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Showing posts from August, 2019

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…