Fukushima nuclear disaster

Book reviews

A fascinating account of the aftermath of Japan's 2011 earthquake and tsunami from two storytelling newspaper reporters is among this month's titles.



BY DR CLIVE HAMILTON, £20 ISBN 978-0300186673

Enthusiastic or concerned about geoengineering, this book will, at best, leave you uncomfortable, and at worst, in despair, over the deliberate and large-scale intervention in our climate system to counter global warming.

As the effects of climate change mount, world governments are still locking horns on greenhouse gas targets. Cue geoengineering; an additional, or even alternative, option to emissions control.

Clive Hamilton, author of 'Earthmasters' and Professor of Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University, Australia, provides a thorough, frank and, at times, chilling account of the technologies, the key players, ethical implications, potential benefits and disturbing risks.

He tells us how extensive research on feedback mechanisms and tipping points leaves Earth scientists desperately worried that today's mitigation strategies will fail in the face of abrupt climate change. Many of these researchers now recommend geoengineering to protect the world from calamity.

He also tells us how this "technofix" has its roots firmly in cold war physics and nuclear weapons research, and is driven by a small, vocal group of geoengineers eager to launch its fleet of sunlight-regulating and carbon-sucking techniques. Are they using global warming as a reason to take control of the Earth's climate?

Throw in the political failures, rising military interest, oil company backing and, as Hamilton puts it, "centuries of the objectification of nature" and the reader has an eye-opening and uneasy exploration into what could be the next step to tackling rising temperatures.

Like it or not, geoengineering could be on the cards, and how it is rolled out would affect the planet for centuries to come. Hamilton hopes it will only be used while we curtail carbon emissions, but fears it could used to control the climate and preserve our current way of living; an endeavour he believes is doomed to fail.

After laying out the arguments for and against climate engineering, as well as methodically dissecting the technologies and players themselves he finally asks: how can we think our way out of the problem when the problem is the way we think? That's difficult to answer.

Rebecca Pool



BY PETER LUCAS ET AL, £23.99 ISBN 978-1-118-17607-8 

We live in a world where there are more computing devices produced per year than there are humans. There may be billions of us, but that is nothing compared with the trillions of microprocessor-driven devices that are going to sculpt the way we do things in future. When these trillions all finally link up to produce a pervasive nodal network, it's going to make the Internet look as old-fashioned as what we nostalgically call snail mail. And where there is connectivity there is money and we'll all be able to take advantage of previously undreamed of business opportunities thanks to a technological determinism that is a communications revolution waiting to happen.

So say the authors of 'Trillions', an examination of how in the future, rather than living side by side with computerised interconnectivity, we'll actually be living within the digital information ecology. As technologists, they argue, our job will not so much be to invent the future, but to help others to navigate their way through it. If anyone was surprised by how the iPad changed our lives so quickly, well, we ain't seen nothing yet.

This is because the computerisation of everything is a 'simple economic imperative'. As manufacturing costs rise, computing costs go down, which is why most things electromechanical have become or are going to become electronic. Look at your car, your phone, your washing machine, say the authors, who then assure us that this is just the beginning of the story.

As with so many business books the central metaphor is that of a mountain. Today we sit at the foothills of 'Trillions Mountain', no longer afraid of computers and breathing in the sweet air of digital complexity. Pervasive computing is the next information technology paradigm. And because trillions is such a big number we'll all make it rich as a result of those high-volume micro-transactions that might seem trivial today, but will be your economic destiny.

Nick Smith



BY JEREMY GRAY, £24.95 ISBN 978-0-691-15271-4

The French mathematician Henri Poincaré is best known for the Poincaré Conjecture – a famously hard question he posed in 1904 to do with the study of properties that do not change when objects are stretched and bent (also known as topology or rubber-sheet geometry). Specifically the question concerned whether a 3D manifold (a complex bit of curved space with overlapping regions) was the same as a 3D sphere under specific algebraic conditions. A century later, Grigori Perelman proved the answer was 'yes'.

If this sparks your interest and your maths is in good shape, you will enjoy tackling Jeremy Gray's weighty scientific biography, which covers all of Poincaré's contributions to maths, physics and philosophy until his death at aged 58 in 1912. It reveals a deep-thinking public intellectual for whom form was more fundamental than matter and who wanted to understand the nature of reality by understanding spaces. Even Poincaré's explanation of how human knowledge is possible starts with geometry and how an individual constructs his or her notion of space.

The three-body problem, the theory of functions, topology, algebraic geometry, modern physics, and even probability benefited from Poincaré's original thinking and his mix of applied intuition and logic. Interestingly, he discovered many of the ideas that now form our mental picture of special relativity and that we associate with Einstein. He called for a new physics in which the speed of light was an impassable limit. He was also ahead of Einstein in speculation about a truly relativistic theory of gravity.

Author Jeremy Gray is a maths professor at the Open University who believes that studying the history of mathematics is an important way for showing maths' place in the intellectual and practical life of society. His book fixes Poincaré's ideas securely on the historical map although the extensive mathematical content means the general reader will find the book, at times, inaccessible.

Christine Evans-Pughe

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