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Mage Merlin's Unsolved Mathematical Mysteries - Satyan Linus Devadoss & Matthew Harvey **

The authors of Mage Merlin's Unsolved Mathematical Mysteries don't seem to quite know who it was written for. The title and the general theming around Arthurian legend pitches it at an audience of children, maybe even young teenagers. However, the content is anything but aimed at that audience.The book is a collection of unsolved maths problems very loosely fitted to the idea of it being a collection of questions asked of the great wizard Merlin. From such a description, or a flick through the pages, you might think that this is some kind of puzzle book for you to solve, but this isn't the case. Rather, it's a collection of relatively mundane (if esoteric) questions which despite the efforts of hundreds of years of professional mathematics we still haven't solved. With sixteen mysteries in all there is a wide selection of different kinds of problems.For example the first question is: 'Can you cover a 201x201 meter square using six 100x100 meter squares (without…
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What is Life? - Paul Nurse *****

Ever since the success of Carlo Rovelli's Seven Brief Lessons in Physics there has been a fashion for short, smart-looking small hardbacks which almost always have a number in the title or subtitle. Paul Nurse's new (and first) book fits in perfectly as an attractive little number with the subtitle 'understanding biology in five steps'.

Such books fall into two broad categories. Some (like Seven Brief Lessons) are little more than expensive collections of a handfuls of woffly essays. But some - and What is Life? is a good example - manage to pack a surprising amount of content into an informative, readable bite-sized chunk, easily consumed on a commute or at bedtime.

Nurse makes no secret of the fact this is not a very original title, echoing amongst others quantum physicist Schrödinger's vastly influential book from the 1940s. However, what Nurse does here is quite different. Each of his five steps is a major component to understanding the nature of life: cells - …

The System - James Ball ****

The internet, whether via the web or services making use of the network such as email, is a huge part of most of our lives, both at work and socially - never more so than during the 2020 pandemic, when video meetings and remote working have proved so useful. In this insightful book, James Ball takes us under the surface of the internet to see the parts of it - both good and worrying - that we aren't usually aware of.We start with some history, featuring an interesting interview from Steve Crocker, one of the architects of the original network. The background and technology is a topic that deserves more depth of coverage (I can recommend the book When Wizards Stay up Late to get the full picture), but it isn't the main focus of The System.After that introductory material, Ball takes us into the competing worlds of those who provide the physical network that connects us to the internet and those responsible for the software running on it. Where in the UK, such networks typically…

Tales of Science Fiction (SF) - Brian Ball (Ed.) *****

This short story collection from the 1960s, mostly featuring 1940s and 1950s stories, looks unpromising. It was published by Penguin's defunct young adult imprint Peacock, and with its clunky title and unimpressive cover it looks like a waste of space on the bookshelf. But it contains what are simply some of the best science fiction short stories ever written - for any age of reader.Although inevitably one or two feel a touch old-fashioned, on the whole they've aged incredibly well and have very little to suggest just what classics they are. Stories include Arthur C. Clarke's Hide and Seek, in which a spy in Mars orbit in a spacesuit attempts to evade a battle cruiser, Robert Heinlein's Life-Line, exploring the impact on society of a device that uses the concept of the block universe to predict an individual's precise time of death, Paul Ernst's invisible attacker in Nothing Happens on the Moon, John Christopher's poignant Mr Kowtshook about an alien attemp…

Twenty Worlds - Niall Deacon *****

This is a truly entertaining and informative book, but the reason I’m giving it the full five stars has as much to do with the refreshing novelty of the author’s style as anything else. There’s novelty in the subject-matter too – the wide variety of recently discovered exoplanets orbiting other stars – but even so this is the third book on the topic that I’ve read. The first two were a lot less fun to read, and (without naming and shaming the authors) it’s worth a brief diversion to explain why.The first author was a university professor with a vast knowledge of the subject, who seemed determined to convey the entirety of that knowledge without stopping to think whether it was interesting or necessary for a general audience. The second author – another academic – took a different but equally tedious approach, with a plodding chronological account that focused as much on the dull routine of the scientists involved as on their work.Niall Deacon doesn’t make either of those mistakes. He’…

How to Drive a Nuclear Reactor - Colin Tucker ****

How To Drive A Nuclear Reactor does exactly what it says on the tin. The book is a general overview of nuclear reactors. From the basic principles that make them work through to what buttons to press in what order (and of course how and why they can go wrong).Nuclear power could be a good step on the path to a greener energy future, but there is a lot of understandable fear. This book can give some idea of what an incredible feat of both science and engineering one of these machines is and, hopefully, make anyone reading it feel far more comfortable about them.The book presents information about everything, almost down to the literal nuts and bolts, giving you a near complete understanding of how a nuclear works. From putting in the fuel to getting out the power and down from the control panel to the construction material. Everything you could ever want to know is here. By the end you'll likely feel ready to walk into a control room and get started (do not try doing this, nuclear …

Food and Climate Change without the hot air - S L Bridle ***

My first impression here was that S L Bridle was going to have to work very hard to recover from the subtitle, which is painfully inaccurate. (Spoiler alert for those who don't like suspense - thankfully, the book is a lot better than the subtitle.) The subtitle reads 'Change your diet: the easiest way to help save the planet.'

Firstly, the planet does not need saving from climate change. A good number of species are put at risk by climate change and human civilisation could be severely traumatised, but the planet will be just fine. It's gone through far worst in the past. Second, changing diet isn’t easy. Not at all. As Bridle makes clear, one longhaul flight has the same impact as a whole year of food consumption, while even a shorthaul flight contributes a similar amount of greenhouse gasses as the change that could be made by a transformed diet. It's much easier to not take one flight than it is to change several meals a day. (Of course it's best to do both …