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Showing posts from February, 2024

The Milky Way - Moiya McTier ****

For some reason, our home galaxy has relatively light coverage in popular science, so it was good to read Moiya McTier's book last year (less good to have forgetten about it until now - this is probably due to the aversion mentioned at the end of the review). After an introductory chapter, we start by looking at early ideas and myths about the sky pattern referred to most often now as the Milky Way, long before it was realised that this was our galaxy. We are then taken through the Milky Way's formation (and along with that information on stars and other components that go together to make up a galaxy) and McTier goes on to do everything from pull apart Star Trek's dodgy navigational coordinates to what remain mysteries to current science. (Unusually for a simplifying popular science book, we do hear a bit about alternatives to dark matter, though McTier does dismiss MOND using arguments that are weaker than those that could be used to dismiss dark matter particles.) So far

Jo Lenaghan - Five Way Interview

Jo Callaghan works full time as a senior strategist, where she has carried out research into the impact of AI and genomics on the future workforce. After losing her husband to cancer in 2019 when she was just forty-nine, she started writing In the Blink of an Eye , her debut SF crime novel which explores learning to live with loss and what it means to be human. She lives with her two children in the Midlands and the second book in the series, Leave No Trace , is published in the UK on March 28th. Why police procedural? I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years, and although In the Blink of an Eye is my UK debut, before this I wrote five unpublished books for children and young adults. Partly this was because I wanted to write about time travel and other big ideas, but also because my children were young at the time, so that was what I was mostly reading. Then as they grew older, I returned to reading more adult books in general and crime fiction in particular. I’ve always loved big ideas

The Robots of Dawn (SF) - Isaac Asimov ***

There is no doubt that The Robots of Dawn is fascinating from the point of view of being able to examine Isaac Asimov's development of a writer - and how he deals with technological dead ends in his first two Elijah Baley books from the 1950s when he revisited the character and his robotic challenges in 1983. Quite how well it works as a novel is a different matter, which we will return to. In The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun , Baley, a detective from the warren-like city of New York faces up to the societies of Spacers - humans who have settled on new planets and have totally different cultures to his own, notably in their enthusiastic use of robots. In this addition to the series, Baley travels to Aurora, the oldest of the Spacer planets, to try to solve an apparently intractable case of roboticide. A human-like robot (one of only two in existence) has been 'murdered'. But the only person who it's claimed could have done this denies having done so - and Earth

Awe - Dacher Keltner **

Over the years, Dacher Keltner has covered a range of really interesting topics. Take, for instance Born to be Good on 'the science of a meaningful life' from 2010 or The Power Paradox on 'how we gain and lose influence' from 2016. Now he's done it again with Awe , exploring 'the explorative power of everyday wonder'. And just as with the other two, I was drawn in by the concept only to be disappointed by the content - it's a bit like popular science clickbait. To be honest, I'd forgotten I'd read the previous books when I bought this one, but referring back to the earlier reviews, I'm getting the same feeling all over again. I noted that Born to be Good was 'strung together rather haphazardly' and that The Power Paradox felt like many business books - a good magazine article strung out to make a tissue-thin book. It's deja vu all over again. Keltner divides the book into four sections. Only the first is directly about 'a

The Naked Sun (SF) - Isaac Asimov ****

In my read through of all six of Isaac Asimov's robot books, I'm on the fourth, from 1956 - the second novel featuring New York detective Elijah Baley. Again I'm struck by how much better his book writing is than that in the early robot stories. Here, Baley, who has spent his life in the confines of the walled-in city is sent to the Spacer planet of Solaria to deal with a murder, on a mission with political overtones. Asimov gives us a really interesting alternative future society where a whole planet is divided between just 20,000 people, living in vast palace-like structures, supported by hundreds of robots each.  The only in-person contact between them is with a spouse (and only to get the distasteful matter of children out of the way) or a doctor. Otherwise all contact is by remote viewing. This society is nicely thought through - while in practice it's hard to imagine humans getting to the stage of finding personal contact with others disgusting, it's an intere

Andrew May -- Five Way Interview

Andrew May obtained his PhD in astrophysics from the University of Manchester in 1982. After a 30-year career spanning academia, the civil service and private industry he now works as a freelance writer and science consultant. He has written on subjects as diverse as the physical sciences, military technology, British history and the paranormal. He lives in Somerset and his latest title is  Eyes in the Sky . Why astronomy? I was obsessively interested in space as a child. The first 'real world' events I was aware of were the Gemini missions of the mid-60s, and like everyone else I was glued to the Moon landings a little later. By the time of the last one, Apollo 17, I was interested in cutting-edge astronomy too - black holes and quasars and such like - so (to me at least) it seemed inevitable that I'd go on to do a PhD in astrophysics. After an exciting few years doing postdoctoral research I eventually had to get a 'proper' job, but since I became semi-retired I&#

The Rest of the Robots (SF) - Isaac Asimov ***

Asimov's second collection of robot short stories is arguably a little better than I, Robot - apart from anything else it lacks the painfully unfunny bantering in the stories featuring the engineers Donovan and Powell in that earlier collection. Once again there are some clever problems set up - such as the failure of a robot to pilot a test flight of the first hyperdrive ship (giving the character who deactivates the ship some serious peril). But as before, these are stories of ideas that feel a little too cerebral and that have dated more than the novels seem to have done. For me, far and above the best story was the final one in the collection, Galley Slave , which Asimov notes is his favourite Susan Calvin story - I'd agree. The actual setup of the story is very unlikely, but it's entertainingly set as a court case. What is particularly interesting is the parallel with the present agonies about generative AI such as ChatGPT in academia. The 'galley' of the story

How Life Works - Philip Ball *****

Wow. This is quite simply the best biology book I've ever read. At its heart are two essentials: one is the science mantra 'It's more complex than we thought', and the other is that the public at large - and even many biologists - have put too much focus on genetics as the central shaping force of life and the inner development and workings of organisms, coming close to ignoring the many other layers of complex systems that make life what it is and drive evolution. You would think we would have got the message about 'It's more complex than we thought,' and the associated concept that 'It's more complex than we tell you at school or in science TV shows' by now. It's true of all the sciences. In physics, for example, we've known that the reality is more complicated than 'light is wave' for over a century now. But biological systems are so vastly more intricate and messy than anything dealt with in physics. Until recently, even those

A Chorus of Big Bangs - Adam Susskind ***

This is an oddity, which is trying to do something that scientists usually avoid at all costs: making us think about what we take on faith when we consider cosmology. If the 'F' word is a problem for you, I wouldn't bother to read any further, but Adam Susskind is certainly right to point out it is not just the religious part of the world population who rely on faith - to take the atheist standpoint that most scientists espouse also requires faith in the adequacy of sometimes tenuous theories when dealing with a science as hands-off as cosmology. Susskind does a good job of identifying a range of cosmological theories that have been repeatedly patched up when holes have been found, to the extent that some now feel quite flaky. Many of the theories Susskind identifies are indeed currently problematic, but easily replaced by a better future scientific theory - for example dark matter, dark energy and inflation. Others are more fundamental and we genuinely don't have a par

I, Robot (SF) - Isaac Asimov ***

Without doubt, I, Robot is a classic of science fiction. Dating back to 1950 it collects Asimov's early short stories about robots in the shared setting of the US Robots and Mechanical Men corporation, mostly featuring robopsychologist Susan Calvin. I read these stories many years ago, but have only recently re-aquired them when I bought The Caves of Steel in a six book package. There's some clever work here, with almost all the stories featuring Asimov's famous 'three laws of robotics' and specifically exploring ways that the robots interpret these 'laws' resulting in things going wrong. It's still an interesting read - but I don't think it has stood the test of time as well as The Caves of Steel . Don't get me wrong - it's still an essential part of the SF canon, and even the collective title is iconic (the stories originally appeared in magazines, of course). But Asimov's limitations with characterisation come through more strongly h