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Will AI Replace Us? - Shelly Fan ***

Although a review should largely be about the content of a book - and we'll get onto that - sometimes, the format it is presented in can have such an impact that this comes to the fore. Will AI Replace Us? falls into this category as part of Thames & Hudson's The Big Idea series which makes use of 'Quick recognition text hierarchy'. Throughout the book there are four different font sizes used. The idea is that you can read the biggest two sizes to get an overview in about half an hour, add in the next size down for an hour's quick read, or go the whole hog for a two-hour in-depth read.

It's an interesting concept, but the execution is horrible. The designer seems to have no idea how book pages should be laid out. The text is chunky sans serif - hard on the eyes on paper - and has far too little white space, getting uncomfortably close to the edge of the page and looking like it has been thrown in, rather than carefully set. To make matters worse, there are…
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John Gribbin - Four Way Interview

John Gribbin was described as 'one of the finest and most prolific writers of popular science around' by the Spectator. John gained a PhD from the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge (then under the leadership of Fred Hoyle) before working as a science journalist for Nature and later New Scientist. He is the author of a number of bestselling popular science books, including In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat, In Search of the Multiverse, Science: A History and Computing with Quantum Cats. He is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Sussex. His latest title is Six Impossible Things.

Why science?

 I grew up wanting to be a science fiction writer, inspired by Astounding magazine and the works of Arthur Clarke and Isaac Asimov.  When I realised there was no chance of making a living this way, I turned to science fact.  But I have always been especially interested in science fact that sounds like science fiction.

Why this book?

This book (Six Impossible Things) is to some extent the culmi…

Feynman and His Physics - Jörg Resag ***

So much has been written about the charismatic twentieth century physicist Richard Feynman that it's hard to think of a book about him presenting anything new - so Jörg Resag needs to be congratulated for achieving just that. What's more, it's an excellent book for a particular audience - the only reason I'm giving it three stars is that this is quite a narrow audience... but for them it deserves four.

Feynman and his Physics contains relatively little biographical material: Resag makes it clear from his introduction that this isn't the main thrust of the book. What there is serves as context for Feynman's work in physics. I'd almost wish Resag had not bothered, as without a bit more depth, biography can seem a little tedious, but there was nothing tedious about Feynman's life. (There were also one or two contextual details, such as the now discarded suggestion that Wheeler devised the term 'black hole', which could do with updating.)

When it co…

Luna: Moon Rising (SF) - Ian McDonald ****

I'm not the natural audience for this book. Game of Thrones leaves me cold - and it's hard not to feel the influence of GoT (and a whole lot of Dune)underneath a veneer of science fiction and the trappings of a South American drug cartel in the cod-medieval family power battles and chivalric details. There are even dragons (of a sort). I'd be really sad if the future did involve this sort of throwback feudalism. However, remarkably, despite this I found Luna: Moon Rising kept me engaged.
The fact is that Ian McDonald can put together a good plot with intricate machinations, which is enough to carry the reader through what can be a bewildering collection of characters. The two page scene-setter saying who did what to whom at the start was useful, but I could have done with family trees for the main family as I was constantly forgetting who was who - especially easy as McDonald endows many families with characters with the same first initial (e.g. Ariel and Alexia Corta; Lu…

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …

David Beerling - Four Way Interview

David Beerling is the Sorby Professor of Natural Sciences, and Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation at the University of Sheffield. His book The Emerald Planet (OUP, 2007) formed the basis of a major 3-part BBC TV series ‘How to Grow a Planet’. His latest title is Making Eden.

Why science?

I come from a non-academic background. None of my family, past or present, went to university, which may explain the following. In the final year of my degree in biological sciences at the University of Wales, Cardiff (around 1986), we all participated in a field course in mid-Wales, and I experienced an epiphany. I was undertaking a small research project on the population dynamics of bullheads (Cotus gobio), a common small freshwater fish, with a charismatic distinguished professor, and Fellow of the Royal Society in London. Under his guidance, I discovered the process of learning how nature works through the application of the scientific method. It was the most exciting t…

Can Computers write Science Books? - Brian Clegg

The German academic publisher Springer has for some time been using automated editing software (with mixed results) - but recently has brought out a whole book written by a piece of AI software called Beta Writer. The book, Lithium-Ion Batteries: a machine generated summary of current research, can be downloaded free of charge as a PDF. But is this a serious challenge for science writers?

It's certainly interesting. If I'm honest, this is hardly a book at all - it's more the output of an automated abstract generator pulled together in book form, where frankly this information would be far better just as a web page. However, there's no doubt that there is some interesting work going on here, particularly in the introduction and conclusion sections of the 'book'.

The whole thing starts with a (human written) preface explaining the technology - by far the most readable part of the text. We then get four 'chapters' of machine-generated content, which each hav…