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Science books

Introduction

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Rather pompously I must admit to rarely reading popular science books. I prefer textbooks where the author's speculation is curtailed and the bare facts are properly justified. That said, there are certain popular science books that have had a huge impact and hence I have felt obliged to read. As I have a physics degree I tend to find many books about quantum mechanics and relativity particularly annoying. Some of the ideas that these theories have inspired are just crazy and their writers never seem able to distinguish between scientific fact and their own ideas.

A Brief History of Time
The Feynman Lectures on Physics
Cosmos
Consilience
Demon Haunted World
Soul Searching
Darwin's Black Box
The Theory of Evolution
The Blind Watchmaker
Shattering the Myths of Darwinism
Creator and Cosmos
Chance and Necessity
Creation Revisited
The Undiscovered Mind
The Ascent of Science
Modern Physics and Ancient Faith


A Brief History of Time
Stephen Hawking

The face that launched a thousand science careers stares out from the cover of this mega-selling book. It is not entirely clear why some many people actually bought it given that it doesn't feel brief and is not a history. In fact, although none of his readers knew enough to realize this, the book is simply a way for Hawking to get his ideas to as wider audience as possible. He propounds a lot of interesting theories (usually his own) but doesn't tell us very much about actual physics.

Yes, the physics is hard. But much greater men than Hawking (Richard Feynman springs to mind) have been able to communicate graduate level science to the thinking layman. And Feynman gives us real, hard science that answers the how questions while wisely leaving the whys alone. Also, to be fair to all those who struggled through this, Hawking is a poor writer anyway so cannot be expected to have communicated difficult ideas.

The most famous line of this book is the last one -"for then we would know the mind of God". Hawking is referring to the result of a working grand unified theory. I have heard Christians wax lyrical over this pointless phrase. I expect Hawking himself regrets it, given the amount of capital made of it by religious writers seeking to find an ally in science. Well, Hawking is no ally. He is thoroughly agnostic and this conclusion is the height of arrogance. If (and it is a big if) we figure out how the universe works then we will still be a million miles from knowing why God made it and why He put us here. Theologians speculate on these questions and so can anyone else who is pleased to have a go - myself included. But scientists who write science books should stick to science.

If you haven't read this then don't bother. Instead try Six Easy Pieces and Six Not So Easy Pieces by Richard Feynman. I review the full fat version of these books below.

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The Feynman Lectures on Physics
Richard Feynman

Let's be clear about this - real physics involves sums. But it is quite possible to understand a great deal of physics with the most basic understanding of algebra and arithmetic. Armed with this, you have everything you need to get a lot out of these three volumes. They are set at about first year university level and can easily be understood by someone about to go and read a science subject at college. In fact, reading them before going up would be a very worthwhile thing to do. You will not cover all that much ground beyond 'A' level physics (I can tell you from experience that the first year at Oxford covers a whole lot more) but you will understand it. It is only then you will start to enjoy it, appreciate it and potentially become very good at it.

Feynman's biography is simply called 'Genius'. He fits that description well with a Nobel Prize and countless books to his name. His love for his subject and his ability to communicate it meant he has been a favourite of physics students for a generation.

There are three volumes of lectures - one each on mechanics, electro magnetism and quantum mechanics. The first two volumes are the most valuable because Feynman covers quantum theory in a very idiosyncratic way that won't connect with what you are taught very well. If you are an interested layman then the recently released 'Six Easy Pieces' and 'Six Not So Easy Pieces' will be easier to digest. If you fancy something really advanced then 'QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter' describes a theory I never even touched in four years at Oxford, but in a way anyone can understand.

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Cosmos
Carl Sagan

This book had a profound effect on me. Although it was originally written to accompany a television series, I never saw it as I live in the UK and was much too young anyway. I read the book in my early teens and more than anything else it was responsible for my turning atheist. Being a science and maths sort of person I couldn't deny that religion seemed removed from my life (even going to an English public school where it was supposed to be central) and what Sagan offered was far more exciting.

The combination of fantastic pictures and Sagan's awe at the majestic grandeur of the universe was beguiling. I didn't like the idea that it meant I was stuck in a material world and would end up annihilated but I couldn't reject something just because I didn't like it. Anyway, at thirteen death seemed a long way away.

But what Sagan is looking to do here is turn science into a religion. Yes, he stresses that science is reasonable and rational but this is not the point at all. He is looking for a sense of wonder and mystery. The natural world, he tells us, supplies this in abundance so who needs the supernatural. If even Sagan needs religion in his life it is little wonder that it is so popular with everyone else. He claims science has the advantage of being true, but we've all heard that one before!

This is actually a good book as far as popular science goes but is rather out of date now. It contains theories that we have since been able to dispose of and Sagan makes the usual mistake of not distinguishing between fact and speculation. It has now got an almost cult following and seems to have had a big influence on more people than just me.

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Consilience
Edward O Wilson

The sub-title of this book is "The Unity of Knowledge" but what it really sets out to demonstrate is that science is the only thing worth knowing. It begins by recycling all the usual myths about what science is and how it is grounded in logic and reason. There is no mention of such flies in the ointment as Kurt Godel or Thomas Kuhn who, in very different ways, have helped disassemble the more arrogant claims made by science. Wilson even tries to defend logical positivism, which claims that everything of value to us is meaningless, and he honestly seems to think that it is the way to go for philosophy.

In some ways this is a love letter to science from someone who has devoted his life to exploring her charms. The state of brain and mind studies to date is surveyed. Reading between the lines its clear that the prognosis for answering the big questions on consciousness is not good at all but Wilson insists on remaining incurably optimistic that solutions are just around the corner. The junking of Freud and post-modernism is fun, though, and Wilson makes no attempt to hide his contempt for trendy sociological theories. He then asks the humanities to be more like the natural sciences (that is reductionist and analytical) but I do not hold out much hope in fields where one gets far more credit for being clever than being right.

All this does not mean to say that Wilson is any less confused himself. As an avowed materialist, he denies freewill and rejects all religion bar maintaining some quaint traditions, but like most materialists he cannot even start to live up to his philosophy. Having explained that our ethical beliefs are the products of gene/culture co-evolution and that there is no transcendal moral framework (another way of saying that we can all do what we like as long as society and our annoying evolved conscience lets us get away with it), he then starts telling us we have to make ourselves thoroughly miserable by saving the planet. The problem for a materialist like Wilson is that while he thinks he can explain what our moral impulses are he can give no reason why we ought to follow them.

So in the end Consilience is not the savage argument for the total supremacy of science that other reviewers have said it is. Rather, it is yet another touchingly naive plea from a liberal academic who just wants us to be nice to each other but has not the foggiest clue as to why we should be.

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The Demon Haunted World
Carl Sagan

This is nearly Sagan's last book and is actually quite good. In it, he rails against superstition and the gullibility of the public. He just can't understand why people want all this nonsense when science provides plenty on wonder on its own.

Sagan is very careful to insist that everything deserves proper investigation. Just because something is anomalous or odd is not a good reason to ignore it. He knows full well that science has had to fight a conservative establishment and doesn't want it to become that establishment today. He also doesn't attack mainstream religions even though he does have words to say on visions and witch burning. Perhaps the inquisition of the past can be compared to the scientists who take part in biological and chemical weapons research today. Both have been subverted by political power. Sagan tells us about Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, as an example of science gone wrong.

There is a lot here about alien abductions but at the same time not nearly enough. Yes, Sagan can show that this phenomenon is not about little green men doing experiments. But he then ignores the question of what it actually is. Through out history people have been afflicted by these experiences and no one knows why they happen. It is not enough to say they are psychological (even though they almost certainly are) because what we want to know is why the brain does this to itself. Sleep paralysis and nightmares (waking up unable to move in the presence of something awful) deserve a whole lot more attention than they get.

Sagan's story about James Randy's stunt in Australia is highly amusing and perfectly illustrates the point that people believe what they want to. His chapter on the often mis-understood subject of probability is also good value. Finally he offers a baloney detection kit that should be made standard issue to all conspiracy theorists. Try applying Sagan's kit to some of the pseudo history about Jesus like The Holy Blood and Holy Grail or the Dead Sea Scrolls Deception.

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Soul Searching (Leaps of Faith in the US)
Nicholas Humphrey

Unlike Sagan's open mind, Humphrey's is firmly closed. In his book he embarks on a well written but fallacious attempt to explain away both people's belief in the supernatural and their actual experiences of it. The trouble is Humphrey's explanations are just pseudo-Freudian codswallop. He tells us simply that people believe in the supernatural because they want to and that is that.

But there is a problem here. Firstly, there are many elements of the paranormal we simply do not want to believe. If Humphrey's thesis was correct then all religions would be warm and fuzzy rather than giving the difficult and often counter cultural message they actually do. In two areas Humphrey is particularly poor. He comes up with a theory on the historical Jesus that an undergraduate would be profoundly ashamed of. It is based entirely on the work of Morton Smith - a scholar of some fame but little repute - and on the parts of the New Testament judged the least reliable by critical scholars. In other words it's the old, old game of piecing together something from the bits of the text that suit you and ignoring all the rest.

On the question of scientific research into ESP, Humphrey's is also unable or unwilling to make his point properly. He refuses to critique the work in detail and simply gives us a rebuttal which is unreferenced to a published work (this may not be Humphrey's fault as he claims the work is 'in press' but Humphrey himself would 'smell a rat' over this point).

This book is a good example of an argument that completely overtakes the available facts and is recommended only to scientific materialists who want to reassure themselves of how stupid everyone else is.

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Darwin's Black Box
Michael Behe

Oh, how they hate it! The World of Richard Dawkins has a long list of links about this book. Many big names have joined the chorus against it and even theistic evolutionists like me find it makes very uncomfortable reading. If you are interested in evolution you really must read this book.

It begins by explaining the mind numbing detail of a number of cellular systems - how cells move, how blood clots, how the immune system copes etc. There's even more in the appendix including a fascinating look at DNA replication. I fear Behe's exhortation to get a biochemistry textbook out of the library will be ignored by one and all of his readers but he certainly whetted my appetite for the subject.

The main contention of the book is that many cellular systems are 'irreducibly complex' and so could not have come about by the gradual step by step processes of evolution by mutation and natural selection. A perusal of the replies by evolutionists lovingly gathered by John Catalano suggests that indeed, no one does have any clue how these structures came to be. A few hardy souls are even willing to admit it. But this does not mean that Behe is right to then insist that the only alternative is deliberate design. More work may prove that Behe is right after all but in the very least this book has forced biochemists to question their assumptions and start doing some work on the subject. One reviewer lamented that her biochemist colleagues were totally ignorant of evolution and that intolerable situation will have been much improved by the furore over the Black Box.

Read this book because it is excellently written and full of fascinating detail. But I fear that Behe has a lot more work to do before he can claim that design theory will revolutionise science in the same way as the Copernican Revolution.

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The Theory of Evolution
John Maynard Smith

If you can handle a more technical treatment and want to know what evolution is all about then I recommend this book. Be warned, it is by no means an easy read. I expect it is aimed as a primer for undergraduates who have a background in basic biology. For the layman, it is a little too terse and the lack of a glossary is a serious problem that should have been rectified for this new paperback issue.

This edition is now twenty years old but stands up well. As a textbook it contains scientific fact that is agreed by nearly everyone in the field. Smith gives his opinion but only after outlining both sides of the argument. The arguments themselves tend to be rather technical but are interesting once you've grasped what the issues actually are. There is also a complete lack of polemic here as the book is not arguing for evolution it is just stating the facts of the theory and the experiments that back it up.

This reissue has a forward by Richard Dawkins which says nothing much at all and a new introduction from Smith himself. The later is an excellent update from the time the book was written but should be read after reading the book and not before or it won't make any sense. His comment in the introduction that he is now convinced that human language is completely unique and not a more developed form of animal communication is very interesting.

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The Blind Watchmaker
Richard Dawkins

It's actually quite hard to work out what Dawkins's is trying to do with this book. It claims to be, and indeed is, a well written guide to neo-Darwinism for the perplexed. Like most popular science books it is pitched at a very basic level and fails to cover any of the fascinating biochemistry that takes up so much of Maynard Smith's book. That doesn't matter too much in an entry level book but what does matter is the subtext of atheism that pervades the whole work. Is Dawkin's trying to say sell Darwinism or is he trying to use the evident truth of Darwinism to sell atheism?

I do believe that evolution works in the much the way that Dawkins tells us it does. I believed that before I had even read this book. But his proselytising for atheism is neither necessary nor entirely honest. Many evolutionary biologists would not agree with him (Kenneth Miller springs to mind) and this book could be described as nothing more than a single non sequitur. The trouble is a lot of people don't seem to be able to see this for themselves. So Dawkins is saying to the Christian - either reject your religion or reject science. It is entirely his intention that people should feel they have a straight choice.

In all of Dawkin's work I get the impression there is a great science writer fighting to escape the clutches of a bigoted hater of my faith. It's a great pity that even in his later books, the writer is still showing no sign of being able to break free.

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Shattering the Myths of Darwinism
Richard Milton

Richard Dawkins described this book as drivel and its author as a harmless fruitcake. This is rather rude but there is no getting away from the fact that this is an awful book. Mores the pity as neo-Darwinism is open to attack on several fronts and an intelligent critique of this theory would have been welcome. Instead Milton has shown a total lack of discernment in selecting his material. On one hand we have a useful and interesting survey on carbon dating and the not very successful history of hominid fossils. On the other we have suggestions the world a few thousands years old and the deluge actually happened.

In particular he seems far too keen on the work of Velikovsky and the catastrophists. This isn't to say that some big bangs haven't happened in Earth's history but some of the ideas presented are just plain crazy. For instance, faced with evidence of human habitation at altitudes that are now too cold to grow crops Milton suggests the mountains have got thousands of feet higher in the last few centuries instead of the rather more obvious explanation of climate change.

Faced with this sort of lunacy it is almost impossible to give Milton any credit for what he does get right. One feels he has just hit on a good point by fluke rather than careful analysis of the data. I intend to read another book criticising neo-Darwinism and sure hope it is better than this one.

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Creator and Cosmos
Hugh Ross

For many theists there is no sight more pleasing than an atheist scientist steaming at the collar because a Christian has dared use some fact of physics for his own advantage. Ross is one such Christian. He is an evangelical and an astrophysicist who finds that modern cosmology seems to point to a divinely created world. He actually goes much further by claiming that the creator is exactly the one described in the Bible.

The first part of the book is about how the big bang theory of cosmology won through. This means that the universe had a beginning so might very well have had a beginner. The second part is about the fine tuning of the universe and our solar system so that everything is just right for intelligent life to appear. Both these points are true and we are free to speculate on causes and the possibility of God. Atheists postulate ideas that avoid the need for God and theists claim the facts show God exists.

For myself, I abandoned atheism because I do not accept the idea of the universe with all the right laws of physics just popping into existence. I have looked at many other possibilities from quantum fluctuations to bubble universes and find none actually answer the central question - why is there something instead of nothing.

Ross overstates his case but then so does every other popular science writer. However, this book is interesting and serves as a useful antidote to those atheists who would claim that science is on their side. Ross also has his own ministry, Reasons to Believe, which is worth a look if you're interested in his work.

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Chance and Necessity
Jacques Monod

I suppose it is true that I prefer to read books that I strongly disagree with and especially if they make me think about what I believe. Chance and Necessity is one such book and is certainly the best thing I have ever read on evolution. It was written in 1970 but I scarcely think that it has dated by a day because Monod is so careful to distinguish between the basic facts of neo Darwinism (which were properly established by that time) and his own speculation. It was originally written in French and suffers a bit from an idiosyncratic translator who insists, for instance, on always using the word 'teleonomy' instead of the more familiar 'purpose'. I cannot be sure if the unnecessarily difficult language is a result of Monod's French but I fear that like many intellectuals from his part of the world, he does like to make his readers work a bit. The work is worth it.

The second chapter has an excellent attack on Marx and Engel's dialectical materialism as an inadequate metaphysical basis for science which is all the more powerful as it comes from a former Marxist. Monod remains a socialist but in the last chapter he is reduced, like all honest materialists, to admitting that the only reason we should be nice to each other is that we want to be. He also makes clear that the desire to believe what is true is a purely ethical decision and not a rational one. But, he claims, the ethic of knowledge overthrows all other ethical systems and, because it says we should be objective, it is also the only one that allows science to thrive. The problem is, of course, that we cannot be objective however hard we try and we frequently disagree on what is true. If Monod is saying that we should join the logical positivists and claim that the only true knowledge is scientific then he has neither read his Thomas Kuhn nor come to terms with being human.

One other point is well made by Monod- the existence of human beings is highly contingent. Even given evolution and aeons of time he thinks we are still exceedingly lucky to be here. Like lottery winners we should just accept that our number came up and stop trying to explain why it did. But this is a problem - is a materialistic theory that makes the present reality very unlikely really better than the theistic one that makes it certain just because it does not include God? Good scientific theories are the ones with high predictorary power and the materialists world view predicts that we probably don't exist rather than that we do. Monod clearly states the contradictions of his beliefs but, like so many atheists, does not really face them.

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Creation Revisited (out of print)
Peter Atkins

There can be few sights sadder than seeing a distinguished professional making a complete fool of himself by trying to do something that he is simply incapable of. Professor Atkins is justly famous and wealthy as a result of his text book on Physical Chemistry but unfortunately he insists on dappling in matters he does not seem to understand. In fact I am being charitable here because I would hate to doubt his honesty and that would be the only alternative if he really did know what he was talking about in this book.

Atkins is a militant atheist like his colleague Richard Dawkins and this book is a feeble attempt to delineate an atheist cosmogony - i.e. to explain where the universe came from if there is no God. It is written in a style that is supposed to be poetic but in fact is merely annoying. Although now deservedly out of print and I am reviewing it here because Dawkins foolishly praises it in The Blind Watchmaker and Keith Ward debunks it in God, Chance and Necessity (still in print).

The big fallacy is in the first chapter when Atkins tells us that "The only faith that we need... is the belief that everything can be understood and, ultimately, that there is nothing to explain". So that's all right then. Needless to say, from such a start point you could get anywhere and Atkins proceeds to demonstrate that the universe is elegantly reorganised nothing that can be reduced to mathematics and that the laws of mathematics can be reduced to the laws of logic. This last point really disturbs me because it has been proven by Kurt Godel to be false and Atkins must know this. Such an oversight should, at least, have been picked up by his editors. Indeed, they should have politely but firmly have told Atkins to stick to his chemistry set.

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The Undiscovered Mind
John Horgan

Most scientists are honest enough to admit that the question of how the brain works remains unanswered. Even more difficult are the 'easy' and 'hard' problems of consciousness – what is the physical explanation for thought and perception and why is there such a thing as subjective experience? Neither of these are close to a solution. In general, if there are more theories than practitioners in a field of enquiry, you can bet that all the theories are wrong.

What neuroscience needs is an Einstein to sort it all out and show us the error of our ways. They thought they had one in Freud but he has turned out to be more quack than scientist. All this has not stopped people pronouncing breakthroughs every week or so and various theorists claiming that they have the whole thing wrapped up. Through this stuffy atmosphere, John Horgan blows like a hurricane and is doubtless very unpopular as a result.

I must admit this is an overwhelmingly negative and pessimistic book that does not expect to see any solutions to the problems it examines. Horgan does not at any point make pleas to mysticism or religion in his efforts to show consciousness is scientifically unexplainable, he simply shows us what a mess things are right now and have been in the past. His job is made easier by the fact that the proponents of each theory are fighting like rats in a sack. Horgan simply allows partisans for idea A to tear apart idea B before asking idea B’s fans to return to favour. Horgan has no alternatives, no suggestions for useful directions and sees no great future for neuroscience's record of discovery. On the other hand, if you like to see pins applied to the balloons of academic pomposity this book is both entertaining and enlightening.

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The Ascent of Science
Brian Silver

Non-scientists tend to have either a view of science that verges on worship or a deep suspicion of it. A mature understanding of its strengths and limitations is generally absent from public debate and this book is a useful antidote. People who do know quite a lot about science will, however, find it rather boring because it is pitched at the level of someone who knows very little. So, I can recommend a book that I did not, myself, enjoy at all.

Brian Silver died shortly after publication and this is very much a retirement book. The writing is good and occasionally quite witty while the subject matter is frequently idiosyncratic. Silver’s strengths are explaining scientific theories to the layman and putting their discovery into some sort of context. His weaknesses are his becoming rather tedious in his efforts to ensure that even the most scientifically illiterate will be able to follow his reasoning and presenting a rather old fashioned positivist picture of scientific advances. Kuhn is mentioned disparagingly and religion is bashed from time to time for no particular reason except that Silver seems to think he ought to. The old picture of clever Greeks succeeded by the stupid middle ages who were overthrown by the brilliant enlightenment is still largely subscribed to.

I would recommend this book to people who know nothing at all about science rather than those who are scientists and want to learn about their subject’s history. Likewise, historians of science, who want to brush up on their theory, will only like this book if they really need to get back to basics and in that case I would suggest that perhaps they should not be historians of science at all. That said, this is a much better book that Daniel Boorstin’s The Discovers which is not reviewed here as I just got so bored could I could not get a quarter of the way through.

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James Hannam 2000.
Last revised: 08 December, 2009.