Skip to main content

Posts

Ripples in Spacetime - Govert Schilling ***

The only example of Govert Schilling's work I'd come across was his co-authorship of the quirky but ultimately unsatisfying Tweeting the Universe, so it was interesting to see a 'proper' book by him on the timely topic of gravitational waves.

I struggled a little with his writing style - it's very jerky, jumping from one topic to another in a kind of popular science stream of consciousness, but once I got used to it, there is no doubt that he gives a thorough non-technical picture not only of gravitational waves themselves, but all kinds of background material from Einstein's biography to aspects of general relativity that really don't have much to do with gravitational waves. In a sense this a curse of the topic - because gravitational wave astronomy is so new (at the time of writing fewer than 4 confirmed observations) there's a limit to how much there is to write about.

What Schilling does well is the science explanation. His description of gravitation…
Recent posts

Brian Clegg - Four Way Interview

Brian Clegg is a science writer with over 30 books published on topics ranging from infinity and the big bang to relativity and quantum physics. His A Brief History of Infinity and Dice World were longlisted for the Royal Society Book Prize. Brian has spoken at the Royal Institution, British Library and Science Museum in London, and regularly appears at book and science festivals. His work has appeared in publications from Nature and Physics World to the Observer, the Wall Street Journal and Playboy. The editor of popularscience.co.uk, Brian's most recent titles are The Reality Frame and Big Data.

Why science?

The way the world works has always fascinated me, and I grew up influenced by both science in the news - the Apollo missions, for example - and science fiction, from Star Trek to Isaac Asimov. I thought initially that chemistry would interest me most, but at university, physics took over. I realised when I nearly burned a lab down that I probably wouldn't make a working sc…

Eureka: How Invention Happens - Gavin Weightman ***

Updated for paperback version There's an interesting point made by Gavin Weightman in Eureka - the way that many inventions were the brainchild of an amateur, a tinkerer, who managed to get the invention going pretty badly, before it was then picked up elsewhere, typically by a larger organization which carried it forward to become a commercial or practical product. It's certainly true of the five examples he focusses on in the book.

These are powered flight, television, the barcode, the PC and the mobile phone (cellphone). In each case, Weightman gives us a long section in which he introduces that individual (or small team) of amateurs, plunges back into their historical antecedents - because invention doesn't come from nowhere, there is plenty of groundwork that precedes it - and then takes us through the detailed work of the amateurs and the way that the invention was then taken up and commercialised.

For me, the two best sections were the ones on TV and the barcode, in pa…

Big Data - Brian Clegg ****

I first became involved with what we now term big data when providing some mathematical assistance to a major supermarket.  They wanted to know what products would suffer, or benefit, if another product were put on special offer – the victims and victors as they called them.  As an example, if fresh meat pies are put on buy one get one free, should the supermarket plan on stocking more fresh vegetables? That sort of thing.  The supermarket in question had a lot of data concerning historical sales, and what had previously been put on special offer, so it was just a case of designing a set of algorithms to analyse this data to provide the necessary forecast, and also to have the system learn through what we would now call reinforcement learning over time.  This was back in the mid 90s. One can imagine how things - in all camps - should have vastly improved since then.  That’s just one example of where Big Data transparently impacts our lives.

In Big Data, Clegg sets out an assortment of …

Improbable Destinies - Jonathan Losos ****

There's always a danger when a science author puts themselves at the heart of their book that it can come across as 'Me, me, me!' - but Jonathan Losos has a very amiable personal style that gives the impression of having a chat with the author over a beer - and some of the best parts of the book are those that talk about Losos's own work.

The topic here - whether evolution inevitably tends to produce particular biological approaches given an environmental niche - is an interesting one, so the combination of the writing style and the topic make the book well worth reading, but there are some drawbacks, particularly with the first 150 pages or so. Arguably these suffer rather from the 'Is it a book or an article?' syndrome - there really isn't enough going on in them. What we are told is that often there will be convergence on similar biological solutions, but equally sometimes you'll get an oddity (think duckbilled platypus). The vast majority of those 15…

Wolfbane (SF) - Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth ****

Every now and then I like to re-read an SF classic, and there are rarely safer hands to be in than those of Pohl and Kornbluth. I was surprised as I got into it that I couldn't remember a thing about this book - I suspect it's because despite featuring a number of 'adventure' scenes, it is so cerebral. And that is a limitation - but its one that reflects a daring and impressive piece of writing.

Wolfbane starts with what seems to be a fairly straightforward 'rebel in a straight laced society of the future' storyline, with the 'What's in it for me?' main character Glenn Tropile getting in trouble in a society where everything is buttressed by ritual and formality - but that's just the beginning. We get an Earth that has been ripped away from the solar system, just about kept alive by the Moon, recreated as a sunlet every few years. And we have some of the most enigmatic and alien aliens I've come across, pyramids that rarely move and that harv…

The Aliens are Coming! - Ben Miller *****

This book is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The packaging – from the exclamation mark in the title to the frequent use of words like “witty” and “entertaining” in the various celebrity endorsements, and the emphasis on the author’s track record as a comedian and TV personality – all lead you to envisage a flippant, unchallenging read. I opened the book expecting a light-hearted debunking of ufology (always good for a few laughs), followed by a journalistically glib recycling of the “real science” of SETI, exoplanets, extremophiles et al. But what I got went much, much deeper than that.

There’s a lot of science in this book – and not just the obvious topics. What other popular book on astrobiology embraces subjects like information entropy, or the anthropic principle, or gamma-ray bursts, or Zipf’s law? Miller’s explanations of the first two are as engaging and lucid as I’ve seen anywhere, and as for the last two – well, I never would have guessed they were relevant to SETI until he pointe…