Book review: A Briefer History of Time by Stephen Hawking

A Briefer History of TimeA Briefer History of Time by Stephen Hawking

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well, that was brief.

In the late 1980s, Stephen Hawking became the name synonymous with smart people, science, and computerised voices when he released A Brief History of Time. In the intervening 27 years (this book was published in 2005) a lot of progress has been made in physics and our understanding of the universe, so this is an update on curved space, quantum gravity, black holes, Newtonian physics, relativity, the Big Bang (everywhere stretch), wormholes and time travel, and the search for a grand unifying theory of reality.

Obviously, this all sounds like very complicated stuff that you’ll battle to wrap your head around. I have to admit, when I read A Brief History of Time in my 20s I struggled with it. Imagining 4-dimensional space was confusing, imagining another 6 dimensions on top of that with string theory was just too much for me. So maybe I’m older, wiser, smarter, and have added centimetres to my head circumference, because I found this book clear and easy to understand. Or maybe this updated version is clearer than the original. Or maybe I’m just more familiar with physics now and can kid myself that it isn’t that hard to understand.

Either way, I found this to be a clear, concise, and easy to understand overview of spacetime physics.

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What genre is the 2008 book Outliers in? What are some similar books in that genre?

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The book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell is a popular example of fiction.

Outliers is probably most famous for promoting the idea of the 10,000 Hour Rule based on how many hours it will take you to get good at doing something. But like all good fiction, it ignores the reality of how skills are acquired.

Unfortunately, many people have mistakenly assumed that Gladwell’s writing should be classified as non-fiction pop-science, or even worse, factual. This has lead many researchers to waste time and resources showing that the 10,000 Hour Rule is nonsense, and that Outliers is pop-science at its worst – i.e. incredibly influential despite being clearly nonsense.

Reviewers of the book have noted the flaws in calling this book non-fiction*:

In an article about the book for The New York TimesSteven Pinker wrote, “The reasoning in ‘Outliers,’ which consists of cherry-picked anecdotes, post-hocsophistry and false dichotomies, had me gnawing on my Kindle.”[20]

In a review in The New Republic, Isaac Chotiner called the final chapter of Outliers “impervious to all forms of critical thinking”.[21]

And several researchers have debunked many factual claims made in the book*:

Case Western Reserve University’s assistant professor of psychology Brooke N. Macnamara and colleagues have subsequently performed a comprehensive review of 9,331 research papers about practice relating to acquiring skills. They focused specifically on 88 papers that collected and recorded data about practice times. In their paper, they note regarding the 10,000-hour rule that “This view is a frequent topic of popular-science writing” but “we conducted a meta-analysis covering all major domains in which deliberate practice has been investigated. We found that deliberate practice explained 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions. We conclude that deliberate practice is important, but not as important as has been argued”.[24]

Statistical analyst Jeff Sauro looked at Gladwell’s claim that between 1952 and 1958 was the best time to be born to become a software millionaire. Sauro found that, although the 1952–1958 category held the most births, “[a] software millionaire is more than twice as likely to be born outside the 1952 to 1958 window than within it.” Sauro notes that Gladwell’s claims are used more as a means of getting the reader to think about patterns in general, rather than a pursuit of verifiable fact.[25]

In fact, the 10,000 Hour Rule seems to irk people in the social sciences quite a bit. E.g. Practice Does Not Make Perfect – We are not all created equal where our genes and abilities are concerned.

Are there similar authors and similar books using misleading, cherry-picked, and tenuous research to make broad sweeping pop-science claims that make people feel good? Of course. Plenty of them. It is a minefield in the non-fiction section of bookstores, which I think should be more accurately renamed “Boring Fiction”. So I think it would be negligent of me to recommend more books like Outliers or authors like Malcolm Gladwell.

*Quotes taken from Wikipedia.

This answer originally appeared on Quora.

Book review: How to Build a Universe by Brian Cox and Robin Ince

How to Build a Universe: An Infinite Monkey Cage AdventureHow to Build a Universe: An Infinite Monkey Cage Adventure by Brian Cox

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m going to bake some chocolate muffins from scratch, so this book should be useful.

Professor Brian Cox, Robin Ince, and Alexandra ‘Sasha’ Feachem are the team behind the popular The Infinite Monkey Cage, a BBC science show that pairs scientists and comedians for laughs and education. From 2009 they have produced +100 shows covering all sorts of topics. This book encapsulates some highlights and essays around their favourite topics and common science communication issues* they have covered in that time.

From the opening forewards to the covering of Schrodinger’s Strawberry I was heartily entertained. As a science nerd and fan of comedy, this book seems to have been written specifically for me. It actually left me feeling a bit annoyed that I haven’t, as yet, listened to The Infinite Monkey Cage show, despite having been aware of it for quite some time. So I guess I’ll be rectifying that soon.

What I like most about this approach to science is that it doesn’t seek to sex up science (or dumb down, depending upon the preferred flavour of marketing), but instead make it accessible and entertaining. There is a line between those two that too often those in the media can’t tell the difference between. Science is interesting, but it is complicated, it is often dry, and communicating scientific knowledge as done here is hard to do.

* Yes, I do mean how people aren’t willing to honestly engage with science, either through pseudoscience co-opting, or denial of evidence, or wanting certainty instead of the probability that science offers.

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Book Review: Climate Change Denial – Heads in the Sand

Climate Change Denial: Heads in the SandClimate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand by Hadyn Washington and John Cook
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

It takes a while to read a book during your lunch break at work. It can take even longer if the book you are reading is filled with interesting tidbits of referenced information, which then inspires you to read the original research paper. I suppose that is the best thing about Washington and Cook’s Climate Change Denial, it is filled with interesting research and arguments, all concisely expressed for anyone with an interest in the future of our planet.

Usually I have an issue with non-fiction books. Often times the non-fiction genre is filled with work that lacks credibility or validity. Non-fiction is also prone to the shouting polemic, which is all doom and gloom, and short on any solutions. Climate Change Denial is the opposite, with a very well researched base of information, well rounded and reasoned arguments and an entire chapter devoted to the solutions for both denial and climate change.

What interested me was the mindset of denial. I’ve done a lot of reading of the peer reviewed literature on climate change (hint: the world is getting warmer, it’s our fault, we need to take action now) and have been frustrated with the same debunked arguments arising time and again. Now I understand why, well, aside from the massive fear and smear campaign waged by denier groups with oil $$. I also appreciated the candid debunking and slaying of the red herrings (e.g. we need to adapt) and white elephants (e.g. carbon capture and storage) often associated with the climate change debate.

This is a great book for the climate change extension people, for those who are undecided on the topic, and a must read for politicians (this book has been given to every Federal Government minister in Australia). Those who read it now have the job of converting the deniers, logic and science will prevail, but it would be nice to have that happen sooner rather than later.

Also worth reading John Cook’s fantastic site.

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