Oxford University Press, 2011 (Paperback)
Conclusion From turbulent rivers to auto-catalytic chemical reactions. With the "Nature's Patterns" trilogy, Philip Ball gives us an eclectic, yet surprisingly coherent overview of all kinds of patterns that are found in nature. It's an interesting and challenging read, but perhaps a single book would have sufficed.
Why are honeycomb cells hexagonal? Why do spotted animals tend to have striped tails? And, for that matter, why are animal pelts so often spotted or striped, rather than endowed with, say, a rectangular grid? Why does Jupiter have a giant red spot?
The trilogy lying on my desk.The diversity of the issues that Philip Ball takes on in his trilogy on nature's patterns is overwhelming. Most of them cannot even be said to have much in common: Jupiter's red spot cannot be explained in the same way as the shape of a honeycomb cell. Yet, despite his eclectic subject matter, Philip Ball manages to tell a coherent story. One that goes far beyond stamp collecting of interesting factoids.
A recurring theme in the three books (Shapes, Flow, and Branches) that together form Nature's Patterns: A Tapestry in Three Parts is that many patterns are 'emergent properties'. Spotted and striped pelts do not necessarily provide the best possible camouflage, so they cannot be fully explained in Darwinian terms. Nor is it practical (even if perhaps theoretically possible) to explain such patterns in terms of the laws of physics. Instead, Ball argues, to explain why spots and stripes are so common, you need to consider how animals grow and develop, which chemicals play a role in pelt colouration, etc. If you do this, you will find that spots and stripes are 'easy', in the sense that they readily emerge from the underlying processes. No excessive evolutionary tweaking is necessary to get a striped or spotty pelt: The potential for stripiness and spottiness was already there; Stripiness and spottiness are emergent properties.
A honeycomb is a prime example of regularity found in nature (Source: Wikipedia)None of this is new. And perhaps you will not even find it very surprising. After all, we all know that structures and patterns emerge naturally. Take, for example, the inverse tree-like structure of a river, which emerges when many small streams converge in fewer, larger streams. But even though you may be familiar with the general idea of emergence, I bet you will marvel at the wonderful examples and explanations that Ball has to offer. Sure, a honeycomb cell's shape must have something to do with the fact that they are stacked together in a (presumably) optimal way. But how exactly does this happen? And why does this lead to a hexagonal shape? These are the type of questions that Ball tries to answer. And he manages to do so in a clear and intelligible way.
Philip Ball is an exquisitely fluent writer. The illustrations are also wonderful, particularly the coloured plates in the centre of each book. Another major pro is that the books are different. Unlike most recent popular science, they don't deal with the brain or with theoretical physics. In fact, I cannot think of any other recent book that covers the same ground. For this reason alone, I would recommend picking up one of them.
But I also have a few small gripes. Occasionally, Ball delves a bit too much into the details. Specifically, he provides a fair amount of detail when describing some chemical reactions, which makes these sections hard to follow. And it also seems a bit off balance when compared with most other sections, which are much more casual. Finally, three books is a bit much, or at least it was for me. I positively loved the first book (on its own, I would give it a comfortable four stars), but I felt my interest slipping halfway the second.
In sum, Nature's Patterns is a unique and mostly successful attempt to illustrate the wonderful diversity of the patterns and structures that are found in nature. It's a bit much, though. So, initially at least, you might want to buy only the first book, Shapes.
Get 'Shapes' on
4th estate, 2008
Conclusion Ben Goldacre is on
a mission to teach us about how scientific evidence is systematically ignored,
manipulated, misinterpreted, fabricated, and otherwise molested. “Bad
Science” is both funny and alarming. It's a recommended read for …
Ben Goldacre is a man on a mission. He
wants to teach the general public about science. About what it is:
Careful interpretation of results from properly conducted
experiments. But most of all, Goldacre wants to teach us what science
is not about: Unquestioningly accepting unsubstantiated claims from
Cover of "Bad Science", by Ben GoldacreThe book starts out lightly, describing
fairly innocuous cases of bad science. For example, Aqua Detox is
a treatment for getting rid of all the toxins that accumulate in your
body throughout your life (or something along those lines).
Essentially, the treatment consists of putting your feet into a bath
of salt water, through which a small electrical current flows. The
effectiveness of the treatment is obvious: The water turns brown and
a foul smell is released—clear evidence of toxins leaving your
body, right? In actuality, the brown color is due to rusting
electrodes and the smell is the result of chlorine being released
from the water. Both are the result of electrolysis and occur
regardless of whether you have put your feet in the bath or not (if
you are interested you can work out the details for yourself with a
little high-school level chemistry). I think this is pretty funny,
because a) you're an ass if you believe this stuff and b) you won't
get hurt even if you do.
From these obvious forms of quackery,
Goldacre moves on to homeopaths, nutritionists and alternative
medicine practitioners. Clearly, some diets are better than others
(you can see this, for example, in the amusing documentary “Super
Size Me”) and, in some cases, you may benefit from particular
food supplements. But Goldacre reminds us of a few facts: Homeopathy
is utter nonsense and most of the things that nutritionists say are
nonsense as well: Eating spinach does not directly oxygenate your
blood and oranges without vitamin C do not exist. Goldacre suggests
that nutritionists (which, by the way, is a meaningless and
unprotected term in most countries, unlike, for example, “dietist”)
devise elaborate and pseudo-scientific diets, because the simple
advise to eat healthy and varied doesn't make any money. Essentially,
nutrionists use bad science to prevent people from discovering that
they are redundant.
Although alternative medicine does not,
as a rule, cause much harm, there are some gruesome exceptions. Here
in the Netherlands, for example, a national celebrity stopped (or
never started in the first place, I'm not sure) her treatment for
cancer after a “spiritual medium” convinced her that she was
suffering from a bacterial infection which should be treated using
alternative medicine. She died. It would be unfair to say that
the medium killed her, since she might have died even if she had
received proper treatment, but her chances of survival were
definitely greatly reduced. Right now you may be thinking that people
have their own responsibility: Even if someone (who is not your
doctor) tells you to stop chemotherapy, you can and should know
better, because reliable information about cancer is readily
accessible. And I would agree. Which is why I found the following
example particularly disturbing.
In South Africa, under the reign of
Mbeki, there were many “AIDS dissidents” who denied the link
between HIV and AIDS. This is tragic, but not always and necessarily
due to malevolence. Many poor Africans understandably hold a grudge
against the wealthy western world (perhaps particularly in South
Africa, where memory of “apartheid” is still fresh) and they have
cultivated the belief that AIDS is actively spread by western
pharmaceutical corporations to make money by selling antiretroviral
drugs. And, of course, pharmaceutical companies do make money by
selling these drugs. I wouldn't even necessarily put it beyond them
to infect people with AIDS (although I doubt it), but this is
beside the point: If you are infected with HIV you need
antiretroviral drugs or you will develop AIDS and die. So, if you
know better, you should try to convince AIDS dissidents that they are
wrong. What you should not do, is post full-page adverts in South
African newspapers saying things like “Stop AIDS genocide by the
drug cartel”. Why would someone do that, you ask? Well, they might
be selling a multivitamin food supplement, which is “the natural
solution to AIDS”. Which is exactly what Matthias Rath has done. By
promoting his vitamin pills as the treatment for AIDS (not a
complementary treatment, mind you, the
treatment) he has caused indescribable damage to the South African
society and unbelievable personal suffering. You can say the same of
former president Mbeki, but he may plead ignorance (I honestly don't
know what he must have been thinking). Matthias Rath, who has a medical degree, can not.
has sued Ben Goldacre for libel, to prevent him from publishing his
chapter on the multivitamin natural solution to AIDS. Fortunately,
Goldacre has won this case and he has made the chapter, which was not
part of the first edition of "Bad Science", freely available. You can
read the full chapter here.
it's time to wrap up this book review, before it escalates into a
full blown political statement. As you will have guessed by now, I
really liked the book. It was amusing (e.g., the Aqua Detox hoax),
sometimes exasperating (e.g., the chapter on Matthias Rath) and
frequently enlightening. Although a mission is a dangerous thing for
a writer to have, Goldacre does not fall into the trap of becoming a
zealot. He simply examines experimental results, provides the
relevant references, and points out weaknesses in the overstated
claims of others.
slightly less positive note, some parts of the book lack a clear
structure and are somewhat repetitive. His staccato and personal
writing reads a bit like a series of blogs or columns, which is not
terribly surprising, since Goldacre is a columnist for the Guardian.
Another of point of criticism is that the book frequently, and
without introduction, refers to typically British terms and
personalities. For example, if you are not from the UK you may not
immediately understand a passing reference to the MMR scare, and you
may not be familiar with the delicious (and healthy!) recipes of
these are small gripes. Overall, “Bad Science” is one of the most
riveting books I've read in some time. Also, and I hate to say these
types of patronizing things, it's important
that people are made aware of these issues. Because, as
pseudo-scientists say pseudo-mathematically: ScienceBad
Get this book on amazon.com
Conclusion In “The Grand Design”, Hawking and Mlodinow discuss the big questions of modern physics. The subject matter is engrossing, but the hurried presentation leaves the reader unsatisfied.
“All science is either physics or stamp collecting.”
Cover of "The Grand Design", by Stephen Hawking & Leonard MlodinovThere is a definite ring of truth to this famous statement, but because my chances of becoming a physicist are slim, the best I can do is occasionally pick up a popular science book. And, of course, no one has popularized physics like Stephen Hawking, the enigmatic disabled genius.
A great deal has been made of Hawking's newest book, “The Grand Design”, which he has written together with Leonard Mlodinow. Especially the superfluous statement that there is no God (or something to that effect) caused a small stir in the press, even in our not particularly pious country.
Unfortunately, “The Grand Design” does not live up to the hype. The book is entertaining, but there is little to set it apart from the competition. Hawking and Mlodinow start out with a very brief introduction to the philosophy of science. From there they fly by quantum mechanics, glance over string theory, and, a mere 150 pages later (large font, lots of pictures), they arrive at the grand conclusion. In this conclusion they appear to say something important, perhaps even brilliant, about how the total energy of the universe is zero, which would allow the universe to appear out of nothing (or something along those lines). But the problem with the conclusion, and the book in general, is that the ideas are presented too hurriedly. The reader is left unsatisfied, not being given the time to come to grips with the complex ideas. Also, “The Grand Design” is filled with little jokes. None of them are very funny and they quickly become annoying.
Of course, you must admire that Hawking is still able and motivated to write books at all. This is undoubtedly a huge undertaking and, I suspect, his disability is part of the reason why the book is so short. But nevertheless I am forced to conclude that there are better books out there, which deal with essentially the same subject matter. You may want to consider books by Lee Smolin or Leonard Susskind. One of Susskind's best books, "The Black Hole War", actually deals with his personal battle of minds with Hawking. Their "war" had to do with whether or not black holes destroy information. In the process of explaining the technicalities of their dispute in layman's terms, Susskind gives a personal, and at times moving, account of his encounters with Stephen Hawking. But I digress.
In conclusion, “The Grand Design” is a reasonably entertaining book about modern physics. If you are seeking the “new answers to the ultimate questions of life” that are promised by the subtitle you will be disappointed. If you have a specific interest in Stephen Hawking you may find the book worthwhile.
Get this book on amazon.com
Pantheon Books, 2010
Conclusion In “Self Comes to Mind”, Damasio provides a neuroscientific account of consciousness. Despite being occasionally somewhat opaque, the book is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in consciousness.
In his latest book, “Self Comes to Mind”, Antonio Damasio outlines his ideas about the neural basis of consciousness. This is not the first time (and probably not the last) that Damasio has dealt with this subject matter, but “Self Comes to Mind” is different from his previous books. First, the role of emotion is not quite as prominent. Second, “Self Comes to Mind” appears to be oriented towards people with some knowledge of neuroscience. The book is also perfectly suited for the interested layman, but those who are looking for light-weight popular science entertainment may be better off with, for example, recent books by Oliver Sacks or Victor Lamme.
Cover of "Self Comes to Mind", by Antonio DamasioAccording to Damasio, consciousness is all about neural maps. In order for an object to be consciously perceived, it needs to be represented in brain areas that are crucial for consciousness. This statement is a tad trivial when it comes to sensory perception (vision, hearing, etc.), but Damasio emphasizes that this principle extends to emotions as well, with one difference: Emotions are the result of maps of the body itself, rather than maps of the outside world.
Damasio already expressed these ideas about neural map-making before, but in “Self Comes to Mind” he goes a step further and provides a detailed account of how he thinks consciousness emerges from the brain. He makes a distinction between three levels of “self”, which build on each other to construct the type of full blown consciousness that we humans are privileged to experience. As I understand it, the most basic form of self, the “protoself”, is a neural map of an organism's internal status: It reflects whether an organism is hungry, etc. The “core self” extends the protoself by incorporating interactions between an organism and its environment: An organism eats something and as a result its sense of hunger disappears. At the highest level, the “autobiographical self” adds information about an organism's past and its expectations about the future.
Although Damasio's description of the layered self is interesting and mostly quite convincing, I was also left confused at times. Does he mean that there really are three qualitatively different levels of self? Or does he make this strict distinction only for the sake of clarity, while he really envisions a continuum? As another example, in the final chapter, which deals with the contribution of culture to consciousness, he sympathizes with the notion that “something of great import may have happened to the human mind between the events narrated in the Iliad and those that make up the Odyssey.” Again, I was confused, because as far as I know the Iliad and the Odyssey span a few decades? This seems like too brief a time (an evolutionary blink of the eye, really) for any real changes to occur. Nitpicking aside, I'm sure Damasio doesn't mean to say that humans were substantially less conscious a few thousand years ago, but this section left an awful lot of room for interpretation.
In summary, there is a lot to like about “Self Comes to Mind”. Damasio is an excellent writer and his ideas are interesting. On a slightly less positive note, his writing is occasionally ambiguous, leaving the reader “not quite getting it”. Nevertheless, I recommend “Self Comes to Mind” to anyone who is interested in the neuroscience of consciousness, especially if you like to be challenged rather than entertained.
Get this book on amazon.com, amazon.co.uk, bol.com or selexyz.nl.
Conclusion With “The Mind's Eye” Oliver Sacks reaffirms his reputation as one of the most eloquent chroniclers of the human brain.
More than anything else, Oliver Sacks is a storyteller. In “The Mind's Eye” he tells about people who have lost some aspect of their perceptive (mostly vision) or expressive (mostly speech) abilities. The book opens with a woman who suffers from severe difficulties in reading. Over the course of years her condition deteriorates, until her visual agnosia is so bad that she is effectively blind. Sacks gives a very personal and compassionate account of her story (as he does of the other cases described in the book), and focuses on the womans personality and the way she tries to cope with her condition, as much as he does on the neurological aspects. Sacks is also very eloquent; Almost unrivaled in this respect, I would say.
Cover of "The Mind's Eye", by Oliver Sacks
Nevertheless, after the first three chapters I was getting a little worried that the entire book would consist of case studies. Not that the stories aren't interesting, just not sufficiently so to fill 250 pages, especially since similar stories have been told before. Luckily, my worries were unfounded and about halfway the book switches from case studies to Sacks' personal quirks, hobbies and experiences. Apparently, he suffers from congenital prosopagnosia, which means that he has a very hard time recognizing faces. He describes how this mild deficit has led to some embarrassing situations (quite amusing) and goes a little bit into the neuroscience of face perception. Sacks is also a member of the New York stereoscopic society, a society for people who enjoy creating 3d images. In this context he provides an interesting account of stereo vision and associated deficits. In one of the last chapters, Sacks describes his own encounter with ocular cancer. Especially the quotations from Sacks' own journal from that time are quite intense.
You could criticize Sacks for relying too much on anecdotal evidence. For example, he discusses the extent to which blind people rely on visual imagery (mental visual images) based on a number of autobiographies. I am not convinced that autobiographies are a very reliable source of information, but Sacks uses these autobiographies (and other anecdotes) as food for thought and they are certainly interesting in that respect.
In summary, “The Mind's Eye” is an excellent book. Oliver Sacks' style of writing is very pleasant. An exception to the overall pleasantness of the book is the chapter that deals with Sacks' own struggle with cancer. But even here Sacks shines as a superb writer.
Get this book on amazon.com, amazon.co.uk, bol.com or selexyz.nl.