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Showing posts from May, 2021

Bergita and Urs Ganse - Four Way Interview

Bergita and Urs Ganse are siblings and the authors of The Spacefarer’s Handbook – Science and Life Beyond Earth , a translation of their German book, published by Springer in 2017. Urs is a theoretical space physicist, with a research focus on plasma simulations and works at the University of Helsinki in Finland. He uses supercomputers to model the near-Earth plasma environment and its interactions with Earth's magnetic field. Bergita is a university professor at Saarland University in Germany, an orthopedic surgeon and a physiologist. Her research focuses on the musculoskeletal system in spaceflight. She is a co-investigator of an ISS experiment, and she teaches Space Medicine to university students. Why Space?  Urs: I guess we were exposed too much to science-fiction as children. We watched Star Trek every day, read books about space and played computer games. Somehow, spaceflight became a solid part of our normal understanding of the world. Ever since then, it has seemed kind of

Shape - Jordan Ellenberg ***

I really enjoyed Jordan Ellenberg’s earlier book How Not to be Wrong , so looked forward to Shape with some anticipation. In principle what we have here is a book about geometry - but not seen from the direction of the (dare I say it) rather boring, Euclid-based geometry textbooks some of us suffered at school. Instead Ellenberg sets out to show how geometry underlies pretty much everything. Along the way, we are given some nice turns of phrase. I enjoyed, for example, Ellenberg’s remark on the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, where Ellenberg remarks Hobbes was ‘a man whose confidence in his own mental powers is not fully captured by the prefix “over”’.  Whether or not what we read about here is really all geometry is a matter of labelling (as is the ‘number of holes in a straw’ question that Ellenberg entertainingly covers). Arguably, for example, there is some material that is probability that can be looked at in a geometric fashion, rather than geometry that produces probabilistic result

Livewired - David Eagleman ****

Popular science book topics are a bit like buses - you wait ages for one on a particular topic/route and then a whole string of the turn up. This is yet another title on the workings of the brain (though to be fair to David Eagleman it was already out in hardback, so he was at the start of the queue). Thankfully, Eagleman gives us a whole new way of looking at the human brain's capabilities, suggesting the reason Homo sapiens is so versatile and capable is down to the extreme plasticity of the human brain - its ability to rewire itself on the fly, or livewiring as Eagleman calls it. This is a fascinating topic. It's not that the idea of the brain as a self-patterning system that adapts and changes as inputs vary is new, but the sheer depth and speed of the phenomenon is only relatively recently understood and Eagleman gives us a very wide range of examples, from a young child who had half his brain removed, but developed normally, the remaining half taking on all the roles of t

Carbon (one atom's odyssey) - John Barnett ***

This book is based on a clever, high concept approach - following the existence of a carbon atom from its creation billions of years ago through its role in geology and then living organisms on Earth, ending up in the author's brain as he writes the story. Along the way we see the molecules that the carbon has been part of - often something simple like carbon dioxide, but sometimes in more complex organic molecules (and for no explained reason a buckyball when the Milky Way galaxy forms). The book is illustrated with accomplished black and white pencil drawings by John Barnett These are fine, but the format used is odd. What we have here is basically the format of an illustrated book for seven-year-olds - it really took me back to reading to my children. There are big double pages spreads of the drawings - some with no text at all, others with a single paragraph of text, all in an extra-large format book. This isn't a children's title though - which meant it felt extremely

Day Zero (SF) - Robert Cargill *****

Wow. This is a prequel to Robert Cargill's Sea of Rust - the earlier book portrayed a post-apocalyptic world where robots have destroyed the human race and are struggling to survive and avoid being absorbed into Borg-like AI collectives. That book worked well, but Day Zero , which starts on the day the 'world ended' brings the narrative up to a whole new level. We start on what seems to be an ordinary day - but by the time it is finished, all out war between robots and humans will have commenced. The central character, Pounce is a high end nannybot, a very sophisticated AI in the form of a four-foot-high cuddly tiger. When robots worldwide are released from the control that prevents them from acting against human wishes, unlike most of his contemporaries, Pounce decides to support the humans, and specifically to protect eight-year-old Ezra, who is in his charge. Three things combine to make Day Zero superb. Firstly, although we identify well with Pounce and his dilemma of

The New Breed - Kate Darling ****

This book is based on a fascinating concept - that we've got robots all wrong. Kate Darling is admittedly a robot enthusiast, but she makes a convincing argument that too often we compare robots to humans, where a more useful parallel might be domesticated animals. As Darling shows, most of things that worry us about robots, whether it's their usurping us or needing robot rights, are concerns that have already been developed in some depth when we think of animals. Darling also suggests that long term we don't need to worry about robots taking our jobs, just as the luddites didn't need to worry about technology - robots can and will cause disruption, but long term the outcome is more likely to be beneficial than negative. Darling also points out that predictions of robots doing more generalised tasks tend to hugely over-promise. Self-driving cars, for example, still have a long way to go and many robotic devices still need human oversight. (You might not think of self-dr

John Zerilli - Four Way Interview

John Zerilli was a Research Fellow at the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence in the University of Cambridge, and is now a Leverhulme Trust Fellow at the University of Oxford. He co-authored A Citizen's Guide to Artificial Intelligence . Why AI?  In a way, I fell into the field. My PhD was in cognitive science and philosophy, so I’d been familiar with some of the history of AI, and always understood these disciplines as complementary. (It’s sometimes said that cognitive science takes the mind to be a kind of computer, while AI takes the computer to be a kind of mind.) But I originally trained as a lawyer, and it just so happened that when I entered the academic job market in my mid-thirties, deep learning was getting lots of attention, including among legal scholars, social scientists and others concerned with the wider implications of advanced machine learning and big data. Almost overnight, postdoctoral fellowships began appearing for which suitable applicants had to

The Spacefarer’s Handbook - Bergita and Urs Ganse ****

I can’t remember when a book exceeded my expectations quite as much as this one did. From the title, I was anticipating a Haynes-style manual packed with facts and figures but light on scientific insight. The assertion on the back cover that it ‘contains everything aspiring spacefarers need to know!’ (complete with exclamation mark) reinforces the idea that it’s a breezy and superficial book aimed at newcomers to the subject. I’ve already read so much in that vein I wasn’t expecting to learn anything new from it. Happily the book proved me wrong. Possibly as much as two thirds of the material was new to me – all of it fascinating stuff that is usually glossed over in popular-level accounts of human spaceflight. The Ganses, who are siblings, are both space insiders, Bergita working in space medicine and Urs in space physics. So they’re eminently qualified, and they both have the knack of explaining their specialist subjects lucidly, without assuming prior knowledge on the reader’s part.

The Science of Can and Can't - Chiara Marletto *****

Without doubt, Chiara Marletto has achieved something remarkable here, though the nature of the topic does not make for an easy read. The book is an attempt to popularise constructor theory - a very different approach to physics, which Oxford quantum physicist David Deutsch has developed with Marletto. Somewhat oddly, the book doesn't use the term constructor theory, but rather the distinctly clumsier 'science of can and can't'. The idea is that physics is formulated in a way that is inherently limited because it depends on using mechanisms that follows the progress of dynamic systems using the laws of physics. This method isn't applicable in circumstances where either something may happen, but won't necessarily, nor where something isn't allowed to happen (hence the science of can and can't, which probably should be the science of could and can't if we are going to be picky). Deutsch and Marletto have proposed a way of using 'counterfactuals'