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Showing posts from 2019

Scientists Under Surveillance - JPat Brown et al (Eds) ***

This is a weird one, in some ways reminiscent of one of those 'fun' books that tries to put a story across by mocking up fake documents - except the documents here are real - specifically, extracts from the FBI's files on leading scientists.

Sometimes these are fairly mundane - security checks, for example, when a scientist has been put forward for some senior government post, such as the astronomer Vera Rubin, about which nothing whatsoever of interest is found. At other times, something unexpected turns up. In the case, for example, of Neil Armstrong, the background check pulled up a reference to a bizarre incident when two tourists arrived near Armstrong's home, asking questions that were considered too personal. In other cases, such as the flamboyant Richard Feynman, there were suspicions of communist or other disruptive tendencies, though Feynman comes out triumphant. Feynman is also an interesting example of something those who report scientists as suspicious ough…

Elizabeth Bear - Four Way Interview

Elizabeth Bear won the John W. Campbell award for Best New Writer in 2005 and has since published 15 novels and numerous short stories. She writes in both the SF and fantasy genres and has won critical acclaim in both. She has won the Hugo Award more than once. She lives in Massachusetts. Her latest title is Ancestral Night.

Why science fiction?

I've been a science fiction fan my entire life, and I feel like SF is the ideal framework for stories about humanity and how we can be better at it. Not just cautionary tales - though there's certainly also value in cautionary tales - but stories with some hope built in that we might, in fact, mature as a species and take some responsibility for things like reflexive bigotry and hate crimes (as I'm writing this, the heartbreaking news about the terrorist attack on Muslim worshipers in Christchurch is everywhere) and global climate destabilization. These are not intractable problems, but we need, as a species, the will to see that we …

Hacking the Code of Life - Nessa Carey *****

Nessa Carey has proved consistently effective in putting across the next generation (as it were) aspects of genetics that take as far beyond the selfish gene. We've had The Epigenetics Revolution and Junk DNA on the aspects of genetics where genes are switched on and off, and looking at the parts of DNA that don't code for genes. Now, with Hacking the Code of Life, we come from the natural side to human intervention - the ability to edit the genome and the implications of this ability.

In the past we've seen rather hysterical responses to gene editing, whether it's campaigns against genetically modified organisms that have prevented life-saving developments and wider availability of food, or dramatic predictions of disaster. Carey gives us a more balanced picture. She doesn't play down the risks - but all technology comes with risk. Use of fire might have been one of the greatest steps forward in human development, but it can also kill people. We had to learn to con…

Einstein's Wife - Allen Esterson and David Cassidy *****

When Einstein's Wife arrived in the post, as I often do while sitting at my desk, I thought I'd look through the first few pages to get a feel for it. Two and a half hours later I was still reading it. I ought to stress that this does not reflect a superbly well-written book. If I'm honest, the writing style is pretty solidly in the 'solid academic' mode. However, the content fascinated me.

There were two reasons for this. One is that it reflects the circumstances in which Einstein did his early work, including those remarkable papers of 1905. I found out significantly more about his performance at university, for example, as a result of reading this. The other is that it uncovers the way that history - and specifically history of science - can be distorted to get a particular message across. So we get a kind of detective story, uncovering the blatant manipulation of what was (and wasn't) known. That being the case, I have to admit that this book will probably…

Humble Pi - Matt Parker ****

Matt Parker had me thoroughly enjoying this collection of situations where maths and numbers go wrong in everyday life. I think the book's title is a little weak - 'Humble Pi' doesn't really convey what it's about, but that subtitle 'a comedy of maths errors' is far more informative.

With his delightful conversational style, honed in his stand-up maths shows, it feels as if Parker is a friend down the pub, relating the story of some technical disaster driven by maths and computing, or regaling us with a numerical cock-up. These range from the spectacular - wobbling and collapsing bridges, for example - to the small but beautifully formed, such as Excel's rounding errors.

Sometimes it's Parker's little asides that are particularly attractive. I loved his rant on why phone numbers aren't numbers at all (would it be meaningful for someone to ask you what half your phone number is?). We discover the trials and tribulations of getting calendars …

Ancestral Night (SF) - Elizabeth Bear *****

Only a couple of weeks ago, reviewing a 1960s SF book, I bemoaned the fact that science fiction novels of ideas are less common now. Although it is correctly labelled a space opera, Ancestral Night delivers ideas with aplomb.

Let's deal with the space opera aspect first. Elizabeth Bear provides some excellent adventure scenes in space, and we've the usual mix of huge spaceships and interesting aliens. Main character Haimey Dz is an engineer on a ship that salvages wrecks - but, as we gradually discover - she also has a forgotten past. A major feature of the storyline (one that seems to link to the medieval idea of the lost wisdom of the past) is ancient technology from a long-dead race with capabilities, notably manipulating spacetime mentally (Bear has yet to point out that the travel technologies used here could manipulate time as well as space), which fit well with Arthur C. Clarke's magic definition.

I particularly liked the (surely intentional) nods to the much-misse…

Experiencing the Impossible: Gustav Kuhn ***

I have to admit I find magic acts rather tedious entertainment - but I do enjoy trying to work out how the trick was done and then (ideally) finding out how it really was undertaken - so I was fascinated by the idea of a book that claims to cover 'the science of magic'. (By magic, I should stress, I don't mean the fantasy sorcery version, but the very down-to-earth engineered version used in magic shows.) This handsome book proved to be a distinct curate's egg: there were sections I pretty much skip read as they were somewhat dull, but other parts that really captured my attention.

The reason that some sections don't work so well was the classic academic writer's problem of not realising the importance of narrative and storytelling (which you'd think a practising magician like Gustav Kuhn would realise). The book comes alive when we are told about specific tricks or people or situations, but sometimes it becomes a collection of facts, a lecture on, say, a pa…

The Creativity Code - Marcus du Sautoy *****

At first glance this might just be another 'What AI is good at and not so good at' title. And in a way, it is. But, wow, what a brilliant book! Marcus du Sautoy takes us on a tour of what artificial intelligence has achieved (and possibly can in the future achieve) in a range of fields from his own of mathematics, through game playing, music, art and more.

After a little discussion of what creativity is, we start off with the now very familiar story of DeepMind's AlphaGo and its astonishing ability to take on the hugely challenging game of Go. Even though I've read about this many times before, du Sautoy, as a Go player and mathematician, gives a real feel for why this was such a triumph - and so shocking. Not surprisingly he is also wonderful on what mathematicians actually do, how computers have helped them to date and how they have the potential to do far more in the future. After all, mathematics is by far the closest science to game playing, as it has strict rule…

The Martian Way (SF) - Isaac Asimov ***

A collection of three novellas and a short story from one of the recognised masters of the 'golden age' of science fiction. These 1950s stories demonstrate well both why this period was given this title back then - the quality was far higher than, say, the 1920s and 30s - and also why that gold has tarnished in quite a big way since. By Asimov standards, the characters here are slightly more three dimensional than usual, but still from the stock cupboard, while women only feature as part of the scenery.

Still, there's some good material. The Martian Way is a bit of a precursor for Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress - space colony under pressure from the dominant Earth realises that it has to find a way to be truly independent. In this case, the problem is water and the solution is recognising the wider resources available to those with mastery of space. Youth has some of the feel of a Bradbury story with young protagonists (inevitably both male) - though Asimov c…

Cosmic Impact - Andrew May ****

There's something beguilingly attractive about end-of-the-world scenarios. In Cosmic Impact, Andrew May takes on the granddaddy of them all - an asteroid or comet hitting the Earth. We're familiar with the idea that the dinosaurs were wiped out by the fallout of such an impact (with some volcanic help), but there's a much bigger picture to be had, and May puts it across well.

This short book is ideal to get a good overview of the subject without having to delve into too much technical detail - and May makes it approachable by giving the subject context from the many science fiction and popular culture scenarios (the Simpsons feature on page 1) where something hits the Earth from outer space. In fact it's arguable that the science fiction examples of attempts to predict and divert future impactors have had a direct influence on what has happened in reality in setting up early warning detection of incoming potential impactors.

As well as the science of bodies hitting th…

You Can't Polish a Nerd - Festival of the Spoken Nerd ****

The Festival of the Spoken Nerd have become the definitive example of the best in performance science and maths (yes, it's really a thing). If you haven't come across them, they're mathematician Matt Parker, physicist Helen Arney (who mostly provides the musical side of the evening) and experimenter Steve Mould who does the dangerous experiments we'd all love to do, but probably shouldn't.

I've attended FotSN's shows and a live event is, frankly, the best way to see them. Just like a standup comedian, this standup science does work best when you're surrounded by an audience - and there's usually some entertaining audience participation. However, if you don't manage to make one of their shows, this is still a good way to get a highly entertaining dose of nerdity.

When Mould tells us he has been experimenting with his microwave at home, you just know that something interesting and quite possibly dangerous is going to happen - and it does. We begi…

There is No Planet B - Mike Berners-Lee ****

There's a real mix of material in this environmental guide from Mike Berners-Lee (let's get this out of the way: brother of the better-known Tim). Some of it presents scientific information in a superb fashion, really getting the point across, while other parts feel more like a personal blog post. Bill McKibben, the American environmentalist quoted on the cover, is certainly correct in describing this as a 'compendium', though when he calls the book 'massively entertaining', my immediate thought was 'Bill, you need to get out more.'

What Berners-Lee sets out to do is to give us a more personalised picture of where we as the human species are environmentally - obviously climate change is the biggest factor here, but he covers much of the environmental gamut from feeding the world to environmental economics to sourcing energy and the bĂȘte noir du jour (thanks in no small part to David Attenborough) of the dreaded plastic.

For me, the bit that works super…