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Showing posts from September, 2022

Beyond the Burn Line (SF) - Paul McAuley ****

I have only previously read two of Paul McAuley's science fiction novels, Fairyland and Austral , both impressive, interesting and different. The same is also true of Beyond the Burn Line , making me realise I need to dig into his back catalogue for the future. Beyond the Burn Line is a book of two halves. The first takes us into a far future Earth, where the dominant species, simply referred to as 'people' but clearly not human, live a relatively low tech, but rich life. We discover that they used to be slaves of intelligent bears, who were the main intelligent species on Earth for thousands of years before their relatively recent demise. Humans (referred to as ogres) have been extinct far longer, which, until things are explained further, made the tag line of the book 'What will become of us?' confusing. This first half of the book is a distinctly slow-paced adventure, involving the troubles of the secretary of a notable scholar who has just died: as a result of

You've Been Played - Adrian Hon ***

There's some interesting material in You've Been Played , waiting to be discovered - but it could have been a lot better if Adrian Hon had gone with a co-author: unfortunately, as a book it's no great shakes. Let's do the interesting thing first. Hon is talking about gamification - the (clumsily named) idea of using game-like elements outside of games, where they are supposed to encourage us, for example, to exercise more, to work more efficiently, or to follow some government edict. The idea is to provide some game-like rewards (or punishments) for certain behaviours, and as a result to either change the way we act or to make a routine chore more fun. Unfortunately, as Hon makes clear, this is rarely a good thing. Firstly it's based on behavioural theory that is largely outdated. But also it's manipulative, and even if it does generate a degree of fun to begin with it rapidly becomes a chore and loses its positive contribution. Hon is good at showing us the neg

The Biggest Ideas in the Universe: Space, Time and Motion - Sean Carroll *****

In the brilliant Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister TV series, an idea would be described as bold or brave it was stupid or career wrecking. In The Biggest Ideas in the Universe , Sean Carroll has done something extremely bold and brave. But - for the right audience (and we'll come back to that) - it is absolutely brilliant. A quick aside about the unwieldy title: this is the first entry in the 'Biggest Ideas' trilogy with two more to follow. There are two broad ways to write about physics. You can take the popular science approach which is descriptive, gives context and, if done well, makes it possible to a good idea of what the science is about without bumping against the maths. Or you can write a textbook, which builds on a foundation of heavy duty mathematics. This will describe what physics is really about, but will be impenetrable to anyone without an appropriate degree. (And often exceedingly dull too.) Carroll has built a bridge between the two - something I thought w

The Genetic Age - Matthew Cobb *****

This big book is a deep dive into the history of a relatively new aspect of science - genetic modification - from the first crude steps to the sophistication of CRISPR-based gene editing. Matthew Cobb takes us through the basics of what is involved in genetic modification technically, from attempts dating back to the late 60s using a phage (a virus that attacks bacteria) to extract a gene from a bacterium up to the apparent precision of modern gene editing. But the importance of this book is not in giving us an increased understanding of plasmids or homologous recombination (don't biologists love vast numbers of technical terms?), but rather in getting a clear picture of how the science of genetic modification has developed and the disputes that have taken place over the ethics of undertaking these experiments. One thing that surprised me, as someone with no familiarity with this aspect of science, was how much of the ethical concerns came from the scientists themselves. Possibly b

Sabine Hossenfelder - Five Way Interview

Image © Joerg Steinmetz Sabine Hossenfelder grew up in Frankfurt, Germany. She has a PhD in physics and is presently a Research Fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies. Her current work is mostly in the foundation of physics. She has written over 80 research papers on topics ranging from quantum gravity to particle physics, cosmology, astrophysics, statistical mechanics, and quantum foundations.  Sabine is creator of the popular YouTube channel Science without the gobbledygook . Her first book Lost in Math was published by Basic Books in June 2018. Her writing has been published, amongst others, in Scientific American, New Scientist, The Guardian, Aeon, Nautilus, and the New York Times. Her latest book is Existential Physics: A Scientist's Guide to Life's Biggest Questions . Why Science? Because I’m a curious person and science constantly teaches me new things.  Why this book? Physics taught us some deep lessons about the nature of time and reality and the limit

Numbers (Ten Things You Should Know) - Colin Stuart ****

Short, smart-looking hardback books (ideally with the number of topics in the title) continue to go down well in popular science and maths fields, and Colin Stuart's new title on some of the more fun and mind-bending aspects of numbers is one of the better examples of the format. We get ten compact, standalone chapters on the likes of counting, zero, prime numbers, cake cutting and infinity - and each works well as a tasty little mental snack. If you've read any popular maths titles, some of what's covered here may already be familiar, but Stuart's excellent storytelling gives us a new twist on many of them, and even when they have been frequently encountered before (for example, the Monty Hall problem or there being more than one 'size' of infinity), the approach is fresh enough to still be enjoyable. Although the title makes this about numbers - and certainly they form a significant part of the book - they are by no means everything. Leaving aside infinity not