A round up of the latest technology titles.

Physics of the impossible

By Michio Kaku (Allen Lane, 2008)

The history of science must necessarily be a chronicle of overthrows, with one explanation replacing another. One of the greatest overthrows was the displacement of Ptolemy's geo-centered cosmology with the Copernican solar-centered system. One prime disruptor, Galileo, was later put under house arrest for propounding a world view too much at odds with canonical ideas.

We don't lock up scientists anymore, at least not for their scientific views alone. But heretical pronouncement battling consensus opinion still forms an integral part of scientific life. Lord Kelvin thought heavier-than-air human flight to be impossible; Ernest Rutherford thought the idea of nuclear power to be moonshine. And don't we regularly view perpetual motion, faster-than-light speeds, and attaining absolute zero temperatures as patently impossible?

How phenomena are declared impossible is the subject of Michio Kaku's new book. A theoretical physicist at the City University of New York, Kaku is best known for his book 'Hyperspace', an account of the search for extra dimensions and their consequences for physics. His new book, 'Physics of the Impossible', could be called 'Hyperspace 2', since extra dimensions and lurking universes, parallel to the known cosmos, might play a potentially large role in those things we now consider impossible.

Kaku's choice of topics, such as teleportation (the instantaneous copying of quantum correlations over long distance), optical cloaking (rendering objects invisible by hiding them in shells made of materials with a negative index of refraction), and death rays, cannot exactly be considered pandering to popular taste since each of these subjects really is interesting in its own right. As for historical precedent, there is occasional reference back to historical figures like Galileo, but 'Star Trek' and 'Star Wars' are more frequently invoked. And why not? A plotline sending Captain Kirk anomalously backward in time tends to be a more vivid and immediate illustration of warped space than any number of tensor equations.

Writing a book crammed with so many novelties makes it difficult to present a large enough inventory of phenomena and explain them adequately. Kaku generally goes for quantity over quality. He fairly explains why matter-antimatter will always be an expensive proposition, but then alludes to a scheme for sending a mini-rocket to Mars based on electron-positron annihilation without giving us any details.

The book divides into three large parts: impossibility types I, II, and III. The first, which receives the most attention, concerns activities which, while improbable, violate no known laws of physics. Teleportation of small objects, antimatter engines, and psychokinesis might be possible by the end of the century, Kaku argues. For the second and third parts, about things which might take millennia to achieve, the 'impossible' framework starts to break down. Over so long a haul it's hard to say which scientific laws will survive. It's hard to even pose any useful questions.

Reviewed by Phillip F Schewe, chief science writer for the American Institute of Physics

Cyber warfare and cyber terrorism

Edited by Lech J Janczewski and Andrew M Colarik (Information Science Reference, 2008)

The first known attack by terrorists against a country's computer systems was in 1998, when a guerrilla organisation, the Internet Black Tigers, flooded Sri Lankan embassies with 800 emails a day for two weeks.

The first cyber war, of one nation state against another, may have occurred in 2007, when cyber attacks were launched against public institutions in Estonia, clogging its digital infrastructure. The data blasted at Estonian networks is said to have reached 90Mb/s, continuing for up to ten hours. Most of the attacks were of the distributed denial of service (DDoS) type, using networks of zombie machines that may have included one million computers. They originated from computers allegedly traced to Russia, but the Russian government has denied any involvement.

While nation states are increasing their capacity to wage or defend against cyber war, individuals with technical expertise find their power to damage and to disrupt magnified by the Internet. For example, in March 2000, a disgruntled Australian employee used the Internet to release one million litres of raw sewage into the river and coastal waters in Queensland. The same year, a university student in the Philippines developed the 'Love Bug' virus, which caused damage estimated at up to $15bn worldwide (of the same order as a major hurricane). 

Another way in which the Internet can hurt people is by spreading information about how to do so. In 1999, David Copeland killed three people and injured 139 in London: he downloaded the information he wanted about nail bomb construction from the Internet.

In an area that suffers from sensationalism, this book is welcome for its measured approach. It is a collection of 54 academic papers on cyber terrorism, steganography, cryptography, money laundering, spam, SQL code poisoning, electronic surveillance and civil rights, DoS attacks, and ECHELON. The papers are not particularly technical and most assume no specialist knowledge in the field.

A major fault of the book is that it is highly repetitious. For example, on p121 we read: "Social engineering: These non network-based techniques are the practice of obtaining confidential information by manipulating users." Later, on page 182, we are told again: "Social engineering is the process by which one gets others to do one's wishes."

There are many more examples of such irritating repetition. Do the authors think their readers are very forgetful? Or, more likely, 54 articles were written independently, and the volume's editors were less than thorough in their cross-referencing. The information in the book could have been compressed to a more manageable size.

Overall, this book is a worthy effort in an important area, but, given the high purchase price, the job could perhaps have been done better.

Reviewed by David Sandham, Communications Editor

Why the toast always lands butter side down

By Richard Robinson (Robinson, 2008)

There's a 'Peanuts' cartoon that shows Lucy staring out of the window, saying, "Why does it always rain when I want to do something?" So her brother Linus explains that this isn't actually the case; that she's simply forgetting all the many times when rain didn't spoil her plans. At which she bawls at him: "Why does it always rain when I want to do something?" And Linus says, "Because you're a very unlucky person."

Everyone's familiar with the moments when Murphy's Law comes into its own - it rains when our plans demand good weather; computers crash the instant before we press 'save' - it's undeniably tempting to take this as proof that we're at the mercy of a capricious universe. But there is, in fact, science involved, and if at first it seems that Richard Robinson's book is simply going to catalogue the ways in which everything that can go wrong does, it soon settles down to the business at hand: that of providing Linus with the ammunition he needs to shoot down Lucy's beliefs.

The first step towards this is the "Note on the shape of the brain", which provides the lay reader with a quick tour of the contents of the head, from amygdala to prefrontal lobe. This is where the action is. If external forces are occasionally to blame - the toast lands butter-side down because of Newton's Law, not Murphy's - the mistakes we make and the perceptions we apply to them have more to do with psychology than the innate hostility of inanimate objects.

And this psychology affects most aspects of human endeavour. In one of his most entertaining chapters, Robinson tackles Murphy's various Laws as they act on corporate structures, comparing the way big business operates to the way slime mould works - and for those not already nodding in recognition, he gives the fine detail, taking the fungus dictyostelium as an example of how a seemingly independent amoeba can become part of a larger colony, performing a series of coordinated and complicated manoeuvres before expiring to safeguard the survival of those at the top.

All in all, this is a book to keep handy for those moments when fuzzy logic threatens to become overwhelming. 

Reviewed by Mick Herron

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