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Extraterrestrial Languages - Daniel Oberhaus ***

Despite the title, this book isn't about the languages that aliens use, but rather how should we format messages that are intended for non-human recipients? Every now and then, we send something off into space, whether it's the inscribed plaques on the Pioneer probes or messages beamed from radio telescopes. Whether we should do this or not is a contentious issue - Daniel Oberhaus briefly examines the arguments for and against - but the meat of the book is trying to answer the question 'If we do want to communicate to aliens, how could we make our message comprehensible?'

Oberhaus opens the book with a fascinating story I hadn't heard of the astronomer Frank Drake sending a message (by post) in 1961 to 'nine of the smartest individuals in the United States' as a hypothetical message from outer space, consisting of 551 zeroes and ones. The recipients were supposed to spot that this is a multiple of prime numbers, array the zeroes and ones by these numbers a…

Ship of Strangers (SF) - Bob Shaw ***

Bob Shaw was a solid performer amongst British SF writers in the second half of the twentieth century. He's perhaps best remembered for Other Days, Other Eyes, which has the very clever conceit of 'slow glass' - glass that it takes light years to pass through - but Ship of Strangers is a more straightforward story of interstellar exploration, featuring a survey ship that specialises in surveying uninhabited planets.

Shaw does a respectable job - it's readable and the challenges faced by the protagonists are imaginative. Most of all, it reminds me of what I really miss about older SF books - it's only 160 pages long and couldn't be used as a doorstop. In format it's effectively a set of linked long short stories (or short novellas), with the main character Dave Surgenor involved in a series of adventures from unexpected alien encounters to a bizarre new cosmological phenomenon.

The only things that date the book are the use of tapes for data storage (it'…

Something Completely Different - Conundrum

The Popular Science site specialises in reviews of popular science and science fiction books, but with the gift-buying season upon us, we wanted a chance to let you know about a book by our editor, Brian Clegg, that makes an idea present for the kind of person who reads the books reviewed here. 
The ultimate trial of knowledge and cunning, Conundrum features 200 cryptic puzzles and ciphers. The solutions link throughout the book – so you need to solve them all to get to the final round.

With a focus on ciphers and codebreaking, Conundrum contains twenty sections, each built around a specific subject from music to literature, physics to politics. To take on Conundrum you need good general knowledge and the ability to think laterally. But if you need help, there are plenty of hints to point you in the right direction. 

Whether you attempt to crack it alone or work in a team, Conundrum will challenge you to the extreme.


Can you take on Conundrum and win? There’s only one way to find out…

Pap…

Foyles - a new name on our reviews

For many years we have provided links to Amazon to make it easy to buy copies of the books reviewed here. We receive a small affiliate fee for this, with no extra cost for the buyer.


We are continuing to do this, but we have moved UK sales to one of Britain's best-known bookshops, Foyles. There are a number of reasons for this, but from the buyer's viewpoint, you will be supporting a UK business and there's free shipping on all books.

You can find out more about Foyles on their website.

Deep Learning: John Kelleher **

This is an entry in a series from the MIT Press that selects a small part of a topic (in this case, a subset of artificial intelligence) and gives it an 'essential knowledge' introduction. The problem is, there seems to be no consistency over the target audience of the series.

I previously reviewed Virtual Reality in the same series and it kept things relatively simple and approachable to the general reader, even if it did overdo the hype. This book by John Kelleher starts gently, but by about half way through it has become a full-blown simplified textbook with far too much in-depth technical content. That's exactly what you don't want in a popular science title.

What we get is plenty of detail of what deep learning-based systems are and how they work at the technical level, but there is practically nothing on how they fit with applications (unless you count playing games), which are described but not really explained, nor is there anything much on the problems that a…

Fire, Ice and Physics - Rebecca Thompson **

It's easy to see the way that science fiction can fit with a 'science of' treatment - less so a fantasy such as Game of Thrones, which is the topic of the latest in this long-lasting genre. However, it's certainly not impossible. The Science of Middle Earth, for example, does a great job of exploring the scientific content of Tolkien's output, so it doesn't seem unreasonable that Rebecca Thompson should be able to do the same for George R. R. Martin's blockbuster series of books and the accompanying TV show.
I ought to say straight away that the title here is a little misleading, as by no means all of the content is physics. It covers paleantology, biology, zombieology (is that a word?) and more - but physics probably has the biggest word count, perhaps fitting as Thompson is a physicist. She tells us that the idea of the book is to use the popular fantasy series to introduce science to a wider audience, but I'm not sure that the way the material is pr…

Why Trust Science? - Naomi Oreskes ***

I'm giving this book three stars for the topic and content - if I went on readability alone, I'd only give it two. I wanted to mention this upfront. It might seem a little unfair of me to expect an academic book to be readable but a) there's no reason why they shouldn't be and b) there's no point writing a book like this unless it is approachable by those outside academia, otherwise you're just preaching to the converted. Also the blurb does not suggest it is being aimed at an academic audience.

The book has a strange format. We get two chapters from Naomi Oreskes (based on lectures), then several chapters by other people commenting on what Oreskes wrote, then Oreskes returns to respond to the comments. In those opening chapters, there was a lot to like. It was good to gain a more detailed view of philosophy and sociology of science, as mine had been what is probably the typical view of a scientist who has read a little on the topic but not enough. I tended to t…

Marty Jopson - Four Way Interview

Marty Jopson is an expert on science, hosting talks across the country. Regularly appearing on BBC One’s The One Show as their resident science reporter, he has also appeared on ITV, Channel 4, Sky, the Discovery Channel and National Geographic, as well as lecturing at The Royal Institution. He is the author of the bestselling The Science of Everyday Life, and The Science of Food. His latest book is The Science of Being Human.


Why science?

Because it’s cool. Simple as that. I could bang on about how science has given us incredible super powers to survive disease, see back in time to the start of the universe and talk to people on the other side of the globe. We could talk about understanding what it means to be conscious, the very nature of matter itself or if there are parallel universes, but that all gets kinda heavy. On the other hand you could consider the small things like your mobile phone, your breakfast cereal, the lightbulb over your head or the shampoo you use. But that seems …

Jet Stream - Tim Woolings ****

The importance of the jet stream - a high speed flow of air that usually carries the warm air that makes the UK warmer than it should be for its position on the Earth - is rarely fully appreciated. Recently, though, we have had a number of extreme weather events that were put down to shifts in the jet stream, emphasising its significant impact on everyday life.

Tim Woolings starts his approachable exploration of the jet stream on a beach in Barbados (all in the interest of science, of course) and takes the reader through a surprising amount of information in a relatively slim 200 pages plus notes. For the first few pages we're introduced to some of the basics of weather forecasting at this Barbados location, but then we segue from surf and sun to the winds, and up to around 10 kilometres, where aircraft tend to cruise: here we meet the jet stream, which is beginning its journey in this region.

The reader is rewarded with plenty of juicy little facts, such as the revelation that the …

The Crowd and the Cosmos - Chris Lintott ****

We tend to have a very old fashioned idea of what astronomers do - peering through telescopes on dark nights. In reality, not only do many of them not use optical telescopes, but almost all observations are now performed electronically. Chris Lintott does a great job of bringing alive the realities of modern astronomy, and the way that the flood of data that is produced by all these electronic devices is being in part addressed by 'citizen scientists' - volunteer individuals who check image after image for interesting features.

Inevitably, all this cataloguing and categorising brings to mind Ernest Rutherford's infamous quotation along the lines of 'all science is either physics or stamp collecting.' This occurred to me even before Chris Lintott brought it up. Lintott defends the process against the Rutherford attack by pointing out that it can be a useful starting point for real, new research. To be fair to Rutherford, I think this misses the great man's poin…

Artificial Intelligence - Melanie Mitchell *****

As Melanie Mitchell makes plain, humans have limitations in their visual abilities, typified by optical illusions, but artificial intelligence (AI) struggles at a much deeper level with recognising what's going on in images. Similarly in some ways, the visual appearance of this book misleads. It's worryingly fat and bears the ascetic light blue cover of the Pelican series, which since my childhood have been markers of books that were worthy but have rarely been readable. This, however, is an excellent book, giving a clear picture of how many AI systems go about their business and the huge problems designers of such systems face.

Not only does Mitchell explain the main approaches clearly, her account is readable and engaging. I read a lot of popular science books, and it's rare that I keep wanting to go back to one when I'm not scheduled to be reading it - this is one of those rare examples.

We discover how AI researchers have achieved the apparently remarkable abiliti…