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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
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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

Time and Stars (SF) - Poul Anderson ****

Poul Anderson was one of those second rank science fiction authors whose books were often around in the 60s and 70s, but when I sampled them, they rarely seemed to make the grade. However, the generally reliable and imposing Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction refers to Anderson as 'perhaps SF's most prolific writer of any particular quality', and I was pleasantly surprised to re-read his 1964 collection of five long stories, Time and Stars to find that there is some really good storytelling here. In the first story, No Truce with Kings, a war between future US factions, reduced to nineteeth century technology, uncovers a surprising driving force for one side and is arguable a clever counter to Asimov's psychohistory concept. We then get Turning Point, where an interstellar expedition has to decide what to do when faced with a civilisation that is not yet technologically advanced, but where the aliens are significantly more intelligent than humans. Escape from Orbit is i

Paul Sen - Four Way Interview

Paul Sen first encountered thermodynamics while studying engineering at the University of Cambridge. He became a documentary filmmaker who brought a love of storytelling to the worlds of science and technology. Paul’s award-winning TV company Furnace, where he is creative director, has made many BBC science series such as Everything and Nothing, Order and Disorder, The Secrets of Quantum Physics, and films such as Gravity and Me: The Force That Shapes Our Lives and Oak Tree: Nature’s Greatest Survivor. This won the prestigious Royal Television Society Award for best science and natural history program and the Grierson Award for best science documentary in 2016. His first book is Einstein's Fridge . Why science? I love the characters and the stories behind scientific discoveries. To find out what drives people to puzzle out how our universe works is to celebrate the best of us as a species. I am also fascinated by the relationship between science and society—why do certain scientifi

The God Equation - Michio Kaku ***

When physicist Leon Lederman wanted to  call his book on the elusive Higgs boson 'The Goddam Particle' his publisher objected and instead made it The God Particle . This usage has cropped up a couple of times since in popular science, notably The God Effect on quantum entanglement, and now Michio Kaku is applying it to the concept of a so-called Theory of Everything - a mechanism that pulls together the fundamental forces of nature including gravity. There is no certainty that such a theory is possible, but if it did exist, it would provide the foundation of physics. Even so, it seems unlikely that it would honour the claim in the book's publicity that it would 'fulfil that most ancient and basic of human desires - to understand the meaning of our lives'. Kaku has worked on string theory - the theory he believes will give us that theory of everything - since the 1960s and is strongly invested in it. He promises us a 'balanced, objective analysis of string theor

Models of the Mind - Grace Lindsay *****

This is a remarkable book. When Ernest Rutherford made his infamous remark about science being either physics or stamp collecting, it was, of course, an exaggeration. Yet it was based on a point - biology in particular was primarily about collecting information on what happened rather than explaining at a fundamental level why it happened. This book shows how biologists, in collaboration with physicists, mathematicians and computer scientists, have moved on the science of the brain to model some of its underlying mechanisms. Grace Lindsay is careful to emphasise the very real difference between physical and biological problems. Most systems studied by physics are a lot simpler than biological systems, making it easier to make effective mathematical and computational models. But despite this, huge progress has been made drawing on tools and techniques developed for physics and computing to get a better picture of the mechanisms of the brain. In the book we see this from two directions