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The Perils of Perception - Bobby Duffy ****

How we see the world is not the way it really is. There have been several books based on this premise in the last few years, from Hans Rosling's impressive Factfulness to the distinctly fanciful The Case Against Reality by Donald Hoffman. In The Perils of Perception, Bobby Duffy takes an approach that is similar to Rosling's in surveying large numbers of people in different countries (in fact, one chapter of the book specifically references Rosling), but rather than concentrate as Rosling does on the specific topic of development, Duffy takes a much wider sweep of coverage of our perceptions of our world - and just like Rosling finds that most of us are way off on our appreciation of how things really are.
Whether we're dealing with politics and immigration, finance, climate change, sex or crime, Duffy shows that the majority of people tend to get things wrong. (I think I've read too many of these books, as I tended, if anything, to err in the opposite direction to the …

The Universe Speaks in Numbers - Graham Farmelo ****

Theoretical physics has taken something of a hammering lately with books such as Sabine Hossenfelder's Lost in Math. The suggestion from these earlier titles is that theoretical physics is so obsessed with mathematics that many theoretical physicists spend their careers working on theory that doesn't actually apply to the universe, because the maths is interesting. Even experimental physics can be tainted, as the driver for new expenditure in experiments, such as the proposed new collider at CERN, is not driven by discoveries but by these mathematically-directed theories. Graham Farmelo presents the opposite view here: that this speculative mathematical work is, in fact, a great success.
As I am very much in the Hossenfelder camp, I expected to find Farmelo's book rather irritating, as it's effectively a love letter to mathematically-obsessed theoretical physics - but in reality (an entertaining phrase, given the context) I found it both interesting and enjoyable. Far…

The Case Against Reality - Donald Hoffman ***

It's not exactly news that our perception of the world around us can be a misleading confection of the brain, rather than a precise picture of reality - everything from optical illusions to the apparent motion of video confirms this - but professor of cognitive science Donald Hoffman goes far beyond this. He wants us to believe that spacetime and the objects in it are not real: that they only exist when we perceive them. It's not that he believes everything to be totally illusory, but suggests that the whole framework of the physical world is a construction of our minds.

To ease us into this viewpoint, Hoffman gives the example of the Necker cube - the clever two-dimensional drawing apparently of a cube which can be seen in two totally different orientations. Calling these orientations 'Cube A and Cube B' he remarks that our changing perceptions suggest that 'neither Cube A nor Cube B is there when no one looks, and there is no objective cube that exists unobserve…

Trinity - Frank Close ****

Physicist Frank Close has a kind of dual writing life - which is ideal given he's here writing about the dual life of a German nuclear physicist who was also a Russian spy. Many of Close's books give plenty of detail on a specific aspect of physics - my favourite is his compact title Neutrino, a great introduction to this fascinating particle. However, Close also has a penchant for spy history. He's already given us the story of Bruno Pontecorvo in Half Life, and now we get a biography of the Klaus Fuchs.

A communist from his youth, Fuchs fled Nazi Germany for the UK, where the outbreak of war saw him first treated as a suspicious enemy alien, but his expertise in the suddenly desperately important field of nuclear physics saw him brought into the fold, working on theory for nuclear reactors and atomic bombs, both in the UK and in the US, where he made important contributions to the Manhattan Project. Shockingly, when it all came out in 1950, it was also discovered that m…

Chasing Solace (SF) - Karl Drinkwater ****

In the first book in this series, Lost Solace, Karl Drinkwater put his main character, Opal, through hell on what appeared to be, but wasn't, a space liner, along with developing her relationship with her ship's AI. Chasing Solace takes the next step, with an evolved AI (now called Athene) and Opal taking on another 'lost ship', more convinced than ever that this is the way to find Opal's missing sister, Clarissa.

As with the previous book there is only one significant human character in Opal. (In fact only one other human features at all, and then relatively briefly.) There's a long tradition of single-handed plays working well, but there the character is, effectively, in conversation with the audience. Here we don't get the benefit of being talked to, but Opal can, and does have conversations with Athene, or (when she can't contact the ship) with a limited version of Athene built into her suit.

Having the AIs to converse with does give us the opportu…

The Science of Breaking Bad - Dave Trumbore and Donna Nelson ***

At first sight I'm probably not the best person to review this book as I have never watched Breaking Bad (apart from repeatedly seeing bits of episode 2 when I played it more than 50 times while battery testing laptops) and have no desire to do so. However, I am very interested in how fiction portrays science and the claim this book makes is that Breaking Bad was uniquely impressive in the amount of real science it contained.

The format of the book is more than a little odd. One of the contributors, Donna Nelson, is a chemistry professor who responded to a call for a science consultant to the show. Each chapter starts with a section of reminiscence from Nelson about the joys and tribulations of the role. That's fine and often gives interesting insights, but for some reason it's printed in tiny text, significantly smaller than the rest of the book. I think the idea is to make it look like an email, but it just makes it hard to read. I remember chatting to a physicist who h…

The Hidden Half - Michael Blastland *****

Michael Blastland is co-author of one of my favourite titles on the use and misuse of numbers, The Tiger that Isn't - so I was excited to see this book and wasn't disappointed.

Blastland opens with the story of a parthenogenic crustacean that seems to demonstrate that, despite having near-identical nature and nurture, a collection of the animals vary hugely in size, length of life and practically every other measure. This is used to introduce us to the idea that our science deals effectively with the easy bit, the 'half' that is accessible, but that in many circumstances there is a hidden half that comprises a whole range of very small factors which collectively can have a huge impact, but which are pretty much impossible to predict or account for. (I put 'half' in inverted commas as it might be fairer to say 'part' - there's no suggestion that this is exactly 50:50.)

We go on to discover this hidden half turning up in all kinds of applications of …

Prime Suspects - Andrew Granville and Jennifer Granville **

Every now and then someone comes up with the bright idea of doing popular science (or in this case, popular maths) using the graphic novel format. Although I'm not a great fan of the genre, because it so vastly reduces the number of words available, making it very difficult to put across complex or nuanced information, I can see why the concept appeals. But for me, this particular attempt, illustrated by Robert Lewis, falls down on addressing the audience appropriately.

More on that in a moment. What Andrew and Jennifer Granville attempt to do here is put across a fairly obscure bit of mathematics - the relationship between the distribution of the primes and the cycles of permutations - using a very abstracted story in the form of a murder mystery where each victim represents one of the mathematical examples. The authors also claim in their epilogue that their aims include drawing attention to how research is done, the role of women in mathematics today and the 'influence and…

Intangibles Inc. And Other Stories (SF) - Brian Aldiss ****

Brian Aldiss was a brilliant science fiction and fantasy writer, though his books could sometimes come across as enigmatic or downright baffling, particularly when they involved some kind of slippage in reality - this 1969 collection of five novellas illustrates both his strengths and weaknesses wonderfully.

There's one out-and-out fantasy story, the rather wistful title story, where a never-aging traveller revisits a family with longer and longer gaps between visits after setting an original challenge. For me, the first two stories in the book Neanderthal Planet and Randy's Syndrome work best because, although they are challenging in their themes, they don't resort to the time/reality slippage scenario that was so central to many Aldiss books. The first features a rather clever double layered approach by sandwiching a science fiction story written by the main character into two parts of a story about his life. The second is fantasy, but less obviously than Intangibles In…

SOS - Seth Wynes ***

This very compact book (it took significantly less than an hour to read) offers a beguiling reward: ‘What you can do to reduce climate change’. This promise presents a real challenge, because it’s easy to think that as individuals we can make little difference. But would I feel any different after reading it?

Seth Wynes (who, we are told, is studying for a PhD in climate change) is sure, with all the enthusiasm of youth, that we can make our actions count. He divides up the book into getting around, what we eat, collective action and everyday living (basically energy use and purchases). Most of this is, frankly, very familiar ground. So we’re told to walk and use bikes more, drive less, fly less, eat less meat, use green energy and don’t buy new stuff unless we have to. The only part I’ve not seen very (very) many times before was is the collective action section. This is based primarily on a survey of MPs and the public in Belgium, with MP comparisons with seven other EU countries, …

Bloom - Ruth Kassinger ***

There is much fascinating material in this chunky book by Ruth Kassinger. It may be my total ignorance of biology and everyone else knows these things, but I learnt so much - for example that seaweed is algae and not a plant, about algae's role in the development of land plants, about the algae in lichen and its contribution to coral reefs.

The book is divided into four broad sections: on the origins and development of algae, on algae (and particularly seaweed) as food, on making use of algae, for example, for biofuel, and on algae and climate change, particularly the bleaching of coral and algal blooms. This is all done in a very approachable writing style, mixing descriptive material that is never over-technical with narrative often featuring visits to different locations and to talk to a range of experts from those who study to algae to those who cook them.

There are two problems though. Firstly, the book is too long at 380 pages. Each section could do with a trim, but this wa…