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The Cryotron Files - Iain Dey and Douglas Buck ****

This is a rip-roaring tale of remarkable technological achievements, cold war spying and a suspicious death at a very early age that has inevitably fostered conspiracy theories. Dudley Buck, the subject of the biography, made three hugely important contributions to computer science - yet he's still not widely known. I've read many books on the history of computer science, and this is the first time I've ever heard of him.

We start off with fairly familiar territory with Buck's background - it might feel a little dull - but once he's involved in computing, things get a whole lot more interesting. About the only aspect of the early biography that stands out is that Buck had an extremely unpleasant idea of what constitutes a prank, including electrocuting people and trying to build a bomb on campus. However, though he apparently continued as a practical joker when older, it seems his attempts, while still malicious, became less life-threatening.

In terms of computing te…

Twitterbots - Tony Veale and Mike Cook ***

This is an odd one. It's an in-depth look at Twitterbots - applications designed to post on Twitter making human-like pronouncements. We start with a really interesting, if highly verbose introductory section about these programs, introducing me to lots of examples I hadn't come across. I particularly liked the historical examples of condensing a message with humour (and a bit of intellectual oddity) in the Latin punning telegraph messages that seem to have been briefly popular amongst the British establishment in the mid-nineteenth century. For example, in 1856, when the British annexed the Indian province of Oudh (rhymes with loud), the governor-general sent the message 'Vovi.' This means 'I have vowed'... which sounds distinctly like 'I have Oudh.'

Then we plunge into the mechanics of Twitterbot construction. Tony Veale and Mike Cook, two British/Irish academics writing with a distinctly transatlantic style, give us detailed guidance on simplistic bot…

How to Speak Science - Bruce Benamran ***

I can't remember a book where my mental picture of what the star rating would be has varied so much. At first glance, it looked like a solid 4 star title. It looks fun (despite the odd title - it sounds like it's a book on public speaking for geeks) and a flick through showed that it covers a huge amount of science topics, mostly physics - so it was promising as a beginner's overview. There is one small issue to be got out of the way on the coverage side. There's a whole lot of physics, with a gaping hole that is quantum theory. More on that later.

After reading a few pages, I had to downgrade that score to 3 stars because of the writing style. It oozes smugness. All became clear when I read the words 'For those of you who aren't familiar with my YouTube channel.' How to Speak Science reads like a transcript of a YouTube rant. The reason I love reading books and can hardly ever be bothered to watch videos is to get away from this kind of thing. However, I ac…

By the Pricking of Her Thumb (SF) - Adam Roberts *****

Sometimes a sequel betters the original - think Terminator 2 - and Adam Roberts has done this with his follow-up to The Real-Town Murders. (It's sensible to read the first book before this: while it's not essential, there are plenty of references you will miss otherwise.)

Ostensibly this is a murder mystery, or, as Roberts tells us, a combination of a howdunnit and a whodunnit-to, as the central character Alma is called on to work out how someone found with a needle stuck through her thumb was killed and which of a group of four super-rich individuals is dead when all claim to still be alive - though one of the group who hires Alma is convinced that the death has occurred. 

However, this is anything but a conventional murder mystery - far more so than the strange crimes suggest. Alma and her partner Marguerite (the latter still trapped by an engineered polyvalent illness that requires treatment every 4 hours and 4 minutes) don't do a lot of detecting. In fact Marguerite hard…

One Way (SF) - S J Morden ***(*)

If, like me, you love both SF and murder mysteries, the marketing for this book made it seem perfect. 'A murder mystery set on the frozen red wastes of Mars. Eight astronauts - one killer - No way home.' When Agatha Christie set her first ever murder mystery, The Mysterious Affair at Styles in a country house, she knew what she was doing. Confining the murderer and potential victims in an isolated location made for a cleverly managed setting, with a limited enough set of suspects to make it practical to take on the detective at the game of whodunnit.

So, I was rather confused to discover that the book is hardly a murder mystery at all. At least not until you get to about page 265 out of 330. The main line of the story is not bad at all - it just isn't a murder mystery. This mission to Mars is to set up a base for NASA to use later. It's a private mission, and rather than expensive astronauts, prison occupants with life sentences are used. It's a clever premise and i…

Bits to Bitcoin - Mark Stuart Day ***

When I saw the title of this book, I got all excited - at last we were going to get an explanation of bitcoin for the rest of us, who struggle to understand what the heck it really involves. There certainly is an explanation of bitcoin, but it comes in chapter 26 - in practice, the book contains far more. Almost every popular computer science title I've read has effectively been history of computer science - this is one of the first examples I've ever come across that is actually trying to make the 'science' part of computer science accessible to the general reader.

I don't mean by this that it's an equivalent of Programming for Dummies. Instead, Bits to Bitcoin takes the reader through the concepts lying behind programming. If we think of programming as engineering, this is the physics that the engineering depends on. This is a really interesting proposition. Many years ago, I was a professional programmer, but I never studied computer science, so I was only fa…

The Wrong Stars (SF) - Tim Pratt ***

This solid space opera is sold as as being 'ridiculously fun' and 'fun, funny...' - so I was expecting something rather Douglas Adams-like - but it's certainly no comedy in space. The characters certainly attempt banter, but to be honest it's not very good (Tim Pratt should take a look at something like Ben Aaronvitch's Rivers of London series for banter lessons.) However, if you take the book on as a straightforward tale of slightly dodgy space traders (who are also sort-of law enforcers) and strange aliens, it's significantly more successful.

At risk of damning the book with faint praise, I mildly enjoyed it, but certainly won't be rushing back to read the sequels (almost inevitably for a modern SF book, this is 'Book One of the Axiom'). The characters are a touch stereotyped and don't really develop. The plot is sort of interesting - a survivor of an ancient sub-light long range vessel returns to the Solar System thanks to an unknown d…

Through Two Doors at Once - Anil Ananthaswamy *****

It's sometimes hard to imagine that there's anything new to say about the basics of quantum physics, yet Anil Ananthaswamy manages this in a twofold manner (appropriately, given the title). Through Two Doors at Once does so by using the double slit experiment as a constant reference point throughout the book, and by bringing in a number of the more modern variants on the experiment which rarely feature in popular accounts of quantum theory.

Strictly, the book should probably be called 'Through Two Doors at Once and Spooky Action at a Distance plus Things That Have a Similar Effect', as it uses both the double slit experiment and the EPR entanglement thought experiment, plus modern experiments which don't, for example, involve slits but rather beam splitters that are their logical equivalent - but I have to admit, that would be a clumsy title.

Ananthaswamy gives us a good overview of the development of quantum physics - sometimes quite summary - but by making repea…

Meet Your Bacteria - Nicola Temple and Catherine Whitlock ***

There have been a good number of books on our microbiome - the bacteria and other tiny organisms living in our body - from The Wild Life of Our Bodies throughI, Superorganism to I Contain Multitudes. Each of these is a traditional popular science book format, and all, to some degree, suffer from the same problem - in part, they have a tendency to present collections of facts, little more than bullet points of information strung together, rather than providing an effective narrative. As Meet Your Bacteria is in a significantly different format, there was a chance to imbue the subject with more dynamism and interest.'

When I first looked at the book, I assumed from its shape and cover that it would be in the style of highly illustrated, two-page spreads with large illustrations and the text little more than captions. In reality, Nicola Temple and Catherine Whitlock manage to subvert that format - it is, indeed, presented as a series of separate two-page spreads, but there is far more…

Galileo Galilei, the Tuscan Artist – Pietro Greco ****

Near the beginning of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, he refers to a ‘Tuscan artist’ viewing the Moon through an optic glass. He’s talking about Galileo – one of history’s greatest scientists, but not the most obvious person to slap an ‘artist’ label on. Yet Galileo lived at a time – the Renaissance – when it was fashionable to dabble impartially in both the arts and sciences. Look up ‘Renaissance man’ on Wikipedia and you’ll see Galileo’s picture right there underneath Leonardo da Vinci’s. It’s a less well-known side to his life, but it crops up again and again – interspersed among his many scientific achievements – in this excellent new biography by Pietro Greco.

If you’re looking for interesting trivia, you’ll find plenty in this book. Galileo’s father was a musician with scientific leanings, who carried out some of the first experiments on musical acoustics – which Galileo may have assisted with. As a young professor of mathematics, Galileo delivered a couple of lectures on …