Tag Archives: book review

Book: The Power of Infographics

The Power of Infographics

A book on how to make simple infographics about boring things
200 pages, ★★

The Power of Infographics is a comprehensive guide on how to turn drab topics like sales and organisation charts into unintentional office comedy. None of this book was intended to be funny—no, it was intended to be useful, but I find the charts in this book are so pointless that they belong with doodles and LOLcats, not in an ‘art’ book.

Here’s one of those pointless charts.

The Power of Infographics
What’s the point of this chart?

This book is written for people with no time to read. All the usual nuances of a corporate book are in here, including short chapters, bullet-lists, repetitive catchphrases (memes) and boring case-studies about how people increased their sales blah blah blah.

Some of the graphics are quite good, which is my rationale for giving it two stars. But the whole book is full of graphics on corporate networking, sales figures, and social media statistics. So very, very dull. Read Information is Beautiful instead. ★★

Book: Adam Robots by Adam Roberts

Adam Robots by Adam Roberts

Originally written for Dark Matter Fanzine

High-class tasting menu of sci-fi sub-genres
392 pages, ★★★★★

Adam Robots is a collection of science fiction short stories. It’s a five-star tasting menu of sci-fi sub-genres. It was perfect  for a novice sci-fi reader like me because it allowed me to discover which sci-fi sub-genres I enjoy reading the most.

By far the best story in this book was ‘Thrownness’, a twist on Groundhog Day. The title, ‘Thrownness’, is a rough translation of the German word “Geworfenheit”, which is a philosophical term used to describe the feelings people have about a past that is neither deterministic nor chosen. Author Adam Roberts brings this bizarre abstract concept to life by making the protagonist’s world ‘reset’ itself every 70 hours. After a ‘reset’, all the characters go back to where they were 70 hours ago and start going about the same 3-day routine in perfect repetition. The only difference between each cycle is what the protagonist chooses to do (his location and thoughts are not reset each time). He starts off well-behaved, but soon learns that the only way to survive is to rob, cheat and steal. (He steals from the same people in each 3-day cycle but his ‘crimes’ are forgotten after 3 days!) There’s definitely an element of dark, understated humour that’s unmistakably British underlying this short story.

‘Thrownness’ also makes a political point about incarceration and the notorious problem of reoffending. The situation, not the man himself, propelled the protagonist’s downward spiral. With no roots and no long-term direction in his life, he very quickly resorts to crime.

‘Shall I Tell You the Problem With Time Travel?’ was another one of my favourite stories in this book. Protagonist Professor Bradley, a scientist developing time travel in the near future, has realised that every time travel attempt causes a giant explosion at the intended time and place of arrival. He also notes that he can only travel into the past—not into the future. I won’t give anything away here, but the story is very cleverly-written and not contradicted by present-day scientific theories, which is important for me.

Reality is very important for me in books, which is why I read so much non-fiction. I’m not a fan of the extremely farfetched sub-genres in sci-fi—complicated alien civilisations and the like, or artificial intelligence—and I’m put off by scientific impossibility. I learned all this by reading Adam Robots. I learned that I enjoy reading sci-fi that’s set either in a believable future, or in a slightly altered present, and Adam Robots gave me a very generous serving of both. ‘The Time Telephone’ and ‘A Prison Term of A Thousand Years’ in this book were also very good.

Recommended for people who want to get more into reading sci-fi. Five out of five stars. ★★★★★

Book: Screw Business as Usual by Richard Branson

Richard Branson - Screw Business as Usual

“Do good, have fun, and the money will follow”

372 pages, ★★★★★

Screw Business as Usual starts and ends with stories about natural disasters. In the opening pages, author Richard Branson’s Necker Island family home catches fire following a lightning strike. Times like this “remind us that stuff doesn’t matter”, he writes. The closing pages describe how a category III hurricane hit Necker Island while Virgin Unite (the charity arm of his multi-billion dollar Virgin empire) was staying there. In each case, Branson writes how opportunity rises in the face of adversity; how destruction clears way for the new; and how every unfortunate event has a ‘good’ side. I couldn’t agree more.

On page 12, he issues the readers a warning: “make sure you’ve read [this book] and can articulate its contents before you consider having this book on lying around on your desk!” (The contents, should they need to be articulated, could be summed up like this: Capitalists no longer face a choice between making money and doing good. Many businesses that “do good” (environmentally or socially) are finding that good deeds boost the company’s profits overall”.) Between pages 200 and 250, he includes plenty of detailed case studies to support his point.

I really like that despite Branson’s massive persona, he still laughs at himself sometimes. On page 21, he hints that he name drops too much, and it’s true. Honestly, though, I expected him to: Richard Branson is a ‘big’ personality known for his outlandish gestures and it would have seemed disappointingly out-of-character if he were too modest in this book. (Just type “Richard Branson” into Google Images for some examples of this.) After admitting he name-drops too much, he proceeds to name-drop throughout this book: Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Queen, James Lovelock, Ban Ki-Moon and Al Gore are mentioned many times each. Page 230 adds Ray Anderson, Jochen and Ted Turner to the list of superstars he has close connections with. He laughs at himself on this and on several other occasions. I like the self-aware, self-mocking Branson that we see in this book.

I also really like the emphasis on “doing good”. This is clear not only from his many not-for-profit groups, which work worldwide in many different sectors, but also from his willingness to “do good” even if “doing good” means breaking the law! Twice, he breaks the law and the law changes for him, not the other way around. Once, at he beginning of the book, Branson breaks an old law that made it illegal to mention “venereal disease” in public. Branson felt it was a serious social problem at the time, and that the law was preventing useful health information from reaching the public. So he broke the law, got arrested, then took Her Majesty’s Government to court. (They apologised to Branson and then changed the law!) Later, the end of the book, Branson’s group tells factories in South Africa to ignore the law on racially-segregated toilets, which resulted in many black workers having to urinate, dehumanisingly, in gutters. This time, too, the law changed for him, not the other way around!

I learned a lot from this book. I learned that Peter Gabriel was signed by Virgin Records in 1983. I also learned that Virgin’s staff must love their jobs—Branson holds parties for Virgin Atlantic staff tropical island house and writes them personalised letters of invitation. In these letters (one is copied into the book), I learned that Virgin Atlantic was the first airline to introduce fully-non-smoking flights, and was also the first airline to have entertainment screens on the back of every seat!

Branson tells us all to love our jobs. He gives examples of businesses that do this very well, such as a greengrocery chain in Sussex that hires “local heroes”—people who love their job and their produce, and aren’t there “just for the pay check”. I’m really pleased to say that I’m one of those people 🙂

This quote fits perfectly with this book’s philosophy:

“And then there is the most dangerous risk of all — the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later.”

― Randy Komisar, Monk and the Riddle: The Education of a Silicon Valley Entrepreneur

(I am still yet to review Randy Komisar’s book, Monk and the Riddle.)

In one respect, Screw Business as Usual reminds me a lot of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. Both books straddle the non-fiction and biography genres. Both books tell tales of opportunity and what makes people succeed. In particular, the story about Peter Avis in this book seemed very similar to a scene in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. In this book, Branson writes about Peter Avis, who, like Branson, is also dyslexic. While Branson has long talked quite openly about how his dyslexia shaped his thinking, and how it inspired the clean, easy-to-navigate customer experience that Virgin’s companies offer, Avis found dyslexia very debilitating throughout school and early adulthood. Avis, unlike Branson, didn’t come from such a supportive background, and his dyslexia went unnoticed for many years until someone cared enough to help him solve the problem. Malcolm Gladwell gives a similar example in his book (which I haven’t reviewed yet), where a child might be “blessed with confidence, acting skills and bursts of creativity” if they come from a rich background; but diagnosed with ADHD if they come from a poorer background. What’s more interesting about Branson’s stories, though, is that they’re from his own life—and his own friends—not from unrelated case studies.

In conclusion, Branson says that unrestrained capitalism (“Greed is Good”) versus the flower power peace-and-love of the 1960s have merged to form a new era of capitalism, and Richard Branson labels, “Capitalism 24902”. (Read the book to find out what that means.)

This is a rare, high-quality business management book. It’s laced with personal examples, which are always much more interesting than random case studies, and I love the message he sends out in this book. Recommended for anyone who admires great people. ★★★★★

Book: Physics of the Impossible

Physics Of The Impossible

Tour of the future. Written with poetic grace and a child’s wonder.
328 pages, ★★★★★

Michio Kaku is one of the most readable pop-sci writers of today. His books straddle the boundary between physics and science fiction. He uses sci-fi technologies (such as teleportation, warp drive and invisibility) to get readers excited about real-world physics, which, he predicts, will resemble current-day sci-fi in a few millennia from now.

He’s one of few scientists lucky enough to work on what we call “sexy science”. Sexy science is the stuff that gets everyone excited; the stuff that doesn’t bore people when they ask you what you do; and only it constitutes about 1% of all scientific research. Unlike biology (much of which is “sexy”), research at the forefront of physics can be extremely complicated and abstract, and seems to have little practical implication. Kaku succeeds not only because he’s a great writer, but also because he writes about fascinating (“sexy science”) topics that have a direct connection to everyone’s lives.

In Physics of the Impossible, Kaku tackles 15 “sexy” physics topics in three groups:

  1. Class I impossibilities: impossible this century (e.g. invisibility)
  2. Class II impossibilities: impossible this millennium (e.g. time travel)
  3. Class III impossibilities: violations of the known laws of physics (e.g. perpetual motion machines)

Most of these 15 topics are in Class I, and I’m really excited that some will even become true in our lifetimes (cold fusion, perhaps, or fission-powered rockets?)

Author Michio Kaku is extremely optimistic not only that these incredible technologies will eventually come to fruition, but also that humanity will use them all in a benevolent way. He assumes that humanity won’t exterminate itself, and I’m pleased to say that there’s no mention of climate change or nuclear bombs in this book whatsoever! Kaku’s books make me feel very excited about the future of science—and reassured about the fate of humanity. Kaku’s books invoke feelings of wonder, excitement and hope. Kaku, and authors like him, are doing Physics a great service.

(Makes me wonder—Chemistry really needs a Michio Kaku to balance out the damage done to its reputation by Breaking Bad’s Walter White.)

Physics of the Impossible is similar to his later book, Physics of the Future, which I reviewed two years ago. They’re both captivating reads. The main difference is Physics of the Future’s much smarter conclusion: that once we’ve solved one major technological problem, such as cold fusion or warm superconductors, all the other technological barriers we now face will disappear. Excitingly, Kaku just announced a new book, Future of the Mind, which is coming out in February 2014, and I definitely want to get my hands on a copy. 🙂

I recommend this book for moderate fans of either physics or science fiction. ★★★

Book: Genetic Modification in Food

Genetic Modification in Food

Balanced introduction to GM foods for absolute beginners.
<100 pages, ★★★★★

Quick review today. I spent a long time making a table of organic compounds and their smells (view it here).

This book, Genetic Modification in Food, it’s one of the few books that succeeds in conveying a controversial scientific issue to the public while maintaining balance and accuracy. It’s suitable for readers who know nothing about science at all. It appeals to people who are concerned (with good reason) after reading/hearing/seeing reports about GM crops in the news. The concerned British public, for whom this book was intended, has an unusually high resistance to GM foods—so this book, which is free from ‘pro-green’ or ‘pro-science’ extremism, is a welcome addition to the pop-sci literature mix. ★★★★★

Book: The Night Guest

The Night Guest Book Cover

Originally posted on Dark Matter Fanzine

Extremely dark and bitchy.
256 pages, ★★

The Night Guest is the story of a 75-year-old widow who has a government carer arrive unexpectedly to take full-time care of her. The widow sadly declines into dementia throughout the novel and becomes increasingly dependent on her carer. However, not everything is as it seems. As you progress through this book, you’ll find yourself asking yourself what’s real and what’s not: is Freda (the carer) really a government worker? Does Ruth (the widow) really have dementia? Is Freda taking advantage of Ruth?

The ending, which I won’t reveal here, is darker than anyone but the author could have imagined. Not only is it dark, but its characters are bitchy and unpleasant and I didn’t learn anything positive from this book. I didn’t even enjoy it. Some reviewers have commended the author for creating these nasty characters and the book’s unpredictable plot in a debut novel, but personally, I think the author’s crossed a line of “negativity” and this book doesn’t deserve any credit.

There are no men in this book (not in major roles, anyway), which instantly throws its character cast off balance. What bothers me more is that nothing positive happens in this book from start to finish. The Night Guest is a gloomy, uninspiring novel with a small number of silently vindictive female characters and absolutely no point to it. I learned nothing, I didn’t enjoy it, and I would have stopped reading after 80 pages if I weren’t obliged to review it.

The “suspense” that some newspaper reviews have written about is actually just “boredom”. The “darkness” is actually “bitchiness” and the “horror” is more sickening than frightening. The relationships between all the characters are covertly abusive and become more so as you read on. This novel has no likeable characters.

So who might enjoy this book? People who enjoy horror movies, possibly? Fortunately, I’m not one of those people, so I can only give it two stars. ★★

Book: Do/ Improvise

Do Improvise 

Yawn. At least it doesn’t cost any money (it’s free on Readmill)
144 pages, ★★

I love Readmill. It’s an iPad app for social reading. In this free iPad app, you can download free (or cheap) books and make highlights, page-marks and annotations with your fingers just the same as in iBooks and many other popular reading apps. In Readmill, however, your comments are shared with all the other people reading that book—and you can see everyone else’s comments, too. You can start a global discussion between strangers from any sentence on any page!

Not only is it interesting to see other peoples reactions to certain part so of the book that you found interesting, but it also gives all readers a crowd-sourced, pre-highlighted, pre-annotated version of the book available from the moment you open the first page! Social reading apps like Readmill could provide the social aspect that textbooks currently lack, and that students are craving (sometimes unknowingly) in today’s classrooms.

I am also glad that I teach. Reading this book aimed at corporate office-workers reminded me of the team-building exercises and networking opportunities that, for the most part, comprise the biggest highlights of those ‘corporate’ office jobs. The most useful of those in this book, and the most applicable to my career as a teacher, was called “Yes, and…”. It’s a variation of “Today, I went to the store and bought…” and the author touts it as a way of training your audience’s listening skills.

Games like these are fun, memorable ice-breakers but they honestly don’t teach anything. Education is far ahead of the corporate world with its modern, interactive teaching practices and we could actually teach the corporate world a thing or two. PEEL is just one example (although I wish it were free to access).

So I won’t be reading these free corporate books on Readmill any longer. Reading them is a waste of time, and reading education books and articles is a much better use of my time. That’s all I learned from Do Improvise: don’t read irrelevant books. ★★

Side note: while the book was awful, a workshop based on this book might actually be fun to attend (should I ever have the time…)

Book: The Secret of Scent

The Secret of Scent

Mesmerising, thrilling quest for what causes scent.
Brimming with chemical structures.
200 pages, ★★★★★

Wow. The Secret of Scent looks like a bottle of Chanel No. 5. It even says 1 fl oz!

The book’s subtitle, adventures in perfume and the science of smell is totally accurate (after some rearrangement). If we were to split this book vertically, like an avocado, the first 100 pages would describe the smell of perfume, while the latter 100 pages could be titled adventures in science.

The smell of perfume half tells us the main categories of smell and how altering compounds alters their smell. This half of the book is full of chemical structures and IUPAC nomenclature. This half of The Secret of Scentinspired another perfume-related graphic, which I’m making as we speak. 🙂

The adventures in science part is an exciting journey towards the discovery of the secret of scent (which hasn’t quite yet been discovered, but scientists are getting very close). Two main theories prevail in the science of smell: that odorous compounds are recognised by either (a) their vibrational frequencies; or (b) their chemical shape. This book provides more evidence for the former (vibrational frequencies), implying that it might be possible to predict the smell of a molecule from its infra-red spectrograph! Unfortunately, this theory doesn’t explain chirality, and how humans can perceive chiral enantiomers sometimes of different smells (e.g. orange and lemon) seems to violate this first theory. Or, merging the two theories together, it would seem that our olfactory glands are doing some kind of chiral spectroscopy on the molecules we breathe!

Fascinating book. I love Chemistry and I love perfume so this was a perfect book form me. Also consider A Natural History of the Senses by Diana Ackerman★★★★★

Book: Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses

Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses

I’ve been saying this for years.
300 pages, ★★★

The book’s opening quote:

Colleges and universities, for all the benefits they bring, accomplish far less for their students than they should. Many students graduate without being able to write well enough to satisfy their employers… reason clearly or perform competently in analyzing complex, non-technical problems.

The book then demonstrates, somewhat repetitively (because each chapter was written by a different author) that students aren’t learning anything in university. They’re studying less than 40 years ago, putting less effort in, and preferentially choosing the easiest classes, but at the same time expecting much more: an amazing job, a salary high enough to repay their giant student loan, and lots of prestige to bask in after graduation. Invariably, they will get none of the above.

This book blames universities, not just students, for post-graduation disappointment and the looming student debt crisis that’s intertwined with it. According to this book, while universities are waxing lyrical about the “critical thinking skills” and “good writing skills” that are supposedly important to “success”, university courses do very little to train the critical thinking skills and writing skills of their students. Reading lists are short and optional (most students don’t read); writing assignments are few and not taken seriously (plagiarism largely goes unnoticed, and the plagiarising student receives a grade anyway); and students make very little progress in their three years of study (at a huge cost).

I saw a lot of these troubles while I was doing my undergraduate degree in Britain. Much of this is true there, too: students are lazy, spoiled and expect fantastic jobs despite being completely incompetent. Writing essays isn’t important and nobody notices plagiarism. (The list goes on…)

Two key findings stand out from this book:

(1) Education starts at home. Most of the variation in high-school test scores in the US can be explained by gender, race, education level of parents, number of parents in the household, and occupation of parents. Your parents are your biggest teachers.

(2) Test scores of people who drop out of high school, on average, improve at a faster rate post-dropout than the scores of students who go to college. This is shown in the graph on page 56. Amazing!

I didn’t learn anything new here, but I did feel comforted that I’ve been right all along. Some university students are lazy, spoiled and have an unjustified sense of aggrandisement. They expect too much after graduation and, especially in the current economic climate in the US and Europe, will ultimately be very disappointed.

I saw no evidence of any of these problems in Australia, though 🙂 ★★★


Book: How to Spend $50 Billion to Make the World a Better Place

How to Spend $50 Billion to Make the World a Better Place

Aimed at politicians. So dull. No story. 
208 pages, ★★

When I choose a terrible book worthy of only one or two stars in a review, I’m actually saying more about my inability to choose good books that I am about the books themselves. This made me wonder: is reading ‘bad’ books a waste of time?

There is a limit to how many books we can read in a lifetime:

If we read one book every day (upper estimate), between the ages of 6 and 100 (again, upper estimates), then there’s only time to read 34,310 books in a lifetime.

There exist over 7 million books written in English. Assuming that 7% of them are in genres that interest us at some point in our lives, and that only 7% of those are of excellent quality, that leaves 7,000,000 ✕ 0.07 ✕ 0.07 = 34,300 five-star books in the world that interest me.

So there are 34,300 five-star books out there that interest me, and I have time (upper estimate) to read 34,310 books in a lifetime. Conclusion: we don’t have time to waste reading books we don’t like!

I loved Lomborg’s Cool It!, and I love watching his talks on the internet, but this book, How to Spend $50 Billion, certainly isn’t aimed at me. It’s aimed at politicians who have $50 billion of government funds at their discretion and who also need some guidance from authors as to how to spend it. That’s a minuscule audience. Most of the rest of us would be quite happy just reading the conclusion, which is only a Google search away. Don’t waste your time reading the rest. ★★

Book: Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?


Factual, optimistic tour of the Earth that spans space and time.
513 pages, ★★★★★

One bacterium is placed in a bottle at 11:00am. It divides into two bacteria every minute until the bottle is completely full of bacteria at exactly midday. The author asks two questions. One: at what point was the bottle half-full? Two: and at what time exactly did the bacteria start to realise that they were running out of space?

The answers, of course, are “11:59am” and “they didn’t”—which should make any successfully proliferating organism shudder! The author uses this analogy to kick-start the topic of human overpopulation, which the author says is the root of all our problems (climate change, pollution, resource shortage, floods, biodiversity loss—basically everything) and is also the theme of this book.

Rather than focus on the problems, however, the author focusses on the population management solutions that education (educated women have fewer babies), economics (access to birth control) and religion (changing attitudes) are bringing to the table. This was all a pleasant surprise. With the certainty and pessimism of a title like Countdown, I was expecting to read a prophesy of how humankind will die out from ecological disaster by 2050. I opened this book expecting doom-and-gloom climate threats like we saw in Al Gore’s infamous keynote, where everything bad in the world was due to CO2 emissions and CO2 emissions were all our fault. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. Countdown had happy overtones throughout—this book bas the anthropological depth of Jared Diamond’s Collapse blended with the optimism of Robert D. Kaplan’s MonsoonCountdown is a celebration of life across different cultures, and how humanity will continue to thrive despite the problems we face.

Most of Countdown is an enlightening tour of the Earth. Reading Countdown makes me feel like a spy satellite, looking closely into global communities that span decades and continents with ease. Reading this book feels like watching Life (a little-known documentary flim) or using the Solar Walk app for iPad. Such detailed, top-down insight of communities in China, India, Israel, Japan and the Philippines make Countdown a fascinating, liberating read. Many of humanity’s ambitions and problems appear to be the same wherever we look.

Countdown begins by examining Israel’s rapid population expansion since 1948. The author then tells us that the limits Israel is facing as it expands beyond its ecological capacity also apply to the entire world. We then learn about rapid population growths in Japan, the post-war Philippines, 1980s China and its one child policy, Britain with its Islamic influx, and in the United States under President Obama. We also visit India, where farmers are suffering so much from the effects of overpopulation that suicides are commonplace and whole communities are constantly on alert to try and prevent them. In each place we visit in this book, the author zooms in on particular characters and dialogues that bring each community to life.

There’s a massive emphasis on three religions in this book: Judaism, Catholicism and Islam. These religions play a huge role in dictating family sizes, birth control (if any) and the level of female education worldwide. Countdown takes a fascinating look at the mentalities behind family size and the preferred methods of birth control in different religious communities. The reader is shown the obvious health benefits of monogamy and a low birth rate, and how female education can help to promote both. The book gives ample examples of how religious leaders (even the infamously busy Mormons) are doing their bit to reform their practices, reduce the local birth rate and improve women’s rights at the same time.

The author is very positive throughout Countdown. Even though he describes some miserable scenarios (particularly in India and Pakistan), the book’s respectful, optimistic tone and abundance of success stories make it a very uplifting read.

One of those success stories—although not connected to population—is hydrogen fuel cells. I was at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago in 2009, where one of the speakers told us that only hydrogen fuel cells powered by hydrogen obtained by the solar-powered splitting of water could power all human activity sustainably. I’m a huge fan of this idea, and was therefore pleasantly surprised to learn that the author is also a fan of this little-known technology in Countdown. (The only thing holding back further development is the lack of an artificial “photosystem”—a kind of crystal—but we’re slowly getting there.)

Some other interesting points the author raises include:

  • Eradicating diseases also increases the human population. Should charities who help eliminate malaria also be required to invest in family planning education initiatives in the same places?
  • Reduced breast feeding (a worldwide phenomenon) leads to hormonal changes that result in more pregnancies because lactation suppresses ovulation.
  • The Population Bomb in the late 1960s predicted massive famines, especially in Asia. Fortunately, Norman Borlaug invented a dwarf wheat with a high yield so that impending crisis was averted.

In conclusion, population reduction—a topic so controversial that most scientists don’t want to address it—is the answer to all of humanity’s problems. It’s a magic bullet. Two billion is the “ideal population” of the Earth that Daily and the Erlichs calculated back in the 1990s. I commend the author for tackling this highly controversial topic (spanning religion, birth control, female education and poverty) with respect and optimism, and making Countdown a fascinating, uplifting read in the process. Highly recommended for anyone interested in climate, sociology or human geography. ★★★★★

Book: Climate: The Counter Consensus

Climate the Counter Consensus

Sharp, focused, lucid rebuttal to the climate change consensus. Very academic.
316 pages, ★★★★

I love ecology, I love climate science and I love reading climate skeptics’ arguments. They’re optimistic yet scientific at the same time. After reading books like Climate, I feel reassured and optimistic about the future—and this is exactly where mainstream climate science books fail. Climate reassures the reader by presenting boundless evidence in support of the Gaia Hypothesis that James Lovelock proposed back in 1965.

The Gaia Hypothesis suggested that Earth isn’t just teeming with life, but that Earth itself is a giant living organism: a giant living cell, if you like. The implications of this hypothesis were (a) that planet Earth is alive, by some standards; (b) that planet Earth is designed to heal itself from any reasonable amount of damage, and has done so in the past; and (c) that Earth, no matter what humans do to it, will fix itself eventually even if the repair process involves ridding the Earth of Homo sapiens altogether. (This idea that our planet is a giant, healthy, happy organism could only have prevailed in the 1960s!)

The first of these self-healing Gaia-like feedback loops is about cycles in solar intensity. We know that solar intensity cycles every 11 years and every 60 years due to solar activity, and also cycles every 23, 41 and 100 thousand years due to changes in the Earth’s orbit. Armed with this knowledge, Climate debunks all the major climate myths without mercy, saying that present climate change is linked to changes in solar activity and will self-correct in due course. Regardless of whether this is true, this notion at least has entertainment value for doomsayers and naysayers alike. (For the record, I keep my distance from climate politics!)

Other reassurances in this book include the CO2-temperature link being ‘tenuous’, the temperature rises being much smaller than predicted (despite ever-increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations) and how plant growth and water usage is increased greatly by increased atmospheric CO2. All of these claims are based on solid evidence. (Surprisingly, the author doesn’t make any “warming would be good anyway” arguments—some scientists do.)

My only criticism of this book is that it becomes too academic towards the end. It tackles the Stern Review, Mann’s hockey stick and the IPCC’s Assessment Reports head-on. (These are battles I was hoping the author would avoid.) I would have preferred if this book had retained its balanced, optimistic tone throughout. Instead, we’re served up an intense academic rebuttal of ten current consensus. (for a more positive, thesis-driven (as opposed to antithesis-driven) argument, read Bjørn Lomborg’s Cool It! instead. ).

Overall, this climate book is a thrilling ride up to around page 200. The ending (I’m not spoiling anything here—it’s non-fiction!) is an academic barrage rather than a call for balance in climate science, which I would have preferred, but I still enjoyed this book enough to give it four stars. It doesn’t matter whether I agree with the book’s thesis or not.

Recommended for people who have already done extensive reading about climate science. For beginners, read Cool It! by Bjørn Lomborg instead. ★★★★


Book: From Clockwork to Crapshoot

From Clockwork to Crapshoot

History-heavy skim of all of humanity’s Physics achievements.
340 pages, 

From Clockwork to Crapshoot appeals to readers who, like me, enjoy reading history of science. It covers ancient theories of astronomy, including how the measuring the relative distances between the sun, Earth and moon, and how the camera obscura was discovered; and goes right up to today’s most advanced theoretical physics—including QED and a ‘theory of everything’.

Its only flaw is that by choosing to cover all of humanity’s Physics achievements in only 340 pages, it skims over entire centuries, leaving some fascinating characters largely unexplored. There’s no time for characterisation in this fast-paced book—reading it, we just skim from one scientific snapshot to another every one or two pages. If this book were a CD, it would be an entire album of skits with little music. People who enjoy continuity and character arcs in their books will be disappointed with this one.

Dozens of characters are introduced (and then forgotten) very quickly; it’s easy to get lost within the first 100 pages. The best way to get he most out if this book is to draw a timeline as you read. It will allow you to learn much more than from reading alone.

That said, I like how the author describes not only successful theories whose key ideas persisted for centuries—but also rival theories that were abandoned long ago. Recommended for people who enjoy reading Physics non-fiction and don’t care much for characterisation.

Also consider this book I read last year: Chasing The Sun. 

Book: Stephen Hawking’s The Universe in a Nutshell

Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking

A perfected, revised sequel to A Brief History of Time suitable for everyone!
216 pages, ★★★★★

I read somewhere in one of Michio Kaku’s books that Stephen Hawking admitted making a blunder about predicting the existence of universes in which time runs backwards. (This is exactly the criticism I had when I reviewed Hawking’s last book, here.) This book, The Universe in a Nutshell, is a perfect sequels it hall such blunders corrected. It inspires, it educates, and it has an enchanting blend of humorous prose and engaging graphics. It’s suitable for all ages, which, especially for a physics book, is very difficult to do.

The Universe in a Nutshell describes the history of our universe, the nature of space-time (including relativity and red-shift) and what might be possible if we were to take full advantage of the science we are starting to understand. The concluding chapter, touching on time travel and teleportation, makes enough predictions to inspire young people to study science without getting too lost in conjecture. In my opinion, the concluding chapter strikes a perfect balance between fact and fiction.

I found this book much easier to understand than The Illustrated A Brief History of Time. Many of the illustrations are the same but the text in this book is clearer. This is one of few books I’d recommend for anyone, of any age, in any career or discipline. ★★★★★


Book: Disturbing the Solar System

Disturbing the Solar System

Tour of the solar system with “gravity” as its theme
362 pages, ★★★★

Watching the film”Gravity” at the cinema renewed in me a love of Physics. I downloaded the iPhone game (which is very good!) and then searched for more physics-related books and apps. Two of the best physics iPad apps are Star Walk and Solar Walk. They’re both rated five stars, both cost $2.99 and both are pictured below.

Solar Walk app for iPad (screenshot)
Solar Walk app for iPad (screenshot). Explore the solar system freely in four dimensions.
Star Walk app for iPad (screenshot)
Star Walk app for iPad (screenshot). Point iPad at the sky to see constellations, nebulae, galaxies, supernovae, meteoroids, asteroids, satellites, the ISS, the sun, moon and planets. You can even point it downwards and see the sky ‘above’ the other hemisphere!

Disturbing the Solar System was the book equivalent of these amazing iPad apps. It tours the solar system, including moons and asteroids, and focusses on the collisions and orbits that helped to for the solar system we live in today.

Two interesting observations stood out. First was the story of Titius and Bode’s Law on page 100. Bode’s Law states that the orbital distances of all the planets between (and including) Mercury and Uranus follow a pattern:

a=0.4+0.3 \times 2^m

(where a is the semi-major axis of each planet in astronomical units and m is a positive integer).

Second was the role of the moon in stabilising Earth’s climate. The book explains that without the moon, our planet’s axis would wobble wildly every million years or so resulting in unstable climates that wouldn’t allow sufficient time for adaption by natural selection. Without our moon, the author argues, evolution on Earth would have been thwarted and humans might even have not existed!

Disturbing the Solar System an interesting read and is a perfect companion to the incredible iPad apps that I mentioned earlier. Use them in tandem so you can ‘see’ what you’re reading about. Recommended for anyone interested in the solar system. (For anyone less interested, just get the apps!) ★★★★

Book: The Illustrated A Brief History of Time

The Illustrated A Brief History of Time

Beautifully illustrated.
248 pages, ★★★★

I love physics. I love the mysteries at the frontier of physics and the mind-boggling quantum and relativistic strangeness that happens at very large and very small scales. I’m also an admirer of Stephen Hawking—mostly for his ability to convey science in such a clear, lucid way, but also for his ability to inspire millions of children into developing a love of physics. His books, iPad apps, films and lectures have inspired millions of young people into science.

This book is no exception.

The highlight of this book is when he explains the Hawking radiation that’s emitted from the event horizons of black holes with low mass. Hawking radiation was calculated from the principle that particles and antiparticles, as pairs, pop in and out of existence all the time, even in a vacuum. They appear, then quickly collide again and annihilate each other. Therefore, if an antiparticle appears on one side of an event horizon, and its partner particle appears on the other, then even if there’s only a tiny distance between them, one of the particles could be emitted into space while the other gets drawn into the black hole. The event horizon thus emits a tiny amount of radiation while the black hole gains mass. Fascinating!

I love the illustrations in this book. They’re as clear as my favourite Chemistry textbook by Whitten et al. (reviewed here) and as informative as one of my favourite history textbooks: Quick Access to Chinese History. Here are two of my favourite pages (the graphic conclusion and the double-page spread on subatomic particles).

Stephen Hawking Illustrated Brief History of Time Stephen Hawking Illustrated Brief History of Time subatomic particles page

The only downfall is in the penultimate chapter, when Stephen Hawking discusses the consequences of a deflating universe (as opposed to an inflating universe, which we live in). Hawking predicts that events would happen backwards, and takes the illustrations to the extreme. He says (and illustrates) that buildings would un-demolish themselves and that people would age backwards because the universe’s entropy needs to decrease. Personally, I think that if the second law of thermodynamics were to be reversed, I don’t think that the universe spontaneously reversing human demolition is the most efficient means of decreasing entropy. (A more efficient means might be to aggregate sub-atomic particles of a similar type—resulting in less entropy but more “mess” from a human perspective.) For me, this chapter was conjecture.

Overall, this book is a fascinating read. It engages young readers as well as adults, and conveys information in a clear, graphical way. Recommended for anyone starting to study physics. ★★★★