Winter popular science books

Up here in the upper part of the Northern Hemisphere, we're into the depths of January where it gets dark and cold and Christmas has become a vague memory. To help everyone get through the long evenings before Spring, here's a review of some popular science books I've read recently.

First up is Waking the Giant by Bill McGuire. Bill is a very experienced scientist working in the field of geophysics, vulcanism and other related stuff. In the book, he explains that when our planet's climate changes, it generally doesn't do it in a smooth manner. It is far more likely, almost inevitable, that the changing conditions will trigger a major event which will then trigger other related major events. For example, if a glacier warms and melts, a large lake can form in the middle of the glacier. Eventually, this huge body of water is being held back by a wall of ice. When this wall breaks, the vast amount of water can catastrophically flood an area. This, for example, occurred towards the end of the last ice age forming the Minnesota Scablands. As McGuire points out in his book, this huge shift in weight on the Earth can cause the crust to rise up. This can cause major earthquakes, which in turn give rise to eruptions, as the pressure on subterranean magma chambers is lessened by the shifts in water and cracks are created by the earthquakes, giving the magma access to the surface. These subsequent eruptions release ash and gases into the atmosphere, which alter the climate, triggering other climactic events. McGuire makes it clear that Earth's recent physical history is not a steady change but instead, is one of calm periods punctuated by episodes of mayhem. McGuire ends the book with a warning; that climate change we're experiencing will have a similar affect and we need to prepare for what it will bring.

I really enjoyed Michael Brooks' '13 Things that don't make sense'. It's still one of my favourite popular science books. Brooks follows that success with this new book about what goes on behind the scenes in science; what the scientists really get up to and how they behave with each other. The world of scientific research is often depicted as one populated by shy, low key, grey-haired men working away diligently and carefully discussing and analysing each other's work and I have personally met scientists in that mould but, to be honest, they're in a minority. In my experience, scientists nowadays are invariably bright, alert, pragmatic, borderline-obsessive men and women who love what they do and put their heart and soul into it. They're also a very emotional bunch with strong opinions, friends and in many instances, bitter enemies (which makes them pretty much like any other workplace). Brooks' book entertainingly tells stories that reinforce this view, stories of heroes and heroines, of sexism, lying, fabrication, courage, idealism, ego and luck. It's lots of fun and I heartily recommend it.

In a similar vein to Brooks' 'The Secret Anarchy of Science' is Peter Pringle's 'Experiment Eleven'. This is the story of the discovery of Streptomycin, an extremely important antibiotic that brought fame, wealth, high scientific standing and a Nobel Prize to one man. Unfortunately, as the book explains, he wasn't the one who discovered Streptomycin. The man who discovered it gained only pain, heartbreak, betrayal and penury as a result of his find. 'Experiment Eleven' is a story of how the lure of money and scientific fame propelled a man to lie about his role in an important discovery and conduct a base feud against the man who did discover the crucial agent that saved so many lives in the latter half of the twentieth century. As it says on the cover, the New Scientist magazine thought it was a 'riveting and heartbreaking book'. It is an engrossing and heart-rending story and I'm glad I read it.

Last up in my winter list is 'Why does E=Mc2' by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw. I'm a bit confused as to why there's two authors to this book. It seemed when I read it that the whole text was written by one man. Then again, I didn't notice much of a change of style when I read 'Good Omens' by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, so perhaps I'm just rubbish at spotting who writes what. Anyway, 'Why does E=Mc2' is a good book. It's the most technical of all the books reviewed here and it does require a good understanding of physics and mathematics. That approach does make the book a drier read than, say, Michael Brooks' books, but that's not a criticism as it means the reader is introduced to some fascinating concepts relating to Relativity. For readers who prefer fun science, I'd say choose something else. For a reader who wants to learn a bit more about Relativity than is usually found in popular science books, I'd say definitely give it a go.