Christmas books: Science

The beast that made big bangs
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The Independent Culture

The best science books of 2001 seem to fall into two categories, hard stuff and easy stuff, with one in-between volume. I'll start with the more accessible items, not least because the outstanding book is also one of the easiest to read – The Ape and the Sushi Master, by Frans de Waal (Allen Lane, £20). De Waal studies primate behaviour and has found compelling evidence that human culture is not unique, but differs only in degree from equivalent behaviour seen in other species. Set in an autobiographical framework and drawing on a lifetime's work, this is the clear voice of reason explaining to a lay readership the truth behind the fierce debates that rage around the question of whether human beings are "merely" animals or have some unique spark.

De Waal's work is set neatly in its scientific context by two other books about what makes us human. The familiar story of the discovery of the theory of evolution is presented in an unfamiliar way by Peter Raby in his biography of the other man in the Darwin story, Alfred Russel Wallace, (Chatto & Windus, £20), while the emergence of modern man, Homo erectus, on the evolutionary stage is the theme of Java Man (Little, Brown, £18.99), a book which suffers from having been written by a committee (Garniss Curtis, Carl Swisher and Roger Lewin), but particularly intriguing for its account of the way our own evolutionary line survived while a variety of close relations all seem to have vanished without trace.

Edward Teller's Memoirs (Perseus, £19.99) provide a striking counterpart to de Waal's book, as well as being deeply absorbing in their own right. Here, writ large, we can see humans behaving exactly like other primates, squabbling, fighting, and using weapons. The difference is one of scale, with the weapons including the hydrogen bomb and missile defence systems. But there is a lot more to Teller's take than the story of the H-bomb. Born in Hungary in 1908, he has first hand experience of the upheavals in Europe following the First World War, and his compelling account of the misunderstanding between Bohr and Heisenberg that led Bohr to think that the Nazi regime was about to develop a nuclear bomb is an important contribution to scientific history. I came away with a distinctly less hostile view of Teller the man and an improved understanding of many events I thought I understood.

The in-between book on my list is Emergence by Steven Johnson (Allen Lane, £14.99). Johnson's theme is the way complicated systems – cities, ant colonies, the human brain – emerge from collections of simple things going about their business in accordance with a few straightforward rules. Irritatingly American, and often irritating in other ways, this is a provocative book to make you think about the way the world works, not necessarily one you will always agree with. But it does us all good to be irritated from time to time, even in the festive season.

If you want to be made to think, I have two books to recommend. Lee Smolin includes passages guaranteed to make your head hurt in Three Roads to Quantum Gravity (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £18.99); but also passages that provide a deep insight into the way physicists work and what the current quest for a theory of everything is all about.

They can be absorbed (and absorbing) even if the ideas themselves prove difficult to take on board. At both levels, this is the best book about the scientific search for ultimate truth to appear this year.

More provocatively, J Richard Gott offers his own vision of how it all began in his Time Travel in Einstein's Universe (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £18.99). Gott's suggestion is that the Universe created itself through a closed loop in time – and in order to set such a wild-sounding idea in context he has to cover a lot of ground about space, time, spacetime and time travel. It's head-spinning stuff at the cutting edge of speculative (but respectable) science, and perhaps not an ideal read for someone who knows nothing about Einstein.

Happily for such a reader, though, the prolific Paul Davies has produced his own Christmas cracker this year in the form of a slim volume entitled How to Build a Time Machine (Allen Lane, £9.99). Really a no-nonsense primer to the special and general theories of relativity, it makes an ideal companion to the Gott volume, highly recommended even though the bibliography inexplicably contains no mention of my own book on the theme, In Search of the Edge of Time.

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