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Book Reviews Non-fiction - Summer 1997
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Dr. Karl Kruszelnicki
Harper Collins Publishers
ISBN 0-7322-5723-9

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Pigeon Poo, the Universe and Car Paint and other awesome science moments

If you like your science in easy, bite-sized chunks, or are just interested in the world around you, this is the book to buy. Dr Karl has the knack of being able to explain science in ways that are both amusing and informative. The title of the book is actually one of the stories in the book.

As the cover blurb says "Pigeons landed a couple of scientists a Nobel Prize, because somebody bothered to discover the difference between Pigeon Poo and The Origins of The Universe". This may sound rather far fetched, but when you read the article that accompanies the title, it all makes sense.

Statements like "What really killed Elvis Aaron Presley (and why was he buried twice)? Why do men have nipples?" (And you will be surprised at the answer!!) "Why can the pill make a woman choose Mr Wrong, and why are there traffic jams in the middle of nowhere?" If any of these questions pique your interest, get the book!! The answers are there!

I first heard Dr Karl Kruszelnicki on Double J, as it was known then, in Sydney in the early 70's. He had short segments on the station handing out gems of science like the ones in the book . I have heard him speak and speaks just the way her writes. You want MORE, and in many cases, the information he gives can whet your appetite to go out and find out more about the subject.

One of the better things about this book is that at no time do you feel that he is talking down to you. The science is there, but it is easily understood. The words used give the meaning that is required, BUT, they also entertain. You may be surprised at the amount of information your will learn!

Richard Hryckiewicz

(Stuart Kauffman, Penguin 1996)
ISBN 0-14-017414-1
At Home in the Universe, The Search for Laws of Complexity

In searching for the laws of complexity, Kauffman has taken his sub-title too seriously. He has created a very complex book, which is trying to be so clever that it loses the lay reader entirely.

His premise is simple enough. He argues that although natural selection explains certain aspects of the evolution of life on Earth it isn't a complete explanation. Kauffman's particular interest is in self organising systems--the idea that complexity is bound to evolve from simple starting points. He drags the reader through the murky waters of the Belosov-Khabotinski reaction and various aspects of complexity theory.

The maths and the terminology are fearsome. Only someone comfortable with such sentences as "The first interesting result is that as the parameters, K and C, and number of partners, S, are changed along the axis, from the chaotic regime to the ordered regime, the average fitness at first increases and then decreases .....Figure 10.5 shows this for simulations in which only the richness of epistatic interactions within species, K, changes, while C and the number of partners, S, are held constant." would find this book readable.

When not delving into the realms of complexity theory, Kauffman is making vast generalizations that he seems to think are supported by his mathematics. He tells us that humans have lost the sense of the sacred and he seems to think that his liturgy of mathematical jargon will somehow restore this. I must admit that I understood the maths as poorly as I understand theological arguments for the existence of God, so maybe he's right, and we can expect whole new orders of Metajesuits based on the theorems expounded here.

Kauffman seems to be frantically searching for underlying Laws that prove that humans are meant to be here. He strings together various current disciplines into a wonderful hodgepodge that while supposedly explaining everything never really comes across as more than wishful thinking. Yes, given energy and raw materials, order can spontaneously generate. All evolutionary theory relies on this idea, otherwise there would be nothing in the universe except for the hydrogen and helium left over from the Big Bang. There is nothing new here. What is new is that Kauffman wants his Laws to explain everything from the initial synthesis of RNA to Stock Market fluctuations. It seems barely removed from Rupert Sheldrake's Morphic Resonance -- very clever thinking, but all rather pointless.

Unless one can explain complexity in a simple fashion, there seems to be little point in attempting to do so for the mass audience. Someone needs to do for complexity theory what Gleickdid for Chaos Theory. Based on this book, Kauffman isn't the one.

Marc Ortlieb

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