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Showing posts from September, 2021

Regeneration - Paul Hawken **

This is a really big book. I don't mean big in the sense of important, but physically enormous for what it is - it's roughly the size of a children's annual, though a lot thicker. Interestingly, the format appears to be a Paul Hawken speciality - he did it with his previous title, Drawdown ,  though that was far less glossy. Paul Hawken's aim is to put forward a solution to climate change driven from humans rather than from the science. The tag line on the back of the book reads 'The climate crisis is not at science problem. It is a human problem.' And that itself is a problem. It's not that climate change isn't a human problem, but rather that it's both a human problem and a science problem - requiring human and science-based solutions. But the approach taken in this book is anything but scientific. It's a bit like saying the Covid-19 pandemic is a human problem, not a science problem. The pandemic is indeed a human problem, but if we'd tr

Your Wit is My Command - Tony Veale ***

This book had so much potential as a popular science title, but the way it is written limits its audience. Instead of being the fascinating narrative it could have been, it comes across as a textbook lite with a few popular science moments - so it is unlikely to really appeal to either audience. It was certainly hard going for a topic that should have been such fun. What Tony Veale tries to do is understand and analyse the nature of jokes (the subtitle says sense of humour (well, humor), but the focus is primarily on jokes, which isn't quite the same thing) by looking at how computer software can be made to produce humorous text. There are some insights here, but the trouble is that it is necessary to wade through far too much description of what was necessary technically, which will only be of interest to computer scientists, and even when Veale is discussing what makes something funny, he relies on very stuffy-sounding theory which doesn't really chime with the general reader

On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty. The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science. Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a n

Exponential: Azeem Azhar ****

This book produces distinct mixed feelings. It's both bad and good at the same time.  Let's get the good in there first. Although not a particularly original observation, Azeem Azhar's portrayal of the exponential rise of technology in the modern world is important, both to emphasise why it is genuinely different from previous technological breakthroughs and also because Azhar does not simply give us either a 'tech is wonderful' or 'we are all doomed' portrayal of the impact of the internet, 3D printing and more on our businesses and lives. While he does sometimes over-promise on what the technology is likely to deliver any time soon, Azhar notes, for example, that self-driving cars are a lot harder to implement on winding European roads that straight wide Californian ones. But more importantly, he is able to give us some balance. We see both the benefits, for example, to consumers and companies of the gig economy, but the potential downsides for workers. An

The Red Planet - Simon Morden ***

I was so excited when I started reading this book - it felt like a really new approach to popular science. Simon Morden is a planetary geologist/geophysicist turned science fiction writer (see, for example, Gallowglass ) and the book opens with a few short sections that seem to have brought the storytelling skills and narrative drive of science fiction to telling the story of Mars. In my notes, the first thing I wrote was 'Fascinating style'.  What I was hoping for was not that Morden would continue with the same approach through the many short sections of the book - just the right length to feel you need to read another (and another), but rather to vary the approach, but always with that clear understanding that you need an engrossing story. Unfortunately, for about three quarters of the book we fall back to default geology (or, more accurately, aresology) popular science writing with far too much descriptions of rock formation and far too little that would grip anyone who isn

Being You - Anil Seth ***

The trouble with experts is they often don't know how to explain their subject well to ordinary readers. Reading Anil Seth's book took me back to my undergraduate physics lectures, where some of the lecturers were pretty much incomprehensible. For all Seth's reader-friendly personal observations and stories, time after time I got bogged down in his inability to clearly explain what he was writing about. It doesn't help that the subject of consciousness is itself inherently difficult to get your head around - but I've read plenty of other books on consciousness without feeling this instant return to undergraduate confusion. There are two underlying problems I had with the book. One was when complex (and, frankly, rather waffly) theories like IIT (Integration Information Theory) were being discussed. As the kind of theory that it's not currently possible to provide evidence to support, this is something that in other fields might be suggested not to be science at

Life is Simple - Johnjoe McFadden ***

This is a really hard book to review, because it has two quite distinct parts and the chances are that if you are interested in one of these parts, you may well find the other part less engaging. The first section concerns the development of Occam's razor - the idea of keeping your explanation of something as simple as possible while it still works - and the impact this would have on philosophy (and proto-science) in the Middle Ages. The second part treads very familiar ground in taking us through some of the major developments in science from Galileo onwards, occasionally tying back to Occam's razor to show that the impact of the idea continued. As it happens, I love the first bit as I find the medieval development of science and its intertwining with religion and philosophy fascinating. Jonjoe McFadden brought in a lot of material I wasn't familiar with. Of course I was aware of Occam's razor itself, but I knew nothing about William of Occam as a person, or the way hi

What's Eating the Universe - Paul Davies ***

This collection of short pieces on aspects of astronomy and particularly cosmology is not bad, but didn't quite work for me. It didn't help to read the over-inflated sense of the importance of what's in here, referring to the new stuff being 'more disruptive' than anything since we moved from an Earth-centred model of the universe is, frankly, hype. The 30 bite-size chapterettes range from 'Why is it dark at night?' and 'Where is the Centre of the Universe?' to 'Can the Universe come from Nothing?' and 'Why am I living now?' These mini-essays make the book easy to read, but the haste that is employed to get through what can be quite a meaty topic in a handful of pages means a lot of the joy of storytelling is missing. Many interesting stories in the history of astronomy and cosmology are flagged up without revealing any of the fascinating detail. So, for example, Penzias and Wilson, the discoverers of cosmic microwave background radia

Wonderworks - Angus Fletcher *****

If you are interested in both writing and science this is an unmissable book. Reading can not just impart information, but can influence the way that we feel. Angus Fletcher describes 25 literary techniques (many also applicable to film and TV), ranging from those known to the Ancient Greeks to modern innovations, that can have a particular influence on our feelings and state of mind. Interestingly Fletcher describes this as technology - devices to make something happen. But rather than being a purely philosophical exploration, what lifts the book significantly is that for each of these techniques, Fletcher describes how studies of the impact on the brain show the physical effects occurring in different parts of the brain as a result. The chapters (one for each technique) end with a faintly self-help feeling bit - for instance, how you can use the 'clear your head' technique by reading certain texts, but that really isn't the point. This isn't a self-help book, it's