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review 2018-01-28 23:56
Storm in a Teacup
Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life - Helen Czerski

There is sometimes a bit of snobbery about the science found in kitchens and gardens and city streets. It's seen as something to occupy children with, a trivial distraction which is important for the young, but no real use to adults. An adult might buy a book about how the universe works, and that's seen as being a proper adult topic. But that attitude misses something very important: the same physics applies everywhere. A toaster can teach you about some of the most fundamental laws of physics, and the benefit of a toaster is that you've probably got one, and you can see it working for yourself. Physics is awesome precisely because the same patterns are universal: they exist both in the kitchen and in the furthest reaches of the universe.


I'm re-using the above quote (already used in a progress update) because it truly describes the book's take on science and getting people interested in the subject(s) of science.


I really enjoyed this book. I have a both a personal and professional interest in science, but am neither a scientist nor engineer, which makes me somewhat of an oddball in my family.

While much of this is due to other interests and perhaps a smidgeon of defying parental expectations, I cannot help but think that having a maths/physics teacher and a chemistry teacher who were truly awful at explaining things. To give an example, I once asked my mum, a chemical engineer, for help with my chemistry homework. Thirty minutes later we were discussing it over the phone with her friends from work, also experts in the field, with the outcome that they all concluded that the proposed homework assignment was nonsense as the chemical reaction proposed would not and simply could not occur... I can't say that this impressed my chemistry teacher. Thankfully, I left the country to go to school in the US after that particular year, and didn't have to take any chemistry after that.

Don't get me wrong, I love reading about chemistry - and other sciences, since they are all related, but particularly chemistry - but I strongly believe that the way that science is taught plays a huge role in fostering interest, enthusiasm and even confidence in people, particularly young people, who want to learn about it.


This is where books like Storm in a Teacup come into play. I have seen a few books - and we certainly seem to have picked a few books for the Flat Book Society reads - that in some way failed to communicate with the reader. Communication and the ability to explain concepts and relationships, however, is crucial to producing a good science book.

Helen Czerski did a marvellous job at this. At least in my opinion. I have seldom found myself bored or talked down to. What is more, I could not wait to pick the book up again every night to read the next chapter. I also did not mind at all when I had to re-read a previous chapter to remind myself of a concept that had been explained earlier - which is my failing, or rather my reading too fast. There was a lot to absorb in the book despite Czerski's great efforts to use everyday objects like toasters, tea cups, a piece of buttered toast, a candle, ducks' feet, etc. to explain complex concepts of physics.


And for that reading experience alone - the inspiration to want to read more - I applaud Storm in a Teacup.


Previous Reading updates:


Update # 1

Update # 2

Update # 3

Update # 4

Update # 5

Update # 6

Update # 7


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review 2017-12-13 22:55
The Science of Discworld
The Science of Discworld - Terry Pratchett,Jack Cohen,Ian Stewart


I usually try to start my reviews with a pertinent quote from the relevant book, but I was somewhat eager to return my copy to the library and I forgot to copy out a quotation for my review. However, it is somewhat appropriate to start the summary of my thoughts about The Science of Discworld with a quote from one of my favourite characters from the book - The Librarian.


Never said one word so much.


The Science of Discworld is an attempt to fuse the storyverse created by Terry Pratchett with non-fiction science. Through alternating chapters, we get to see how the Wizards of Discworld, with some help from Hex, create a roundworld very akin to Earth. And, yes, I smirked at the idea that book that spends a lot of time refuting creationism, is based on a story that features ... creationism.


(I should add that I am not a fan of or even giving credence to the theory/ies of creationism, but, equally, I am not a fan of arguments that are full of contradictions.)  


This is not the only aspect in which the book failed for me.


As much as I loved the Wizards - especially the Librarian - and Pratchett's Discworld, the science parts in this book just really did not work for me.


The book started out with a random discussion of quantum physics. I am not a scientist. My working knowledge of physics is basic. The opening chapters took a lot of effort because I actually found myself researching different things that the authors referred to on the internet. I don't mind do the research on topics I want to learn about if I feel that it will help me understand the rest of the book.


But not so here, the science parts seemed to jump from one topic to another without referring back to the previous ones. It was so confusing. And the difficulty level of the science parts differed throughout the book, too. It made me wonder what kind of a readership the authors were aiming for. Were they talking to people with pre-existing knowledge of quantum physics but not biology? Or maybe the authors just found it difficult to explain the topics they are experts in but didn't bother to go into the same depths about topics they may not be as familiar with?


I have no idea.


What is clear to me is that the authors of the science parts are not great at communicating. Apart from talking down to readers, or constantly contradicting themselves - for example, when they criticise the act of simplifying a concept to explain it to someone, which the authors decry as "lies to children", only to then use the same simplification to explain concepts to readers -, the authors of the science parts actually managed to ... and this is the dealbreaker ... they managed to make science boring.


And with that they made the book fail. Well, they managed to make half the book fail. The Wizard parts were delightful.


Previous status updates:


Update 1

Update 2

Update 3

Update 4

Update 5

Update 6

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review 2017-11-26 11:29
The Invention of Nature - Alexander von Humboldt's New World
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World - Andrea Wulf

Wulff's Invention of Nature was probably the best book I have read in all of 2017. 


Although, I knew of Humboldt (and his brother), I had no idea of the extent of his influence on the sciences and of the adventures he went on to gain the deep understanding of the world that he did.

I am still amazed at both.

I am still amazed at the difficulties he faced.

I am still amazed at everything I learned about his and his times from Wulff's extraordinary book. 


And, yet, I haven't managed to write a proper "review" for this book. Maybe it is because the books that have the most impact on me are usually the ones that are hardest to write about. 


So, instead of a review, I'll replicate my reading notes below:


Reading update - Part 1:

We snatch in vain at Nature's veil,

She is mysterious in broad daylight,

No screws or levers can compel to reveal

The secrets she has hidden from our sight.

I'm really enjoying this so far. I have a soft spot for Faust but had no idea that it was part inspired by Humboldt - or that he was so closely connected with the Weimar set.


What I am really enjoying in the book so far is how Wulf doesn't just throw in place names in the expectation that readers will be able to picture the scenes but manages to add snippets of description to highlight that the places in Humboldt's day were less developed and, more importantly, less accessible that any Google image or map search would have you believe.


I liked that she added that Weimar may have been an intellectual hot spot but it still had cattle being driven through its streets and that there was no reliable postal service - hence Goethe exchanging letters with Schiller in Jena by way of his greengrocer! I had to laugh at this one. I mean, imagine it...the letters of arguably the two most famous German literary figures delivered with the weekly shopping?


The other mentions I was curious about were that of Freiberg and that of the breathing mask and mining lamp Humboldt developed. I grew up not far from Freiberg, my dad went to uni there, and mining has shaped much of the region's history and landscape. 

Unfortunately, the book does not mention much about the two inventions, but I understand from other sources that the lamp was a forerunner of the Davy Lamp, which would have made a huge impact on working conditions in the mines. I am now curious about how exactly that lamp worked and the safety stats before and after the development of the lamp, but I'm not sure this is information that will be easy to dig up.


Looking forward to Part II already.



Reading update - Part 2:


In Part II of the book, we accompany Humboldt and Bonplant on their trip to first Tenerife and then South America. 


There is only one question that I keep coming back to after having read this part, and that is:


How on earth did they survive that trip?


Mauled by mosquitoes, surrounded by dozens of other things that could kill them (jaguars, house cats, boa constrictors, crocs, ..., parasites, ...) the list is nigh endless, and yet, they seem to have come away relatively unscathed. 


Even fever and dysentery could not stop them from crossing part of the Andes. The Andes!!


They had no gear to speak of, their shoes were useless, they suffered from severe altitude sickness, freezing conditions, and yet, they survived.


This is also the part where Humboldt comes face to face with slavery and becomes an abolitionist. I look forward to looking this section up in his travelogue. There were issues in rural Prussia at around the same time, where a system of serfdom still existed. This was eventually made illegal in 1807 (effective 1810). While there are obvious differences between the treatment of slaves as witnessed by Humboldt and the treatment of peasant serfs back in Prussia, I am curious to see if he mentions any correlation in his own writings. 


I was also hooked on the descriptions of the use of agriculture and the emerging idea how the reliance on cash cultures is a really shortsighted expression of greed at the expense of the community.


Part II ends with Humboldt's meeting with Thomas Jefferson, which to me was the least interesting part of this section.



Reading update - Part 3:


Part III - Sorting Ideas - tells about Humboldt's return to Europe, where he is received as a hero. At the same time, tho, Europe is in the middle of drastic changes brought on by the Napoleonic Wars.


Also on a personal level, Humboldt has to make adjustments as he is basically broke and needs to take on "a real job". 


I must say I really like how Wulf contrasts this part of the book with the previous part that was all about the big adventure. In this part, we can literally feel how Humboldt is slowly suffocated by the demands of living in a society that has so many demands on him. 


He's trying to spread knowledge of his discoveries and further his cause (to learn more about the world and then share it with the scientific community) but politics are now a major stumbling block.


He was just too far ahead, too egalitarian, and too liberal for his time!


Who'd have guessed Humboldt fell out with Napoleon???

Who'd have guessed Humboldt's reputation as a rebel would deny him access to India?

Who'd have guessed Humboldt was considered a rebel?


That part can't have been that easy for his brother to deal with, either, seeing that he was a Prussian diplomat.


What is most impressive and even whiplash inducing to just read about, tho, is how crazy busy Humboldt kept himself. He was like a squirrel on speed running from one appointment to the next, always on the go, attending up to five different salons per night on several days of the week. 


By the end of this part of the book, I can understand why he was longing to travel again. It seems that his mind is more focused and he is more at ease when he is off exploring.



Reading update - Part 4:


At the end of July, more than three months after leaving Berlin, Humboldt reached Tobolsk – 1,800 miles from St Petersburg and the most easterly point on the prescribed route – but it was still not wild enough for his taste. Humboldt had not come this far only to have to turn around. He had other plans. Instead of travelling back to St Petersburg as previously agreed, Humboldt now ignored Cancrin’s instructions and added a detour of 2,000 miles. He wanted see the Altai Mountains in the east where Russia, China and Mongolia met, as the counterpart to his observations in the Andes. As he had failed to see the Himalaya, the Altai was as close as he could get to collecting data from a mountain range in Central Asia.

I'm finding it hard to put this book down. He is such an unlikely rebel, and yet...he gets away with it.


Having been denied access to the Himalayas by the East India Company, and having returned to Berlin, Humboldt is dying to get out again.


I was so relieved when I read about his travels through Russia. Not only because the parts where he travels have been my favourites of the book, but also because I really hate seeing him cooped up.


And of course there several passages where I caught my breath, most notably where he basically upsets Cancrin, the czar's official delegate, by wanting to see the true living conditions of the eastern peasants and, the second, where he is so set on reaching his destination (also against the will of Cancrin) that he rode straight through a region plagued with an anthrax epidemic. Anthrax!!! WTF, Alex?

"As they sat in silence, hot and cramped behind tightly shut windows in their small carriages, they passed through a landscape of death. The ‘traces of the pest’ were everywhere, Humboldt’s companion Gustav Rose noted in his diary. Fires burned at the entrances and exits of the villages as a ritual to ‘clean the air’. They saw small makeshift hospitals and dead animals lying in the fields. In one small village alone, 500 horses had died."

I guess the views would have have been worth it:



As for the other parts, I enjoyed learning about how much Humboldt had influenced Darwin. I had never expected this.


I am, however, puzzled by the chapter about Thoreau. Not only was this the least interesting to me, but I found the description of Thoreau quite annoying.


While Humboldt and Darwin were scientists who were able to write well, Thoreau merely strikes me as a - somewhat lofty and self-indulgent - writer, but not really a scientist.

What was the point of including this chapter other than to illustrate Humboldt's influence across several continents?



Reading update - Part 5:


I am a little sad.


This was a fascinating book, and I loved the chapter that described the last years in Humboldt's life and the political changes that he was surrounded by, even tho for Humboldt the novelty of revolution had worn off because he had seen and been in the midst of so many of them.


As for the remaining chapters on Perkins, Haeckel, and John Muir, I am in two minds: We did not really need them to understand Humboldt and his times. But, they do illustrate - again - the far-reaching impact Humboldt and his work have had on a future generation that would lead to the birth of environmentalism. 


I appreciate the link that Wulf creates between the extraordinary Humboldt and the subsequent discussions that are still current affairs more than I criticise Wulf for meandering a little in the last three chapters


What a book! What a guy!

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review 2017-11-04 14:30
Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime
Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime - Val McDermid

If we presented Michael Faraday or Paracelsus with the scientific evidence our courts now take for granted, it would seem like magic to those most rigorous of researchers. And the advance of science has run hand in hand with corresponding advances in the delivery of justice.

As much as I like McDermid's works of fiction, Forensics didn't work well for me. She does acknowledge at the end of the book that she was new to non-fiction writing (her history in journalism aside) and that this book was, more or less, an experiment, but that didn't help my enjoyment as a reader. 


The thing is, I could not stop comparing the book to other books and tv series that I enjoyed infinitely more and that I learned more from - and I am including my first love of all things forensic in this: Quincy, M.E. 



Yup. I feel like I got a better understanding of the science of forensics from a 1970s tv drama than from what is supposed to be a book about the very topic.


While I enjoyed reading about the cases told in the book, I was missing a common thread that these stories were supposed to illustrate. It felt more like there were a number of stories which were aligned because they had some basis on forensic investigation and a tenuous connection to forensic sciences today. There just was not enough of a clear train of thought that would explain what points, discoveries, or scientific facts these stories were supporting. 


I'm not going to say that there was not enough science in the book - although I would have wished for more - because the book could have worked as a history of forensic science, if the structure had been developed on that line. However, it was not clear enough to me what the sections were supposed to add up to. There seemed to be too many human interest stories amongst the reported cases that just distracted from trail of scientific discovery. And did I miss an analysis of how different forensic methods changed criminal investigations beyond a general statement here or there throughout the book?

Surely, that would have been worthwhile?


The book was not all bad, tho. The history on fingerprints was interesting.

Our fingerprints are part of us from before birth; they first appear in the tenth week of pregnancy, when the foetus measures only 8 cm. As one of the three layers of tissue that make up the foetus’s skin – the basal layer – starts to grow at faster rate than the other two, ridges form to relieve the resulting stresses, ‘like the buckling of land masses under compression’. If your finger pads were flat, the pressure on the skin would be equal and the ridges would be parallel. But because finger pads

slope, ridges form along lines of equal stress, most usually in concentric circles. Ridge patterns also appear across the palms of our hands and on the bottoms of our feet. Other primates have them, too, and evolutionary biologists believe there are good reasons for them. They help our skin to stretch and deform, protecting it from damage; they create valleys down which sweat can escape, reducing slipperiness when we hold things; and they give us more contact (and hence grip) with rough surfaces like tree bark. When we touch a surface with a finger, the ridges leave their unique pattern on it. Even the prints of identical twins differ.

And the general history of discoveries, however superficial, was interesting. It is just that the overwhelming part of the book is just that - superficial, with a side dish of case reporting that had a bias towards human interest and sensationalism.


As for the impact that the advances in forensic science have made in the delivery of justice, I may have missed this altogether as there seemed very little about any changes in law or procedure that derived specifically from the advance in forensic science. For example, I was expecting a link between the chapter on arson and the Stardust Disco fire to any changes in law because the Stardust fire led directly to changes in law in the following years that still provide the basis  for Building Control legislation in Ireland today (see here for an interesting blog post about this).


It felt throughout the book that Mcdermid's focus was on the descriptive, the shocking, and the telling of stories than on the investigation of facts, on analysis, or on effects of the cases she reported.

For a non-fiction book with the sub-title of "What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA, And More Tell Us About Crime" there was just not enough factual discussion, analysis, or even discussion of different ideas in this book to make this an enjoyable non-fiction read.


Again, there was more science, discussion and balanced argument coming from this guy:



(And, yes, I am totally hijacking my post for a Quincy-fangirl agenda.)


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review 2017-10-24 22:53
The Elements of Murder
The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison - John Emsley

He was 32-years-old but had gone grey, which he jokingly said was due to quicksilver. Although there is no connection between the two, there is a link between the body burden of several metals and their level in hair. Mercury, lead, arsenic, and antimony, are particularly attracted to the sulphur atoms in the keratin of hair and so it is possible by the analysis of a strand of hair to show whether that person had been exposed to a large dose of these toxic metals. Newton’s alchemical experiments appear to have reached a climax in the summer of 1693 when he wrote an account that is a combination of bizarre alchemical symbols and comments and is known as the Praxis [Doings] and this showed how unbalanced he had become. Isaac Newton was well known for being temperamental. Criticism of his work aroused in him an abnormal hatred of a rival and his feuds with other eminent scientists of the day such as Robert Hooke and Gottfried Leibniz were more emotional than rational. At times, Newton withdrew into virtual isolation and in 1693, when he was 50-years-old, his behaviour became so abnormal that his sanity was even questioned.

The Elements of Murder was fun, but it was a book with shortcomings. I don't like to start out pointing at the issues with a book but bear with me:


1. The book does not cover that many elements. In fact, only five (all of them metals) get serious page time: Mercury, Lead, Antimony, Arsenic, and Thallium. There is a section at the end of the book that covers some more elements, but most of these entries do not even extend beyond a single paragraph.


2. Arsenic, Thallium, and Antimony are covered in other books (such as the fabulous A is for Arsenic), which made much of the information in this books seem like old news. 


3. Some of the writing is ... dubious. There is something wrong with the flow of the narrative. I can't put my finger on what it was, but I had to read some paragraphs several times to understand what the author was talking about. There were also a couple of paragraphs where the author alluded to something but then suddenly dropped the thought in what seemed mid-sentence and then moved on to something new. 


Yes, this book could have done with better editing.


But...here is why I still enjoyed the book:


The introduction about the history of alchemy and that first chapter on mercury were fabulous!


Emsley explains the properties and history of mercury, its uses, and its impact on the environment. He also goes to describe famous people who experimented with it, and how mercury has been responsible for various deaths. This part was really interesting and packed full of history and hard science. I loved it. 


However, in parts, it seemed like the author wanted to write a book about mercury only, and then felt compelled to add more chapters. 


I would still recommend the book on the chapter about mercury alone, but I do recommend to find it in a library. 


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