A Final LJ Review

I did a quick write-up last spring on a book called The Science of Miracles — in fact, this was the last title I covered before resigning from the Library Journal due to my over-committed writing schedule. I missed its publication, however, until now. It’s reprinted in full on the book’s Barnes and Noble page, and elsewhere. On the B&N page you’ll find it as the first editorial review.

More LJ Reviews

Alas, the time commitment at Library Journal has become just a bit too much, and I’ve had to step down from my post. Since not every review I write makes its way online in any form, I don’t know if my final review for them can be expected to turn up.

My review of The New York Times Book of Mathematics is long out, however, and can also be seen at the Barnes and Noble page here.

Tuesday Links (02/26/13)

Dinosaur Comics: “Alex Trebek announces his retirement from Jeopardy. . . Of COURSE the show ends with Trebek. It was always to end with Trebek.”

This Plastic Printing Pen Lets You Draw in 3D: How is it that we had 3D printers without first creating 3D pens? At least somebody’s filled in the gap.

More, More, More — How Do You Like It?: “The industry’s arms race with itself simply is not sustainable. Yet here’s Sony, blithely promising to build a bigger gun. They’d better watch out—the recoil’s a bitch.”

LJ Reviews Roundup, Again

Here we are again. I reviewed Sean Carroll’s The Particle at the End of the Universe, and my write-up can be seen here.

I took a look at The Golden Ticket: P, NP, and the Search for the Impossible (hooray Oxford comma) by Lance Fortnow (whom I keep wanting to call Lance Fortran — computer science in-joke). This appears to be his first book, but it’s a good one, about an esoteric question in mathematics/computer science with wide-ranging applications — if it’s ever solved. My review is quoted (though not in full) here.

Tuesday Links (01/29/13)

To make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe (Dinosaur Comics): “Okay, so we start with a superheated and dense force-unified space–”

The dystopian future of casual games: personalized, targeted pricing and mechanics: “This sort of thing is already happening in retail. Where you are could determine how much an item you view online costs. ‘A Wall Street Journal investigation found that the Staples Inc. website displays different prices to people after estimating their locations. . . If rival stores were within 20 miles or so, Staples.com usually showed a discounted price.'”

Book Review: Wonderful Life with the Elements

One of the publicists at No Starch Press alerted me to this recent title, knowing my enthusiasm for the excellent Manga Guide science text series, whose English editions they publish. I was expecting this latest made-in-Japan outing to be similarly quirky, and it did not disappoint.

Would it have ever occurred to you to visualize the noble gases as afro-sporting Japanese men? It hadn’t crossed my mind, but after reading this book of comic-strip style element characters, now I can’t summon up xenon or helium without a full, puffy top. Halogens like chlorine, meanwhile, have a cueball look, while other chemical groups share anything from punk rock spikes to buzz-cuts.

On the other hand, each unique element is also dressed up in anything from an apron to a lab coat to a business suit — or even a simple pair of white underwear — depending on their most common uses. The basic idea of the book is to put the elements in a real-life context of where we’re most likely to encounter them, their important properties, and their uses and threats to people individually or society in general.

A slim read at 200 pages, just over half of this space is given over to brief descriptions of each element in a standardized format. A brief paragraph illuminates a few of the more significant facts of each type of atom, perhaps a bit of its history or important uses. Some other basic data (density, atomic mass, etc.) and an epigram also accompany each profile (radium is the element that “bit the hand that fed it”, no doubt a reference to Marie and Pierre Curie who discovered it, then perished from radiation poisoning), but the centerpiece is always the anthropomorphic sketch.

Other parts of the text include brief sections on the most expensive commercially available elements, elements necessary to human health, and an argument for rare element conservation as part of an ecologically-sustainable future. But the book is never text-heavy, and can be read from start to finish in just a few hours.

The central conceit is cute; an original approach to connecting the reader with abstract yet critical components of our world. It doesn’t make memorizing the periodic table a breeze (what could and who would?), but it has resulted in some patterns sticking in my head better than before. The fold-out poster-sized table is a nice bonus, though educators might be careful of how they use it, or images from the book itself, both of which sometimes contain some cartoonish male nudity (the Japanese simply aren’t as uptight about that stuff as us).

All in all, it makes for a fun little coffee-table book for either the chemically-minded or the simply curious.

(No Starch Press, 2012)

Reprinted with permission from The Sleeping Hedgehog
Copyright (2012) The Sleeping Hedgehog

Book Review: The Hidden Reality

Physicist Brian Greene’s latest popular science publication, The Hidden Reality, is a departure from his previous works in that domain. Subtitled Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos, it sure sounds like something the deep-thinking writer of The Elegant Universe and Fabric of the Cosmos would write. But while his first two books serve as excellent primers on modern physics and modern cosmology, respectively, Greene isn’t interested in rehashing all that here.

Don’t get me wrong. For anyone looking to get a firm conceptual grasp on the deep physical laws which (apparently) govern the reality we live in, those titles are exactly where I’ll steer you. But there’s an untapped audience more interested in some of the implications of today’s cutting-edge physics than the details of the theories themselves.

To wit: parallel universes. The concept has spawned sub-genres in both science fiction and fantasy (alternate history and urban fantasy being perhaps the most prominent examples). More broadly speaking, most genre fiction imagines worlds perhaps highly disparate or only slightly tweaked from the one we know so intimately.

What makes The Hidden Reality a little more accessible than its written antecedents is its survey nature. Each chapter discusses a different theoretical multiverse, each implied by a different physical theory.

Our own three-dimensions of space and one of time might in fact be something akin to spots growing on the soap bubbles of a higher-dimensional brane, as described in string theory. We might exist in a virtual world, simulated on one of many computers in the “real” universe. We might find countless, infinitesimally-different versions of ourselves living in different quantum realities, endlessly splitting.

Greene wisely introduces the requisite scientific background only as needed, rather than spending the first third or half of the book slowly building up the edifices of quantum physics, general relativity, and inflationary cosmology.

It’s intriguing to imagine that one or several of these versions of a multiverse may actually exist, in some cases may be discoverable, and, depending on how they come about, may describe very different arrays of parallel realities. The idea of another version of you that is allergic to shrimp is interesting enough, but the concept of different universes with different fundamental constants, different origins and destinies, is fascinating in a different way.

I probably wouldn’t recommend this title to the decidedly casual reader. This is still Brian Greene, technically accurate, cogently argued, but intellectually demanding. But anyone with at least a passing interest in the real science behind other worlds should find The Hidden Reality illuminating.

(Vintage, 2011)

Reprinted with permission from The Sleeping Hedgehog
Copyright (2012) The Sleeping Hedgehog

Book Review: Physics of the Future

Michio Kaku is a physicist and science popularizer, taking a page each from the books of Neil DeGrasse Tyson and fellow string theorist, Brian Greene. He’s written several popular science books on the wacky and wonderful words of relativity, quantum mechanics, and string theory. His last book, however, Physics of the Impossible, was a departure from branes and n-dimensional space. He used fictional technologies like teleportation, time travel, and Star Trek’s phasers as jumping off points for the known physics of today.

That book turned into a Science Channel program of the same name, and the approach was successful enough that he’s done something similar this time around. In Physics of the Future, however, there is a clear, unifying theme. Though he still offers somewhat of a grab bag of physics, drawing on all different areas based on what’s interesting right now, it’s all geared towards answering one question: what are the next hundred years going to look like?

Kaku looks at basically every technology or technological field that is a) integral to our lives, and b) likely to undergo serious changes in the next few generations. There’s a chapter on the future of computing, a separate one on artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, medicine, energy, and space travel. Each chapter has an introduction, a vision of the near future (until 2030), mid-century (2030-2070), and the far future (2070-2100).

The last two chapters, the future of wealth and the future of humanity, are less about any specific technology than the specific changes to our economic, social, and legal systems as a result of these technological changes. The end of wealth, for example, is about our transition to a more and more information-based economy throughout the world, and how we will need a new economic system with the end of scarcity (though he points out certain things will remain scarce, primarily knowledge workers whose labour can’t be automated).

The text is very readable, any number of sections could be essentially lifted from the book and used as feature articles in Popular Science or Discover. For all I know, selected excerpts have indeed seen magazine stands. Kaku is careful not to get bogged down too much in the science behind these technologies. The book’s audience are technology geeks, futurists — most of us, in fact, of the digital age. It’s for the curious layperson, not just the educated layperson. No physics education required

Speaking as someone who has some education in physics, this is nevertheless refreshing. Kaku could have screwed things up by doing too much — trying to give a detailed grounding in the physics when the book is really about how the technology will affect our lives. Having spoken to three hundred scientists at the leading edge of their fields, I’ve no doubt he took enough notes for a dozen technical volumes. But he resists the temptation to ramble, considering societal consequences in broad strokes while avoiding technical trivia.

And that’s the beauty of this book. It’s deep in insights but not bogged down in details. The result is a fast read that you’ll continue thinking about long after you’ve finished the book. Time will tell which predictions hit the mark. But it gives all of us something to look forward to, whether we expect to experience Kaku’s epilogic “day in the life in 2100” or not.

Reprinted with permission from The Sleeping Hedgehog
Copyright (2012) The Sleeping Hedgehog