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Showing posts from October, 2020

Quantum Reality - Jim Baggott ****

At one time it was popular amongst some physicists to be extremely critical of philosophy. For example, in their book The Grand Design , Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow aimed to answer a series of what have long been seen as philosophical (such as 'Why are we here?', 'What is the nature of reality?' and 'Did the universe need a creator?') by ignoring philosophy and taking a purely scientific viewpoint. Philosophy, those authors assured us, like religion, was now dead. I'm afraid Hawking and Mlodinow failed to convince, which is why it's perfectly reasonable for Jim Baggott to come up with a book on a physics topic, what 'lies beneath' quantum theory, and, along the way, to spend a fair amount of the book introducing philosophical concepts put across by philosophers. Quantum physics is arguably unique amongst the hard sciences in having a range of interpretations that run from 'We don't know what is happening and never will' (typi

Stephen James O'Meara - Four Way Interview

Stephen James O’Meara is an award-winning astronomer and author/co-author of more than a dozen books, including the third edition of Oxford’s A Dictionary of Space Exploration (2018). He is a columnist and editor for Astronomy magazine, and former associate editor of GeminiFocus and Sky & Telescope magazines. Asteroid 3637 is named O’Meara in his honour. His latest book is Mars . Why science? Science is the key to understanding mysteries. I grew up during the golden age of science fiction and space exploration, when questions initially outweighed answers.  What comes especially to mind from that era was the first episode of the 1963 TV programme, The Outer Limits , called The Galaxy Being. In it, a peaceful being from the Andromeda Galaxy is accidentally brought to Earth via radio transmission. The military tries to destroy the Being but fails. In response, the Galaxy Being simply tells the earthlings to stop using force, reminding them that there are powers in the Universe beyond

The Fate of Schrodinger's Cat - James Stein ***

This is a difficult book to pin down. It covers a topic I find fascinating - probability and statistics, and specifically applications where these become counter-intuitive. Much of the book focuses on a particular kind of probabilistic outcome where introducing an extra, apparently irrelevant, factor makes seemingly impossible results occur (more on the specifics in a moment). There is no doubt that the result is mind-boggling, yet the way it is presented makes it difficult to get your head around. James Stein is a retired maths professor, and though he makes it clear he is a relative newcomer to statistics, he probably doesn't really understand just how opaque a mathematical discussion can be to the general reader. The book starts with an old favourite, the Monty Hall problem. The problem itself is well covered by Stein, but he misses an opportunity to give it more bite by bringing in the controversy when Marilyn vos Savant brought this up in Parade Magazine in 1990 and a whole st

How to Make the World Add Up - Tim Harford ****

Many UK listeners will be familiar with the BBC's excellent  More or Less radio show, hosted by the Financial Times' 'undercover economist' Tim Harford. The programme takes on numbers in the news to explain them and, where necessary, show what's wrong with them, in a light but informative fashion. The only slight problem with the programme is that it does tend towards silly presentation styles (though the last couple of years these have been toned down). On his own, Tim Harford is perhaps less fun and more serious in style, but remains approachable on a subject that most of us ought to understand better. One of the most enjoyable things in the field is to shoot down misuse of stats. It's certainly an important thing to do, but Harford points out that only doing this, while entertaining, is potentially dangerous as it may lead to a total detachment from the usefulness of statistics. Instead, he suggests, we need to get better about thinking about the numbers we

Machine (SF) - Elizabeth Bear ****

Elizabeth Bear is one of the best SF writers currently active, and Machine does not disappoint. As Bear makes clear in her acknowledgements, this novel, set in her 'White Space' universe, owes a debt to the Irish author James White's classic  Sector General stories, which were a breath of fresh air in the 1960s. Like White's stories, the main setting here is a multi-species space hospital, with the central characters dealing with exotic medical problems. However, what we get in Machine is a lot more than just an exo-hospital drama. In her White Space universe, Bear has what is surely one of the best successors to Iain M Banks' Culture universe setting, whether it's in the sophisticated culture, the AI-as-people or the quaintly-named ships. Throw in a relic wreck of a generation ship, located where it never should have reached, a host of corpsicles, a strange AI entity and unexpected systems failures and we get a satisfyingly rich and interesting plot. The id

Sticking Together - Steven Abbott ***

When I saw the subtitle of this book 'the science of adhesion' and the fact that it was published by the Royal Society of Chemistry I imagined turf wars breaking out with the Institute of Physics - as surely the science of adhesion is pure physics. However, it would be fair to say that in practice the majority of the book covers the science of adhesives , where chemistry can certainly lay a firm claim. There is no doubt that this book will answer everything you ever wanted to know about how things stick to other things - from geckos to PVA adhesive - it is both comprehensive and often fascinating. Steven Abbott has a friendly style and supports the material in the book with regular links to YouTube videos where you can see various experiments and tests being undertaken for real, which is really helpful. The reader also gets an insight into some of the more contentious aspects of the science of stickiness, where Abbott is entirely prepared to declare that some of his colleagues

Hard Time (SF) - Jodi Taylor ****

Jodi Taylor has had a lot of success with her Chronicles of St Mary's series, time travel adventures with a quirky sense of humour. Those books feature St Mary's, a sort of standalone university history department with no teaching that investigates through time travel, but whose staff are more like the inhabitants of Hogwarts than any real university.  I enjoyed Plan for the Worst in that series, but found the constant juvenile jokey behaviour of the staff irritating. Here, in the second of a spin-off series, Taylor switches focus to the Time Police, an organisation that are to some extent the enemy of St Mary's, even though both are technically good guys. Although there is still far too much banter between characters, the more serious setting lifts the book to a higher level, allowing Taylor's skill at putting her characters in danger to shine through with gripping adventure. The Time Police are responsible for preserving the timeline - in this adventure they rescue a

Entanglements (SF) - Ed. Sheila Williams ***

It's important to say up front that the star rating here is an average: there are some 5 star stories in this collection and there are some that would only get 1 star. It's very brave to put together a collection of science fiction stories with a message - in this case, the impact on relationships and families of emerging technologies. There is something very dampening about an enforced message that can so easily kill a story by making it feel like little more than propaganda. It's to the credit of many of the authors here that this doesn't usually happen. This is a collection of ten SF stories. A few really stand out. The opening story Invisible People , by Nancy Kress was excellent, exploring the tangled concepts of gene editing and designer babies with a fascinating twist on the subject of altruism. My only criticism would be that I think writers rather let their reader down when the story pointedly ends just before a major decision by a character, leaving the

Nicholas Mee - Four Way Interview

Nicholas Mee  studied theoretical physics and mathematics at the University of Cambridge.  He is Director of software company Virtual Image and the author of over 50 multimedia titles including The Code Book on CD-ROM with Simon Singh and Connections in Space with John Barrow, Martin Kemp and Richard Bright. He has played key roles in numerous science and art projects including the Symbolic Sculpture project with John Robinson, the European SCIENAR project, and the 2012 Henry Moore and Stringed Surfaces exhibition at the Royal Society. He is author of the award-winning popular science book  Higgs Force: Cosmic Symmetry Shattered . His latest title is Celestial Tapestry . Why mathematics? Mathematics has its own inner beauty. But it also represents far and away the most powerful set of intellectual tools that we have and it contributes enormously to our understanding of how the universe works and our place within it. Furthermore, it enables us to control and manipulate the world with gr

Mars - Stephen James O’Meara ****

This is the latest in the excellent ‘Kosmos’ series from Reaktion Books (who clearly have a thing about the letter k). They’re beautifully packaged, with glossy paper and hundreds of colourful images, but the text is so substantial and insightful they can’t simply be dismissed as ‘coffee-table books’. My earlier reviews of the Mercury and Saturn titles, written by William Sheehan, gave both books 4 stars. This new one by Stephen James O’Meara is up to the same standard. As with the previous books, this one goes into more detail than you might expect on the ‘prehistory’ of the subject, prior to the advent of space travel. The first three chapters – about a quarter of the book – deal in turn with mythological narratives, ground-based telescopic discoveries and romantic speculations about the Red Planet. Some of this is familiar stuff, but there are some obscure gems too. The Victorian astronomer Richard Proctor, for example, decided to name dozens of newly observed features on Mars aft