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Showing posts from November, 2022

Escape from Model Land - Erica Thompson ***

Over the last few years a number of books, notably Sabine Hossenfelder's Lost in Math , David Orrell's Economyths , Cathy O Neil's Weapons of Math Destruction and Tim Palmer's The Primacy of Doubt , have pointed out problems with the mathematical modelling done by businesses, physicists, meteorologists, epidemiologists, economists and more. These are not anti-science polemics, but rather people who know what they're talking about pointing out the dangers of getting too carried away with elegant mathematics and models, often assuming that the models effectively  are reality (and certainly presenting them that way in some of the writing and press releases from the scientists building and using the models). Erica Thompson takes on the problems of mentally inhabiting the mathematical world she describes as 'model land'. As she cogently points out, it's fine to play in model land all that you like - the problem comes with the way that you exit model land a

Sentience - Nicholas Humphrey *****

The first seventy-odd pages of this book are absolutely phenomenal (pun intended, though still true). We start with a near-stream of consciousness prologue - very appropriate for a book on sentience - and then go on to have a description of the early part of Nicholas Humphrey's career in a wonderfully approachable fashion with a writing style somewhere between a deep conversation and a thought process. I particularly loved Humphrey's description of his heading off to Elba to investigate the paranormal claims of the eccentric Hugh Sartorius Whitaker and his experiences with Dian Fossey (not always pleasant) when visiting to study the 'natural psychologist' ability of gorillas. The book then takes a change of tack, signified by the author heading the next chapter 'To work', as he sets out to build for us his theory on the nature of sentience and 'phenomenal consciousness'. This too is very interesting, but lacks the same storytelling verve. It's also a

The Magick of Matter - Felix Flicker ****

This is a book about condensed matter physics, surely a particularly boring-sounding name for one of the most interesting parts of the subject. It's about the physics of things we encounter. When you think about it, it's quite odd that most popular physics books are about things like quantum physics and cosmology and particle physics that don't deal with things we can put our hands on or see. Of course quantum physics impacts lots of everyday objects through electronics etc., but it's still driven by particles we can't see or experience in a normal sense. Felix Flicker introduces us to two key aspects of the physics of tangible stuff - emergence and chaos (though in practice, chaos only gets a passing mention). Because, as he points out, the problem with purely looking at the particle level is that stuff really is the more than the sum of its parts. The chaos and uncertainty part was handled excellently in Tim Palmer's recent The Primacy of Doubt , but this book

A Brief History of Black Holes - Becky Smethurst ***

Black holes are a perennially interesting topic, so anyone writing a book about them needs to provide a new angle - a USP, if you like. For this mostly interesting book, Becky Smethurst has gone for 'why everything you know about them is wrong.' This reflects the several common misconceptions about black holes, even though some of these have been so thoroughly debunked already that it's hard to believe there are too many left who hold them. We start with an introduction to the nature of stars, bring in gravitational wells and neutron stars and get on to black holes themselves - though we soon discover they are not black, one of those misapprehensions alongside the idea that they are super gravitational vacuum cleaners, inevitably destroying everything nearby. We're told that black holes don't suck, which is sort of true as we explore the warping of space and time - though the distinction between gravitational attraction and sucking is perhaps fairly trivial if you g

How the Victorians took us to the Moon - Iwan Rhys Morus ****

Despite beginning and ending his book with a tale of a Victorian moonshot, Iwan Rhys Morus is not writing steam punk fiction here, but rather exploring the nature of the Victorian scientific and engineering mentality, particularly in the UK, and how that made a huge transformation possible and has continued to influence the way we do some things, up to and including the Apollo programme. Rhys Morus goes on give us stories of the development of everything from steam railways to the telegraph, from the transformation of electricity into the power source of the world to powered flight. Many of the characters we meet will be familiar - names such as Brunel, Stephenson, Faraday (anything but typical in personality of the kind of inventor Rhys Morus is focussing on), Babbage, Edison (less than I'd perhaps expect), the Wright brothers and many more. But there are also the less familiar, for example those involved in developing and laying the transatlantic cable, an epic boys-own story of

Science Fiction - Glyn Morgan (Ed.) ***

There are two ways to write a non-fiction book on science fiction - for the fans, or for those who don't currently read SF. Being as big science fiction fan I’m not sure I’m the ideal audience for this book, which is very much aimed at persuading those who think they don’t like SF that it’s actually acceptably cool. It's technically an accompaniment to an exhibition at London's Science Museum, though I believe it takes a different and more sophisticated tack. We get a bit of introduction, including an essay on 'What is science fiction for?' - this only briefly touches on the usual spiel that it's not about predicting the future, and rather sadly never says it's for enjoyment, or getting insights into people and their response to changes in their world and worldview - in fact, it's quite difficult to elicit anything from this rather obscure piece of writing. Editor Glyn Morgan then divides the SF writing-scape into five areas: people and machines, travell

Celestial (SF) - M. D. Lachlan ***

An important point first - despite being labelled as such, this is not science fiction at all. It's science fantasy, a once-popular genre that has become relatively uncommon these days. Celestial is very much in the same category as Roger Zelazny's Roadmarks and Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time . (I don't usually review fantasy here, but I'm making an exception for this one, partly because I didn't realise it was.) The setting is an alternative 1977, where the US and the USSR are both sending manned missions to the Moon. A mysterious hatch has been discovered in the Moon's surface, leading to what may be alien technology - something both sides want to get their hands on. The central character, Ziggy da Luca is a linguist, an apparently strange choice for a NASA crew, who ends up having to deal with difficulties both from her own crew and Soviet cosmonauts. I ought to stress it being an alternative 1977 isn't why I'm calling it fantasy - th

Tim Palmer - Five Way Interview

Tim Palmer is a Royal Society Research Professor in the department of physics at the University of Oxford. He spent much of his career working on the predictability and dynamics of weather and climate, developing probabilistic ensemble prediction systems across a range of weather and climate timescales.  He is a Fellow of the Royal Society and an International Member of the US National Academy of Sciences. Amongst other awards, he has won the Institute of Physics Dirac Gold Medal, and the top medals of the American and European Meteorological Societies. His book  The Primacy of Doubt  is  published by Oxford University Press in the UK and Basic Books in the US. Why science?  I love the idea of studying things that at one level could tell us about the meaning of life, the universe and everything, and at the other end of the spectrum is of practical importance to ordinary people around the world. This is science at its best, and I hope my book shows why. As American physicist Robert Oppe