Sense about Science ? equipping people to make sense of science and evidence
Christmas Reading Room 2013
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Fitzroy: The Remarkable Story of Darwin's Captain and the Invention of the Weather Forecast by John and Mary Gribbin. "With a mind to keep going my trend of meteorological recommendations, this year I’d like to go back to the early beginnings of weather forecasting in the UK, with a suggestion of a biographical story of Fitzroy. Amongst his many achievements Fitzroy was brave enough to publish the UK’s first weather forecast, he founded the Met Office, chose a then unknown Darwin as his companion as Captain of the Beagle, and was a very progressive Governor of New Zealand. This book tries to capture the achievements of a troubled, but under-valued and under-recognised scientist who was ridiculed in the media and struggled for acceptance by the establishment. I like to think Fitzroy, if he was a practicing scientist today, would have been a strong advocate for Sense about Science’s Ask for Evidence campaign."
Crime by Nick Ross. "The subject is one where everyone's favourite myths prevail, which Nick Ross exposes ruthlessly. It is certainly the best book about crime I have read, the most readable as well as the most revealing."
Dr Janice Taverne:
Candide by Voltaire. "I first read it years ago, probably before I was grown up, but hadn't remembered how funny it is. Well worth enjoying for the first or even second time."
Dr Michael Fitzpatrick:
Quack Policy: Abusing Science in the Cause of Paternalism by Jamie Whyte. "As a doctor whose patients have been threatened with extinction by a long series of catastrophes - Aids, BSE/CJD, SARS, Bird Flu, Swine Flu - and 'epidemics' of alcohol and obesity related diseases - I was struck by Jamie Whyte's observation that 'any British citizen over the age of 40 might consider himself lucky to be alive today.' Yet, as Whyte observes in his devastating critique of the scaremongering and myth-making of much 'evidence-based policy', 'no generation of persistently doomed people has lived longer'. This brief and pithy book exposes the abuses of science in public policy in relation to minimum alcohol pricing, passive smoking, global warming and happiness. This exposure of the ways in which 'paternalist policies promoted by experts and politicians show contempt for the actual preferences of the general public' is essential reading for all enemies of bad science and worse policy.
"For a non-science book, I would recommend The New English Landscape by Jason Orton and Ken Worpole. Wonderful photographs and thoughtful essays on the shifting and contested landscapes of the Essex countryside and its convoluted coastline."
Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History by David Aaronovitch and Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. "The first is a splendid corrective to the temptation to embellish history with hallucinogenic narrative. The second is just immensely readable and enjoyable and explains – without resorting to hagiography – why Jobs was both an irritating twit and a towering genius."
Dr Simon Singh:
"As his friends once said about him, Martin Gardner "turned thousands of children into mathematicians, and thousands of mathematicians into children". He was the greatest recreational mathematician of the twentieth century, authoring a series of books about mathematical puzzles, so why not start with Entertaining Mathematical Puzzles and then try a few more. Or, for Gardner's take on skepticism, try Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science."
Prof Colin Berry:
The Sports Gene by David Epstein. "You can’t be a top basketball player if you are not over six foot nor a heavyweight champion if you are small. Both of these are genetically determined in a very large part - but what about the man who has an enhanced response of the red-cell generating machinery to an hypoxic stress and thus does naturally what blood doping does? He's not a cheat but he wins! As it gets easier to “do” the individual genome, will we need to define acceptable limits of variation of traits of this kind in a competition? Or does everyone dope to get even?"
Dr Irene Hames:
The Ghost by Robert Harris. "A great holiday read. A well-written and gripping political thriller set mainly in Martha’s Vineyard in winter, where a professional ghostwriter is sent from London to help a former British prime minister write his memoirs after the death of the first ghostwriter. It’s atmospheric, full of twists, and has some great storytelling. Or watch the film, with Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan in the lead roles. Either would be a very enjoyable way to spend a winter’s afternoon over Christmas."
"This year I’m giving people one of three presents: Othello (the board game; uxoricide isn’t festive), which is hugely underrated, quieter than Connect 4 and, above all, addictive enough to end any suggestion of playing Monopoly. Or For Who the Bell Tolls by David Marsh, production editor of the Guardian, about grammar and style in a modern context, a much better and more entertaining book than the flurry of schoolmistress lectures led by Lynne Truss a few years ago. Or Risk Intelligence by Dylan Evans, which is an engaging trip through what we think we know and how we deal with uncertainty. I love the humbling effect of his risk intelligence test (also online at www.projectionpoint.com) which asks you to estimate the probability of statements being true – many things you think you know but suddenly wonder whether you do.
"And a dog COULD BE for Christmas: I’ll be giving our teenage kids this lovely bed for a dog, with the offer that if they walk round the park every night for the next three months in the cold and rain, picking up other people’s dogs’ poo, by next Spring they can have something to put in it."
Dr Prateek Buch:
The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets by Simon Singh (Sense About Science trustee). "An illuminating, funny and informative read. Illuminating because it sheds light on the geek infiltration of Hollywood's leading series, funny not only because the starting material is funny but because of Simon's engaging style, and informative from this non-mathematician's viewpoint because it taught me some maths. At times I found myself sympathising with Homer in Treehouse of Horror VIII, where he happens upon a Gary Larson cartoon - but this is more of a reflection of my weak maths-fu than on the book. Taking in the mathematical elements of Futurama as well, Simon chronicles just how deeply mathematics is embedded in the writer's minds."
Poor Economics by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo. "By asking questions about how poor people - those living on around $1-a-day - think and behave, Banerjee and Duflo propose a radical departure from conventional approaches to fighting poverty: an evidence-based way grounded in a real understanding of why those too poor to afford clothes have televisions, or spend 7% of their food budget on sugar. These and other arresting, counter-intuitive stats emerge from their use of randomised controlled trials of aid policy at their laboratory, J-PAL. An uplifting account of how poverty can be combated using evidence."
Lawyer Barons - What Contingency Fees Really Cost America by Lester Brickman. "Brickman believes that 'financial incentives for lawyers to litigate are so inordinately high that they perversely impact our civil justice system and impose other unconscionable costs.' His analysis is both insightful and sobering."
"I enjoyed reading Primo Levi’s classic, The Periodic Table this year. It’s a collection of short stories, each inspired by an element on the periodic table. The stories are mainly autobiographical, relating to his strange and incredible experiences as a Jew in Mussolini’s Italy, surviving Auschwitz, and his work as a chemist. They also include some bizarre fiction and I loved the final chapter on the life of a carbon atom. I’m hoping to get a copy of Almanac by Jeffrey Camp for Christmas. He’s a great artist. I went to his exhibition at the Jerwood this year and loved his paintings of the cliff tops at Beachy Head."
Children of the Sun by Maxim Gorky. "This play, by the father of literary Socialist Realism Maxim Gorky, was written in eight days during his imprisonment at the time of the failed 1905 Russian Revolution. It is a brilliant, funny, deeply vitriolic and chillingly prescient protrayal of the Russian bourgeoisie as they stumbled towards oblivion. The main character, Protassoff, is a wealthy and naive scientist whose radical experiments begin to arouse the suspicion of the local townsfolk. When the local water supply is poisoned and villagers begin to die, he protests that his work is for the benefit of humanity. But the proletarian mob has other ideas..."
The Patient Paradox by Margaret McCartney
"For an informative way to pass the time in car journeys to see your family this Christmas, I suggest popping Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman! into the CD player. An oldie but a goodie, it will give you something to think about and is hugely entertaining. For even more laughs (and for fans of TV show 30 Rock), I thoroughly recommend Tina Fey's inspiring and hilarious autobiography Bossypants - the book is good, but the audiobook even better thanks to Fey's comic voices."
Dr Chris Peters:
Power Grid, by Rio Grande Games. “I’m recommending the board game Power Grid. Who would have thought energy policy and board gaming was a match made in heaven. Fluctuating commodity markets, cut throat technology purchasing strategies and the option to decide the future of the German energy market all add up to a highly competitive bit of board game fun. Will you go 100% renewables, rely on cheap coal or try for a balanced energy mix? You can also come up with your own house rules like adding in a carbon floor price, EU emission trading schemes or even negative public attitudes for specific technologies. Hours of energy policy fun!”
Dr Síle Lane:
64 Things You Need To Know Now For Then by Ben Hammersley. "Hammersley is the editor-at-large of Wired UK. In this book he sets out big ideas about the internet and technology and through the 64 very short chapters starts describing a future society that will be divided between people who get technology and those who don’t. The technologically literate will be empowered, demanding consumers, citizens and patients while the illiterate will be left behind. One problem though - the people charged with deciding policies on technology usually don’t get it and are developing strategies based on technology that will be soon out of date. (As this book came out last year it itself is probably already a bit out of date. A good book to dip in and out of during Christmas time off)."
Dr Ben Goldacre:
"Appallingly (and I'm pleased to see Prof David Nutt is equally single-minded): Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre. There are huge problems in medicine, we can fix them together, but only through public engagement and public pressure. If all the problems in medicine have been fixed by the time you read this, you're allowed to also read JMR Higgs' book The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds. It's astounding, and reflects my metaphysical world view more closely than any religious text."
Sir Iain Chalmers:
"Laila El-Haddad is a blogger, journalist, political analyst, social activist, and parent of three. She has a BA in political science from Duke University and a Master’s degree in public policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Gaza Mom: Palestine, politics, parenting, and everything in between is a great read. It’s based on Laila El-Haddad’s blogs between 2004 and 2012 and contributions she made over that period to the BBC, Al-Jazeera English, the Guardian Unlimited, the New Statesman and other media. Poignant, passionate, angry and often funny, the book helps its readers to understand what life is like for Gazans under siege, and for their relatives abroad who want to visit them."
Sir Paul Nurse:
Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver.
Prof Richard Wiseman:
Jedi dressing-gown. "This is a must for all sci-fi fans. Plus, you can use it to get respect from your children by putting it on, secretly attaching a thread to an object in your kitchen, and then have a friend pull the thread when you hold out your hand."
Prof Jim Al-Khalili:
"As a scientist and atheist I thought I would pick something appropriate. My recommendation for Christmas is geneticist Steve Jones’ new book, The Serpent's Promise: The Bible Retold as Science. Jones argues that the Bible was the first science textbook, but of course got a lot of the science wrong. Here he rewrites the Bible in the light of what we know about the Universe today. It's thought provoking and witty and is more than just a cheap poke of fun at religion. Instead he explores the limits of science and what it can tell us about life and death and whether some of the mythologies of the Bible are rooted in any truth. I have so far only skimmed through my copy, but want the time to sit down and read it properly".
Prof David Nutt:
Drugs Without the Hot Air by David Nutt.
"I enjoyed The Infographic History of the World by Valentina D’Efilippo & James Ball. The book takes a historical tour, beginning with the start of the universe, through the creation of civilisation and into the modern world. Each of the seventy five or so chapters takes a particular topic and uses data visualisation treatment to make it come to life. It would be a great Christmas gift for a young person who can see how what they are learning at school fits into a wider framework. But it would also suit an adult who wants to have the big picture".
Prof Sergio Della Sala:
The Periodic Table by Primo Levi. "The book is a collection of short stories (a genre now revamped thanks to the Nobel prize to Alice Munro) written in 1975 by Primo Levi, an Italian Jew, a Chemist, who survived Auschwitz and committed suicide in 1987. In 21 tales, chemical elements are used as metaphors to narrate poignant autobiographical chronicles. In 2006, the Royal Institution of Great Britain named it the best science book ever. It is a unique, awe-inspiring blend of science and being."
"Can I recommend Nothing Personal: Disturbing Undercurrents in Cancer Care. If you are a doctor and want to know how to do better, read this. Evidence based medicine is nothing without kindness. And the LEGO Star Wars Advent Calendar - because it's not christmas without it."
Drugs Without the Hot Air by David Nutt. "It does exactly what it says on the cover. It is clearly and stylishly written, comprehensive and factual. It doesn't offer judgment on any drug but it gives you the ammo to make your own judgments, if that's what you want. I gave my first copy away to a friend who uses drugs, and she appreciated it -- and I felt better for handing over a book with such straightforward information. If I were rich, I'd give every MP a copy."
"I would recommend My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. This book is a treat for any one with interests in zoology and the natural sciences. Durrell describes experiences of being a (very) young naturalist in Corfu during the 1930's. As he shares his adventures, you experience the wonder of nature through a child's eyes (he's 10 at the start of the book), from curious garden creatures to the weird and wonderful beasties that lie further afield. Durrell's enchanting style brings the wildlife to your living room, coffee shop or commute, and reawakens that childhood curiosity we have for what's around us".
Dr Helen Czerski:
"Thin Ice: Unlocking the secrets of climate change in the world's highest mountains by Mark Bowen. I wish books like this had been written for every area of Earth science. It's a fantastic mixture of rigorous science, planetary context and adventure story. It tells the story of how ice core science like this is done in the field, and weaves in discussions on how science works, why this science matters and how much individual enthusiasm can still drive science forward. Anyone who has ever wondered how we know about past climate, or why ice matters, should read this book."
An Astronaut's guide to life on Earth by Chris Hadfield. "The book is part memoir, part self-help manual on how to "think like an astronaut" in everyday life. Hadfield's philosophy, learnt during NASA training, is to “prepare for the worst – and enjoy every moment of it”. The approach got Hadfield through a variety of hairy situations in space. It might also be applied to the lesser challenge of a week holed up with tipsy, overfed relatives."
Bumpology by Linda Geddes. “A must for anyone you know who is expecting! Pregnancy is full of do’s and don’ts, old wives’ tales and crazy internet forums. It’s difficult to find reliable information to answer all the questions you have about your changing body and baby. Even the professionals, from consultants to midwives to NCT teachers, often have dramatically different agendas and offer a stream of conflicting advice. This book gets behind the hype to dig into the latest research papers presenting the findings in a friendly easy-to-read format. Plus, it includes lots of heart-warming facts about what your baby is getting up to in there, from tasting curry to hearing music.”
"I'm pretty sure I won't be the only geek who's wishing for a copy of Simon Singh's The Simpsons & Their Mathematical Secrets in my stocking this year. I'm hoping it might remind me of lots of the really neat mathematical theorems and proofs that I used to know but have long forgotten. It's no surprise that this should appeal as I'm a big fan of anyone who manages to interweave literature, or the arts, and scientific theory too. One of my favourite authors in this regard is Primo Levi - many people know him for his memoir, If This Is A Man, about his time in Auschwitz, but he was also a chemist who used his scientific knowledge as the framework for his writing. Some of his wonderful science fiction short stories are out of print, but The Periodic Table, which uses the elements as a way of introducing different aspects of his life, is still available, and would be a brilliant gift for scientists and non-scientists alike. (And don't just take my word for it, a few years ago the Royal Institution named it the best science book ever written.)'"
"Jared Diamond's Guns Germs & Steel - if you haven't read this you know nothing - and James Harford's 1999 biography of Sergei Korolev, How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to Beat the Americans to the Moon, who created the Soviet space programme out of nothing and beat the Americans - until he died from the after-effects of Stalin sending him to the Gulags. Not just Korolev but heroes like Feoktistov shot and buried by the Nazis but still fulfilling his impossible 1930s dream of becoming a spaceman."