Skip to main content

Failure - Stuart Firestein ***

I am a big fan of Stuart Firestein's previous book Ignorance. It does a superb job of demolishing the traditional picture (as seen from outside) of scientific endeavour. As the author makes clear, facts may sometimes be interesting, but the driver behind real science is far more likely to be exploring our delicious areas of ignorance. 

This meant I had huge expectations for this follow-up title, and it's entirely possible that this anticipation resulted in an unnecessary feeling of being let down. But in all honesty I think it was also due to the writing. 

What Firestein sets out to do is to build up failure as the second parallel pillar to ignorance as a driver of science. Now, there's lots of good stuff in here about the importance of failure to science, and how too much of it is overlooked as it is very valuable, and how Popper was right but also wrong and so on and so forth, but it all seems flung together with little idea of structure and comes across as a failure (see what I did) if you consider the prime role of a book is to communicate effectively. 

As one example of many, we hear about the importance of failure in the scientific method, but that there isn't really a scientific method, what scientists do is just pootle about, except they don't really, and though they clearly gain from failure they can't be said to learn from failure because that's too like what those horrid business people say. It's all far too woffly and unstructured. That might be intentional, as a metaphor for the nature of science, but if it is, it really gets in the way of providing an effective book.

There is also a surreal moment (on page 170 in case you want to dip into a copy and enjoy it), when Firestein lumps genetically modified crops and nuclear energy in with astrology and alternative medicines as 'completely non-scientific practices.' I read this three times and still can't make sense of it. 

So there is some really interesting material here, and it is probably a must-have for Firestein fans like me, but it is hard work to extract those gems.

Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

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…