Skip to main content

Brain Bugs – Dean Buonomano *****

There are far too many popular science books around about emotions and pleasure and goodness knows what, so it might seem that the whole idea of writing about brain-related issues has got a bit tired… and then along comes Brain Bugs, which is an absolute delight to read and truly fascinating.
Dean Buonomano identifies the places where the brain gets it wrong, either because of technical problems – a classic example being optical illusions (there’s one of the best optical illusions I’ve seen in the book) – or because it was ‘programmed’ for life on the Savannah 100,000 years ago and doesn’t have a great fit with modern life. Along the way we’ll find things like memory (and why it gets things wrong), incorrect estimation of the rate of passing of time, fear, advertising, probability and the supernatural (Buonomano argues that religion is probably so strong for evolutionary reasons). I really enjoyed all the sections talking about the way our brains get into a pickle.
The only downside is that when the author gets into the technical practicalities of what’s causing what in the brain it can all become just a bit too techie and detailed. I’m with Richard Feynman, who explaining a cat’s nervous system (I think), was told that biology students would have learned all the names for all the bits. No wonder, Feynman, said, it took them so long to get a biology degree. He thought there’s no point knowing all those labels – you can just look them up – and I’m inclined to agree.
But this doesn’t take away from the fact that this is a brilliant book about the failings of your most important organ. They won’t kill you (usually) but they certainly will enthral you.
Paperback:  

Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …

The Best of R. A. Lafferty (SF) – R. A. Lafferty ****

Throughout my high school years (1973–76) I carefully kept a list of all the science fiction I read. I’ve just dug it out, and it contains no fewer than 1,291 entries – almost all short stories I found in various SF magazines and multi-author anthologies. Right on the first page, the sixth item is ‘Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne’ by R. A. Lafferty, and his name appears another 32 times before the end of the list. This isn’t a peculiarity of my own tastes. Short stories were much more popular in those days than they are today, and any serious SF fan would have encountered Lafferty – a prolific writer of short fiction – in the same places I did.

But times change, and this Gollancz Masterworks volume has a quote from the Guardian on the back describing Lafferty as ‘the most important science fiction writer you’ve never heard of’. Hopefully this newly assembled collection will go some way to remedying that situation. It contains 22 short stories, mostly dating from the 1960s and 70s, each w…

David Beerling - Four Way Interview

David Beerling is the Sorby Professor of Natural Sciences, and Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation at the University of Sheffield. His book The Emerald Planet (OUP, 2007) formed the basis of a major 3-part BBC TV series ‘How to Grow a Planet’. His latest title is Making Eden.

Why science?

I come from a non-academic background. None of my family, past or present, went to university, which may explain the following. In the final year of my degree in biological sciences at the University of Wales, Cardiff (around 1986), we all participated in a field course in mid-Wales, and I experienced an epiphany. I was undertaking a small research project on the population dynamics of bullheads (Cotus gobio), a common small freshwater fish, with a charismatic distinguished professor, and Fellow of the Royal Society in London. Under his guidance, I discovered the process of learning how nature works through the application of the scientific method. It was the most exciting t…