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Showing posts from June, 2022

On the Scent - Paola Totaro and Robert Wainwright ***

When I started to read this book I wasn't aware of the significance of the second part of the tag line. I assumed it was a book about the science of the much-underrated sense of smell - and part of it is - but the main theme is that 'how its loss can change your world' part. Paola Totaro lost her sense of smell early in the Covid pandemic, and this would have a big impact on her life, driving forward the urge to find out more about changes that can occur to the sense of smell.  Loss or modification of the ability to detect odours is more common than we tend to think, but has largely been ignored by the medical profession, in part because we tend to under-rate the importance of the ability to detect odours. Totaro covers both the total loss of detection and also the, arguably more devastating, situation where substances as innocuous as water, along with many foods, can start to smell disgusting - another common impact of Covid. I'm not a great fan of 'me-centred'

Star Binder (SF) - Robert Appleton ****

This is what I'd call a good old fashioned science fiction book - and it's none the worse for it. Star Binder follows a long tradition in what used to be called juvenile SF and now young adult books, which have teenage protagonists but that are enjoyably readable by adults - a tradition that ranges from James Blish's 1962  A Life for the Stars  to Brandon Sanderson's modern  Skyward series. These in themselves fit into a wider grouping of books where youngsters succeed where adults can't - think of anything from Harry Potter to the Famous Five. The main character, Jim Trillion, is a thirteen-year-old, fending mostly for himself with his friend Sergei on a rough and ready colonised Mars. As a result of a brave action, his is recruited into a secret training programme that feels militaristic, but at the same time clearly isn't. So far, so average - and if this were all there was, with a few good action scenes, I'd feel it was a bit meh. But what Robert Apple

The Book of Minds - Philip Ball ****

It's fitting that this book on the nature of minds should be written by the most cerebral of the UK's professional science writers, Philip Ball. Like the uncertainty attached to the related concept of consciousness, exactly what a mind is , and what makes it a mind, is very difficult to pin down. Ball takes us effectively through some of the difficult definitions and unpacking involved to understand at least what researchers mean by 'mind', even if their work doesn't not necessarily enlighten us much. A lot of the book is taken up with animals and to what extent they can be said to have minds. Ball bases his picture of a mind on a phrase that is reminiscent of Nagel's famous paper on being a bat. According to Ball, an organism can be said to have a mind if there is something that is what it is like to be that organism. (You may need to read that a couple of times.) At one end of the spectrum - apes, cetaceans, dogs, for instance - it's hard to believe that t

How to Tame a Fox (and build a dog) - Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut ****

One of Rudyard Kipling’s just so stories tells us about early humans domesticating animals and how the 'The Wild Dog' became the 'First Friend'. Kipling was right: archaeology and genetics evidence tell us that dogs were the first animals to be domesticated. They descend from wolves that lived about 23,000 years ago. Today, there are so many different looking dogs — Poodles, Bulldogs, Afghan Hounds… — that it is pretty astonishing that they all originated from wild wolves.  As with other things that happened a long time ago, we can just imagine how this happened (like Kipling did) and scientists can infer it from the data they gather. But ultimately, we have no way of knowing the exact story of what happened. Still, some lines of research may help with this. One particular long-term experiment, started in the Soviet Union under Stalin’s rule, selecting tame(r) silver foxes throughout generations, has provided plenty of insights on how domestication can happen and how do

Forget Me Not - Sophie Pavelle ***(*)

There was a lot to like in Sophie Pavelle's debut popular science title. In it, she visits ten locations in the UK (against the backdrop of the Covid lockdowns) where species that are in some way threatened by humans and/or climate change are found. The writing style is extremely light and personal, while the content on the different species was both interesting and informative. I particularly enjoyed chapters on sea grass and dung beetles, which are accompanied by coverage of a species each of butterfly, porpoise, bat, guillemot, salmon, hare, bird of prey and bumblebee. There's a nice mix of three threads - writing about the species itself, about the visit to the location (so something close to travel writing, as Pavelle attempts to avoid driving and flying as much as possible) and about the environmental side. I'm not sure the writing style is for everyone - I found it verged on arch at times, didn't endear me with several enthusiastic references to Love Island and

The Midwich Cuckoos (SF) - John Wyndham *****

The recent TV adaptation of John Wyndham's classic science fiction novel inspired me to dig out my copy (which has a much better cover than the current Penguin version) to read it again for the first time in decades - and it was a treat. Published in 1957, the book takes a cosy world that feels more typical of a 1930s novel - think, for example, of a village in Margery Allingham's or Agatha Christie's books - and applies to it a wonderfully innovative SF concept. Rather than give us the classic H. G. Wells alien invasion, which, as a character points out, is really just conventional warfare with a twist, Wyndham envisaged a far more insidious invasion where the aliens are implanted in every woman of childbearing age in the village (in a period of time known as the Dayout, when everyone is rendered unconscious).  Apparently like humans but for their bright golden eyes, a joined consciousness and the ability to influence human minds, the Children effectively take over the vil

Mathematical Intelligence - Junaid Mubeen ***

This is a strange one. It's sort of about AI and making it better, and it's sort of about how wonderful mathematics is (and mathematicians are) and why real maths not like the boring stuff we do at school. Whether or not you think this might appeal I would advise skipping the painfully long introduction (36 pages, but it feels like more). When it comes to the main text, Junaid Mubeen splits down the way humans do things and artificial intelligence doesn't into seven headings: estimation, representations, reasoning, imagination, questioning, temperament and collaboration. The first of these is by far the best, stressing the way that humans don't actually work numerically like computers beyond relatively small numbers. Of course we can do the sums for bigger numbers, but that's where it becomes an effort, where we more naturally deal with approximation. In each section, Mubeen is looking at what the limitations are for AI, how humans do it and how we can learn from wh

Rosebud (SF) - Paul Cornell ***

Paul Cornell is probably now best known as the author of excellent urban fantasies such as London Falling , but he is well grounded in writing science fiction and in this novella demonstrates the impressive range of his imagination. I need to say up front that Rosebud is a really interesting piece of writing, and the reason I've only given it three stars is that I am not sure that it works. Rosebud is a tiny spacecraft, less than a millimetre across, crewed by five AI entities that we first meet in a range of forms from a goth to a sweary balloon to a creature constructed only of hands. These entities are already in an uncertain relationship with the distant Earth – now, more concerns are thrown their way by the arrival of what appears to be another tiny spaceship, perhaps of alien origin. Over the years, very few SF books have successfully tackled truly alien protagonists. Here we have the alien but (to some extent) anthropomorphic AI entities plus that initially inscrutable new a

The Nexus - Julio Mario Ottino with Bruce Mau ***

Any book on the crossover between art and science walks a risky tightrope - it's very easy to plunge into pretentiousness. Perhaps the main problem is that such books always seem to be driven by the art side, reflecting that perhaps Snow's two cultures concept, where the arts and humanities look down on the sciences, is yet to be resolved. This feeling was not helped by the structure of the book - any title that can get to page 43 before it starts creates a sense of foreboding in the reader who wants to get down to the nitty gritty. Nonetheless, I've always hoped I would discover an arts/science crossover title that worked - like most people with a scientific background I'm enthusiastic about much of the arts and really want to get a book that fulfils this mix. The book is framed in terms of using the crossover for finding creative solutions to complex problems - a topic I've lectured on - which was particularly encouraging. Julio Mario Ottino has some powerful poin

The Anomaly (SF) - Hervé Le Tellier, trans. Adriana Hunter *****

It was a pleasant surprise that this excellent novel far exceeded my expectations. This was in part because I thought of Hervé Le Tellier as a ‘literary fiction’ author, which for me generally suggests pomposity and intellectual obscurantism, and in part because it is in translation. With the notable exception of The Hair Carpet Weavers , I’ve generally found translated science fiction to be far too worthy and heavy-handed in its approach, but Adriana Hunter has done a fantastic job of keeping the writing light and gripping. As for that literary aspect (amusingly, Le Tellier includes a character who writes a book called L’anomalie that is exactly the kind of thing I’d expected), this doesn’t overwhelm the reader because this book is unabashedly science fiction. I find it tedious in the extreme when certain literary authors who write a book that is clearly SF go out of their way to claim that’s not what they write, because they think that science fiction is limited to ' talking squ