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David Orrell - Four Way Interview

David Orrell is a writer of general audience books on science and economics, and an applied mathematician in his spare time. He has written books on topics including the science of prediction The Future of Everything, the relationship between science and aesthetics Truth or Beauty, and the problems with economics Economyths. His most recent book is Quantum Economics: The New Science of Money.

Why science (and economics)? 

I came into science through mathematics. My university offered undergraduate mathematics as part of an arts program, so you had to take half mathematics courses, but the rest could be from arts or sciences. So I combined subjects like set theory and topology with philosophy and art history. One thing I always liked about mathematics is that, being abstract, it can be applied to many different things and doesn’t lock you into a particular way of seeing the world. I became interested in economics after writing a book (The Future of Everything) about the science of predic…

Friendly Fire (SF) - Gavin Smith ****

Way back in the hoary old days of pulp science fiction, militaristic stories were common, culminating in the truly unpleasant Starship Troopers (1959). From the second half of the 60s, though, when I first got seriously into SF, far more thoughtful and interesting books began to dominate. The military SF space operas never went away, but were relegated to the backwaters. Space opera as a sub-genre became far more sophisticated with Iain M. Banks' superb Culture series. 

However, first person shooter video games such as Doom, plus movies such as Star Wars plus its successors, and the rise of superhero films, brought the militaristic aspect front and centre to the cinema and now it's relatively common again to find novels that glorify big guns and combat. With The Bastard Legion, Gavin Smith showed how to do it with style, combining a Buffy the Vampire Slayer-style subversion of the genre, featuring one woman in charge of 6,000 enslaved hard criminals, with a superb example of &#…

The Graphene Revolution - Brian Clegg ****

Graphene's one of those words that gets bandied around a lot without getting more than some vague feeling of what it's all about. In the end, it's just a material, and everyone knows that books about materials don't make for very exciting reading. But the advantage Brian Clegg has here is that graphene is not just a wonder material (which it certainly is) but it also has a brilliant story attached to it.

The two Russian discoverers of graphene (sort of - more on that in a moment), working at Manchester University are, to say the least, characters. This is particularly the case with Andre Geim, who first came to fame (or infamy) when he successfully levitated live frogs using a very powerful magnet. Geim and his co-discoverer Konstantin Novoselov had the idea that you should be able to spend some time on what they called 'Friday Night Projects' (spare time activities to look at something completely different) and they succeeded remarkably with graphene.

Clegg give…

The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being - Alice Roberts *****

A few years back, I went to see my doctor. I’d been experiencing a number of apparently unrelated minor ‘symptoms’. I wanted to make sure the symptoms really were minor and unrelated, and not due to some more serious, underlying, undiagnosed condition. One of my symptoms was a recurring, dull pain in my left shoulder. I could never work out precisely where the pain was coming from, but it was, I explained, 'definitely somewhere in the shoulder region.'

My doctor smiled and said she knew exactly what my problem was, as she experienced it too! Like me, she suffered occasional bouts of acid reflux in her stomach. When acid reflux kicks in, excess gases expand the stomach wall, putting pressure on your diaphragm. One of the nerves associated with the diaphragm runs a convoluted route via the left shoulder blade and hooks up with the rest of the nervous system in the neck. So, when my acid reflux kicked in, I experienced pain signals that seemed to be coming from my shoulder, but wh…

Totally Random - Tanya Bub and Jeffrey Bub **

It's difficult to decide just where the problems start with Totally Random. It's an attempt to communicate the oddities of quantum entanglement using a comic book format. There has already been an attempt to do this for quantum theory in general - Mysteries of the Quantum Universe, which managed to both have a bit of a storyline and get in a fair amount of quantum physics. Unfortunately the format also got in the way - so much space was taken up by the pictures that the words simply didn't manage to get the message across. Doubly unfortunately, this is also true of Totally Random, with the added negatives that it has no discernible storyline and it's rarely even visually interesting.

The attempt to explain entanglement suffers hugely because Tanya and Jeffrey Bub decided to use a set of analogies for quantum entanglement ('quoins', a kind of magic toaster device that entangles them, various strange devices to undertake other quantum operations) that don't so…

The Art of Logic - Eugenia Cheng ***

This is an important book, though I'm not sure Eugenia Cheng would agree with my logic in saying so. 

Going on the marketing, what we have here is a counter to fake news and dodgy argumentation in the form of mathematical logic. The back cover tells us 'Newspaper headlines and social media use emotions to warp the facts. Politicians and companies master rhetoric to mislead us. What one book could help us make sense of it all?' Admittedly they don't answer their rhetorical question, but I assume the answer is intended to be The Art of Logic. (Did the company behind this book realise it was using rhetoric, though presumably not to mislead us?) 

What we actually have is a combination of a lucid and interesting explanation of the basics of logic with the mathematical equivalent of those books such as Algorithms to Live By that were so popular a couple of years ago. They used the logic of algorithms (differently worded, and, to me, easier to understand), the heart of computer…

Quantum Economics - David Orrell ****

David Orrell's earlier title Economyths is one of my favourite popular science books of all time. Or, perhaps, I should say popular non-science, as Orrell shows just how devastatingly traditional economics uses the tools of science without having a scientific basis. I was, therefore, really looking forward to reading Orrell's new book - until I saw the title. As anyone involved with physics can tell you, there's nothing more irritating than the business of sticking the word 'quantum' onto something to give a pseudo-scientific boost to waffle and woo. Was Orrell doing the same thing? Thankfully, his introduction put my fears aside.

Orrell, a mathematician with a physics background quickly makes it clear that the way he is using quantum theory is not just employing magic words, but involves making use of strong parallels between the nature of quantum objects and concepts like money (more on money in a moment). Yes, this is to some extent a metaphorical use of quantum …

The Ashtray - Errol Morris *****

Wow. When someone suggested I read a book called The Ashtray, written by a documentary film-maker, it didn't strike me that it would be a book that gave deep insights into the history and philosophy of science - while also being a remarkable reading experience. In fact, I almost didn't bother with it, but I'm glad that I did.

The titular ashtray was thrown at the author when he was a grad student - thrown by one of the two best known names in the philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn, he of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the concept of paradigm shifts. Kuhn didn't like the young Errol Morris daring to challenge his ideas and reacted with what some would regard as a less than philosophical reply by hurling a heavy glass ashtray at him.

Part of the reason that reading The Ashtray is a remarkable experience is because it's a book that feels in some ways like watching a documentary. I have to confess I've never seen any of Morris's work, but he uses vis…

The Travel Diaries of Albert Einstein - Albert Einstein ***

This is a handsomely bound and presented collection of Albert Einstein's diary notes, jotted down on his trip to the far East, Palestine and Spain from 1922-23.

The very lengthy introduction (over a quarter of the main text) has a tendency to state the obvious e.g. 'The diary reveals that Einstein's perceptions are often filtered through European - in particular Swiss and German - lenses.' Well, duh. 

The author of the introduction also feels rather painfully unable to use anything other than a 21st century American lens. The phraseology can sink into what seems to someone with a physics background as pseudo-scientific babble e.g. 'Cultural studies on alterity [sic] can provide us with some insights into the representation of the Other in Einstein's diary. At the basis of the relationship of the traveler and the indigenous populations is the Self/Other dyad. Internally, the traveler projects a reflection of the Self onto the Other…' Probably best to ignore th…

The Quiet Revolution of Caroline Herschel - Emily Winterburn ****

Thankfully, with the attention now given to the history of women in the sciences, the subtitle of Emily Winterburn's book 'the lost heroine of astronomy' is not really accurate. Admittedly, thanks to the relative coverage given to less substantial contributors to science such as Ada Lovelace, some might underestimate Caroline Herschel's contribution. However, I've read several books on Herschel's work now, notably Claire Brock's The Comet Sweeper and Michael Hoskin's book on both William and Caroline, Discoverers of the Universe.

What Winterburn brings impressively is a feel for Caroline the person - although Winterburn is a historian of science, this is more a biography of the active part of a scientist's life rather than a scientific biography. Having read the story often from William Herschel's viewpoint, there's a feeling of watching one of those clever movies where you see the same situation from two individual's very different viewp…

Twelve Tomorrows 2018 (SF) - Ed. Wade Roush ****

For several years, the MIT Technology Review has published the Twelve Tomorrows series as a magazine, but this year it has been handed over to the MIT Press as a big, grown up book. The idea is to have stories that really make you think about the implications of a technology - something that exists to some degree now, but that is extrapolated into a future where it may be far advanced from its current form.

There is a danger with this kind of story that it can be more than a little po-faced and can work over-hard at educating the reader about the technology at the cost of losing an effective narrative. Thankfully, most of the authors avoid this trap and present genuinely intriguing stories. Ken Liu's Byzantine Empathy is the story that comes closest to falling into this mode in its attempts to explain blockchains (not very well, sadly) - but is entirely forgiven by presenting what is one of the most powerful storylines in the book, using the idea of a blockchain mechanism for getti…