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Showing posts from 2018

Quantum Space: Jim Baggott *****

There's no doubt that Jim Baggott is one of the best popular science writers currently active. He specialises in taking really difficult topics and giving a more in-depth look at them than most of his peers. The majority of the time he achieves with a fluid writing style that remains easily readable, though inevitably there are some aspects that are difficult for the readers to get their heads around - and this is certainly true of his latest title Quantum Space, which takes on loop quantum gravity.

As Baggott points out, you could easily think that string theory was the only game in town when it comes to the ultimate challenge in physics, finding a way to unify the currently incompatible general theory of relativity and quantum theory. Between them, these two behemoths of twentieth century physics underlie the vast bulk of physics very well - but they simply can't be put together. String theory (and its big brother M-theory, which as Baggott points out, is not actually a the…

Everything You Know About Planet Earth is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

This is the latest of a series of 'Everything You Know About... is Wrong' books from Matt Brown. Although I always feel slightly hard done by as a result of the assertion in the title, as there are certainly things here I know that aren't wrong (I mean, come on, the first corrected piece of 'knowledge' is that 'The Earth is only 6,000 years old' and I can't imagine many readers will 'know' that), it's a handy format to provide what are often surprisingly little snippets of information that are very handy for 'did you know' conversations down the pub (or showing up your parents if you're a younger reader).

Some of the incorrect statements that head each article are well-covered, if often still believed (for example, people thought that world was flat before Columbus), some are a little tricksy in the wording (such as seas have to wash up against land) and some are just pleasantly surprising (countering the idea that gold is a rar…

Hallo Robot - Bennie Mols and Nieske Vergunst ***

From that title with the strangely archaic 'hallo' spelling to the subtitle 'meet your new friend and workmate' the cover of this book promises either quirkiness or cringeworthiness. When it comes to the contents, thankfully it's more the former than the latter in this survey of the world of robotics. (It could also be because the book has been translated from Dutch.)

Starting with historical automata (strangely never called this) and bringing in humanoid robots, industrial robots and the whole science of robotics (plus quite a lot of artificial intelligence), the format gives us a series of chapters dealing with specific challenges such as sight, cognition and speech, each ending with a case study. The whole thing is finished off with a rather nice fiction/fact timeline on robotics through the ages, though it is rather unfortunate that the authors thought that Daleks were robots.

On the whole the coverage is good, though the level is perhaps a little superficial …

The significance of stars - Feature

Personally, I think stars are underrated. Not the ones in the sky – if it weren’t for one of them, the Sun, the Earth wouldn’t exist (and even if there was an Earth, there would be no life on it because it would be far too cold). For that matter, if it weren’t for stars in general there would be no atoms other than hydrogen, helium and a touch of lithium – making the whole concept of a planet (or a person) inconceivable. So the stars of the cosmos are seriously rated. Nor am I talking about the stars of stage and screen. Because, let’s face it, most of them are seriously overrated. I refer instead to stars in reviews. A good while ago I wrote to the journal Nature, complaining about some of the book reviews they carried. I pointed out that the (long) reviews said nothing about whether the book was any good – they merely gave the reviewer a chance to do his or her potted version of the theme of the book. They said what the book was about, but not if it was any good or whether you shou…

Millions, Billions, Zillions - Brian Kernighan ***

The news is riddled with numbers that we often taken for granted. Brian Kernighan sets out to give us the tools to test numbers in the headlines and see if they really add up. The fact that they often don't is made clear by the range of examples Kernighan gives where a news source has got a value wrong, whether it's out by a factor of a thousand, using the wrong units or impossibly accurate, perhaps due to a spot of calculator work converting one unit to another.

This isn't the first book to take on misleading numbers - as well as the classic How to Lie with Statistics, there was the excellent The Tiger that Isn't. Although Kernighan covers many of the common errors in this slim volume, I didn't get the same sense of fascination here as I did with those earlier titles (particular The Tiger). Kernighan gives us useful tips on checking numbers, but often the examples felt like hard work for numbers it's hard to care too much about (the US's 60 billion barrel…

Lords of the Ice Moons (SF) - Michael Carroll ***

This is the third of Michael Carroll's novels I've read from the 'Science and Fiction' series (the others wereOn the Shores of Titan's Farthest Seaand Europa's Lost Expedition), and it's undoubtedly the best of the three.

Like the other books in the wider series, there's some interesting 'science behind the story' at the end, particularly on generating electricity from bacteria, but that's just a nice-to-have. It's still a novel, so wins or loses on the quality of the fiction. There are some provisos, but the good news is that this is an interestingly meaty and complex story with action taking place in the atmosphere of Venus, on Earth and primarily on Saturn's moon Enceladus (Carroll loves a good gas planet moon).

An asteroid collision has left Earth's civilisation teetering on the brink and in dire need of new energy sources as both solar and wind collapse in the after-effects of the impact. Engineer Gwen Baré, who lived brief…

The Astounding Science Puzzle Book - Matt Brown ****

It's that time of year again when many of us are searching for good presents for difficult-to-buy-for people: the latest title from science writer and London expert Matt Brown seems an ideal stocking filler for scientifically-minded types. It's not that many purchasers are likely to run a quiz from the book (although you certainly could), but there's plenty of entertainment to be had from having a go at the 101 themed rounds, which range from questions on the science of alcohol to science on TV and the IgNobel prize.
The blurb on the back reads 'Do you know what item of clothing Einstein refused to wear or what embarrassing mishap cost NASA a $125 million Mars orbiter', and I was feeling rather smug that I knew the answers to both - but although for those who know their science there will be some familiar questions, there was plenty inside that was new to me and that gave that fun frisson of surprise. It's the kind of book where you end up irritating anyone si…

The Story of Mathematics in 24 Equations – Dana Mackenzie ****

This book was previously published with the misleading title The Universe in Zero Words - the new title is a much better fit. In awarding this book four stars I am reminded of the infamous Samuel Johnson quote on women preachers: ‘A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.’ The reason I say this is because I’m reviewing a book about mathematical equations. There have been plenty of histories of mathematics (more, if anything, that histories of the whole of science), so to make its mark, a new one has to have a good hook - some different way of looking at the subject that gives it structure and gains our interest. Dana Mackenzie's approach of picking out 24 great equations is risky, because you have to wonder whether people who find maths scary or boring will be drawn in by this concept.

We meet, for example, 1-1=0, used to explore the nature of zero, while a squared + b squared = c squared introdu…

Skyward: Claim the Stars (SF) - Brandon Sanderson ****

It's a publisher's dream to have a young adult novel that crosses over to an adult audience (do the words Harry Potter ring any bells?) I'd say that with a couple of small provisos, Brandon Sanderson's Skyward: Claim the Stars manages to do this, throwing in aspects of another mildly successful crossover from the movie world, Star Wars.

In many ways this is a classic, hard SF militaristic space novel. Some part of humanity is holed up on a rocky planet, surrounded by the remains of what may have been a Dyson sphere, under regular attack from aliens known as the Krell. (Forbidden Planet, anyone?) A brave bunch of starfighter pilots regularly launch to defend humanity from alien ships, some of which huge bombs that could mean the end of their civilisation if one gets through. And, in this setting, our central character, Spensa Nightshade, undergoes her training as a cadet starfighter pilot. She's the daughter of a disgraced pilot, once hero of the fleet, who apparentl…

Aliens – Jim Al-Khalili (ed.) ***

This book is a couple of years old now, but I found a heavily discounted copy in my local branch of The Works (other remaindered bookshops are available - Ed.). It’s the kind of ‘impulse-buy’ book The Works specialises in, with an eyecatching cover that’s as close to the Alien movie franchise as you can get without violating copyright, and a strapline –‘the truth is in here’ – that no X-Files fan will be able to resist. If you flip through the book (I mean literally flip through, holding it in your right hand and flicking the pages so you just see the margins whizzing past), you’re treated to a great little animation of an alien landing on Earth in a flying saucer, taking a quick selfie, and then heading off back into space.

When they get the book home, though, will buyers who snapped the book up in The Works be pleased with their purchase? That depends on their expectations, which the packaging does its best to befuddle right from the start. The cover is clearly targeted at the UFO/sc…

Mercury - William Sheehan ****

Driving to work one morning several years ago, I spotted a tiny white dot close to the rising sun. ‘That’s Venus,’ I said to myself. Almost immediately I saw another, much brighter dot a few degrees away. ‘No, that’s Venus – the first one must be, um ... Mercury.’ Even with a lifelong interest in astronomy, I always manage to forget Mercury.

With eight planets in the Solar System, one of them has to be the least interesting – and Mercury got the short straw. That’s a relative statement, though, and a diligent author could still dig up enough fascinating facts about that tiny dot by the Sun to fill a short book. William Sheehan has done a brilliant job of doing just that.

One of the reasons Mercury is so easy to forget is that it’s almost impossible to get a good view of it from Earth. Even after the invention of the telescope, which turned planets like Mars and Jupiter into explorable worlds, Mercury remained a mystery – and the subject of some pretty wild speculations. In 1686, for exa…

Factfulness - Hans Rosling *****

Without doubt a remarkable book. Hans Rosling (who died towards the end of writing Factfulness), aided by his son and daughter-in-law, tells the remarkable story of the gap between our appreciation of the state of the world and the reality.

Rosling, a doctor originally, illustrates some of the points he makes with personal experience, particularly examples where an incorrect assumption about facts he has made has led to potentially disastrous circumstances. But the core of the book makes use of a series of 12 multiple choice questions on the state of the world which, on the whole, we answer worse that choosing randomly - because almost universally we think the world is far worse than it really is.

Although Rosling claims not to be an optimist, making it clear that he isn't saying everything is rosy - there's still a lot to improve - the fact is that most of our ideas of, for example, how bad world poverty is, education of girls, size of families and far more reflects what the wo…

How Smart Machines Think - Sean Gerrish ****

While it will become apparent I think this book should have been titled 'How Dumb Machines Think', it was a remarkably enjoyable insight into how the well publicised AI successes - self-driving cars, image and face recognition, IBM's Jeopardy! playing Watson, along with game playing AIs in chess, Go and Atari and StarCraft, perform their dark arts.

There's no actual programming presented here, so no need for non-programmers to panic, though there is some quite detailed discussion of how the software architectures are structured and how the different components - for example neural networks - do their job, but it isn't anything too scary if you take it slowly.

One thing that comes across very strongly, despite the AI types' insistence that their programs are of general use, is how very specifically tailored programs like the AlphaGo software that beat champions at the game Go, and the Watson computer that won at the US TV quiz show Jeopardy! were - incredibly fine…