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Showing posts from 2023

Badvertising - Andrew Simms and Leo Murray **

In their book, Andrew Simms and Leo Murray tell us that ‘the enabler of [a] great shift in expectations and attitudes has been the advertising and marketing industries. Advertising is selling us an imagined lifestyle – the premise is that we can only we feel we are all living our best lives by flying around the world, driving ever bigger SUVS [sic], eating beef from cattle raised on cleared rainforest, and enjoying a vast array of consumer goods like there was no tomorrow.’ This book covers two of my interests, climate science and influencing the brain, so I thought it would be right up my street, but I found it depressingly bad. It's a polemic by enthusiasts that isn't really science driven. I don't like advertising, I think it can be manipulative - but the whole story was wildly overplayed here. I am certainly not aware, for example, of advertising making me eat beef from cattle raised on cleared rainforest, I have rarely seen advertising for beef per se, and only buy Bri

Atomic Fingerprints - Graham Lappin ***(*)

Isotopes - variants of chemical elements with differing numbers of neutrons in the atomic nucleus - play a major role in our understanding of matter and radioactive decay, as well as being powerful tools for science and medicine. As often seems the case with anything that has some degree of a chemistry focus, it's a topic that isn't heavily covered in the popular science literature, except in passing reference when dealing with the periodic table or radioactivity. Graham Lappin sets out to give us a comprehensive introduction to isotopes, followed by an exploration of how we make use of them. We start with age of the planet Earth, and various estimates of it before radioactive decay became an effective dating mechanism, bringing in along the way both what isotopes are and a touch of statistics to be able to handle the concept of half lives. We then move on to medicine and biology; plants, animals, life and death; and the beginning of the universe coupled with nuclear bombs. Bec

Thinking Fast and Slow - Daniel Kahneman ***

For reasons I can’t remember, I didn’t read this pop psychology title at the time of its 2011 publication. (I was really surprised it was that recent - in my mind it was about 20 years old.) Had I done so, I would have loved it. I used to hoover up these books describing all the ways our brains mislead us (even though I found it difficult to remember the vast swathes of different effects and the many biases that were being described). And there’s still a lot to enjoy here. But… It’s impossible now to read a book like this that is based on a whole host of small and/or poorly sampled experiments without being all too aware of the replication crisis. For example, Kahneman’s chapter on priming has been described as a 'train wreck', based as it is on a set of experiments that have almost all been discredited.  Not only does this concern apply where you happen to know these details, it prompts (surely a psychological effect that Kahneman would be able to write about) suspicion when p

Strange Beauty - George Johnson ****

This is a second edition of a scientific biography of the American physicist Murray Gell-Mann, first published in 1999. This edition adds in the remaining 20 years of Gell-Mann's life. Like most scientists, his contributions may not have been as outstanding in his later years, but it gives the complete picture - and he certainly continued to be interesting as a person. George Johnson (who clearly like a touch of scientific beauty, having previously written The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments ) does a good job of taking us into both the world and work of Gell-Mann. Not a household name, but one of the greats of twentieth century physics. Part of the problem, compared with the science that came before - even most of Einstein's - was that, as Johnson puts it, Gell-Mann's 'discoveries were not of things but of patterns - mathematical symmetries that seemed to reflect, in some ultimately mysterious way, the manner in which subatomic particles behaved.' Unlike most biograp

Einstein in Time and Space - Samuel Graydon ****

This book is pure marmite (for non-UK audiences, this implies you'll either love it or hate it). It takes a radically different view to building a biographical picture of Albert Einstein, which is just as well, because it's easy to imagine with the number of books on him there are out there that the man has been covered from every possible (and several improbable) angles already. Rather than produce a straightforward linear work, Samuel Graydon gives us '99 particles' - short articles ranging from a page to around six pages long. The articles are chronological, but each acts as a separate entity, commenting on some event or aspect of Einstein's life. Graydon describes it as a 'mosaic biography', basing the approach on Craig Brown's 'Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret.' The result is a mix than can both delight and occasionally feel bewildering. We get a 'particle', for example, that consists solely of a picture of Einstein's ha

Consciousness - John Parrington ****

Consciousness provides what is the arguably biggest gap we have in our scientific knowledge. Unlike quantum physics or the detail of cell biology, this is a subject we all experience directly in our everyday lives. We know that we appear to be conscious. But what consciousness really means, if it exist at all and how it can be studied scientifically are all issues that science bumps up against repeatedly. John Parrington starts us of with some basic background to the history of consciousness 'science' from Artistotle, through Descartes to the modern distinction between the understanding of mechanisms for how we sense, remember, react to stimulus and so forth and the 'hard problem' of explaining the subjective sense of being us and our feelings. Parrington argues that our human-style consciousness, which he suggests is different from that of other animals, is a consequence of our use of language and our ability to use tools to radically transform our environment, combin

Philip Goff - Five Way Interview

Philip Goff is Professor of Philosophy at Durham University. His research focuses on consciousness and the ultimate nature of reality. Goff is best known for defending panpsychism, the view that consciousness pervades the universe and is a fundamental feature of it. He is the author of   Why? the Purpose of the Universe (OUP, 2023). Why philosophy?   I love science, and try to stay as up to date as I can. But not every question can be answered with an experiment. Philosophy is about how all the different stories we tell about reality fit together. How does free will fit together with (near) deterministic physics? How do ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ fit with the value-less facts of science? How do invisible feeling and experiences mesh with the observable electro-chemical signalling of the brain? Experiments can inform our answers to these questions, but they can’t decisively settle them.  Why this book? So many people feel they have to fit into the dichotomy of either believing in the God of t

Short Cut: Maths - Katie Steckles (Ed.) ****

As a reader, I'm generally something of a sceptic on the subject of highly illustrated books that cover a topic in a series of two page spreads, but I surprised myself by enjoying Short Cut: Maths . It's described online as a paperback, but it's actually a quite handsome hardback. The book is divided into eight sections (numbers, structures, logic, geometry and shape, functions, probability and statistics, modelling and games) each of which contains six or seven spreads in the form of answers to questions. These range from the straightforward 'How high can you count on your fingers?' or 'Why can't you un-square a number?' to the intriguing 'Can a baby manage a crocodile?' and 'How many hairs are there on a bear?' As is often the case with this style of book, there are several contributors whose names are quite hard to find - as well as consulting editor Katie Steckles, we have Sam Hartburn, Alison Kiddle, and Peter Rowlett (plus illustrat

Women in Science Now - Lisa Munoz ***

This is not the first book to be published on women in science - a few months ago we had Athene Donald's excellent Not Just for the Boys , which put across across the picture of gender inequality in STEM, and how to address it, very clearly and effectively. This book attempts to do a similar thing, but does so in a way that will appeal to a different kind of audience - unfortunately I'm not part of that audience. What Lisa Munoz does is give us a series of portraits (including literal sketches) of female scientists, grouped in nine sections all titled Fixing X , where X ranges from representation, signals and recruitment to environments and visibility. We get a strong feeling for the experiences of individual scientists, the struggles they have had, and the opposition they have faced. As often is the case, the book is far stronger on experiences than it is on solutions.  The whole thing is pulled together in four pages of 'key takeaways' at the back - the suggestions fo

Why? - Philip Goff *****

It might seem a bit odd to review a popular philosophy book here, but Philip Goff's content overlaps sufficiently with cosmology that it's appropriate, and that content is fascinating, even though chances are you won't agree with Goff all the way. The point of this book is to suggest that there is purpose behind the cosmos. The main evidence for this that Goff uses is the fine tuning of our universe that makes it suitable for life. Most cosmologists agree that this is odd, but many try to explain it using the idea of the multiverse. With some nifty mathematic-less probability (though he does invoke and describe Bayes theorem), Goff demonstrates convincingly that this argument does not hold up. (You can see some detail of how he shows that it's rubbish here .)  We then take a look at a couple of alternative explanations - a deity, or the universe itself embodying a degree of purpose, which comes under the banner of panpsychism. I didn't honestly find the arguments in

A City on Mars - Kelly and Zach Weinersmith ****

The subtitle of this book contains an important question when talking about settling space: 'Have we really thought this through?' - and in around 400 pages this key question is answered with an extremely thorough 'No way.' The Weinersmiths (as they refer to themselves) hammer many nails into the coffin of the science fictional idea that space is in some ways comparable to the kind of frontiers that were historically crossed on Earth. I was always aware that the obstacles were huge, but this book makes clear just how overwhelmingly enormous they are - and how many of them are pretty much ignored by enthusiasts for settling on the Moon, on Mars or in space habitats. One topic the Weinersmiths cover in depth is the geopolitics of space, saying pretty well everyone ignores it. Admittedly, there has been a significant book this year dedicated to it ( The Future of Geography/Astropolitics by Tim Marshall), but, that apart, the legal pitfalls and how nations will react to an