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Showing posts from April, 2021

A Citizen's Guide to Artificial Intelligence - John Zerilli et al ****

The cover of this book set off a couple of alarm bells. Not only does that 'Citizen's Guide' part of the title raise the spectre of a pompous book-length moan, the list of seven authors gives the feel of a thesis written by committee. It was a real pleasure, then, to discover that this is actually a very good book. I ought to say straight away what it isn't - despite that title, it isn't a book written in a style that's necessarily ideal for a general audience. Although the approach is often surprisingly warm and human, it is an academic piece of writing. As a result, in places it's a bit of a trudge to get through it. Despite this, though, the topic is important enough - and, to be fair, the way it is approached is good enough - that it deserves to be widely read. John Zerilli et al give an effective, very balanced exploration of artificial intelligence. Although not structured as such, it's a SWOT analysis, giving us the strengths, weaknesses, opportun

Mind Shift - John Parrington ***

It seems at the moment as if every other science book that's published is on the human brain - but Mind Shift is anything but a 'me too' title. John Parrington gives us a very personal take on what it is to be human from the viewpoint of the mind/brain. The key theme of the book, we are told is that social interaction, language and culture have been responsible for shaping the human brain and making us the exceptional animals we are (obviously there's an element of chicken and egg here). I say 'we are told' because Parrington tells us this is what he is doing a lot, but it's quite hard to extract the message from a very long book that doesn't really have a structure that reflects that thesis. Instead we get a lot of relatively short chapters on topics that range from mental illness and diversity to the genome and epigenetics.  Part of the problem with getting the message is that large sections of the book feel like reading a literature review as Parringt

Grace Lindsay - Four Way Interview

Grace Lindsay is a computational neuroscientist currently based at University College, London. She completed her PhD at the Centre for Theoretical Neuroscience at Columbia University, where her research focused on building mathematical models of how the brain controls its own sensory processing. Before that, she earned a bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience from the University of Pittsburgh and received a research fellowship to study at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Freiburg, Germany. She was awarded a Google PhD Fellowship in Computational Neuroscience in 2016 and has spoken at several international conferences. She is also the producer and co-host of Unsupervised Thinking , a podcast covering topics in neuroscience and artificial intelligence. Her first book is Models of the Mind . Why science? I started my undergraduate degree as a neuroscience and philosophy double major and I think what drew me to both topics was the idea that if we just think rigorously enou

Chance, Logic and Intuition - Steven Tijms ****

This is very much a book of two halves, the first a history of the development of probability theory and the second examples of where probability goes wrong and an attempt to explain why we're so bad intuitively at estimating chances. Steven Tijms has a rather old-fashioned writing style, which made me think this was a reprint of a book from the 1960s until I hit an entry on Covid-19. This means that the historical section is sometimes a little dry - but strangely, for me, this first half was by far the best part. The main reason for my preference was originality. Although the 'where probability goes wrong' section is arguably the reason books on probability are so much fun, whether it's dealing with the gambler's or prosecutor's fallacy - or the inevitably Monty Hall problem - Tijms was mostly treading very familiar ground here. However, there were parts of the the history section covering aspects that I've rarely seen before in a popular mathematics text.

Overloaded - Ginny Smith ***

In Overloaded , Ginny Smith gives a light, entertaining view of the way that the chemicals that act both as messengers and controls in the brain influence our behaviour, feelings, memory and more. Smith's writing style is conversational and fun. For non-biologists, many books on the brain spend far too much time mapping and describing various parts and structures of the brain, when what we're really interested in is what it does. Smith deals neatly with this by not telling us much at all about these structures, just naming them and getting on with it. I found this extremely refreshing - especially not to be told yet again that the hippocampus is so-named because it looks like a seahorse. It really doesn't. As a result of liking Smith's approach, I feel quite guilty that I found the book hard to read all the way through. This isn't down to Smith's writing - it's all the fault of biology. The workings of evolution rarely manage to produce simple systems, and w

Time and Stars (SF) - Poul Anderson ****

Poul Anderson was one of those second rank science fiction authors whose books were often around in the 60s and 70s, but when I sampled them, they rarely seemed to make the grade. However, the generally reliable and imposing Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction refers to Anderson as 'perhaps SF's most prolific writer of any particular quality', and I was pleasantly surprised to re-read his 1964 collection of five long stories, Time and Stars to find that there is some really good storytelling here. In the first story, No Truce with Kings, a war between future US factions, reduced to nineteeth century technology, uncovers a surprising driving force for one side and is arguable a clever counter to Asimov's psychohistory concept. We then get Turning Point, where an interstellar expedition has to decide what to do when faced with a civilisation that is not yet technologically advanced, but where the aliens are significantly more intelligent than humans. Escape from Orbit is i

Paul Sen - Four Way Interview

Paul Sen first encountered thermodynamics while studying engineering at the University of Cambridge. He became a documentary filmmaker who brought a love of storytelling to the worlds of science and technology. Paul’s award-winning TV company Furnace, where he is creative director, has made many BBC science series such as Everything and Nothing, Order and Disorder, The Secrets of Quantum Physics, and films such as Gravity and Me: The Force That Shapes Our Lives and Oak Tree: Nature’s Greatest Survivor. This won the prestigious Royal Television Society Award for best science and natural history program and the Grierson Award for best science documentary in 2016. His first book is Einstein's Fridge . Why science? I love the characters and the stories behind scientific discoveries. To find out what drives people to puzzle out how our universe works is to celebrate the best of us as a species. I am also fascinated by the relationship between science and society—why do certain scientifi

The God Equation - Michio Kaku ***

When physicist Leon Lederman wanted to  call his book on the elusive Higgs boson 'The Goddam Particle' his publisher objected and instead made it The God Particle . This usage has cropped up a couple of times since in popular science, notably The God Effect on quantum entanglement, and now Michio Kaku is applying it to the concept of a so-called Theory of Everything - a mechanism that pulls together the fundamental forces of nature including gravity. There is no certainty that such a theory is possible, but if it did exist, it would provide the foundation of physics. Even so, it seems unlikely that it would honour the claim in the book's publicity that it would 'fulfil that most ancient and basic of human desires - to understand the meaning of our lives'. Kaku has worked on string theory - the theory he believes will give us that theory of everything - since the 1960s and is strongly invested in it. He promises us a 'balanced, objective analysis of string theor

Models of the Mind - Grace Lindsay *****

This is a remarkable book. When Ernest Rutherford made his infamous remark about science being either physics or stamp collecting, it was, of course, an exaggeration. Yet it was based on a point - biology in particular was primarily about collecting information on what happened rather than explaining at a fundamental level why it happened. This book shows how biologists, in collaboration with physicists, mathematicians and computer scientists, have moved on the science of the brain to model some of its underlying mechanisms. Grace Lindsay is careful to emphasise the very real difference between physical and biological problems. Most systems studied by physics are a lot simpler than biological systems, making it easier to make effective mathematical and computational models. But despite this, huge progress has been made drawing on tools and techniques developed for physics and computing to get a better picture of the mechanisms of the brain. In the book we see this from two directions

How to Read Numbers - Tom Chivers and David Chivers *****

This is one of my favourite kinds of book - it takes on the way statistics are presented to us, points out flaws and pitfalls, and gives clear guidance on how to do it better. The Chivers brothers' book isn't particularly new in doing this - for example, Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot did something similar in the excellent 2007 title The Tiger that Isn't - but it's good to have an up-to-date take on the subject, and How to Read Numbers gives us both some excellent new examples and highlights errors that are more common now. The relatively slim title (and that's a good thing) takes the reader through a whole host of things that can go wrong. So, for example, they explore the dangers of anecdotal evidence, tell of study samples that are too small or badly selected, explore the easily misunderstood meaning of 'statistical significance', consider confounders, effect size, absolute versus relative risk, rankings, cherry picking and more. This is all done i

Einstein's Fridge - Paul Sen ****

In Einstein's Fridge (interesting factoid: this is at least the third popular science book to be named after Einstein's not particularly exciting refrigerator), Paul Sen has taken on a scary challenge. As Jim Al-Khalili made clear in his excellent The World According to Physics , our physical understanding of reality rests on three pillars: relativity, quantum theory and thermodynamics. But there is no doubt that the third of these, the topic of Sen's book, is a hard sell. While it's true that these are the three pillars of physics, from the point of view of making interesting popular science, the first two might be considered pillars of gold and platinum, while the third is a pillar of salt. Relativity and quantum theory are very much of the twentieth century. They are exciting and sometimes downright weird and wonderful. Thermodynamics, by contrast, has a very Victorian feel and, well, is uninspiring. Luckily, though, thermodynamics is important enough, lying behind