Skip to main content


Showing posts from January, 2013

The Logician and the Engineer – Paul J. Nahin ***

For its target readership this is an excellent book – and I have to say as someone outside that market I really enjoyed some parts – but the fact remains it is aimed at a pretty narrow segment. There’s even a little section at the front of the book that effectively says ‘read this to see if you can cope with the rest.’ The bits I found particularly appealing were a few introductory logic problems (though I’m not sure I agreed with all  the conclusions) and the pocket biographies of mathematician George Boole and information engineer Claude Shannon. However, while technically qualified to deal with the other parts of the book, in truth I couldn’t be bothered – it was too much like hard work. For bits of it I would have to wade through far too much grunt maths, and for other bits would have had to think far too hard about electronic circuits and the logic circuits beloved of basement dwellers on computer science courses. (Or was it just my university that confined the computer sci

A Down to Earth Guide to the Cosmos – Mark Thompson ***

I got into amateur astronomy at the age of 11, and for a number years took it veryseriously – and like pretty well anyone who does, I bought myself a good guide. I’ve still got it, and I treasure it – it’s Patrick Moore’s  The Amateur Astronomer . Now Mark Thompson is setting out to do something similar for a new generation, and in reviewing it, I’ve had my Moore book alongside as a touchstone – so this has ended up as a kind of double review. For those not familiar with Thompson (me included), he apparently appears on the BBC’s early evening magazine show,  The One Show  and on the BBC’s annual  Stargazing Live  with the ubiquitous Brian Cox, talking about astronomy. The book is organised in 12 sections, one for each month, with a general information chapter and then star charts for northern and southern hemispheres and a commentary for the month. When the information chapter keeps to astronomy and the practicalities of it, Thompson is very good. As you might expect, he’s less

The Particle at the End of the Universe – Sean Carroll ****

The possible discovery of the Higgs boson has prompted a flurry of books – in part because it’s significant (and because the Large Hadron Collider is a sexy bit of kit) and in part because the whole business of the Higgs field and its importance for the mass of particles is one of the most obscure and unlikely bits of physics in the current canon. I have really mixed feelings about this entry in the genre from physicist Sean Carroll. It’s not because his book is too difficult to understand – it’s almost because it’s too easy. Generally speaking, there are three levels of good popular science. There’s TV news popular science, which cuts a lot of corners to make things totally simplistic, but manages to get the message across quickly. There’s the kind of book a good popular science writer will produce – highly approachable and readable, giving a lot more depth than the TV news and the best way to actually get an understanding of what’s going on for most of us, but still cutting some

Better than Human – Allen Buchanan ***

This pocket-sized book has a fair amount of content thanks to an unusually small font size – and the subject is one that is quite topical when this review was written given the furore over the cyclist Lance Armstrong’s use of performance enhancing drugs. Allen Buchanan takes on the whole subject of human beings enhancing ourselves. It’s an interesting book that makes quite strong arguments that augmentation, both through use of drugs and genetic modification, is going to happen whether we like it or not, and shows how many of the arguments against such an approach are based on poor reasoning. Buchanan recognizes the issues and the ways this will cause problems, but equally dismisses many of the arguments against doing so. He also points out that the use of drugs in sport is actually a bad example (sorry), as in most circumstances we aren’t playing games and we aren’t in a zero sum competition. If one person is enhanced it has the potential to benefit the rest of us, rather than be

Paranormality – Richard Wiseman ****

The subtitle here is ‘Why we believe the impossible’ or ‘Why we see what isn’t there’ (depending on your edition) emphasising that this a book not so much on parapsychology – the study of paranormal capabilities of the mind – but what you might call metaparapsychology – the study of why human beings incorrectly  think  that they have paranormal capabilities of the mind. This is a very entertaining, lightly written book that takes a storytelling approach to introducing some of the strange and wonderful claims that people have made for supernatural mental abilities, only to pull them apart. We begin with that most dubious of paranormal topics, psychics, with a UK psychic roundly failing in controlled tests and another psychic admitting exactly how he used cold reading tricks to fool his clients. Many books have debunked cold reading, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen before such a clear list of the six key techniques with a demonstration of how they were used in a specific reading.

Jack Glass (SF) - Adam Roberts *****

I was blown away by Jack Glass by Adam Roberts. I suspect what made this for me is that Roberts consciously was setting out to write a book that took on some of the conventions of the golden ages of science fiction and crime writing - both favourites for me. It is a new book. It is a modern book. However it encompasses the best of the old. And the result is absolutely wonderful. The antihero of the novel, Jack Glass, tells us up front that he is the murderer in each of three sections of the book - but this doesn't prevent the stories (which fit together almost seamlessly) from working in terms of suspense and anticipation. The first section is probably the weakest and the middle the strongest, so if you make a start and struggle a little with the starkness of the first, do keep going. Roberts happens to be a professor of literature and if I say it doesn't show, I mean that in the best possible way. Although the book is very well written with some elegant turns of phrase,