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Showing posts from 2020

Galllowglass (SF) - S. J. Morden ****

All fiction has to take liberties with the realities of space travel, but some handle it better than others, and S. J. Morden has gone further than anyone else I can remember in pinning down the detail to make this space-based thriller feel particularly gritty and realistic. The storyline has two key themes: the runaway and asteroid mining. The central character Jaap (Jack) Van der Veerden is an ultra-privileged young man who is determined to escape the clutches of his controlling parents, who through pretty much limitless expenditure intend to live forever, meaning he can apparently never escape their clutches and financial control. He gets away with the SF equivalent of running away to join the circus - running away to space. Luckily, although he has no practical experience, he does have the theoretical knowledge to be an astrogator and gets a position on a dodgy expedition to retrieve a mineral-rich asteroid. I find it impossible to believe that Morden wasn't inspired by the Rob

Linda Schweizer - Four Way Interview

Linda Schweizer earned an MA in mathematics and a PhD in astronomy at UC Berkeley, with the visual arts and dance as her other passions. She observed southern-hemisphere galaxy pairs with several telescopes in cold dark domes in Chile, then modelled, analyzed, and published her work in 1987. Those papers on the statistical and dynamical modelling of dark matter in binary galaxy halos were, she says, just a small stone in the mosaic of our growing understanding of dark matter. A Carnegie Fellowship in Washington, DC, was her first science job. By then, she had her second daughter in the oven— with two more daughters to follow, and she turned her focus to properly preparing them for life. After 15 years, she returned to the world of astrophysics. After a brief stint in External Affairs, she taught science writing to undergraduate students at Caltech and loved it. She was a Visiting Scholar at Caltech while researching Cosmic Odyssey , an insider’s history of one of the greatest eras in a

The Wonder Book of Geometry - David Acheson ****

If ever you wanted a paradox, this book provides it in a remarkable way. Geometry, with its grinding pyramid of step-by-step proofs was my least favourite aspect of maths at school - I much preferred the puzzle-solving aspects of algebra, for example. David Acheson has failed to convince me that I was should really have loved it... however, this is by far the most approachable book on geometry I've ever read, and I wish it had been around in my day. It's a textbook the way a textbook should be. There is context, from ancient Egyptian rope stretchers to those who have given the parallel postulate a good working over (including an oddity from Lewis Carroll). One of the worst things about the way I was taught geometry is that there was no consideration of applications, just those wretched theorems. Here, plenty of the geometry is introduced through a potential application. There's also some good historical background, including a regular view on Euclid from different points in

Seven Pillars of Science - John Gribbin ****

I was highly sceptical of the very short hardback science book form when Carlo Rovelli started the trend with his woffly Seven Brief Lessons , however, I've been proved wrong - the last couple of years we have seen a string of books that pack bags of science in a digestible form into a small space. John Gribbin has already proved himself a master of this approach with his Six Impossible Things , and he's done it again with Seven Pillars . The title echoes that of T. E. Lawrence's feels-even-longer-than-it-is Seven Pillars of Wisdom , but Gribbin's book is that volume's antithesis - light, to the point and hugely informative. Strictly speaking, perhaps this book should have been titled Seven Pillars of Life , as its linking thread is seven scientific occurrences needed for life to exist. As Gribbin makes it clear, these were all ideas that when first put forward were considered unlikely contenders, but now have mostly become mainstream. The seven ideas span the natur

The Man Who Ate the World (SF) - Frederik Pohl ****

Fred Pohl was a truly imaginative science fiction writer. Perhaps his best books were his collaborations with Cyril Kornbluth, but solo he was capable of some remarkable work too. This collection of 6 long short stories from the late 1950s is amongst his most original writing. Like many writers of the period, what we get here needs a small health warning - this was the Mad Men  era, and women rarely get a totally fair treatment in these stories - were things different, the book would have received five stars. What Pohl did so well was turn aspects of modern society on its head. This is never more obvious than in the brilliant title story, The Man Who Ate the World , which describes a society recovering from a position where consumption has become a requirement - the poorer you are, the more you are expected to consume (not just food, but all kinds of consumer society goods). Although the ending is a little facile, the concept is breathtaking.  Another highlight is The Day the Icicle Wo

Einstein and Heisenberg - Konrad Kleinknecht ***

The debates between Einstein and Niels Bohr over quantum physics are well documented, as are the letters that Einstein exchanged with Max Born on the subject, from which many of Einstein's famous quotes are taken. However, less has been said about the opposing views of Einstein and Werner Heisenberg. To make matters more interesting, though both were German physicists, while Einstein would leave Germany forever as a result of the rise of the Nazis, Heisenberg would continue to thrive under the Nazi regime, working on the failed attempt to create a German nuclear weapon. With this interesting background in mind, I was looking forward to reading Konrad Kleinknecht's book, subtitled 'the controversy over quantum physics'. There is no doubt that Kleinknecht, a professor of experimental physics, knows the science, and there is some interesting material on the development of quantum physics, particularly around the distinction of approach between more philosophical types like

Cosmic Odyssey - Linda Schweizer *****

Based on its generic-sounding title, you might expect this to be a broad-ranging history of astrophysical concepts – and if you buy it on that basis you won’t be disappointed. From stellar evolution and the structure of galaxies to supermassive black holes, quasars and the expansion of the universe, Linda Schweizer shows – in admirably non-technical detail – how our understanding of the fundamental pillars of modern astronomy developed over several decades from a standing start. In spite of that, this isn’t a generic history at all. It has a very specific remit, encapsulated in the subtitle: ‘How Intrepid Astronomers at Palomar Observatory Changed our View of the Universe’. California’s Palomar Observatory is home to the ‘200-inch’ (5.1 metres – the diameter of the main mirror) Hale telescope, which was the premier instrument for optical astronomy from its inauguration in 1949 until the Hubble telescope became fully operational 45 years later. This was perhaps the most eventful and fas

Tim Harford - Four Way Interview

Photo by Frank Monks Tim is an economist, journalist and broadcaster. He is author of the million-selling The Undercover Economist. Tim is a senior columnist at the Financial Times, and the presenter of Radio 4’s More or Less the iTunes-topping series Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy, and the podcast Cautionary Tales. Tim has spoken at TED, PopTech and the Sydney Opera House. He is an associate member of Nuffield College, Oxford and an honorary fellow of the Royal Statistical Society. Tim was made an OBE for services to improving economic understanding in the New Year honours of 2019. His latest book is How to Make the World Add Up . Why statistics? Statistics tend to be viewed as a vector for misinformation - hence the popularity of Darrell Huff's book How To Lie With Statistics (said to be the most popular book about statistics ever written) and numerous modern classics such as Bad Science and Innumeracy. But statistics are also a vital tool for understanding the world

The Pattern Seekers - Simon Baron-Cohen ****

There are two main concepts in this book - one is that the thing that makes humans special is what Simon Baron-Cohen refers to as a systemizing mechanism in the brain, and the other is that two of the spectra all humans sit on is how much we are systemizers and how much we are empathisers. Although it's possible to be strong on both spectra, many who are particularly strong on one are not very strong on the other. And although they aren't the same thing, people diagnosed on the autism spectrum are more likely than the average person to be strong systemizers. We'll come back to the detail of the invention part of the subtitle, but in some ways, the aspect of the systemizing as what makes humans different is not particularly original. I've seen plenty of examples (including What Do You Think You Are? ) of books that suggest our uniqueness comes from the interplay between seeing the world through patterns and the ability to ask 'What if?' Baron-Cohen uses a rather

AI in the Wild - Peter Dauvergne ***

Sometimes a science book can highlight a totally new connection between two disciplines, and that was certainly the case here - linking environmental science and sustainability with artificial intelligence. Peter Dauvergne shows how (as is also in the case in many other fields) AI can both be a positive and a negative influence on the environment. On the plus side, we see how AI is being used for everything from sending semi-intelligent drones out to look after the Great Barrier Reef to detecting illegal activities in protected areas by monitoring sounds and identifying those identified with, say, illegal logging in a forest. Perhaps the biggest impact comes from the use of AI in smart resources to reduce climate impact of everything from domestic houses to data centres. This is all great stuff, but Dauvergne also shows the dangers that AI can present to the environment. This can come from misuse of the technology, but also from the resources needed to make the technology work. Often t

Set My Heart to Five - Simon Stephenson ****

This is a very clever novel, which owes a lot to the classic Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. In Flowers for Algernon , the main character is an adult with the mind of a young child, who takes part in experimental treatment that enables him to become a genius before the gradual decline of his faculties back to his original condition sets in. The central character enables us to see the realities of human life from an initially childlike but increasingly sophisticated viewpoint. Set My Heart to Five has a similar approach, where a bot (here meaning an android, rather than a robot) starts to discover feelings and move from a mechanical view of life to a human-like one, exposing as he does so many of the oddities of human existence. The extra twist to Simon Stephenson's well-crafted work is that it also incorporates a lot from the world and theory of film. It seemed a little forced initially that Stephenson deals with a number of significant events in Jared's (the central ch