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Uncertainty - Kostas Kampourakis and Kevin McCain ***

This is intended as a follow-on to Stuart Firestein's two books, the excellent Ignorance and its sequel, Failure, which cut through some of the myths about the nature of science and how it's not so much about facts as about what we don't know and how we search for explanations. The authors of Uncertainty do pretty much what they set out to do in explaining the significance of uncertainty and why it can make it difficult to present scientific findings to the public, who expect black-and-white facts, not grey probabilities, which can seem to some like dithering.

However, I didn't get on awfully well with the book. A minor issue was the size - it was just too physically small to hold comfortably, which was irritating. More significantly, it felt like a magazine article that was inflated to make a book. There really was only one essential point made over and over again, with a handful of repeated examples. I want something more from a book - more context and depth - that …
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The God Game (SF) - Danny Tobey *****

Wow. I'm not sure I've ever read a book that was quite such an adrenaline rush - certainly it has been a long time since I've read a science fiction title which has kept me wanting to get back to it and read more so fiercely. 

In some ways, what we have here is a cyber-SF equivalent of Stephen King's It. A bunch of misfit American high school students face a remarkably powerful evil adversary - though in this case, at the beginning, their foe appears to be able to transform their worlds for the better.

Rather than a supernatural evil, the students take on a rogue AI computer game that thinks it is a god - and has the powers to back its belief. Playing the game is a mix of a virtual reality adventure like Pokemon Go and a real world treasure hunt. Players can get rewards for carrying out tasks - delivering a parcel, for example, which can be used to buy favours, abilities in the game and real objects. But once you are in the game, it doesn't want to let you go and is …

Peter Wothers - Four Way Interview

Dr Peter Wothers is a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Chemistry, University of Cambridge, and a Fellow and Director of Studies in Chemistry at St Catharine's College. He is heavily involved in promoting chemistry to young students and members of the public, and, in 2010, created the popular Cambridge Chemistry Challenge competition for students in the UK. Peter is known nationally and internationally for his demonstration lectures and presented the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, titled The Modern Alchemist, in 2012. In 2014, he was awarded an M.B.E. for Services to Chemistry in the Queen's Birthday Honours.. His new book is Antimony, Gold and Jupiter's Wolf.

Why chemistry?

I’ve been pretty much obsessed with chemistry from about the age of 8.  I built up quite a substantial home laboratory with all sorts of things that are (quite rightly) banned now (such as white phosphorus) and also used to go to second-hand bookshops to find chemistry texts.  Eventually I boug…

A Brain for Numbers: Andreas Nieder ***

In dramas it's not usual for someone dumping a partner to say 'It's not you, it's me,' - and that's how I felt about this book. I'm sure some readers would find it really interesting, but it didn't work for me.

I think the main problem is that that I'm interested in maths, but not so much in how human and animal brains handle numbers. So I found the opening and closing chapters, which deal with the nature of numbers (specifically zero in that closing chapter) I enjoyed, but the vast majority of the book explores the design of experiments to try to understand how animals perceive numbers (or don't), what we can learn from them, and how animals' and our brains react to numbers.

As soon as I see a map of the brain, I'm afraid I turn off - there's an element of Richard Feynman's famous complaint about biology students wasting their time learning the names of all the bits in a cat's nervous system. However, if you are interested …

The Story of the Dinosaurs in 25 Discoveries: Donald Prothero *****

Two things worried me about this book. One was the title. Publishers love the 'topic in n chunks' style for some reason, but often such books feel too bitty and insubstantial. And then there have been quite a lot of palaeontology books recently, making dinosaurs seem old hat. But I needn't have worried. After a couple of pages, Donald Prothero had me hooked. As his easy style introduced the earliest fossil discoveries, from a giant salamander originally assumed to be an antediluvian man (even though he or she would have had a head shape more suited to a Dr Who alien) to the knee-end of a dinosaur thigh bone that briefly gave the first identified dinosaur (megalosaurus) the Latin name 'Scrotum humanum', learning about our gradually growing understanding of the dinosaurs with Prothero was like attending the best kind of dinner party, replete with entertaining stories.

Although Prothero does give us plenty of information about the various dinosaurs covered (the 25 ch…

Brandon Brown - Four Way Interview

Brandon Brown is a Professor of Physics at the University of San Francisco. His research includes work on superconductivity and sensory biophysics. He enjoys writing about science for general audiences, including articles in such outlets as such outlets as New Scientist, Scientific American, Slate and Smithsonian.

Why science?

I had many interests in school, but science - physics in particular - seemed to come most naturally to me, and I had little capacity for memorization. I loved languages and cultural anthropology, for example, but these subjects didn't come as easily as physics. I also seriously considered a direct path toward 'being a writer', but I received what turned out to be excellent advice from a writing professor: Why don't you try to be a scientist, and write from there some day?

Why this book?


I do not have a background in space science, or space history. In fact, I was never too interested in NASA growing up. I simply took it for granted: NASA was just whe…

Antimony, Gold and Jupiter's Wolf - Peter Wothers ****

There aren't many popular science titles on chemistry topics, so it was great to see Antimony, Gold and Jupiter's Wolf (the last, in case you are wondering, is tungsten, aka wolfram). As a science writer I think I was the perfect target audience, because Peter Wothers combines history of science, the study of the origin of the names of the elements and general chemical revelations in his elemental tour, which proved delightful.

Wothers begins with the original seven metals, each with their links to the heavenly bodies (a number stubbornly held-to significantly after it was clear there were way more than seven metals), then brings in a range of other elements (and occasional element names that never made it, such as anglium, scotium and hibernium) in a series of equally entertainingly linked chapters, whether its 'Goblins and Demons' (think bismuth, antimony, cobalt, arsenic and zinc) or 'Lodestones and Earths'.

The book is primarily looking back quite a way in…