Skip to main content


Showing posts from May, 2022

Jules Howard - Four Way Interview

Pictured with his dog Ozzy, Jules Howard is a UK-based wildlife expert, zoology correspondent, science writer and broadcaster. He is the author of four non-fiction books including Sex on Earth and Death on Earth , the latter shortlisted for the Royal Society of Biology book prize. Jules writes for The Guardian, BBC Wildlife an BBC Focus and appears regularly on TV. His latest book is Wonderdog: How the science of dogs changed the science of life . Why science? Years ago, I would have answered this question by pointing to the applications of the sciences – how science gives us things, tools, ideas, exciting techniques and inventions. But, since I began writing about zoology more than a decade ago, I realise it’s about more than that. Many scientists I meet pursue science because they are inherently interested in the boundary between known and unknown. Many appreciate that they are merely baton holders for future generations, who will continue to chip away at that boundary and develop th

The Sanctuary (SF) - Andrew Hunter Murray *****

Part way through the first act of this explicitly three-act SF novel, I was finding things distinctly depressing. (But there's better news to come.) The first person protagonist, a portrait artist named Ben, lives in a low-key dystopian future for a country that is never explicitly identified, though is fairly obviously England. Cities are in decay, the economy seems to be pretty much non-existent and the only places that are pleasant to live in are Villages (with a capital V) - walled communities where old rich people are waited on hand on foot by the young poor. Andrew Hunter Murray has a very cool, detached, almost period writing style - combined with the dismal setting (it's never really explained how we get from where we are now to this miserable future) made the first act difficult to engage with - but the whole feel of the book changes with the second act when the action moves to a private island - the sanctuary of the book's title. This is an apparently utopian soci

Artificial Communication - Elena Esposito ****

Sometimes, you read a book where the content is so interesting and important that it's necessary to disregard the fact that it's not a great piece of writing - this is such a book. The fundamental point being made here is that the concept of 'artificial intelligence' is mislabelled. What a smart speaker or AlphaGo or an autonomous vehicle does has nothing to do with intelligence. Intelligence implies understanding - but the algorithms of AI have no understanding of the data they handle. Instead, sociology professor Elena Esposito suggests, what they are capable of is artificial communication. We see this most clearly with those smart speakers, or voice assistants on smartphones. I ask Siri a question and she responds - it is a form of conversation, and one that mimics intelligence, but it is based on something totally different from understanding. The same can be said when using a search engine. These are no longer mere indexes - we ask them questions and they reply wit

The World Set Free (SF) - H. G. Wells ***

H. G. Wells is recognised as one of originators of science fiction. His remarkable novels, written around the start of the twentieth century, set the bar extremely high. The Time Machine, The Island of Dr Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds and  The First Men in the Moon , for example, are all classics, while some of his science fiction short stories are arguably even better. However, his style underwent a major change after 1910. Rather than write scientific romances (as science fiction was styled at the time), he moved to writing portentous future histories - books that feel more like non-fiction than fiction. The World Set Free is the archetype of this style. Great chunks of it feel very similar to plodding, tedious Edwardian history books. Where there are sections with actual characters, those characters are truly two-dimensional and feel like they are actors in a fairly awful stage play, rather than real people. This presents the reviewer of The World Set Free  with

Transformer - Nick Lane *****

This is probably the best book on biology (and more specifically biochemistry) that I've ever read. Ever since Richard Dawkins wrote The Selfish Gene , we've been dazzled by the importance of the genetic code (or, as Lane points out in one of his many asides, what should really be called the genetic cipher) - but this focus has tended to give an exaggerated importance to the information stored there. Of course it's essential to life - but as this book explores, chemistry and energy are what life is really about. Nick Lane points out that there is no difference in the information in an organism just before and just after it dies - but there's quite a lot of difference in terms of its life. Biology and chemistry can both be extremely difficult to put across in popular science. Biology because it's so complicated with vast numbers of molecules and processes involved, and chemistry because, dare I say it, it can appear a bit dull. What Lane does wonderfully well is to

Tell Me an Ending (SF) - Jo Harkin ****

The idea of wiping an event from someone's memory is a long-standing science fiction trope. It has cropped up regularly in both written SF and movies from Men in Black to Total Recall . Usually, it is approached from the viewpoint of the person whose memory has been altered as they slowly uncover the surprising realities of their past - but Jo Harkin has managed to revitalise the concept with a totally different approach - and the result is impressive. More often that not, the memory wiping in fiction has been imposed and is a secret procedure. Here, and most like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which is referenced in this novel), it's all open and above board (or so it seems). But there are two particularly clever aspects to Harkin's take on the subject that raise it above an Eternal Sunshine clone. Firstly, a major focus is the company Nepenthe that undertakes the procedure - the uncomfortable juxtaposition of a modern corporate's attempted positioning as a

Wonderdog - Jules Howard *****

As Jules Howard acknowledges, there have been plenty of books about what makes a dog tick, whether they are training manuals, evolutionary examinations such as The Wolf Within or ethological studies of humans' closest animal partner such as If Dogs Could Talk . But most of Jules Howard's Wonderdog takes us into the roles that dogs have played in advancing science. Some of this material is fairly gruesome. We discover, for example, dogs' importance to medical research, particularly at a time when experimenting on animals had few ethical limits. What makes the book enjoyable is the way the Howard ties in his history with engaging stories - such as the brown dog statue, put up in Battersea in 1907 as a memorial to a dog horribly misused by vivisectionists, only for the statue to be destroyed by the council to bring an end to frequent attacks by infuriated medical students. (The statue has since been replaced.) Similarly, dogs have proved valuable in widening our understandin

Project Hail Mary - Andy Weir *****

‘Pretty much the perfect science fiction novel’ – that’s how I described Andy Weir’s first book, The Martian , when I reviewed it on this site a few years ago. But now that I’ve read this latest offering from him, I’ll have to revise my definition of perfection. Weir has simply excelled himself in every way. Project Hail Mary is even stronger on ‘real’ science than The Martian was, and its high-stakes plot is even more exciting and cleverly constructed. The book does, however, pose something of a problem for the reviewer. The way the story unfolds makes it extremely difficult to write a meaningful review that’s totally spoiler-free. Strictly speaking, I can’t even tell you its setting or the protagonist’s name, or the rationale behind the ‘project’ of the novel’s title, because they only emerge as the story progresses. But even the publisher gives these things away in their publicity material, so I will too. Rest assured there are plenty of twists and surprises that I won’t even hint

Four Way Interview - Jim Al-Khalili

Photo by Nick Smith Jim Al-Khalili hosts The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4 and has presented numerous BBC television documentaries. He is Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey, a New York Times bestselling author, and a fellow of the Royal Society. He is the author of numerous books, including Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed; The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance; Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology; and The World According to Physics. His latest book is The Joy of Science . Why joy?  While I focus more in the book on the process of science itself to gain knowledge about the world, I also wanted to get across the fact that science is so much more than hard facts and lessons in critical thinking.  Science helps us see the world more deeply, enriches us, enlightens us.  The closer we look, the more we can see and the more we can wonder. I feel

The Clockwork Man (SF) - E. V. Odle ***

This 1923 novel by Edwin Vincent Odle is a title that many with an interest in the history of science fiction will have heard of, but few are  likely to have read. It's often described as the first cyborg story (I did so myself in my book on science fiction and science  Ten Billion Tomorrows ). But it was overshadowed by the publication in the same year of Karel ńĆapek's play Rossum's Universal Robots - the origin of the English language word 'robot'. Odle's only novel is not a great book, so that overshadowing is unsurprising, and even the cyborg description is more than a little misleading. This is a romance (literally - it features two courting couples), but not so much a scientific romance (as early SF was often described), more a mythic romance. The titular clockwork man turns up from 8,000 years in the future at a village cricket match, producing some sub-Jerome K. Jerome style humour as a result of his wacky behaviour. He is a cyborg in the sense that he