How To

By Randall Munroe

Rating: 4 stars

There are perfectly sensible ways to dig a hole, cross a river or move house. If you’re a fan of any of being sensible, do not buy this book. The author uses Science! to find the most useless, complex and dangerous ways of doing common or everyday tasks. As well as the above, we learn to how throw a pool party, move house, predict the weather and much more.

In this book I learned that the US military detonated nuclear weapons to see what effect they would have on alcoholic and carbonated beverages (good news, they survived and, apparently, tasted fine); that one percent of people think it’s okay for employees to steal expensive equipment from their workplace (presumably that’s the oft-neglected thieves’ vote); and that if the book itself was used to power a car, it would burn through about 30,000 words per minute.

Munroe persuaded Serena Williams to hit tennis balls at drones (outcome: Serena Williams is very good at accurately hitting balls at things) and Chris Hadfield to answer increasingly stupid questions about how to land an aeroplane/space shuttle/space station (which he amusingly did without batting an eyelid).

Munroe certainly didn’t skimp on showing his workings throughout. For whatever harebrained scheme he comes up with, he probably provides not only the outline solution, but there’s a good chance he’ll provide the relevant equations and fill in the values for you, so you can try it for yourself. In fact, this book probably has more equations than I’ve seen outwith a maths or physics textbook and almost certainly has the highest laugh to equation ratio of any book that I’ve read all the way through.

A lot of fun, engagingly written and scientifically accurate, if implausible. If you do try out some of the things in this book, make sure to video yourself so that the rest of us can point to it in warning of Things That Man Was Not Meant To Attempt.

Book details

ISBN: 9781473680326

Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

By Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan

Rating: 5 stars

Pale Blue Dot starts with an expanded version of Sagan’s famous speech and then deconstructs any notion that the Earth, or the human species, has any privileged position in the cosmos. From the idea that the Earth is the centre of the universe to the idea that humans were created as its caretakers. In each chapter, Sagan starts with a well-defined thesis and then walks us through his thinking, never straying into technical arguments, but keeping that open, everyman approach that he was so well-known for.

He talks about the planets visited by the Voyagers before turning to the idea of human settlements on other worlds in our solar system. He discusses (and dismisses) a number of possible reasons for human space exploration and settlement, keeping his strongest arguments back for the final chapters. In these, he strongly argues that over geological time, there will be events that will shatter a civilisation based solely on a single planet, and, for the safety of our species, we need to migrate – not only to the rocky worlds, but to near earth asteroids and the Oort cloud – to small worlds that we could learn to move around, to avoid any collisions with the mother world, and, in the final chapter, he lets his imagination soar and imagines a human civilisation that spans the galaxy.

Sagan’s ideas, and the words in which he expresses them, are delightful and awe-inspiring. He rightly predicts the idea of robotic explorers of Mars sending back such detailed pictures that you could sit in your bedroom, and virtually travel over its surface. While I sometimes think he thinks better of our species than we deserve, maybe the events of the second half of the 2010s have just made me cynical. And if you want to read something completely lacking in cynicism, and brimming with hope and optimism then this is it.

Book details

ISBN: 9780345376596
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Year of publication: 1994

Aliens: Science Asks: Is There Anyone Out There?

By Jim Al-Khalili

Rating: 3 stars

In this fairly short book, Jim Al-Khalili pulls together a number of scientists, some quite well known, to try and tackle the Fermi Paradox, from a whole bunch of different angles. The first section looks at the idea of alien civilisations and their place in popular culture. Then we move on to questions around what makes for a habitable planet and the search for life within our solar system, before an analysis of what life actually is and theories around how it could begin. The final section actually looks at methods of searching for extra-terrestrial life.

It’s all interesting, although the essays are quite short and necessarily brief. There’s a decent bibliography for further reading, and a suggested list of films featuring aliens, from the chapter on alien life in cinema.

I came away from this book not sure what to believe about the possibility of extra-terrestrial life (Matthew’s Cobb’s chapter on the improbability of intelligent life is both compelling and depressing), but having had a decent introduction to a number of different ways of thinking about both SETI and what life is and mechanisms that we are using for detecting it, whether that be through analysing Martian soil samples or sampling the spectra of a planet many light-years away and analysing it for traces of atmospheric gases that might be indicators of life. It’s a good primer, and each chapter is well-written and engaging, without getting too technical. Even if, at times, it feels like it could be a bit more technical.

Book details

ISBN: 9781781256817
Publisher: Profile Books
Year of publication: 2016

Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years

By Jared Diamond

Rating: 4 stars

There’s a lot in this book to wrap your head around. The basic premise tries to look at human history since the last ice age to determine the ultimate causes of why the shape of human history evolved as it did: why has Eurasia, and Europe in particular, dominated recorded history and spread and conquered so much of the world.

The answers that Diamond comes up with are interesting and thought-provoking, looking at geography and biogeography over “race”. His four basic conclusions involve the availability of suitable plants and animals for domestication; the orientation of the major axis of the continents and how this affects diffusion of both things (plants, animals, people) and ideas between and across continents.

Obviously, a book of about 450 pages can’t cover a subject this big in great depth, but the thesis seems compelling to a layman like myself, with its explanation of why Europeans were the ones to develop the guns and steel and bring germs to the lands they conquered. The book while being moderately academic in tone is still very readable and has lots of real-world examples. (However, it’s still one that I had to read moderately slowly, breaking it up with lighter reading material.) The major caveat that I have to admit is that I am a layman and although Diamond’s hypothesis makes sense to me, I have no idea what other ideas are in out there in the field, and how seriously this one is taken compared to others.

The book is coming up to the 20th anniversary of its publication and it would be interesting to see an updated edition to see how our understanding has changed in that time, thanks to developments in archaeology, genetics and anthropology over the last couple of decades.

Book details

Publisher: Vintage
Year of publication: 1997

I Think You’ll Find It’s a Bit More Complicated Than That

By Ben Goldacre

Rating: 4 stars

This collection of short writing by Ben Goldacre is mostly drawn from his Guardian Column, Bad Science, where he took apart stories in the media that were built on bad science, often repeatedly. I’m really impressed with Goldacre’s work and the amount of time and effort he sometimes had to spend to get past obstructive companies (and sometimes journalists), to get to the original research (or contacting the researchers, if it wasn’t available) and lay out not only his conclusions in a very readable manner, but also the process of science and why that’s so important, as well as very patiently explaining the basics of epidemiology.

This explanation of how science works, with examples of bad science, forms the largest section of the book, but the range is huge, as you’d expect from having eight years of weekly columns to choose from, ranging from Susan Greenfield’s continuing refusal to publish any research to back up her claims that computer games are bad for children to devices that supposedly detect bombs in Iraq.

The book is very readable, each article is fairly short and it’s a good book for picking up in bits, or (as Goldacre calls it in the introduction), a statistics toilet book. I appreciate that he’s moved on to other things now, but I do miss the Bad Science column. Especially after reading this book, I tend to treat any scientific or statistical claim made in the media with some suspicion. I’ve started to follow the NHS NHS Behind the Headlines blog which does some of the same things (but only for medicine). Of course this doesn’t have the profile of a national newspaper but it’s something.

Book details

ISBN: 9780007505142
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Year of publication: 2014

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

By Randall Munroe

Rating: 5 stars

I’m a confirmed fan of XKCD but I’ve never really got into What If. However, I was given the book for Christmas and I’m glad that I was because I really enjoyed it. I love the way that Munroe takes, as it puts it on the cover, absurd hypothetical questions, and answers them in a really methodical way and the gleeful way he adds more power until he gets really big explosions.

I was surprised by just how readable the book was. I fairly flew through it in a couple of days, when I was expecting to read one or two questions a day. Munroe is very good at balancing his answers between science and entertainment (the cartoons, captions and footnotes definitely helping with the latter). The explanations are always clear and delivered with the minimal amount of maths required to make it make sense, although he never shies away from the maths. This is a guy who knows his audience and never talks down to them.

This is a book not just for fans of XKCD, but for anyone who kept (or, indeed, still keeps) asking ‘why’. Anyone who’s spent time mulling over questions that other people think are silly or pointless. Munroe not only takes such questions seriously but he answers them, and will extrapolate it until he can make something explode [Citation needed].

Book details

ISBN: 9781848549579
Publisher: John Murray
Year of publication: 2014

The Selfish Gene

By Richard Dawkins

Rating: 4 stars

This book sat unread on my bookshelf for nearly a year because I have something of a mental block when it comes to biology and genetics. I thrive on popular books on physics and, to a lesser extent, chemistry, but I’ve always had trouble with biology. Richard Dawkins’ seminal work does its best with me, and I found it to be very readable and understandable. His clear use of analogy, switching back and forth between genes, individuals and analogies as required, is a testament to good science writing.

By the end, I think I’ve got a decent, if blurred, understanding of the subject. How long it will last, and how accurate it is are up for debate, but this is my problem, not Dawkins’.

The most famous concept to come from the book is that of the ‘meme‘ – a cultural and mental analogue to the gene. Although this only gets a single short chapter towards the end of the book (the final chapter of the original book; my 30th anniversary edition has an additional two chapters) it’s an idea that has spread (so to speak!) and the chapter provided a good description by analogy to gene reproduction and mutation.

My knowledge of the field is limited, so I don’t know how much of this 30+ year old book has been superseded (although the notes at the end, added in the 20th anniversary edition did help update it a bit) but as far as I can tell, the selfish gene theory is still current and a respected method of explaining the mechanism of natural selection.

Book details

ISBN: 9780199291151
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
Year of publication: 1976

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

By Thomas S. Kuhn

Rating: 0 stars

I bought this book for an adult-education course on scientific paradigms which was cancelled. Since it seemed like quite a slim volume I decided to read it anyway, but found it very hard going. It’s written in a dry, academic style which I found very difficult to read more than a few paragraphs at a time of, and retained even less, so I eventually gave up, just a few chapters in. Maybe I’ll finish it someday, but I don’t hold out much hope.

Book details

ISBN: 9780226458083
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Year of publication: 1962

Big Bang: The Most Important Scientific Discovery of All Time and Why You Need to Know About It

By Simon Singh

Rating: 5 stars

This book is Singh’s attempt to explain the Big Bang theory to the layman, along with a general overview of how science works. In that regard, he succeeds in both, but moreso in the second goal than the first. Although Singh’s writing is clear and lucid, I think having some background in science and being familiar with concepts in astronomy and cosmology definitely help. Although he keeps the maths to a minimum, there are a few equations in the book (although you don’t have to solve them!), so having a little maths helps as well. This is especially true in the early chapters where he describes how the ancient Greeks worked out the circumference of the Earth with nothing more than observation and basic trigonometry (that’s one for everybody who said learning about sines and cosines was pointless because it had no bearing on the real world!).

From that, Singh then winds the clock forward to the middle ages as he continues the story of cosmology and describes how Copernicus laid the seeds for a heliocentric view of the universe, expanding our view of the universe at every step as astronomy and cosmology show us more and more of the universe we live in, before culminating in the final pieces of the puzzle that cement the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe. Singh is careful to show both the cumulative (“standing on the shoulders of giants”) and paradigm-shifting paths that science can take to move forward and how they can work in concert.

As well as the science, Singh also weaves the personalities of the scientists into his story, telling anecdotes and providing biographies, but he never lets this get in the way of the science itself, something which is all too easy to do.

Lucid, easy to read and very informational, I really enjoyed this book, telling the story of one of the most important theories in science and through that, explaining the methods of science itself. Highly recommended.

Book details

ISBN: 9780007152520
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Year of publication: 2004

Paranormality: Why We See What Isn’t There

By Richard Wiseman

Rating: 4 stars

In this book, Wiseman discusses the not only the ‘how’ but also the ‘why’ of the supernatural – explanations coming from Human psychology, as we examine the rational explanations behind fortune telling, out of body experiences, mind over matter, talking with the dead, ghosts, mind control and prophecy. I learned a lot from this book and Wiseman’s writing style is informal and engaging, making the book very readable. And the addition of QR Codes to link to further content on the Internet is a nice touch. Useful to arm myself against kooky relatives.

Book details

ISBN: 9780230752986
Publisher: Macmillan
Year of publication: 2010

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