Skip to main content

Giant Leaps: Mankind’s Greatest Scientific Advances – John Perry & Jack Challoner ****

This is the only popular science book I know of that has been personally endorsed by Tony Blair (but don’t let that put you off it!) who after reading it said: ‘I wish there had been a book like this to awaken my interest in Science.’
This colourful and well-illustrated coffee table book is an unlikely collaboration between The Sun (one of the UK’s infamous tabloid newspapers), and the Science Museum that covers most of the major inventions and discoveries in scientific history, and even speculates on those that might yet be made. Each one is described in a two page spread: one page of which is written by the Science Museum and is purely factual, and the other being a mock up of what the front page of The Sun would have looked like if it had been reporting on the relevant discovery.
The fun here is of course that the tabloid reporting style is spoofed perfectly – leading to such gems as: ‘MONKEY NUTTER! Barmy Boffin Darwin Reckons We’re All Descend From Apes’ and the discovery of penicillin prompts ‘MOULD THE FRONT PAGE’. Whilst the invention of smelting metals gives us ‘ORESOME’.
I’m sure that anyone who reads this book will have his or her own favourite. The one that prompted the most chuckles from me was the invention of nylon and its use in stockings giving rise to the headline: ’THIGH PREDICT A RIOT’. You might think that the conceit would quickly get tiring – but the book is just the right length for it not to outstay its welcome. If anything it could do with covering a bit more ground than it actually does.
The factual pages are nice and clearly written; just don’t expect a tremendous amount of depth, as you might anticipate would be the case in a book of this sort.
Giant Leaps gets the balance just right between the factual and the humorous making it a very accessible read. Recommended to anyone who is interested in science and its popularisation.
Paperback:  
Review by Scotty_73

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Ancestral Night (SF) - Elizabeth Bear *****

Only a couple of weeks ago, reviewing a 1960s SF book, I bemoaned the fact that science fiction novels of ideas are less common now. Although it is correctly labelled a space opera, Ancestral Night delivers ideas with aplomb.

Let's deal with the space opera aspect first. Elizabeth Bear provides some excellent adventure scenes in space, and we've the usual mix of huge spaceships and interesting aliens. Main character Haimey Dz is an engineer on a ship that salvages wrecks - but, as we gradually discover - she also has a forgotten past. A major feature of the storyline (one that seems to link to the medieval idea of the lost wisdom of the past) is ancient technology from a long-dead race with capabilities, notably manipulating spacetime mentally (Bear has yet to point out that the travel technologies used here could manipulate time as well as space), which fit well with Arthur C. Clarke's magic definition.

I particularly liked the (surely intentional) nods to the much-misse…

The Creativity Code - Marcus du Sautoy *****

At first glance this might just be another 'What AI is good at and not so good at' title. And in a way, it is. But, wow, what a brilliant book! Marcus du Sautoy takes us on a tour of what artificial intelligence has achieved (and possibly can in the future achieve) in a range of fields from his own of mathematics, through game playing, music, art and more.

After a little discussion of what creativity is, we start off with the now very familiar story of DeepMind's AlphaGo and its astonishing ability to take on the hugely challenging game of Go. Even though I've read about this many times before, du Sautoy, as a Go player and mathematician, gives a real feel for why this was such a triumph - and so shocking. Not surprisingly he is also wonderful on what mathematicians actually do, how computers have helped them to date and how they have the potential to do far more in the future. After all, mathematics is by far the closest science to game playing, as it has strict rule…

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…