The popular science and science fiction book review site
Subscribe to this blog
Follow by Email
Search This Blog
Ten Physicists - Rhodri Evans and Brian Clegg ***
I have little time for list books. You know the kind of thing. Fifty things you always wanted to know about chemistry, or whatever. I used to review a lot of children's science books. The kind of 'all you want to know in an easily digestible two page spread (with lots of pictures)' approach is okay in that context, but in something aimed at adults seems downright condescending to me. They must be popular, though, because publishers keep churning them out. But I really don't understand why.
Technically, this too is a list book, but at least it's a more grown-up list with a proper chapter of real sentences on each of the ten physicists featured. There is no doubt, as the introduction suggests, that there is a fascination produced by this particular kind of top ten list, if only because it's pretty easy to disagree with the list used. We discover that both Steven Weinberg in the preface and the authors in the introduction do disagree. (This gives the rather odd outcome of a book discussing the top ten physicists, using a list that the authors don't think covers the top ten physicists. I can see the point for the fun of the argument, but shouldn't they have corrected the list?). Whatever you think of the ten, we get a pretty good pocket biography of each one, including some insightful comments on the significance of their physics, a process that highlights why Marie Curie should probably be regarded more as a chemist than a physicist.
The overall effect, then, is quite interesting, though frankly each of the individuals featured deserves (and has received elsewhere) a solo scientific biography in his or her own right. If you can't be bothered to read ten different books, which many of us can't, this does pull the whole together efficiently and might, perhaps, indicate where you want to read more (for me it was Maxwell's story that really whet the appetite for in-depth discovery). If you think of Ten Physicists as the Reader's Digest condensed book of key physicists, with a little interesting discussion on what makes a great physicist, you won't go to far wrong and you should come out the other end significantly the wiser.
Review by Jo Reed
Please note, this title is co-authored by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion – and we could hardly omit the book – but do want to make the connection clear.
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…
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…
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…