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In the Shadow of the Moon - Anthony Aveni ***

This is a book with niche appeal. For a reader who is aware of Anthony Aveni’s specialist field of research, and who shares the same interests and outlook, it might be worth more than the three stars I’ve given it. On the other hand, a general reader buying the book at face value is likely to be disappointed. It’s a heavier-going and more specialised read than the packaging suggests.

The book’s subtitle is ‘The Science, Magic, and Mystery of Solar Eclipses’, while the publisher’s blurb reads ‘In anticipation of solar eclipses visible in 2017 and 2024, an exploration of the scientific and cultural significance of this mesmerising cosmic display’. That led me to expect certain things even before I opened the book: a simple but lucid explanation of the science of eclipses, a description of how to observe them safely and what to look out for, and various quirky myths, superstitions and anecdotes connected with eclipses. The book does include these things, but they only account for about a …
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Four Way Interview - Ben Ambridge

Ben Ambridge is Reader in Psychology at the University of Liverpool and the ESRC International Centre for Language and Communicative Development (LuCiD). He is a recipient of the Guardian-Wellcome Science Writing Prize and his first book Psy-Q: A Mind-Bending Miscellany of Everyday Psychology was a Sunday Times Book of the Year and has been translated into a dozen languages. He lives in Sale, Greater Manchester. His latest title is Are You Smarter than a Chimpanzee?

Why science?

If you want to figure out how something works, you’ve got two options. You can collect the best possible evidence, look at it even handedly, and do your best to come up with a theory that explains this evidence and predicts what will happen in similar scenarios in the future. Or you can just make shit up.

Why this book?

We humans like to think that we’re not only much more intelligent than other animals - which we clearly are - but a whole different type of creature altogether; that we’re unique in having logica…

Out of the Shadow of a Giant - John and Mary Gribbin *****

We should be truly grateful to John and Mary Gribbin for this opportunity to find out more about two stalwarts of 17th/18th century British science, Robert Hooke and Edmond Halley (apparently pronounced 'Hawley', as presumably it was thought of as Hall-ley). This pair have been unfortunately and unfairly overshadowed by Isaac Newton, and this book does a lot to bring them into the open. (I wish the Gribbins had also included another in Newton's shadow, the mathematician John Wallis.)

The aim here is very much to get a feel for the scientific contribution of this pair, though we do get some biographical detail, particularly of Hooke (in whose household it seemed to be decidedly risky to be young and female, even if you were his niece), with rather less of Halley's life. Both men were polymaths to a far greater extent than I had realised - for example I had no idea how much architecture Hooke was responsible for, including designing some of Wren's churches and coming …

Are You Smarter than a Chimpanzee? - Ben Ambridge ****

There's a whole lot of entertainment - but also surprising facts - to be discovered in Ben Ambridge's book Are You Smarter than a Chimpanzee?

Ambridge sets out to compare many human mental abilities with those of animals (and even insects), showing how often we share capabilities, and in some (rather limited) circumstances can even be beaten by animals, hence the title of the book. Ranging from the way that, for example, some animals aren't taken in by the optical illusions that fool us, to feats of memory and logic, page after page Ambridge presents us with fascinating examples from the natural world.

Sometimes what's most amazing is the lengths to which researchers (who can't ask the animals what they are thinking) have to go to devise their experiments to see, for example, how ants would deal with the Tower of Hanoi problem, or whether or not chickens are less likely than us to be fooled by optical illusions where one object (in a 2D image) is apparently in front …

The Mathematics Lover's Companion - Edward Scheinerman ****

The worrying thing about this title is that I'm not sure I am a maths lover. I find some parts of mathematics interesting - infinity and probability, for example - but a lot of it is just a means to an end for me. The good news is that, even if you are like me, there's a lot to like here, though you may find yourself skipping through some parts.

Edward Scheinerman takes us through 23 mathematical areas, so should you find a particular one doesn't work for you, it's easy enough to move onto another that does. Sometimes it wasn't the obvious ones that intrigued - where I found the section on infinity, for example, a little underwhelming, I really enjoyed the section on factorials. The book opens with prime numbers, which while not the most exciting of its contents, gives the reader a solid introduction to the level of mathematical thought they will be dealing with. It's enough to get the brain working - this isn't a pure fun read and you have to think - but no…

The Brain - Gary Wenk ***

There have been plenty of books about the brain, but 'Professor of Psychology and Neurosciences and Molecular Virology, Immunology and Medical Genetics' (I bet he has a big business card) Gary Wenk is, according to the subtitle, out to tell us 'what everyone needs to know' about this important organ. (As the subtitle has a registered trademark symbol, I assume the book is part of a series.)
I found The Brain an easy read in terms of the language (though inevitably we get a string of labels for different parts of the brain), but sometimes I struggled to make sense of what was being said. For example, we're told: 'The brain is the organ of your mind; therefore, food and drugs can have a profound influence on how you think, act and feel.' There seemed to be something missing in the logical argument that allowed that 'therefore' to be used. Further down the same page we read 'Human behaviour has impacted [tobacco and coffee] plants as much as they ha…

Screen sharing of the future: where will we be looking at photos and videos in 100 years' time?

Picture the scene: bright neon vectors, 2D images flying around in thin air, Tom Cruise waving his hands around - yes it’s Minority Report, and the iconic ‘gesture interface’. At the time this vision of the future seemed so far beyond modern technology we called it science fiction. However, the idea that any surface can be a screen is no longer as far-fetched as it once seemed.

This tech is moving quickly into the home. LG recently showed a 64 inch screen at CES 2017 called Wallpaper. LG now has a screen which is just 1mmthick and can be attached to a wall with magnets. In under one year technology has gone from curved screen TVs to screens that can be rolled up like a piece of paper. Truly incredible.
By 2018 it is estimated that there will be around 759 million TV sets connected to the internet globally. This figure represents about 25% of the world’s TVs. By 2019, more than 50% of TV households in Japan, the US, the UK,France and Germany will have Smart TVs, according to the IHS TV S…