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Alice and Bob Meet the Wall of Fire - Thomas Lin (Ed.) ***

This book contains a considerable amount of good (and interesting) science - but, for me, it's not a good science book. A book should have structure and flow, leading the reader through its narrative. This is a collection of articles (from the website Quanta). As a result, what we've got here is a magazine in book's clothing. And at that it's not a very good magazine.

What do we look for in a science magazine? Good illustrations, for one. Even a top-level science magazine such as Nature has plenty of illustrations and graphics. Here there are none. Also we want a smorgasbord of interesting articles - the origin of the term 'magazine' is a storehouse - the editor's job is to ensure variety and range, so even if one article isn't really to your taste, the next one will be something completely different. Here, the articles are grouped in topics, and are often quite similar within the topic - many even have quotes from the same handful of scientists over and over again.

Take the first section, which surely should be one designed to whet the appetite. Titled 'Why doesn't our universe make sense?', these articles are all what I'd call fantasy physics. As the book's title suggests, they obsess over purely theoretical concepts like black hole firewalls. There is no observational or experimental evidence for black hole firewalls. They are simply the result of playing mathematical games - which is fine for mathematicians, but shouldn't really be presented as science when there is no prospect of taking a close look at a black hole in the foreseeable future.  Every single one of the seven articles in this section is concerned with mathematical or philosophical considerations (such as 'naturalness') which are arguably not really science at all. There is a lot of discussion in the physics world at the moment about the validity of this kind of work - but none of it surfaces here.

Another section I struggled with was one labelled 'How do machines learn?' This was about AI and was very gung-ho about artificial intelligence, giving us hardly anything about the problems it raises and the concerns that it is being overhyped, reflected so well in books such as Common Sense, the Turing Test and the Search for Real AI and The AI Delusion.

The sections I found most interesting were those on biology - 'What is Life?' and 'What Makes us Human?' There was a time when physicists could deservedly be snide about biology, culminating in Rutherford's famous 'stamp collecting' put down. Yet these biology sections felt far more like real science than the physics ones. The articles were excellent and there seemed far more that was generally interesting here. (And I say this as someone with a physics background.)

In the end, I'm not sure that collecting together the 'best' articles (if the first section were the best physics articles, I'd hate to see the worst) from a website makes for a particularly useful book. By all means visit Quanta and read the articles there (they even have illustrations!) - it's a great resource. But the book doesn't do it for me.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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