24 January 2011

Book Review: Chosen Ones by Alister McGrath

The writing of this book seems to leave little doubt that Alister McGrath is trying to fashion himself as a modern-day C.S. Lewis. The writing style and target audience of the book sits very much in Narnia territory. The only other modern comparable to it is Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, though the Aedyn Chronicles does seem to be more simplistic and aimed at a slightly younger audience. More in keeping with the Narnia theme, the story is less an exploration of philosophical and theological thought, and more allegorical. Where it is original is in the subject matter it is allegorising; specifically the Enlightenment period (called, not particularly subtely, The Illumination).

It did come as a slight surprise to me, having read many of McGrath's apologetic works, that here he seems take something of an anti-science view. The heroine of the story, Julia, is clearly speaking McGrath's words and expressing his thoughts, while her older brother, Peter, seems to be a reflection of McGrath's younger self, when he was an atheist (as well as being highly reminiscent of Edmund in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe). One of the great things about this book is that it is full of little nods to other literature and saturated in slightly more subtle references, including Hamlet, Gulliver's Travels and the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. That said, the three main 'bad guys' didn't seem to be drawn directly from anything I could think of.

Unlike His Dark Materials, there isn't really enough here to keep the adults interested, but it is certainly a book that I will be handing down to my 7 year old niece.

Book Review: Boffinology by Justin Pollard

This book follows a very simple format: it just gives a large number of very short anecdotes regarding various aspects of scientific discovery. Most are 1-3 pages long and so are eminently digestible. Structured by a rough theme (which get more tenuous as the book goes on) it makes for quite a good “coffee table” book that be picked up and dipped into at any time. I chose to read it cover to cover, however there is no master narrative that necessitates this approach.

It has to be pointed out that the author is one of the researchers for the tv show, QI, and the style of writing is very much in that vein. In fact, some of the stories in the book I have heard Stephen Fry read almost word-for-word from his crib cards. So if you like QI then this should appeal to you.

As far as science writing goes, it very basic and does not require any expertise in order to be able follow. However, the author has committed one cardinal sin of science writing by not including any references whatsoever. All we have to rely on are his word that he did some unspecified research, but has not named his sources, which does cast a shadow over the reliability of the anecdotes contained therein.

That said, being a scientist myself, some were very familiar to me and almost all that I was familiar with already were accurate. Due to the brevity of the stories, some important details were missed off, and I noticed these particularly in the last section of the book when it came to the stories about Galileo and Mendel, which causes them to be slightly inaccurate.

With that small aside, this was an enjoyable and informative read. You don't have to be into science to enjoy it, and enjoy it you most certainly should.

19 January 2011

Book review: Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I decided to read this as a follow-on from his excellent The Cost of Discipleship, which is in my opinion, one of the greatest works of Christian apologetics. Knowing Bonhoeffer's biography, it is obvious that this was his last work before he was murdered, and at times the retrospective knowledge that I had whilst reading it made me cry, especially when Bonhoeffer was hoping for a release in the not-too-distant future.

That said, the start is joyfully mundane, writing to his parents, requesting various reading material, how to keep fit in a prison cell and the joys of cigarettes. He moves on to more correspondence with his niece's husband, Eberhard Bethge, who later went on to be Bonhoeffer's biographer. There is a lot here which conveys much more of his humanity and compassion, along with recognitions of his own failings and foibles.

Some of the letters stand out more than others, and these tend to be when Bonhoeffer is questioning the status quo of christianity. He reveals that he was, in the true definition of the terms, a secular humanist, only without the atheistic connotations that we have come to associate with the phrase in recent years. His rejection of religiosity is something that his highly welcome although the evidence of this taking hold as popular thought until much later, with the likes of Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis being the modern expansion of this school of thought.

The only criticism I would have is in the translation. Bonhoeffer was fond of using latin phrases in his writings, but the translators have only included the english translation sporadically, so I had to keep looking up a lot of them, as they were not phrases in common use.

It is an immensely thought provoking collection and I cannot think of anyone I would not recommend this book to.

14 January 2011

Readers digest: alethiophile style

For any of you who are parents, there are some interesting bits to read through.

First up, an article from the BBC on children with imaginary friends.

From the Guardian, an article on a new book about strict parenting (after skimming through the comments, it seems the average Grauniad commenter doesn’t agree with strict parenting).

Back to the BBC, and an iPlayer programme (so limited to those with the right software, with a UK IP address, for a limited period of time) on the sexualisation of young children, with some great evidenced research, looking at the basis for many a parent’s concern.

Moving on from the world of parenting to the world of science.

Apparently, if you get drunk and start pouring your inebriating liquids into your superconductors, you can improve them, as one group of Japanese students found out recently.
Make sure to look at the paper for the full detail.

It has been revealed that the universe looks like a bad carpet from the 1970s.

In fairness, when you think about the detail it’s pretty amazing, but at first glance you can be forgiven for thinking “so what’s with all the brown dots?”

If you are fan of normal people coming up with silly ideas, then you can do little better than look at the latest campaign from the British Humanist Association. With the 2011 census upon us fairly soon, there is a question regarding a person’s religion. According to their website:
“The census data on religion produced by the 2001 census gave a wholly misleading picture of the religiosity of the UK.”
So what is the basis for thinking it was wrong? A survey commissioned by the BHA themselves which covered a far smaller sample than the 2001 census.

Yeah – me neither.

I’d just be interested as to whether the paid up members of the BHA put “humanist” in their box. In a quite extraordinary statement, they then go on to say:
“In order to strengthen our case, we also need evidence showing the difficulties created by data from the 2001 Census. So you can also help by looking out for for information in your locality which justifies ‘faith-based’ practices by public bodies based on Census results.”

“In order to strengthen our case” – I think perhaps they have forgotten about confirmation bias.

It will be very curious to find out how much money is donated and spent on a campaign whose message is, in essence “do what you were going to do anyway.”

10 January 2011

Book review: Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

I ought to say from the outset that I am a regular reader of Ben Goldacre's column in The Guardian, so did not come to this entirely clueless regarding the approach and views of the author. I the think the best way to describe it is Goldacre having a scratch at a few particularly irritating itches. The aims of the book are very good, and to be applauded.

There can be little doubt that this is something of crusade against poorly done medical science, and it is my personal hope that this goes on to have as much social impact as Silent Spring and No Logo. However, don't be deceived into thinking that this covers all of science. Goldacre is a medical doctor and so, with the exception of a couple of chapters on statistics, this is a book on medicine. There is very little mathematics (other than that mentioned above), virtually no physics and just a smattering of chemistry where it overlaps with biology.

One of the slightly uglier aspects of the book is a series of personal attacks around the middle of the book. I had quite a mixed reaction to these. While it does to demonstrate some points that were much needed, the near unrelenting attacks does show a certain insensitivity on the part of the author. Here, we have to consider how well the author communicates; I have heard Goldacre talk and he tends to come across as quite reasonable, with a hint of mild exasperation, but in the book he comes across as a bit more patronising and sneery. This is most evident in the introduction where he states that anyone who dares disagrees with him is wrong; whereas a true scientist would always be open to the possibility that they themselves may be wrong. His choice of target is also interesting, as Gillian McKeith does not appear to have caused any physical harm by her lack of understanding, his later target Matthias Rath, almost certainly has. In this respect, even though the chapter on McKeith is one of the most famous, it is also one of the most unnecessary.

The last third of the book looks at one area in which Goldacre himself works: the media. Mentioned in the introduction, he goes on to look at CP Scott's “two worlds” hypothesis between the humanities and the sciences, with an exasperated moan that the media is dominated by humanities graduates who cannot understand the sciences, before looking at some of the consequences that has had.

Overall, the aim of the book is noble and many of the examples are well-put. Given that Goldacre advocates (rightly, I believe) transparency in science, it would have been nicer to have included more references at the back since at present they have the appearance of being cherry-picked. For anyone interested in medicine this is an essential read, though I think the focus on medicine does make the title a bit misleading. If the statistics chapters interest you, then I would recommend Leonard Mlodinow's The Drunkard's Walk as a follow-up which expands in more detail some of the topics touched upon by Goldacre.

3 January 2011

Book review: Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I came to this book not really knowing anything about it, other than the fact that it is comes highly recommenced and that it often appears of lists of '100 books to read before you die' and their ilk. So other than expecting it to be good, I approached it with a relatively open mind.

What I discovered was not so much a novel as a love letter; it is a love letter addressed to love itself. The story focusses on three individuals and charts their experiences of love over the course of a lifetime. Many varieties of love are explored: faithful, unfaithful, obsessive, innocent and (a warning for the more cautious reader) this involves some descriptions of sex and, towards the end of the book, an account of paedophilia. That said, it was never pornographic or particularly vulgar; it was carefuly done.

Marquez writes in a very vivid way, with visceral descriptions of his characters and settings. So even though there is very little 'action' in the book, there are passages of extreme floridity, where the reader is just immersed in his world, drawn in by the beautiful phraseology. I read this as an English translation although it was clearly translated by an American, which has resulted in the book being punctuated by spelling and grammatical errors and one or two sentences that simply make no sense whatsoever, but don't let that distract from overall quality of the book. Marquez's writing is just too good to be ruined by the translation.

I cannot really recommend it enough to you. It is not a particularly short book, but reading it never felt like a chore. It was a joy to go through from start to finish and it is a book I am sure I will read again in the future.