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Showing posts from January, 2024

Kepler 438-B: Volume 1 (SF) - The Kepler Files ***

This is a very beautiful book, though it's in an odd format that's more like a TV screen in aspect ratio. The topic is a future mission to an exoplanet, the Kepler 438-B of the title. This is a little larger than Earth, orbiting very close to its dim star. It has been proposed as a possible habitable planet, but some suggest that the level of radiation from the star would be too high for life. Rather than present us with a conventional narrative, what we have here is a series of pages dominated by images, along with a whole range of different types of text, from interview quotes to log entries. Many of the images are stunning, AI generated with lots of detail. It's a very visual design from the Kepler Files team who, from the biographies are highly design-oriented. The book was without doubt fun to flick through, but there is one big issue with it. This is fiction, and fiction needs to have a basis in story. What happens here is that a spacecraft is built, takes off, travel

Fiona Fox - Five way interview

Fiona Fox became the founding director of the Science Media Centre in 2001. She has won several awards for her achievements, including an OBE for her services to science in 2014. In 2023 she was elected an honorary member of the Royal Society and holds honorary fellowships from a range of scientific bodies. She writes regular for science publications and national newspapers. Her recent book is Beyond the Hype . Why science communication? We have a placard in our office saying ‘if it’s not open it’s not science’. I honestly believe that. The remarkable efforts of scientists to better understand the natural world and human health and find solutions to the biggest problems we face are as nothing if we fail to communicate these to the wider public and policy makers.  Prof Sarah Gilbert, the inventor of the Oxford/AZ vaccine,  hated the media spotlight but understood at some deep level that she needed to communicate directly with the public to ensure that people trusted the vaccine enough t

The Caves of Steel (SF) - Isaac Asimov ****

Recently reading In the Blink of an Eye , which features an AI detective, I realised it was time to revisit The Caves of Steel - and I'm glad I did. Despite being 70 years old in 2024, the book is still very readable. The setting is perhaps 3000 years in the future, with the population of Earth largely confined to huge enclosed cities, living a communal life that has been forced on them by resource limitations. Although robots have been around for thousands of years, they are not widely accepted on Earth, though they are on various other-world colonies. The plot centres on a murder in an enclave outside the city of New York set up for 'spacers' who live a far freer life than the Earth population. A New York detective is partnered with a lifelike spacer robot to try to solve the crime. The detective story itself works well, but two things make the novel particularly interesting: the first is the interaction between detective Elijah Baley and the robot detective R. Daneel Ol

Fluke - Brian Klaas ****

On the whole, popular science books tell us about what science and scientists have achieved. Fluke is very different in this respect - in it, social scientist and professor of global politics Brian Klaas tells us about what the social sciences have failed to achieve, and why. Perhaps the most familiar aspects of this are in introducing the reader to the implications of chaos theory and of complexity, plus the fall out of the replication crisis that has rendered many older (and quite a few new) social science studies useless. Using plenty of engaging stories (including the fact that his own existence is the outcome, amongst other things, of a horrific killing) Klaas builds a picture of just how many small inputs come together to make anything happen in the complex system of human society. The implication of this is that is practically impossible to usefully predict the future in the social sciences (so much for Asimov's psychohistory) - in fact, hardly any social science (which incl

In the Blink of an Eye (SF) - Jo Callaghan *****

For someone who likes both science fiction and contemporary British police procedural novels, this is a gift. It features Detective Chief Superintendent Kat Frank - a senior police officer with even more baggage than is traditional for fictional detectives - being paired up with an AI detective called Lock in a trial to see if AI can aid detection. As it is a trial, they work on something well beneath the pay grade of a real DCS - missing person cold cases. Jo Callaghan produces an excellent page turner of a mystery novel which would have worked without the science fiction element, but is really brought to the next level by the addition of Lock. Of itself, adding AI to police work is lab lit (i.e. perfectly possible with today's technology), but Lock is something else. In her acknowledgements, Callaghan says 'With the exception of Lock's real-time conversational abilities, many aspects of AI described in the book either exist now or are on the horizon' - this is stretch

Eyes in the Sky - Andrew May ****

If you ask someone to describe a telescope, they will probably come up with a big tube in a dome, perhaps located somewhere remote on top of a mountain. But, in reality, many of our most important telescopes are now located in space - not only does this relieve them of the distorting effects of weather and atmosphere, they can be used 24/7. Despite their importance, and plenty of books showing of the images they produce, space telescopes don't get the coverage they deserve as objects of interest in their own right, so this book is welcome. In giving it four stars, I am primarily thinking of an audience with more than a passing interest in astronomy, though Andrew May's text is generally approachable. We start with an introduction to space and telescopes, move on to the big name most have heard of - the Hubble space telescope and then look at some specific topics where such telescopes have had a big impact, such as looking back in time to near the Big Bang, searching for exoplan

Something Coming Through (SF) - Paul McAuley *****

I have rarely been disappointed by a Paul McAuley book, so thought I would trawl his back catalogue and reaped major rewards with Something Coming Through  from 2015 - this is science fiction at its best. Set in a relatively near future after first contact with aliens, it has one of the most effective portrayal of aliens I've ever seen. Many SF aliens (think, for instance, of the majority in Star Trek ) are essentially humans with some characteristic emphasised. The two alien races portrayed here both have motivations that catch you out by not working in a truly human fashion.  One set of aliens has provided 15 wormholes to distant planets where previous civilisations have existed but are now gone, along with a shuttle travelling back and forth to each destination. The relics from the other civilisations are prized, but can have strange effects on humans, something that is central to the plot. The storyline is divided into two with alternating chapters - one initially based in Lond

The Coming Wave - Mustafa Suleyman and Michael Bhaskar ****

For some time now there have been dire warnings in the press that AI could be extremely dangerous. I've been doubtful: yes, clearly it messes up the use of essays in schools and universities, and it is likely to replace many white collar jobs, but I struggled to see the existential threat, which I assumed envisaged an artificial general intelligence taking over the world. Mustafa Suleyman, the co-founder of major AI company DeepMind, paints a far scarier picture, as he knows what he's talking about on this subject. Starting with the difficulties faced by those who attempt to suppress technological breakthroughs (the waves of the title) - in fact declaring it pretty much impossible - he then gives us the plusses and minuses of AI. We shouldn't ignore those plusses, which certainly exist, and not just for large companies who can fire whole swathes of workers. But the really significant content here is where Suleyman describes the potential negatives. He then goes on to attemp

House of Suns (SF) - Alastair Reynolds ****

Alastair Reynolds is a reliably enjoyable author of high quality science fiction, and in this 2008 novel he lives up to expectations. Each section of the book starts with an excerpt from the life of Abigail Gentian, then skips forward six million years to a point in time where her thousand clones have travelled vast numbers of light years, in stasis during their long voyages: they have very long lives, but most of the time they are not conscious - so see slower living civilisations come and go. The clones, known as shatterlings, meet up after taking a circuit that last many tens of thousands of years: the present time chapters alternate between the viewpoints of two of the clones, Campion and Purslane, who have semi-illegally paired up. This is the starting point for classically vast quality space opera happenings, from genocide to repairing a stardam that prevents a supernova from wiping out its surroundings. As things develop, secrets from deep history are uncovered and the whole of

Beyond the Hype - Fiona Fox ****

Fiona Fox runs the UK's Science Media Centre, which acts as a kind of interface between journalists and scientists to try to improve the reporting of science in the media. This is the story of that Centre and its major events. As a science writer myself, it's a strong area of interest, and Fox puts across the story in a lively fashion. There is no doubt that there was a need for something like this from both sides. Many scientists are poor at communicating their work - yet it's essential that it is done well, both because that work is often publicly funded and to make sure the public understands the scientific view. Similarly, many journalists, particularly those without a science background, over-hype science results (especially when reporting initial, small-scale medical studies) and need help in accessing the right people to get the story straight.  As, for example, Covid and climate change demonstrate so clearly, science has a huge impact on our lives and fostering a be