Monday, August 12, 2013

Book Review: The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People- Neil Shubin

This book was a very easy and entertaining read (of course, I listened to it).  Before yesterday I had listened to about 1/8th of the book, then I finished it while doing housework yesterday.  It was hard to put down.  Also, because I was a short book, I see it ending up on my classroom bookshelf soon.

The first half of the book was mostly old hat for me because I read so many science and especially astronomy books.  However, I did learn quite a bit a the book progressed.  There were also a lot of biology connections and back-stories and details that I was unaware of.  I found myself continually thinking that it was refreshing to hear some of this information from the perspective of a biologist/paleontologist.  Some of the connections or analogies were a little bit of a stretch, but overall although the book jumped around a lot the flow was very smooth.

This book kind of helped confirm an idea that I've had for a while, that I like to hear the stories of scientists and listen to their books, but the narrative flows better with journalists and authors who write about science [Mary Roach, Bill Bryson, etc].

The only other complaint I can mention is that the author failed to talked about limitations of our knowledge or about the uncertainty [or error bars] of our knowledge in some of the areas that he presented as strong facts that I think the public/armchair scientist can handle.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Book Review: National Geographic Angry Birds Furious Forces: The Physics at Play in the World's Most Popular Game- Rhett Allain

Incredibly disappointing.

If I was a real book reviewer, this would be the sound bite from my review for the back cover.  Of course, it wouldn't get published with the book, but then again this book probably should not have been published either.

I bought this book, without previewing it, in fact I think I pre-ordered it by a week or two.  Now I know, of course, that I am not the target audience and I kept this in mind while reading it.  And maybe, I'm too use to Rhett Allain's blog, which is great.  I mean I almost drop everything and find a reason to spend time on the computer or alone with my iPad when he publishes a new article, just so I can read it fast.  He's a nerd after my own heart, a fan of physics in the real-world and virtual-world, a fan of Star Wars, and of xkcd.

I first stumbled across his blog when trying to find details about Felix Bumgardner's "jump from space", and even assigned one blog post to my students as homework, the reading and math and estimation skills were so great.  Like xkcd what-if's he's not afraid to crunch the numbers and guesstimate them when they are not available.  And some of his "homework assignments" have been fun.  He's even done a long series of posts about the real physics of Angry Birds in its many incarnations (in chronological order):

That's 22 23 posts over the last four years, and that's if I managed to dig all of them up (I may have missed some).  And starting with his preemptive review, except the two Angry Birds Stars Wars, I think he gives a very false perception of what the book is about.  Now, because I think this book is a "ride the bandwagon" attempt to cash-in on the Angry Birds franchise, and because he was approached by National Geographic & Rovio about doing the book, I don' think this is all his fault.  Those last few blog posts even have try this at home experiments which he mentions are in the "Physics at Play" sections of the book.  It turns out those sections are about two sentences at the bottom of some pages and there is very little guidance.  In the videos he does on those posts [which I saw on YouTube before Dot Physics because I'm subscribed to his channel there] he does some experiments with one of his daughters (slightly older than my own I'd guess) and they have it setup fairly rigorously with household supplies and several variables that can be tested.  There is no guidance like this from the book though.

Instead of being the Physics of Angry Birds this book is really just an overview of some of the fundamental concepts and some of the technology applications of the basics of physics.  The book includes sections on Mechanics, Waves (Sound & Light), Thermodynamics, Electricity & Magnetism, and Particle Physics (and Beyond).  Outside of Mechanics there is very little application to Angry Birds.  Each section was 30 pages.  The basic layout of a section was a two-page spread title, 2 two-page spreads over-viewing the physics topic, and then 10 more page pairs, where one page had a physics topic and the other had a full-page photo that was loosely related to the topic.  And there was a smattering of Angry Bird characters over the pages to somehow tie in Angry Birds.  Often at the bottom of one or both pages there was some extra physics facts, or the occasional try this at home blurb.
An example page from Furious Forces!
Image CreditNational Geographic

Also, each section had 2 two-page spread Angry Bird character bios, cutting into the physics content.

Profile Page for Matilda, the explosive-egg-dropping bird.
Image CreditNational Geographic

The book was very loosely organized and had little to do with the physics of the game.  And the worst part is, is that there were plenty of places where the game play could have been brought in and it wasn't.

I knew that the book wouldn't be as good as his posts, but I kind of hoped that there would at least be a guided- Here's How to Setup an Experiment and Collect Data in Angry Birds the Game, don't have the app? then download a free version (like Angry Birds for Google Chrome or Facebook), or setup a similar at home simulation.  Instead the book really was just a cash-in on the Angry Birds franchise and sell a book that had little to do with the game and almost nothing to do with the physics of the game.

It is not a bad overview of physics, but there are a lot of distractions and some topics that I would swap out with others.  It is a great late elementary to early junior high summary of physics, with most of the key concepts and almost no math (some equations are mentioned, but I think only the speed or distance equation is used).  One thing the book is not is the physics of Angry Birds.  I just wish there was an easier way than reselling to book to get my money back.  I rarely buy a book sight unseen and I certainly paid a high price for that this time.

PS: Not only did Rhett's own blog posts mislead me as to the content and rigor of the book, but so did the review by PhysicsBuzz (from where I borrowed the two above page spreads).