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Showing posts from April, 2017

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…

Common Sense, The Turing Test and the Quest for Real AI - Hector Levesque *****

It was fascinating to read this book immediately after Ed Finn's What Algorithms Want. They are both by academics on aspects of artificial intelligence (AI) - but where reading Finn's book is like wading through intellectual treacle, this is a delight. It is short, to the point, beautifully clear and provides just as much in the way of insights without any of the mental anguish.
The topic here is the nature of artificial intelligence, why the current dominant approach of adaptive machine learning can never deliver true AI and what the potential consequences are of thinking that learning from big data is sufficient to truly act in a smart fashion.
As Hector Levesque points out, machine learning is great at handling everyday non-exceptional circumstances - but falls down horribly when having to deal with the 'long tail', where there won't be much past data to learn from. For example (my examples, not his), a self-driving car might cope wonderfully with typical traffic …

What Algorithms Want - Ed Finn ****

The science fiction author Neal Stephenson comments on the cover of this book that it is 'highly enjoyable'. I suspect this is because in the opening of the book, Ed Finn repeatedly refers to Stephenson's impressive novel Snow Crash. If Stephenson actually found reading What Algorithms Want to be fun, he needs to get out more. I would, instead, describe it is extremely hard work to read - but it is hard work that is rewarded with some impressive insights. What Algorithms Want is both clever and able to cut away the glamour (in the old sense of the word) of the internet and the cyber world to reveal what's really going on beneath - as long as you can cope with the way that the book is written.
A Finn points out, most of us rely on algorithms, from Google’s search to Facebook’s timeline, not consciously considering that these aren’t just tools to help us, but processes that have their own (or their makers) intentions embodied in them. What’s more, there's really impor…

The Reality Frame - Brian Clegg *****

I’ve read quite a few of Brian Clegg’s books, but this one’s outstanding. Relativity is a topic that many writers struggle to get across - Clegg does this brilliantly thanks to two tactics I’ve never seen before. First, he makes use of that most fundamental requirement for relativity, the frame of reference. It’s not just the title of the book that suggests frames of reference - this concept forms the backbone of his exploration of relativity. But then he goes totally mad and builds a universe from scratch!

This audacious approach enables us to see, piece by piece, that relativity is about far more than Einstein’s work - fascinating though that is. It’s not that he ignores special and general relativity. There’s even an appendix where he shows how it only takes a maths GCSE to follow the mathematics that make time dilation happen. (I'd like to see more of this kind of thing in popular science books.) But he goes far beyond Einstein's work. For example, in the final chapters he …

4th Rock from the Sun - Nicky Jenner ***

It's rather appropriate that the title of this book seems to be based on the name of the so-so TV show '3rd Rock from the Sun' - like that programme, it shows promise and has plenty of good bits, but as a whole it's rather confused, lacks structure and could have been so much better.
What we have here is a rag bag of everything the general reader might want to know about Mars - or about anything vaguely related to Mars. Nicky Jenner has an engagingly open writing style, although I think the copy editor at Bloomsbury must have been on holiday - I've never known a copy editor let a single exclamation mark through in an adult title, yet this one is littered with them! That did make it feel occasionally as if I was reading a book for children! But it's not!
Getting off my punctuation hobby horse, the good news is that there is lots of genuinely interesting material about Mars here, including stuff I've never seen in a popular science title before. Some of this is…

A History of the Solar System - Claudio Vita-Finzi ***

It was interesting to read this book straight after Ali Almossawi's Bad Choices. The topics may be totally different, but they are both small books - in this case a mere 100 pages - at high prices for their size. But there the similarity ends. Where the other title conceals a very small amount of content, Claudio Vita-Finzi packs in a huge amount of information on our best understanding (c 2016) of how the solar system came into being, the constitution of its components, where it extends to and far more. But that packing comes at a price, which I'll return to.
I wasn't clear on first seeing the book if the 'history' in the title referred to a sweep through historical views or what has happened to the solar system through time. In practice it does both, but there's relatively little on early ideas, concentrating mostly on our best present theories. It might be a surprise how fuzzy some of those theories are. For example, we still aren't anywhere near certain …

Four Way Interview - Marcus Chown

Marcus Chown graduated from the University of London in 1980 with a first class degree in physics. He also earned a Master of Science in astrophysics from the California Institute of Technology. Currently the cosmology consultant for New Scientist magazine, Chown has written a string of successful popular science books. His latest title is The Ascent of Gravity.

Why science?


Good question. When I was 8, my dad bought me 'Dr H. C. King's Book of Astronomy.' I don't know why he bought me that book. But it caught my imagination. Later, he bought me a small telescope. I used to poke it out of the window of our North London flat and observe the stars above the orange glow of the North Circular Road. I saw Jupiter's moons and the rings of Saturn. I began to realise I was living on a tiny mote of matter lost in a mind-bogglingly huge universe. And it awakened in me a desire, which I have never lost, to find out more and more about where it all came from and our place in it.

Bad Choices - Ali Almossawi ***

At the heart of this little book is a really good concept trying to get out - for me it's what you might call a successful failure. What it's trying to do is great, and being creative about doing so is also great - but creativity goes hand in hand with frequent failure, and I'm afraid there are just too many problems here for me to love this book the way I should.
Let's get the negatives out of the way so we can focus on what's good. It's a very short but expensive book - the 144 small pages have a lot of illustration that conveys very little information. What's left is a text that I comfortably read on an hour-long train ride, yet it's being sold at near £15. The illustrations are genuinely almost all doing nothing at all except adding padding. And though Ali Almossawi's writing style is friendly and laid back, it tends to the condescending. Worst of all, the book doesn't do what it says on the tin.
The subtitle is 'how algorithms can help yo…

The Future of the Professions - Richard Susskind and Daniel Susskind ***

We're used to hearing how technology is going to replace the jobs of those doing mechanistic jobs - but this book takes on the impact that technology will have on the professions. 
I've only given the book three stars as it feels rather too much like a textbook (admittedly a well-written textbook), it's fairly repetitious and there's limited coverage of the science and technology behind the move. However this doesn't detract from the fascinating aspects of the book.
One of these is simply addressing the professions at all. According to the authors there's a fair amount of literature on this - but it's stuff us ordinary mortals are unlikely to have seen. A starting point is deciding just what the professions are. The book primarily focuses on the traditional professions such as medicine, accountancy, the law, journalism and religion - though they admit that the concept, essentially one where it is necessary to have specialist knowledge and there is often regul…