Saturday, 1 September 2012

Mark Carwardine's Ultimate Wildlife Experiences… by Mark Carwardine

Very pretty. Very brief.

Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks

The quality continues.

Superb science fiction by a master of the craft.

Someone once said that the job of science fiction writers was not to predict the future, but to prevent it from happening. Banks breaks this rule, his "Culture" seems pretty amazing to me.

4 out of 5 stars.

Robin Ince's Bad Book Club: One Man's Quest to Uncover the Books That Taste Forgot… by Robin Ince

I always think that enthusiasm is a generally good characteristic, but combine this with a love of science a respect for reality and being otherwise daft as a brush and Robin Ince would be a good bloke to have a pint or two with.

This book is made up of bits of incredibly bad books he has found surfing around charity shops between gigs.

It's a laugh and a frown at the same time. Really bad things can make their badness into a kind of good thing, if you know what I mean.

He inscribed this one to me after one of his gigs and I presented him with a paper craft Carl Sagan which he then did an impression of Carl Sagan accepting.

Like I said, daft as a brush.

The world would be a better place with more daft brushes in it.

3 out of 5 stars.

The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution… by Richard Dawkins

Beautifully written. More poetry than polemic. Intricately educational without being lecturing. One of Dawkins best and all the better for being accessible to all. Hardback version also has tremendous illustrations and a comprehensive bibliography.

Basic coverage of some of the fields of evidence that support modern biology. Creationists have nowhere left to hide, which anyway won't stop them of course.

4 out of 5 stars

21: The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey (Aubrey/Maturin Series)… by Patrick O'Brian

A fascinating glimpse into the mind and writing process of Patrick O'Brian. Not really for anyone else.

I loved it. But tinged with such sadness that he never finished it. I'm somehow reassured that I have placed my fandom in the right place when I see just how much attention to detail went into each book. The half finished sketch of the table seating plan on the last handwritten page caught me out . . .

If you haven't tried these books yet then please do so, for if you like them you will like them a great deal.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

Scouting Skills (Complete Guide to) by Jacqui Bailey

Great fun.

More sections and more in each than you might think.

Nature guides, knots, navigation and a lot more.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 27 August 2012

From Stars to Stalagmites: How Everything Connects - A Review

Quick Summary:  This book will help you to realise that there are not really three sciences and that much of what you might currently think of as Chemistry is in fact either Physics, Biology or technology.  It covers a lot of material very quickly and in an easy to follow style that gives the science in the context of the history and the people involved.  It succeeds where other books have failed in covering lots of ground "comprehensively" in both meanings of the word.  Go buy it.

Review: First things first, Paul is a friend of mine, even despite his disappointment at my self confessed lack of love for chemistry.  We met when he became involved in the British Centre for Science Education (BCSE) fighting against creationism in the UK education system.  I have since enjoyed several dinners with him and his breadth of knowledge, enthusiasm and twinkling eye left me looking forward to reading his new book. Knowing Paul, he would be mortified if I pulled any punches in this review, so I'm a bit mortified that I haven't really got any significant ones to pull and I hope he can forgive me for this.

Paul cares about science and good science education.  My own distaste for Chemistry (I grew up a bit of a physics geek and I am now studying biology) probably resulted from poor teaching (we called the teacher Mr "Whittlewhattle") at secondary school level and when I told him about this it caused Paul much pain, but not much surprise.  

I must confess to thinking of Chemistry as the book keeping science, trapped somewhere between the soaring themes and elegance of Physics and the complex intricacy and beauty of Biology, the poor Chemists had to try to get the number of molecules to balance either side of an equals sign.  I have read a good number of popular science books and those few that have focused or touched upon Chemistry didn't do a good job of dispelling this impression.  Paul is all too aware of this and he has always been able to explain in summary form just where those other science writers were going wrong and how they might be improved.  So he did rather make this book a hostage to fortune although I should stress that his knowledge of the shortcomings of others has always been gentle, good natured and humorous.  On one occasion I described a failed attempt at a popular science Chemistry book as "the repetitive regurgitation of the formula for a chapter with a different chemical as the subject, repeated until the rear cover was reached", to which Paul instantly replied "Oh that will be XXXX." and we both dissolved in childish glee.

So, knowing that he was working on a popular science book, I also knew he would expect it to awaken my interest in and respect for Chemistry.  He does enjoy a challenge.  

Anyway, both my curiosity and expectations were now on high alert. Could Paul's book  finally awaken the interest in his beloved Chemistry that he was sure must be somewhere inside this admitted geek?

The book itself declares huge ambition from the title, "From Stars to Stalagmites, how everything connects" and is nothing if not inclusive.  

Other popular science books such as The Age of Reason or Longitude pile on the human history, characters , emotion and conflicts alongside the science in a (it has to admitted, successful) attempt to soap opera-ify their subjects.

Alternatively books such as Your Inner Fish or Sex, Death and Suicide and The Red Queen probe individual developments in our understanding or particular natural phenomenon, delving into details and showing up beautiful intricacies and subtleties. 

So which way does Paul choose to go in order to fit in all the promise of the title?  Well he does both.  First of all his style helps enormously.  Down to earth, matter of fact, straight forward. Simple and direct. Content, content, content. 

No convoluted and long winded metaphors in the name of false comprehensibility. No unnecessary wanderings around personal histories and anecdotes that are tangential to the main point he is making.  Paul just gives us it straight. There are a couple of places where he warns us of a complex issue ahead and offers a shortcut to the next section but in neither case did I take up his invitation nor regret not doing so. 

So we get the science and the scientists alongside politics on the world stage of human development.   This means that we move at breakneck speed and if I had a complaint it would be that the book could have been three times the length.  Knowing modern publishers this simply isn't an option and so instead I strongly request some sequels going into more detail.

The book tackles how things connect. Those things are atoms but also the history of the universe, planet earth and life. For example why are water molecules the shape they are and why is this important to life?  Here are some tasters of the content.  Uncomfortable reading for some politically committed readers in the US; the American revolution munitioned with the aid of French manure-farm nitrate, and French revolutionists condemning the educated as "elitist", shed an embarrassing light on the embarrassing views of the (surely to most Americans) embarrassing tea baggers. 

There is a superb chapter on the common arguments used by global warming deniers that  makes you appreciate that there really are dark forces in the world in addition to dark energy. 

To help you put my review into context, I am an avid reader of popular science and I am nearing the end of a biology degree with the Open University. So I had already read or I am currently studying many of the topics covered.  I have rarely read so much content delivered so simply and understandably.  This book is a great way to bring everything together either as an introductory overview before tackling a topic in more detail or as an enjoyable whistle stop tour through human progress and knowledge. 

So do I now "like" chemistry?  I suppose so yes.  Perhaps it would be more honest to say that Paul had simply pointed out how much of the rest of science is simply chemistry and how much of human civilisation is built upon it. So Paul has in fact persuaded me that I "liked" chemistry all along. 

Thinking about it I realise this is exactly what he intended. I can see his eyes twinkling in my minds eye right now.  

Friday, 17 February 2012


Books read in the past few months that I haven't had time to post a review on yet.  (plus x on kindle!)

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Is science the new religion?

 Perhaps it should be. - What science means to me and why it is so much more than just a worldview.
I grew up with the Voyager probes.  My childhood seemed to mirror their grand journey from drawing board to launch pad to touring the solar system.  Well, in my head anyway. I had a plastic space shuttle hanging from my bedroom ceiling and at least three separate models of different bits of the Apollo hardware.  All poorly made and badly painted, but to me they became symbols of my own view of the world.  My own grand tour consisted of getting a job in a local bank and starting a family.  I wouldn’t change any of this but one thing has now lead to another and I find that my relationship with science has changed again.  
Creationist meddling in my children’s school (a state one, probably yours too, only you don't know about it) and a close look at their loony materials inspired a renewed fascination with science, biology in particular, and I am now more than half way through an OU Life Sciences Degree which I work on around my full time job and family.  I surprised myself at how strongly I cared about the science budget being protected from the cuts imposed by the newly elected coalition government.  I am now active in an anti-creationist group (BCSE), have had lunch with Genie Scott and I attend talks at local Skeptics in the pub meetings and sometimes I am the one doing the talk.  
So I feel that I am part of a growing section of society that reads science news with interest, glories in the latest TV documentary spectaculars and actually feels that some progress is being made in opposition to nonsense and pseudoscience with the fast approaching libel law reforms.  Evidence based thinking is becoming more common with the phrases “evidence based medicine” and “evidence based politics”  no longer a rare curiosity.  
So what does science mean to me?  Well, I think that it is all about the journey, or more accurately the method of locomotion.  For me the crucial thing is this. How do we move from one opinion to another better one?  If that isn’t very clear then let me tell you what it isn’t and then I might be making more sense.  
Science is not really a worldview.  
A worldview is an answer.  It is a forgone conclusion. E.g. the world is 6,000 years old.  It is a dead end, a reason to stop.  It is also often a great comfort because the answers claimed by worldviews always seem to coincide with something that the "worldviewer" seems to want anyway , e.g. "eternal bliss", or perhaps "being part of a small group of heroic people who have the truth and are persecuted by an ignorant majority who will shortly learn the error of their ways on the end of a toasting fork".  It is also true that having a worldview can save you an awful lot of time and effort. You don't exactly have to look into both sides of an argument do you? You don't ask genuine questions to try to trip up your own arguments do you?  I mean, who wants to make life difficult for themselves  like that anyway?  Just be nice to yourself, relax and stick to the script. 
Why is this an important question?  Sagan spoke about the importance of society understanding science when civilisation was built upon it.  I agree but also feel that numpties and deniers alike have gotten much better at aping science and they are also much louder.  
We now see numpties and deniers producing rhetoric that can sway the non-science educated intelligentsia and non-science educated non-intelligentsia alike.  God of the gaps is so yesterday. Today the appeal of the rhetorically beautiful over plainly spoken facts means that this old tactic has evolved. You no longer need a god or even a gap. Creationists proceed sans gap and have developed the god of the shoe horn.  Here is one veritable unsinkable rubber duck of an example as previously broadcast by BBC1 bending over backwards to have a balanced debate and so inflating the creationist side of the scales several thousand fold.   We were treated to the desperate creationist cry, "But where does the information come from?"  Now, there are huge sections on this topic in the degree I'm doing. But courtesy of the BBC, I listen as Prof. Andy McIntosh pleads with an obstinately sinful world. I can almost hear him thinking that if he can just sound sincere enough then the atheist conspiracy that reaches worldwide through all branches of science, stretches back decades and crosses national, political and even ideological borders, will immediately begin to crumble. 
As it happens he just sounds desperately deluded. But if you don't know what he is talking about, lets say you haven't just spent weeks working through it on an OU course, and lets also say that you don't have a way of finding out, of weighing the pros and cons of his position, then you can be swayed by him and people like him.
People like Andy no longer bother looking around for rocks that science hasn't looked under yet. They don't even bother looking for areas where not enough evidence is in yet and we can't pluck out a winning theory from competing hypotheses. Nowadays a glib phrase is enough "Where does the information come from?". 
"What?", says the intelligent, eloquent, politically aware and socially mature person who also just happens not to be very scientifically aware, "You mean they don't even know that?". 
Other folks manage the god of the gaps tactic without a god. Homeopaths certainly don't dilute their heavy handed hints that there is stuff about water we just don't know. Through that gap they squeeze into the public's wallets to sell their magic water. 
We even have people that use the god of the gaps rhetoric with neither a god nor a gap. Step forward the intelligent design brigade.  Denying their origins. And ignoring a lack of gaps they just spout empty rhetoric. They have hit upon the fact that if you make your claims totally scientifically ridiculous you will avoid the attention of the big beasts of the science jungle and perhaps even the media too who dismiss you as not worthy of their attention. Leaving you free to use your rhetorical powers on those who may well be intelligent and fair minded but lack the basic science education to realise that they are being lied too.
What leads people to perpetrate such nonsense  Apart from the fact that it works?
It's that worldview thing again. It is a final destination for most. It is the end of a quest for an easy life. It is an end to all that hard work involved in making your mind up about something and it is the very antithesis of science.  It doesn't involve thinking, just reacting. When you get into it it takes hardly any effort at all. 
I can't think of a better contrasting example that makes my point for me than James Dellingpole describing the moment when he couldn't answer a question put to him about his views on Global Warming, by the gently smiling science bruiser Paul Nurse, as "intellectual rape".  Being asked a pertinent question that you have no answer to is about as far from rape as I can imagine.  In fact it’s just the kind of thing that science loves.  It might just, after all, be a precursor to learning something and perhaps even (brace yourself James) changing your mind. 
Changing your mind about something is one of the objectives of scientific thinking. Well kind of. I mean to say that changing your mind in the light of logical argument backed up by evidence is one of the objectives of science.  Nobel prizes are given for this kind of thing. Far from being intellectual rape this is pretty close to an intellectual orgasm. 
So OK, yes, take science as your world view. But remember that it is a world view that actually frees you from all worldviews while censoring you from none. Welcome to intellectual freedom. Welcome to taking pleasure in changing your mind. Welcome to a rewarding , stimulating and (this will surprise those of other world views) comforting and purposeful way of living your life. 
Anyway must get back to exploring this wonderful reality with help of a madly grinning Mancunian, that scottish geologist bloke and the folks on Bang Goes the Theory.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Life in the Undergrowth by David Attenborough

Attenborough makes the most of the media and adds loads of interesting stuff not covered in the TV series.

From one point of view they are "Creepy Crawlies"  from another they are the original conquerors of the land and perhaps it's ultimate inheritors.  So why not learn a bit more about them.

There is no "exchanging a meaningful glance with wild Gorillas" moment but there is plenty to make you stop and think.  Plenty of great pictures too.  Some you can scare your granny with.

4 out of 5 stars.

Aunts Aren't Gentlemen by P.G. Wodehouse

A master of farce with another masterful farce.

Cats, horses, revolutionaries and Aunties combined into a fun read. Not his best but then his worst is still bloody good.

Read it what.

4 out of 5 stars.

The Wit of Cricket by Barry Johnston

A collection of anecdotes, a few laugh out loud, most not.

I suppose if you are really into cricket and it's history then this would appeal to you, otherwise don't bother.

2 out of 5 stars.

Stephen Fry in America by Stephen Fry

This is no more than it claims to be - a visit to every state and even Fry, with only a page or four for each state, can only fail to engage and entertain.

An entertaining TV series that never would have and never did make a good idea for a book.

2.5 out of 5 stars.