Skip to main content

Virtual Words – Jonathon Keats ****

Because this book is about science and words, I’m easy prey. As a science writer, what could be more wonderful? Jonathon Keats, author of the Jargon Watch column in Wired magazine sets off on a series of riffs on different neologisms that have emerged in science and technology (more technology, if push comes to shove).
Each is an elegantly written essay, light enough to make bedtime reading or a good gift book, but with enough insight to make them really interesting. Of course, if you don’t give a damn about words, it’s all a big ‘So what?’ It doesn’t really advance our knowledge of science an iota. But who couldn’t be enticed into discovering what an unparticle is, the strange history of in vitro meat, the tricky scientific oddity of a memristor, the enjoyment of a touch of crispy bacn (sic), what cloud computing, crowdsourcing or a mashup is (those irritating words that everyone else seems to know what they mean), and what the true origins of w00t are.
I really looked forward to reading this book every time I came back to it – always a good sign – but there were sufficient flaws to have to raise a couple of concerns about it. Firstly there’s the author’s rather pernickety tone, which won’t be to everyone’s taste. Then there is a slight feel that his science knowledge lags somewhat behind his expertise elsewhere. In the ‘memristor’ section he tells us ‘the capacitor linked charge and current, the resistor, current and voltage, and the inductor, current and flux.’ I’ve never come across a component called an ‘inductor’ – and since up to this point he had been talking about electricity, I didn’t really know what he meant by flux. It took a moment to realize he was talking about magnetism and an induction coil.
Perhaps that one was just me, but there was one other jarring oddity. The author refers to the early use of the term ‘flying saucer’ – but his comments suggest he hasn’t a clue how this term came into use (it had nothing to do with the shape of the spacecraft and everything to do with the way it moved). If he can get the derivation of such a well known term wrong, it doesn’t bode well for the more obscure ones he describes in his text.
However, the objections are minor and easily overlooked. The fact remains that it’s a very enjoyable book on a subject that will delight anyone with an interest in science/technology and language.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

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…

Five Photons - James Geach ****

It is generally acknowledged that Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time is one of the most common books to be bought but not read beyond the first few pages. If you are the kind of popular science reader who found Hawking hard going, you can stop now - Five Photons is not for you. If, on the other hand, you found A Brief History of Time a piece of cake and wished you could get into more depth without resorting to heavy mathematics or a tedious textbook style, Five Photons could be just up your street.

Astrophysicist James Geach starts of fairly gently with a chapter on the nature of light that mostly sets aside quantum physics, leading up to the observation that light is our vehicle for for stripping back the history of the universe to its earliest times (or, at least, the point where the universe became transparent). From here on, the five photons of the title take us on different journeys, from the oldest surviving light of the cosmic microwave background radiation to that fr…

Mercury - William Sheehan ****

Driving to work one morning several years ago, I spotted a tiny white dot close to the rising sun. ‘That’s Venus,’ I said to myself. Almost immediately I saw another, much brighter dot a few degrees away. ‘No, that’s Venus – the first one must be, um ... Mercury.’ Even with a lifelong interest in astronomy, I always manage to forget Mercury.

With eight planets in the Solar System, one of them has to be the least interesting – and Mercury got the short straw. That’s a relative statement, though, and a diligent author could still dig up enough fascinating facts about that tiny dot by the Sun to fill a short book. William Sheehan has done a brilliant job of doing just that.

One of the reasons Mercury is so easy to forget is that it’s almost impossible to get a good view of it from Earth. Even after the invention of the telescope, which turned planets like Mars and Jupiter into explorable worlds, Mercury remained a mystery – and the subject of some pretty wild speculations. In 1686, for exa…