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Showing posts from September, 2017

All the Wonder that Would Be – Stephen Webb ****

Between the ages of 14 and 26 (circa 1972 to 1984, if you must know) I read a lot of science fiction. Being quite naïve in those days, I assumed that the shared vision of the near-future common to many of those stories was the way things really would turn out. Now, several decades later, I find myself living in that future – and, for the most part, it’s not what I expected. I’m endlessly fascinated by the way SF got a few things right and a lot of things wrong – and so, it seems, is Stephen Webb. That’s what this book is all about; in his own words, its aim is ‘to compare the default future of old-time science fiction with how things are turning out’.

Webb’s background is similar to my own (reading between the lines, he must have got his PhD from Manchester University a year or two after I got mine from the same place), and like me he discovered SF when its centre-of-gravity was still firmly in the written domain. In consequence, the science-fictional focus of his book is very much on …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…

The Martian (SF) - Andy Weir *****

I read The Martian a year ago this month, just after embarking on the research for my own (non-fiction) book Destination Mars. And it had an impact. Before reading Andy Weir’s novel, although I was fascinated on a theoretical level by the idea of sending people to Mars, I was immensely sceptical about it as a practical proposition. By the time I’d finished the novel, I was an out-and-out Mars enthusiast. Any work of fiction that can change the way you think about a subject – especially one you’re already familiar with – has got to be worth five stars.

Actually, The Martian is pretty much the perfect science fiction novel. It’s strong on all the essential elements – an edge-of-the-seat plot with an engaging cast of characters, combined with a genuine respect for, and understanding of, a whole range of scientific disciplines. And it avoids all those unnecessary trappings that spoil a lot of contemporary SF, such as complex, soap-operatic relationships and political/philosophical preachin…

Science is Beautiful - disease and medicine - Colin Salter ***

How you respond to this book will probably depend a) on how you feel about coffee table books and b) what your response is to those sections in some newspapers (and New Scientist) which are striking photographs with a relatively small amount of text.

What Colin Salter has done here is bring together microphotographs of a large range of bacteria and viruses, along with assorted medicines, the latter particularly in crystal form. The results can be striking, particularly when false colours are used to bring out details, or in the stunning rainbow optical effects when light is passed through some crystals.

I had hoped I would get enough out of the book to enjoy looking through the images in detail, but on the whole, there was a tendency very quickly to start flipping through thinking 'Yes, that's nice,' or 'That's impressive,'... without taking a lot in.

In a way it's more like a trip round an art gallery exhibiting microphotographs than reading a book. And while…

Waking Hell (SF) - Al Robertson ****

In his sequel to Crashing Heaven, Al Robertson manages both to do the expected and to surprise us.

Let's get the surprise out of the way first. Having established a very strong pair of central characters in his first 'Station' novel - Jack Forster and the malevolent but somehow likeable puppet-like virtual entity Hugo Fist - the natural thing to do would be to give us another Forster/Fist story. I was a little sad to start with that he didn't - in fact our previous main characters are sidelined to a couple of mentions (Fist, it seems, is now a chat show host) and instead we have a new central character, Leila to get to know. She's going to have to save the world. Which is something of a challenge, given that she's dead.

There's no doubt that Robertson likes to set himself serious challenges as a writer. Because Leila is a digital, computer-based entity, made up of memories and the 'weave' (internet) remnants of the person after death, she can't ac…

How Language Began - Daniel Everett ***

As someone with an interest in both science and language, How Language Began seemed an ideal combination - which managed to intrigue and disappoint me in equal measures.

Let's get that disappointment out the way first, as it's hardly the fault of Daniel Everett. This isn't really science (and so the title of the book is rather misleading, but I suppose 'One possibility for how language began' wouldn't be as punchy). It's hard to see how this could be science. Our ideas on the exact detail of hominin/hominid development aren't 100 percent clear - how much more vague are we inevitably about something that leaves no direct traces whatsoever: the beginnings of language? 

Because there is so little evidence to base arguments on, what we end up with is far more like a philosophical debate than modern science. Ancient Greek philosophers would have been totally comfortable with this battle of ideas with very limited recourse to data (and would also have been very…

Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize 2017

The winner of the Royal Society Insight Investment Science book prize 2017 has been announced:

Congratulations to Cordelia Fine for her success with Testosterone Rex.

The shortlist was:
Beyond Infinity - Eugenia ChengI Contain Multitudes - Ed YongIn Pursuit of Memory - Joseph JebelliOther Minds - Peter Godfrey-SmithTestosterone Rex - Cordelia FineTo Be a Machine - Mark O'Connell Congratulations to all those on the shortlist. As always we've a list of other superb science books that should have been on the list too to round out our own longlist: Algorithms to Live By - Brian Christian and Tom GriffithsAre Numbers Real - Brian CleggGravity's Kiss - Harry CollinsStorm in a Teacup - Helen CzerskiFurry Logic - Matin Durrani and Liz KalaugherA Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived - Adam RutherfordThe Invention of Science - David Wootton


Life 3.0 - Max Tegmark ***

I have to confess that my first reaction to this book was not anything to do with the contents, but trying to work out if there was something really clever about the the way the book's title is printed on the spine in white on cream, so it's illegible - would it be, for example, a subtle test of human versus artificial intelligence (AI)? However, that was just a distraction.

Max Tegmark is an interesting and provocative thinker in the physics arena, so I had high hopes for what he'd come up with exploring the future of AI and its relationship to human beings. It's worth explaining that the title of the book refers to three 'levels' of life where 1.0 is 'can survive and replicate' (e.g. bacteria), 2.0 is can design its own software (e.g. us - where 'software' refers to our concepts, ideas and extended abilities such as language) and 3.0 is can design its own hardware, enabling it to transform itself more directly and quickly than our creativity en…

Exodus (SF) - Alex Lamb ***

Exodus is full throttle, rip-roaring space opera, with a side helping of virtual reality and biotech. It strongly brings to mind two classics of the genre. The first is Star Trek's Borg episodes. As is the case with the Borg, the humans here face up to the conquering Photurians - who seek to assimilate whole species into their strange mix of hive mind and individuality. The tech behind the invaders may be at the biological cellular level rather than cyborg, but the effect is equally terrifying. I can't help but feel that this was a conscious influence, given the Borg's catchphrase, as at one point one of Alex Lamb's characters says:  'I mean resistance is worth it. The opposite of futile.'

Then there is E. E. 'Doc' Smith's Lensman series. Though obscure now, in its time, the Lensman series was one of the founding sagas of space opera. Thankfully, Lamb writes a lot better than Smith does - frankly, his style was distinctly clunky -  but if you know th…

Marty Jopson - Four Way Interview

Marty Jopson has a PhD in cell biology and builds science props, but he is best known for his regular appearances as the resident scientist on the BBC's The One Show. He does live stage performances around the UK, which involve naked flames and end in a loud bang. His latest book is The Science of Food.

Why Science:

Because it’s fun and I get a huge buzz finding out new things and then passing that knowledge on to other people. As a science communicator, it’s my job to talk to people about science on the telly, on stage and in books, so I’ve spent a lot of time considering why science is important, not just to me but to everyone. I could harp on about how science and technology have shaped our world, how medicine keeps us alive or how engineers have built everything. I could spend my time trying to communicate the science behind the deeper secrets of the mind or the darkest recesses of the universe. But in the end the audience I am interested in is the audience that doesn’t know the…

UFO Drawings from the National Archives - David Clarke ***

This is a lovely little book that, sadly, not every reader will see the point of. If somebody’s anecdotal account of a presumed alien encounter is obviously a misperception of a mundane occurrence, or else too vague – or too far-fetched – to be taken seriously, then it’s all too easy to dismiss it as worthless. But that’s missing the point. The fact that so many incidents are reported in these terms makes the witnesses’ testimony worthy of serious study – to teach us, not about extraterrestrial civilisations, but about our own culture.

That was the core message of David Clarke’s excellent How UFOs Conquered the World published a couple of years ago. Now Clarke is back with another take on the same basic theme.  His day job is Reader and Principal Lecturer in Journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, but for the last ten years he’s also acted as consultant for the National Archives project to release all of Britain’s official Ministry of Defence (MoD) files on UFOs. Throughout the Cold…

Surfing the Quantum World - Frank Levin ***

In Surfing the Quantum World, physicist Frank Levin attempts to take a third way in communicating the marvels of quantum physics. It's not popular science. It's not a textbook. It's something in between. But is there a market for such a book?

To make this a crossover title, Levin starts with a fairly brisk trot through the history of our understanding of light and the development of quantum mechanics. You can get an idea for the briskness in that there's only one development mentioned (Alhazen's work) between Lucretius (in the last century BC) and Kepler at the end of the sixteenth century. It's rather a dark ages approach to the history of science, when they still thought there was such a thing as the dark ages. Similarly, for example, Newton gets an old-fashioned uncritical mention - and his work on light, mostly done in the in 1670s, is only referenced in terms of his 1704 publication of Opticks.

The result overall of the history bit is something that is rathe…