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Marty Jopson - Four Way Interview

Marty Jopson is an expert on science, hosting talks across the country. Regularly appearing on BBC One’s The One Show as their resident science reporter, he has also appeared on ITV, Channel 4, Sky, the Discovery Channel and National Geographic, as well as lecturing at The Royal Institution. He is the author of the bestselling The Science of Everyday Life, and The Science of Food. His latest book is The Science of Being Human.


Why science?

Because it’s cool. Simple as that. I could bang on about how science has given us incredible super powers to survive disease, see back in time to the start of the universe and talk to people on the other side of the globe. We could talk about understanding what it means to be conscious, the very nature of matter itself or if there are parallel universes, but that all gets kinda heavy. On the other hand you could consider the small things like your mobile phone, your breakfast cereal, the lightbulb over your head or the shampoo you use. But that seems …

Jet Stream - Tim Woolings ****

The importance of the jet stream - a high speed flow of air that usually carries the warm air that makes the UK warmer than it should be for its position on the Earth - is rarely fully appreciated. Recently, though, we have had a number of extreme weather events that were put down to shifts in the jet stream, emphasising its significant impact on everyday life.

Tim Woolings starts his approachable exploration of the jet stream on a beach in Barbados (all in the interest of science, of course) and takes the reader through a surprising amount of information in a relatively slim 200 pages plus notes. For the first few pages we're introduced to some of the basics of weather forecasting at this Barbados location, but then we segue from surf and sun to the winds, and up to around 10 kilometres, where aircraft tend to cruise: here we meet the jet stream, which is beginning its journey in this region.

The reader is rewarded with plenty of juicy little facts, such as the revelation that the …

The Crowd and the Cosmos - Chris Lintott ****

We tend to have a very old fashioned idea of what astronomers do - peering through telescopes on dark nights. In reality, not only do many of them not use optical telescopes, but almost all observations are now performed electronically. Chris Lintott does a great job of bringing alive the realities of modern astronomy, and the way that the flood of data that is produced by all these electronic devices is being in part addressed by 'citizen scientists' - volunteer individuals who check image after image for interesting features.

Inevitably, all this cataloguing and categorising brings to mind Ernest Rutherford's infamous quotation along the lines of 'all science is either physics or stamp collecting.' This occurred to me even before Chris Lintott brought it up. Lintott defends the process against the Rutherford attack by pointing out that it can be a useful starting point for real, new research. To be fair to Rutherford, I think this misses the great man's poin…

Artificial Intelligence - Melanie Mitchell *****

As Melanie Mitchell makes plain, humans have limitations in their visual abilities, typified by optical illusions, but artificial intelligence (AI) struggles at a much deeper level with recognising what's going on in images. Similarly in some ways, the visual appearance of this book misleads. It's worryingly fat and bears the ascetic light blue cover of the Pelican series, which since my childhood have been markers of books that were worthy but have rarely been readable. This, however, is an excellent book, giving a clear picture of how many AI systems go about their business and the huge problems designers of such systems face.

Not only does Mitchell explain the main approaches clearly, her account is readable and engaging. I read a lot of popular science books, and it's rare that I keep wanting to go back to one when I'm not scheduled to be reading it - this is one of those rare examples.

We discover how AI researchers have achieved the apparently remarkable abiliti…

Helene (SF) - Karl Drinkwater ****

An interesting development that has emerged with the ready availability of ebooks is the revival of the novella, sometimes as a way of filling in bits of backstory or short additional tales in a series. In Helene, Karl Drinkwater has done just this, giving some of the backstory to his effective Lost Solace novels.

In these books, the main character Opal has stolen an experimental spaceship with a revolutionary artificial intelligence (AI). Here we discover how that AI came to have the individuality and personality that makes it special.

Helene is primarily a two-hander between 'AI socialisation specialist' Helene Vermalle and the AI ViraUHX, who will become Opal's AI. There are other characters, notably the pantomime villain/Harkonnenesque 'Sector Primogenitur' Gillesto Lainy, but the story very much centres on the relationship between Helene and the AI, and the way that the AI develops. As a result, a lot of the novella is conversation - but there's some reall…

Adventures of a Computational Explorer - Stephen Wolfram ***

Stephen Wolfram, the man behind the scientist's mathematical tool of choice, Mathematica, plus a whole host of other software products, including the uncanny Wolfram Alpha knowledge engine, is undoubtedly a genius of the first order. In this book, we get an uncensored excursion into the mind of genius - which is, without doubt, a fascinating prospect.

The book consists of a collection of essays and speeches that Wolfram has produced over the last ten to fifteen years, covering an eclectic range of topics. Like all such collections, the result is something that lacks the coherence of a book with a narrative that runs through it, inevitably introducing a degree of repetition and a mix of interesting and not-so-interesting topics - but there's likely to be something to catch the attention anyone who is into computing or mathematics.

One of the most interesting pieces is the opening one, where Wolfram describes being a consultant on the SF movie Arrival. He seems to have had a wh…

The Science of Being Human - Marty Jopson *****

It might seem at first sight that a book titled 'The Science of Being Human' is about biology (or anthropology) - and certainly there's an element of that in Marty Jopson's entertaining collection of pretty-well freestanding articles on human science - but in reality a better clue comes from the subtitle 'why we behave, think and feel the way we do.'

What Jopson does is to pick out different aspects of the human experience - often quite small and very specific things - and take us through the science behind it. I often found that it was something I really wasn't expecting that really caught my fancy. The test with this kind of book is often what inspires the reader to tell someone else about it - the first thing I found myself telling the world was about why old 3D films used to give you a headache, but modern ones tend not to. (It's about the way that in the real world, your eyes swivel towards each other as things get closer to you.)

It's irresisti…

World Engines: Destroyer (SF) - Stephen Baxter ****

Stephen Baxter is an old school, hard SF author. World Engines: Destroyer is a page-turner, with the fiction is built around as much solid science as possible. Baxter includes five pages of afterword, describing the scientific discoveries and theories he incorporates. The central conceit - of multiple versions of reality that can be traversed - may be a fair distance from science, but following firmly in the tradition of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, once he builds in his fantastical item, Baxter is able to take his science and construct something around it on an impressive scale.

The main character, Reid Malenfant (a clumsy name, which the book gives an obscure explanation for, but surely must really be 'Badchild' (as opposed to, say, Fairchild)) dies in 2019 in a space accident, 14 years after his wife Emma Stoney is lost on a mission to Phobos, one of the Martian moons. He is restored from deep freeze to discover that it is 2469 - and he has been brought back because …

Colin Stuart - Four Way Interview

Colin Stuart is an astronomy journalist, author and science communicator. He has written fourteen science books to date, which have been translated into nineteen languages, including 13 Journeys Through Space and Time: Christmas Lectures From the Royal Institution and The Universe in Bite-sized Chunks both published by Michael O’Mara Books. He also has written for the Guardian, the European Space Agency and New Scientist and has spoken on Sky News, BBC News and Radio 5 Live. He is a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and even has an asteroid named after him. His latest title is Rebel Star: our quest to solve the great mysteries of the Sun.

Why science? 

For me the stories that you can tell with modern science rival the most imaginative leaps in fiction. The secret, invisible kingdoms of bacteria and sub-atomic particles. The logic defying realms of black holes and Big Bangs. That excites me more than Hogwarts or Mordor. The universe is an amazing place and we’ve only just scratche…

Virtual Reality - Samuel Greengard ***

This is an entry in a new series of pocket-sized guides which take on subsets of what would be covered by a typical book (I'm looking forward to Recycling in the same series). It covers the genuinely interesting topic of virtual reality, but the way it does so shows a degree of exaggerated expectation. The technology is simply not up to the promise yet.

Even Samuel Greengard acknowledges this when he writes 'Although virtual technologies have been around in one for or another for a few decades, the hype has mostly exceeded the reality.' Unfortunately, said hype is present through most of the book. Greengard tells us that we have experienced 'a massive wave of virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality'. Not in my world, we haven't. I'm not anti VR, but I think any technology that involves strapping something on your face will always be niche. The maximum the mass market is likely to put up with is the inconvenience of glasses, though even those pro…

Total Eclipse (SF) - John Brunner ****

Of all the 'classic' science fiction writers, John Brunner was probably the most variable. At his best - which I would say was The Shockwave Rider - he was great. But equally, quite a few of his novels appear to be dashed off to make a bit of money without a lot of thought. In some ways, Total Eclipse sits somewhere between the two.

It's a book of ideas. The eclipse in the title is not the astronomical version, but rather the eclipse of a civilisation. Earth's one starship makes occasional trips (constrained by budget and politics) to a planet where the remains of a civilisation has been discovered. We follow the latest trip, attempting to make some sense of the baffling remains that have been left behind.

In some ways the attempts to understand the alien remnants are reminiscent of (but far better than) the attempts to decipher alien language in the movie Arrival. Brunner did one of the best jobs I've seen of setting up a genuinely alien culture and the difficulties…

The Body - Bill Bryson ****

I am a huge fan of Bill Bryson's travel books - he is a superb storyteller, and in the best parts of his science writing, this ability to provide fascinating facts and intriguing tales shines through.

After taking on the whole of science in his first book, here he focuses in on the physiology, anatomy and diseases of the human body. Bryson does so with his usual light, approachable style, peppering the plethora of facts (and 'don't know's - it's amazing how much we still don't know about the workings of the body) with the little nuggets you can't help but share and stories of some of the odd and, frankly, horrifying goings on in the history of medicine.

So, for example, Bryson throws in 'The chin is unique to humans and no one knows why we have one.' He speculates that it might be just that we 'find a good chin dashing' and quotes a Harvard professor as saying 'Testing this last hypothesis is especially difficult, but the reader is encoura…