Plenty to think about

At the Book Group last week we had a range of books with the focus “Controversy” and, as promised, I’m listing them. First up was “Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr and the struggle for the soul of science” by David Lindley, a lively look at the development of modern physics from Brownian motion onwards. The slant of this book was the role of personalities and cliques in the development of ideas. In passing we mentioned “Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions”, written in 1884 by Victorian schoolmaster Edwin Abbott Abbott. It’s an entertaining way to visualise more dimensions than usual, by means of thinking about fewer than usual, but the author had Views and didn’t mind who knew them. We then changed tack to hear about genetics, bioengineering and medical ethics in “The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot, which investigated the origin of the seemingly immortal HeLa cell line, widely used in cancer and other medical research. The first focus of the book was on the circumstances of the life and death of this poor black woman in the American south, whose cancer cells did not die, and the changes in medical ethics since, not to mention the staggering fact that several tonnes of the cells now exist, worldwide. We noted ethics as a potential future topic for discussion.
Then it was maths, with a lively account of “Catastrophe Theory” by Alexander Woodcock and Monte Davis, a popular account of new mathematics developed in the 1970s and 1980 to try to make sense of complex systems, along with Rene Thom’s Structural Stability and morphogenesis” which had especially good pictures. The ideas were successful, but it seems that they were applied a bit too widely, and people stopped taking it seriously. Now it is an area of maths being reevaluated.
And finally we had some geology with “The Highlands Controversy” by David Oldroyd, an account of the beginnings of modern geology in the wilds of Scotland, when the establishment held to cherished ideas in the face of dogged observations from outsiders and amateurs. The book has a lot of detail, including the fact that the Survey mappers were paid by the mile of boundary inked in, and you can see straight away that some areas of complex faulting would have been especially lucrative!
All in all an entertaining evening!

Oooh, shiny!

I have been pondering controversial books, and books about controversy, for the Book group meeting next week (8pm on Tuesday 24 May, at the Fleece on Westgate, where they serve lovely pies) and I keep getting distracted by pictures. I do love a book with spectacular images, especially ones that make me think twice about a subject.

heaven and earth coverHeaven and Earth: Unseen by the Naked Eye by David Malin and Katherine Roucoux is one – a  big fat book of glorious images of the natural world, all taken with scientific instruments of one sort or another. It starts with images of at the atomic scale, and works up to the large scale structure of the universe. And they are all wonderful, awe-inspiring images – many of them beautiful. Great stuff.

Another favorite is Full Moon in which Andrew Chaikin and Michael Light present images taken from the NASA originals from the Apollo missions. You will think you have seen these pictures, but you should think again – here they are breathtakingly clear and sharp and made me aware of the lunar surface as a landscape, with hills and valley and, of course, a few perfectly-preserved footprints.
But they are not really controversial, so I shall continue my search among books of words and look forward to seeing you on tuesday to hear abou some real knock-down, drag-out scientific rows!

We’ll meet again

I was wondering if anyone would turn up for the first Science Book Group meeting last week – needlessly, as it turned out! 11 enthusiasts ended up clustered round a couple of tables with books to talk about – including a couple of people who were just out for a quiet pint. We had a bit of a round table discussion of the books we had brought, and agreed that we needed some structure – but the fiction book club format, of everyone reading the same book each time, didn’t appeal.

So we thought it would be more interesting to have a theme, and for anyone interested to come along with a relevant book, ready to talk for, say, five minutes. This way we can follow up particular interests, find out about new books (or old ones) and generally broaden our minds. And, of course, no one has to talk if they don’t want to – in this format, it’s good to listen, and maybe join the discussion, or maybe not. But people who want to talk have uninterrupted time to do so, and we can cover several books.

We’re going to meet again at the Fleece on Westgate at 8pm on Tuesday 24 May, and our theme is Controversy.
Right away we had a little local controversy about pronunciation, but our minds were on bigger things! Let’s have the contemporary or historical arguments, the maverick ideas, the storms in teacups and scientific revolutions, but especially the good books about them and your five minutes around the pub table. See you on the 24th May – and before that at the Science Café at the Courthouse on the 12th!

A Science Book Group?

8pm on Tuesday 19 April @ The Fleece

The Science Café has quite a few regulars and the conversation between speakers often wanders round to books. Social though the Café is, it’s not really the place for an extended discussion of whether or not Schrödinger’s Cat is a useful analogy – or even whether Erwin actually had a cat.

This is much more the stuff of book groups, and that’s where the idea of a book group loosely linked to the Science Festival and Café came from. The model is the usual fiction book group, but with a focus on science books, biographies and autobiographies.

We can start by finding a book to read a book ahead of each meeting, and talk about what we liked and what we didn’t, how the author tackled the topic and so on. From there, we can see how it goes. And if we start by meeting in a pub, if it turns out to be just me sitting at a table with a pile of well-thumbed paperbacks, at least I’ll have a pint to console me!

So come along to the Fleece, on Westgate in Otley (now run by local brewery Wharfebank), at 8pm on Tuesday 19 April, ready to chat! If everyone brings a favourite book or two we can choose one to talk about for next time.