Books

In this issues round-up of books we've been learning how to live dangerously - amongst other things.

How to Live Dangerously: Why we should all stop worrying, and start living

By Warwick Cairns, Macmillan, Out now, £10.99

One weak link in a structure - one untested joint that can't take the weight - and the whole edifice can come tumbling down.

As with engineering, so with philosophy, and it's on the weak links in our thinking that Cairns focuses in this entertaining study of why, when it comes to health and safety, we've become too careful for our own good.

He means this literally. The fact that an increased use of antibiotics weakens our resistance to infection can be taken as a paradigm: if we don't let our children learn to fend for themselves, they'll grow up helpless. This over-protection has reached startling levels. The area in which an eight-year-old is allowed to travel unaccompanied shrank to one-eighth of its size between 1970 and 1990, a restriction fed by fears of abduction - yet Cairns calculates that you'd have to lock your child out of the house every day for 200,000 years to be sure of having them kidnapped.

Some of his conclusions are familiar: for example, that you're in more danger driving to the airport than you are once you've boarded your plane. But Cairns digs deep into the underlying figures. Driving to catch cheap flights at unsocial hours, he tells us, increases the chances of an early death. Thirty per cent of fatal accidents happen between 11pm and 5am, when only 5 per cent of car journeys are taking place.

Interspersed with the statistics are tales of his own childhood experiments that might strike a chord with many: verifying a smell of gas by, yes, lighting a match; setting potentially life-ending mantraps in the grounds of derelict houses. He's not suggesting that "none of this did him any harm"; he's pointing out that a little harm can be a learning experience, and that an awareness of danger is worth more than over-elaborate precautions intended to permanently shield us from it.

In terms of traffic, this theory is borne out by "shared space" schemes. A fairly recent innovation, these involve getting rid of all roadside "safety features": signage, traffic lights, barriers, everything. As a result, those using the roads assume greater personal responsibility, and accidents decrease (annual traffic casualties on Kensington High Street fell from 71 to 40 after the scheme's adoption there).

It's a familiar battle-cry - PJ O'Rourke was railing against the "safety Nazis" back in the 1980s - but it's still worth making, and Cairns does so with wit and style.

Reviewed by Mick Herron, an Oxford-based author

White King and Red Queen - How the Cold War was Fought on the Chessboard

By Daniel Johnson, Atlantic Books, Out now, £9.99

This entertaining and well-written book suffers from an over-ambitious thesis. 'By providing the safety valve that kept the lid on the Cold War, chess helped to save civilization from itself', writes Daniel Johnson. He nowhere justifies such an exorbitant claim. What he does show, is that chess and politics have intertwined in some fascinating ways. But saving civilisation?

Perhaps chess players become devoted for an opposite reason: chess has very little to do with politics, life, or anything other than itself. Whereas even the most abstruse branches of mathematics could have some eventual bearing on physical theory, chess is a world apart. There precisely lies its charm. It may be no accident that the game was invented by Buddhists (as far as we know). The charm may lie in its pointlessness.

Johnson traces the relations of chess to artificial intelligence theory and points out, correctly, that the West's leadership in the microchip revolution was an important reason for its winning the Cold War. The Soviet Union's failure to keep up with Western information technology hastened its decline. Johnson does not make the mistake of so many writers on artificial intelligence and chess: the fallacy that because computers sometimes beat the world champion, chess has been solved. Chess is far too complex for that.

The rapid improvement over recent decades of chess computers is astonishing. Yet even today, human grandmasters regularly beat computers and well as get beaten by them. That may change (in the computers' favour). But the question will remain: given that computers can calculate millions of moves per second, and humans only a few moves per minute, why are humans able to beat computers at chess at all? It is as if a horse were able sometimes to outrun a car. The answer may be that human brains are more dissimilar to computers than we had imagined. But to delve further would take us too far afield.

Johnson's book is a light read, and prefers anecdote to sustained argument. It can be recommended to anyone with an interest in artificial intelligence and in the role of chess in culture.

Reviewed by David Sandham, editor of Global Reinsurance magazine

Women in Science, Engineering and Technology

By Alison Phipps, Trentham Books, Out now, £18.99

Statistics in this book paint a stark picture: women make up less than 1 per cent of skilled tradespeople in the building workforce; only 3 per cent of professors of engineering and technology are women. There have been concerns about the small number of women in science, engineering, construction and technology (SECT) for decades, and the Women's Engineering Society (WES) will be celebrating its 90th anniversary next year, but the problems still persist.

The book, commissioned by the UK Resource Centre for Women in SET, set up by the government in 2004, aims to record and analyse the initiatives to promote women in SECT over the last 30 years. The author has done a satisfactory job of describing a very large number of initiatives, although there are some notable omissions such as prizes for women engineers.

She argues that there are two drivers behind the initiatives. One is the feminist ideal that all women should be empowered to have equal pay and opportunities. Then there is a business case made on the benefits women can bring to SET industries, to help the UK maintain a competitive position in the global market place. There have been two basic approaches to the problem: changing women's attitude towards technology and altering the culture of SET. Support and networking groups of women have to begin deconstructing the patriarchal systems which deny women power.

This book is scholarly, with a long bibliography. It is unfortunate therefore that its style is rather turgid and cumbersome.

Reviewed by Jackie Carpenter, a chartered mechanical engineer

PoE&Try

Treasure this copy of E&T - the fight to rebuild the image of science and technology starts here! This year will see the 50th anniversary of CP Snow's landmark lecture, The Two Cultures.

Giving the Rede lecture in Cambridge in May 1959, Snow - a physicist and novelist, and originator of the phrase 'corridors of power' - highlighted what he saw as the growing gulf between science and the humanities. Snow was riled by 'literary intellectuals' - arty types who proudly claimed kinship with Shakespeare and Milton but equally proudly disported their ignorance of Einstein and Newton. He deplored this short-selling of scientific genius and bridled at the stereotypical view of all scientists and engineers as cold, plodding, unimaginative functionaries.

Five decades on, it is hard to argue that the public perception has changed much. Luckily for Snow, he died in 1980, thereby missing the cinema release of 'Revenge of the Nerds'.

Since then, we've had Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, Clive Sinclair, to name but a few. Despite the occasional 'Simpsons' cameo, it's hardly a roll call of cool. But while few people would feel happy having Seamus Heaney rewire their house or Andrew Motion teach kids the laws of thermodynamics, many an engineer and scientist hides an artistic, creative heart beneath the lab-coat pocket.

At long last, E&T gives all these sensitive souls a chance to express their literary talents. For our reviews section, poet and humorist Mike Barfield (BSc Hons, Botany & Zoology, King's College, London) will provide some sample verses on a topic of interest. You are invited to submit your own poetic efforts, to be judged by Mike. We will print a selection, and the writer of the best one will win copies of the 'Oxford Dictionary of Scientific Quotations', the 'Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations' and the 'Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations', courtesy of Oxford University Press. Poems should be original and no longer than eight lines. 

Our starting theme is CERN and the long-suffering Large Hadron Collider. Anguished sighs and long dressing gowns at the ready, can you top these opening offerings - an eight-liner and/or a haiku?

The Higgs boson particle

Is the ultimate indefinite article.

Despite CERN's costly fixtures

It will not pose for pictures.

Instead, it hides inside the

Large Hadron Collider.

Could Peter Higgs have chosen

A more elusive boson?

The electrons beam

As they hit the positrons.

It is smashing fun.

 

Please send your entries to vvitaliev@theiet.org.

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