Tuesday, 20 April 2010

The Edge Of Physics

There's a fairly standard format for popular science books, especially ones dealing with maths or physics:

  1. Say something which on the face of it sounds ridiculous and counter-intuitive.
  2. Go back in time to the person or people who discovered the theory.
  3. Very carefully go through the theory, step by step, in a way that's hopefully comprehensible to the laymen.
Anil Ananthaswamy takes a very different and refreshing approach in The Edge Of Physics.  If you've never heard of neutrinos, the cosmic background, or dark matter then this might not be the best book to start with.  There are explanations of all three, but they're relatively cursory and jump fairly quickly into the meat of the book - a round-the-world trip covering every continent and visiting some of the biggest and most audacious experiments currently being attempted.

It's a refreshing change - this is a very real look at the people who are currently sat in high altitude deserts, or freezing cold icecaps, or anywhere else that counts as remote and inhospitable, and the outrageously big, expensive and precise machines they're using to probe space and time.  You're just as likely to find accounts of the physicist's favourite drinking games and running jokes as you are an explanation of what neutrino oscillation is and why it's important.  It's a book that's very much about the human side of the experiments, the dangers, the Heath Robinson solutions so often employed and the humour that has to go hand in hand with jobs that are as far removed from the dusty, dry popular perception of theoretical physics as it's possible to get.

The LHC, the current poster-boy, get a good going over, as does the far more established (by a century or so) Mount Wilson observatory.  The part I particularly enjoyed was the coverage of two of the biggest neutrino telescopes in the world, one suspended in the depths of Lake Baikal and the other embedded in cubic kilometres of the Antarctic ice cap.  

This is a book that's not only to be applauded, but even made into a very cool TV show.

The Edge Of Physics
Anil Ananthaswamy
Duckworth Overlook 
ISBN: 9780715637043

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Edinburgh Science Festival 2010

Wow.  The Edinburgh International Science Festival has always been a bit of a big deal, but this year is noticeably bigger and better than previous years.  There's a huge range of events on, from kid friendly talks involving bangs and smells to lectures on exactly why E=mc^2, and everything in between...and then some.

My colleague Ann and I are running a bookshop in the Big Ideas venue, very tolerantly hosted by Edinburgh University's Informatics Forum, and our sales seem to show a few interesting things about the book-buying public's interest in science.  Now whilst we're selling books tailored to each event (usually written by the speakers) it's a wide ranging sample of titles - the selection is dominated by our popular science section from the local shop, plus a proportional selection of the more advanced stuff...for example Jeff Forshaw was nice enough to sign a copy of Dynamics And Relativity for me.  This is (L->R) me, him, Ann, Jeff's sidekick Brian, Ben and Imran.  The ones who aren't professional particle physicists are me and my geekier colleagues.

It's become very clear however, that there's two big things catching the public imagination.  The big sellers subject-wise are physics (particularly the extremes of relativity/cosmology and fundamental particle physics, which join up at the back in a very Eddie Izzard way) and psychology/psychiatry.

Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw's Why Does E=mc^2 is unsurprisingly the number one given both Prof. Cox's current renown and the fact that it's an excellent book, but it's very closely followed by Antimatter by Frank Close, a bit of a surprise hit considering it's always been a bit of a constant but slow burner in our main shop.  (There's a pretty cool Blackwell podcast about it here,)

Marcus Chown continues to be a big seller, initially heading the leaderboard, with in my opinion some of the best popular physics books going, and ones that aren't afraid to tackle the more controversial and wacky (read "interesting" in my book) topics like Multiverse theory and alternatives to accepted theories.

On the psych side Kathleen Taylor's Cruelty has been very popular, and out of nowhere the diametrically opposed Stumbling On Happiness by Daniel Gilbert has been so keenly and unexpectedly snapped up that we've had to beg steal and borrow copies from all over the UK just to keep it on the shelf.  Ian Deary has also been incredibly prominent, particularly his Intelligence: A Very Short Introduction.

And to finish, there's a few odd little titles that deserve mentions.  Daina Tiamana's Crocheting Adventures With Hyperbolic Planes is the quirky hit it deserves to be, especially with some of the speakers.  The guys from the LHC really enjoyed the masterpiece of paper engineering that is Voyage To The Heart Of Matter, clearly the best pop-up book about the Large Hadron Collider ever created.  (EDIT: Full review here)

And there's no way to sign off from an Edinburgh SciFest report without special mention to the Edinburgh Geological Society for their superb collection of publications, particularly Building Stones Of Edinburgh (which suffers from a fairly prosaic title when it's a far more interesting book than it sounds) and Discovering Edinburgh's Volcano (which suffers from only being £1.50 when it's easily worth more).  As an aside, I'm kind of proud of pushing EGS titles given the fact that Edinburgh is pretty much the birthplace of modern geology....buy their books (ideally directly from them) and support a great local amateur society.

The Big Ideas venue deserves a mention in its own right, the combination of a science festival, bookshop and cafe has created a pretty cool space that has developed a real buzz; I've had some fascinating chats with a mountain biking maths teacher called Karen, a physics prof who wanted to know why I'm in to physics ("Sheer curiosity, if you ask 'but why?' often enough you get to physics..." was my honest answer), and a whole legion of volunteers working some silly hours for free just because they're geeks and damn proud of it.

There's still a weeks worth of events left....see you there!