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CERN and the Higgs Boson - James Gillies ****

There are plenty of books out there on the Higgs boson and its discovery. [Ed.: We recommend Higgs by Jim Baggott.] This book does something entirely different - which is a good thing. The author, James Gillies, has spent his working life at CERN, first as a scientist, then as part of the communication group, which he headed up for 12 years, and now on the organisation's Strategic Planning and Analysis unit. As such, he is unusually well placed to cover the way that CERN has come together and been run, which is the main focus of this book.

What is good about this is that we get to see a lot more of just what has been involved in setting CERN up (achieving a rare level of international collaboration) and how the various pieces of kit have been constructed, leading up to the current Large Hadron Collider that was used to discover the Higgs.

Sometimes the whole business was touch and go - whether it was the distinct possibility of funding falling through, or a piece of technology that …
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Breakfast with Einstein - Chad Orzel ***

In his book How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog, Chad Orzel hit on a brilliant hook to deal with what can be a very difficult task - how to get across an abstruse topic and make it approachable for a general audience. The idea of having a conversation with a dog made a great entry point and won the book many fans. Now Orzel is back, once more giving an often surprisingly in-depth overview of quantum physics, but this time the approach he has taken is to tie the science into the everyday experience of a morning, from waking to the sun and an alarm clock, through breakfast to checking social media.

Linking complex science to everyday experiences and objects, giving it context and making it less detached from reality, is not exactly a new idea, but it is an effective one to help make the weird approachable. The trouble is here that the idea of linking it to the morning's ritual is very thinly used. After the introduction, each chapter gives us a couple of lines of context, but th…

Blueprint - Robert Plomin *****

Psychology doesn't have a good name in the science world when it comes to quality of experiments and data. All too often, practitioners have been guilty of misunderstanding statistics, data mining, cherry picking and worse. So it's refreshing to come across a book that is primarily about psychology but is driven by good quality data and where the author goes out of his way to show what the numbers really mean. The twist in the tail, though, is that although Blueprint is indeed about why we are the way we are psychologically, it is driven throughout by genetics. Which is just as well, as according to Robert Plomin, a leading researcher in behavioural genetics, we are driven far more by our genes than most of us realise.

The 'nature versus nurture' debate goes back a long way. Plomin doesn't generally go into history of science in this book, which is probably just as well as one of his few mentions of history is to say 'These environmental factors were called nurt…

The Genius Checklist - Dean Keith Simonton ***

There's something uncomfortable about the cover of this book. It's hard to read something that says 'Nine paradoxical tips on how YOU! can become a creative genius,' and not expect a self-help book, however scientifically based. However, this is not such a book, and you'd think a psychologist like Dean Keith Simonton would realise that promising something and then not delivering it is not a great way to win over your audience.

Instead what we have here is an interesting exploration of what we mean by 'genius' - a fuzzy enough concept that it covers many different abilities - and a set of nine contradictions (that's the 'paradoxical' bit) in listing possible causes for being a genius. So, for example, we are told it's good to score 140 or more on IQ test, but IQ doesn't really matter, or that it's all down to the genes, but home and school are what make it happen. The very nature of these paradoxical statements makes it clear that this…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…