December 2005 February 2006

Book Reviews January 2006

The invisible century - Einstein, Freud and the search for hidden universes
Richard Panek
Fourth Estate, 2005ISBN: 1841152773
cover In this book Panek compares the work of two very well known scientists - Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. Freud's work on the unconscious mind is linked to the hidden workings of the universe which Einstein played a part in uncovering - hence the 'Invisible' in the title - although I do think that this analogy is pushed a bit too far.
There is also the question of which 'Century' the title refers to. The implication seems to be that it is the 20th Century - a look at how the work of Einstein an Freud affected future thought. However, I found that more of the book was concerned with the history of their subjects, and that much more could have been written about their influence on later science. Continued..
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The lighter side of gravity Jayant NarlikarCambridge University PressISBN: 0521565650
cover In this book, Narlikar describes our understanding of gravity and its implications for the behaviour of the universe we live in. The reader is introduced to Newton's laws of motion and gravity and see how they were superceded by Einstein's theories of relativity. The implications of the general theory of relativity such as black holes are then investigated. Narlikar makes good use of diagrams, and has plenty of astronomical photographs, thus linking the book to observational results, rather than it being too abstract. If you want more than the 'pop' descriptions of cosmology and gravitation, but don't want to get into mathematics, then this book should suit you. Continued..
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The Lunar Men Jenny UglowCambridge University PressISBN: 0374194408
cover This book is about a group of prominent people who came together in the second half of the eighteenth century. They had many things which distinguished them from the ruling class of the time - they were based around Birmingham rather than London or the Oxbridge universities, they rejected the Anglican religion, they believed in science rather than tradition, and made their living from manufacture rather than agriculture. As such they were the forerunners of a new way of life in Britain, helping to start the industrial revolution. In this book Uglow gives a comprehensive description of their lives and their how their activities changed our society. Continued..
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The River of Time Igor NovikovCambridge University PressISBN: 0521467373
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The philosophy of time can be a confusing subject, with long winded ways of saying the obvious, but in this book Igor Novikov manages to avoid falling into this trap. As an expert in relativity, Novikov shows that modern physics can give more substance to discussions about time. He desciribes how ideas about time have developed, from the thoughts of Plato and Aristotle, up to the 20th century. The bulk of the book investigates the nature of time from the general relativistic viewpoint, looking at the big bang and black holes. The final chapters of the book look at the possibility of time travel via wormholes in space. Overall the book presents some deep ideas in a non-technical manner. Continued..
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The nothing that is Robert KaplanPenguin BooksISBN: 0140279431
cover Although we use the number zero all of the time, and understand that it represents the concept of nothing, it has not always been that way. In this book Robert Kaplan shows us how this idea came gradually, and sometimes met a lot of resistance. Starting with the Babylonians we see how it spread to Greece and to India, and how a placeholder notation eventually took root in western civilisation. The second half of the book moves away from history towards more literary and philosophical ideas of nothingness including mathematical questions such as the nature of infinitesimals. Continued..
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Pendulum: Leon Foucault and the triumph of science
Amir Aczel
Washington Square pressISBN: 0743464796
cover Leon Foucault is well known today for his use of a pendulum to demonstrate the rotation of the earth. In this book Aczel gives more details of his life such as his early work in photography. We hear how Foucault was resposible for the development of quite a few scientific instruments - I hadn't realised that as well as his pendulum, he was also invented the gyroscope.
In France in the 19th century, science recieved considerable state support - official scientists had high status, and Aczel emphasises the problems of an outsider like Foucault. However, many biographers present a similar story for their subjects, and since Foucault had the support of Napoleon III for a significant amount of his work, many people might consider him fortunate in that respect. Continued..
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The large, the small and the human mind
Roger Penrose
Washington Square pressISBN: 0521785723
cover Roger Penrose is well known for his work on singularities in General relativity, and more recently for his controversial ideas about quantum theory and the mind, as described in his books 'The Emperors New Mind' and 'Shadows of the Mind'. However those books are long and somewhat intimidating for the novice. This is a shorter book dealing with these ideas. One thing I noticed is that Penrose is very skillful in getting a lot of material into a short book, with good use of diagrams. The first chapter is about cosmology, the second about quantum mechanics. These make an excellent non-technical introduction to these subjects. Continued..
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The Extravagant Universe Robert P KirshnerOxford University PressISBN: 0691058628
cover The 1990's brought some big surprises in cosmology. Some thought that the universe was fairly low density with gravity having little effect, others that it had the critical density, so that gravity would asymptotically bring the expansion to a stop. Then suddenly people were talking about an accelerating universe. This book is about some of these developments. More precisely its main subject is the work done studying supernovae by Robert Kirshner and his colleagues in order to learn more about the expansion of the universe. If you're interested in how a research group in astronomy tackled this important question then you should read this book. Continued..
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A Darwin selection Mark RidleyFontanaISBN: 0006863213
cover Darwin is well known for his works on evolution, in particular the 'Origin of Species'. However he worked in many other areas of biology, and it is sometimes said that even without his work on evolution he would have been considered one of the eminent biologists of the 19th century. In this book Mark Ridley has put together a selection of chapters from the works of Darwin, giving an indication of the breadth of his work. Ridley has chosen well, often helping to illustrate something of Darwin's mode of thought. Naturally there are chapters from the books on evolution, but there are also ones on his early work on the formation of coral reefs, and his later work on the action of earthworms. Continued..
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Curious Minds John BrockmanVintage, 2004ISBN: 0099469464
cover In this book John Brockman has persuaded a group of scientists to write about what set them on the scientific path. However, if you are a parent hoping to set your child on this path, then I don't think that you will find much to help you here. Many of the contributors say that they didn't decide on their careers until they were well into their university studies. Others put doubt on whether such childhood recollections can be given any value. But the book is certainly worth reading - the early life of well known scientists makes fascinating reading, whether or not it influenced their future. Continued..
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Newton's Clock: Chaos in the solar system
Ivars Peterson
Freeman, 1993ISBN: 0716727242
cover The solar system seems to be the epitome of regularity, but there has always been a doubt about whether it is truly stable in the long term - Newton thought that divine intervention might be required from time to time. This isn't a book about the latest discoveries in astronomy, rather it's a look at the history of how a certain problem has been tackled. Peterson is a skilled author and presents what can be a dry subject in an interesting way, with the use of plenty of illusttrations. For instance although the book is wholly nonmathematical, it gives the reader some understanding of mathematical concepts such as Poincare's maps. Continued..
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The new quotable Einstein Alice CalapricePrinceton University Press, 2005ISBN: 0691120749
cover 'To punish me for my contempt of authority fate has made me an authority myself'. Such was Einstein's view on the desire of people to know his views on every subject under (and over) the sun. I'm not sure I agree with the idea of mining Einstein's words for nuggets of wisdom - it looks like he wasn't too happy with it - but I have to say that it is useful to have quotes from such a well known figure at hand. This book is very handy for such a use. It has a large number of quotes of the great man, and is well laid out, making it easy to find quotes on a particular topic. Continued..
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Special relativity - a first encounter
Domenico Giulini
Princeton University PressISBN: 0198567464
cover The author claims that he has tried to use a minimum of mathematics in this book. However, there are certainly introductions to special relativity which use less mathematics, and I would say that this book was more suited to someone who has read such introductions but wants to get a firmer grasp on the subject, but without ploughing through a large textbook on the subject. Giulini packs a lot of information into a compact book without it feeling rushed and makes good use of diagrams. The mathematics is aimed at a 'well educated 16 year old', and so the book should have a wide audience. Continued..
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Phantoms in the brain
Vilayanur Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee
Fourth Estate, 1998ISBN: 1857026187
cover Starting from the phenomenon of phantom limbs, Ramachandran looks at how the human mind responds to physical and neurological problems. He moves on through such conditions as: blindsight, neglect of one half of the body, and denial of paralysis. However his goal is wider than just describing the medical effects, he also takes the opportunity to explore the consequences for the philosophy of mind. He seems prepared to speculate more than most, but always recognises the vital importance of experimental support for ideas. If you are interested in the workings of the mind then this book will provide you with some fascinating insights Continued..
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Euclid's Window Leonard MlodinowPenguinISBN: 0141009098
cover In this book Mloninlow describes the history of geometry and its relation to other branches of science. The book progresses via the stories of five main characters, starting with Euclid and his 'Elements', then showing how Descartes linked geometry and algebra. It then looks at how Gauss initiated work on noneuclidean geometries, and shows how Einstein used this in the development of general relativity. The last part of the book concerns string theory and its development by Ed Witten. Mlodinow maintains his sense of humour throughout giving a very readable book, which is understandable by the non-technical reader. Continued..
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December 2005 February 2006