Skip to main content

Big Data - Timandra Harkness *****

I am very wary of books written by people who claim to be taking the wide-eyed outsider's viewpoint, claiming no knowledge of the topic and talking to lots of people in the know - despite the success of Bill Bryson's science book. However, as soon as I came up against Timandra Harkness pointing out that 'data' makes much more sense as a (singular) collective noun for data points, so we should say 'What is data?' rather 'What are data' (something I've been arguing for years), I knew that I was going to enjoy this book.

And despite the rather hard work attempts to be funny in footnotes (especially over number of cups of tea drunk while writing the book), mostly Harkness settles down into telling the story well with a clear amount of knowledge behind her writing (she is, after all, taking a maths degree). 

The story she tells is both fascinating and important. It takes in the historical introduction of statistics, Babbage (where she almost manages to talk about Ada King (aka Lovelace) without over-hyping Ada's contribution), the development of computing and most significantly the way dealing with large amounts of data has transformed the way many scientists do their work. Some of the approaches are mind-boggling - for instance the idea of monitoring mosquitos from airships (poor index, by the way - neither mosquitos or airships are in it), detecting the diseases they are spreading and where (and stopping some as they go).

Things start to feel a little more uncomfortable when Harkness takes us onto just how much can be found out about us from our smartphones. While I don't understand her distaste for a husband and wife who can find each other's location with their smartphone - all her reasons why this is bad seem the kind of thing that shouldn't be an issue (and you can always turn your phone off if you really want to be secretive), the systems being trialled that could, for instance, pick up conversations on the street, locate phones and track numberplates really do stray into big brother  territory, as do the potential misuses of medical data. Having said that, in the section on misuses, she only interviews activists/people who are suspicious, and has no one giving the positive sides. But it's worth noting when there is so much in the news about the balance between personal secrecy and the attempt to keep on top of terrorists and the like.

Overall, a great mix of plenty of information and views on the potential benefits and dangers of big data. Just occasionally it seems like Harkness is taking the party line - for instance taking the benefits of smart meters for customers for granted, even though they are really far more about making complex tariffs easier to impose for the electricity companies - but overall it's a truly fascinating tour of the data that lies beneath so many of the things we do everyday, from the adverts that pop up on our phones and computers to the customer loyalty cards of supermarkets.

A brilliant guide to our brave new world.


Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Superior - Angela Saini *****

It was always going to be difficult to follow Angela Saini's hugely popular Inferior, but with Superior she has pulled it off, not just in the content but by upping the quality of the writing to a whole new level. Where Inferior looked at the misuse of science in supporting sexism (and the existence of sexism in science), Superior examines the way that racism has been given a totally unfounded pseudo-scientific basis in the past - and how, remarkably, despite absolute evidence to the contrary, this still turns up today.

At the heart of the book is the scientific fact that 'race' simply does not exist biologically - it is nothing more than an outdated social label. As Saini points out, there are far larger genetic variations within a so-called race than there are between individuals supposedly of different races. She shows how, pre-genetics, racial prejudice was given a pseudo-scientific veneer by dreaming up fictitious physical differences over and above the tiny distinct…

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …