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Showing posts from October, 2022

Venus - William Sheehan and Sanjay Shridhar Limaye ***

After reading this impressively illustrated book, you will know a lot about the planet Venus - almost too much. In terms of the volume of content and colour illustrations it's hard to fault, I just felt like I was being given too much information without enough contextual narrative. This is always a balance with popular science: for me this was more like reading a very long Wikipedia entry than an effective book. Having said that, unless you are already deeply immersed in Venus and its history, there is no doubt that you will learn plenty along the way. William Sheehan and Sanjay Shridhar Limaye start us of with pre-science. We discover how early civilisations regarded Venus (whether as one item or separate morning and evening stars) and the range of myths attached to the planet. The authors then bring in telescopes and, to a degree, the disappointment that gets a better look at Venus did not reveal more, thanks to the planet's permanent, thick cloud cover. The remainder of the

Impossible, Probable and Improbable - John Gribbin ****

This is a compendium volume, bringing together three short books by the man who Americans would probably term the dean of British science writers, John Gribbin. These were Six Impossible Things , Seven Pillars of Science and Eight Improbable Possibilities . (Seeing a theme here?) The first of these parts is my favourite, which is odd because it focuses on the interpretation of quantum theory, a topic that can veer towards 'angels dancing on the head of a pin' territory. This is not the detail of quantum physics itself, but rather the attempts to provide theories, mostly incapable of being disproved scientifically, that will explain how the apparent probabilistic nature of quantum reality somehow translates into the apparently non-probabilistic everyday world. These are often complex ideas that are difficult to get your head around, but Gribbin's coverage is as simple as it possibly could be. The second section effectively builds the pillars not so much of science as the sc

Dario Floreano and Nicola Nosengo - Five Way Interview

Dario Floreano is Director of the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL). He is the coauthor of Evolutionary Robotics and Bio-Inspired Artificial Intelligence (both published by the MIT Press). Nicola Nosengo is a science writer and science communicator at EPFL. His work has appeared in Nature, the Economist, Wired, and other publications, and he is the Chief Editor of Nature Italy. Their recent book is Tales from a Robotic World . Why robotics? Robotics is where Artificial Intelligence becomes tangible and personal. You may forget about the AI that powers your online searches, but it is hard to ignore the physical presence and motion of robots next to you. Robots have transformed factories, they are widely used in warehouses, hospitals, even homes - at least in the form of vacuum cleaners. Drones are becoming ubiquitous. And yet there is so much more that robots could do for us, and so many more places where they could prove usef

Einstein: the man and his mind - Gary Berger and Michael DiRuggiero ****

Sometimes a book gets labelled a coffee table book as an insult, suggesting it's thin on content if visually attractive. Gary Berger and Michael DiRuggerio's photographic exploration of Einstein is a indubitably a coffee table book, but in its highest form. It's huge (34 x 26 cm) and contains a collection of beautiful imagery. As I understand it, the book contains highlights from the private Berger Collection in North Carolina. The result is like a massive, well-produced catalogue for an exhibition. We get a page with an image on, with a facing page describing what's seen. Some of these images are striking photographs of Einstein, a good few of which I've never seen before. Others seem more mundane. One, for example, labelled 'The Most Valuable Find', is a Prussian Academy paper pamphlet based on a talk Einstein gave in 1915 on the link between the oddity in Mercury's orbit and the predictions of the general theory of relativity. Apparently, when Einstei

Greenhouse Planet - Lewis Ziska ***

The message of this book is interesting, and one I've rarely seen discussed - I would definitely have given it more than three stars if it wasn't for the extremely irritating writing style (more on that later). What Lewis Ziska does is to bring to the forefront an aspect of climate change that pretty much goes under the radar: its impact on plant growth. Mostly leaving aside the impacts of drought, wildfires and flash flooding, Ziska homes in on the implications that increased carbon dioxide levels have on plant biology. We all know that plants use the carbon dioxide in the air to get the carbon needed for growth - and that increased CO 2 levels can have an effect on that growth. But what's startling is both the lack of research into what the impact of higher carbon dioxide levels are - and the range of effects it is likely to generate (mostly negative). Perhaps the most frequent comment of the good scientist is 'It's more complicated than we thought,' - and th

The Primacy of Doubt - Tim Palmer *****

This is quite possibly the best popular science book I've ever read (and I've read many hundreds). To describe what Tim Palmer, a physicist turned meteorologist, does in simple terms does not do it justice. But essentially he explores the nature of (mathematically) chaotic systems and shows how we can deal better with uncertainty, even using his expertise to propose a different way to look at the lack of local reality in quantum physics. This is interesting stuff anyway, but what is astounding is the way that Palmer rattles through a series of topics that are quite difficult to get your head around and, in several diverse cases, gives the most approachable explanation of the topic I've ever seen. I'm not saying this book is an easy read, by the way. You do have to think about what you are reading, and I had to go back over a couple of sections to make sure it sunk in. But it is so rewarding of the effort. In terms of this broad enlightening nature, the first of the thre

Working with AI - Thomas Davenport and Steven Miller ***

There have been plenty of books on the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and how it will impact our lives from the dire warnings of Cathy O'Neil's  Weapons of Math Destruction to Melanie Mitchell's in-depth exploration of the technology  Artificial Intelligence , but in Working with AI , Thomas Davenport and Steven Miller give us a new viewpoint that is interesting, if a little worrying. If we compare writing about AI with the Star Wars movies, it's as if almost every AI book I've read so far, like the films, has been written from the viewpoint of the rebels. But this is a book that solidly takes the viewpoint of the empire. Unfortunately, although it covers a fair number of AI applications, it's also written more like a business book that a popular science/technology book, and as such it's pretty dull. Anyone familiar with the business book genre will recognise that deadly moment when you get to a box that's a case study. It's going to be boring.

Seeing Science - Jack Challoner ****

As Jack Challoner reminds us in the introduction to this beguiling book of scientific images, in 1911, the editor of the New York Evening Journal, Arthur Brisbane, advised advertisers 'Use a picture. It's worth a thousand words.' There's no doubt that scientific discoveries can be made more approachable - and sometimes jaw-dropping - with appropriate imagery. We're used now, for instance, to seeing wonderful imagery from space telescopes. (Oddly, one of the less impressive pictures here is a Hubble image of part of the Andromeda Galaxy, that just looks like a bit of fuzz with bright lights.) But there is so much more that's possible. The first thing that randomly attracted my attention was a false colour scanning electron microscope image of the Covid virus, but every few pages something leaps out that you want to share with other people. Accompanying these excellent images is a balanced narrative from Challoner. With a book like this there's a temptation to

Matthew Cobb - Five Way Interview

Matthew Cobb is Professor of Zoology at the University of Manchester, where he studies the sense of smell and the history of science. He is the author of a number of popular science books, including The Egg and Sperm Race (2006), Life’s Greatest Secret (2015 – shortlisted for the Royal Society Book Prize), The Idea of the Brain (2020 – shortlisted for the Baillie-Gifford Non-Fiction Book Prize) and Smell: A Very Short Introduction (2020). He is also an award-winning translator of science books, most recently Michel Morange’s 2020 The Black Box of Biology: A History of the Molecular Revolution  and was awarded the title Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques for his services to French culture. His latest book is The Genetic Age . Why science? Science is the best way we have of obtaining reliable knowledge about the world, enabling us to both understand and change it. That knowledge is rarely complete, however, and sometimes (often?) turns out to be incorrect. Understanding how w

Century Rain (SF) - Alastair Reynolds *****

A recent discovery for me that dates back to 2004, this is Alastair Reynolds at his very best. It’s described in places as a space opera, and it certainly has a vast canvas - but in reality it’s a far more sophisticated novel than that pigeonhole suggests. There’s nothing I love more than a book where, after a few chapters I’m still thinking ‘What on (or more accurately off) Earth is going on?’ - and the early parts of Century Rain have this in spades. The first few chapters alternate between a not-quite-our-Earth 1959 Paris and a future archeological expedition to Paris, which is now uninhabited, covered in ice and infested with deadly nanobots. After a while the two threads come together, but even then, for a long time it’s not clear why things are happening (in a good way). In the 1959 Paris, a pair of private detectives are trying to solve a murder in what seems to rapidly be becoming a police state. But there is something mysterious about the dead woman they need to uncover. Mean

The Thousand Earths (SF) - Stephen Baxter ****

This is a massive book, both in scope and just as a 586 page physical doorstop. Stephen Baxter repeatedly switches between two apparently unconnected storylines - one featuring John Hackett, an adventurer who has a desire to make immense journeys in time and space, and the other a family on one of the titular thousand Earths as they live through the last 30 years of the existence of their world. It's only towards the end of the book that the connection between the two threads is revealed. Each of the storylines has enough original ideas in it to be a novel in its own right. The John Hackett thread starts with a round trip to the Andromeda galaxy, which, due to relativistic time dilation effects, means he returns to Earth after 5 million years are elapsed. Apart from a rather neat SF idea for the way such a ship could work, the main content of this storyline is about the way that humanity might change if it survives long into the future. Hackett goes on to make more trips, travellin