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Showing posts from June, 2023

Fermat's Last Theorem - Simon Singh *****

CLASSICS REVISITED This is the first popular maths book I ever read - and the one that persuaded me I wanted to be involved in the field of popular science. Just as the US publishers of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone reckoned the US public couldn’t cope with the word ‘philosopher’ and changed the title, this was originally called Fermat’s Enigma in the US, but such is its longstanding acclaim it's ended up with the correct name there too. Crazy assumptions from publishers apart, it’s the superb story of a bizarre little problem that no one could solve until the ever-wily mathematician Fermat scribbled in a margin that he had a wonderful solution, only there wasn’t room to write it down. Fermat may well have been boasting, but his marginal claim threw down a gauntlet to hundreds of mathematicians who were to follow in his footsteps and fail, until it was finally achieved in the 20th century. Don’t worry if the maths itself isn't of great interest to you – the story wi

Airside (SF) - Christopher Priest *****

There have been many attempts to define what science fiction is - I've always thought the most feeble is probably 'what SF   writers write' - yet that's probably the best reason to call Airside science fiction. Christopher Priest has been a major force in the genre since the 1970s. Thanks to the film, he's probably best known for The Prestige , but his work has always challenged both the expected shape of what science fiction is and the reader's mind. In some ways, Airside reminded me of Gene Wolfe's classic fantasy novel There Are Doors . These are both books where the reader is left for most of the book unsure as to quite what is going on. But Priest is able, far more so than Wolfe often was in his (brilliant) novels, to tie it all up at the end. I don't mean by this that there is a clear, everything explained scenario, but you are left thinking 'Aha, that's why we had that bit I didn't understand'. According to the blurb, this is a b

Is Maths Real? - Eugenia Cheng ****

As soon as I saw this book, I knew I had to read it, if only because I wrote a book called Are Numbers Real? .  The maths content of Eugenia Cheng's book is brilliant: where I was covering the history of mathematics, she focuses on what real, pure mathematicians do. (Funnily, I had called my book Is Maths Real? , but it was changed to the less accurate Are Numbers Real? so we wouldn't need different covers for the UK and US editions.) The mathematical journey that Cheng takes us through is mesmerising. She starts by showing the power of abstraction - how by thinking about the nature of, say, something basic like addition or multiplication it is possible to extend the concept into something other than numbers. We also discover that, in some ways, the answer '2' is the least interesting response to 'What is 1 + 1?' - real maths isn't about the answer per se, but about digging into the processes, mechanisms and definitions to get a deeper understanding of the u

Simulating the Cosmos – Romeel Davé ****

There’s never been any shortage of popular science books about cosmology. But these books tend to focus on the two ‘ends’ of the subject: raw observations, such as the cosmic microwave background and Hubble’s deep field images on the one hand, and theoretical inferences ranging from cosmic inflation to dark energy on the other. There’s a whole ‘excluded middle’ between them that explains how the observational data leads to those theoretical conclusions, yet it’s rarely discussed in any depth at a popular level. It’s this omission that Romeel Davé seeks to remedy in this engrossing and entertaining book. The ‘missing link’ I’m talking about is computer simulation, and the basic idea is simple enough. As Davé explains: ‘We put the relevant laws of physics into a computer, set up some initial conditions at an early cosmic epoch, add in all the ingredients we know of... and let it all churn in the world’s most powerful supercomputers until we produce a simulated universe.’ He goes on to sa

Life Beyond Us (SF) - Ed. Julie Nováková et al ***

This is one of those attempts we quite often see from academic sources to combine science fiction and popular science education. It's probably one of the better examples in terms of the contents, and yet as is often the case, it falls between two stools, not being ideal for either purpose. What we have is 27 SF stories, each accompanied by a science essay, inspired by the fiction - all with an astrobiology theme. Let's take the fiction first. A fair number of the stories do feel amateurish - the kind of thing scientists turn out in their spare time. Often this comes across in wooden dialogue or a lengthy series of descriptive statements from authors who've clearly not got the hang of 'show, don't tell'. There are enough good ones to make it worth reading, though - I really enjoyed Lisa Jenny Kris's Ranya's Crash (translated from German by Simone Heller), which features intelligent dragonflies, for example, while  Heavy Lies by Rich Larson was imaginati

Ananyo Bhattacharya - Five Way Interview

Ananyo Bhattacharya holds a PhD in biophysics from Imperial College London and a degree in physics from Oxford University. He has worked as a science correspondent at the Economist, an editor at Nature, and a medical researcher at the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute in San Diego, California. He lives in London. The Man from the Future is his first book. Why maths? I remember my maths teacher in school many years ago being asked by a bored student what the point of maths was. A look of blind panic crossed his face then, after a good deal of hemming and hawing, he mumbled something about checking your till receipt after shopping in a supermarket. Popular maths books are often about fun puzzles or perhaps one person's passionate, otherworldy pursuit of some arcane theorem. I wanted to try something different. My book was an effort to show that maths isn't really about sums or shopping bills. It has shaped the modern world and informs the way we think about ever

Fancy Bear Goes Phishing - Scott Shapiro ****

In a wide-ranging book, Scott Shapiro uses five historical uses of computer worms, viruses and phishing to illustrate the processes involved in cybercrime at both the technological and human level. We start inevitably with the ARPANET worm of 1988, with its ironic creator (his Dad worked for the NSA), that crippled many Sun and VAX computers on the proto-internet, even though it wasn't intended to do harm. This was well-documented two years later in Clifford Stoll's book The Cuckoo's Egg , but where Stoll gives a dramatic description from the point of view of a system administrator who faced the worm, Shapiro steps back more, both to give a wider context and to give reasonably accessible details of the mechanisms used by the worm. (I say 'reasonably' because some of Shapiro's analogies obscured rather than clarified what the worm's four means of attack did.) We then move on to the early DOS viruses coming out of Bulgaria, the phone hack that released, amongs

Causal Inference - Paul Rosenbaum ***

The whole business of how we can use statistics to decide if something is caused by something else is crucially important to science, whether it's about the impact of a vaccine or deciding whether or not a spray of particles in the Large Hadron Collider has been caused by the decay of a Higgs boson. 'Correlation is not causality' is a mantra of science, because it's so easy to misinterpret a causal link from things that happen close together and space and time. As a result I was delighted with the idea of what the cover describes as a 'nontechnical guide to the basic ideas of modern causal inference'. Paul Rosenbaum starts with a driving factor - deducing the effects of medical treatments - and goes on to bring in the significance of randomised experiments versus the problems of purely observational studies, digs into covariates and ways to bring in experiment-like features to observational studies, brings up issues of replication and finishes with the impact of

Distrust - Gary Smith ***

There is a lot in the news on misinformation and disinformation - Gary Smith explores the way three factors of this kind can tarnish the public's attitude to science. He suggests that there is rising distrust of science and scientists as a result of: disinformation (telling fibs), data torturing (where data is selectively used, for example choosing the time period that most emphasises the desired result) and data mining (where big data is misused by picking up on the inevitable random correlations that occur in large quantities of data without there being a causal reason for the correlation). Smith makes the important point that in a world where we are presented with interpretations of so much data, a clear understanding of these three factors is essential if we are to make any sense of what we hear and read. While disinformation is often a problem when non-scientists present 'their truth' that is often used to attack science, data torturing and data mining is often underta

Jonathan Jong - Five Way Interview

Jonathan Jong is an Anglican priest in West Sussex, England, and also an experimental psychologist. He has spent most of his career trying to understand why people are—and why he himself is—religious. Most of his previous research has had to do with the fear of death, and its relationship to religious belief. These days, he spends a lot of time thinking about the nature of belief itself. His new book is Experimenting with Religion . Why science? As I'm usually asked 'Why religion?', this question is a breath of fresh air! And, coincidentally, I was first and remain drawn to science because I never gave up the child's game of persistently asking 'why' questions. For some people, science is a means of describing the world; for others, it is a means of improving it, via technology. But for me, it has always been science's explanatory power—or at least, its explanatory promise—that's captured my imagination and delight. I want to know about the causes of thi