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Showing posts from April, 2023

Dan Levitt - Five Way Interview

Dan Levitt spent over 25 years writing, producing and directing award-winning documentaries for National Geographic, Discovery, Science, History, HHMI (Howard Hughes Medical Institute).  He has filmed with Stephen Hawking, Michio Kaku, Bernard Carr, and Sean B. Carroll among many others. His latest book is What's Gotten Into You? Why science? I’ve always been drawn to the beauty of science. It offers me a way to appreciate the natural world and the fantastic physical, chemical, and biological web we’re part of. I think my sense of that deepened when I lived for a few years near a game park in Kenya. There was a small rainforest close by and everywhere I walked I had a view of Mount Kilimanjaro. It gave me a visceral sense of how enmeshed we are in a much larger ecosystem. Of course, science also helps us understand things that would otherwise be inexplicable, like the question at the heart of this book—how did we end up here? Why this book? The inspiration came when I realized that

The Possibility of Life - Jaime Green ****

This is a book about extraterrestrial life, and it isn’t all science. For me, that’s what made it such a rivetingly good read, although (speaking as a former astrophysicist) I can’t imagine saying that about any other popular science subject. I’d be very dubious, for example, about a quantum physics primer that contained a detailed account of Ant-Man’s experiences in the Quantum Realm. That’s because quantum physics is real science, with real experimental results and real practical applications – and it doesn’t need a sci-fi take on it to bring it to life. Aliens aren’t like that. Yes, I know there’s a well-established branch of science called astrobiology – I’ve even written a book about it. But astrobiology deals with the search for extraterrestrial life, not the nature of extraterrestrials themselves, about which there’s no data. Books like mine are interesting for people who want to know how real scientists think and work – how they decide what sort of evidence to look for, and th

On the Origin of Time - Thomas Hertog ****

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time is that it says hardly anything about the nature of time. (The second most remarkable thing is how few of the people who bought it actually read it.) This book from Thomas Hertog, one of Hawking's former students, subtitled 'Stephen Hawking's final theory' very much follows the same line. Again it's far more about cosmology and black holes than it is about the nature of things temporal. And although I would say it's probably better written than the earlier book (and certainly far better than The Grand Design ), this is a book that probably needs the reader to have a greater ability to take in technical details than A Brief History . What I really like about this book is that it gives fascinating insights into the way that theoretical physics evolves. Hertog gives us an inside view of how Hawking and his colleagues worked - he is clearly in awe of Hawking to the point of hero-w

The Midas Rain (SF) - Adam Roberts *****

As a genre, science fiction is surely the best-known home of short fiction. Magazines carrying SF short stories and novellas have always been part of the field, and although publishers always claim that books of short stories don't sell, there are still a fair number of science fiction story collections published. The only downside is that publication has traditionally required a larger vehicle before the story can be made public. But ebooks make it possible to sell a novella as a cheap standalone, and a good number of authors have gone down this route. As one of the leading current SF writers, Adam Roberts has given us a good example of the opportunities that standalone ebook novellas provide in The Midas Rain . Like a short story, it is too focussed on a single idea to make a satisfactory novel, but has sufficient length to allow some character development and to explore that idea in significantly more depth than would otherwise be possible. The novella set in a future where aste

David Acheson - Five Way Interview

David Acheson is Emeritus Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, and was the University's first winner of a National Teaching Fellowship in 2004. He was President of the Mathematical Association from 2010 to 2011, and now lectures widely on mathematics to young people and the general public. In 2013, Acheson was awarded an Honorary D.Sc. by the University of East Anglia for his outstanding work in the popularization of mathematics. His books include 1089 and All That (OUP, 2002), The Calculus Story, (OUP, 2017), and The Wonder Book of Geometry, (OUP, 2020). His latest is  The Spirit of Mathematics . Why maths? There are so many possible answers to this, though I once tried to sum up mathematics at its best in just six words: wonderful theorems, beautiful proofs and great applications.  Yet I’m inclined to give here a quite different answer, for the best mathematics, at any level, really lasts. While I am no philosopher, it seems to me that so many good things in life are here today and g

Design for a Better World - Don Norman ***

Don Norman is, without doubt, one of the most influential figures in design - and particularly in making designs fit for human use. In his definitive The Design of Everyday Things he identified designs that 'probably won a prize' but that totally fail to make clear to the user how to use them. He pointed out that something as simple as a door, for example, had opportunities for design failure. Whether it was glass doors that couldn't be distinguished from windows, or doors you had to push that were fitted with a pull handle, he showed how a focus on appearance over usability could make for terrible design. In this book he attempts to take on an even bigger target - the way that we move the world away from its natural state, what can go wrong with that and how better design - and more inclusion of design in our approach - could change things. In principle, this is great, but unfortunately the book fails to deliver beyond broad brush concepts. Norman addresses how to communi

The Price of Cake: Clément and Guillaume Deslandes ***

This is a bit of an oddity that is likely to prove Marmite-like in attracting a mix of enthusiasm and dislike - so three stars is something of an average outcome. The authors describe it as 'a compendium of difficult mathematical riddles'. I don't think this is strictly accurate: these aren't riddles in any conventional sense, they are word-based mathematical problems or puzzles, but lack the wordplay that is essential to a riddle. Which side of the divide you come down on is likely to depend on two factors. Whether you like indulging in mathematical problems, and whether you only like mathematical problems where an intuitive grasp is enough, or whether you enjoy ploughing through mathematical workings to get to the solution. I suspect my use of the word 'ploughing' there highlights that, while I personally do like them, I haven't the patience for problems that take a lot of working through. For those of us with limited patience, there is a hints section tha

What's Gotten Into You - Dan Levitt *****

Tracing your atoms from the Big Bang to their role in sustaining your life, this book is very much of the 'Gee whiz wow!' school of popular science writing... and I really enjoyed it. While I couldn't cope reading too many books like this in a row, occasionally they are fun - and the great thing that Dan Levitt does is to dig a little deeper along the way. Not into the science itself, which is presented at a fairly summary level, but instead into the stories of those involved in the discoveries behind the science, including several that are not particularly familiar. So, for example, in the early stages of the story we get the inevitable names such as Georges Lemaître, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (Levitt sticks with her pre-marital surname) and Fred Hoyle, but also the likes of Marietta Blau, Allesandro Morbidelli and Victor Safronov who are far less familiar, but deserving of introduction to the general public. What makes the sequence of narratives that fill in the gaps betwe