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Blueprint - Robert Plomin *****

Psychology doesn't have a good name in the science world when it comes to quality of experiments and data. All too often, practitioners have been guilty of misunderstanding statistics, data mining, cherry picking and worse. So it's refreshing to come across a book that is primarily about psychology but is driven by good quality data and where the author goes out of his way to show what the numbers really mean. The twist in the tail, though, is that although Blueprint is indeed about why we are the way we are psychologically, it is driven throughout by genetics. Which is just as well, as according to Robert Plomin, a leading researcher in behavioural genetics, we are driven far more by our genes than most of us realise.

The 'nature versus nurture' debate goes back a long way. Plomin doesn't generally go into history of science in this book, which is probably just as well as one of his few mentions of history is to say 'These environmental factors were called nurt…
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The Genius Checklist - Dean Keith Simonton ***

There's something uncomfortable about the cover of this book. It's hard to read something that says 'Nine paradoxical tips on how YOU! can become a creative genius,' and not expect a self-help book, however scientifically based. However, this is not such a book, and you'd think a psychologist like Dean Keith Simonton would realise that promising something and then not delivering it is not a great way to win over your audience.

Instead what we have here is an interesting exploration of what we mean by 'genius' - a fuzzy enough concept that it covers many different abilities - and a set of nine contradictions (that's the 'paradoxical' bit) in listing possible causes for being a genius. So, for example, we are told it's good to score 140 or more on IQ test, but IQ doesn't really matter, or that it's all down to the genes, but home and school are what make it happen. The very nature of these paradoxical statements makes it clear that this…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…

Snapshot (SF) - Brandon Sanderson ****

Although a science fiction story is just as capable of having all the usual furniture of a novel - character building, human reactions, locations and environment and so on - there is the added depth science fiction gains by being a genre of ideas. Some of the early greats of science fiction - Asimov, for example - managed the ideas and the 'What if?' far more eloquently than they did the traditional elements of fiction writing, presenting us with cardboard characters. Although Snapshot is nowhere near as bad as the old brigade in this respect, there is no doubt that Brandon Sanderson scores significantly more on the 'What if?' aspect. This is very much an idea-driven novella.

It's a dramatic idea at that. What if it were possible to recreate a day in a city with all its inhabitants, going through exactly what happened on the day? It would enable, for instance, police officers to go in and attempt to solve a crime, able to revisit the scene and interact with those in…

Future Politics - Jamie Susskind ***

Don't ignore this book if you are turned off by politics, as, despite the title, the theme of the book is how the internet, AI and the future of information and communication technology will impact our lives. Although politics is the primary way this is reflected, the book has a much wider remit - and these technologies are, without doubt, producing sweeping changes that will increasingly have a disruptive impact.

Jamie Susskind starts with a rather breathless (and sometimes over-the-top) vision of the future of these technologies - he admits, like all futurology, what he says will almost certainly be wrong, but argues that just because this is the case doesn't mean we shouldn't examine potential consequences. He then goes on to examine how lives transformed by the internet, AI and mobile technology will have different opportunities and threats in the areas of power (human power, not rate of energy consumption), liberty, impact on democracy and justice.

There is some really …