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Being You - Anil Seth ***

The trouble with experts is they often don't know how to explain their subject well to ordinary readers. Reading Anil Seth's book took me back to my undergraduate physics lectures, where some of the lecturers were pretty much incomprehensible. For all Seth's reader-friendly personal observations and stories, time after time I got bogged down in his inability to clearly explain what he was writing about. It doesn't help that the subject of consciousness is itself inherently difficult to get your head around - but I've read plenty of other books on consciousness without feeling this instant return to undergraduate confusion. There are two underlying problems I had with the book. One was when complex (and, frankly, rather waffly) theories like IIT (Integration Information Theory) were being discussed. As the kind of theory that it's not currently possible to provide evidence to support, this is something that in other fields might be suggested not to be science at
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Life is Simple - Johnjoe McFadden ***

This is a really hard book to review, because it has two quite distinct parts and the chances are that if you are interested in one of these parts, you may well find the other part less engaging. The first section concerns the development of Occam's razor - the idea of keeping your explanation of something as simple as possible while it still works - and the impact this would have on philosophy (and proto-science) in the Middle Ages. The second part treads very familiar ground in taking us through some of the major developments in science from Galileo onwards, occasionally tying back to Occam's razor to show that the impact of the idea continued. As it happens, I love the first bit as I find the medieval development of science and its intertwining with religion and philosophy fascinating. Jonjoe McFadden brought in a lot of material I wasn't familiar with. Of course I was aware of Occam's razor itself, but I knew nothing about William of Occam as a person, or the way hi

What's Eating the Universe - Paul Davies ***

This collection of short pieces on aspects of astronomy and particularly cosmology is not bad, but didn't quite work for me. It didn't help to read the over-inflated sense of the importance of what's in here, referring to the new stuff being 'more disruptive' than anything since we moved from an Earth-centred model of the universe is, frankly, hype. The 30 bite-size chapterettes range from 'Why is it dark at night?' and 'Where is the Centre of the Universe?' to 'Can the Universe come from Nothing?' and 'Why am I living now?' These mini-essays make the book easy to read, but the haste that is employed to get through what can be quite a meaty topic in a handful of pages means a lot of the joy of storytelling is missing. Many interesting stories in the history of astronomy and cosmology are flagged up without revealing any of the fascinating detail. So, for example, Penzias and Wilson, the discoverers of cosmic microwave background radia

Wonderworks - Angus Fletcher *****

If you are interested in both writing and science this is an unmissable book. Reading can not just impart information, but can influence the way that we feel. Angus Fletcher describes 25 literary techniques (many also applicable to film and TV), ranging from those known to the Ancient Greeks to modern innovations, that can have a particular influence on our feelings and state of mind. Interestingly Fletcher describes this as technology - devices to make something happen. But rather than being a purely philosophical exploration, what lifts the book significantly is that for each of these techniques, Fletcher describes how studies of the impact on the brain show the physical effects occurring in different parts of the brain as a result. The chapters (one for each technique) end with a faintly self-help feeling bit - for instance, how you can use the 'clear your head' technique by reading certain texts, but that really isn't the point. This isn't a self-help book, it's

10 Short Lessons in Time Travel - Brian Clegg ***

Time travel, as Brian Clegg reminds us in his first chapter (sorry, first lesson), was a popular fictional subject long before it found its way into mainstream science. That it did is largely thanks to Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which is a notoriously abstruse area of modern physics. So it’s no easy thing to produce a popular-level book that really gets to grips with the serious science of time travel, and it’s to Clegg’s credit that he achieved just that in his brilliant How to Build a Time Machine (aka Build Your Own Time Machine)  ten years ago. This new book is rather different, approaching the same subject in an altogether more lightweight way. Appropriately enough, it’s part of a series called ‘Pocket Einstein’. But the fact that Einstein keeps cropping up in it  – with topics like quantum entanglement and Einstein-Rosen bridges as well as relativity – is largely coincidence. Other titles in the same series include Artificial Intelligence and Renewable Energy , whi

Rogue Moon (SF) - Algis Budrys ****

This is arguably the most amazing science fiction novel of its period. Written in 1960, it was surely shocking at a time when the big SF sellers relied on characters that were so wooden and stock that they would have regarded Pinocchio as a real boy. It's not that Algis Budrys did away with those stock characters - we still get the obsessed scientist, the bitter hard-bitten antihero, the vamp and so on - but what he does with those characters is unprecedented. The underlying premise of Rogue Moon has been reused by Hollywood quite a few times. It effectively crops up, for example, in The Prestige , Source Code and Edge of Tomorrow - one of the main characters repeatedly dies. In this case it is because a mysterious alien object found on the Moon kills everyone who enters it. An attempt at a solution is to use a (newly developed) matter transmitter to make two copies of a person, one who goes through the object and dies, the other of whom is still on Earth. The Earth copy somehow

The Hydrogen Revolution - Marco Alverà ***

The idea of using hydrogen to aid our move to green energy is gathering pace. At one point it was described primarily as a replacement for petrol in fuelling cars - though Marco Alverà does mention this still as a possibility for some vehicles, the far bigger picture is for hydrogen's role as a potential replacement for natural gas and as a means to store energy to enable to it to be transported from solar-rich locations, or to hold energy for use at time when renewables aren't delivering, such as in winter in many European locations. Despite portraying the seriousness of climate change's impact, Alverà is relentlessly upbeat about the capability of hydrogen in sorting out our problems. It ought to be said upfront (and perhaps isn't explored enough in the book) that Alverà is CEO of an energy pipeline company that is moving into hydrogen in a big way, so to say that he has a potential conflict of interest is, if anything, understating things. This doesn't mean that