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Showing posts from February, 2023

Anaximander and the Nature of Science - Carlo Rovelli ****

In my experience, working scientists often get history of science wrong - in this case, as it's arguably more history of philosophy, I can't say whether or not Carlo Rovelli is straying far from what's known to make his point, but what he has to say about the Greek philosopher Anaximander from the 6th century BC is fascinating. All I really knew about Anaximander was that he had proposed an early cosmology, with a cylindrically shaped Earth and the light of the Sun and stars produced by fire contained in rings that had holes in to let the light out. This was interesting, but not necessarily hugely inspiring. By contrast, what Rovelli proposes is that Anaximander came up with a number of steps forward that were effectively foundational for the scientific method. At first this seemed like hyperbole from someone championing a particular favourite, but by the end of the book I was convinced. What Rovelli attributes to Anaximander are the idea of a non-flat Earth floating in spa

The Phantom Scientist (SF) - Robin Cousin ****

Over the years I've come across a range of graphic novels and graphic popular science (that's 'graphic' in the sense of illustrated, not explicit) and rarely found one that wasn't a bit of a disappointment compared with a traditional book. I think this is because, despite the old adage about a picture being worth a thousand words, the reduction of text to speech bubbles and tiny captions means that it's difficult to get any subtlety into the fiction, or depth of understand of the science into non-fiction. The Phantom Scientist is a graphic novel, but one that according to the description 'draws together linguistics, biology, astrophysics, and robotics in a mind-bending puzzle that will thrill and inform readers' - so it takes on the very difficult role of both being an SF mystery thriller and something that puts across mathematical and scientific concepts. Because what happens is certainly not possible at the moment, it does stray into science fiction.

Theodore Savage (SF) - Cicely Hamilton **

The MIT Press's 'Radium Age' series is based on the premise that between the scientific romances of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and the 'golden age' of science fiction starting in the mid-thirties, there was an intermediate period of proto-science fiction that has been largely ignored. I'm not convinced this is a meaningful split - something like H. G. Wells's  The War of the World s may have been labelled as scientific romance because the SF term hadn't been devised yet, but it is pure science fiction already - and still very readable today. The Radium Age books to date have either been interesting as novels or, if not, notable for doing something special that gives them a place in science fiction history. So even though, for instance, Wells's novel The World Set Free from 1914 is hard going, it is nonetheless interesting because of its introduction of the concept of atomic bombs. Unfortunately, Cicely Hamilton's 1922 novel

Suzie Sheehy - Five Way Interview

Dr Suzy Sheehy is a physicist, science communicator and academic who divides her time between research groups at the University of Oxford and University of Melbourne. She is currently focused on developing new particle accelerators for applications in medicine. The Matter of Everything is her first book. Why physics?
 For me, one of the reasons I love physics is because it allows us to go deep into awe-inspiring and almost philosophical aspects of nature, yet is also inherently practical. By understanding and doing research in physics we are always expanding the knowledge of our species, giving us new perspectives on our world and on our place in it. But I also think physics is amazing because this knowledge can be used to improve our lives in myriad ways, from electronics, to cultural heritage and of course in medicine. Why this book? If you’ve ever read about physics discoveries and wondered 'but how do we know that?' this book will finally help you understand. It tells the

Has quantum computing been cracked?

In recent days there has been a surge in interest in quantum computing - computers that use quantum particles as the equivalent of bits. Out of the blue, I've received several invitations to talk to people about quantum computing as a result of my my book, imaginatively named Quantum Computing , which provides an introduction to the field. I suspect this upsurge is because of the recent announcement that the BBC dramatically headlined Quantum breakthrough could revolutionise computing .  This is a topic that has suffered from considerable hype in the past - so is this breakthrough (which there certainly has been) transformative or an incremental step towards what is still a fairly distant proposition? The reason quantum computers are of huge interest is that for certain applications they can, in principle, carry out calculations that would take conventional computers the lifetime of the universe to churn through. The reason that they can do this is that instead of using bits that c

Tomorrow Factory (SF) - Rich Larson ****

I've come a little late to Rich Larson's 2018 collection of science fiction short stories - but I'm glad I did. At the time of publication, Larson was apparently only 25, but had already managed to produce an impressively immersive and dark set of speculative stories. The author's relative youth comes through occasionally in the writing, but more importantly in the effortless ability to capture a young feel to his characters that has no sense of being artificial. Quite a few of the stories here would once have been characterised as cyberpunk - there's often a sense of technology and human existence coming together and clashing, sometimes directly and physically with implants, at other times indirectly - particularly effectively in one of the best social media influencer satires I've seen in the story Razzibot . There are 23 stories in all (or 22 if you don't want to count a poem) and for me there was an unusually high hit rate - there was only one that I gav

When Galaxies were Born - Richard Ellis ***

There's a strong indicator of the emphasis of this book in the chapter titles, which are based not on scientific discoveries, but on technologies - we get, for example, Palomar, La Palma, Hubble Space Telescope and Keck, each referring to a next generation telescope or telescopes. Richard Ellis has an approachable, conversational manner when introducing the chapters and the book as a whole, such as the one that begins 'In 1977 I cut out a full page advertisement that appeared in the Financial Times...', but the vast bulk of the content is reasonably heavy going unless you are a fully paid up astronomical enthusiast. We get an awful lot of detail on the telescopes, on the people involved using the telescopes, and on the technical detail of the discoveries (I don't think I've ever seen so many redshift z's on a single page). But though the underlying thrust of the book feels like it should be helping the reader to understand galaxy formation and the 'cosmic da

The Mountain in the Sea (SF) - Ray Nayler ****

I'm giving this book four stars despite some irritations, because it's engaging and does inspire some thought about the nature of consciousness, though I think it could have been better as a science fiction novel. As has become something of a clich├ęd structure, Ray Nayler switches between three narratives that initially seem unconnected but eventually come together. The central one involves marine biologist Dr Ha Nguyen, who arrives on the Con Dao archipelago, which has been bought by a corporation that evacuated the inhabitants, apparently to make it a wildlife reserve. The only other people present are a military specialist, who defends the location against attacks, and an AI-driven android. Ha is there to observe the local octopuses - but nothing is quite what it seems. In the other two threads, a robotic trawler is manned by slave labour to process the fish it catches, and an AI specialist is attempting a particularly difficult exploration of a neural network. As the plot d

The One Thing You Need to Know - Marcus Chown *****

Getting a new Marcus Chown book is like receiving a warm science hug - of all the top rank science writers, he has the most friendly style, making complex science as simple and approachable as possible. Apparently, this book was inspired by planning a talk starting from 'What is the one thing you need to know... the one thing from which everything else follows?' The result is 21 short pieces on science topics ranging from gravity to the Big Bang, via global warming, quantum theory and evolution. Of course, had Chown only provided us with those 'one thing' entries, we'd have had a collection of inspirational fridge magnet quotes, or at best tweets. (To be fair, what is arguably Chown's least successful book, Tweeting the Universe , did literally comprise a set of tweets about science.) Here, the 'one things' range from the extremely compact, such as 'It contains a lot of mass' for why the Sun is hot and 'Light is uncatchable' for special r