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The Spacefarer’s Handbook - Bergita and Urs Ganse ****

I can’t remember when a book exceeded my expectations quite as much as this one did. From the title, I was anticipating a Haynes-style manual packed with facts and figures but light on scientific insight. The assertion on the back cover that it ‘contains everything aspiring spacefarers need to know!’ (complete with exclamation mark) reinforces the idea that it’s a breezy and superficial book aimed at newcomers to the subject. I’ve already read so much in that vein I wasn’t expecting to learn anything new from it. Happily the book proved me wrong. Possibly as much as two thirds of the material was new to me – all of it fascinating stuff that is usually glossed over in popular-level accounts of human spaceflight. The Ganses, who are siblings, are both space insiders, Bergita working in space medicine and Urs in space physics. So they’re eminently qualified, and they both have the knack of explaining their specialist subjects lucidly, without assuming prior knowledge on the reader’s part.
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The Science of Can and Can't - Chiara Marletto *****

Without doubt, Chiara Marletto has achieved something remarkable here, though the nature of the topic does not make for an easy read. The book is an attempt to popularise constructor theory - a very different approach to physics, which Oxford quantum physicist David Deutsch has developed with Marletto. Somewhat oddly, the book doesn't use the term constructor theory, but rather the distinctly clumsier 'science of can and can't'. The idea is that physics is formulated in a way that is inherently limited because it depends on using mechanisms that follows the progress of dynamic systems using the laws of physics. This method isn't applicable in circumstances where either something may happen, but won't necessarily, nor where something isn't allowed to happen (hence the science of can and can't, which probably should be the science of could and can't if we are going to be picky). Deutsch and Marletto have proposed a way of using 'counterfactuals'

A Citizen's Guide to Artificial Intelligence - John Zerilli et al ****

The cover of this book set off a couple of alarm bells. Not only does that 'Citizen's Guide' part of the title raise the spectre of a pompous book-length moan, the list of seven authors gives the feel of a thesis written by committee. It was a real pleasure, then, to discover that this is actually a very good book. I ought to say straight away what it isn't - despite that title, it isn't a book written in a style that's necessarily ideal for a general audience. Although the approach is often surprisingly warm and human, it is an academic piece of writing. As a result, in places it's a bit of a trudge to get through it. Despite this, though, the topic is important enough - and, to be fair, the way it is approached is good enough - that it deserves to be widely read. John Zerilli et al give an effective, very balanced exploration of artificial intelligence. Although not structured as such, it's a SWOT analysis, giving us the strengths, weaknesses, opportun

Mind Shift - John Parrington ***

It seems at the moment as if every other science book that's published is on the human brain - but Mind Shift is anything but a 'me too' title. John Parrington gives us a very personal take on what it is to be human from the viewpoint of the mind/brain. The key theme of the book, we are told is that social interaction, language and culture have been responsible for shaping the human brain and making us the exceptional animals we are (obviously there's an element of chicken and egg here). I say 'we are told' because Parrington tells us this is what he is doing a lot, but it's quite hard to extract the message from a very long book that doesn't really have a structure that reflects that thesis. Instead we get a lot of relatively short chapters on topics that range from mental illness and diversity to the genome and epigenetics.  Part of the problem with getting the message is that large sections of the book feel like reading a literature review as Parringt

Grace Lindsay - Four Way Interview

Grace Lindsay is a computational neuroscientist currently based at University College, London. She completed her PhD at the Centre for Theoretical Neuroscience at Columbia University, where her research focused on building mathematical models of how the brain controls its own sensory processing. Before that, she earned a bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience from the University of Pittsburgh and received a research fellowship to study at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Freiburg, Germany. She was awarded a Google PhD Fellowship in Computational Neuroscience in 2016 and has spoken at several international conferences. She is also the producer and co-host of Unsupervised Thinking , a podcast covering topics in neuroscience and artificial intelligence. Her first book is Models of the Mind . Why science? I started my undergraduate degree as a neuroscience and philosophy double major and I think what drew me to both topics was the idea that if we just think rigorously enou

Chance, Logic and Intuition - Steven Tijms ****

This is very much a book of two halves, the first a history of the development of probability theory and the second examples of where probability goes wrong and an attempt to explain why we're so bad intuitively at estimating chances. Steven Tijms has a rather old-fashioned writing style, which made me think this was a reprint of a book from the 1960s until I hit an entry on Covid-19. This means that the historical section is sometimes a little dry - but strangely, for me, this first half was by far the best part. The main reason for my preference was originality. Although the 'where probability goes wrong' section is arguably the reason books on probability are so much fun, whether it's dealing with the gambler's or prosecutor's fallacy - or the inevitably Monty Hall problem - Tijms was mostly treading very familiar ground here. However, there were parts of the the history section covering aspects that I've rarely seen before in a popular mathematics text.

Overloaded - Ginny Smith ***

In Overloaded , Ginny Smith gives a light, entertaining view of the way that the chemicals that act both as messengers and controls in the brain influence our behaviour, feelings, memory and more. Smith's writing style is conversational and fun. For non-biologists, many books on the brain spend far too much time mapping and describing various parts and structures of the brain, when what we're really interested in is what it does. Smith deals neatly with this by not telling us much at all about these structures, just naming them and getting on with it. I found this extremely refreshing - especially not to be told yet again that the hippocampus is so-named because it looks like a seahorse. It really doesn't. As a result of liking Smith's approach, I feel quite guilty that I found the book hard to read all the way through. This isn't down to Smith's writing - it's all the fault of biology. The workings of evolution rarely manage to produce simple systems, and w