Big Bang, by Marcus Chown
May Chiao, Chief Editor, Nature Astronomy
I started reading Big Bang by Marcus Chown with my daughter, aged 7, having just finished Dara Ó Briain’s Beyond the Sky: You and the Universe. She had enjoyed Beyond the Sky so much that she’d asked for the sequel for Christmas. Well Chown's book wasn’t exactly a sequel but I had agreed to review it and it seemed a reasonable follow-up. Plus it wasn’t even Christmas yet. What could go wrong? Two pages later, my daughter bailed.
To be fair, Big Bang is aimed at a non-expert adult readership, unlike Beyond the Sky, so I was perhaps pushing my luck in trying to entertain a child and pass it off as work. Unfortunately, the entertainment still needed to be done, so it took a while before I was able to finish reading the book on my own. Still, it did take a further two sittings to read another 21 pages of text. I wouldn't characterise the book as a page-turner, but then I do know how the story ends.
Chown’s pace is necessarily fast, as he has to cover 13.82 billion years, yet I didn’t feel rushed. He explains concepts really well and provides useful analogies, such as a ship emerging from the fog as a simile for the Universe becoming visible at 380,000 years when the first atoms were formed, locking away the electrons that had been scattering all the photons in an opaque Universe. Chown also mentions some of the key researchers and their stories of getting scooped (Bob Dicke) and of making surprise discoveries involving pigeon poo (Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson). These anecdotes help lift the scientists from the page.
In contrast, the surrealist illustrations did not always add to the narrative. A picture of roast duck legs and potatoes floating amidst balls of nitrogen and potassium ions accompanying an explanation of how the first elements were made, for example, was entirely superfluous (and inspired by a throwaway comment from George Gamow). I also failed to grasp the connection between a bar of chocolate and dark energy. Dark chocolate, perhaps?
Ultimately, it is an entertaining and accessible book for people interested in the birth of the Universe, and Chown is careful to point out what we know versus what we guess might be. I especially liked the way he explained ‘bolt-ons’ to the standard theory—these being dark matter, dark energy and inflation—when observations forced scientists to rethink. That is exactly how science works.
[This review first appeard on the Nature Research Astronomy Community]
Quantum mechanics, by Jim Al-Khalili
Andrea Taroni, Chief Editor, Nature Physics
Richard Feynman famously quipped that he was confident nobody really understands quantum mechanics. There are no counterparts, in everyday experience, for concepts such as particle-wave duality and entanglement, so they necessarily appear weird and counterintuitive to the student or reader being introduced to them for the first time. Jim Al-Khalili, a professor of physics at the University of Surrey and renowned populariser or science in newspaper columns, books and on TV screens, does a good job of presenting them in a clear fashion in this concise little book.
Al-Khalili follows what I would call the standard description of quantum mechanics. That is to say he presents its development essentially chronologically, with the principal concepts introduced in their historical context, such that the reader can appreciate how they came about. A consequence of this approach is that at each historical turn, the ‘weirdness’ and counterintuitive nature of quantum theory is emphasised.
We therefore hear the usual story that as the 19th century came to an end, physics was largely considered complete, except for a few niggling problems here and there. We learn that Max Planck’s proposal that radiation emanating from hot bodies could only take on specific, quantised energy values was initially just seen as a neat mathematical trick, but ultimately revolutionized out understanding of the subatomic realm. And we find out about the various contributions made along the way by pioneers such as Erwin Schrödinger, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli and Niels Bohr.
There is nothing wrong with this approach, especially since each ‘chapter’ of the book is no longer than three of four paragraphs – this makes for an exceptionally clear and concise exposition. But I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t a missed opportunity to present quantum mechanics using a different playbook. Certain chapters – for example the ones on entanglement (“Einstein refused to believe it, calling it ‘spooky action’!”) and quantum field theory (essentially an excuse to mention Richard Feynman and his eponymous diagrams) – feel like they are going through the motions. On the other hand, when Al-Khalili moves away from the beaten path of the standard description of quantum mechanics, for example when he describes its various uses in technologies ranging from DVD players to MRI scanners, he is far more engaging.
This brings me to the one, admittedly entirely subjective, aspect of the book I just didn’t like: the figures. Clearly, the retro 1950s look may appeal to some readers – if nothing else it is reminiscent of the original Ladybird books from years gone by – but I somehow struggled to square a discussion on quantum computing with an image a fridge that could have come off the set of Mad Men. Perhaps less flippantly, it seems to me that imposing a style that is so clearly of one decade to a topic that developed over the course of the entire 20th Century (and beyond!) is a little jarring.
This minor quibble aside, Al-Khalili has presented a very readable introduction to the topic of quantum mechanics. I struggle to imagine what more one could want from a primer on the subject.
[This review first appeared in 2017]
Bubbles, by Helen Czerski
Rosamund Daw, Senior Editor, Physical Sciences, Nature
The cover design of this Ladybird Expert book harks back to the Penguin books from my childhood; in fact the design still appeals to children as proven when my own nine year old picked up the book and started exploring the stories. But while the book is written for a very general audience, the target readership is adults, and some of the vignettes may be a touch too dry or complex for children.
The introduction “What is a bubble?” offers a brief history of bubbles in science and culture. Herein a moment of intrigue presents itself when Czerski lists the great scientists of the Western world who have seriously studied bubbles: Lord Rayleigh, Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, Agnes Pockels. Agnes Pockels? A brief web search revealed Pockels to indeed be a pioneer in surface science with her first paper on the impact of impurities on surface tension published in my journal Nature in 1891 on the recommendation of Lord Rayleigh. This was quite a feat at the time for a woman with no formal scientific training. I wonder in fact if this was the first scientific paper published in Nature by a woman? (https://www.nature.com/articles/043437c0.pdf
Czerski then asks basic questions, the answers of which many scientists will probably be familiar with: what is a bubble wall made of? Why is it spherical? Then we learn about more unusual and quirky bubble structures (antibubbles anyone?) followed by examples of unusual bubble dynamics. The latter examples are presented often in the context of bubbles in drinks. While this is mildly interesting (the supporting imagery less so: a steaming kettle, a mug of coffee, a glass of water), the book really comes into its own when exploring the relevance and importance of bubbles in the wider world.
I particularly enjoyed Czerski’s descriptions of animal antics with bubbles although I was disappointed that my own personal favourite, the diving beetles which use bubbles as a sort of scuba diving equipment, was not included. I also found fascinating the explanations of the importance of bubbles in ocean-atmospheric interactions. As someone who works in the applied science and engineering fields, I embarked on the section on the future of bubble technologies with optimism. (I note that Czerski wisely steers clear of the murky world of bubble fusion but does discuss acoustic cavitation in the context of drug delivery applications.) But for me the discussions of technological opportunities were all too brief, and I was left wanting more detailed examples.
While there are key themes explored in the book (structure, mobility, bubble-wave dynamics, bubbles in the animal kingdom, bubbles in the ocean, bubble technologies) these themes are confused throughout the book. As a result it feels like it lacks direction. Nevertheless each page-long vignette stands alone nicely, with concepts clearly explained; so perhaps this is not intended to be read from cover to cover, but instead a coffee table treat to be dipped into.
“Bubbles” is not designed for professional scientists who will probably find it lacks depth and leaves too many open questions. But as a general science read for a broad audience, I think it works. After all, from blowing bubbles as a child to sinking into a bath full of bubbles, or treating yourself to a glass of something fizzy at the end of the day, most people enjoy bubbles in one way or another. Helen Czerski’s exploration reveals via accessible bitesized stories that bubbles are not just fun, they can be functional too.
Plate Tectonics, by Iain Stewart
Melissa Plail, Senior Editor, Nature Geoscience
Being a self-confessed fan of the Ladybird Expert Book Series, I was excited to see that geology was finally getting its own book. Initially though I approached this book with some trepidation as plate tectonics is a subject that feels like it has been done to death. However, Iain Stewart has written a fascinating account of the discovery of plate tectonics, which is highly accessible.
Plate tectonics is arguably the greatest discovery made by geologists, and the mechanisms that drive plate tectonics continue to be researched and debated to this day. This book celebrates the path to the discovery of plate tectonics and the people behind it. The book starts at the beginning where Abraham Ortelius and Thomas Dick first suggested that the Earth’s continents could have been in different positions from today. The book then chronologically outlines the evolution of the main theories behind plate tectonics from continental drift, mantle convection to our current understanding. Each section also highlights the people behind these discoveries and then how differing theories became obsolete as science and technology progressed as for example the discovery of the mid-Atlantic ridge by Bruce Heezen and Marie Tharp through sea-floor mapping.
I found the book an enjoyable read and it was really nice to see a range of key people being highlighted rather than just the usual suspects such as Alfred Wegener who was behind continental drift theory. As with many major scientific discoveries it is usually built on decades of people’s research and this book really celebrates this. The main concepts of how plate tectonic theory evolved are explained in an accessible way and should be easily understandable for non-geologists. My only real gripe was that I felt there could have been perhaps an overview concluding section of plate tectonics today. But this is just a personal preference. As always with these Ladybird books it is beautifully illustrated throughout.
If you are looking to learn about how geologists discovered how the Earth fundamentally works and the history behind the discovery of plate tectonics then this is the book for you.
Genetics, by Adam Rutherford
Rebecca Furlong, Senior Editor, Nature Communications
I fear I am about to be ostracised by the popular science community, so let me start by saying that I have read and enjoyed Adam Rutherford’s other books and am a fan of his work. However, I did not love this book.
This is a Ladybird Expert book, intended as a clear introduction to the field for an adult readership. It covers the main concepts of genetics through the stories of the people involved, which is an accessible and interesting approach. So we begin with the isolation of “nuclein” by Miescher, discrete inheritance of traits with Mendel and his peas, and of course Darwin’s explanation of descent with modification. A whistlestop tour of the 20th century follows, finishing up with some of the modern applications of genetic technology.
Explaining the concepts through the people involved works very well for the more ethical and moral topics, and Rutherford is unafraid to tackle unsavoury aspects of the field’s history, examining eugenics and racism through Galton’s work and discussing the sexist lack of credit for Rosalind Franklin’s data in the discovery of the structure of DNA. Furthermore, I thought the final chapters on topics like genetic engineering and synthetic biology were a strength. These strike me as being important and controversial concepts and this is a useful overview for non-experts.
However, I thought the middle of the book struggled. I didn’t feel it actually explained much about the basic concepts of genetics and the structure was a bit of a muddle. I have some sympathy – this is a very short book, one concept per page, and a hugely diverse topic to cover. I also wondered whether my opinion was coloured by the fact that I already knew the punchlines to these stories, so I asked some interested adults (my mum and dad) to read it. They found it easy to read, but said they still didn’t feel they knew much about genetics by the end. My dad, who has recently retired and is becoming more curmudgeonly by the day, had a lot of very strong opinions on the illustrations which I will paraphrase as “they weren’t very helpful”. These are in the style of the classic Ladybird books of my youth, and reflect the content in showing the characters involved, rather than explaining the concepts.
In short, this book is a useful read in some ways - it doesn’t shy away from difficult social issues, and it covers many topics which are in the public eye. But if my mum and dad wanted to learn more about what genes are and how they work, I’d suggest they looked elsewhere.
Evolution, by Steve Jones
Patrick Goymer, Chief Editor, Nature Ecology & Evolution
‘One long argument’ is how Darwin referred to the Origin of Species, the book that well-known populariser of genetics and evolution Steve Jones takes as his starting point for his Ladybird guide. It’s the obvious place to start, and one that many have used before, including Jones himself in About a Whale. But does it actually work? This Ladybird guide has some great moments in it, but ironically it fails for me to have the logical continuity of one long argument.
Jones is a very successful newspaper columnist, and in many ways the book reads like a series of short, erudite columns. Some of the pages, such as those on convergent evolution, the blindness of evolution, and sexual selection, are well-crafted gems of science communication. Other pages have the feel of a slightly meandering vignette rather than a definitive guide to the topic, such as starting with there being hippopotamus fossils in the Himalayas as a hook for discussing the evolution of whales. In some cases, one wonders if the target audience is too close to the readership of the British Daily Telegraph, with comments such as the fact that Jones’s students ‘now affect a half-cockney accent that must horrify their grandparents’.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with the science, and many of the examples are well chosen, if not surprisingly novel. Antibiotic resistance gets a page, as do artificial selection, continental drift and feathered dinosaurs. I wonder if the one-concept-per-page format of Ladybird books makes it difficult to do justice to some of the deeper ideas, such as speciation itself. For that one, I feel Jones has just about got started with a nice analogy for the fluidity of the species concept when it is time to move on, without really discussing current thinking on speciation mechanisms. Conversely, on another page, it’s probably too much to try to cover genetic bottlenecks, vicariance and island biogeography in one shot.
Ladybird books are known for a particular style of mid-twentieth century illustration, and this volume is no exception. On the whole, these work well and will appeal to a readership who grew up with such books. The artificial selection of brassicas, the evolution of whales, and human skin colour variation are some of my favourite examples. I’m not quite so sure it works when the illustrations are supposed to be humorous, such as George H. W. Bush looking angry about eating his greens, or a hammer and sickle as the backdrop for the work of Belyaev.
There are some in-jokes for scientists as well, such as ‘molecular evolution is no more than comparative anatomy plus a lot of money’ and ‘if you want honesty, try physics instead’, and for this reason I suspect most of us who work in evolutionary biology will enjoy a quick read through the book. Fundamentally, though, I’m not sure it packs the explanatory punch to be the definitive short guide for the lay reader. Perhaps it would have been better to frame the strong central chapters with some basic genetics and natural selection at the beginning and the historical comparison with Darwin left until the end. That said, if every adult spent just half an hour with this book, scientific literacy would undoubtedly be improved.
[This review first appeared in 2017]
Consciousness, by Hannah Critchlow
Jamie Horder, Associate Editor, Nature Communications
Consciousness is renowned as one of the great remaining mysteries of science and philosophy. The existence of our conscious minds presents a puzzle so seemingly impenetrable that the question of how subjective awareness could arise from a material object such as the brain is known simply as the hard problem.
Given the difficulty of the subject matter, then, one might be forgiven for being sceptical that it could be covered in a book of 50 pages – especially when half of those pages are covered by illustrations. It is certainly true that this Ladybird book raises more questions about consciousness than it answers. But that, I think, is just as it should be. This is a topic on which there are more questions than answers.
Author Hannah Critchlow covers a wide range of topics related to consciousness, from dreaming and drugs to free will and philosophical zombies. My personal favourite was the phenomenon of ‘blindsight’ in which some patients with damage to the brain’s visual cortex are able to navigate around objects without consciously seeing them –raising the possibility that our consciousness might not so important as we think it is.
Each of the one-page chapters is an accessible and accurate introduction to its topic. Indeed, reading this book is rather a stream-of-consciousness experience, with its leaps between related topics and the lovely, if slightly surrealist, illustrations (by Stephen Player.)
The consciousness of animals is a recurring theme in the book, as Critchlow considers whether dogs, bats, birds or perhaps even insects could be sentient. I must admit that I did balk slightly at the possibility that plants might be aware of their surroundings and that they display ‘cognitive skills’, but perhaps this merely reflects the narrowness of my own consciousness.
Climate Change, by HRH The Prince of Wales, Tony Juniper and Emily Shuckburgh
Bronwyn Wake, Chief Editor, Nature Climate Change
The Ladybird Expert Climate Change has received the most media attention of the books in the series, and it’s the authorship team, or more specifically one particular author, that is drawing the attention. His Royal Highness Prince Charles authors the book (and has the biggest biography listed) along with Tony Juniper, an environmentalist and writer, and Emily Shuckburgh, a climate scientist at the British Antarctic Survey. There is a forenote from Prince Charles which discusses how the book came out of a discussion with a friend after his opening address the 2015 Paris UN Climate meeting, about the lack of a plain English guide to climate change.
The book is also the only one that clearly states it has been peer-reviewed, conducted by The Royal Meteorological Society, with the Review Editor and Reviewers listed inside the back cover. I can’t help but wonder if this is due not only to the ‘newness’ of climate change research, compared to Evolution and Quantum Mechanics, but has been done conscious of the strong opinions surrounding the issue in the wider community and the conflicting information that is readily available online.
The book follows the Ladybird-style of short sections, each a single page, starting with how the climate is changing and impacts, with examples presented that cover diverse regions – this is refreshing to see as it highlights the global nature of the issue and makes the book more inclusive and non-region specific. It moves on to discuss climate over the distant past and how the current climate change is different, including discussion of sources and sinks of carbon and the drivers of emissions. The benefits of the 1.5C warming target are introduced, followed by a section on solutions, which is a great addition to the standard science discussion. The final page “One Earth”, along with the final section discussing solutions, is a call to action, although I found it slightly over the top – ‘we have the power to put her [the planet] on life support, and we must surely start the emergency procedures without further procrastination” – even if the right sentiment is there.
The illustrations are in the standard Ladybird style, however in the occasional figure there is data included, in the form of graphs – global surface temperature since 1850, 800,000 years of carbon dioxide; or numbers/text to illustrate points. These add information, however it doesn’t always fit alongside the more traditional standard illustrations, which also range from the prehistoric with images of woolly mammoths being hunted, to the more recent past - coal miners crawling through tunnels, post-Hurricane Sandy-flooded New York City, and controlling central heating on a smart phone.
The book presents a neat overview of the science on anthropogenic climate change and its impacts which is mostly successful in walking the line between informing and alarming. It offers a good introduction to those unfamiliar with the topic, but may only be picked up by those who already have some knowledge or who are environmentally-minded. For those familiar with climate change research, this book doesn’t offer any surprises, but does offer an enjoyable read. I would definitely recommend to those interested in learning more.
[This review first appeared in 2017]
Nuclear Deterrence, by Sir Lawrence Freedman
Aisha Bradshaw, Associate Editor, Nature Human Behaviour
As a reader who grew up across the Atlantic, this book served as my first introduction to the Ladybird series. Based on the standard set in Sir Lawrence Freedman’s Nuclear Deterrence, I have been missing out on a great format.
The structure of the book is somewhat unusual in that it both covers a single topic per page and proceeds as a linear narrative. The story begins with the political and scientific events that precipitated the development of the first nuclear weapons, moves through the crises, standoffs, and negotiations of the Cold War, and concludes with contemporary concerns such as new proliferation and nuclear terrorism. Along the way, the book provides an introduction to various aspects of deterrence theory, including the balance of terror, mutual assured destruction, strategies of denial and punishment, and escalation ladders.
The narrative arc concludes with a look towards the future and the uncertainties that lie ahead. The author takes the position that future nuclear weapons use is feasible and argues that a single or limited number of detonations would not necessarily indicate the collapse of deterrence, but could damage the norms that have helped prevent widespread destruction. The question of what nuclear weapons use would mean for the future is a potential point of controversy, but the author largely sidesteps this by considering multiple possibilities. The take-home message is that the greatest challenges for the future are not technical or scientific, but political. Maintaining nuclear deterrence requires effort to prevent conflict, ensure communication, and more generally work towards a more peaceful world.
Overall, the format and argument work very well as an introduction to the topic. The writing and narrative style are engaging and clearly present an overview of a large body of theory and history spanning dozens of decades. The book strikes a nice balance between avoiding excessive jargon and providing readers with an explanation for what exactly is meant by key terms, such as “flexible response” and the “nuclear triad.” The illustrations also provide striking images to accompany the text and convey additional information, such as the size of stockpiles over time.
My one complaint about the book actually arises from one of its strengths. As mentioned, the logical narrative and historical progression of the text makes the book highly engaging. However, I worry that it sometimes gives the impression that deterrence theory and nuclear policy truly did unfold in a linear manner over time, and there is a risk of implying that ongoing issues were time-bound. Some topics are presented where they best fit in the narrative, but given the mostly-chronological progression, this placement risks implying that they were unimportant at other times. For instance, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which entered into force in 1970, is not mentioned until after the end of the Cold War, even though disarmament movements and other treaties are discussed earlier. Since most of the text is presented as a chronological look at deterrence issues, any piece that doesn’t neatly fit this timeline risks losing the focus it deserves. Despite this slight complaint, the book provides a thorough introduction to the topic for non-experts, which hopefully will spur readers to look deeper into the subject and the complexity of its history. Condensing over half a century of political, scientific, and cultural history into a quick illustrated summary is a massive undertaking, but this book succeeds at that daunting task.
Artificial Intelligence, by Michael Wooldridge
Yann Sweeney, Associate Editor, Nature Machine Intelligence
It seems like a week can’t go by without Artificial Intelligence making the news — helping radiologists diagnose breast cancer, beating the world champion of Go, or being implicated in some dodgy hiring practices. Michael Wooldridge, a professor of computer science at the University of Oxford, gives us a very brief overview of how AI researchers achieved this moment in the spotlight, and reminds us of the many dead ends and rebirths along the way.
Wooldridge begins in the 1950’s, shortly after the invention of the modern computer, and as Alan Turing famously posed the question; "Can machines think?". The Dartmouth conference heralded in the ‘Golden Age’ of AI research, filled with early optimism about projects such as ‘Blocks World’, a simulated environment in which a robotic arm followed written instructions to arrange blocks,or SHAKEY - a robot which used cameras and sensors to push objects around an office-like environment. By the 1970’s it had become clear that some problems were more complex than initially thought. SHAKEY could only interpret specially painted and well-lit objects, while the reason ‘Blocks World’ interpreted its instructions so well is that they were related to very constrained scenarios.
After this initial failure, researchers moved on to developing expert systems and logical AI; explicitly programming computers with knowledge about the world, and a set of rules for processing this knowledge. Wooldridge has an impressive ability to distill these ideas into a few short paragraphs. He continues with the rise of roboticist Rodney Brooks and behavioural AI (which gave us the Roomba) before describing current machine learning approaches, although the overall narrative suffers a bit from trying to squeeze in Bayesian reasoning too.
Wooldridge’s most important contribution is to remove the narrative of AI from the realm of science fiction, and place it within its proper context of prosaic academic problem-solving. Along with some charmingly retro illustrations, the book manages to pack in a remarkable amount of history. Enthusiasts will be familiar with most (if not all) of the ideas here. However, Woolridge neatly conveys the cyclical nature of AI optimism followed by reality checks. This may provide the perfect antidote for your friends or relatives who - spurred on by breathless news reports - proclaim that artificial superintelligence is just a few years away.
I wonder whether Wooldridge himself stumbles over the trap of over-optimism in his final pages, where he states that “For the foreseeable future ... it is a safe bet that far more people will die from natural stupidity than from artificial intelligence”. He may well be right, but it is the combination of these two factors which we should be most concerned about.