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Showing posts from November, 2020

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

Dragons' Teeth and Thunderstones - Ken McNamara ***

This is a unique book. There are plenty of titles out there on fossils, and this book has fossils at its heart - but it's not really about them. It is, rather, an exploration of humanity's attempts to understand what fossils are and what (if anything) they might do for us. As the subtitle suggests, it's not about fossils, not about the search for fossils, but about the search for the meaning of fossils. Ken McNamara's style is striking - stylish yet also often blunt and not at all academic in his wording, even though he is addressing this topic from an academic viewpoint. This comes across particularly strongly when he is describing a Stone Age person turning a piece of flint with a beautiful fossil embedded in it into a hand axe. As the flint was delicately chipped away, the stone worker took one chip too many, slightly damaging the fossil. McNamara comments 'Should they have had the power of speech at this stage in human evolution, would it be unreasonable to sug

Jodi Taylor - Four Way Interview

Jodi Taylor is the internationally bestselling author of the Chronicles of St Mary's series, the story of a bunch of disaster prone individuals who investigate major historical events in contemporary time. She is also the author of the Time Police series - a St Mary's spinoff and gateway into the world of an all-powerful, international organisation who are NOTHING like St Mary's. Except, when they are. Alongside these, Jodi is known for her gripping supernatural thrillers featuring Elizabeth Cage together with the enchanting Frogmorton Farm series - a fairy story for adults. Born in Bristol and now living in Gloucester (facts both cities vigorously deny), she spent many years with her head somewhere else, much to the dismay of family, teachers and employers, before finally deciding to put all that daydreaming to good use and write a novel. Nearly twenty books later, she still has no idea what she wants to do when she grows up. Her latest book is Hard Time . Why time travel?

There are Places in the World where Rules are Les Important than Kindness - Carlo Rovelli ****

This is, without doubt, Carlo Rovelli's best book. I have not been impressed by his previous popular science titles - too much purple prose and not enough depth. But in this collection of wide ranging short articles, he has found his metier, able to flit from interest to interest, often captivating with his enthusiasm for everything from Nabokov to Newton’s alchemy. And, unlike its predecessors, this book is a decent length. Rovelli is clearly far more interested in philosophy than many physicists, rightly criticising those who make blanket denials of its value. A good number of the pieces touch on philosophy and its application to science, on subjects from quantum mechanics to consciousness. However, having as he does a scientific viewpoint, those who are put off by philosophy should still find the pieces interesting, if challenging to their prejudices. Some of the articles are solid science - for example a trio of articles on black holes. Others take us into perhaps surprising as

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Universe - Andrew Newsam ****

Nowadays, TV science presenters tend to be young, attractive and matey, but there was a time when they were more like erudite but twinkly old uncles, imparting their wisdom to the next generation. Andrew Newsam's writing style is very much in this wise old uncle vein.  I don't see this as a bad thing - quite the reverse. In my youth, the doyen of such eccentric TV uncles was Patrick Moore, who got me interested in astronomy to the extent of being out on dark nights with a 6 inch reflector. Moore wrote clear, readable books - and Newsam gives us a straightforward, accessible tour of the astronomical universe in solid Moore style. The title is a bit of an exaggeration - it's not so much everything you might want to know about the universe, but rather about astronomy. However, within that field Newsam gives us well-constructed tours of the view from Earth, the Sun as a star, the solar system, stars in general, galaxies and the Big Bang. Although there is a touch of astrophysic