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Showing posts from April, 2015

Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension - Matt Parker ****

Anyone who has seen Matt Parker perform standup maths as I have (with the excellent Festival of the Spoken Nerd) will immediately recognise the style of this entertaining recreational-ish maths book: an easy, if slightly obsessive communication style, warm and friendly and with a slightly groan-making sense of humour.

I absolutely loved the title, although in a way it's a bit of a let down, as their are relatively few things to 'make and do' here - it is mostly straightforward recreational mathematics - though you certainly can't fault the promise of dealing with the fourth dimension, as well as the fifth, sixth and  196,883rd dimension (and that not one of the joky bits - this is genuinely significant).

Like most rec maths books, while it's clear that the author finds it all fascinating I found some captivating, some vaguely interesting and some a touch 'meh'. But as long as you accept that not all of it will work for you and you might have to skip a few bit…

Are the Androids Dreaming Yet - James Tagg ***

It would be easy to dismiss this book, with the reference in the title to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (the Philip K. Dick book) that Blade Runner was (very loosely) based on, as a vanity project by an entrepreneur who has too much spare time on his hands, but it turns out to be an interesting, if sometimes challenging read.

I think that James Tagg's aim was to compare the human brain with what is now and might ever be within the capabilities of an artificial intelligence, and to explore areas like creativity and free will where we may see a difference. And there are times that he does this very well. If you have the patience, you will find a lot to get you thinking in Tagg's meanderings through different aspects of the nature of thought and creativity, plus lots of insights into the developments of thinking computers (though not enough, I think on how AI has been developing using neural networks etc.). But the problem is that the book has no narrative arc - it is a seri…

The Vital Question - Nick Lane ****

This is a bravura, hit-you-between-the-eyes popular science book which, were it not for a couple of failings, would not only be five star, but quite possibly the best popular science book of the year so far.

Nick Lane succeeds on two levels. One is opening the eyes of a relatively ignorant reader on the subject of biology like me to the sheer, magnificent complexity of biological mechanisms. I was aware, for instance, of mitochondria as the power sources of eukaryotic cells,  but hadn't a clue just how complex the molecular machines that function across their boundary to the wider cell and inside each mitochondrion were. It is truly mind boggling and wonderful. At one point, Lane comments with raised virtual eyebrows on the number of physicists now working in biology - but that's not at all surprising when it becomes plain how much of what goes on is down to pure physics, whether it's pumping protons, passing electrical charges or quantum tunnelling. Lane does resort to the…

Doorways in the Sand (SF) - Roger Zelazny *****

Every now and then I take a break from reading science books and unwind with a spot of fiction. This is often something new, but I also like to dip back into old favourites... and was so glad that I did with Roger Zelazny's Doorways in the Sand, which I haven't read for about 20 years, but was a delight to return to because it remains totally brilliant.

I was a huge fan of Zelazny's Amber series in my teens (I used to haunt the SF bookshop near Piccadilly Station in Manchester, as it sold US imports, and had the latest addition to the Amber books long before they were published in the UK), and still enjoy them, despite the output getting a bit strained towards the end. Doorways, though, is SF rather than fantasy, with that same type of wisecracking hero who would have been portrayed by a young Harrison Ford in the movies.

For the first few pages this could be a 1920s comedy, with a night climber at university who has a trust fund that pays him until he graduates - so every t…

Einstein Relatively Simple - Ira Mark Egdall ***

This review has turned out entirely different from the way I expected after the first chapter or two of Ira Mark Egdall's exploration of the special and general theories of relativity. Frankly, I was all set to give up, as I initially found the book very irritating, but I'm glad I continued, because it turned out to be like a good friend. Just as you like the friend despite their irritating habits, so there was enough here to make it worth suffering a little - at least, if you are part of the right kind of audience.

Let's get the irritating bits out of the way. Because the book is trying to be popular science, it includes a reasonable amount of biography, but it is pretty lightweight. The most glaring example is that we read 'He and his wife Mileva Marić were becoming increasingly estranged during this period. Nonetheless, Albert fathered a second child with Mileva, their son Eduard, in July of 1910.' No, that would be their third child. Poor old Lieserl doesn't…