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Showing posts from December, 2023

Badvertising - Andrew Simms and Leo Murray **

In their book, Andrew Simms and Leo Murray tell us that ‘the enabler of [a] great shift in expectations and attitudes has been the advertising and marketing industries. Advertising is selling us an imagined lifestyle – the premise is that we can only we feel we are all living our best lives by flying around the world, driving ever bigger SUVS [sic], eating beef from cattle raised on cleared rainforest, and enjoying a vast array of consumer goods like there was no tomorrow.’ This book covers two of my interests, climate science and influencing the brain, so I thought it would be right up my street, but I found it depressingly bad. It's a polemic by enthusiasts that isn't really science driven. I don't like advertising, I think it can be manipulative - but the whole story was wildly overplayed here. I am certainly not aware, for example, of advertising making me eat beef from cattle raised on cleared rainforest, I have rarely seen advertising for beef per se, and only buy Bri

Atomic Fingerprints - Graham Lappin ***(*)

Isotopes - variants of chemical elements with differing numbers of neutrons in the atomic nucleus - play a major role in our understanding of matter and radioactive decay, as well as being powerful tools for science and medicine. As often seems the case with anything that has some degree of a chemistry focus, it's a topic that isn't heavily covered in the popular science literature, except in passing reference when dealing with the periodic table or radioactivity. Graham Lappin sets out to give us a comprehensive introduction to isotopes, followed by an exploration of how we make use of them. We start with age of the planet Earth, and various estimates of it before radioactive decay became an effective dating mechanism, bringing in along the way both what isotopes are and a touch of statistics to be able to handle the concept of half lives. We then move on to medicine and biology; plants, animals, life and death; and the beginning of the universe coupled with nuclear bombs. Bec

Thinking Fast and Slow - Daniel Kahneman ***

For reasons I can’t remember, I didn’t read this pop psychology title at the time of its 2011 publication. (I was really surprised it was that recent - in my mind it was about 20 years old.) Had I done so, I would have loved it. I used to hoover up these books describing all the ways our brains mislead us (even though I found it difficult to remember the vast swathes of different effects and the many biases that were being described). And there’s still a lot to enjoy here. But… It’s impossible now to read a book like this that is based on a whole host of small and/or poorly sampled experiments without being all too aware of the replication crisis. For example, Kahneman’s chapter on priming has been described as a 'train wreck', based as it is on a set of experiments that have almost all been discredited.  Not only does this concern apply where you happen to know these details, it prompts (surely a psychological effect that Kahneman would be able to write about) suspicion when p

Strange Beauty - George Johnson ****

This is a second edition of a scientific biography of the American physicist Murray Gell-Mann, first published in 1999. This edition adds in the remaining 20 years of Gell-Mann's life. Like most scientists, his contributions may not have been as outstanding in his later years, but it gives the complete picture - and he certainly continued to be interesting as a person. George Johnson (who clearly like a touch of scientific beauty, having previously written The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments ) does a good job of taking us into both the world and work of Gell-Mann. Not a household name, but one of the greats of twentieth century physics. Part of the problem, compared with the science that came before - even most of Einstein's - was that, as Johnson puts it, Gell-Mann's 'discoveries were not of things but of patterns - mathematical symmetries that seemed to reflect, in some ultimately mysterious way, the manner in which subatomic particles behaved.' Unlike most biograp