September 2006 November 2006

Book Reviews October 2006

A man without a country Kurt VonnegutBloomsbury, 2005ISBN: 0747584060
cover At the start of A man without a country Kurt Vonnegut explains how as a child in a large family he took to humour as a way of getting himself heard. I thought to myself 'Well that explains a lot'. For I have to say I have never got on with his work, and it seems to me to be constantly saying 'look at me, aren't I strange'. The book starts off OK, with details of Vonnegut's life - but it doesn't last, and really the best recommendation I can give for this book is that it's fairly short, and would serve as a taster, to see how you felt about Vonnegut's writing. Continued..
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The Professor and the Madman Simon WinchesterHarperperennial, 1998ISBN: 006099486x
cover The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester is a story of the beginnings of the Oxford English Dictionary. James Murray took the job as editor of this work, but many others were involved in its creation. Winchester gives interesting details about several of these, such as Frederick Furnivall - thought to be the inspiration for Ratty in The Wind in the Willows. This book however, is primarily about one contributor, William Minor. Minor seemed like an ordinary contributor, but when Murray decided to visit him he was in for a surprise - Minor was an inmate of Broadmoor Asylum. Winchester has looked into this fascinating tale, separating out the myth from the reality, and the result is a highly enjoyable book. Continued..
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The story of rats S. Anthony BarnettAllen & Unwin, 2001ISBN: 1865085197
cover Some people have a fear of rats, while others keep them as pets. In 'The story of rats', S. Anthony Barnett shows his liking for these creatures, but he doesn't present them as cuddly friends. No, fairly soon we are reading about the diseases they carry and the harm rats do to us. He goes on to look at things from the rats' point of view, with questions such as 'Do rats think?', and a look at agression in rat societies. The book is interesting to read, and is recommended for anyone with an interest in these creatures with which we often share our habitations. Continued..
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Travels in four dimensions Robin le PoidevinOxford University Press, 2003ISBN: 0198752547
cover One might expect a book called Travels in four dimensions: The enigmas of space and time to be primarily concerned with the theory of relativity. Einstein does get a look in in Robin Le Poidevin's book, but it is more concerned with other aspects of the philosophy of time. The book is in the science section of my local library, but I feel that it is more of a philosophy book, and that the 'popular science' bits - time travel, multiple universes and the like - are the weakest parts of the book. But what it does well is to introduce the reader to philosophical ideas about time in a clear and readable way. If you've read popular science books about time, but would like to hear more about what philosophers have had to say on the subject then you should give this book a try. Continued..
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The mystery of the aleph Amir Aczel4 Walls 8 Windows, 2000ISBN: 156858105X
cover Infinity has been a source of much confusion over the ages. In The mystery of the aleph Amir Aczel traces our gradual acceptance of the concept. He starts with the ideas of Zeno and Pythagoras and goes on to consider the Jewish mystical system known as the Kabbalah. He shows how Galileo began to take infinity seriously, accepting actual as well as potential infinities. Aczel then moves on to the nineteenth century, when infinitesimals were put on a firmer footing, but most importantly of all he describes the life of Georg Cantor, and his work on transfinite set theory. The last few chapters look at later developments of this theory, and in particular the work of Kurt Gödel. Continued..
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Virtual Organisms Mark WardMacmillan, 1999ISBN: 0333724828
cover The development of computers has naturally led to us comparing them with life, and attempting to model living things with computer programs. Cellular automata, such as John Conway's 'Game of Life', are an obvious example. In Virtual Organisms Mark Ward takes a look at this subject of Artificial Life - or ALife as it has become known. He describes current work in the area, such as genetic algorithms and the modelling of ecological systems. He also shows how other researchers have tried to avoid computers, and have created impressively lifelike robots using just simple electronics. Continued..
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A Devils Chaplain Richard DawkinsWeidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003ISBN: 0297829734
cover Richard Dawkins is well known for his outspoken views, particularly on the subject of religion. A Devil's Chaplain is a collection essays he has written, about this and many other subjects. Now collections of essays such as this usually suffer from repetitiveness. It is a measure of Dawkin's skill as a writer (I guess the book's editor should take some credit too) that this doesn't happen - each of the essays brings something new. Some of the essays begin to take the form of a rant, but whether you agree or disagree with what he's saying, the book is well worth reading. Continued..
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Measuring Eternity: the Search for the Beginning of Time
Martin Gorst
Fourth Estate, 2001ISBN: 1841151173
cover (The version I read was entitled Aeons)

All cultures have their ideas of how the world came into being. Measuring Eternity looks at how our current view of the age of the world and of the universe has been developed. It starts from early ideas about the universe and goes via Bishop Ussher leading up to the latest cosmological research. Martin Gorst is clearly an experienced science writer, and the book is suitable for a wide audience. As well as appealing to those of you in the habit of reading science books, it would also make an interesting read for anyone wanting to see how science has interacted with religious and other ideas over the centuries. Continued..

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The brain shaped mind Naomi GoldblumCambridge University Press, 2001ISBN: 0521000947
cover Philosophers and scientist have puzzled over the nature of our minds throughout history. In The Brain-Shaped Mind Naomi Goldblum presents the connectionist theory of the mind. Unfortunately, I felt that she does not go into enough detail of connectionist models before getting on to speculations about what they may be able to do for us. There are a few chapters on the basics of connectionism, and some space is given to describing experiments in this area, but the book really needs more on the specifics of connectionist models. Continued..
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Oxygen: The molecule that made the world
Nick Lane
Oxford University Press, 2002ISBN: 0198607830
cover Oxygen is vital to life, and so most people would see it as beneficial. But if you read Oxygen: The molecule that made the world by Nick Lane then you may come to see it in a different light - as much a poison as a protector. We all know about how antioxidants are supposed to help us. Lane gives a critical look at some of the claims made for them, but goes on to consider how understanding the effect of oxygen on our bodies may indeed lead to new ways of dealing with ageing an disease - a subject of interest to us all. Continued..
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The Golden Compass Philip PullmanScholastic, 1995ISBN: 0590660543
cover 'The Golden Compass' (or 'Northern Lights' as the version I read was titled) is the first book of Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' trilogy. It's the story of Lyra Belacqua, who spends most of her time playing around the Oxford college where she lives. But her playmates are being kidnapped, and her decision to rescue them draws her into much wider conflicts. Pullman shows such inventiveness in creating a new world for his story that it's sometimes hard to put the book down. But Pullman's books haven't had the same kind of bestselling success as some other books of a similar genre. I think part of the reason for this is that Pullman isn't really sure who he is writing for. Continued..
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Ever Since Darwin Stephen J GouldNorton, 1977ISBN: 0393009173
cover Stephen Jay Gould is well known for his writings on Natural History. 'Ever Since Darwin' is his first collection of essays on the subject. Thus we find out about why the Irish Elk's antlers kept on getting bigger, even though this seemed to lead it to extinction, and about why cicadas stay in their larval stage for a prime nubmer of years. More importantly he argues that classifying people by race is fundamentally misconcieved. And if you hear about an ID'er with a 'new' argument against evolution then you should take a look at this book - Gould was refuting such arguments 30 years and more ago. Continued..
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Origins of Existence Fred AdamsSimon & Schuster, 2002ISBN: 0743212622
cover When we ponder upon our existence, we see that a lot of things had to happen for us to be here. In 'Origins of Existence', Fred Adams follows this process through from the beginning of time. He starts by looking at the laws of physics, and then at the origin of the universe. This is followed by chapters on the formation of galaxies, stars and planets, and this leads on to a look at the origin of life. The final chapter examines how the laws of the universe seem to be fine-tuned to allow for the development of living beings. Continued..
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The Infinite Book John BarrowJonathan Cape, 2005ISBN: 0224069179
cover The infinite can be an intimidating concept. In 'The infinite book' John Barrow takes a lighthearted look at the nature of infinity. He starts with the early objections to the concept - Zeno's paradox and the writings of Aristotle - and moves on to the work of Georg Cantor, when infinity became respectable. The book goes on to look at what it means for the universe to be infinite in space or time. Barrow demonstrates the paradoxes or infinite replication which would occur if either of these were the case , but also shows how they could explain why the part of the universe we live in seems to be so favourable for the emergence of life. Continued..
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Beagle Colin PillingerFaber & Faber, 2003ISBN: 0571223230
cover Most of you will know about the Beagle 2 lander, which accompanied the Mars Express spacecraft to Mars, but unfortunately crashed upon landing. You'll also probably have heard of Colin Pillinger, the person who pushed the project through despite many obstacles. In 'Beagle' , written before the crash landing, he explains the motivations for the project - why he felt it had to take place. The work has a 'coffee table book' format - its got lots of pictures and plenty of interesting anecdotes. It would be a pity if the failure of the Beagle lander meant that this book didn't get read. Continued..
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In the beginning was the worm Andrew BrownFaber & FaberISBN: 0231131461
cover Most animals are pretty complicated things, and its almost impossible to follow how they develop from a single cell. That's why scientists have chosen a very simple creature, the tiny nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans to study in detail. Andrew Brown's book In the beginning was the worm describes how this has been done, looking at the cell by cell examination of the organism, its growth, and more recently the sequencing of its DNA. The book is written for a non-technical readership, and it recommended to anyone who is interested in the progress science is making in understanding the details of living things. Continued..
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Uncle Tungsten Oliver SacksKnopf, 2001ISBN: 0330390279
cover 'Uncle Tungsten' is a description of Oliver Sacks' life between the age of 10 and 14, when he was discovering the joys of science, interspersed with historical material about scientists who inspired him. The title of the book comes from an uncle who ran a factory making tungsten light bulb filaments, but many of the Sacks family were involved in metals in one way or another giving Oliver a ready source of answers to his questions as well as material for his chemical laboratory. The book needs no prior scientific knowledge and is recommended for all readers for its fascinating story of how Sacks developed his enthusiasm for science. Continued..
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God's Debris Scott AdamsAndrews McMeel, 2001ISBN: 0740721909
cover Scott Adams is known worldwide for his Dilbert cartoons. In 'God's Debris' his is taking a different tack - the book is philosophical rather than humorous. A delivery man delivers a package to an old man, and in the process gets into a conversation - a conversation which reveals the secrets of life, the universe and everything (to quote a different Adams), and in particular the nature of God. I found the book was interesting and easy to read and so an excellent way of whiling away the odd hour or two. What I couldn't quite see was why it should be considered as a deep, life-changing book as the reviews on the back cover suggested Continued..
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Eureka: a book of scientific anecdotes
Adrian Berry
HeliconISBN: 0091782767
In science, as in any subject, there are some stories which tend to be remebered. either because they are amusing or because they illustrate a particular feature of human nature. In 'Eureka' Adrian Berry brings together a collection of such anecdotes. Berry is a fan of space travel, so there are plenty on that subject, such as the story of Apollo 13, and the possibility of a galaxy-wide communication network. However, there are also plenty of anecdotes concerning other sciences, such as Darwin's visit to the Galapagos islands, and the question of whether machines can think. Continued..
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Scientists must write Robert BarrassRoutledge, 2002ISBN: 0415269962
cover Communicating information is an important part of science, whether it's writing a paper for a journal, recording the results of an experiment or giving a talk about a topic. However, it isn't always done very well. In 'Scientists must write', Robert Barrass has plenty of useful advice for those who wish to improve their scientific writing. Although it's only a short book, he manages to cover many different types of scientific communication, and goes through the stages of writing in some detail. I certainly think that this book will be a useful addition to the bookshelf of any scientist or science student. Continued..
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The meaning of it all Richard FeynmanAllen LaneISBN: 0140276351
cover 'The meaning of it all' is based on three lectures which Richard Feynman gave in 1963, in which he discusses philosophical themes and questions of science, religion and politics. The lectures were given in the midst of the Cold War, and it is interesting to read his view on the USSR. Apart from that the lectures don't look particularly dated - indeed he points out that much of it could have easily been said in the seventeenth century. Feynman was a brilliant scientist, but this book requires no scientific background to follow the arguments - in fact I would recommend it to nonscientists in order to find out a scientist's view on these important questions. Continued..
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Gravity's arc David DarlingWiley, 2006ISBN: 0471719897
cover The ancients thought they understood gravity. Things had a tendency to fall down and that was that. But as time goes on this pervasive force seems to become more and more mysterious. In 'Gravity's arc' David Darling traces our understanding of gravity from the earliest times right up to 2006. The book is written in an easy to read style and requires no prior knowledge on the part of the reader. I've a feeling that more knowledgable readers might find it a bit pedestrian. Some books are written so as to be interesting to all levels of reader, but I'm not sure that this is one of them. On the other hand, if you want a bit of light reading and to catch up on some of the latest results concerning gravity at the same time then this book is eminently suitable. Continued..
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The ghost in the machine Arthur KoestlerArkanaISBN: 0140191925
Mentioned in
'The Ghost in the Machine' is Koestler's classic work on the human mind and human society. Despite taking Ryle's jibe at dualism for its title, the book isn't specifically on the philosophy of mind. Rather it criticises the whole area of mechanistic models of humans and human behaviour. Koestler packs a great deal of discussion into the book, looking at the nature of humans on all levels from neurons to global society. Koestler was going against the tide of the new thinking in biology, and I'm not convinced that the book heralded a revolution in the life sciences, as some would claim. However the arguments are skillfully put and this overview of the human condition is well worth reading. Continued..
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How to create a flawless universe
_ Godfather Publications
Ebury Press, 2003ISBN: 0091891078
cover Some sciences are problematical in that you can't do experiments. Cosmology, evolution and so on - you can't just rerun the tape and see what happens. Or so everyone thought. But if you read 'How to create a flawless universe (in just eight days)' then you can indeed try these things out for yourself. This easy to follow book is full of useful notes from other universe creators, and has plenty of advice on how to avoid problems. From the big bang to the eighties, its all in here. Most important is the eighth day (p67 - 70) on how to keep everyone happy, achieve eternal youth and many other things - well maybe. Continued..
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Leaps in the Dark John WallerOxford University Press, 2004ISBN: 0192804847
cover The picture of a lone scientist struggling to demonstrate an idea, often against a stupid and obstructive establishment makes a popular story, but how much truth is there in this image? In 'Leaps in the Dark' John Waller takes ten such stories and shows how they are often made up long after the fact. Now other authors might have done this in a way that was disparaging to the scientists or the science concerned, but Waller doesn't do this. Rather he shows that those concerned did deserve credit for their work but that truth is much more complex than told by the heroic stories. It's also an entertaining read, and is recommended for anyone who wants to see how science really progresses. Continued..
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Chandra Kameshwar WaliUniversity of Chicago press, 1991ISBN: 0226870553
cover The battle between Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar and Sir Arthur Eddington over the fate of collapsing stars is a well known example of how a young researcher had his ideas unfairly treated because of the views of an established scientist. Kameshwar Wali 's biography covers this period in detail, but also tells of Chandra's subsequent career as an eminent astrophysicist. We hear of his central position in the astrophysics community as editor of the Astrophysical Journal and of him being awarded the Nobel prize in 1983. The book serves as an excellent example of a scientist who didn't dwell on the wrongs that had been done to him, but instead went on to excel in his field of study. Continued..
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Relativity, gravitation and world-structure
Edward A Milne
Clarendon Press, 1935ISBN: B000HW6H6W
I can't help feeling that Edward A Milne has been treated rather harshly by history. The thing is that he was opposed to general relativity, which is at the heart of cosmology. If you read 'Relativity, gravitation and world-structure' you will see that many of his ideas were clearly wrong in the light of later discoveries. However, that can be said of virtually any cosmologist. Its certainly instructive to take a look at this book, although I wouldn't advise you to try to struggle through the maths. Firstly, it tells you what issues cosmologists were worrying about in the 1930's. Secondly, one can wonder what might have happened if Milne's ideas had been taken more seriously - maybe they could have been made to fit in with later observations. Continued..
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What is Life The next fifty years
Michael P Murphy and Luke A J O'Neill
Cambridge University Press, 1995ISBN: 052145509X
cover In 1943 Erwin Schrödinger wrote 'What is Life', a book which is considered to have had great influence on the future of biology, in particular inspiring physicists such as Francis Crick to take an interest in the subject. 'What is Life? The next fifty years', is based on lectures given to mark the 50th anniversary of Schrödinger's book. Scientists such as Stephen J Gould, Roger Penrose, and Jared Diamond look at which of Schrödinger's predictions have come to fruition and which may form the basis of future research. If you're interested in what eminent scientists think are the hot topics in biology then you should take a look at this book. Continued..
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The Expanding Universe Arthur EddingtonCambridge University Press, 1932ISBN: 0521349761
cover The years followoing Einstein's development of general relativity were heady times for cosmology as the new thinking was applied to the universe as a whole. 'The Expanding Universe' by Sir Arthur Eddington gives the reader a taste of the state of play in the early 1930's, soon after Hubble had discovered the recession of the galaxies, and in particular shows the questions which were being asked. How did the expansion fit in with other ideas of the age of the universe? Did it support the 'fireworks' (big bang) theory of it's origin? The book is based on a public lecture given by Eddington, and so it is easy for the reader to follow Eddington's line of argument. Continued..
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Life Evolving Christian de DuveOxford University Press, 2002ISBN: 0195156056
cover How life arose and where humans fit in to the scheme of things are two of the big questions of which we are always searching for answers. In 'Life EvolvingChristian de Duve traces the path of our evolution, from the origin of life from a prebiotic soup, through the birth of the eukaryotic cell and multicellular life, up to humans, and what makes us what we are. De Duve is an expert in cell biology, but 'Life Evolving' is philosophical rather than technical, and will suit the reader wanting a gentle discussion of some of the deep questions of life. Continued..
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September 2006 November 2006