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Showing posts from April, 2019

Einstein's Unfinished Revolution - Lee Smolin ****

You wait years for a book on the interpretations of quantum theory and then they appear in droves. In reality though, it's a good thing - each of them has brought its own slant and approach, and never more so than in Einstein's Unfinished Revolution from theoretical physicist Lee Smolin.

Although Smolin takes us on a tour of the best-known interpretations, he sets out his intention from the beginning - he is a realist and wants an interpretation that incorporates realism. That might not seem much of an ask - surely everyone in science wants realism? - until you realise that the long-prevailing approach, the Copenhagen interpretation is anti-realist. This is because we're dealing with a particularly theoretical physics view of the world. It's not that those who have held the Copenhagen interpretation don't think the world as a whole is real. Rather that the requirement that, say, a quantum particle has no location, just probabilities, until it interacts with somethi…

The Scientific Attitude - Lee McIntyre ****

Like many with a science background, I generally struggle to take philosophy of science seriously - it can too inward-looking and generally more fond of using impenetrably big words than having any true meaning. However, Lee McIntyre manages to make his take on the scientific method and the demarcation between science and either non-science or pseudoscience (we'll come back to that split) genuinely interesting.
Most of us come across the idea of the scientific method - the approach taken by scientists that gives science that 'special sauce' that makes it so good at doing what it does. Rather like the way that some physicists like to say that time doesn’t exist (until it’s dinner time), philosophers of science like to say the scientific method doesn’t exist - but then can’t help but acting as if it does. I think this is because they (and many scientists) want 'the scientific method ‘ to be a step-by-step series of rules, but Lee McIntyre makes it clear it’s something m…

Dune (SF) - Frank Herbert *****

According to the blurb on my 1974 edition (the book dates back to 1965), Dune is 'the finest, most widely acclaimed Science Fiction novel of the [20th] century.' I thought it would be worth re-reading it after a few decades - and found that it has held up surprisingly well. In fact, make it 'one of the finest' and I'd only quibble about one assertion in that blurb.

What we have here is an impressively wide-scale space opera, centring on the desert planet of Arrakis, known as Dune, source of a unique spice that is both anti-ageing and, in excess, supportive of a kind of prescience. The planet is occupied by a people strongly modelled on traditional Middle Eastern Arabic cultures and is the subject of political in-fighting between two 'great houses' and an Emperor. The whole thing is feudal and, though set in a high-tech future, has a shield technology that conveniently for those who like a bit of medieval atmosphere, make knives the most appropriate weapon fo…

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…

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…

Six Impossible Things - John Gribbin *****

On first handling John Gribbin's book, it's impossible not to think of Carlo Rovelli's Seven Brief Lessons in Physics - both are very slim, elegant hardbacks with a numbered set of items within - yet Six Impossible Things is a far, far better book than its predecessor. Where Seven Brief Lessons uses purple prose and vagueness in what feels like a scientific taster menu, Gribbin gives us a feast of precision and clarity, with a phenomenal amount of information for such a compact space. It's a TARDIS of popular science books, and I loved it.

Like rather a lot of titles lately (notably Philip Ball's excellent Beyond Weird), what Gribbin is taking on is not the detail of quantum physics itself - although he does manage to get across its essence in two 'fits' (named after the sections of Hunting of the Snark - Gribbin includes Lewis Carroll's epic poem in his recommended reading, though it's such a shame that the superb version annotated by Martin Gardi…

Special Deliverance (SF) - Clifford Simak **

This 1982 novel could be seen as either a measure of the changing measures of quality in science fiction, or the sad fact that even great writers can decline as they get older. Clifford Simak was a big name from the late 30s and had major success in the 1960s - in my edition of this book, his name is even given a special logo. His Hugo Award winning Away Station was excellent. But, sadly, Special Deliverance is dire. 

This book fits into the now largely defunct literary category of science fantasy (though it live on on the screen with Star Wars) which has fantastical happenings or devices that are given a scientific gloss that makes it seem feasible that they could be real. The main character, Edward Lansing is a university lecturer in an alternate Earth where, for example, education is funded by the income from slot machines. He is transported to another alternate Earth where he joins up with five others, each from a different version of Earth, on a quest that is, for most of the book…