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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…

The Wolf Within - Bryan Sykes ****

There's always the whiff of snake oil in the air when a publisher puts the author's academic qualification on the front of a book. Yet Professor Bryan Sykes wears his laurels lightly - in fact I wish there had been a bit more detailed science content in what turned out to be a real curate's egg of a read.

You don't have to be a dog lover to find this book on the development of dogs from wolves interesting (in fact Sykes claims he isn't, though his wife is), but it certainly helps - and I am. Probably the most fascinating sections concentrate on wolves. We discover that real wolves are nothing like the merciless killing machines of legend - not that they don't kill, of course, but their behaviour is much more nuanced. Sykes describes a hypothetical but convincing scenario for wolves to first begin working with humans as collaborative hunters, each benefiting from the others' skills.

Sykes argues that the wolves' pack behaviour makes them ideally suited to …

Five Photons - James Geach ****

It is generally acknowledged that Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time is one of the most common books to be bought but not read beyond the first few pages. If you are the kind of popular science reader who found Hawking hard going, you can stop now - Five Photons is not for you. If, on the other hand, you found A Brief History of Time a piece of cake and wished you could get into more depth without resorting to heavy mathematics or a tedious textbook style, Five Photons could be just up your street.

Astrophysicist James Geach starts of fairly gently with a chapter on the nature of light that mostly sets aside quantum physics, leading up to the observation that light is our vehicle for for stripping back the history of the universe to its earliest times (or, at least, the point where the universe became transparent). From here on, the five photons of the title take us on different journeys, from the oldest surviving light of the cosmic microwave background radiation to that fr…

The Life-Changing Magic of Numbers - Bobby Seagull ***

When a science book is branded as having a celebrity author it's tempting to ignore it, but presumably a good number of people buy such books or publishers wouldn't put them out - and in the case of Bobby Seagull, it is at least (we are told on the cover) someone who is famous for being on the TV show University Challenge. The format is an odd one - Seagull gives us shortish chapters on what seem to be random things that interest him, in which he finds a sometimes tenuous mathematical topic. The result is more than a touch bitty.

Each chapter also ends with a little challenge in the form of a puzzle. Some are simple algebra problems (though concealed in words), others hide away mathematical sequences for the reader to spot. These are quite fun initially, though they get a little samey after a while.

How well the topics work depend to some extent on how much your own interests line up with Seagull's. So, for example, as soon as he mentions football (which he does quite often)…

The Last Days of Smallpox - Mark Pallen ****

It's very rare that I find a medical popular science book unputdownable (in fact it's my least favourite sub-genre of popular science) - but it's an adjective I'd apply to Mark Pallen's The Last Days of Smallpox. This horrible disease was eradicated worldwide in 1977 - and a story of its background, including the last natural outbreaks in the UK, makes up the opening section of this book, but the main focus is an exploration of the last ever outbreak in the UK in Birmingham in 1978 - one year after the disease was eradicated.

Pallen takes us through in immaculate detail the escape of smallpox from a lab at Birmingham University, the sad cases of Janet Parker, a photographer who worked in the same building and died of smallpox, and Henry Bedson, the microbiologist in charge of the lab who committed suicide as a result of the stress of the outbreak. Pallen covers the possible ways that Parker could have become infected and gives a blow-by-blow account of the court cas…

Thin Air (SF) - Richard Morgan *****

Just occasionally, you come across a book where the way that the characters speak really gives the feel of being immersed in a particular vision of the future. A Clockwork Orange and Neuromancer spring to mind. And Richard Morgan's Thin Air does exactly the same thing. The setting is a familiar one of a future colony on Mars, struggling with the environment, heavy handed corporations and interference from Earth, where enhanced humans endure the harshness of the frontier life. Yet Morgan manages to bring the whole thing to life and make it feel fresh and effective.

I'm not usually a fan of chunky books, but despite this being a long read, I never felt that it was longer than it should be. Morgan keeps the pressure up, giving us a mix of thriller and detective story, gradually building a picture of the main character Hak Veil and how his enhancements have influenced his life. There's politics, military conspiracy, plenty of dubious cashflows and more, as, with Veil, we eventu…

On the Future - Martin Rees ***

When I was at school we had a great young history teacher who got everyone in the class to go out and buy a copy of Mao's Little Red Book. Some parents were decidedly unhappy, but it was a fascinating exercise, and though I found most of the contents impenetrable drivel, it was something I was really glad he did.  The Little Red Book was more formally The Thoughts of Chairman Mao and this little black book is not Martin Rees's social contacts list, but rather The Thoughts of Astronomer Royal Rees

What we get is a fairly loose collection of Rees's thoughts on life, the universe and everything, from climate change to religion - though (not surprisingly) it concentrates on scientific matters more than anything else. As the subtitle Prospects for Humanity indicates, Rees indulges a little in that most speculative of ventures, futurology, but not to an extent that the book becomes one of those interminable collections of thoughts that are either bright and bushy-tailed 'Th…

An Evil Guest (SF) - Gene Wolfe ****

Gene Wolfe is one of the world's greatest fantasy writers. He has also written some popular SF, notably the Book of the New Sun series. His SF has never really been my thing, as I prefer his fantasy work, but this is a real oddity that spans the two. Arguably it is science fiction, as the odd happenings all have 'science' explanations. And we've got some science fiction tropes such as warp drive, hyperspace and projected 3D TV. But the whole setting is a dream-like mix of periods.

So, though An Evil Guest is clearly set in a future where we have interstellar travel and have met one other intelligent race, a lot of the everyday technologies, such as the mobile phones, are distinctly early-twenty first century. Meanwhile the characters - both how they speak and act - are straight out of the 1940s. If that sounds weird, it really is - and yet, being Wolfe, it works wonderfully.

The central character Cassie Casey, a struggling actress, is thrust into a complex situation wher…

CERN and the Higgs Boson - James Gillies ****

There are plenty of books out there on the Higgs boson and its discovery. [Ed.: We recommend Higgs by Jim Baggott.] This book does something entirely different - which is a good thing. The author, James Gillies, has spent his working life at CERN, first as a scientist, then as part of the communication group, which he headed up for 12 years, and now on the organisation's Strategic Planning and Analysis unit. As such, he is unusually well placed to cover the way that CERN has come together and been run, which is the main focus of this book.

What is good about this is that we get to see a lot more of just what has been involved in setting CERN up (achieving a rare level of international collaboration) and how the various pieces of kit have been constructed, leading up to the current Large Hadron Collider that was used to discover the Higgs.

Sometimes the whole business was touch and go - whether it was the distinct possibility of funding falling through, or a piece of technology that …