Posts Tagged book review

Luminous Moments Grant Jacobs May 11

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Paul Callaghan is well-known to many New Zealanders as a scientist and science communicator. His little book, Luminous Moments, published posthumously, is well worth while reading.

It contains “some of his more personal speeches and essays”, seven in all, apparently edited from his hospital bed. The book is put together and prefaced by a foreword by Paul’s daughter, Catherine.

It is a little book. Aside from Catherine Callaghan’s introduction, there are 73 small pages. The book is approximately 11cm by 18cm. It’s small size will suit a cozy hour or two, or perhaps to take on a weekend tramp or short cycle trip. I’d like to think New Zealanders wanting a physical copy will find one at major libraries. (It’s also available as an e-book.)

Paul has sketches out his topics briefly, in telling fashion.

The book touches on him growing up, developing as young scientist, his scientific work, pseudo-science, his cancer and surgery, fatherhood, closing with parting wisdom. It could be read by from mid-teens onward.

There’s thoughts about science and scientists -

“All of us who do science are different personality types. But we all labour under the same discipline.” (later: “We have to face facts, and face regular failure.”)

As someone who writes about science, his brief comparison of scientists and writers interested -

“And, of course, we scientists are all writers,” … “Most scientists long to indulge in metaphor, leaping to speak of ‘colour charge’ … or refer to the origin of the universe as ‘the big bang’.”

“For creative writers, the struggle is usually lonely and peculiarly personal. For scientists, we mostly work in teams, … even if as theorists we calculate alone, we are motivated to find accordance with our experimental colleagues. Science is an intensely social activity.”

There’s so much I could ruminate on here, including my experiences in different settings.

One chapter is a transcribed interview with well-known radio journalist Kim Hill covering pseudo-science. Kim stands in for supporters of pseudo-science, challenging Paul who notes the characteristics of pseudo science and the issues with it. (He judges pseudo-science to be characterised by putting claims direct to media [rather than peer-review], being based on anecdotal evidence/examples, invoking conspiracies as suppresses their views, and that claims made are frequently at margins of detectability.) This chapter contains a nice account of nine year old Emily’s experimental study on therapeutic touch. He doesn’t object to faith healers, on the grounds that they offer what they do straight-forwardly.*

He mentions of the use of trials and statistics in biology. Although not said, this relates to his own trial of high-dose vitamin C as a remedy -

“By the way, in my own scientific profession of physics, we seldom do statistics. Unlike the infinite variability of biology, and human patients in particular, atoms are atoms.” This leads to Rutherford’s famous quote about statistics to the effect that if an experiment needed statistics, it was poorly done. “He [Rutherford] was referring to physics. But in biology n=1 simply won’t do. In drug trials, hundreds or even thousands of patients are the norm.” He continues, offering a concise summary of the key issues.

The book closes with four stories, with parted wisdom. I’ll leave these for readers to discover, bar part of one for any (younger) scientist or student readers looking forward: “See the opportunities in new directions.”


* In a tangentially related way, one issue with groups offering ‘alternative’ science or medical advice is that they ought to be straight-forward about the aims of their group to those looking to join, but those I’ve seen often aren’t.

The book

Luminous Moments

Paul Callaghan, foreward by Catherine Callaghan.

Published by BWB Texts as an e-book in 2013; paperback in 2014. ISBN for paperback edition: 9781927277492

Some other book reviews at Code for life:

Mad on Radium

A Geek Nation reviewed

Lab lit: for bookworms who like the science to be plausible

Science-y reading

Explore ancient science books on-line

More science in literature done right

Book review: Victorian Popularizers of Science

Book review: The Best Australian Science Writing 2013 Grant Jacobs Dec 11

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Looking for a Christmas present for someone who likes reading about ‘things’, how they work, why?

Or just generally musing about life.

I’ve had past success with anthologies of science writing as gifts, in my case Best American Science and Nature Writing or Best American Science Writing, both part of the long-established ‘Best American’ series that offers collected writing over many niche genres.


Now in it’s third edition I have only become aware this year of Best Australian Science Writing. Like it’s American counterpart it’s an edited collection of works previously published elsewhere, from newspapers, books, magazines and radio.

Among the entries are all short-listed articles from the 2013 Bragg[1] University of New South Wales Prize for Science Writing.[2] This year’s winner was Fred Watson’s, Here come the ubernerds: Planets, Pluto and Prague.

The collection is mostly of short to medium length articles on science-related topics, but also features poetry and biographical pieces. The authors, too, are a mixed collection. Some are scientists who write in addition their scientific work; many are full-time (science) writers.

The book is available as a paperback and in electronic form (EPub, Kindle or ePDF; this review is of the paperback format).

Among the reasons I feel these anthologies make for excellent gifts is that it’s a format that can be read in an hour here, half an hour there or an afternoon and can be left on the table or at the bach for visitors to pick up.

Another strength of science writing anthologies for gifts is they cover a very wide range of topics. There’s bound to be something for everyone.

Tim Minchin, a man of many talents but perhaps best known for his comedy including the excellent beat poem Storm, has placed his introduction, Not a Nobel Laureate,[3] on-line. It’s excellent and worth reading, even if you don’t buy the book. (Fellow sci-blogger Siouxsie will be disappointed with his description of pink-haired people.) It’s followed by the editors’ preface then the articles themselves.

My views on the individual pieces vary, as they will for any reader, a natural consequence of the variety on offer, but one that in many ways makes these anthologies better gifts: they’re likely to always include styles the recipient likes, even if you’re unsure of their reading tastes.

As a measure of this, among my favourites are some that didn’t make the short-list for the Bragg Prize. Each to their own.[4]

Over the whole collection I’m happy to say that I chose to skip few,[4] mostly those related to climate – partly a consequence of writing style preferences but also in part as it’s a topic that feels stale to me, important as the subject is. Others will chose differently. On the whole, the articles are excellent and fun reads.

To give some flavour of the book, here’s a peek at some (by no means all) of the contents, in no particular order of merit:

  • Fish that become gonads. (Not have gonads, become gonads.)
  • Some fairly (seemingly) off-the-wall ideas as solutions for climate change in Earthmovers: playing god with the climate.
  • Pregnancy testing, then and now (very entertainingly).
  • Darwin, a perennial favourite for science writers, turns up several times. I especially liked Janine Burke’s short account of rebelling her Catholic College teachers and Francesca Rendle-Short’s much longer article of her six day creationist father, mentor to Ken Ham—of Creation Museum infamy—and her father’s Alzheimer’s.
  • One writer rails against the characters (caricatures) in Big Bang Theory.
  • I like Elizabeth Finkel’s piece following an examination of Aboriginal art for it’s portrayal of the team work and fallibilities of research, showing an understanding of the reality of scientific work as you might expect from a writer with research experience.
  • There’s a neat account of a writer’s autistic son, told in a different style that you’d usually encounter – fresh and very effective.
  • One of this year’s big science features in the media was testing for the existence (or not) of the Higg’s Boson; one article plays on the media coverage. (Peter Higgs and François Englert won this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics.)
  • A longer piece spans the death of Pluto as a planet while wandering among other astronomical and planetary topics.
  • Female sexual desire.
  • Behind the scenes of organ donation. Written by a surgeon, the practical, hands-on knowledge comes through.
  • Chickens as sentinels of epidemics.[5] (By Nobel laureate, Peter Doherty; author of several popular science books.)
  • Flatology, the science of flatulence, opening with Charles Darwin’s concerns about his emissions.
  • Cigarettes and polonium-210, the radioactive element probably best known as used to poison former KGB officer Alexander Litvinvenko in London. Smokers and friends of smokers will want to read this.

There’s more that I can possibly list without driving the reader to distraction, if I haven’t already. But in some ways that’s half the thing isn’t it? Distraction with the curious and interesting. A watering hole for a few minutes or hours.

Brief bibliographies of each author are available in a section before the stories. (I missed this at first.) The source of the articles are given in the back, under the (to me, slightly misnamed) section Acknowledgements.[6]

Each article ends with an unusual cross-link feature, a short index of words found on other pages in the book, that I take to be a print version of links embedded in the text of the electronic versions of the book.

About the book

Title: The Best Australian Science Writing 2013

Editors: McCredie and Mitchell

Publisher: NewSouth Publishing (University of New South Wales Press Ltd.)

ISBN: 97817422 33857 (pbk), 97817422 41654 (ePub/Kindle), 97817422 46666 (ePDF)


My copy is courtesy of the publishers.

None of the entries are from blogs. I don’t know if they were ruled out, but, if so, it’s worth noting the American counterpart occasionally includes writing of merit from on-line, too.

1. The Braggs are a famous father-and-son science team, who together won the Nobel Prize in Physics, 1915 for their work in X-ray crystallography. The Bragg name features in several terms in the field such as Bragg’s Law and Bragg diffraction. They were Australia’s first Nobel Prize winners.

2. For writers wanting to try their hand, entries for the 2014 competition are now open.

3. Tim Minchin’s introduction title is reference to that the introductions of both previous editions were penned by Nobel laureates.

4. My own taste in reading these days, particularly when busy, favours clear, lean(er), writing with interesting things to think about leavened with humour rather than, say, the slower-paced descriptive prose of the opening piece, The weather of who we are. It might also relate to that I tend to tend to escapism at busy times, tackling slower reading when time is there for the killing. Bear in mind, too, that as someone who follows popular science some topics are old news to me.

5. Sentinel Chickens has been published and was also short-listed on the Guardian science writing books of the year. I’ve a library copy I may (no promises) review before Christmas.

6. While it’s understand their use of the word, I think of acknowledgements as thanks for support or inspiration, rather than publication credits.

Other articles on Code for life:

Mad on Radium

Ancient books (or I’d rather be reading)

The Panic Virus

Science-y reading

A Geek Nation reviewed

Book review – The Poisoner’s Handbook

The bosom serpent

What books do you think geeks should read?

For Tolkien fans – The Science of Middle-Earth Grant Jacobs Feb 07

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Tolkien fans with a science leaning might want to check out Henry Gee’s book, The Science of Middle-Earth.

As you might expect, it’s an attempt to retrofit a science, or science-y, back story to the famous author’s work.

Y’know: how on earth do orcs breed? (Suffer the thought…) That sort of thing.

Those who are quick may even be able to get a free promotional Kindle eBook to review and generally shout-out about.*

Mac users: you can read Kindle books on Macs via the free Kindle software.

There is also apparently a German edition.


* Available for one day only. Less than a day, actually, as it the promotional offer has been underway for a few hours. (You hate this sort of small-print footnote, don’t you?)

Some book reviews on Code for life:

A forensic scientist tells it like it is

Mad on Radium

A Geek Nation reviewed

Book review – The Poisoner‘s Handbook

Seduced by logic

Mad on Radium Grant Jacobs Dec 12


(Still trying to complete the Christmas shopping list? I’m going to bring to you a couple of book reviews for readers who like more than the latest ‘trashy’ thriller.)

New Zealand wasn’t always anti-nuclear. In fact, as New Zealand writer Rebecca Priestley shows us, it was distinctly pro-nuclear.

Mad on Radium explores the corners of how the ‘nuclear age’ came to New Zealand and New Zealanders’ responses to it, their involvement in it.

It’s revealing to peer back into our recent past and see how it was, rather than what we now portray ourselves as. There’s intriguing titbits throughout, accompanied by many photographs, cartoons, advertisements and posters.

It’s probably not appreciated by younger New Zealanders that New Zealand provided some scientists for the Manhattan project, that New Zealand supported the British bomb tests in the Pacific, that radium was a popular ‘healthy’ product marketed to consumers.

The illustrations are excellent and tell their own stories. One map shows the proposed effects of ‘Atomic bombing of Wellington City’. Who remembers annual x-rays for tuberculosis, featured in one poster: ‘Make a date for MASS X-RAY’.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Panic Virus Grant Jacobs Sep 18


…is the bold title of Seth Mnookin’s exploration of the ‘vaccination debate’.[1]

The Panic Virus® is a ruminative, thoughtful, exploration of vaccine history and, in particular, how people come to think the things that they do.

Not too many popular science books are headlined with the support of Nobel laureate – if you look closely you’ll see Peter Doherty’s praise for the book at the top of the cover to the left.

It surveys key events – without minutiae that you might get from an historian. It draws on the reader to do their own thinking slightly more than Offit’s Deadly Choices but is lighter than Allen’s Vaccine, which at 500+ pages is a much more lengthy affair.

I especially appreciated that the material seemed well-balanced with negative points in public health, for example, presented plainly without excuses and criticism given where it seemed deserved.[2] Vaccination is a topic that’s easy to polarise or to stick to one side of the fence. Mnookin does pretty well to see it both ways.

He touches on some of cognitive dissonances involved, where some of the poor thinking arises from and these emerge as a key underlying themes.

This from the blurb,

“Wakefield eventually lost his medical licence, yet the myth that vaccines cause developmental disorders lives on. In The Panic Virus Seth Mnookin examines how the anti-immunisation panic spread and looks at a controversial Australian case that exposed the claims and tactics of the movement to new scrutiny. Sorting fact from rumour, he confronts fundamental questions: with more facts at our fingertips than ever, why is our trust in science so fragile? Has the internet made us better informed, or simply enabled panic to spread more quickly? And how might we balance fact and intuition when it comes to decisions about children’s health?”

The book, in part, tracks the author‘s personal exploration into parents and their relationship with vaccination information starting from his own new parenthood and dinner parties,

“The more I pushed my friend, the more defensive he grew. Sure, I said, there had to be something tangible, some experiment of epidemiological survey, that informed his decisions. There wasn’t I was even more taken aback when he said he likely would have done the same thing even if he’d been present with conclusive evidence that the MMR vaccine was safe.” (From the Introduction, p11.)

Read the rest of this entry »

Seduced by logic Grant Jacobs Mar 23


My previous cat traded in a habit or two every six months or so for new ones. I sometimes think my reading does something similar.

For a last while I’d fallen into reading several books concurrently, something I generally don’t do. I’m usually a one-book-at-a-time guy. Nevertheless, while starting on the Robyn Arianrbod’s book on the history of two women mathematicians in late 19th century Britain, I was also simultaneously attempting to an eclectic mix of novels (one crime, one sci-fi) and a stack of travel guides, along with my usual scientific reading.*


Seduced by logic is Robyn Arianrbod’s biography of the work of two woman popularisers of science, Êmile du Châtelet and Mary Somerville.

Their common thread is their relationship with the ‘Newtonian revolution’. We see through the biography work that brought Newton’s science to wider acceptance.

Her descriptions of the importance of Newton’s work are, to my mind, excellent. It’s not easy to explain the conceptual basis of mathematical work using only words this clearly. Other mathematicians’, physicists’ and astronomers’ work are brought in to form the wider picture.

The historical and social contexts set the scene, with the growing intellectual (and political) freedoms from the state (or religion) presented through progress and disruptions of the players of the times. This includes the role of women, their opportunities to learn things academic and participate in academic life. There are also brief asides into issues familiar to those writing about science, as well as some interesting historical tidbits.

Read the rest of this entry »

Teaching kids critical thinking Grant Jacobs Sep 25


… through adventures with the Nac Mac Feegles.

Looking at the titles of the blog posts over the weekend, it is as if the world had gone on a rampage of sloppy thinking.


Sometimes it really does feel like that when I read local newspapers or magazines.

Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men is a children’s book that encourages critical thinking.

Tiffany Aching is a hag (witch). Like all true witches she has First Sight and Second Thoughts.

First Sight for seeing things as they are, and not as she might want to them to be.

Second Thoughts for questioning things.

Read the rest of this entry »

Rugby fans – get physical Grant Jacobs Sep 12


Here in New Zealand,  the Rugby World Cup has taken over.


Just in time for the tournament the University of Otago has a new book to help rugby nuts get physical; others will have to scour bookstores.

Clearly a rugby-mad man, Ph.D.-welding theoretical physicist Trevor Lipscombe has written The physics of rugby.

You know the book is for rugby buffs when you see the table of contents are laid out on a pitch.

This book is rugby for the intelligent fan. Show you’re a notch above the rest by explaining how a player might perceive he (or she) is passing the ball back, but in fact is disappointing his team with a forward pass. Explain the physics of a spinning ball in a cross wind or how a little physics can improve passing. Examine the logic of Bateman’s movements in attempting to tackle Lomu.

Read the rest of this entry »

Reviewing Deadly Choices Grant Jacobs Aug 07



Deadly Choices isn’t something I’d usually read, but spotting the book in the library I thought I’d lightly read it to see if I’d recommend it to readers outside of the USA, particularly in New Zealand.[1]

It is an excellent book for those wanting an easier read on the anti-vaccine movement in the USA, one that moves quickly. The approach taken will best appeal to readers in North America and those interested in the (modern) history anti-vaccine story in the USA.

Their is good general material on vaccines; amongst the ‘who did what’ elements are snappy introductions to a very wide range of relevant topics.

Looking closer, let’s deal with the unfavourable first–for readers outside of North America, that is. (Remember, a non-North American reader is my objective in this review.)

A running theme of the book is Barbara Loe and her emergence as an anti-vaccine campaigner in the USA and a number of television programmes shown there.[2]

Offit’s earlier chapters in particular use these media efforts and Loe’s development as a campaigner as a literary device to introduce items and further background. It makes for a running theme, and is an interesting approach, but those not familiar with her or the programmes may not identify with it well.

Some readers will be able to map what they read of these events and people in the USA to their local equivalents. Some will take a modern history perspective and see these as insights into the situation in the USA. (Reading New Zealand I found myself favouring the latter; bear in mind that I’m already familiar with the science and pseudo-science – I’m not the target audience.)

Where Offit’s writing works well for readers from any location his knack for short glosses of events or information about the vaccination and the anti-vaccine movement, conveying the point by drawing on just one or two key details. For those wanting the guts of the thing without too much cruft, and wanting a fast-paced read, his style achieves that well.

Read the rest of this entry »

We have a winner… Peter Griffin Jul 19


Last week Expert Witness, written fellow sciblogger and forensic scientist Anna Sandiford, was reviewed and a competition offered for a free copy of the book.

And the winner of the competition is… Katie Brockie, who should expect an email sometime in the next wee while from Sciblogs editor Peter Griffin arranging delivery of her copy of the book.

Those that didn’t win – go on, get yourself a copy!

For the insatiably curious, the winner was chosen by a random ballot from a short-list selected from those who offered questions. (Perl computer programming geeks will probably be happy that, yes, it was a Perl one-liner that selected the winner from the shortlist.)

Other articles on Code for life:

A forensic scientist tells it like it is – free book to give away

A Geek Nation reviewed

Book review — The Poisoner’s Handbook

Science-y reading and open book thread

Man-made bird flies

Accessing digital legacies (experimental ones, too)

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