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Showing posts from March, 2023

Heinrich Päs - Five Way Interview

Heinrich Päs is a German theoretical physicist and professor at TU Dortmund University. He received a PhD from the University of Heidelberg for research at the Max-Planck-Institut in 1999, held postdoc appointments at Vanderbilt University and the University of Hawaii, and an Assistant Professorship at the University of Alabama. His research on particle physics, cosmology and the structure of space and time was on the cover of the Scientific American and the New Scientist magazine. It also got included in the collector's edition Ultimate Physics: From Quarks to the Cosmos , next to a piece by Stephen Hawking. His latest book is The One . Why physics? Physics helps us to make sense of the universe. Both in the narrow sense, understood as space and time, stars and galaxies and the entire cosmic history, as in the more broad sense, as the myriad minds and things that populate the cosmos. Physics concepts help to elucidate economy and biology, neuroscience, information technology and t

More than a Glitch - Meredith Broussard ***

In some ways this is a less effective version of Cathy O'Neil's Weapons of Math Destruction with an overlay of identity politics.  Meredith Broussard usefully identifies the ways in which AI systems incorporate bias - sometimes directly in the systems, at other times in the unjustified ways that they are used. We see powerful examples, for example, of the hugely problematic crime prediction systems where it's entirely clear that these AI systems simply should not be used. A useful pointer is what a 'white collar' crime prediction system would do (and why it doesn't really exist). We get similar examples from education, ability issues, gender rights and medical applications. What I'd hoped would make the difference from earlier books were solutions, when Broussard brings in the concept of 'public interest technology' and outlines a 'potential reboot'. Again, there is some interesting material, though it can seem to be in conflict with other p

Ghost Particle: Alan Chodos and James Riordan ****

The popular science market is reasonably well served with books on the neutrino. Frank Close's Neutrino is still the best on the basics despite being over ten years old, while Leonard Cole's Chasing the Ghost  gives interesting insights to the work of Cowan and Reines who first detected it. But Ghost Particle does provide enough that new and different to make it a worthy addition to the field. Alan Chodos and James Riordan give us a good description of why the neutrino was first needed by particle physics and significantly later discovered. They take us through the unlikely attempts at detection and the puzzle over why the Sun appeared to have around a third of the neutrinos that theory predicted it would have in its output, including some interesting material on alternative theories as to why this was the case. There's good coverage of the brief explosion of interest when it was thought neutrinos were detected travelling faster than light and a look at neutrino applicat

The Caledonian Gambit (SF) - Dan Moren ****

This is a novel with a classic science fiction setting - empire versus federation / commonwealth / rebel alliance with roots that stretch back to the likes of Asimov's Foundation series and reach into the science fantasy world of Star Wars . There's even a figure vaguely reminiscent of Luke Skywalker, in the sense that he's a good pilot, an innocent abroad and related to key figures in the rebellion. But it would be unfair to dismiss it as 'more of the same', because its saving grace is that the central group of characters is, in reality, a trio of intelligence operatives - and they really bring the book alive. The back of the book asks 'can two unlikely heroes keep peace in the galaxy', but the innocent abroad, Eli Brody, seems to spend most of his time feeling sick or cracking bad jokes - he only comes into his own right at the end of the book when a pilot is needed. The other of the pair is a leading Commonwealth intelligence operative Simon Kovalic, acc

The Spirit of Mathematics - David Acheson ****

The subtitle of this slim book is 'algebra and all that', presumably in reference to David Acheson's impressively entertaining general mathematics title, 1089 and all that (itself, a reference to 1066 and all that ). What Acheson managed with that book was almost inconceivable - an educational book about maths that was genuinely fun to read. Clearly, the aim here is to take the same approach with a specific focus on algebra, though the book does stray into geometry and one or two other fields occasionally. And the result is again a delight. It feels a little like an old children's book for adults, with a deliberately old-fashioned style, delighting, for example, in giving examples from ancient textbooks. Acheson makes use of illustrations, cartoons, and occasional two page spreads such as 'Playing with infinity' to break up the material, but this is definitely for an older teen/adult audience. The underlying message is that the book is attempting to 'captur

Aristotle: Understanding the World's Greatest Philosopher - John Sellars ****

You wait ages for a good book on Ancient Greek philosopher, and two come along in a matter of weeks. Hot on the heels of Rovelli's Anaximander comes Aristotle from John Sellars. For me, this is the ideal way to get an introduction to one of the great philosophers (I find it hard to truly support Sellars' superlative) - like most people, I suspect, I had heard of Aristotle but didn't know much about him. I'd read bits of his books on logic, physics and natural history and all his surviving Poetics , but had no overview. This is a proper introduction to the topic, not a watered-down text book - not too long at around 100 pages, and aimed at those with very little existing knowledge, presenting Aristotle's life, work and impact in an approachable fashion. As was the case with Anaximander, one of the impressive things about Aristotle was that his work covered such a wide range of topics. Sellars introduces us to, amongst other things, Aristotle on the nature of being,

The One - Heinrich Päs ****

At first glance this book has all the hallmarks of an attempt to tie quantum woo into ancient philosophical and religious beliefs, where some vague resemblance between an ancient observation about, say, 'the oneness of everything' and some aspect of quantum physics is given as evidence of the great wisdom of the ancients. In practice, if you make vague enough statements they can be said to prefigure anything - and have no connection to modern science. Thankfully, though, that's not what much of Heinrich Päs's book is about. What Päs sets out to show is that the reason that quantum physics can seem strange, if not downright weird, is that we are looking at things from the wrong direction. Quantum physics is hugely successful at practical stuff - predicting what will happen to enable successful design of, for example, electronics, but doesn't have a big picture: there is no satisfactory explanation of what's going on 'under the hood'. Päs suggests this is

Off Earth - Erika Nesvold ***

Subtitled Ethical Questions and Quandaries for Living in Outer Space, this book could perhaps do with a trigger warning for space enthusiasts, because large chunks of it read like a catalogue of arguments – social and political, rather than technical – against space exploration. At first, I thought I might dislike the book for that reason, but actually it’s hard to disagree with most of what Nesvold says. At best, her arguments are extremely insightful; at worst, they simply miss the point, or argue against things that probably aren’t going to happen anyway. But we’re in ‘social science’ territory here, which means that judgments are going to vary depending on a person’s worldview and values – a point that Nesvold makes explicitly in her first chapter. This gives me an excuse to spend the next paragraph describing my own perspective on the subject, before looking in more detail at Nesvold’s. Space today is almost solely the domain of machines, in the form of Earth-orbiting satellites a

The Lost World and The Poison Belt (SF) - Arthur Conan Doyle ****

The MIT Press 'Radium Age' series makes a very positive hit with the highly readable (if occasionally offensive by modern standards) 1912  The Lost World, coupled with a far less known, but nonetheless interesting, novella featuring the same characters, The Poison Belt  from 1913. It's easy to see The Lost World , featuring as it does dinosaurs in the present day of 1912, as a precursor to Jurassic Park , but here the ancient organisms are not re-born through genetic manipulation but have survived in a region which has become separated from the rest of South America. Admittedly, the science is dodgy - even on isolated land masses, animals evolve and we wouldn't expect to see creatures from the Jurassic as they used to be. But it is still an SF story, while also acting as a parody of the adventure stories of the late Victorian/Edwardian era. This aspect of being a parody is significant. It comes through particularly strongly in a couple of the central characters. Profes

The Man from the Future - Ananyo Bhattacharya *****

There are very few individuals who have made such wide contributions to mathematical and scientific topics as did John von Neumann. In this splendid scientific biography, Ananyo Bhattacharya introduces to many for the first time both von Neumann's work and life. It's easy to get the balance between the life and the science wrong with this kind of biography - Bhattacharya keeps it just right, filling in all the biographical details we need, without falling into the trap of giving us endless boring detail of the von Neumann family's background. Similarly, with a couple of small exceptions I'll mention later, the description of his work is at a level that remains approachable with a bit of effort from the reader, yet we are given enough information to see just how important and novel von Neumann's contribution was. The significantly more famous Richard Feynman is probably the only twentieth century scientist I can think of with the breadth of interests and originality

Marcus Chown - Five Way Interview

Marcus Chown graduated from the University of London in 1980 with a first class degree in physics. He also earned a Master of Science in astrophysics from the California Institute of Technology. With much experience writing for magazines such as New Scientist, Chown has written a string of successful popular science books. His latest title is The One Thing You Need to Know . Why science? Science is stranger than science fiction. We live in a universe far stranger than anything we could possibly have invented. I get a buzz out of learning new things about it. And they are coming thick and fast. Previous generations would have killed for what we know. We are at a stage when we can ask truly fundamental questions – What is the universe? Why is there a universe? What is space? What is time? Are we alone? – and have a good chances of answering them in the next decade or so. Why this book? Recently, I asked to give a talk to a law firm about quantum computers. Warned that I could not assume