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Showing posts from April, 2016

A World From Dust - Ben McFarland ***

This is, without doubt, one of the strangest popular science books I've ever read. A quote in the blurb says 'this book is very approachable for people with a minimal background in chemistry,' though given the author of this remark is a professor of geobiology, it's tempting to wonder how he knows what would be approachable to such a person. 

Where he's definitely right, though, is when he says 'in ways that have not been attempted by earlier writers on the topic.' I have never before read a science book quite like this. The reason is that you will generally read about physics the way a physicist would look at it, or about biology as understood by a biologist. This reframes all the science it uses as seen by a chemist. The result is novel, certainly, though I'm not convinced it makes the subjects more approachable - instead, for me, it obscures the message.

In Ben McFarland's obsessive attempt to represent any science from a chemistry viewpoint, what …

Algorithms to Live By - Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths *****

I was captivated by much of this book. It's the perfect antidote to the argument you often hear from young maths students - 'What's the point? I'll never use this in real life!' This often comes up with algebra (which often is useful), but reflects the way that we rarely cover the most applicable bits of maths to everyday life at high school. Although this book is subtitled 'the computer science of human decisions', it's really about the maths of human decision making (which is often supported by computers) - I suspect the 'computer science' label is to make it more sexy than boring old mathematics.

If there is any danger that the 'M' word would turn you off, the book tends to skip over the mathematical workings, concentrating on the outcomes and how they're relevant to the kind of decisions we make in everyday life - and it's that application side that makes it particularly interesting (helped by a good, readable style from the c…

The Tyrannosaur Chronicles - David Hone ***

For most of us, dinosaurs have a strangely Victorian feel, with the associations of large, scary skeletons in nineteenth century buildings like the Natural History Museum. However, not only has knowledge of this remarkable group of animals moved on hugely since those skeletons were first put on show, the amount we have learned in the last 20 years eclipses everything that has come before, so it is valuable to have a really up-to-date view of dinosaurs, and in particular that most popular of groupings, the tyrannosaurs.
It's appropriate that I mention a Victorian feel, as David Hone's writing does have something of a fussy academic style. Unlike some academics who write popular science, he retains a precision and requirement to note uncertainty in some detail that doesn't make for the best reading, even if it is strictly the most accurate way to present what is, and isn't known. (I assumed he was about 70 from his style, but from the photo he's a lot younger.) Howeve…

Beyond Zero and One - Andrew Smart ***

This is an unusual book, in a small pocket-sized format that reminds me of the old science fiction doubles pocket books. Apart from their small size, these books had a special trick up their sleeve, because when you flipped them over, the back was a cover for a different book - each copy held two books, starting from opposite ends. Beyond Zero and One may be a single title, but it too has very different topics that Andrew Smart wants to convince us go naturally together: artificial intelligence and the drug LSD.
As we go, in a rather rambling fashion, in the first topic, Smart takes us through the nature of artificial intelligence, how likely it is that computers could become truly intelligent and/or conscious and explores a little of the nature of consciousness himself. As far as the second goes, we get a really interesting description of his one and only LSD trip, details of its chemical structure and possible method of the drug's operation, its history and how it has been used. …

Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths - Four Way Interview

Brian Christian is the bestselling author of The Most Human Human, which was named a Wall Street Journal bestseller and a New Yorker favourite book of 2011. His writing has appeared in Wired, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal and The Paris Review, among others. Brian has been a featured guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Charlie Rose Show, NPR's Radiolab, and the BBC, and has lectured at Google, Microsoft, SETI, the Santa Fe Institute, the Royal Institution of Great Britain, and the London School of Economics.

Tom Griffiths is a professor of psychology and cognitive science at UC Berkeley, where he directs the Computational Cognitive Science Lab. He has received widespread recognition for his scientific work, including awards from the American Psychological Association and the Sloan Foundation.

Algorithms to Live Byis reviewed here.

Why science?

BC: I think of my own orientation towards science in essentially religious terms. That anything exists at all (let alone life,…

The Great Acceleration - Robert Colvile ****

With the subtitle 'how the world is getting faster faster', this is a Gladwellesque exploration of the way that, primarily driven by information and communication technology, we are getting increasingly frantic. And yet, somehow, Robert Colvile (or Collie as my spellcheck insists on calling him) argues that this is a good thing. Arguably, the mark of the book is how persuasive he is in his cheery acceptance.
In echoing the books of Malcolm Gladwell, I am referring more to a fast paced (appropriately) throwing in of examples, overwhelming the reader with context - but I'm glad to say that Colvile is much better at acknowledging sources as he goes. 
In each of the main chapters, Colvile takes an area of life - socialising, art, news, politics, finance etc. - and looks at the way that our increasingly high speed, always on, connected world has radically transformed the nature of each area. The format tends to be very much the same chapter to chapter - so much so that it was get…

The Compelling Scientific Evidence for UFOs - Erol A. Faruk **

You can see immediately from the cover that this is no ordinary popular science book. There are some issues with The Compelling Scientific Evidence for UFOs, but if you have an interest in the field, particularly if, like me, you are an open-minded sceptic on the subject, I would consider reading it. This is because it is one of the few attempts to use proper scientific methods on UFO evidence, and though I don't agree with Erol Faruk's conclusions, it is refreshing not to see simplistic acceptance or knee-jerk denial of what is, for many people, a genuinely interesting topic.

This isn't a general discussion of the UFO phenomenon - for that I'd recommend How UFOs Conquered the World by David Clarke, but instead gives us the author's take on a specific incident at Delphos, Kansas, where an alleged UFO landing left behind some very interesting material. The book has as an appendix made up of Faruk's scientific paper describing an analysis of the unusual organic ma…