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Showing posts from November, 2023

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

Ten Tantalising Truths - John Gribbin ****

Veteran British science writer John Gribbin has produced a number of excellent short titles of late in the form of handsome little hardbacks along the lines of 'N somethingly somethings' - for example, Six Impossible Things and Eight Improbable Possibilities . In his latest, we get ten tantalising truths. The book is subtitled 'why the sky is blue and other big answers to simple questions': in his preface, Gribbin tells us that these are all genuine questions he has been asked by younger members of his family. Amongst the topics are why the sky is dark at night, where did everything come from, why does blood taste salty like the sea, and why are men bigger than women (as well as that blue sky one). Some of these are very familiar; others, even for adults, are in the realm of 'hmm, I never thought of that'. It might seem that what's being done here is similar to Alom Shaha's Why Don't Things Fall Up, but though there are overlaps, they are very diff

Orbital (SF) - Samantha Harvey ***

This slim novel, focusing primarily on the inhabitants of the International Space Station, belongs firmly in the sub-genre of science fiction that is Lab Lit. This is SF where the science and technology is today's - some Lab Lit supporters suggest this means it isn't science fiction at all, but I happy to class it as such. The only slight extension to current knowledge is that it is set a little in the future, as one of the obsessions of the ISS astronauts is an upcoming manned moon launch, which inevitably makes them feel more than a touch inferior. I do like the idea of these low-level astronauts feeling second rank compared with the moon landers - they are definitely in the 'bike with training wheels' class once there is some real space exploration going on. Thanks to Samantha Harvey, I can think of them as being like supermarket cola compared with the real thing (my simile, not hers).  So an excellent premise. But I did find the way the book is written extremely dif