November 2006 January 2007

Book Reviews December 2006

Elizabeth I CEO Alan AxelrodPrentice Hall, 2000ISBN: 0735201897
cover When Queen Elizabeth 1st came to the throne of England, the country was in a sorry state, but her reign is now remembered as one of the golden ages of English history. In Elizabeth I CEO Alan Axelrod looks at her success in terms of running a business, and examines what lessons her reign might have for leaders of today. But the book isn't just for CEO's. It's an entertaining read, and will benefit anyone with even the smallest leadership role, as well as those who just want to look at history in a different light. Continued..
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The Wisdom Paradox Elkhonon GoldbergSimon & Schuster, 2005ISBN: 0743264010
cover Our brains tend to deteriorate as we get older. On the other hand wisdom seems to be associated with old age. In The Wisdom Paradox Elkhonon Goldberg examines this apparent contradiction, and looks at what we can do to get the wisdom rather than the deterioration. He shows that, as well as the holistic/reductionistic distinction, recent work links the right side of the brain to dealing with novelty and the left to recognising patterns. He looks at how the relative importance of these two sides changes as we get older - and at what can be done to influence this. Continued..
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Steve Wozniak and Gina Smith
Norton, 2006ISBN: 0755314069
cover Personal Computers are now a huge business, with large numbers of people employed in bringing us the latest design. It's surprising to learn that it started with one person designing and building a computer by himself - and doing it in his spare time. That person was Steve Wozniak and in iWoz he tells his story. Up until now he hasn't written about his life, but in this book one sees how his upbringing led to a fascination with electronics and to him being in the right place at the right time to initiate the personal computer revolution. Continued..
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The Theory of knowledge Peter ColeHodder and Stoughton, 2002ISBN: 0340804823
cover I often feel that philosophy books are too wordy, and I look out for books which are formatted in a way which is more helpful to the reader. The theory of knowledge is such a book, with plenty of use of tables and bullet points to get the information across. Although to some extent it's a crib for those studying for philosophy A-level and in particular those with Descartes' Meditations as a set book, it would also be useful to anyone wishing for an introduction to Descartes' work or to the philosophy of knowledge. I also feel that other authors who are trying to put forward a philosophical argument would do well to look at the way such arguments are presented in this book. Continued..
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The Runaway Brain Christopher WillsFlamingo, 1993ISBN: 0006546722
cover How humans came to have such large brains is a bit of an evolutionary puzzle. They are very useful now, but many of our talents would seem of little use in the environment of 100000 years ago. In The Runaway Brain Christopher Wills puts forward the argument that once our intelligence exceeded a certain threshold, continued growth was pretty much inevitable, inependent of the external environment. At least that's what I think he is claiming - my one problem with the book is that although Wills gives us an excellent tour of many areas of evolution and genetics, he never seems to collect up the claims he is making into a form in which they can be judged by the reader. Continued..
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Prime obsession : Bernhard Riemann and the greatest unsolved problem in mathematics
John Derbyshire
Joseph Henry Press, 2003ISBN: 0309085497
cover The Riemann hypothesis is a conjecture which has resisted attempts to prove it for a century and a half, and so is of great interest to the mathematical community. In 'Prime Obsession' John Derbyshire takes a dual approach to this topic, alternating mathematical chapters with chapters on the Riemann's life and the history of the hypothesis. I think that this works extremely well - if you are finding the maths hard going, then you have a break with a historical chapter (and vice-versa of course). I feel that it is a structure which other authors would do well to consider applying to their subject. Continued..
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The philosopher's dog Raimond GaitaRoutledge, 2002ISBN: 0415332877
cover Philosophy can be an obscure subject. In The philosopher's dog Raimond Gaita uses the medium of stories about his dogs and other animals to introduce some deep philosophical ideas, about the status of animals and much more besides. However, it is not a 'Philosophy made simple' sort of a book - some of the philosophy is pretty challenging - and this is where I felt the book falls down. Those who are interested in the doggy anecdotes are likely to be turned off by the philosophising, which increases as the book progresses - there was too much philosophy and not enough dog. Continued..
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Mobius and his band
John Fauvel ,Raymond Flood and Robin Wilson
Oxford University Press, 1993ISBN: 019853969X
We've all heard of the Möbius band, but not so many people know about Möbius himself, and the other work that he did. Möbius and his band fills in some of this gap, but it is not aimed to be simply biographical (although the first chapter gives a short biography). Rather it is a series of essays about different aspects of the society in which he lived, with a look at the status of mathematics in Germany at the start of the nineteenth century, and how Möbius' astronomical work fitted in with what was being done elsewhere. The later chapters look at some of the mathematical topics which he had a hand in, such as projective geometry and topology. Continued..
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The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents
H G Wells
Westholme Publishing, 1895ISBN: 1594160201
cover The Stolen Bacillus and other incidents was first published in 1895, before H G Wells had made his name with his longer stories. I sometimes feel that his later works concentrate too much on social commentary, and that the short stories of this book allow the reader to see more of Wells' unique inventiveness. There are are stories involving attacks by mysterious animals, as well as a couple of deadly plants. If you want to see how Wells' began his career as a novelist, or if you just like to read short stories then you'll probably enjoy the plot twists of these early examples. Continued..
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The History of Time: A very short introduction
Leofranc Holford
Oxford University Press, 2005ISBN: 0192804995
cover Our use of the clock and the calendar are so ingrained that sometimes it's hard to imagine that things can have ever been otherwise. But they can, and in The history of time Leofranc Holford-Strevens has given us lots of information about how the ways we describe time have come about. For instance the word noon comes from the latin for 9 meaning 3 o'clock in the afternoon - work that one out if you can! The book is mostly concerned with the history of the current calendar, but also has information on time-keeping in other cultures such as the Mayan calendar. Continued..
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Six impossible things before breakfast
Lewis Wolpert
Faber & Faber, 2006ISBN: 0571209203
cover Beliefs are strange things - people tend to stick to them despite contrary evidence. In Six impossible things before breakfast Lewis Wolpert looks at how we come by our beliefs, and puts forward a theory that we naturally try to find a causal explanation for things, even when there is insufficient information to do so. He shows how tool use goes hand in hand with a causal view of the world. If you're interested in the nature of belief then you'll find plenty of useful information in this book. However, I did have severe misgivings about some of Wolpert's arguments. Continued..
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Eureka Leslie Alan HorvitzWiley, 2002ISBN: 0471402761
cover We've all heard the story of Archimedes leaping from his bath. In Eureka Leslie Alan Horvitz tells about similar moments for a dozen scientists and inventors, although I have to say that in fact the book suggests that discoveries are not made via Eureka moments. Those that come closest - Newton's apples and Kekule's snakes catching their own tails - are most likely to be myths. Instead we see the great variety of processes by which these people came to their discoveries. All of the chapters are well written and despite a few quibbles the book is well worth reading - as long as you don't believe the title. Continued..
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The Amber Spyglass Philip PullmanScholastic, 2000ISBN: 043999358X
cover The Amber Spyglass is the final book in Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy. I felt that it continued the trend away from the action of the first book, towards a Miltonesque saga, which leaves me even more confused as to who the readership of the books is supposed to be. Possibly Pullman expected his readers to grow up as the books were published, so the first is more (although not totally) suitable for children. That is all very well, but now that they are all available, it makes it hard to recommend the trilogy as a whole (which is how it needs to be read) to any particular readers. Continued..
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The Natural Philosophy of Time Gerald WhitrowOxford University Press, 1980ISBN: 0198582129
There's one subject of study which is of concern to everyone - we are all students of Time. In The Natural Philosophy of Time G. J. Whitrow gives a wide ranging look at different aspects of this subject. One problem I found with the breadth of coverage was that arguments could not be developed in full - I sometimes felt that the author was being a bit dogmatic. In other parts he just seemed to be reporting the results of others, although this isn't necessarily a problem - with the extensive bibliographies for each chapter the book is a useful resource for those wanting to study an aspect in more detail. Continued..
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Cosmic Bullets Roger ClayAllen & Unwin, 1997ISBN: 1864482044
cover Cosmic rays have been something of a puzzle since they were discovered at the start of the 20th Century. In Cosmic Bullets Roger Clay and Bruce Dawson describe the work that has been done to try to solve this puzzle. The book has plenty of interesting information about cosmic rays, but I felt that it didn't have the buzz that it could have done. I thought the authors could have done more to some of the excitement of working in the field, and to indicate how explaining cosmic rays was an important part of cosmology in the 1930-1960 period. So you should read this book if you want to find out about cosmic rays, but I wouldn't particularly recommend it as recreational reading. Continued..
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The search for free energy Keith TuttSimon & SchusterISBN: 0684866609
cover Many people have dreamt of being able to produce energy from nowhere. In The Search for free energy Keith Tutt recounts the stories of attempts to achieve this supposedly impossible feat. He looks at cold fusion and at Tesla's attempts to send energy through the air as well as many others. It's a good read, but I felt that Tutt wasn't sufficiently critical of the devices he was describing. When money was involved he (rightly) saw it as a scam, but he didn't seem to accept that people can also push crazy schemes for non-financial reasons. My feeling is that I'll believe in free energy when I see a commercial device. Continued..
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Freedom Evolves Daniel C DennettViking Books, 2003ISBN: 0670031860
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Physicalism seems to be the dominant philosophy of mind at present. However, the question is far from settled, so physicalism still needs its defenders. In Freedom Evolves Daniel Dennett continues his battle against Cartesian Dualism. He shows how what we call free will could have arisen from simple beginnings, without the need to postulate something extra. Its the sort of thing Dennett does well - constructing a model of how our minds might work and showing how experiments support this model. Hence the book is definitely worth reading, but I feel that he still spends too much time worrying about and taking cheap shots at Dualism. Continued..
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Poe James M HutchissonUniversity press of Mississippi, 2005ISBN: 1578067219
cover Edgar Allan Poe is recognised as the creator of many early examples of themes in modern fiction. My impression of James M Hutchisson's new biography Poe is that it is skillfully written and has something of interest for all readers. I have to admit that I hadn't read much of Poe's work before reading this biography, but I felt that this was not a problem as Hutchisson provides a sufficient description of Poe's stories within the text. More knowledgable readers will benefit from the new critical insights into Poe's work and how it relates to his life. Continued..
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November 2006 January 2007