

Infuriatingly, the collection remained in one piece until the 1920s, but then a good chunk of it was sold off to a collector. There will be some surprises. For instance, Newton doesn't seem to have a copy of Galileo's definitive physics book 'Two New Sciences'. And his library contained far more books on theology than physics. He also had a fair amount of fiction... and even some books on medals.

Along with an erudite exploration of the library's history and its various oddities, the book contains a complete catalogue of the volumes, and whether they had any oddities like markings and page turnings by Newton.


Before the Big Bang (Kindle Single)
Before the Big Bang (Kindle Single)
Price: £1.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars All you need to know about the big bang theory (not the TV show) in 50 pages, 20 Feb. 2015
In this compact (50 page) ebook, veteran popular science writer John Gribbin takes on the period in the current best-accepted theory of the origin of the universe, the hot big bang that came before the big bang bit.

Although I also wrote a book called Before the Big Bang, I'm not overly miffed as this is a totally different approach. Where my book was about the historical context leading up to the big bang theory, plus alternative models of the origin of the universe, some of which have more of a 'before' than the vanilla big bang theory, Gribbin is filling in a much misunderstood aspect of this central cosmological theory. As he frequently points out, the 'big bang' in question is not the beginning of the universe, but the point after inflation when things get seriously hot (though it's not totally clear that Fred Hoyle meant this at the moment he coined the term).

Gribbin starts us off with a bit of background, revealing, for instance, in a more robust fashion than usual that Lemaitre and not Hubble was the discoverer of what is now known as Hubble's law. He then gives a clear picture of the nature of the big bang itself, based on a book by Soviet cosmologist Igor Novikov that dates back to the late 1970s, and remarkably is still pretty much in line with current understanding.

From there, Gribbin gives us an excellent exploration of inflation and some of the reasoning behind the possibility of a singularity (or at least near-singularity) for the actual beginning of our universe, followed up with a good summary of the multiverse concept, and how it could be driven by different possible kinds of inflation, all brought up to date with useful analysis of the BICEP2 mis-discovery of evidence for inflation.

Gribbin could have been a little less definitive about some of this, because however much cosmologists like to think they've left their reputation for speculation behind, there is still some (highly educated) guesswork in the field. When Gribbin says 'The story of the Big Bang is as well established as any story in science,' it feels a bit like when at the start of the twentieth century budding physicists were told 'there are only a few minor details to sort out, but basically we've got physics cracked.' And then relativity and quantum theory came along. So for instance, on dark matter, Gribbin comments 'we now know... that the Universe also contains something called dark matter', where I think it would be more balanced to say 'we now think...' but generally speaking the only other negative here is that because the book(let) is so short, it is quite condensed information, so is not as easy a read as the author's full length books.

If you've got the price of a cup of coffee to spare, why not give your caffeine addiction a miss and spend it instead on something that really will improve the mind? There'll even be some change.


To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science
To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science
by Steven Weinberg
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.60

13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A top scientist looks back on the origins of science, 18 Feb. 2015
There was a time when one approached a popular science book by a 'real' working scientist with trepidation. There was little doubt they would get the science right, but the chances are it would read more like a textbook or dull lecture notes. Thankfully, there are now a number of scientists who make pretty good writers too, but one area they tend to fall down on in history of science. I've lost count of the number of popular science titles by working scientists which roll out the tedious and incorrect suggestion that Giordano Bruno was burned for his advanced scientific ideas.

Luckily, though, Steven Weinberg, as well as being a Nobel Prize winning physicist for his work on the electroweak theory (and all round nice guy), has made something of a hobby of history of science and his accounts are largely well done. I might disagree with some of his emphasis, and there are a couple of arguable points when dealing with Newton, both in his introduction of centripetal force and in the claim that the Royal Society published Principia, but on the whole the history is sound.

Perhaps surprisingly for a modern physicist, whose working life has been focussed on the peculiarities of particle theory and the significance of symmetry, Weinberg chooses to write about the period when the scientific method was evolving. So he starts with the Ancient Greeks and runs through to Newton, with only a short summary chapter filling in everything else in physics.

I have given the book five stars because I think that Weinberg builds this structure beautifully, showing how very different the ancient ideas of natural philosophy were from natural science and explaining in far more detail than I've ever seen in a popular work how the different models of the universe (what we would now call the solar system) were developed through time, including really interesting points like the way that Ptolemy-style epicycles were maintained in the early Copernican era.

He is also very good on the period when Arab scientists did original work and brought the mostly forgotten Greek works to the attention of the world. Here he treads what feels a very sound line between the older tendency to play down the Arab contribution and the more recent tendency to allow this period more of a contribution than it really had. Weinberg is perhaps a little sparse in his appreciation of the medieval period, ignoring Grosseteste and only having a passing reference to one thing that Roger Bacon mentions, but again he then very much puts Descartes and Francis Bacon in their proper place, rather than giving too much weight to their work.

Reading this book you will find out a whole lot about Ancient Greek science plus the contributions of Galileo and Newton, and it will be a rewarding read. Don't expect a lot of context - there is only very sketchy biographical information - so the content can be a little dry in places, but Weinberg's impressive grasp of the gradual evolution of the scientific method more than makes up for this.

The only slight surprise was that the book is significantly shorter than it looks. The main text ends on page 268 of 416. The rest (apart from the index) is a series of 'technical notes' which are effectively textbook explanations of various developments in physics from some Greek basics through to Newtonian matters like planetary masses and conservation of momentum. I'll be surprised if 1 in 100 readers makes it through these.

So, highly recommended if you want a history of the development of physics from ancient Greece through to Newton with a lot of detail on the way that both the model of the solar system and the basics of mechanics were developed in that period. Weinberg's writing may be a little dry with its lack of biographical context, but it is rarely dull as he keeps the ideas flying.


The Museum of the Future and Other Stories
The Museum of the Future and Other Stories
by Andrew May
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

4.0 out of 5 stars An intriguing SF & fantasy collection if you like the style, 9 Feb. 2015
I was a little bit wary of this collection of short stories, as it has the look of being self-published even though it isn't (specifically the paragraphs have gaps between them, like this blog, rather than the indented start you always see in a 'real' book) - but I needn't have worried because this isn't reflected in the content.

My suspicion is that these are Marmite stories - you'll love them if you like period writing. The first, for instance, is (intentionally) in the style of the wonderful M. R. James' Victorian ghost/horror stories, and several others adopt a Victorian style. I can't say every story worked for me - but that's true of pretty much every short story collection I've read, even those by masters of the art like Ray Bradbury, Gene Wolfe and Neil Gaiman. The ones that did work, were genuinely engaging and intriguing.

Andrew May gives us a mix of science fiction, fantasy and mild horror. I think this is a collection that works best for those who are well versed in these genres, as you will get the references and the cleverness of stories like The Call of Cool-o, which is an H. P. Lovecraft style plot written in the style of Philip K. Dick, or The Museum of the Future, which is essentially the same story (each set in 2012), told as the story would have been if written in 1912, 1932, 1952, 1972 and 1992, employing the styles and recurring themes common in each period. Quite often 'Fortean' themes are explored, something of a speciality of May's, using a story of real life weirdness* as a setting for the fiction.

If I had to pick out a favourite it would be the relatively long story (many are only a few pages) A Case for Crane, which sees the main character watching a 1970s US crime drama, which he gets pulled into at various levels, sometimes inhabiting the mind of the character, sometimes the actor playing the character and sometimes the author, giving a strange and mind-twisting meta-view of the story. This sounds messy, but actually works really well. And I'm a sucker for period tales set in Oxford or Cambridge, of which there are several, though I should point out that all the best Cambridge colleges have a Senior Combination Room, not a Senior Common Room as mentioned in The Rendelsham Magi, with its unusual twist on the star of Bethlehem.

May's writing is assured and mostly enjoyable. His only weakness, I'd say, is that his female characters (when there are any) are straight out of the 1940s - either mousy and slightly plump or dominating Amazons. This is a very male-oriented collection of stories.

It's a mark of the effectiveness of the storytelling that there were several where I wanted to to find out more, to have the story taken on further. What's more, I took the book with me to read on the train, intending to put it aside for the important physics book I should have been reading last night, but instead I read on. If you like genuinely inventive and interesting short fiction, often with a period feel, it's well worth a try. You can find it on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com (I'd go for the Kindle edition if you use ebooks, as it's significantly cheaper, and I think short stories are amongst the best things to read in this format).

* Well, as real as you might consider the likes of a haunting or the Loch Ness Monster to be. (Not that Nessie is featured, but it's that kind of thing.)


Finding Zero: A Mathematician's Odyssey to Uncover the Origins of Numbers
Finding Zero: A Mathematician's Odyssey to Uncover the Origins of Numbers
by Amir D. Aczel
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.88

4.0 out of 5 stars A kind of 'India Jones does maths' in the hunt for the origins of zero, 7 Feb. 2015
There's nothing publishers like more than authors talking about themselves, because they think it connects them to their audience. I must admit, when it's, say, a physicist talking about their feelings about their latest discoveries, or how they travelled to yet another conference in a gorgeous location at taxpayers' expense, it makes me want to throw the book away. However there are some writers who have a genuinely interesting story to tell, and that's definitely the case with Amir Aczel's Finding Zero, a sort of 'India Jones does maths'.

There are two particularly excellent bits - the opening section, which describes the young Amir's introduction to mathematics in his highly unusual upbringing often on a cruise ship (his father was the captain), where one of the stewards (who had a sideline in smuggling) looked after him, and as a mathematician, enticed the boy into the wonders and history of mathematics. Then, later on, the latter half of the book is an attempt to find the oldest known example of zero, which disappeared many years ago, a quest that has as many ups and down as any Hollywood tale.

Although I do love the personal storytelling part, I would have liked a bit more mathematical content, but when we do get it, there's some interesting stuff about the different early number systems and the origin on the characters we use to represent numerals, which see to have come from India, but the route and the exact sources are still not clearly known.

I do have a couple of problems with the book. The big issue is that Aczel indulges in the same kind of woffly linking of Eastern philosophy and religion to scientific contents as the unfortunate Tao of Physics. The technique is to find something in ancient writing that bears a vague resemblance to modern science or maths and suggest that the ancients understood something that they clearly didn't. (This is nothing new - in medieval times it was common to think that ancient civilisations had much exotic knowledge that has since been lost.) This will put some readers off - but if you can get past it, there is much that is worth reading.

The other problem is that in trying to fight back against the early 20th century tendency to play down anything that came from the East, Aczel goes too far the other way, commenting, for instance, 'The three religions [Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism] together give us concepts that did not arrive in the West until much later, in the late middle Ages. These concepts are zero, infinity and finite but extremely large numbers.' My issue with that is that infinity was discussed in the West since the Ancient Greeks (Aristotle, for instance, spent some considerable time on it) and you can't do better on finite but large numbers than Archimedes' magnificent Sand Reckoner, where he calculates how many games of sand it would take to fill the universe. (To his credit, when I mentioned this to Aczel he broadly agrees with the criticism.)

What is impressive, though, is the central core of the book, the search for zero. It's not only a case of hunting for the oldest known written zero, Aczel makes a convincing argument that there is something about the Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism, that make it easier to conceive the concept of emptiness, or the void, as a worthwhile concept. It doesn't seem unreasonable that this viewpoint was behind the development of that incredibly useful mathematical widget, the zero.

So, a bit of a mixed bag, but well worth overcoming a negative reaction (should you have one) to waffly Eastern philosophy bits to get to the valuable insights into the early history of mathematics.


Wax Lyrical Grapefruit Reed Diffuser, Pink
Wax Lyrical Grapefruit Reed Diffuser, Pink

4.0 out of 5 stars Surprisingly good, 4 Feb. 2015
I have to confess to thinking in the past that diffusers were a bit like pot pourri - a rip off that doesn't really give a scent to a room. But this one, in a small cloakroom, has been stunning. It really fills the room with a clean tang of grapefruit. The only downside is that the liquid doesn't last long - it had all gone in a couple of weeks, although the scent lasted a few days more.


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