Trick or Treatment?


Reviewed: ‘Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial’ by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst

Anyone aware of Simon Singh’s battle in the libel courts against the British Chiropractic Association will be able to make a cunning guess at what answer this book gives to the question posed in the title. What Singh and Ernst deliver is a rigorous, comprehensive and ultimately damning evaluation of all the major strands of alternative medicine, including acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic and herbal remedies, reviewing the scores of clinical trials that have sought to answer the question: are alternative therapies effective?

The resounding answer ringing from the entire book is NOOO!! (with a few little exceptions). While it may be important that such a book exists that is accessible to the average reader – indeed one of the comments on the back remarks that “physicians should recommend the book to their patients” – I cannot claim to have particularly enjoyed reading it.

The authors set off with a statement of open mindedness, making no prior assumptions before subjecting therapies to the ‘science test’. Nonetheless, it quickly becomes obvious what the conclusion is going to be, and the constant use of derogatory terms (“pure quackery” etc.) scuppers any pretence at engagement with believers in alternative medicine.

In the end, I think this is where Trick or Treatment? falls down – it convincingly argues for the absurdity and illogic of many therapies, but it is delivered in such a way that only those comfortably in the conventional-medicine-only camp, or at least very close to the fence, will be persuaded by it.

Of course, the fact that the book is unlikely to persuade ardent believers in alternative medicine does not make it a bad book. There is some fascinating stuff to keep the reader’s attention along the way. This is particularly true in Chapter 1 which gives a history of evidence based medicine – the fact that Hippocrates believed that the womb ‘wandered’ around the female body even won me a game of Trivial Pursuit! Plus, the sheer bizarrity of some of the things out there is incredible. I particularly enjoyed hearing about ‘tachyon therapy’ which uses hypothetical particles travelling faster than the speed of light to heal wounds.

Nonetheless, the overall drive of the book is negative with much repetition of how alternative therapies have been proven not to work, ultimately making for unexciting reading. None of the joy of scientific discovery and wonder at truths about the human body that science has uncovered is conveyed, which in the end would seem the best way of convincing those sceptical about the authority of science – it kinda reminded me of US foreign policy, the authors bomb the hell out of the enemy with impressive logical firepower, but “the battle for hearts and minds” is left by the wayside (I loathe that phrase by the way).

One interesting point is the mention of a libel case brought by a respected US doctor in the late 18th century against a campaigner who believed bloodletting was harmful rather than helpful for suffering patients. This resonates strongly with the libel case brought against Simon Singh by the British Chiropractic Association due to an article he wrote in the Guardian soon after Trick or Treatment? was published, reiterating many of the points about the questionable claims made by some chiropractors. Unlike the case described in the book, thankfully the BCA eventually backed down and a libel reform bill is currently making its way through parliament (though whether it goes far enough is debatable – check out and sign the petition!).

Overall, while I am completely on the authors’ side, Trick or Treatment? doesn’t pass the ‘would recommend to a friend’ test. Perhaps the subject matter is important enough to speak for itself. The global spend on alternative medicines is astounding and serious ethical issues come into play when patients are advised to give up on conventional treatments. However, if you are convinced that conventional medicine is the only wise choice then there is not much enjoyment to be gleaned other than gleeful ridicule of the wackier treatments, and if you are convinced that alternative medicine is viable then the combative style is unlikely to change your opinions, leading to the question – who is the book really written for?


Next to be reviewed:

‘The Periodic Table’ by Primo Levi

Life Ascending


Reviewed: ‘Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution’ by Nick Lane

In October 2010, the Royal Society Prize for Science Books went to Nick Lane for his book ‘Life Ascending’, so it only seemed appropriate to give it a read and see what all the fuss was about. Thankfully it won’t be the last book prize the Royal Society will award, which looked likely to be the case until recently, since Winton Capital Management have signed a 5 year sponsorship deal giving birth to the mouthfilling Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books. Excellent.

With such high acclaim I approached Life Ascending with some enthusiasm, which was rapidly deflated when I found out Nick Lane is a biochemist – a field that has never exactly grabbed my imagination. But it is testament to Lane’s skill as a writer that he managed to keep me not just engaged but enthralled while explaining some of the finer points of biomolecular processes. However the book is more than just biochemistry, it is a run-down (or rather run-up) of 10 inventions of evolution that have had the greatest impact on the world, ranging from conditions in which the first proteins and genetic molecules were formed right up to consciousness and, surprisingly, death.

Of course, such a sweeping tour of the history of life on earth covers huge swathes of scientific topics, each with their own history, points of debate and unsolved mysteries, and Lane guides the reader through with what he personally regards as the most plausible theories. In doing so, he fills you in with lots of interesting backstories, eccentric scientists and industry quips (like “the second law of Leslie Orgel: Evolution is cleverer than you are”). For fear of getting lost in the details and asides the reader is often brought back to the big questions, such as why life only arose once from the common ancestor of all living things, or the evolutionary logic behind death. I think this is the greatest strength of the book: the mixture of light asides, big questions and fascinating details all held together in a logical structure that equally entertains and informs.

Lane receives a lot of praise for the elegance of his writing, and it is certainly displayed in passages like the description of the “futuristic cityscape” of the inner workings of a cell from the point of view of a single biomolecule. It is in the more biochemical chapters that you feel Lane is at home and enjoyably in command. While the later chapters are still fascinating (I was blown away by how birds’ lungs work), they don’t quite have the sparkle or the argument of earlier chapters – consciousness in particular was more of a run-through than a narrative. Nonetheless, it is clear why Life Ascending was awarded the Royal Society prize: Nick Lane makes a fantastic tour guide through the wonders of evolution.

Next to be reviewed:

‘Trick or Treatment?’ by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst – the book that kicked off Simon Singh’s well publicized libel case. I’ll try and keep the defamation to a minimum…

Darwin’s Cathedral


Reviewed: ‘Darwin’s Cathedral’ by Dr. David Sloan Wilson

So, when I decided that I would write a book review blog for Science Brainwaves I was a mere three pages through the introduction of ‘Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society’. With such a grandiose title I should have been more prepared for the gruelling task I had undertaken by opening the front cover. This book is no light summer read to be enjoyed over a glass of something cold and alcoholic; it demands the attention of your finest neurons.  Nonetheless, if you stick to your guns, it is more than worth the effort.

The idea Dr. David Sloan Wilson is selling to the reader is that a successful religion functions to make its followers work better as a group. In turn, this helps a religious group outcompete a non-religious group and allows the group to dominate and reproduce in just the same way as with the natural selection we know and love. But surely religions can’t ‘evolve’ like trees, or dinosaurs or humans? Well the idea is that religions culturally evolve – the beliefs and practices that constitute a religion change and grow over time. Those beliefs and practices that lead a group to be successful will naturally stick around, while those that put their group at a disadvantage will be lost to the mists of time.

This seemingly simple idea is examined from every which way, from the point of view of evolutionary biology and from the point of view of the social sciences, while a convincing array of examples are presented, from the smallest tribal faiths to the biggest religious behemoths. The length that Wilson goes to in order to defend his thesis may be enough to put off a reader with only a mild interest. However, if like me you find the phenomenon of religion fascinating, then you will find ‘Darwin’s Cathedral’ engaging and thought provoking. I found myself coming out of the book with a new found respect for the incredible complex constructs that religions are, though even more amazed by the power of evolutionary processes.

Wilson is an evolutionary biologist, and you might be forgiven for thinking his book on religion would constitute a full frontal attack of the Richard Dawkins variety. However, Wilson is quietly respectful of religious believers, and spends more time chastising militant atheists than pointing out any foibles of religious belief. This is a refreshing change from the tirades of the atheist brigade, although ultimately Wilson’s thesis is pretty damning for the truth of beliefs in gods and supernatural stuff – religious beliefs don’t need to be true in order to motivate any group-beneficial behaviours.  Whether or not you think Wilson’s got it right, there’s certainly a lot here to make you think.

Wilson does warn the unwary reader that he hasn’t dumbed down. Yet despite some thorny content, his style remains very readable throughout and he resists using more technical terminology than is necessary, leaving only the concepts for you to get your mental teeth into. The result is that by the end you feel a little exhausted, and ready for a Dan Brown or two, but also satisfied that nothing was out of your league. If you have a penchant for talking about religions over a pint, and fancy a challenging new year read to forget the fact that it’s January, I would heartily recommend ‘Darwin’s Cathedral’.

Next to be reviewed: ‘Life Ascending’ by Nick Lane (much easier I’m hoping…)

Weird Physics – an Introduction

Guest post By Robin Bisson


With Halloween and Bonfire Night out of the way, mince pies comfortably established on the supermarket shelves and town light displays ready to be switched on by a passing celebrity, Christmas is on the horizon. And so too is Science Brainwaves’ Christmas Lecture, a free event being held on the 17th on December at the University of Sheffield, which promises to be a real cracker *groan*. The lecture, titled ‘Weird Physics’, is being given by Dr Paul Stevenson of the University of Surrey.

That physics is weird might seem to be a given, after all physics fans have a reputation for getting all excited over obscure things that happen millions of light years away, having some outlandish tastes in music, and developing a tendency in later life to wear jackets with leather elbow patches. However, we’re not talking about any normal kind of weirdness here; we’re talking about the seriously bizarre world of quantum mechanics, a world in which even the most basic facts about the world get turned upside down. Now, if all that the word ‘quantum’ makes you think of is daytime repeats of Quantum Leap, you’re probably not alone. So to get swotted up before the lecture, and to give you a taste of some of the strangeness to come, here’s an introduction to the weird world of quantum mechanics…

Perhaps the most well known illustration of why the quantum world is at odds with the rest of the world is that of Erwin Schrödinger’s famous cat. Schrödinger proposed an experiment where a cat is placed in an opaque box, in which there would also be a phial containing poisonous gas, one radioactive atom and a mechanism to smash the phial if the atom decayed. If the atom were to decay then the cat would die, but if the atom does not decay then the cat survives. The weirdness comes in because quantum mechanics tells us that until we look at the atom, it is in the state of being decayed and non-decayed at the same time, and the consequence for our unhappy cat is that it is both alive and dead at the same time. “Ridiculous!” you might well shout, which is exactly what Schrödinger was pointing out, all be it in a slightly morbid way – the quantum world does not appear to fit in with the world of big things that we know, in which cats most definitely don’t wander about in limbo between life and death.

To make it clearer what exactly we’re dealing with here, a little explanation is needed. The quantum world is that of atoms and subatomic particles: the familiar electrons, protons and neutrons that we all learned about at school, as well as other more exotic particles. One of the things that quantum mechanics says about these little bits of matter, is that once you have observed them being in a particular place at a particular time, you cannot say for sure exactly where they will be at any point in the future. Instead you can only give a probability of them being in a particular place until you have another look and make sure. So far so normal. After all, we can’t expect to know everything.

What quantum mechanics sneaks in and confuses us with, however, is the assertion that these particles aren’t actually anywhere until we look to check – while our backs are turned they are in one place, and another place, and even another, and another and another place all at the same time, but when we look at them BANG, they are somewhere definite again. It’s a bit like playing “What’s The Time Mr. Wolf?” with subatomic particles, except that instead of you not knowing where your fellow players are, they don’t know where they are until you turn around to look (and also, subatomic particles don’t run away screaming when you growl at them).

If this all seems a bit stupid and it’s obvious that physicists just haven’t understood some basic stuff, like that things can’t be in two places at once, there are some awkward experimental results that show the quantum world simply can’t be like the world we all know and love. For instance, quantum particles get ‘entangled’ with each other, so that if you do something to one of the particles the other particle notices. It doesn’t matter if the other particle is on the other side of the room, the other side of the world or the other side of the universe, it will ‘respond’ when its partner has something done to it. Weirder still, these particles may not even only be particles – quantum mechanics regards them as having some properties of waves, and some properties of particles, something that Richard Feynman called “the only mystery in physics”.

Don’t worry if your brain is beginning to throb alarmingly, the physicists are confused too. Since quantum mechanics was first formulated there has been a raging debate about how it should be interpreted. One interpretation that has steadily gained support is that quantum mechanics only makes sense if we live in just one of many co-existing parallel universes. Every time we look in the box to see the mortal state of Schrödinger’s cat we set off down one leg of the trousers of time, let’s assume the one where the cat is alive, while in the universe of the other leg, the cat has met a sticky end.

While it may be mind-bending to try and understand what quantum mechanics implies about the universe and to imagine what the quantum world looks like up close, the more we understand about it, the more we can manipulate it to do some pretty nutty things. We all know that as long as watertight bowls are kept steady, any liquid inside them is going to stay there, right? Not if it’s a superfluid – liquids predicted by quantum mechanics that creep slowly out of any container holding them (click the link for a video). Even more amazingly, there is some early evidence that supersolids can exist – solids that literally move through each other like ghosts, without being affected. In any case, I think we can all agree that a world with quantum mechanics is a much weirder world indeed than a world without. To find out more, come to the Christmas Lecture, but don’t say you weren’t warned if you lose grip on reality…



If you want to investigate Quantum Mechanics further, then check out plus magazine’s website for podcasts, news and reports.