Friday, 25 September 2009

Encyclopedia of Mammals

I was very disappointed when this title went out of print last year, so it's great to see a new edition out. It always sold consistently...never in huge numbers, but it never sat on the shelf long enough to gather dust, and now that it's out in a second (paperback) edition it's flying off the shelves.

For a penny short of £20 it's a big book, nearly a thousand pages, and every one is packed with detailed information and some superb photography of the vast majority of the planet's mammals. Split along the obvious (but easily navigable) lines of the established taxonomical groups, this is both a valuable reference work and also one of those lovely books to dip into at random. If you're anything like me you'll remember discovering at least one book on your parents shelves like this, one that you would pick up and read through for hours on rainy Sunday afternoons.

There's also a companion Encyclopedia of Birds, with the same detail and photographic flair, but Mammals seems to be the one that has grabbed the book-buying public's attention.

EDIT: Bit of an update - this is now the best selling book of the year in my section at work, bulk-selling university texts aside. I've tweaked a tendon in my arm, lifting lots of this book might statistically be to blame.... *rolls eyes*

Encyclopedia of Mammals
Ed. David MacDonald
Oxford University Press
ISBN: 9780199567997

Monday, 21 September 2009

Universe or Multiverse

You've probably heard the old chestnut about the sales of a popular science book being halved by each equation it contains - there's probably an element of truth in it, but it has left a bit of a void between popular science and "real" science titles, and it's a real pity. The more advanced physics fan may well find that they end up reading the same lengthy description of a black hole in most of the books they read, when in fact they can already visualise the graph of the equations involved and see the line curving towards c and off to infinity.
The void is slowly being filled though. Popular science is slowly getting adventurous with maths, as Cox and Foreshaw's excellent why does E=mc2 (and why should we care?) shows. The recreational maths field is quietly, but hugely popular, and the usually dry advanced material is becoming more accessible. Universe or Multiverse belongs with the latter.

This thumping big 500 page paperback consists of essays from a wide span of big names in cosmology, theoretical physics, mathematics, philosophy and theology. It is the result of an eponymous Stanford conference in 2003, concerning the controversial concept of a Multiverse - the existence of parallel universes to the observable one, in one form or another.
It's controversial for many reasons - firstly, no one is really sure it even constitutes science. Parts of the idea are clearly non-falsifiable, others are recursively predictive to the point of reductio ad absurdum, but the main root of the discussion is the Anthropic Principle in all its guises.

There's nothing wrong with arguing from an anthropic viewpoint, as Frank Hoyle so gloriously demonstrated, but it's not evidence in the proper scientific sense. If does form the majority of the circumstantial evidence for Multiverse theory however, and it certainly gets put through the wringer by all parties concerned.

The maths is certainly not avoided, but lightly sprinkled given the heavy influence of philosophy on the ideas discussed. You can skim through the highly detailed discussions on subtle points concerning the cosmological constant for example, but the calibre of the writing combined with the magnitude of the subject matter leaves you feeling like you just need a refresher course with a popular science cosmology title before you go back for more...

A superb book all in all, and worth the £29.99 price tag for the contributors list alone.

Universe or Multiverse?
Ed. Bernard Carr
Cambridge University Press
ISBN: 9780521140690