Skip to main content

Being Virtual – Davey Winder ***

This is one of a small series of books linked to the Dana Centre at the Science Museum in London. I’m a great fan of the Dana Centre – it’s a stylish cafe bar, where most evenings there is an informal and interactive session on once science topic or another. Like the Café Scientifique movement, it’s a great way of getting the science message across in a non-threatening way.
However, there is a problem with the Dana Centre – and it comes through to some extent in this book. When I look at the Centre’s programme, there’s rarely anything I would want to go to. There is very little hard science – although I’ve taken part in couple of excellent hard science events there, their brief is strongly around science and society, which means the topics are often so soft they are positively mushy.
That’s really why this book only scores three stars. It is highly enjoyable to read, but contains very little science, and doesn’t even, I would suggest, go to the heart of the topic it is covering – the online virtual world. Like the Dana Centre itself, there is an element of style over substance in the way the book is constructed. It has glossy pages with colour illustrations – which is great – but the pages are often dominated by really irritating multicoloured pull quotes, which make it harder to read and provide no benefit to the reader.
What we get is a very personal guide to this world by Davey Winder. It tells us a fair amount of history – though it tends to be limited to the aspects he has experience of. So we hear, for instance, about CiX but Compuserve, where I got my first experience of online networking, isn’t even mentioned. Perhaps there is just a bit too much of Davey himself in the book – interesting though he is – I’d rather the space had been used to fill out more of those missing details.
Although we hear very sensible concerns about the more dubious aspects of the virtual worlds and identity theft, the general tone is positive and supportive. In fact, if anything I’d suggest Winder over-sells virtual life. While he has a very valid point about the opportunities for those with some sort of disadvantage in the real world to overcome that virtually – the majority of his case studies are people who are, in one way or another, damaged goods – what’s less clear is the accuracy of the argument that many people aren’t wasting huge amounts of time in their virtual lives. It might be easier to stay virtual, but I found it difficult not to think how much better they would be putting all that time and effort into achieving something in the real world that will be more lasting and ultimately more fulfilling.
All in all, not a bad book at all – a good introduction to modern virtual worlds and what is possible (and not possible) there – but a little overloaded with feely stuff, and not enough science to back it up.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…