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Showing posts from May, 2013

It’s Not Rocket Science – Ben Miller *****

Ben Miller is probably best known for playing a detective in the gentle, rather underrated comedy drama  Death in Paradise , and as half of the comedy duo Armstrong and Miller, but he studied physics at Cambridge and was en route to a doctorate when he realized that getting a real job was much more useful. (I would like to apply a large kick to Brian Cox for writing the most condescending puff for the book I’ve ever seen: ‘A fun and insightful ride through the whole of science – it’s almost as if he’d finished his PhD.’) I don’t know why it is, but people always get a little excited when an entertainer has a science qualification. (Think Brian May or Dara O’Briain for instance.) No doubt many others have, say, English or history degrees, but for some reason this doesn’t cause the same amazement. Perhaps the assumption is that all entertainers are a bit, well, thick. But either way we really have to take the book on its merits. And they are considerable. Miller conducts a rambling

The Serpent’s Promise – Steve Jones ***

There are broadly two ways to write a popular science book. One is, like my book  Gravity , to pick a specific aspect of science and really dig into it. The other is to use a theme that allows you to explore a whole range of different scientific topics. I confess I’ve done this as well with the likes of Inflight Science  and  The Universe Inside You  and the approach can be very effective. But there has to be a reason for choosing the framework – and I find Steve Jones’ hook in this particular book – the Bible – a little odd. The bumf for the book says ‘The Bible was the first scientific textbook of all; and it got some things right (and plenty more wrong).’ I’m really not sure about that premise – I don’t think anyone sensibly would regard the Bible as a scientific textbook. The whole reason, for instance, that Genesis gets away with having two scientifically incompatible versions of the creation story is that it isn’t intended to be a literal, scientific explanation, but rather a

Lee Smolin – Four Way Interview

Lee Smolin is one of our foremost theoretical physicists and a rare thinker, as deeply involved in the philosophy of science as in its theoretical detail and cultural resonance. He is able both to confront and propose solutions for a way out of what he sees is a current impasse in theoretical thinking and to continue to posit radical new theories about the fabric of the universe. He has made important contributions to the search for quantum gravity. Since 2001 he has been a founding faculty member at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Toronto. His books include Life of the Cosmos (1997), Three Roads to Quantum Gravity (2001) and The Trouble with Physics (2001).  Lee’s latest book is  Time Reborn – From the Crisis of Physics to the Future of the Universe . Why science? Let me answer with the lyrics to a song  Science is Real  by the rock band  They Might be Giants I like the stories About angels, unicorns and elves Now I like those stories As much as anybody else B

Scatter, Adapt, and Remember – Annalee Newitz ****

I’m not a natural audience for books about surviving disasters (even though I wrote the Global Warming Survival Kit ). I can’t stand disaster movies, because I can’t take the pragmatic ‘Oh well, some survive,’ viewpoint as I watch millions perish. So I thought that I would find this book, with its subtitle  How Humans will survive a mass extinction somewhat unappetising – but I was wrong. The Earth has gone through a number of mass extinctions, where a fair percentage of living species have been killed off. The most famous is the one that mostly took out the dinosaurs around 65 million years ago, but there have been others and, Annalee Newitz points out, if we want to see the long term survival of the human race, we need to be able to make it through one, should it turn up, whether caused by climate change, pandemics, a supervolcano or an asteroid. What Newitz does surprisingly well here is weave together what are really around four different books, all in one compact volume. We s

TimeOne (SF) – Colin Gillespie **(*)

I have always said that there is a real opportunity if anyone can write fiction that manages to entertain but also to educate about science at the same time. It is certainly possible, but fiercely difficult to do well. As we saw with something like  Pythagoras’ Revenge , the result almost inevitably is either bad fiction with a slew of science or readable fiction where the science really doesn’t come across well. So I was excited when I saw the publicity for Colin Gillespie’s  TimeOne , intriguingly subtitled ‘discover how the universe began.’ The idea of this work of fiction with a strong science content is to explore the nature of the big bang using the unusual concept of having a detective examine the ‘clues’ to see if they can work out how it all began. I’ve given it an extra bracketed star for ingenuity and effort, but I have to say that the outcome did not give me any joy. There is plenty of reasonable science in here (along with an awful lot of philosophy and waffle), but t

The Golden Ticket: P, NP, and the Search for the Impossible – Lance Fortnow ***

There is good and bad news early on in this book about the P versus NP problem that haunts computing. The good news is that on the description I expected this to be a dull, heavy going book, and it’s not at all. Lance Fortnow makes what could be a fairly impenetrable and technical maths/computing issue light and accessible. The bad news is that frustratingly he doesn’t actually tell you what P and NP mean for a long time, just gives rather sideways definitions of the problem along the lines of ‘P refers to the problems we can solve quickly using computers. NP refers to the problems to which we would like to find the best solution’, and also that he makes a couple of major errors early on, which make it difficult to be one hundred percent confident about the rest of the book. The errors come in a section where he imagines a future where P=NP has been proved. This would mean you could write an algorithm to very efficiently match things and select from data. Fortnow suggests that our