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Showing posts from January, 2022

Rob Dunn - Four Way Interview

Photo by Amanda Ward Rob Dunn is an ecologist and evolutionary biologist, focusing on the biodiversity of humans. He is a professor in the Department of Applied Ecology at North Carolina State University and in the Center for Evolutionary Hologenomics at the University of Copenhagen. The author of several books, his latest is A Natural History of the Future . Why Science? I love science and I love art and I love them for the same reason. Both struggle to lay hold of deep truths about the world and the story of humans relative to those truths. I've been a scientist for a couple decades or more, depending on when you start counting, but the potential to work with other people to understand things no one has ever understood before remains as raw and thrilling as it has ever been. It is lightning. So too the feeling before the discovery that one might be on to something. 'What if,' the conversation in the laboratory begins. 'What if...' Why this book? If you watch the n

Reality+ - David Chalmers ***

Thanks to major IT companies putting a lot of time and effort into it (not to mention changing their company names), virtual reality is rarely out of the news at the moment. So it's timely that David Chalmers should attempt an exploration of the nature of virtual reality. What he sets out to persuade us is that 'virtual reality is genuine reality'. That virtual worlds don't have to be illusory, the objects within virtual worlds are real, life can be good and meaningful in a virtual world and that the simulation hypothesis - the idea that what we usually think of as reality could itself be virtual, while not provable could be true. I became a little wary early on as Chalmers is clearly a virtual reality enthusiast: he tells us he has 'numerous virtual reality systems' in his study. This is not normal. You might think from all the hype that everyone except you is an inhabitant of virtual worlds, but it's still a pretty small minority - around the 1 per cent ma

A Natural History of the Future - Rob Dunn *****

Many books with an ecological theme are depressingly doom-laden. The authors delight in pointing out that from a biologist's viewpoint humans are just one of a vast number of species - nothing exceptional - and that we mess with nature at our peril. To be honest, I find such books hard going. So I was surprised that, despite Rob Dunn's take on the future of nature under human influence being fairly pessimistic, I got a lot out of  A Natural History of the Future . After some initial bombardment with Rutherfordian stamp collecting, Dunn captures the imagination by telling us genuinely interesting stories both about individual studies and about the more general relationships between species populations and their environment. That sounds rather dry, but it really isn't. There are many examples, but to pick one out, I was fascinated by the idea that attempts to stop species crossing borders will result in greater evolution of new species in those regions where access is restric

Hubble, Humason and the Big Bang - Ron Voller ***

Edwin Hubble is a controversial figure in the history of astronomy, and it has become fashionable to downplay his contribution to our understanding of the universe, particularly of his understanding of the significance of the redshift of galaxies in suggesting an expanding universe. In this detailed analysis of Hubble's work alongside observer Milton Humason, Ron Voller does an excellent job of giving appropriate weight to the pair's findings, while not glossing over Hubble's aggressive defence of his position and love of publicity that did not endear him to his peers. The book is a very helpful source for someone attempting to dig into Hubble and Humason's work in some depth. Without every becoming too technical, it takes the reader through the detail of their discoveries and fits them into the timescale of the period. What it's less successful at, however, is what the author seems to be trying to make it, which is being an account that will be enjoyed by a general

Human-Centered AI - Ben Shneiderman ****

Reading some popular science books is like biting into a luscious peach. Others are more like being presented with an almond - you have to do a lot of work to get through a difficult shell to get to the bit you want. This is very much an almond of a book, but it's worth the effort. At the time of writing, two popular science topics have become so ubiquitous that it's hard to find anything new to say about them - neuroscience and artificial intelligence. Almost all the (many) AI books I've read have either been paeans to its wonders or dire warnings of how AI will take over the world or make opaque and biassed decisions that destroy lives. What is really refreshing about Ben Shneiderman's book is that it does neither of these - instead it provides an approach to benefit from AI without suffering the negative consequences. That's why it's an important piece of work. To do this, Shneiderman takes us right back to the philosophical contrast between rationalism and e

Emotional - Leonard Mlodinow ***

Leonard Mlodinow has a mixed pedigree as a science writer, responsible with Stephen Hawking for the infamously naive  The Grand Design in which the authors told us that we don't need philosophy any more, because science now has all the answers. However, he feels on more comfortable ground in Emotional , which assesses the importance of emotions to us, and how they have long been underrated, or even considered an obstacle to rational thought. This is a popular science book in the classic American narrative style, where each chapter begins with a story about real people to put the science into context (and there are often more stories through the chapter). This is obviously a great way to explore this very human science (and we learn that even fruit flies appear to have a kind of emotion), though sometimes there is too much storytelling and not enough of the science. The underlying theme throughout is how important emotions are to everything from decision making to survival. We disc