Showing posts with label science. Show all posts
Showing posts with label science. Show all posts

Saturday, October 21, 2017

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford

Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

P345 has a tandem repeat in the footnote! A sentence fragment is duplicated! It’s a mutation! Now that there's spare DNA in the text, evolution can work on this without tampering with the original sentence! Clearly this sentence could evolve into something else! Keep an eye on it!

This book seems like it has a very ambitious title until you read the subtitle: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes, and that's exactly what this is. It might be a bit technical for some, but I think in general it's written well, clearly, and it's easy to understand, with a nice line of humor running through it. There was the usual foreword, author's note, and introduction which seem to always lard books with somewhat academic leanings. I skipped all of these as I routinely do. These are antiquated forms not most wondrous and I do not wish them to unfold, not on my time. After those, it got interesting.

I loved the way the science-free creationists are given short-shrift and sent packing. In the natural order of things, these people are parasites. They do no science of their own. Their idea of science is to sit on their lazy asses and pick over the published papers of hard-working scientists.

No, actually, they don't even do that much; they simply scan the clueless media headlines, assume that those represent the actual science paper accurately, and run with it. This book warns against taking seriously those sensationalist headlines about 'the little gene that could', but creationists are as heedless to those caveats as they are to injunctions against jumping to conclusions, and to not telling lies about evolution.

They either claim that the reported science supports the creation position (without making any effort to demonstrate how this is so), or if they dislike it, no matter how solid and well-supported it is, they claim it's all lies, and hoaxes - done by the very same scientists they previously got through praising for supporting the creation position in a different paper! LOL! These people are hypocrites at best and idiots at worst.

But this book isn't about creationism, which is why it's given short-shrift. This book is about the genome, particularly where it's been, and even where it's going (which is somewhat harder to assess!), and how it all plays into making us who we are, with all our peculiarities, habits, and even our looks and thoughts.

I found some bits of the book a little tedious and some of them superfluous to my mind, but overall this topic fascinates me and I had an easy time reading this all the way through. There are some awesome revelations (at least they were to me!), some intriguing insights, and it's grounded in solid, rational, intelligent science throughout. For me that was the best part of it. Yes, I'm biased - and unashamedly so when it comes to science.

The chapters might feel a bit long, especially if this does seem technical to you, but they're well-worth making the effort. Around every corner is something to make you stop and think, and wonder, and marvel. Each chapter is dedicated to an aspect of the genome and how it plays out in real life (if we know that much about it - there are still mysteries to solve and maybe you or your children will solve them!), and to the most intriguing parts of it and how they work together - or how they fail and cause us problems.

This book isn't just about genetics though - it's about people primarily, and how we got to be who we are. How our genes make us work, or in some cases malfunction. How we're quite literally more or less related to all life, but especially to other humans, including extinct relatives such as Neanderthals and Denisovans, and how we're inextricably tied to all life via the evolution of the genome in assorted species that lead through time from the first cell to us and everything else alive today. As the well-known Theodosius Dobzhansky, a Christian, said, "Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution." He didn't add, but maybe should have, that the dark of creationism offers only nonsense.

Even as a science aficionado, this book answered questions I had not thought of asking, and questions I have thought about asking, but never got off my butt to do the answering - such as why are men more prone to color-blindness than women? The answer is simple, and you can probably figure it out with some little thought, but in case you never got there, like me, it's in this book along with lots of other answers.

The truly intriguing part though was what an adventure the human genome is - and no: don't believe popular political announcements of how it's been finally mapped. It's mapped in the same way that old world maps of the globe were - the basic overall geography is right (near enough) but the detail is still being filled in, especially when it comes to the detail of how it all works together and how the genes (and the relatively recently discovered epigenetic markers) work together or even dissonantly.

To me, rather than a map, it was more like one of those high resolution Internet images which sometimes appears on your screen, and at first it's highly pixelated so it looks blocky and blurry, but as you watch, new scan lines are added and the image slowly comes into sharper focus by stages. That's exactly where we're at with the genome! We have that initial chunky download and now we're in the first phase of those extra scan lines being added so the resolution is slowly becoming clearer, but we still have many more 'scan lines to add' before the picture is sharp enough for science be happy with. Meanwhile the creationists still remain as idle as they are clueless.

On the topic of the increasing resolution of genetics, I learned yet more information about how humans are not binary. I mean to open minds, it's obvious to begin with, but contrary to creationist claims of perfection, we are seriously messed up when it comes to genetics and reproduction. The majority of people end up with one X and either an X or a Y, but some do not. Some get an extra X or an extra Y or only one X and no Y. There are other combinations, too.

This was intriguing to me because I learned from this book that women don't use both X's. They use only one. The other one gets those epigenetic markers and becomes methylated! That doesn't mean the same as drunk or drugged-up; it means it's muted. What I had hoped to read is that when a person gets only one X and this causes problems is it because that lone X is muted so they effectively have no X? If so, can it be un-muted and will this fix the problem? Maybe we still have to discover that, and this is why genetics is such a big industry, and such an important and massive frontier for science. There is so much more to learn, and this book is a great primer on this new ocean of discovery into which we've just begun to dip our toes.

I recommend this with the slight caveat about regarding the overall formatting. I've noticed that academically-inclined books seem to be published largely by tree-hating organizations. I'm forced to this conclusion because of the vast amount of white space I see on every page. Clearly the aim here is to use as many pages as possible and this kills trees. And such academic books tend not to be printed on recycled paper.

Chapter one begins on page 28! When we reach it, at last I can say that it doesn't start halfway down the page, but it has wide margins on all four sides of the page and the lines are quite widely-spaced. I don't know what format the print book is in (judged by the lack of links in the text, this is clearly intended as a print book.

All we amateur reviewers ever get is the ebook, which isn't always a fair representation of the print version, especially if it comes formatted for reading in Amazon's crappy Kindle app which often mangles books. But the measurements I am about to report are taken directly from the iPad screen. Since I'm going to talk percentages, it doesn't really matter very much exactly how big the print book is.

Fortunately this one came in PDF format - which I preferentially read on a tablet after the phone fiasco, in an app called Blue Fire Reader, which is a decent reading app. I tried it in the same app on the phone, but since I do not have the genes for Falcon's eyes, the text was far too small for me to read comfortably unless you turn the phone in landscape mode when the text is legible, but then you have to try to navigate up and down the page, and because the phone is so twitchy to finger movement on the screen, if you swipe or pinch or spread at the wrong point, it can flip to the previous page or to the next page and you're lost, so it's a nuisance for phone reading.

On the iPad, the page is slightly over 19.5cm tall and 13cm wide. The left margin is 2cm, the right 1.75cm, the top margin 1.5cm, and the bottom 2.5cm - when there are no footnotes - and there were lots of footnotes which in my opinion for the most part could either have been either done away with altogether, or if deemed really necessary, incorporated into the text for a much more pleasant reading experience. Didn't that last observation make for a better reading experience with it being inline with the text rather than my sending you to the bottom of the page to read it? Just sayin'!

You may guess that I'm not a fan of footnotes at all. They're simply annoying - especially when they contain more text than does the actual page they're on, which means the footnote ridiculously goes over to the next page! I can't think of anything more stupid than that, and this is in an age of: electronics, URLs, ebooks!

Don't get me started on how appallingly short-sighted it is to continue to produce books in blinkered print mode when e-mode can be employed. For a publisher to think that those print versions can be simply moved to the e-version without a second thought is idiotic. Believe it or not, footnotes/chapter notes/end notes can all be links these days!

If you're interested, you touch the link and can go to it. You touch the note, and it brings you right back to where you left off in the body of the text. You never forget the place where you left the text. This doesn't work in a print book, yet publishers - especially of academic books - are obsessively-compulsively addicted to print books. I guess they make more money on them even as trees die for their obsession.

You can say you can't blame the author for this because these are publisher decisions, but authors can choose to go with a publisher which is more reverential of trees and is also interested in keeping up with modern times. Or they can choose to self-publish.

There are of course arguments to be made for dedicated ebook readers being wasteful of resources and pollution sources themselves, but you can read a few hundred if not a thousand books before you trade in or recycle your ebook reader. That's a lot of trees saved. That's especially true if you read them on your phone which also serves as your phone, your web browser, your camera, your alarm clock, your meeting tracker, and so on.

But I digress! So the page is 19.5 x 13cm which rounds down to 250cm². The text was 15.5cm x 9cm which rounds slightly up to 140cm². This means that forty-five percent of this page is white space! The margins could have been smaller and fewer pages employed in this book while still saying exactly the same thing! And this days nothing about adjusting line-spacing.

That does not mean I advocate cramming the text in and eliminating all white space, which would be a nightmare. I had to read a book rather like that once recently, and it wasn't pleasant, but just employing a little less white space will make a big difference in a 400-some page book.

Believe me, I know this. My novel Seasoning ran to 760 pages as originally formatted, but I brought this down three hundred pages by formatting it more wisely. That's almost half the original size! It also had the effect of making it cheaper for potential purchasers. I believe I can improve even on that next time I tinker with it, yet the novel will still look appealingly formatted. You only need the will to do this, and it's done. It's not rocket science; it's caring for the environment. That's all it requires. It's well worth thinking about.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Crazy, Wonderful Science by Mary Lee

Rating: WORTHY!

I've had some good success with Mary Lee's children's books. I've not been a fan of all of her books that I've read, but certainly most of them, and this is another winner, not least of which because in a world where women are far too often taught - by everything around them - that shallow beauty is all important, and without it, you're nothing (yes, YA authors, male authors, romance authors, etc, I'm looking at you) this book has the guts to put young girls and science together.

It's a book in the Mia series, and this time Mia is interested in what she can do for her science project. She has several options, and if you read to the end, you can discover two of these which your own daughter (or even son!) can do for herself. Mia makes her own choice as your child can make theirs. The book was fun, easy reading, well-written, and very colorful. I recommend it.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Lise Meitner Pioneer of Nuclear Fission by Janet Hamilton

Rating: WORTHY!

This is a great book for young readers. It's clear, concise, informative, and pulls no punches. Lise Meitner was an Austrian who made amazing strides as a woman through a man's world of science and education. She earned herself a doctorate, became a professor, and importantly, was key to understanding the process of nuclear fission in uranium caused by the absorption of a neutron.

Born in Austria, Lise moved to Berlin in Germany to pursue a physics education, and she worked there for thirty years on the forefront of nuclear physics, fighting sexism by means of leading by example, rarely getting the distinction and recognition she earned, sometimes betrayed by those she worked with and trusted, and because she was Jewish, falling afoul of the brain-dead and psychotic Nazis who were destroying their own world-domination plans by chasing-off and killing the very Jewish scientists who could have won the war for them had they been enabled and inclined to do so! Morons.

Lise barely escaped Germany with her life and had to kiss goodbye not only her lab and equipment, but also pretty much everything she owned. First Holland and then Sweden took her in. Of all her calculations, her biggest miscalculation was her failure to move to Britain when she had the chance. World War Two broke out and she was trapped in Sweden for the duration, but she continued her work, her blind pursuit of science inexplicably helping her former colleague Otto Hahn who remained in Germany.

During World War One she had worked as an X-ray technician (pioneering the medical science with her own physics knowledge!), and as a nurse, and was so disturbed by the horrors she experienced there, that in the Second World War, she refused to contribute her expertise to developing the atomic bomb because she hated war so much.

In her later years she finally did receive much of the recognition she had been denied for much of her life, and led a quiet life in science, teaching and continuing her research. She died in 1968 at the ripe old age of nearly ninety! This is a great book for young girls to learn how much they could contribute if they decided to pursue a life in science as Lise Meitner had done.

The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages

Rating: WORTHY!

This was an audiobook read capably by Julie Dretzin, which told the story of a young girl who is at Los Alamos during the development of the atomic bomb. Dewey Kerrigan is only eleven, and since her mother abandoned her, she has been living with a less than satisfactory woman who is hardly fit to be any kind of mom. She is thrilled to get the chance to move back with her father. The only fly in that ointment is that dad is a scientist at Los Alamos (which in English means, lots of Alamo's! No seriously, it means "The Poplars."). But Dewey must travel some distance alone to meet up with him.

Now keep in mind that this is set in the 1940's with the US (along with much of the rest of the world) under a war mentality, so when we find out that she befriends a grown man on the long train journey, it's nothing sinister here, especially since he turns out to be yet another scientist on his way to the same place she's headed.

The means by which they become acquainted is over a little science project which Dewey has set herself. This - the scientific bent Dewey has - was what won me quickly over to this novel. It was refreshing to read a story about a middle-grade girl who had an interest other than boys or the usual gamut of topics with which authors beset their young girl characters. It was truly refreshing for a girl to be shown as self-motivated, smart, capable, and inventive.

It wasn't all plain sailing though. Dewey has a somewhat handicapped leg and is forced to walk with a supportive boot which means she's always wearing odd shoes. Other children make fun of her, but one of the young boys who also lives there befriends her. Now here's where it could imploded like a beryllium ball as an ill-advised young romance sprung up, but this author never went there. She avoided that pitfall and instead set up a different dynamic and the story was much better for it.

At one point her father is required to be out of town on business and Dewey cannot go with him, so for the time he's gone, she's rooming with one of the girls who has been less than kind to her. This girl angrily resents Dewey sharing her home, and much more her room, so the two do not hit it off at once, but over time they become friends. The interactions between these two were charming and engaging to read, and they really brought the story to life for me.

The story culminates with the first test of the A-Bomb at Trinity, and the melted sand is the green glass of the story title. It's not permitted to collect this glass any more, but those who had already picked-up this mildly radioactive material were allowed to keep it and trade it, so it's possible to buy this glass online - and it's also possible to be sold faked trinity glass too, so don't get burned!

I really enjoyed every minute of this book, and I recommend it. It's apparently book one of a series, and while I am not typically a fan of series, I do enjoy one if it's a really good one, so I may well be tempted to go for volume two at some point.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Evolution's Rainbow by Joan Roughgarden

Rating: WORTHY!

This amazing non-fiction book discusses "Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People" and shows how blind and stupid the religious fanatics are when they claim that homosexuality is unnatural. It's perfectly natural in that we see it throughout nature, where gender is even less of a binary matter than it is typically perceived as being in humans. Joan Roughgarden is an ecologist and evolutionary biologist who has written several books on the topics, and in this book she explores diversity in gender and sexuality among fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals, including primates, as the blurb says.

She takes issue with sexual selection, which has been a tenet of the scientifically established Theory of Evolution since Charles Darwin himself published The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex way back in 1871. I disagree with her on that score, and have to point out that the book is in places, rather didactic. She has a soap box and she's sticking to it, but on the other hand, being a transgendered mtf herself, she does have an inside track! However, anecdote isn't the same as data, so beware of taking everything she says at full scientific value.

It's important to keep in mind that this is a book expressing a PoV, not a science paper, so it's written in layman's terms and a lot of it is not established scientifically, but I did not read it for that, I read it precisely for the diversity portions, and those were highly informative and quite entertaining. Note also that Richard Dawkins's popular books are, for example, written in precisely the same way as this, so there's nothing substandard or unusual about this style of writing.

While I would take issue with her theistic evolution viewpoint, I do every much enjoy her writing, and I recommend this educational book highly. It's a pity that those who most need to read and learn from it will doubtlessly dismiss it out of hand.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction by Mary Ellen Hannibal

Rating: WARTY!

I normally rate science books highly, but here is one I'm afraid - and sorry - I cannot get behind, because I was never convinced this was doing what it set out (according to the blurb) to do. I know authors cannot be held responsible for their book blurbs unless they self-publish, so I don't blame the author for this, but for me the promise in the blurb of a "wide-ranging adventure in becoming a citizen scientist" was not met. I wasn't even sure who it applied to: the author? the reader? the people featured in the book? For me it seemed like there was very little about actually becoming a citizen scientist, and certainly not in the manner of offering very much in the way of pathways or advice in pursuing such an ambition.

There were some stories about people who are citizen scientists, and some of these were quite interesting, but they were few and far between, and they were buried under the overwhelming volume of what was, to me, extraneous information about anything and everything that had little or nothing to do with citizen science. This first came to my attention when I noticed how much the author talked about losing her father to cancer. I can sympathize. Both of my parents are dead, and it's an awful thing to lose a loved one, but it really has nothing to do with scientific study, much less citizen science. If it had been mentioned briefly, that would be one thing, but the author kept coming back to it as though it were central to the theme of the book. I kept waiting for a point to be made in keeping with the book's title, and it never came.

All of the first five chapters were of this nature - either starting out off-topic, or starting out on topic and then meandering far from it. For example, the entire 20 pages or so of chapter 4 is about author's father and about Lewis & Clark, and about the California gold rush. There was nary a word about modern citizen science, how to become involved, what they do or why or how they find or make the time for it. I simply didn't get the point of chapter four at all. Chapter five began in the opposite way, by launching a story of cellphone use to track and report illegal logging, which was a great example of citizen science, but there was not a word in there about how this operation was brought together.

The chapter then switched to Google's admirable outreach program, which has led to advances in detecting and neutralizing land mines, and other such important and vital community projects, but just as I was starting to appreciate some citizen science here, the chapter veered off completely into a lecture about people protesting corporate malfeasance in logging and mining, which to me is not actually citizen science. It may employ science, and of course a corporation is now legally a citizen, isn't it? But realistically? No! To me this was the biggest problem - the book was not a guide or an exploration, but a tease. We were offered burlesque-like glimpses of the flesh of the topic, but we never got a full frontal! Each time we thought we would see something wondrous and beautiful, down came one of the seven veils and hid it from us while the spotlight was whisked away to another part of the stage.

Some of the arguments seemed to me to be poorly thought through. For example, one part of the book discussed the disappearance of whales and what a huge hole (both practically and metaphorically to my mind) they leave in the environment. This is a tragedy and the people who have been carrying out the genocide on whales are the ones who really need harpooning in the ass, but the argument about whales being valuable because they sequester carbon - embedding it into their thirty to one hundred tons of flesh and then carrying it to the bed of the ocean when they die - was not a balanced one. Worse, it was a wrong-headed one.

The author seems to have forgotten that whales are air breathers and as such output carbon dioxide throughout their lives - lives which may extend in some species to a hundred years. I read somewhere that whales as a whole, output some 17 million tons of carbon a year. That said, they also help decrease carbon by stirring up iron in the water, which then supports plankton growth. The science is not exact; it's still under study, but it seems to me that the best we can say is that some species of whales could be carbon sinks or at worst, carbon neutral.

The study - as far as I can tell - was not exactly scientific either, in that it failed to take into account whale farts! This might seem frivolous, but whales pass gas and that gas contains carbon dioxide and methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas. Some more work needs to be done, but as far as I can see, removing whales from the oceans, as humans have so mercilessly done for centuries, is a capital crime, yet it would seem that it has no overall effect on global warming, as the history of the last forty million years has shown! We need to save the whales not because they are carbon sequesters, but because they are sentient, feeling beings, period.

Digging deep into history might be interesting for some readers, but it offers not a whit of help for anyone who was interested in learning what opportunities there are for citizen scientists and how potential volunteers might avail themselves of these. This is far more of a memoir and a history book than ever it is a useful guide to citizen science, and I felt saddened by that. It seemed like a great opportunity was squandered here, and what was here was certainly not something I would want to read some four hundred pages of! I can't in good faith give a positive recommendation for this book, although I thank the publisher for the opportunity to read it, and wish the author all the best in her future endeavors.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Aliens Are Coming! by Ben Miller

Rating: WORTHY!

p103: " of the most distant object known..." - 'object' needs an 's' added to be grammatically correct.
p104: (footnote) Inflation came before the Big Bang!
p118: "...whih has five protons..." should be "...which has five protons..."
p130: "Mars' gravity" should be "Mars's gravity" since Mars is singular.
p224: The printing press wasn't invented in Gutenberg - it was invented by Gutenberg - Johannes Gutenberg who lived in Strasbourg at the time.

Note this is a review of an advance review copy. The errors listed above may well have been corrected by the time this book is published.

I first encountered Ben Miller in a TV show called Death in Paradise, which I fell immediately in love with, only to discover that he leaves the show after the first season. He had good reason, but I was crushed. I felt so betrayed. I never wanted to speak to him again. Not that we have ever actually spoken, but then came this book and I forgive him for everything!

Not to be confused with several other volumes with this same title, The Aliens Are Coming!: The Exciting and Extraordinary Science Behind Our Search for Life in the Universe, is a book is about aliens in space: where are they? Are they even? How are they even? Would we actually know if we received a message from them? It's beautifully written, and it's highly amusing. It's also factual and smart, scientific, and very entertaining, covering the origin of life on Earth and extrapolating from what we know of that to ponder what we might discover in space.

The author did his homework, and given that he was studying Natural Sciences at St Catharine's College, Cambridge, and was planning on pursuing a PhD in solid state physics before he relinquished those pursuits to take up comedy and acting, he definitely knows what he's talking about - and almost more importantly, he knows how to share this knowledge in a light-hearted manner with others in a way even I, with my math, can understand!

That's not to say it was all plain sailing! At one point he brings up the old Carl Sagan chestnut that 'extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence', which is nonsensical. An extraordinary claim requires no more evidence to support it than does an ordinary claim, because any claim requires sufficient evidence to establish it, and that's it. Once it's established, there is no requirement that we must keep piling on ever more evidence until it reaches extraordinary amounts before we can rely on on it! I really liked Sagan's Cosmos series, but I liked Neil deGrasse Tyson's version better. I went to one of Sagan's talks once and frankly, he was a bit of a jerk and pompous, too. I didn't like him in person.

At one point I read that "...the tennis ball in the men's final at Wimbledon..." makes gravitational waves. There's no disputing the science there, but why the men's final? Why not the women's or the mixed doubles? Why mention that at all, why not say "...the tennis ball in the final at Wimbledon..." or better yet, "a tennis ball," since there's more than one in use? It felt a bit genderist, but this was a relatively minor complaint when compared with all the things which the author got right.

As it happens, gravitational waves were discovered in September 2015, but not reported until February 2016, which accounts for why it's not mentioned here, I assume. At least they're confirmed with 99.99 (etc.) percent confidence, so I'm on board! Two black holes (not to be confused with back-hoes!) merged and released energy the equivalent of three solar masses. That's pretty impressive by any standard. When you realize how much energy is out there for the taking - if we only had the smarts to figure out how to get it safely - it makes our pathetic and self-destructive search for more oil and gas pretty sad, doesn't it?

I really liked the chatty way the author tosses in random examples (well, they're random to me!). This is how we get brief mentions of subjects like Breaking Bad, Simon Cowell, Lady Gaga, and cups of tea. There's lots, lots more of course. I loved this book and I recommend it as a first class read about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (aka SETI) and what the likelihood is that we'll ever find any.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

A Black Hole is Not a Hole by Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano

Rating: WORTHY!

This was a very short audio book from someone with a very long name: Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano. This is definitely not a name to be around when it implodes and becomes a singularity! Serious, this was a really good introduction to black holes. If you're a science buff like me, then there's still something to learn from it, but it probably won't offer any real surprises. For our non-science people and for our kids, towards whom this is aimed, there is a definite need for science like this when one in four Americans doesn't know that Earth circles the sun.

Superbly well-read by Maxwell Glick, Everette Plen, and Tara Sands (who injects some delightful one-liners into the proceedings), this one hour audio will tell you everything you didn't even know you really wanted to know about black holes, and I recommend it.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Life on the Edge by Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili

Rating: WORTHY!

I received this beautiful hard cover print book from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review. It was such a pleasure to see this because most of my reviews are of ebooks which are so insubstantial as to almost non-existent. I can't donate ebooks to my kids' school library. This one, I can!

I routinely skip introductions, prologues, prefaces, etc. and I never miss them or find myself having to go back and read it to figure something out. I believe that if it's important enough to be read, then it's worthy of including in chapter one or later. These authors evidently have been reading my reviews (no, not really!) because they titled chapter one "Introduction"! Okay, guys, you got me! Now I have to read it!

So who are these authors? Johnjoe McFadden has a PhD on fungal virus genetics from Imperial College, London. Jim Al-Khalili has a PhD in theoretical nuclear physics, and is current president of the British Humanist Association. Both are professors at the University of Surrey. You will note that neither puts their academic credentials after their name on the cover. This, to me at least, is a hallmark of a serious scientific book. You may note that a lot of fringe books have author names sporting a string of acronyms after their name. I don't take those books seriously!

This book (as you might guess from the credentials of the authors) takes a look at the intersection of biology and quantum physics. I'm not convinced, as the blurb on the book's flyleaf claims, that the missing ingredient in the creation of life is quantum mechanics. Frankly I don't think we're missing anything except the original cooking pot where life began. I am convinced however, that what this book says about quantum biology is accurate and is one of the most exciting and useful frontiers of biological - and indeed medical - discovery.

This is written in clear, accessible, and precise language. It's difficult to give examples of the quantum world because it's nothing like the world with which we're familiar, but while qualifying their examples carefully, so we do not misunderstand how quantum mechanics works, the authors do supply very clear examples to emulate, in a simple way, what is happening in the more obtuse world they're actually discussing.
Real life examples, but nonetheless fascinating.

Starting with the European robin which has an amazing ability to navigate by tracking the magnetic lines between its northern nesting grounds and its winter vacation in the Mediterranean, the book launches into an engrossing and informative discussion of just how quantum mechanics not only pervades life, but it as essential to its functionality as it is to all of the modern electronic wonders we enjoy today, from computers to Blu-Ray disks, to MRI machines. One chapter title actually includes the words "quantum robin" which sounds like the title of a Jackson Five song, but I won't hold that against them!

On page sixty, a nanometer is correctly defined as one billionth of a meter, yet on page 78, "...just a few nanometers..." is incorrectly referred to as "millionths of a meter". Something is wrong here! You would need a thousand nanometers to be one millionth of a meter. A few nanometers is hardly a thousand! That aside I noticed no other errors. I can't speak for the science. I am not a scientist - I don't even play one on TV - but I am well read in the sciences, and the science here seemed fine to me. I'll leave it to the real scientists to pursue that aspect of this book, though.

I found one or two areas slightly lacking in detail for my taste - others may disagree, of course! One example of this was the double-slit experiment. I am by no means disputing the results. These counter-intuitive findings are well-established fact. What I would have liked to have read is a bit more detail about how exactly the experiments were set up and run, specifically: whether or not they've been performed in a vacuum. Some of this was addressed a bit later rather than in context, but I still would have liked to have known more. That said, there were other areas where I was overwhelmed by the science and had a hard time keeping track.

In overall terms, however, this book was very well done, covered what was, to me, a fascinating and cutting-edge topic, and was written for the most part in layman's terms - that is, if you're a laymen with a bit of science to give you a handle on these topics to begin with. I rate this a very worthy read and recommend it.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Magic School Bus Science The Truth About Bats by Eva Moore

Title: Magic School Bus Science The Truth About Bats
Author: Eva Moore (no website found)
Publisher: Scholastic
Rating: WORTHY!

Illustrated by Ted Enik.

My kids used to love the Magic School Bus when they were younger. This is the first print book I've had a chance to read based on the show, and it was a charmer. It's a chapter book with some very nice grey scale illustrations by Ted Enik. I love bats, so it was nice to see some solid science put out there about them, and some myths dispelled. The whole regular crew - Arnold, DA, Keesha, Phoebe, Ralphie, Tim, Wanda, and Ms Frizzle head out to Yosemite to check out the bats, and then go down to Texas to check out some more.

During the trip we get a host of bat facts and science info which is intelligently presented and accurate. We learn of endangered bat species and how to avoid endangering them further. The kids go camping in Yosemite and later travel to Austin, Texas to experience the massive flight of an estimated million bats from their home under the Congress Avenue Bridge, out into the night where they consume maybe 30,000 pounds of insects on a good night. It's a popular spectator sport!

Yes, the magic bus is a bit wild and crazy, and highly improbable at best, but it is very educational, and a fun way for kids to learn important stuff about nature. I recommend this book and would probably recommend any others in this series, too, judged by the quality of this one.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Darwin A Graphic Biography by Eugene Byrne

Title: Darwin A Graphic Biography
Author: Eugene Byrne
Publisher: Smithsonian Books
Rating: WORTHY!

Very neatly illustrated by Simon Gurr.

This is a remarkable and charming graphic novel briefly explaining how Charles Darwin arrived at the Theory of Evolution, and telling us something about his life. It’s told accurately and to a significant depth, without going into way too much detail, and it’s told with a great sense of humor.

As a young man, Darwin was rather rudderless. He was pointed in the direction of family tradition (for men) which was medicine, but he couldn’t stand the sight of blood and had to leave the OR during one surgery he was supposed to be witnessing. Of course, medicine was far more of an experimental – if not just plain mental – endeavor back in his day than it is now, and far more bloody and painful (there was no anesthesia). Perhaps Darwin was wise in deciding that he would much rather spend his time taking nature rambles and looking at beetles, plants, and life in tidal pools.

His father determined that he should become a clergyman in default of a medical career, and though he was religious, Darwin wasn’t interested in that, either. He did manage, with some help, to complete his schooling, but before he had a chance to lose his way in the church, he had the opportunity to take a sea voyage on a ship called The Beagle. The idea was to finish mapping South America’s coast line and estuaries for trade and naval use.

The voyage was supposed to last two years, but Darwin was gone for five, and when he returned, he was quite a celebrity in scientific circles, having documented geology and life, both plant an animal, extensively, and sent back hundreds and hundreds of specimens, some of them live, along with letters and reports. One of these live specimens was a giant tortoise from the Galapagos, which ended up in Australia and died only in 2006.

The idea of organisms changing over time is inescapable to anyone with eyes and a decent amount of smarts. It’s evident even in living species, and it’s blatantly evident from the fossil record, but because of the power of the church, it was very much a taboo subject. Nonetheless, the evidence forced it into the light, and Darwin wasn’t the first person ever to think about this. He was the first to marshal so great a wealth of evidence, supported by a working, testable explanation, that the subject could no longer be ignored by the populace, dismissed by scientists, or repressed by religious authorities.

This book describes his life leading up to the Beagle voyage, the voyage itself, and the years of hesitation and agonizing over the theory before he finally published his land-mark work late in 1859. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species… was a best-seller, and was read not only by scientists and the wealthy, but by ordinary people for whom it was an expensive purchase. When he learned that everyday people were reading it, Darwin even produced a “mass market” version – using smaller print so it cost less to produce and buy.

This graphic novel explains lucidly and accurately what the theory was all about, and details some of the extensive evidence that supports it. It also cuts the legs out from under a lot of the lies which young-Earth creationists have been forced to ‘create’ in their attempts at character-assassination of Darwin over the years, as they realized their attempts at ‘science’ have failed dismally and repeatedly. I thoroughly recommend this book.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Nick and Tesla's Special Effects Spectacular by Steve Hockensmith

Title: Nick and Tesla's Special Effects Spectacular
Author: Steve Hockensmith
Publisher: Quirk Publishing
Rating: WORTHY!

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review. The chance to read a new book is often enough reward aplenty!

Science advisor: Bob Pflugfelder.

This story wasn't for me, but I'm rating it positively for several reasons, not least of which is that it definitely was for the age group (middle grade) at which it's aimed. In addition to that, it has a strong female character who isn't sidelined or dependent upon a male figure (and from a male writer! Why can't female writers do a better job at this? YA authors, I'm looking at you!). In addition to that it has gadgets you can make (and relatively inexpensively), some of which are not really practical to use (such as the grappling hook), others of which are eminently practical, even ingenious, such as the steadicam device.

If there's one thing we need to encourage in our kids academically, it's math and science, and I am on-board with pretty much every book out there which nudges kids in that direction. Science isn't for nerds, it's for everyone, and it plays an important part in everyday life. It can help you to understand the world around you and live a better life in it, with greater understanding of how everything works.

This is one of a series (the first I've read). You do not have to have read the others to enjoy this one. Fraternal (or sororal, why not?!) twins Nick and Tesla Holt are, to be frank, rather neglected in the regard that their parents are evidently always away on projects across the globe, leaving the kids in the care of their "mad scientist" uncle. I had two problems with this: first that this neglect is effectively presented as a good thing, and second that their uncle Newt is presented as your stereotypical mad scientist, always blowing things up. I think that was a bad choice, and a better choice would have been to have kept the kids at home with their parents, and had mom be the engineer/inventor instead of having a clich├ęd male scientist character.

However, if you're willing to overlook that, then there is a cool adventure to be had here. There's something afoot in the movie industry, and Nick and Tesla have an 'in' to the studio back-lot through a relative of a friend of theirs. Together, Demarco, Nick, Silas, and Tesla solve the crime, and learn a huge amount about movie-making and special effects. I would have loved a story like this when I was that age. Who is leaking embarrassing paparazzi-style footage onto the Internet? Who is sabotaging filming on the set - and why?

I would have preferred a stronger word or two of caution with regard to having kids running around the studio lot (or any place of work, especially where there's a potential for serious injury) unescorted, but that aside, the kids show smarts and responsibility, and they show inventiveness - two of them are making their own movie: "Bald Eagle: The Legend Takes Flight" featuring their own special effects, with which Tesla and Nick are helping. Thus they have the grappling tool, the robo-arm, a stunt dummy and the steadicam rig.

The only big problem I had with this is one which I've had with several other books. The translation of the book into Kindle format sucks! I mean it seriously sucks. Take a look at the sample screen-shot on my blog. This was one of very many such screens which are screwed-up for several reasons: because the text is ragged - failing to run to the full width of the screen, or it's randomly displayed as gray instead of black, or the text randomly changes size for a few words before reverting to its original size, or page numbers appear in the text. All f those issues can be seen in the image here.

There's absolutely no excuse for this shoddy presentation whatsoever, not even in an advance review copy. The novel isn't due out until May - there was plenty of time to finish up the illustrations and get the presentation right! Hopefully the commercial version of the Kindle version will be error-free! However I am not rating this in the presentation of the ARC, but on the writing and the story, which I rate as a worthy story.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Universe From Nothing by Lawrence Krauss

Title: A Universe From Nothing
Author: Lawrence Krauss
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Rating: WORTHY!

It's December 21st, so it's time for double U - not to be confused with W!

A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing has been a very controversial book and for no good reason. If you search for reviews on it, what pops up in abundance is Christian websites desperately trying not to refute it (they can’t) but to discredit it! That's a good sign, because it means that it seriously shredded yet another facet of their inane fairy tale, and like a wounded wild animal, they’re lashing out blindly in their pain. This is a routine knee-jerk reaction which we see every time a new Richard Dawkins book comes out, for example.

Note in passing, one more thing about this book. When real professionals, doctors, scientists, and so on, publish a book, they never put their credentials after their name. It's always - and only 'Lawrence Krauss', or 'Lynn Margulis', or 'Neil deGrasse Tyson', or 'Richard Dawkins', or 'Carl Sagan', or 'Stephen Gould', or 'Brian Greene', and so on. This is how you differentiate books like this, ones which contain honest, factual information and tested scientific theory, from those bullshit books which which contain so-called magic diets or alternate lifestyle "help", where the authors invariably lard up their name with a string of letters trailing it. Keep that in mind for future purchases!

The really amusing thing is that reviewers - on both sides of the fence, religious and scientific - are not so much reviewing what Krauss wrote per se as they are whinging about whether the powerful arguments science makes - which discredit or side-line religion - really dispatch it or not. I found that as interesting as it was revealing, because these same people don’t ever try to argue in that same way when a religious book is published using science to try to establish their particular god!

I noticed that one Christian website, in a negative review of this book, was still flogging the bankrupt and discredited (non-)argument employed by William Lane Craig, but not original with him:

    Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause. The universe exists. Therefore the universe has an explanation of its existence. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God. Therefore, the explanation of the universe’s existence is God.

This particular website concluded: "Since this is a logically valid deductive argument, and since the universe obviously exists, non-theists must deny premises 1 or 4 to rationally avoid God’s existence." This is patent nonsense of course! It’s not even rational. Point one is far from established. It’s simply wet sand upon which the theists choose to base their claims, and it completely ignores quantum physics and vacuum energy which fly in the face of it. Point four is nothing but a baseless and desperate assertion, which proves nothing other than that they who support this argument are not above hypocritically bearing false witness.

Point three in no way rationally follows from anything which preceded it not least of which because point one has not been established. This is the transparent theist attempt to get a free lunch, because all of the 'arguments' they make carry within them the implicit and a priori assumption existence of a god. They claim that their god has always existed, yet if you tell them that the universe (or whatever generated it) has always existed, they argue that it cannot be so - it needed a cause; then they argue that their god is causeless! Rational? Not even close.

I'm a big fan of Lawrence Krauss, but I think he did a better job in the popular books which first brought him to wide-spread recognition than he does here. His The Physics of Star Trek And Beyond Star Trek are amazing and very accessible, and I highly recommend them. The second was, I think, better than the first. Here in this book, he's not looking at how realistic (or otherwise) science fiction is, he's actually looking at the meaning of science which is so advanced that it might appear like science fiction (or even fantasy) to people who either don’t take the trouble to understand it, or who are arbitrarily predisposed (from the thorough religious indoctrination most people are subject to from childhood) to dismiss it out of hand.

But while I think he could have done a lot better job in conveying his ideas (and perhaps an even better job in reading them - I listened to the audio book version, which Krauss reads himself, and not always very clearly), I still think he made his case. The question is what case was it he was making? People assume he was simply making a claim that everything came from nothing and he proved it in this book, but that's not actually what he's saying.

In his own words, in an interview, Krauss put it this way: "...I'll be the first to say that empty space as I'm describing it isn't necessarily nothing, although I will add that it was plenty good enough for Augustine and the people who wrote the Bible. For them an eternal empty void was the definition of nothing, and certainly I show that that kind of nothing ain't nothing anymore." That's an excellent interview and I recommend reading it. It clarifies a lot of things and makes obsolete a lot of the arguments people have tried to raise in the wake of this book. The link was good at the time this review was first posted.

Krauss came from a background of particle physics and moved into astrophysics afterwards, so he's in a very good position professionally, to write a book like this. He begins by bringing his readers up to speed on the modern theory of how the universe began. And note that here, theory is used in a scientific sense - as an understanding of physical laws and an explanation for how they interact with the real world. It's not being used in the popular sense, like one kid might say to another, I have a theory that your dad isn’t going to be thrilled with us for arriving home so late. A scientific theory is something which has been put together based on observations of reality. It seeks to clarify why things are the way they are, and more than this, it offers predictions which can be tested, and which will either disprove the theory or which will help to further confirm it.

This is why I don’t get why some scientists have taken issue with this book because it asks a "Why?" question! Science is all about why, so why can't Krauss ask why there is something instead of nothing?! Both they and the theists are also missing the point that even if Krauss has not explained everything (and I don’t see where he ever claimed that he had), the fact remains that he has explained everything that he did explain without having to ever call upon any gods. That's the bottom line here. Religion has always had its forte in the gaps in our knowledge. Had we the scientific understanding of the world we now have, but had it ten thousand years ago, no religion could ever have begun.

Some have criticized Krauss for what they describe as 'padding' this book with a discussion of scientific discoveries about the universe, and how we know how big it is, and of what it's composed, but this is necessary since he's talking about its origin. It’s important to understand that origin and how it was discovered, because topics that he discusses here are called into use later - or at least show the need for a certain amount of familiarity with what came before to understand properly what's discussed later.

It’s not a question of the individual value of the different parts, it’s a matter of the utility of the whole. To take a part of his book and criticize that while ignoring the whole package is nonsensical! It’s like checking that your kid packed everything before you go on vacation, focusing on one corner of the suitcase and saying, "There's nothing but socks all the way down! How can you go out in public with only socks?" Well duhh!

My only complaint is about the clarity, as I've mentioned. I think Krauss could have done a better job of explaining in some portions of the book, and he certainly could have done a better job of reading those parts! Perhaps the audio book isn’t the best way to absorb this book, not least because it skips all of the illustrations and diagrams. That said I recommend the book because I think it does exactly what the title promises for theistic definitions of nothing.

Of course, the theists are going to continue to move the goalposts; that's a given. It's true that science is not about proof, it’s about going where the evidence leads and understanding what it means, but if the history of science has proved anything, it’s that as long as theists keep on proudly erecting those goalposts, then scientists are going to continue to score right through them.

If you can't get the book, but you do have Internet access, then you can watch a recording of Krauss giving a lecture which is the essence or even the prototype of this book. It's in this video that we can enjoy gems like: "Forget Jesus, the stars died so that you could be here today!" and "Empty space is responsible for 90% of your mass." I recommend this book.