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Seasonal review 2022

Image from Unsplash There may not be any reviews here now until January 2023 as we like to take a break - but our reviews will be back again in January. Topics come and go in the popular science world - looking back over 2022, brains/consciousness, climate change, AI and space/cosmology have been the most dominant in terms of review titles. As someone with a particular interest in physics and maths, I'd love to see a few more of those next year. And chemistry remains the least covered of the core science subjects.  A few years ago I speculated on why this was the case . Back then (2017) this site had 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. Admittedly, there is always a danger of editorial bias, but I have certainly never avoided chemistry titles if publishers sent them my way. They simply don't arrive. Publishers I spoke to at the time suggested that chemistry was, perhaps not 'sexy' enough. Meanwhile we have seen some top
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Too Big for a Single Mind - Tobias Hürter ****

The standard version of the old saying 'You shouldn't judge a book by its cover' misses a final few words: 'but most people do.' And in the case of this book it's a shame - because the cover is pretty awful and really doesn't do the book justice. The feeling from the cover is that this is going to be the worthy, laboured tome of an academic - probably a touch amateurish in its writing style. In practice, it's a slick piece of popular science writing. Tobias Hürter is apparently a well-known German science writer, here translated by David Shaw. This is a book in the peculiarly American style of pop science - extremely focused on narrative and giving details in the manner of a docu-drama - so, for instance, we read that 'a young man in a checked suit hurtles down the steep, narrow stairway from the second floor of the house at Kramgasse 49, along the cobbled streets and through the covered medieval arcades. In his hand, he clutches an envelope. Passers

Uranus and Neptune - Carolyn Kennett ****

This is the latest in the Kosmos series on the planets, previously including Mercury ,  Venus , Mars , Jupiter  and  Saturn . Like its predecessors, it is well illustrated, though the subjects themselves are rather less photographed than most planets, so we get more historical context photos - not a bad thing because the history is usually more interesting than pure facts about the planets. In the Uranus section, for example, we read of the planet's origins, Herschel's discovery (including a photo of a reproduction of his telescope of the period, where we usually only see illustrations of the later, bigger telescopes), its naming and more. Similarly, with Neptune we get lots of interesting detail on the rather messy story of its discovery. The bulk of the astronomical content inevitably comes from the probes that have given us far more detail about the planets and their moons. In each case there's a whole chapter, for example on Voyager 2's contribution, followed by wha

How Your Brain Works - Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo ***

As soon as you see the cover of this book, it feels like it's going to be light hearted and super fun (or at least it seems the authors want it to be this). In practice, it's not. It might have big, Joy of Sex style line drawings and an odd shape with cheap feeling paper, but the content is fairly straightforwardly serious.  In the introduction Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo tells us that 'There are many examples of how amateur scientists add to our collective understanding of nature.' This feels a dubious statement at best - it's obviously true historically when professional scientists didn't exist, but these days amateur contributions are distinctly niche. If you think of any of the really big scientific breakthroughs of the last 100 years, there isn't a lot of amateur input. And using this book certainly won't add anything. Once we get into the book proper, it delivers on at least part of the subtitle 'neuroscience experiments for everyone' - the

Escape from Model Land - Erica Thompson ***

Over the last few years a number of books, notably Sabine Hossenfelder's Lost in Math , David Orrell's Economyths , Cathy O Neil's Weapons of Math Destruction and Tim Palmer's The Primacy of Doubt , have pointed out problems with the mathematical modelling done by businesses, physicists, meteorologists, epidemiologists, economists and more. These are not anti-science polemics, but rather people who know what they're talking about pointing out the dangers of getting too carried away with elegant mathematics and models, often assuming that the models effectively  are reality (and certainly presenting them that way in some of the writing and press releases from the scientists building and using the models). Erica Thompson takes on the problems of mentally inhabiting the mathematical world she describes as 'model land'. As she cogently points out, it's fine to play in model land all that you like - the problem comes with the way that you exit model land a

Sentience - Nicholas Humphrey *****

The first seventy-odd pages of this book are absolutely phenomenal (pun intended, though still true). We start with a near-stream of consciousness prologue - very appropriate for a book on sentience - and then go on to have a description of the early part of Nicholas Humphrey's career in a wonderfully approachable fashion with a writing style somewhere between a deep conversation and a thought process. I particularly loved Humphrey's description of his heading off to Elba to investigate the paranormal claims of the eccentric Hugh Sartorius Whitaker and his experiences with Dian Fossey (not always pleasant) when visiting to study the 'natural psychologist' ability of gorillas. The book then takes a change of tack, signified by the author heading the next chapter 'To work', as he sets out to build for us his theory on the nature of sentience and 'phenomenal consciousness'. This too is very interesting, but lacks the same storytelling verve. It's also a

The Magick of Matter - Felix Flicker ****

This is a book about condensed matter physics, surely a particularly boring-sounding name for one of the most interesting parts of the subject. It's about the physics of things we encounter. When you think about it, it's quite odd that most popular physics books are about things like quantum physics and cosmology and particle physics that don't deal with things we can put our hands on or see. Of course quantum physics impacts lots of everyday objects through electronics etc., but it's still driven by particles we can't see or experience in a normal sense. Felix Flicker introduces us to two key aspects of the physics of tangible stuff - emergence and chaos (though in practice, chaos only gets a passing mention). Because, as he points out, the problem with purely looking at the particle level is that stuff really is the more than the sum of its parts. The chaos and uncertainty part was handled excellently in Tim Palmer's recent The Primacy of Doubt , but this book