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Showing posts from 2017

Out of the Shadow of a Giant - John and Mary Gribbin *****

We should be truly grateful to John and Mary Gribbin for this opportunity to find out more about two stalwarts of 17th/18th century British science, Robert Hooke and Edmond Halley (apparently pronounced 'Hawley', as presumably it was thought of as Hall-ley). This pair have been unfortunately and unfairly overshadowed by Isaac Newton, and this book does a lot to bring them into the open. (I wish the Gribbins had also included another in Newton's shadow, the mathematician John Wallis.)

The aim here is very much to get a feel for the scientific contribution of this pair, though we do get some biographical detail, particularly of Hooke (in whose household it seemed to be decidedly risky to be young and female, even if you were his niece), with rather less of Halley's life. Both men were polymaths to a far greater extent than I had realised - for example I had no idea how much architecture Hooke was responsible for, including designing some of Wren's churches and coming …

Are You Smarter than a Chimpanzee? - Ben Ambridge ****

There's a whole lot of entertainment - but also surprising facts - to be discovered in Ben Ambridge's book Are You Smarter than a Chimpanzee?

Ambridge sets out to compare many human mental abilities with those of animals (and even insects), showing how often we share capabilities, and in some (rather limited) circumstances can even be beaten by animals, hence the title of the book. Ranging from the way that, for example, some animals aren't taken in by the optical illusions that fool us, to feats of memory and logic, page after page Ambridge presents us with fascinating examples from the natural world.

Sometimes what's most amazing is the lengths to which researchers (who can't ask the animals what they are thinking) have to go to devise their experiments to see, for example, how ants would deal with the Tower of Hanoi problem, or whether or not chickens are less likely than us to be fooled by optical illusions where one object (in a 2D image) is apparently in front …

The Mathematics Lover's Companion - Edward Scheinerman ****

The worrying thing about this title is that I'm not sure I am a maths lover. I find some parts of mathematics interesting - infinity and probability, for example - but a lot of it is just a means to an end for me. The good news is that, even if you are like me, there's a lot to like here, though you may find yourself skipping through some parts.

Edward Scheinerman takes us through 23 mathematical areas, so should you find a particular one doesn't work for you, it's easy enough to move onto another that does. Sometimes it wasn't the obvious ones that intrigued - where I found the section on infinity, for example, a little underwhelming, I really enjoyed the section on factorials. The book opens with prime numbers, which while not the most exciting of its contents, gives the reader a solid introduction to the level of mathematical thought they will be dealing with. It's enough to get the brain working - this isn't a pure fun read and you have to think - but no…

The Brain - Gary Wenk ***

There have been plenty of books about the brain, but 'Professor of Psychology and Neurosciences and Molecular Virology, Immunology and Medical Genetics' (I bet he has a big business card) Gary Wenk is, according to the subtitle, out to tell us 'what everyone needs to know' about this important organ. (As the subtitle has a registered trademark symbol, I assume the book is part of a series.)
I found The Brain an easy read in terms of the language (though inevitably we get a string of labels for different parts of the brain), but sometimes I struggled to make sense of what was being said. For example, we're told: 'The brain is the organ of your mind; therefore, food and drugs can have a profound influence on how you think, act and feel.' There seemed to be something missing in the logical argument that allowed that 'therefore' to be used. Further down the same page we read 'Human behaviour has impacted [tobacco and coffee] plants as much as they ha…

Screen sharing of the future: where will we be looking at photos and videos in 100 years' time?

Picture the scene: bright neon vectors, 2D images flying around in thin air, Tom Cruise waving his hands around - yes it’s Minority Report, and the iconic ‘gesture interface’. At the time this vision of the future seemed so far beyond modern technology we called it science fiction. However, the idea that any surface can be a screen is no longer as far-fetched as it once seemed.

This tech is moving quickly into the home. LG recently showed a 64 inch screen at CES 2017 called Wallpaper. LG now has a screen which is just 1mmthick and can be attached to a wall with magnets. In under one year technology has gone from curved screen TVs to screens that can be rolled up like a piece of paper. Truly incredible.
By 2018 it is estimated that there will be around 759 million TV sets connected to the internet globally. This figure represents about 25% of the world’s TVs. By 2019, more than 50% of TV households in Japan, the US, the UK,France and Germany will have Smart TVs, according to the IHS TV S…

The Calculus of Happiness - Oscar Fernandez ***

There's something of the 'How to win friends and influence people' about the subtitle of this book 'How a mathematical approach to life adds up to health, wealth and love.' Big promises indeed. While I assume that there's an element of tongue in cheek about Oscar Fernandez's choice of these words, it's hard to read them and not expect this to be a book full of practical life lessons from maths - so we'll see how it does.

In three sections, Fernandez looks at ways we can use mathematics to analyse those three key areas. The first section takes on health, which is brave. I was rather surprised that a book published in 2017 didn't reflect the latest thinking on diet and health. Specifically, there's no mention of the research that reduces the distinction in health impact of saturated and unsaturated fats, there is no mention of the greater concerns about transfats, and sugar is only considered negative from its calorific content, not reflecting …

Visions of Numberland - Alex Bellos and Edmund Harriss **

When someone flogs a concept to death financially it is sometimes described as 'milking it for all it's worth'. This isn't something I've ever come across in popular science before, but by producing a mathematical adult colouring book on his recurring (see what I did then?) 'numberland' theme, Alex Bellos has managed it.

I'll be honest, I'm not a fan of adult colouring books. It adds a whole new texture to 'dumbing down' that they are considered (and priced as) books at all. And I'm afraid this has not made me a convert.

I don't deny that it's possible for maths to be used as a brilliant starting point for art. No one who appreciates mathematics can fail to be impressed by Escher's work, for example. And to give Bellos his due, we do get a handful of lines of description for each mathematical structure that we are offered to colour in. Even so, and despite being provided with 60 patterns to colour (and '10 more that YOU cre…

Astronomy Adventures and Vacations - Timothy Treadwell ****

If you’re into healthy outdoor pursuits (and I mean the Great Outdoors, not your backyard), you won’t have any trouble thinking of exciting ‘adventures and vacations’ to indulge in. But what if you’re a naturally sedentary science geek (like this reviewer)? If you’ve ever struggled for a reason to get yourself out of the house, this book could be just what you need.

The book’s title immediately conjures up a number of standard images – a luxury cruise to the southern hemisphere taking in the Milky Way and Magellanic Clouds, an excursion to the far north to view the Aurora Borealis, or that ‘once in a lifetime’ trip to some obscure part of the globe to witness a total solar eclipse. All those things are covered, of course, but so are a lot of less obvious – and significantly cheaper and easier – activities.

The book lists numerous space-related tourist attractions, from museums and NASA visitor centres to working observatories that are open to the public. There are also more historical s…

Four Way Interview - Hector Levesque

Hector Levesque is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Toronto. He worked in the area of knowledge representation and reasoning in artificial intelligence. He is the co-author of a graduate textbook and co-founder of a conference in this area. He received the Computers and Thought Award in 1985 near the start of his career, and the Research Excellence Award in 2013 near the end, both from IJCAI (the International Joint Conferences on Artificial Intelligence). His latest title is Common Sense, The Turing Test, and the Quest for Real AI.

Why computer science?

Computer science is not really the science of computers, but the science of computation, a certain kind of information processing, with only a marginal connection to electronics. (I prefer the term used in French and other languages, informatics, but it never really caught on in North America.) Information is somewhat like gravity: once you are made aware of it, you realize that it is everywh…

Finding Fibonacci - Keith Devlin ***

I was rather surprised by this book, but I shouldn't have been. It does exactly what it says on the tin. The subtitle is 'The quest to rediscover the forgotten mathematical genius who changed the world.' So I shouldn't really complain that the book is far more about the quest than about the mathematician Fibonacci and his work - but I was disappointed nonetheless.
In practice, I enjoyed the details of the search for Fibonacci pointers like street signs, as it's the kind of thing I've done myself as a science writer. But I think Keith Devlin suffered from a common problem with someone who gets to close to a subject. If, for example, you are a birdwatcher and have spent ages tracking down a lesser spotted grebe, you might assume that the rest of us are as interested as you are - but we really aren't. There was just too much detail on Devlin's attempts to track down early copies (there are no originals) of Fibonacci's work. And where there is a tiny lit…

Images from a Warming Planet - Ashley Cooper ****

I'm not a big fan of coffee table books - and this is certainly big and heavy enough to make a coffee table from if you attached legs (I certainly wouldn't fancy reading it in bed) - but Ashley Cooper's 495 photographs covering the impact of climate change, fossil fuel energy generation and renewables are absolutely stunning - crisp, large scale, extremely colourful and putting across a message that is sometimes hard to convey in words. Whether Cooper is showing oil refineries and damaged landscapes or homes battered by storms and decaying after drought, these are dramatic images.
In his foreword, Jonathon Porritt says 'do not allow the power of the images come between you and the people' - emphasising that it's not enough to record what's happening, but rather we should this kind of thing as a call to arms. My only concern here is that there's an awful lot of 'isn't this terrible' scenes and some nice images of the small scale 'good stuf…