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Very Small Introductions

    Cosmology - Reviewer John Ewing

    Cryptography - Reviewer John Ewing

    Russian Literature - Reviewer Gill Ewing

    Quantum Theory - Reviewer Joe Sinclair

C is for Confidence - Reviewer June M.Tutton

Team Development Programme - Reviewer Michael J. Mallows

Nurture Groups in School - Reviewer Mark Edwards


An introduction to the Very Small Introductions

Nurturing Potential was recently sent a number of volumes from the Oxford University Press's Very Small Introduction series.  We had been much taken with their website "blurb"

"Very Short Introductions offer stimulating, accessible introductions to a wide variety of subjects, demonstrating the finest contemporary thinking about their central problems and issues. 

It seemed to us that this was a very good description of a series of books designed to nurture potential for further study of each of the subjects to which they were introductions.  Furthermore we conceived of the idea of offering some of them for review to our friends in Alsace, the Ewings, who shared interests - including academic interests - with several of the subjects, including matters scientific, literary, philosophical, musical and mathematical. 

Here are some of their reviews.

Cosmology, A Very Short Introduction, by Peter Coles.  OUP, 139pp, illustrated. Index, bibliography for further reading. 5.99 ISBN 0-19-285416-X

Open and closed universes, dark matter, Higgs bosons, quarks, black holes, superstrings, cosmic bubbles... familiar as household words, or parts of an enticing map as yet for you marked "Here be Dragons"?  If the latter, then you may well find this little book to be exactly what you are after, for Here be Cosmology, laid out for your delectation like the AA Guide to the Universe.  More, still, because it is not just a geography of the topic but a history too, and so engagingly written that you may read it like an adventure story.  

Which, of course, it is.

Beginning with ancient mythology, Coles brings us swiftly forward through the Renaissance and the Newtonian universe, then to the explosion of physics and astronomy that relativity and the quantum theory brought about in the first half of the 20th century, leading to the birth of the Big Bang theory and the prevalence of the view that the Universe, indeed, is expanding. 

Thereafter the field broadens. We discover the puzzles that the Big Bang hypothesis poses, the dark matter that may be slowing down expansion, and the more-recently postulated force that may be driving it.  We find out how satellites searching in the infra-red have discovered the embers of its fireball surrounding us still, in a great uneven shell.  We learn of the initial stages of the fireball, when the Universe was opaque and the laws of quantum physics and gravitation first took shape.

All this, and much, much more: will the Universe eventually stop expanding and fall back into the Big Crunch? Where did the great proliferation of sub-atomic particles come from?  Can the four forces, strong and weak nuclear forces, gravity and electromagnetism be united in one Grand Universal Theory, whimsically called the GUT?  What are strings, branes and supersymmetry?  Why did the Australians launch a metal balloon in Antarctica (they called it Boomerang, of course)?  And why do humans happen to exist exactly here and exactly now?

Although the book stands alone as a pleasurable introduction to Cosmology, covering so vast a field in so few pages obviously requires that a great deal of detail be omitted.   Everywhere, however, Coles makes up for this, for once he has whetted your appetite for the matter in hand, he then supplies references to other works that provide the missing in-depth treatment. In fact, you could so a lot worse than take this one volume as a five-year study plan. 

Or if you get hooked - a lifetime.

John Ewing


Cryptography, A Very Short Introduction, by Fred Piper and Sean Murphy.  OUP, 142pp, with diagrams. Index, bibliography for further reading. 6.99 ISBN 0-19-280315-8

When Julius Caesar sent messages to his generals, he encrypted them using an alphabetic cipher in which each letter was represented by another, always following the same fixed rule. Mary Queen of Scots used a variant of the same code to plot her escape from prison and the assassination of Queen Elizabeth I.  Caesar conquered most of the known world; Mary lost her head.
The reason for this is the awareness of cryptography.  Caesar's security was based on the assumption that anyone intercepting his messages would not think of encipherment,  and simply dismiss them as meaningless.  He got away with it, at least if one believes everything in De Bello Gallico.  But in sixteen centuries awareness changed, as Mary found out.  Her letters were intercepted, deciphered, and read in evidence at her trial.  Nowadays, the key to Caesars code is given away on the backs of cereal packets, and methods that decided the life and death of armies provide entertainment for eight-year-olds on a wet day.

Awareness is the theme of this entire work.  While it constitutes an enticing introduction to the methods of cryptography, its stated aim is to make those whose responsibilities include cryptographic methods aware of the choices facing them, and the burdens and advantages each choice implies. To this end, Piper and Murphy describe a variety of historical systems, showing how each eventually succumbed, then move on to the modern mysteries of public key encryption, secure web browsing and GSM telephony.  For these, not only are the strengths and weaknesses laid bare, but also the logistics of each method and the practical considerations of, for example, protecting millions of keys from prying eyes.
The book does not require any knowledge of mathematics other than simple arithmetic.  While an abundance of worked examples and puzzles is provided and you can spend quite a few happy hours with these rather than your favourite crossword, the authors assert that you do not need to work through them for the book to accomplish its aim.  Having done about half the examples along the way, I can support this, with the rider that the book is a lot more fun if you do work the odd one out.

The only criticism I can make is that the index is rather skimpy.  The Caesar cipher, having served as basis for much of the early chapters, does not appear there.  This holds for various other items to which the reader may want to return.  However, this does not detract overmuch from the sheer pleasure obtained from finally finding out, in clear and simple language, what public key cryptography really is, and why there are such noises made over its use on the World Wide Web.

A final exercise for the reader: How do you send someone a padlocked box, without the key, in such a way that they can open it yet no-one else can?  Page 16 of Cryptography will tell you, or you can look at the answer below.  Work it out, and you have discovered the basis of public key cryptography.

John Ewing

The answer to the puzzle

A padlocks the box and sends it to B.  B adds his own padlock and sends it back to A.  A removes his padlock and sends the box to B again.

Now, can you spot the weakness?  See Cryptography, page 17.


Russian Literature, A Very Short Introduction, by Catriona Kelly.  OUP, 182pp, with 20 half tones and 2 maps. 5.99 ISBN 0-19-280144-9 

If the idea of Russian Literature brings to mind only the towering works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky which most of us have read or at least dipped into, then this book is not for you. 

Catriona Kelly has given us something much better than a chronological run-through of the usual names with potted autobiographies on the side. She has taken the great Aleksandr Pushkin, leading star in the Russian literary firmament, often hailed as "Russia's Shakespeare" as the benchmark against which all others are judged and also as the basis for a carefully constructed "evolutionary tree" showing how all literary roads in Russia lead to Pushkin and how he was the foundation stone on which Russian literature has been built since the 18th century. 

We learn that even in Pushkin's day, there was no Russian literary structure as such works were created and published (printing only reached Russia in the 17th century) more or less by anyone with no authorial attribution. He was one of the first to collect his own works with a view to forming an "oeuvre" that could be ascribed to its author. In the second half of the 19th century Pushkin became a kind of cult figure. A great monument was raised in his honour and other literary "greats" have since been honoured with all kinds of museums and monuments throughout Russian cities especially in the pre-Stalin years of the 20th century. 

After laying the foundation stone of Pushkin's towering presence in Russian literature the author introduces us to 19th and 20th century authors, household names and others no less worthy, and their works are discussed relative to Pushkin how his literary devices were used by others in his honour or in derision by those wishing to display their own originality. The relationship between literature and politics has always been a huge issue in Russia, probably more so than in any other country, as if, coming late onto the international scene, literature immediately became a more passionate instrument for political use than it was elsewhere. The 20th century, with the 1917 revolution and the Stalin years, provided much food for literary expression and repression, but later authors are also discussed with reference to the changing political situation, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and new emergence of literature in Russia today.

This erudite and well-written book is full of information on Russian authors from Pushkin to the present day, presented in the form of a kind of solar system, Pushkin being the sun. and Russian history, politics, religion and artistic heritage orbiting around him. Anyone who is interested in Russian literature and its place in Russian history and culture, cannot fail to be fascinated by this marvellous little book.

Gill Ewing


Quantum Theory, A Very Short Introduction, by John Polkinghorne.  OUP, 128 pp including 9 illustrations. 6.99 ISBN 0-19-280252-6 

My problem is plain: how to resist writing a very long review of a very short introduction without making the review less comprehensible than the work being reviewed? 

And therein is the beauty of the OUP Very Short Introductions.  They are so expertly written that their subjects are made totally accessible within the brief length permitted their authors.  Quantum Theory is no exception. 

By chance I had been reading something about Max Planck just before Quantum Theory landed on my doormat, and had found myself somewhat bogged down in the mathematical equations with which it was littered.  Polkinghorne has adopted the very useful tactic of committing the maths to an appendix, thus making the body of the book very readable to someone like myself, yet available to the more mathematically adept via cross-references in the text. 

For those who do not know, the quantum theory, which originated with Max Planck in the early part of the 20th century, was the greatest advance in physics since Newton.  It did for atomic and subatomic phenomena what Einsteins General Theory of Relativity did for planetary motion. 

I enjoyed being reminded by Polkinghorne of the sad story of Schroedingers Cat. A living cat is placed in a thick lead box which is then sealed.  The box contains a radioactive source with a 50 per cent chance of decaying within an hour. At this stage we have no way of knowing whether the cat is alive or dead. Since we do not know, the cat is both dead and alive, according to quantum law - in a superposition of states. Only when the box is opened will there be a collapse of possibilities. 

Several pages in the book are devoted to that part of the theory that became known as the uncertainty principle, formulated in 1927 by Werner Heisenberg, suggesting that precise, simultaneous measurement of two complementary values is impossible; that objects such as light and electrons would behave in mutually exclusive ways, depending on how they were measured. 

This apparently prompted Albert Einstein's famous comment, "God does not play dice."

The usefulness and enjoyment to be derived from this book, however, is no gamble.

Joe Sinclair




C is for Confidence, by Lesley Wilson and Mary Blair.  Russell House, 80 pp in A4 wiro,  14.95 ISBN 1-903855-02-0

Mary Blair and Lesley Wilsons book is subtitled A Guide to Running Confidence Building Courses for Women of All Ages.  In reading it I found that this statement needed to be held in mind in assessing who the book is aimed at and who would receive most benefit from using it.

It is not a Course Manual; it is a Manual for constructing a Course.  It contains a wealth of material, which I found both useful and, in some cases entertaining.  Many of the concepts will be familiar to the experienced tutor, for example, the Ice Breakers.  Most courses today, relax and introduce the group to each other at the beginning, including the concepts of introducing yourself to a partner or introducing yourself to the whole group with a small personal profile.  This guide suggests a number of other approaches as well.  It also recommends working in pairs or in groups throughout the course to achieve different purposes, again very familiar.  However, it includes ideas which are focused at the objective of the Course, to give women confidence in themselves.  I liked the idea of encouraging participants to comment on the room and to suggest changes, which would make it more comfortable for themselves either physically or mentally.

This focus is continued throughout the book, with guidance as to the Stages, which need to be followed to promote the growth of confidence in the participants.  It also draws on popular disciplines to some extent.  Close your eyes and relax and begin to become aware of your breathing.  As you breathe in and out become aware of how you begin to feel more and more relaxed.  As you breathe in and out begin to become aware of how more and more open and relaxed you feel.  Yoga immediately comes to mind.

For an experienced tutor, moving into a new domain area, or looking for other peoples ideas in an area they already facilitate, the guide will be useful.  For someone new to creating a course, as opposed to using an existing course manual, it will be invaluable.  The book is written with an understanding of the need for comfort, for humour, for feedback and familiar things that help the participants to begin to relax and feel comfortable in a potentially stressful environment.  This, whilst also providing the necessary material as the tools for the job in hand.

There are two issues, which were interesting in relation to timing.  The authors state that their own courses are based around ten sessions of two hours each.  They also give some recommendations on timing of certain exercises; however it would be very easy to construct a course where time ran away: take care. Maybe a little more guidance as to a possible overall timing would have been useful. Secondly, the statement that morning is often a better time for these courses as energy levels are higher in the morning struck a real chord with me. As a tutor I have run courses over full days, and have often dreaded the dead time after lunch and would therefore endorse this particular recommendation.

Finally, personal confidence and belief in ones self has to work in the real world, which involves everyone we meet.  Maybe the concept of confidence with male colleagues and friends, which this manual does not address would be useful.  To feel confident in your interaction only with women, is not quite enough.

June M. Tutton


Team Development Programme - A Training Manual by Joan Walton.  Russell House Publishing, 184 pp in A4 wiro,  29.95 ISBN 1-903855-05-5

This excellent manual, based on the premise that the people we work with can be our greatest source of stress or our greatest source of support, is designed to help people develop a team that is greater than the sum of its parts. 

The modules include:

Giving and Receiving Support

Developing Sensitive and Collaborative Forms of Communication

Effective Use of Meetings

Establishing a Supervision System

Review and Action Plan

There is guidance for group Leaders that details some of the skills and experience required to deliver the training. The relative advantages and disadvantages of Consultants, Training Officers or Managers leading the group are considered, and there are also some comments about building flexibility in the programme. 

The manual also offers a number of key principles that inform the programme, including

Priority should be placed on effective team-working if individual competence is to be used to the maximum benefit of the service user.

Effective team-working requires agreement on a common set of values and principles

The programme should enable all team members to be active participants in the learning process.

The programme explores the values underpinning behaviours that create and perpetuate inequalities, with an emphasis on identifying and developing skills that support and empower those who experience inappropriate discrimination, and I was particularly pleased that the author expands on,

Understanding the nature of discriminatory practice. 

Each module explains in a very straightforward and detailed way, the Purpose, Method, Time and Materials required, and the Process instructions for each exercise. And each has its own set of handouts. There are more than 50 in total, which is very generous, with permission to photocopy them for training purposes. 

Each of the 10 modules has up to six exercises ranging from 10 20 minutes to 21/2  hours with, where appropriate, Listeners Observer Sheets. 

The Programme was designed so that learning from previous modules and exercises is built on later. As the author says, however, some of the modules may already be familiar, or the needs of the situation or the team may make a different sequence more meaningful, and the logical progression can be suitable adapted. That said, the author makes clear that fundamental to the rest of the programme is the content of the first four modules Establishing the Purpose and Principles; Understanding the Nature of Stress; Developing Good Communication Skills; Giving and Receiving Feedback. 

The programme could be used off the shelf with a minimum of practical preparation. To do this, the trainer should ensure that s/he is familiar with the content, has adequate photocopies, and appropriate materials - the ones you wish youd remembered pens, paper, blu-tac!) However, the skill, experience, confidence and competence of the person delivering the training will need to include some ability in working with changing group dynamics especially if people are sharing personal information, or if tension and conflict already exists. 

I have one tiny little niggle, which I only mention to create a semblance of balance. I would have liked the themes of each module to have been cross-referenced here and there.  But maybe Im just lazy (or picky)? 

The wealth of information and good material such as handouts, input sequences, which the group leader could use verbatim if s/he wished, the further reading, many useful examples, all offer plenty of hand-holding, if required, and, always, a sense of freedom and flexibility for people who want to put their own personality on the delivery of the training. The authors many years of experience and expertise are evident everywhere in this Programme. I will certainly recommend it to anyone whose work involves teamwork not only those who facilitate team development - and I whole-heartily recommend it to you.

Michael J. Mallows


Nurture Groups in School - Principles & Practice by Marjorie Boxall.  Paul Chapman Publishing (a SAGE Publication Company), 240 pp in paper  17.99 ISBN 0-7619-7343-5 (also available in cloth at 60.00)

This book should be essential reading for Government ministers. 

The author pioneered the setting up of nurture groups in Inner London in the early 1970s as a response to social deprivation and its consequences for children in school. The book describes why and how, drawing on those early experiences and later projects in the London Borough of Enfield. 

It is salutary to note that the concept of nurture group is now well over thirty years old and as yet there are still very few of them in existence. Hopefully Boxalls book will help to change this situation. As she says: Our capital of good nurture is diminishing fast and the fabric of society is at risk, for with each generation there are fewer peopleto provide good nurturing, and more children who have been deprived of it. 

Nurture groups provide children with social and emotional experiences that are necessary as a pre-requisite for formal school learning. Boxall describes how such children are functionally below the age of three, due to having missed out on essential experiences which are normally provided through mothering. Adults who work in a nurture group setting provide a variety of structured experiences: for example, how to play with toys, how to share a meal, so that the children catch up on their social and emotional development and can then rejoin mainstream education. 

This is a very practical and readable book that serves as a comprehensive introduction to the subject. There is some reference to theoretical background, but I would have liked more - I am surprised, for example, to find no mention of John Bowlby and his attachment theory. My other reservation is that its style in somewhat repetitive - some charts or diagrams and more case studies - dare I say even photographs? - would enliven the book considerably. 

But these are small criticisms. This book is a bible for nurture group enthusiasts and should be essential reading for anybody who has the desire to make a significant impact in the area of social change. Copies, please, to Tony Blair, Estelle Morris and to every Chief Education Officer in the United Kingdom. They ignore it at their peril.

Mark Edwards


John Ewing is a Systems Engineer who has worked in various domains ranging from implantable cardiac devices to the measurement of low-intensity radioactive emissions.  He currently runs his own company in Alsace, France.

Gill Ewing, is a technical and scientific translator with a profound interest in natural/earth/environmental/life sciences.  She resides and works in Alsace, France. 

June Tutton comes from a background of business systems within the computer industry and is currently an independent consultant.

Joe Sinclair is a writer, editor, publisher, and non-executive director of a shipping line . . . amongst other activities . . . one of which is the production of Nurturing Potential.

Michael Mallows is a management consultant, therapist (specialising in adoption), an author, a healer and a workshop facilitator.  He is also, incidentally, a sub-editor of this magazine.

Mark Edwards is a freelance teacher, trainer and writer.