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

Friday, November 2, 2018

STEAM Stories: Robot Repairs (Technology) by Jonathan Litton, Magalí Mansilla

Rating: WORTHY!

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

These stories are aimed at introducing kids to concepts of physics and engineering in a light, entertaining, yet instructive way. If there's one thing this world needs, apart from a total absence of inflammatory so-called leaders of the free world, it's more girls looking towards a career in the sciences, technology, engineering, and math. Girls may feel they don't need those subjects, but those professions definitely need girls' minds, ethics, sensibilities, and team-work skills.

That's why I thought this was a fun and useful book, again by the team of writer Jonathan Litton, artist Magalí Mansilla to introduce young people to these professions, and why it was good to show a female character being proactive and sharing equally in a project.

The story is simple - this old robot falls apart and a boy and a girl decide to use their smarts to see if they can put it back together again and make it work. Of course they do, but they have to think about what they're doing and make smart choices to get it right. This is a positive thing for young children to be exposed to, and I commend this book as a worthy read.

STEAM Stories: The Great Go-Kart Race (Science) by Jonathan Litton, Magalí Mansilla

Rating: WORTHY!

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

Written simply by Jonathan Litton, and colorfully illustrated by Magalí Mansilla, this is another in a series aimed at promoting young people's interest in the sciences, technology, engineering, and math, and this one takes an engineering and a problem-solving approach, teaching a little physics and intelligent thinking along the way. Girls are sadly underrepresented in these fields and the professions suffer from that, so anything that serves to promote an interest in these subjects as a path to a profession, is to be welcomed.

It's the big go-kart race and our diverse boy-girl team are competing, but it's not simply a matter of steering the vehicle around a track! There are unexpected problems along the way and some very inventive and thoughtful efforts at solving them are required. Our boy and girl are equal though, and equal to the challenge, both of them contributing to the solutions. It's this team work, even in the midst of this highly-competitive race, that pays off, as it always will. I commend this as a worthy read for young children of both genders and all shades.

How to Think Like an Absolute Genius by Philippe Brasseur, Virginie Berthemetv

Rating: WARTY!

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

I have to say up front that I wasn't impressed by this book. For one reason it was overwhelmingly white male - as though there are so few examples of other genders and ethnicities that the author couldn't find them. I call bullshit on that. He simply didn't look, and instead of finding a diversity of modern cutting-edge exemplars, it seems he took the lazy route and fell back on historical figures.

The book is divided into three sections, the first, 'Be Curious', is all white males. The second, 'Be Imaginative', is all white males. The third, 'Be Determined', is all white males save two token people: Martin Luther King and Agatha Christie, but what is the point of being determined if authors determinedly exclude you in books like this? Each individual section had up to half-a-dozen 'also-ran' names listed, but again these were overwhelmingly white men - around sixty of them, and white women - around forty, with a literal handful men and women of color. This book needs to be shunned on that basis alone. I'm surprised the publisher allowed it to be published like this in this day and age.

Even with the white folks, the author talked only about the positive, like every one of these people was a paragon. He never brought up anything negative about his heroes, such as that Einstein made a major blunder in his calculations precisely because he did not have the courage of his convictions, or about Charlie Chaplin's predilection for juvenile females, or America's darling Edison (barf), who cruelly electrocuted animals for no other reason than to try to 'prove' that his rival Tesla's AC power transmission system was dangerous and Edison's own limp DC current was the only intelligent way to go. Guess who won?

Edison was not a genius. A genius does not blindly try out hundreds of filaments to figure out how to make a light work. In fact Edison wasn't actually the one who tried all those - he had his more than likely underpaid workforce do all the work. Maybe that was his genius: getting others to labor for him while he took all the credit? But the real genius was the guy who invented the light bulb before Edison 'did': Sir Joseph Wilson Swan. Can we not find better inspiration and better, more diverse people to seek to emulate than these? I refuse to believe we cannot.

The short response to this title is: No, you can't teach someone to be a genius. The problem is that part of it is nature, which is really hard to change unless you become the scientist who does figure out how to change that. The other part though, is nurture and it's highly malleable, especially in young children.

In short you can encourage people to think in ways that might lead to important insights and inventions, but just as with a horse being led to water, you can only do so much. That doesn't mean you can't be inspired by those who have gone before, but it's a lot easier to be inspired by someone who is in some way like you, and the majority of people on this planet are not white males - they're half female and largely non-white! I cannot commend this book at all. It's entirely wrong-headed, unless the author really only wants white male children to be moved by it.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Little Learning Labs: Astronomy for Kids by Michelle Nichols

Rating: WORTHY!

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

Not to be confused with Nichelle Nichols of Star Trek fame, Michelle Nichols is Master Educator at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, which I can say I have visited although it was many years ago. I thought this book was great. It's simple without being too simple, instructive, useful and very educational.

It places equal emphasis on fun projects and scientific learning, and some of this stuff was new to me, who thinks of himself a something of a science buff. Who knew you could measure the speed of light with a chocolate bar?! I kid you not, and you don't need to worry if you get it wrong because you can comfort yourself with the chocolate afterwards!

The book contains a galaxy of simple child-sized 'experiments' which any kid can do and which are certainly not dangerous. Divided into two units: observing, and scoping out the science, the book begins at the vey very beginning - not, not the Big Bang, silly, but at the beginning of the scientific method - making observations and recording your findings. It teaches children how to estimate angles in the sky with a reasonable degree of accuracy, and how to determine east-west and north-south line by means of two simple observations of shadows cast by the sun. It discusses sunrise, sunset, high noon, the Moon's phases, eclipses, and why stars twinkle. All of this begins with simple tests, experiments and observations any child can make, bolstered by the science behind the experiments explaining why we get the results we do and what they mean.

The science takes over with the construction of a pinhole projector made from a cardboard box and aluminum foil, how to detect infrared light, what ultra violet light is, making a solar oven, mysterious glowing water, and of course the very chocolatey speed of light. Does light travel slower in dark chocolate? Never mind, I just made-up that last bit!

I loved this book, I think it's a great introduction to astronomy for young children, with no dusty cobwebbed lessons! It's all fun, all simple, easy-to-understand and well explained, and most importantly, it's tied in to the science in easily grasped ways. You can't get a better science book for kids than this one, and I commend it fully.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Jane Goodall by Isabel Sanchez Vegara

Rating: WORTHY!

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

This is another in a series of books aimed at doing its part to redress the imbalance between genders when it comes to high achievers. This one shows young children that a determined young woman can do whatever she wants if she puts a mind to it.

The story simplifies Goodall's interesting and complex life considerably, but hopefully it will inspire children to read more about her as they mature. Her story is one of an abiding interest in animals ever since she was young, inspired in part by a plush toy she had as a child: a chimpanzee. From this simple beginning, she found her way to Africa and came into contact with famous human ancestry researcher Louis Leakey, who eventually dispatched her to work at Gombe, where Goodall's unorthodox research practices were at times criticized, but which nonetheless produced original and unexpected research results.

Goodall was one of three Leaky Ladies, so to speak, whom Leakey named 'The Trimates', the other two being Dian Fossey who died horribly at the hands of gorilla poachers, and Birutė Galdikas, who studied orangutans. Each of these has written one or more books on their studies. It would be nice to see a book in this series for each of the other two women. I commend this one as a great start.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Ape that Understood the Universe by Steve Stewart-Williams

Rating: WARTY!

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

This is a science book that purports to look at humans from the perspective of how an alien might see them, but in practice, there is very little of this perspective employed. After an initial flurry, aliens are mentioned only spasmodically.

On the one hand this would seem to offer an interesting PoV, but on the other, this kind of thing been done before, and it seems a stretch to begin with. The arrogance of the pretension that we can honestly and objectively look at ourselves as an alien might see us seems antithetical to a scientific approach. By definition an alien is a being not like us, so to suggest we can honestly put ourselves in their shoes is a stretch at best!

We can't even put ourselves reliably into the shoes of animals most like us on Earth let alone some tentacle-sporting Betelgeusian, so it seems to me that there's an inherent insult in taking such a perspective. Such a PoV almost inevitably makes the alien look like a moron.

I really did not like the Star Trek Original series. Actually, these days I've gone off all Star Trek TV shows. I refuse to watch Discovery for its stupidity and lack of imagination, but TOS was the worst. Admittedly it was a product of its time, and in some ways ground-breaking, but it was nonetheless a poorly-written and simplistic show, and it carried the same pretense this book does: that of an alien observing humans.

The alien was Spock, and in trying to show him coping with human culture, it made him look like a complete idiot who, despite having lived among humans for some considerable time, and being half human himself for his entire life, simply didn't get it. That wouldn't have been so bad, but the fact is that he never got it, and was typically at a complete loss, which is what made him moronic. He wasn't a genius. He wasn't brilliant. He wasn't even logical a good portion of the time.

Star Trek has a habit of doing this. In Next Generation, the resident imbecile was Commander Data. In Voyager there wasn't one single dumb-ass. It oscillated between Neelix, Tuvak, and Seven of Nine. The only show I've seen where the Vulcan wasn't made to look moronic was in Enterprise, which actually made her a complex character with a real life. And we all know what happened to that show! Having realistic characters got it cancelled and kept Star Trek off the air for years! Then they rebooted with Discovery, where everyone's a dumbass. Go figure!

This book treats its aliens in the same way, but since that was a minor part of the book, I let the conceit go, hoping the book would win me over. I'm sorry to report that it didn't. A huge portion in the middle of the book is devoted to sex and reproduction and how animals differ (or don't) when compared with humans. How anyone can make a discussion about sex boring, I do not know, but this author did it with the facility of a guy who was trying to pick up a woman in a bar or some such social setting, and insisted in rambling on about sex and intimacy when the woman wasn't even remotely into him.

That's how this affected me. It went on far too long, it was rambling, it really offered nothing particularly engaging, and as with the rest of the book, for me it brought nothing new, nothing amusing, and not even a new perspective on things. Others may find this more educational and entertaining than I.

I'm not a scientist, but I am very well read across multiple sciences from books and other materials by a variety of authors over many years, and so perhaps I have a leg up on the lay reader, but to me it felt as though you would have to know literally nothing about any of these topics to find much here that was very stirring. In short, you'd have to be the idiot alien!

So, some of the approaches taken here just seemed plain wrong to me. For example, at one point the author informs us that "Evolution ain't about the good of the species." Well you can get into some good semantic arguments here, but from my reading, that assertion is plainly wrong in very general terms, because evolution doesn't work on individual animals! Mutation does work on individuals, but for evolution you need a species over time.

That's how it works, that's the origin of species. Mutations can be good, bad, or indifferent, and not all of them get spread, not even if they're good, but often enough, the good ones - that is the ones that give the organisms in the species some reproductive or survival advantage, will tend to outcompete those without such advantages and there it;s good for the species! The mutation(s) will spread through the species and so the species succeeds where others fail, or it may even become a new species over time.

So is this for the good of the species? Well it's not designed to be for the good of a species. There's no designer. It's simply a filter - rather like a knock-out game. No one designed France to win the last World Cup, but that's how the filters played out. The France 'species' of soccer team proved to be the fittest; better able to compete. No individual won that world cup, but all members of the 'species', fitter than members of competing 'species' in the contest, contributed to the win.

To use the author's example, sharper teeth may be good for a lion, but if the genes that produce them don't spread across the species, then nothing's going to change! Teeth that are too sharp may end up slicing the lion's mouth, allowing infection in, and killing it off before it can reproduce, and that's an end to it, but if the teeth were just perfect and it left offspring that were more successful than their peers in surviving and reproducing, the teeth would spread, over time, through the pride, and so would benefit the species.

The author admits this when he says that evolution works within species - not within individuals, so I really have no idea what he was trying to argue here, and you can argue that's my fault or you can argue that the author did a poor job of getting his point across. The problem is that this was a repeated issue for me in reading this.

This is a long book with 6,904 locations so making it engaging and interesting was important to me, and it simply wasn't. I hate to invest my valuable time in a long book only to find it's not done anything for me or even worse, not so much as done what it claimed it would in the blurb. Of course, blurbs aren't written by the author (unless they self-publish), so the disconnect between what you're told you will get and what you end up getting can be quite jolting and can make or break a book for me.

Talking of book length, I found this formula online which purportedly converts location to page count. If you divide the location number by 16.69 this gives the page number supposedly. By that method, there are over 413 pages in this book. Another online formula suggests dividing by twenty which would mean this one has 345 pages. It's listed online as having 378 pages which suggests the formula ought really to be in between those two, dividing it by 18.26. But maybe there is no accurate formula for every book. What a world we live in, eh? I blame Amazon!

The point though, is that however many pages it had were too many, so this book could have done with a lot of editing and a serious trim to the discussion on sex which rambled on repetitively, circling round and round, until I completely lost interest in reading any more about it or any more of the rest of the book.

I did skim the altruism pages and found it somewhat disturbing that the author has never apparently heard of cases of altruism between different species of animal. It's like he could not see the trees for the florist, so this tended to rob him of whatever point it was he thought he was making about investing in your own genetic lineage. He seemed to be seriously undervaluing nurture and friendship, especially when it came to humans. But as I said, I skimmed it, so maybe I missed something there.

I wish the author all the best in his career, but I cannot in good faith recommend this particular science book, which is unusual for me. I typically enjoy science books and recommend them, but this one simply did not get there. It was more of a spandrel than a genetic improvement in the species of science books, and definitely not at its fittest.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Wanda's Better Way by Laura Pederson, Penny Weber

Rating: WORTHY!

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

In trying to decide what she wants to do with her life, young Wanda discovers that she's actually a scientist and an inventor. She doesn't just complain when she sees a problem, she also sees a solution and then goes and puts it in place by herself. Seeing a crowded, untidy changing room at dance class, she finds a fix. Seeing squirrels stealing bird seed, she finds a way to prevent it. Seeing dad separating egg yolks for a cake, she finds a better way to separate them!

I liked the go-getter character, and the fact that she fixed things herself, but there was much more than this. There was the analysis of the problem, which is explained at the end of the book, and the desire to do something - to be active, not passive. Wanda was also the child of a mixed-race family, which was a joy to see. There are so few books about diversity and it's as rare to see mixed-race parents in a children's book as it is to see same sex parents.

The illustrations were beautifully done by Penny Weber and the text by Laura Pederson was straight forward and evocative. The book had a great overall feel to it. I liked it very much and I recommend it.

How to Speak Science by Bruce Benamran

Rating: WARTY!

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

Translated from the original French by Stephanie Delozier Strobel, this is a chatty, loose look at science and its history and the people who made that history, and it’s often light on the science and heavy on the chat. This might have something to do with the author having a French language You Tube channel (e-penser) on this same topic. The author has an easy, breezy tone, which can make for a nice read, but can also be annoying, and sometimes I think he assumes too much, such as when he says, "The other school of thought was led by Democritus - and of course Leucippus before that."

I found myself asking, why 'of course'? I'm not a scientist nor an expert on science, but I am very well-read for a lay-person and I try to keep up on science and technology as time permits, yet I'd never heard of Leucippus and I'd guess that most people have not, perhaps even including most scientists, so I didn't get why the author writes like everyone knows this already! No, we don't! Or maybe I'm just cantankerous today!

There was some looseness about grammar in the book, too, such as when I read, "...seemed to made it his life's goal...,' which should have been 'make it' (of course!). Not long after this I read, "Such as, running electricity through water (electrolysis) to break down two volumes of water...yields two volumes of hydrogen gas (H2) and one volume of oxygen gas (O2)." I didn't understand the 'two volumes of water' bit! To me it would have made more sense to talk about a volume of water.

Perhaps this sentence, in a section talking about the transmutation of one substance to another and the work of Lavoisier and Dalton, was transmuted itself, but the transmutation didn't complete properly, leaving two half sentences mismatched together instead of one intelligible one? It was issues like this that made me feel this book could use another read-through before publishing. Since this is a translation, it’s hard to say if these problems reside with the translation or with the original authorship, be advised. And since this was a ARC, perhaps these issues have been corrected since this version was made available for review.

There was unintentional humor, too! In a section talking about Giordano Bruno, there was a numeric reference to a footnote which revealed the source of the quote. It's after the colon in the following sentence "Bruno also believed that God was both the mystical minimum and maximum: the monad, source of all numbers" The numeric reference was 6, but it was repeated - a regularly-sized six, followed closely by a smaller, superscript six. I believe this was a duplication of the reference number. It's a pity it wasn't a triplication which would have given us an amusing 666! Although there are some who believe the number of the beast was not 666 but 616, which is several doors down the street. But again, another read-through would benefit the text and catch minor issues like this.

The overall readability though, is good, although there are some oddities and annoyances. The author refers to draft dodger Muhammad Ali when he compares a heavyweight hitter to a problem, but Ali wasn't the greatest by any measure. He comes in third after Wladimir Klitschko and Joe Louis in cumulative title wins, most opponents beaten, and most wins in heavyweight title bouts, and seventh after those two in Longest individual heavyweight championship reigns. There isn't any category where he comes out on top. Except motor mouth, maybe! He was an amusing and sweet guy so I understand but not the self-described greatest.

This is a matter of preference and a minor issue really, but to me it was suggestive of the author going for easy rather than realistic, which is odd choice for a science volume. I could see that sort of thing in a creation "science" book, but in a real work of science? I think the same problem evidences when he tries endearments such as overusing the term "dear readers" and his repeated "joke" when he uses the word 'people' and consistently follows it with "the species, not the magazine" even when 'people' isn't capitalized. The first time might have been amusing, but repeating it endlessly? Not funny. In fact, I found both of these things truly annoying and distracting from the import of the book itself.

On big problem is that this book was written as a print book with academic inclinations, which means it has very wide, tree-killing margins. In an ebook, it matters less because no trees were harmed in its production, but this still doesn't get it off the hook. More voluminous books usurp more energy when stored, retrieved, and transmitted, so a shorter book is always wiser if it can be achieved without seriously compromising readability and quality. Narrower margins would have made this book shorter and less abusive of trees. In a world where trees are really the only entity fighting greenhouse gasses with any determination and application, I can’t favor a book which advocates killing more of them.

There were other issues caused by this being designed from the ground up as a print book and then sent to lowly amateur reviewers like me as an ebook. The organization of the printed page, if it’s anything other than straight-forward text, doesn't translate to screens on a smart phone! The print version has what the author calls 'focus panels' - which I assume are small, hived-off sections, perhaps outlined by a border, which briefly digress into a topic mention in the main text. This might well have worked admirably in the print version, but in the ebook, there is no demarcation between these focus panels and the main text other than a change in font.

Aside from that, one section runs right into another so that, for example, in the chapter on light, in a section talking about Arab scientist Abu Ali al-Ḥasan ibn al-Ḥasan ibn al-Haytham, known more commonly as Alhazen (the author tells us) one screen ends with “...mainly by Ibn“ and the next screen starts with a section on reflection and refraction, which occupies almost the entire screen. Confined tightly to the bottom of that screen is the rest of the sentence that was begun on the previous screen. It’s really disruptive to reading. Evidently no thought whatsoever was given to producing an e-version of the book wherein the focus panels are turned into links which can be tapped to read the content and then tapped again to return to the text. That’s annoying at best.

The section on al-Haytham was regrettable in another way. The author introduces this amazing scientist with the admittedly awkwardly long name, especially for we westerners, and then diminishes the man by saying, "I'm going to shorten that to 'Ali', no offense intended by using the nickname." I did find that offensive. The name Ali is not actually an insulting name in Arabic. It means something along the lines of 'esteemed', or 'worthy', but in western hands it has come to be a term that's at best dismissive and at worst abusive of someone of Arabic descent. I don't understand this patronizing usage. Why not simply use his "last" name (al-Haytham) as he would any other scientist? Why not use the already established 'nickname' of Alhazen? Going the way he went is the equivalent of saying of Einstein, I'm going to shorten that to 'Fritz', no offense intended by using the nickname! Or of saying of Richard Dawkins, I'm going to shorten that to 'Dork', no offense intended by using the nickname. It is offensive, period.

I made it about a quarter of the way though this book. I could read no more of it after I read this in a discussion of the antiquity of telescopes: "[Telescopes] were primarily used on ships for looking at things that were far away...and sometimes, I'm sure, for watching the hottie next door through the window without being seen." I know this guy is French and maybe they think they have a disreputation to keep up, but seriously? It's inappropriate. He couldn’t have said "for spying on the person next door'? Or even 'for spying on the woman next door'? It had to be 'hottie'? That was less than fifteen percent into this book of some 330 pages, so I felt like I ought to have read more than this , but I flatly refuse to continue after a comment like that in a science book. It's supposed to be aimed at the lay reader, not at readers who can only think of getting laid.

In a world where myth, rumor, wild-ass blind conviction, religious fervor, and gossip are all-too-rapidly taking the place of established facts, people need a solid grounding in science and critical-thinking more than ever, and good science books can help. I didn't feel that this one does help, so while I wish the author all the best tackling subjects outside his field of expertise, I cannot recommend this particular effort as a worthy read.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Circuit Clay

Rating: WORTHY!

This was fascinating and I was sorely tempted to buy it myself just to see it work, which is why I mention it here, but note that I have not tried this. I just saw it on the shelf and it looked like fun for about $20. It allows kids to make safe (I assume and dearly hope it's safe!) low voltage electrical circuits using modeling clay. The clay conducts electricity which itself was way cool to me, and you can build light-up toys and models. The cover says it makes 15 projects, but I'm assuming those are simply imaginative repurposing of a few basic ones. The point about this though is to stimulate a child's imagination. Society will never run out of a need for inventive and competent engineers, and this is a good way to get a child thinking that this can be a real option for them if they want. My only concern about this is whether or not it overstimulates your child to the point where they are tempted to mess with more dangerous electric things around the house! We definitely don't want that! But with that it mind it looks like a lot of fun, and electrical modeling clay sounds way cool to me!

Build Your Own Gotcha Gadgets

Rating: WORTHY!

Now I have to say up front that I have not tried this book, but I saw it on the shelf and read a little about it and feel it deserves an honorable mention. Advertised on the box as 'Now with DOUBLE the sounds', I am frankly not sure if that's a lure for the kid or an abjure for the parent! It looked very cool and for around $20 (prices vary store to store) it's not a bad deal assuming the gadgets (motion sensor, light sensor, door alarm, etc) are buildable as advertised and they really work. I used to love this kind of stuff as a kid. Yes! I was the nerd with the chemistry set, and I never lost my love of science!

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

What the Future Looks Like by various authors

Rating: WARTY!

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

Edited by well-known British scientist and writer Jim Al Khalili, this book is a series of speculations, under various headers, as to what we might expect from the future. I wasn't impressed with it, I'm sorry to say. I have a high regard for Khalili, who is a professor of theoretical physics and the Chair of the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey. I've not read any of his books but I've watched some of his TV presentations, and enjoyed them. I was hoping therefore, that in a book that he's edited, I'd get some solid scientific grounding even for a speculative work about the future, but what I got instead was a lot of speculation and very little scientific grounding or even grounding in what;s happening today.

The authors of the various pieces were all scientists, and coming form a cutitng-edge technology sector myself, I was hoping for the speculation to be rooted in the present and logically extrapolating from existing trends and technology to give a realistic assessment, but for too many of these articles, it was evidently nothing more than an opportunity for the contributor to do little more than day-dream and fantasize about what's they hoped was coming rather than put some real effort into what;s actually likely to come. So while some articles were good and interesting, most were not, and the overall effect on me was one of "So what?" and blah.

Sometimes it was unintentionally amusing, such as when one speculator wrote, "Technologies are rarely,if ever,foisted upon us" which is patent nonsense. Did people calling into various agencies for help want a robot answering machine instead of a human? I think not. Did businesses like the one I work for, which typically have patented technology to safeguard, want everyone to legitimately carry a camera onto the premises - in the form of a cell phone? I don't think they wanted that either, but it's technology foisted upon them! Did people with a large vinyl record collection want tapes, then CDs, then e-music, constantly making their collection obsolete?

Did videotape movie watchers who were used to the movie starting pretty much as soon as you set the tape in motion want that technology to be overrun by two different forms of laser disk and then that latter one - the DVD - to be made obsolete by Blu-Ray™, which is now delighted to serve up - out of your control - a barrage of ads, then put on a glittering, overblown mini-movie menu to try and navigate before you can even the movie you paid for? I suspect not. No one asked for that, but it's what was served on us. That's not to say that people don't welcome - or perhaps more accurately, learn to live with - much of this, but they hardly begged for it. It was foisted upon us by progress, and clearly this writer wasn't thinking about what they were writing in this case. Unfortunately, this wasn't an uncommon problem in this book.

In another case, writing about autonomous vehicles, one writer declared, "The important point is that the race has been started," but he utterly failed to explain how it was that this was important! Why is it important to have autonomous vehicles? It may seem obvious to some, and others (autonomous vehicle builders, I'm looking at you) that these vehicles are safer, but judged by the long list of incidents and accidents, and design cluelessness we've read about lately (seriously your car doesn't need to keep track of stationary objects, not even the fire truck stopped front of you?!), some might believe it would be better if we waited a while for the technology to catch up before we make bold prognostications of autonomous and flying cars.

Another writer, talking about smart materials, declared that we could have sensors buried under the asphalt to have passing vehicles trigger street lights to be on only when the vehicle is passing. Unlike the characters in Back to the Future, this writer evidently did not consider a future where there are no roads, or where there's no asphalt because oil has gone, or where there is no need for vehicles to click buttons in the roadbed when a simple RFID chip - which already exists and is in wide use - could do exactly the same job. Talking about smart fabrics to build efficient airplanes assumes we'll always have oil to fuel them. Newsflash: we won't! This blinkered short-sightedness and lack of imagination/thinking outside the box absolutely plagued this book. This writer evidently didn't really give a lot of thought to how the future might look.

Topics covered include: demographics, the biosphere, climate change, medicine, genetic engineering, synthetic biology, transhumanism, the Internet of Things, cyber security, AI, quantum computing, smart materials, energy, transportation, and Robotics, and it ended with complete fantasy which I skipped, as I did the introduction. I wasn't impressed, and especially not by the total lack of cross-fertilization of ideas between all these topics. Everything was so compartmentalized you would think all these advances were taking place in complete isolation from one another. There was no speculation pursuing what happens in real life in that something is invented for one purpose and is then coopted for something else which was never foreseen, and which takes off in ways we had not imagined. Yes, that would involve speculation, but extrapolation from events like this would constitute no more wool-gathering than was already being widely indulged-in here!

There was one other important issue. This book has a whole section on climate change, yet the book itself - a book about what the future looks like - was appallingly wasteful of paper. It was printed in academic format which is, for reasons which utterly escape me, especially in this day and age, dedicated to huge whitespace margins and wide line heights. I estimate, very roughly, that about fifty percent of the page was wasted. Naturally no one wants to see, let alone try and read, a book that has the text so crammed-in that it's illegible, but I certainly don't want to see one delivered by a publisher which seems - as evidenced by its publishing practices - to have a vendetta against the one thing which is doing something about greenhouse gasses: trees.

You can of course snidely argue that "in this day and age" everyone gets their books electronically, which isn't true, but let's run with it. If you get it in ebook format, you don't kill trees, do you? Nope. But larger books still take longer to transmit over the Internet and require proportionately more energy to do so. This book is made available in PDF (Portable Document Format which is owned by Adobe, but which is now available license-free for coding and decoding files). PDF file size for a text document like this is proportional in size to the number of pages. So either way, reducing file size to, let's not say half, but three-quarters of its current size would bring it down from 256 pages to 192. Removing some of the common blank pages contained in it would bring it down more. What would the future hold if every publisher thought that way? It's one more reason why I can't recommend this.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Atom Land by Jon Butterworth

Rating: WARTY!

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

This is Jon Butterworth's second book on physics. I have not read his other book. The author is a Professor of Physics at University College London and also works at CERN on the ATLAS particle detector experiment. This was one of two large hadron collider experiments which were instrumental in discovering the long-sought-after Higgs Boson.

I have to say up-front that I was very disappointed in this book. For me, it confused things far more than it clarified them, which is unfortunate. I'm not a physicist by any stretch of the imagination, and I have only a lay-person's understanding of the topics covered here, but I have read extensively on these subjects, so I know my way around them in general terms. I was hoping for more clarity or new learning here, and I felt I got neither. The author used the metaphor of exploring oceans and islands to pursue the investigation of forms of energy and sub-atomic particles, but it didn't work and it felt much more like a shallow tourist trip where it's all about superficiality and gewgaws, rather than an actual exploratory voyage during which we really learn something about the venue we're visiting.

But before I really get started on content, I find myself once more having to say something about formatting. This book is laid out as a typical academic-style text, with very wide margins, lots of white space, and lots of extra pages up front that strictly aren't necessary. The publisher determines how a book should look, and supplicants to the publishing world are required to conform whether the antiquated rules make sense in a modern world or not.

For me, the bottom line is that we cannot afford to sacrifice so many trees in a world where climate change is running rampant and may be irreversible. We need trees alive, not crushed and sparsely printed on. Naturally in an ebook, this is irrelevant except in that bulkier books eat up more energy in transmission over the Internet, but for a large print run, this slaughter of forests has to stop, or at least be contained. Wasting so much paper is unacceptable.

This book had an extensive contents which served no purpose at all because it contained no links to the actual chapters nor did the chapters contain a reverse link to get back to the contents. Neither was there an index in the back. I assume there was no index because ebooks are searchable and therefore an index and a contents are really irrelevant. Who reads a contents page? Maybe some do, but I never do. I don't read prologues, forewords, introductions, or prefaces, either. If you want people to know what's in the book, make the back cover blurb serve a real purpose and put a brief contents list on that cover!

The real problem here though was the margins which ate up (by my estimation) at least a quarter of each page in white space. The chapter title pages wasted more, and each book section wasted yet more by having its own title page. I'm sure authors and publishers think this makes a book look pretty but you know what? Trees are far prettier than any book I've ever seen or heard of. The book could probably have been two hundred pages instead of three hundred, had more judicious margins and a slightly wiser use of overall space been employed. I can't sanction that kind of wastefulness in formatting.

Another issue was that while the publisher very wisely did not publish this using Amazon's crappy Kindle format, which mangles anything but the plainest of text, the book was published in a format which lent itself poorly to being read on a smart phone, because every page insists upon presenting itself as a complete page. Like an atom, it's not easily broken down into smaller component parts and the entire page is too small, especially with those margins, to be read comfortably on a phone screen. It's really designed for a tablet computer which is far less easy to tote around than is my phone.

On the phone, the reader is constantly having to stretch the page to fill the screen. Shrinking those large margins made it intelligible, but that also rendered it 'unswipeable': you can't swipe to the next page, so you have to reduce the page back to original size - sometimes requiring two shrinking efforts to achieve this properly - swipe it, enlarge it, read it, shrink it, rinse and repeat. It makes for an irritating reading experience at best.

The real problem or joy of any book though is the content (as opposed to contents!). Does it do the job? For me this did not because there were so many confusing metaphors here that it really muddied the water rather than clarified it. It was like comparing the pristine Inverness river of the thirteen century with the disgustingly polluted Thames of the Victorian era.

As I mentioned, the metaphor of sea-travel and island visits is employed here, and the book even includes maps of them of these locations, but this struck me as completely fatuous and an entirely wrong-headed approach. Illustrations of some of the concepts he was discussing would definitely have clarified things, but none of those are to be found anywhere. Instead, we have fake maps of fictional seas and islands that really have nothing whatsoever to do with the subject under discussion. To me this was ill-advised.

It didn't help that the author continually jumped around like he was in Brownian motion between one topic an another. First we sail to this island, then we sail back to where we started, then we take a train journey, then we re-board the ship and sail to another island, oh look at that island over there, but here we are at this island instead. It made for a nonsensical text in which the reader struggled to follow the topic instead of being helped along by a favorable breeze as it were.

I can't test the whole document since I don't have the text, but out of curiosity I typed in this one tiny section which struck me as being obtuse:

The sprays, or jets, of hadrons will be collimated roughly in the direction of the initial quark and antiquark. The energies and directions of the initial quark and antiquark can be calculated in QCD, and the calculation agrees well with measurements of the jets.
This scored marginally over a forty four in Flesch reading ease, where a score for comfortable reading would be sixty or seventy. Low scores are bad! The Flesch-Kincaid grade level was 12.5 which indicates a person who has started college (beyond twelfth grade in the US means graduated high-school - or post-GCE-A-level student in Britain). Although this was hardly a random sample, I believe it's representative since it isn't atypical of how this book is written, so be warned that the reading level isn't exactly aimed at the general populace! I think this is a flaw perhaps induced by having only scientist colleagues read the text? I don't know.

By the time this book reached chapter 19, roughly halfway through, and very accurately titled 'The Weak Force', and went rambling on about W and Z particles, once again without really explaining anything, but instead comparing the whole thing to an airline, I had pretty much lost all interest in this book. This chapter seemed to be one of the most confusing and therefore the weakest in the chapter list so it was aptly named, but maybe this was simply because I was so tired of these meaningless meandering and overblown metaphors that I really had no heart left in it at all, and I decided my time would be better spent elsewhere.

Even when we got down to the actual topic under discussion, the text really didn't do very much to educate or illuminate. As I mentioned, it was like a tourist version where we see the sights, but learn little to nothing of local color and history. We got a scientist's name tossed in here and there, but nothing in depth about the subject before we were whisked-off to the next. Every topic got the same short shrift no matter how easy or hard a topic it might have been to explain.

For example at one point (page 127 of the book, page 145 of the screen page count, which is an indicator of how many fluff pages there were at the start of this book), there was a brief discussion of the elements and how well-bound (or otherwise) they are, with iron standing out as tightly-wrapped no-nonsense kind of a fellow, but nowhere in this section was there any sort of discussion as to exactly why iron, of all the elements, is like this! There were hints all around it but nothing as solid as iron itself is.

Why is iron such a problem in star formation and development such that when a star starts making iron in its belly, it's doomed? Iron is like the legendary black spot in pirate lore, predicting your demise if you get it, but we learn nothing of exactly why this is so. We're told only that this is why iron is so common. I had expected, in a book like this, that there would be something to learn here, but it seems that either there isn't or the author thinks it not worth sharing, and we were never party to which of those options it was. To me this was a starting point: begin with trusty old iron, talk about the elements, and use those discussions of elements and their properties to launch the other topics covered here.

Another such issue was when the text started in on the color of quarks. Color when used in this sense has nothing whatsoever to do with what you see on the TV or movie screen, or in images on your camera. It's an idiosyncrasy of science which Richard Feynman detested. Red, green and blue are used to describe various quarks, but their opposites are not cyan, magenta and yellow! Instead, they're woodenly named: anti-red, anti-green, and anti-blue! There was an opportunity for humor there which was missed a in a community which seems fine with quarks named strange and charm! In physics, the color of a sub-atomic particle has to do with the charge of the particle, not with color, but beyond that I have no idea what it really means and this book utterly fails to explain it, or even broach it. This to me was emblematic of the overall skimpy approach employed here. I'm surprised the ship didn't run aground in such shallow seas.

The fact that topics got short shrift - or more à propos, set adrift, as opposed to being anchored solidly in something people have an instinctive grasp of, really sums up the problem: I expected a lot more from this than I got, and it was a truly disappointing experience. I wish the author all the best in his career, both academic and literary, but I cannot recommend this book.

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.