Skip to main content


Showing posts from October, 2021

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,

The Space Business - Andrew May ****

When I was young, space travel was very exciting because science fiction was becoming reality. First there were people in space and then the landings on the Moon. However, there was one big difference between what I read in SF and what was happening on the news. Fictional space travel was largely a matter of private enterprise, whether it was down to the work of an individual mad scientist or a large corporation. But the reality left leaving Earth in the hands of two superpower nations. Of course, there were exceptions in the fiction, but even in something like Star Trek, where the central focus was a ship owned by supranational authorities, there were still plenty of privately owned ships in space. Now, though, reality is catching up with the fiction. Companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin are bringing a whole new entrepreneurial flair to the design and build of rockets, outpacing the slow and steady approach of NASA. In The Space Business , Andrew May takes us on a tour of this new

Water - Jack Challoner ***

The MIT Press is unusual amongst academic publishers in putting out a fair number of 'packaged' books. These are often highly illustrated titles that are relatively light on content but provide an attractive introduction to a subject. Although Jack Challoner's Water looks like such a book - and it has some very pretty full colour illustrations (though I don't get the point of the final one at the back of the book) - but in reality its content is very different from what's suggested by the highly illustrated format. In some ways that's good, in others it definitely isn't. Let's do the good bit first. Despite the look, Challoner often goes into a lot more depth than you would expect in such a book. I'm not talking about delving into the mathematics behind what's going on, but when covering, say, phase changes or transient structures in water we get far more detail than might be expected. In several places there were 'Wow, I never knew that!

The Truth and Other Stories (SF) - Stanislaw Lem ***

To the SF enthusiast, Polish writer Stanislaw Lem is often regarded in a similar way a reader of mundane fiction might consider Joyce or Proust. A writer that you may well never have read, but you know that they are amongst the greats because the literati tell you so. I was pretty much in that category - I'd attempted to watch the 1972 Tarkovsky film of what's often regarded as Lem's masterpiece, Solaris, but I'd never ventured into what felt like writing that was bound to be obscure and impenetrable. As a result, when I noticed that, to mark Lem's 100th anniversary, MIT Press had put out a collection of Lem short stories, I leapt at the chance to explore his writing in a relatively painless way. The collection spans much of Lem's writing career, beginning with a piece from the late 50s and coming up to 1993. Unfortunately, of the 12 stories in the book only two worked well as a piece of fiction, and one of those had problems with the science. The early stories

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

Rule of the Robots - Martin Ford ****

Douglas Adams described how the (fictional) Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy started off in an overexcited manner, telling the reader how mindbogglingly big space is - but after a while it settled down a bit and started telling you things you actually needed to know. Rule of the Robots is a bit like this. It begins with far too much over-excitement about what artificial intelligence can do, but then it settles down to a reasonable picture of what is achievable, what's good and bad about it, what it's likely to do and how it might need controlling. The point where I started to be happier with Martin Ford was when he described the progress (and problems) with self-driving cars. For too long, AI enthusiasts have over-sold how easy it would be to have self-driving vehicles replacing all the error-prone human drivers on the road. It's certainly likely that over the next couple of decades we will see them in restricted applications on carefully managed bits of road - but the