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Showing posts from 2021

Cytonic (SF) - Brandon Sanderson ****

The third in Brandon Sanderson's Skyward series is perhaps not quite as impressive as the second,  Starsight , but still packs in enough to make it a good read. Interestingly, where Starsight triumphed in terms of action sequences, the best bits of Cytonic for me were more talky and philosophical - but filled in huge gaps in exactly what is going on in the series, particular in terms of the nature and motivation of the mysterious delvers. Not as action packed, then, but more fulfilling in its revelations.  Broadly we get three acts here - the first is a kind of mission quest across a Roger Dean-like (and surely Roger Dean-inspired) floating islands, the second involving some of the starfighter flying action that Sanderson does so well, and the third the talky bit, which had a touch of van Vogt about it, for SF oldies who might appreciate the reference. (Speaking of Roger Dean's art, the Barbie-like proportions of the central character seem to get more extreme with every cove

The Car That Knew Too Much - Jean-François Bonnefon ****

This slim book is unusual in taking us through the story of a single scientific study - and it's very informative in the way that it does it. The book makes slightly strange reading, as I was one of the participants in the study - but that's not surprising. According to Jean-François Bonnefon, by the time the book was published, around 100 million people worldwide had taken part in the Moral Machine experiment. The idea behind the study was to see how the public felt self-driving cars should make what are effectively moral decisions. Specifically, in a dilemma where there was a choice to be made between, say, killing one or other person or groups of people, how should the car decide? As a concept, Bonnefon makes it clear this is a descendent of the classic 'trolley' problem where participants are asked to decide, for example, whether or not to switch the points so a tram that is currently going to kill five people will be switched to a track where it will kill one perso

Laurie Winkless - Four Way Interview

Laurie Winkless ( @laurie_winkless ) is an Irish physicist and author. After a physics degree and a masters in space science, she joined the UK’s National Physical Laboratory as a research scientist, specialising in functional materials. Now based in New Zealand, Laurie has been communicating science to the public for 15 years. Since leaving the lab, she has worked with scientific institutes, engineering companies, universities, and astronauts, amongst others. Her writing has featured in outlets including Forbes, Wired, and Esquire, and she appeared in The Times magazine as a leading light in STEM. Laurie’s first book was Science and the City , and her new title is Sticky , also published by Bloomsbury. Why science? I was a very curious kid: always asking questions about how things worked. I suspect I drove my parents mad, but they never showed it. Instead, they encouraged me to explore those questions. From taking me to the library every week, to teaching me how to use different tools

Flatterland - Ian Stewart ***

Ian Stewart's Flatterland has been around since 2001, but I've only just come across it. It is, of course a sequel to the famous novella Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott dating back to 1884. The original Flatland is perhaps the archetype of a book that is based on a brilliant idea, but be distinctly dreary to read. So the key question here is whether Stewart escaped this limitation in his sequel. We start here with the (literally, not metaphorically) two-dimensional characters familiar to anyone who has read Flatland . The original both explored the nature of existing in two dimensions (and how the inhabitants would see a three-dimensional object), and provided Victorian social commentary, with female Flatlanders both physically different to males (lines, rather than polygons) and limited in what they can do by society. Stewart only mentions the social side in passing, but instead focuses on mathematical experiences. Guided by a space hopper (the 60s bouncy toy), the central c

Sticky - Laurie Winkless *****

There has been a suggestion doing the rounds that if you don't get into a book after the first few pages, you should give it up - because life's too short. If I'd followed this suggestion, I wouldn't have discovered what a brilliant book Sticky is. I'll get back to that, but it's worth saying first why Laurie Winkless's book on what makes things sticky, produces friction and grip - or for that matter lubricates - is so good. Without doubt, Winkless is great at bringing storytelling to her writing. She frames her information well with interviews, visits to places and her personal experiences. But of itself, that isn't enough. The reason, for example, I was captivated by her section on the remarkable (though oddly, given the book's title, entirely non-sticky) adhesive qualities of the gecko's foot was really about the way that Winkless takes us through the different viewpoints on how the foot's adhesion works. We get plenty of science and also

Of Sound Mind - Nina Kraus ***

Like most genres, popular science goes through phases - for the last couple of years, neuroscience has been the in thing, to the extent that I tend to think 'not another brain book' when I see one - but for someone who has always sung, the idea of finding out more about the relationship between the brain and sound, especially music, was attractive.  Nina Kraus is certainly enthusiastic about her topic and generally the book is well-pitched (appropriate given the musical connotations) and readable. However, Kraus does occasionally fall for a classic academic's failing of making use of unnecessary jargon. For example, she defines two terms 'afferent' and 'efferent', apparently adjectives for direction of travel. Kraus even points out how easily confused they are - so why use them? This isn't a textbook - there's no need to load the reader with all the jargon. Some sections worked particularly well for me. The chapters on language and sound were very in

Dinosaurs - Michael Benton ***

Books on dinosaurs are sure sellers for the children's market, but it's a tougher prospect for adults. The danger is that a dino book becomes something between a trainspotting exercise and top trumps, listing different dinosaurs' capabilities and characteristics without really telling us anything of interest. It's an exercise in the philatelic end of Rutherford's infamous takedown of science as being either physics or stamp collecting. Having said that, it's not impossible to make an adult book on dinosaurs that is engaging. For example, Donald Prothero's  The Story of the Dinosaurs in 25 Discoveries overcame the problem by driving the book from the stories of the discoverers of the relevant fossils, while Benton's previous book Dinosaurs Rediscovered , while not quite at the same level, managed to do better than the average by focussing on new discoveries like skin pigmentation and feathers while dipping into some topics in detail and taking a charming

Into the Anthropocosmos - Ariel Ekblaw ***

This is a really strange one. The book is subtitled 'a whole space catalog from the MIT Space Exploration Initiative'. I'm assuming that 'whole space catalog' is a nostalgic reference for those of us old enough to remember the Whole Earth Catalog, that 60s/70s oddity that was somehow a crossover between an Argos catalogue and the DIY-eco-world (and whose idea of 'whole Earth' was about as whole Earth as the World Series).  The original was a fun browse, even though it would be hard to imagine anyone ever actually using it to buy anything. This new venture claims to be a 'lavishly illustrated catalog of space technology of the future'. I guess the idea is that if you are a billionaire kitting out your latest space mission, or planning your space habitat, this is where you browse to pick up your ideas. Except when you look through the book it really isn't a catalog (sorry, catalogue). There are no sales links... and no prices. What we get instead i

Funny You Should Ask Again - QI ****

The BBC TV show QI has some very irritating characteristics. First, there's the twee reference to their researchers as 'elves'. Then there's the smugness. No quiz show has ever been so smug in the way it delights in the wrong answers of contestants. And it has featured some scientific bloomers, such as naming Galileo as the inventor of the telescope. But this book is based on the QI researchers (still nauseatingly called elves) appearance on Zoe Ball's breakfast show on BBC Radio 2, answering listeners' questions - making it far less cynical and a compendium of good, fun, surprising facts. What we get here is a collection of one and two page articles answering questions from how an ant measures distance to why we don't say 'sheeps' (unless we are Jeremy Clarkson). Some of the topics are fairly well-known already - like there not being a licence to kill in MI6, why a computer mouse is called a mouse, or whether or clone would have the same fingerprint

Never Mind the B#ll*cks, Here's the Science - Luke O'Neill ***

This is a real 'neither fish nor fowl' book. On the one hand it is trying to look edgy with that presumably Sex Pistols inspired title and chapter headings like 'What makes you think you are in control of your life?' and 'Why aren't you in jail?' - but on the other hand the text is clearly written by an academic, being somewhat over-heavy on giving us facts with limited narrative and a stodgy writing style to accompany it. The confusion begins with the very first lines of the book. We are told at the start of the introduction 'The title captures exactly what this book is about' - but actually the title tells the reader nothing about what this book is about. The subtitle helps more. It's 'A scientist's guide to the biggest challenges facing our species today' - and to make sure we know this is a real scientist writing it, the author's name is given as 'Professor Luke O'Neill.' A more accurate subtitle might have said &

Henry Gee - Four Way Interview

Henry Gee was born in London in 1962. He was educated at the universities of Leeds and Cambridge and has been an editor at the science journal Nature since 1987. As well as his latest title A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth , his books include The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution ; The Science of Middle-earth ; Jacob’s Ladder: The History of the Human Genome, and Deep Time: Cladistics, the Revolution in Evolution . He has also written science fiction ( The Sigil  trilogy) and mystery ( By The Sea ). Sharp-eyed viewers will recognise him as the bloke sat next to the Rev Richard Coles on the 2019 Christmas series of University Challenge where, with other alumni of the University of Leeds, he won the series championship. He lives in Cromer, Norfolk, England, with his family and numerous pets. Why science? Most children go through a phase during which they know the names of at least ten dinosaurs before they are potty trained. I never really grew out of it (t

Eight Improbable Possibilities - John Gribbin ****

There are broadly two types of short, stylish-looking little hardback science books. Some are all froth and very little content, where others manage to pack in a remarkable amount of information in a readable fashion. The latest from veteran British science writer John Gribbin is very much in the second category. In this book he presents us with aspects of science (mostly around astronomy and physics) which seem improbable yet appear in our current best theories. These are: 'the mystery of the Moon', 'the universe has a beginning and we know what it was', 'the expansion of the universe is speeding up', 'we can detect ripples in space made by colliding black holes', 'Newton, the bishop, the bucket and the universe', 'simple laws make complicated things, or little things mean a lot', 'all complex life on Earth today is descended from a single cell' and 'ice age rhythms and human evolution'. These are all interesting topics,