Royal Society Science Book Prize Shortlist

From the Guardian:

Six books are shortlisted for this year’s Royal Society Science Book Prize. The winner will be announced on 15 September. For a chance to win a copy of all six books enter the Guardian’s competition, which closes at midnight on 18 September.

The books are:

  • What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life by Avery Gilbert
  • Bad Science by Ben Goldacre
  • The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes
  • Decoding the Heavens: Solving the Mystery of the World’s First Computer by Jo Marchant
  • The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow
  • Your Inner Fish: The Amazing Discovery of Our 375-million-year-old Ancestor by Neil Shubin

I’ve read none of these. However, I have entered the competition!

Take it as read

I’ve gone through a couple of books recently.

One was One Hundred Years of Solitude. I knew going in that this was a universally-acclaimed masterwork by Gabriel García Marquez. I felt it, too, as I read it: the way he spun his magic tale as if it were normal happenstance, the secrets, the themes of family and societal influences and tragedy, were all exceedingly well done. But I just didn’t feel that I engaged with it one hundred per cent. I found it difficult to care, and a bit overstuffed. I recognised the superb craft, but it’s just not the type of book I prefer, I guess.

The other was Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. It was a light, but entertaining and convincing, examination of the common threads behind why the English act the way they do. Smartly, the author (an anthropologist) doesn’t try to claim that they’re different from any other humans, just that the degrees and proportions of characteristics are unique. It explains why they’re polite, why they drink so much, why they’re private, why they joke about everything, their attitude to food, their sense of fairness, and a lot more. Funny if you’re English, or know the English well.

Book review: Final Theory

I just finished Final Theory by Mark Alpert. It was not a very good book.

The novel’s a science-based thriller with the premise: what if Einstein had secretly found the elusive unified theory that explains everything (gravity and quantum mechanics) and now dangerous forces were after it? Alpert writes for Scientific American magazine so the book is full of proper science; many of the main characters are physicists or science writers. He does an excellent job of explaining a great deal of science, and of ensuring his characters use it when they can.

However it’s got a pretty clichéd plot. “Regular” people on the run. The psychopathic, unstoppable hitman. The evil genius behin it all. The mindless government agency with one good-hearted agent. A traitor. An ex-girlfriend. An autistic child. Ludicrously unlikely escapes, one after another, with the help of mind-bogglingly credulous strangers. Repeated strokes of luck. Forced dialogue. Even the science suffers when you realise that characters that have Ph.D.s are speaking to each other in ways they never would just for the sake of reader explanation:

“You remember what a neutrino is, right?”

“Sure. It’s like the electron’s kid brother. A particle with no charge and very little mass.”

I was longing for a great science novel. It had lots of great science, but it was not a great novel. However, it’s only Alpert’s first book, so I really hope he keeps going.

The Women Men Don’t See

I’ve just finished an interesting biography: James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon.

If you’re a science fiction fan like me then you might know the name James Tiptree, Jr. He was an American who wrote some popular and critically acclaimed sci-fi back in the late ’60s and throughout the ’70s. Fans who were reading Tiptree at the time were curious about him: he never made public appearances despite winning awards, and was known only through his stories and through his extensive letter-writing to other authors in the field like Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison and Ursula K. Le Guin. His correspondence led people to believe that he was connected to the US government in some shadowy way.

The truth – which wasn’t discovered until nearly a decade after Tiptree become popular – was that he was in fact an older woman, Alice B. Sheldon. And her life was more fascinating than anyone could have guessed: long safaris in Africa as a child, a socialite as a young woman, a member of the WAC in WWII, a CIA analyst, a chicken farmer, a Ph.D. and researcher, and a lifetime of depression and gender curiousity.

Author Julie Phillips does an excellent job of presenting all the info evenly and interestingly. You can see how Sheldon’s privileged but odd upbringing affected her as an adult. You can perceive quite clearly how Sheldon created Tiptree on a whim, but was led (not unwillingly) into continuing the charade for years by her insecurities and confusion.

“Wawwow wiv me, Cawl!”

I’ve just finished reading The Book of Dave, written by British authour, columnist, and TV personality Will Self. It was excellent, challenging, and thought-provoking.

Its subtitle – A Relevation of the Recent Past and the Distant Future – gives away some of the plot (I won’t give any any more here than is written on the back of the book itself. ) The narrative is split: half of it is about Dave, a London cabbie who becomes estranged from his family, has a breakdown, and writes a book of deranged ramblings for his son. The son never receives it; however, the book is discovered in the far future (when rising seas have flooded much of the world) and becomes the basis of a religion for what remains of Britain.

The book is challenging for several reasons. Self writes his modern-day cabbies with cockney dialog. Much of the future dialog – a blend of cockney and text-speak – is very hard going (though there’s a handy glossary in the back). The chapters alternate between the past and the future, and are dated, but are not told chronologically. It must have taken no small amount of planning to write the story. The past is more character-driven, as Dave loses his grip on reality and reacts to recent historical events. The future is more plot-driven.

Like much of Self’s work, real-life events are woven into the fictional mix. You have to be familiar with London to understand some of the detail, but it’s not necessary for the story.

I enjoyed it on a lot of levels. The parts about London, especially areas I’m familiar with, made it feel more real. The future society Self imagines is weird but not wholly implausible. The “big themes” are the modern family and, of course, the sources of organised religion.

A good read.

What should you eat?

I’ve just finished reading a book called The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Search for a Perfect Meal in a Fast-Food World. It’s an interesting read for anyone interested in food production, especially in the US and Canada. It asks a good question: if you can eat anything, what should you eat?

The book is divided into three sections, in each of which authour Michael Pollan investigates what’s involved in creating and eating a different type of meal. The first feast is a drive-through McDonald’s meal for his family. The second comes from organic farms. The final meal is one he hunts and gathers himself. The background behind each meal provides dozens of compelling stories.

For the fast food meal, Pollan describes the chain of mass-produced food in America and how so much of it relies on corn: from high-fructose corn syrup to “nutraceutical” derivatives to feed for cattle and chicken and pigs, there’s some element of corn in nearly half of everything North Americans eat. He also explains the history and lobbying reasons why this is so (and not so in other parts of the world), as well as the amount of oil used in creating fertilizers.

In the organic section, Pollan looks at how “organic” has changed meaning with its popularity, and much of what now bears that label has additives and – because it needs to be distributed in the “regular” food distribution system – is still unsustainable because of the oil required for packaging and shipping. He does eat a meal from a dedicated true-local organic farm, though.

The hunting and gathering section is the most personal, as Pollan describes learning to hunt wild pigs in northern California, and the trials and tribulations of identifying mushrooms that are safe to eat.

Pollan is a journalist, not a nutritionist or scientist. His approach works well, because he’s thorough, and likes peeling back layers of things. In the end, he admits that while we’d all have a much better relationship with, and understanding of, nature if we hunted and gathered our own food that’s a pretty unsustainable idea in today’s world. Similarly, he thinks the high-sugar, high-fat, mass-industry mainstream food business is just as unsustainable, from a health and resource point of view; and, he worries that large industrial organic isn’t much better.

He lets the quality of the meal at the end of each section illuminate his views on what the perfect meal is. As for as solutions, he suggests that buying locally and asking questions of the meat and vegetable producers is the best idea (which is really only possible when you buy locally).

The Ruins

I finished reading a novel called The Ruins yesterday. It was a bestseller a couple of years ago, written by Scott Smith who had a surprise bestseller with his first novel, A Simple Plan, a dozen years earlier. Although I haven’t read that first book it became a quite good Sam Raimi film. Reviews for The Ruinswere good when it came out, so I’ve been waiting for the paperback.

It’s a horror/thriller. Two young American couples are on vacation in Mexico, find themselves on a trip to a remote part of the jungle, and find something horrible lurking there.

I’ve got some mixed feelings about the book. It was certainly a page-turner, and I burned through it very quickly. Smith is pretty good at creating tension. The gory bits are indeed grotesque. And he creates consistent, human characters – some are strong, some are weak, all have their vulnerabilities. As in most high-tension situations, the characters sometimes become their own worst enemies.

But it was more bloated than it needed to be, with much more internal reflection by the main characters than was necessary. The tension payoffs never felt big enough to me, and were characterized more by revulsion than scariness. Also, while I’m fine with fantasy and sci-fi elements to horror, Smith really goes way out on a ludicrous limb here. Some reviewers seemed to feel that was brave, but to me it just felt a bit silly. On balance I don’t think I can recommend The Ruins.

Can you tell the weight of a bus by looking at it?

I just finished reading Geekspeak: How Life + Mathematics = Happiness, a birthday gift. It’s a short but illuminating read that explains why math is a useful day-to-day tool. It can help you answer the questions that curious minds – perhaps your own – pose in the course of daily life, especially if you know when and how to approximate numbers. It can help you test the relative veracity of political claims and media reports.

For example, the authour explains how to test the truth in some old sayings, such as that every breath you take contains some air that was in Julius Caesar’s lungs (true, but probably only about five molecules’ worth), or that there are more people alive than have ever died (false, about four times as many have died than are now living). If you want to know how to estimate how many piano tuners there are in Boston, or how many houseflies it would take to pull your car, read this book.

Language Log

I’m completely enthralled by Language Log, the collaborative blog about all things wordy. Some people are bored by the details of usage and meaning, or think that they’re not very important. I’m not one of those people. Language Log is filled with interesting observations of misuse, discussions about the dynamics of common usage, and problems in communication.