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Showing posts from March, 2024

Space Oddities - Harry Cliff *****

In this delightfully readable book, Harry Cliff takes us into the anomalies that are starting to make areas of physics seems to be nearing a paradigm shift, just as occurred in the past with relativity and quantum theory. We start with, we are introduced to some past anomalies linked to changes in viewpoint, such as the precession of Mercury (explained by general relativity, though originally blamed on an undiscovered planet near the Sun), and then move on to a few examples of apparent discoveries being wrong: the BICEP2 evidence for inflation (where the result was caused by dust, not the polarisation being studied),  the disappearance of an interesting blip in LHC results, and an apparent mistake in the manipulation of numbers that resulted in alleged discovery of dark matter particles. These are used to explain how statistics plays a part, and the significance of sigmas . We go on to explore a range of anomalies in particle physics and cosmology that may indicate either a breakdown i

Paul Halpern - Five Way Interview

Paul Halpern is a professor of physics at Saint Joseph's University and the author of 18 popular science books, including Collider , Flashes of Creation, The Quantum Labyrinth, Einstein's Dice and Schrödinger's Cat, and Synchronicity. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship and is a fellow of the American Physical Society. He lives near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His latest title is The Allure of the Multiverse . Why science? Science embodies humanity’s longstanding passion to understand its world and to probe its frontiers.  Ancient peoples looked to the stars and strived to decipher celestial patterns, with the aim of not only predicting astral occurrences, but also trying to comprehend the fundaments of nature and how it affects human lives.  As science developed, humankind’s knowledge of the world and its vital laws grew, along with a greater sense of its barriers and limitations. Interest in multiverse ideas bears on the question of whether or not science is wi

Kingdom of Play - David Toomey ***

If we didn't have personal experience of other animals - pets in particular - it might be easy to consider play as a particularly human behaviour, yet, as David Toomey shows, a wide range of animals resort to play, even including some non-mammalian species.  A starting point is the relative paucity of study of play in other animals - Toomey points out that this may partly be because it can be difficult to be sure if an action is play - it's very easy to anthropomorphise and interpret an action in another species in the same way we might see it in humans. It also does seem to be the case that many of those who study animals either consider play to be unimportant, or think of it primarily a function of pets, which they consider of little interest because they aren't animals in nature. There are certainly plenty of questions here (even if answers are more thin on the ground) - why animals play, whether it's learned or built-in, does it have a developmental function, what

Stephen Hawking: Genius at Work - Roger Highfield ****

It is easy to suspect that a biographical book from highly-illustrated publisher Dorling Kindersley would be mostly high level fluff, so I was pleasantly surprised at the depth Roger Highfield has worked into this large-format title. Yes, we get some of the ephemera so beloved of such books, such as a whole page dedicated to Hawking's coxing blazer - but there is plenty on Hawking's scientific life and particularly on his many scientific ideas. I've read a couple of biographies of Hawking, but I still came across aspects of his lesser fields here that I didn't remember, as well as the inevitable topics, ranging from Hawking radiation to his attempts to quell the out-of-control nature of the possible string theory universes. We also get plenty of coverage of what could be classified as Hawking the celebrity, whether it be a photograph with the Obamas in the White House, his appearances on Star Trek TNG and The Big Bang Theory or representations of him in the Simpsons. Ha

Philip Ball - How Life Works Interview

Philip Ball is one of the most versatile science writers operating today, covering topics from colour and music to modern myths and the new biology. He is also a broadcaster, and was an editor at Nature for more than twenty years. He writes regularly in the scientific and popular media and has written many books on the interactions of the sciences, the arts, and wider culture, including Bright Earth: The Invention of Colour, The Music Instinct, and Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything. His book Critical Mass won the 2005 Aventis Prize for Science Books. Ball is also a presenter of Science Stories, the BBC Radio 4 series on the history of science. He trained as a chemist at the University of Oxford and as a physicist at the University of Bristol. He is also the author of The Modern Myths. He lives in London. His latest title is How Life Works . Your book is about the ’new biology’ - how new is ’new’? Great question – because there might be some dispute about that! Many

The Allure of the Multiverse - Paul Halpern *****

What with multiverses and metaverses, you just can't move for verses at the moment (amusingly, the 'verse' part essentially refers to a turn, which makes no sense in either case). 'Multiverse' as a concept was always going to be a trifle confusing, as 'universe' is supposed to refer to everything in existence, but as we will see, there are plenty of different ways, both philosophically and physically, that the term is applied to something beyond the familiar, four dimensional universe. Paul Halpern packs plenty into this book - in order to put the various kinds of multiverse concept into context he pretty much goes through quantum physics, Big Bang cosmology and string theory (plus a touch of loop quantum gravity) in a fair amount of detail. We see how the most straightforward multiverse concept of a series of bubble universes in the same normal spacetime has been used to explain the fine tuning of the universe or is put forward as a consequence of the conte

The Blind Spot - Adam Frank, Marcelo Gleiser and Evan Thompson ****

This is a curate's egg - sections are gripping, others rather dull. Overall the writing could be better... but the central message is fascinating and the book gets four stars despite everything because of this. That central message is that, as the subtitle says, science can't ignore human experience. This is not a cry for 'my truth'. The concept comes from scientists and philosophers of science. Instead it refers to the way that it is very easy to make a handful of mistakes about what we are doing with science, as a result of which most people (including many scientists) totally misunderstand the process and the implications. At the heart of this is confusing mathematical models with reality. It's all too easy when a mathematical model matches observation well to think of that model and its related concepts as factual. What the authors describe as 'the blind spot' is a combination of a number of such errors. These include what the authors call 'the bifur

Robots and Empire (SF) - Isaac Asimov ****

In the last of his six robot books (though at least one character from here would appear in the late additions to the Foundation series), Isaac Asimov gives us a far more substantial threat than the roboticide central to his other late robot title The Robots of Dawn .There's a double menace with both the need to uncover a plot against Earth and the mysterious disappearance of the inhabitants of Solaria (though the latter will be left to a later book to sort out). Because of this, Robots and Empire reads better than Robots of Dawn , though it suffers from the same problem of spending far too long over conversations with logical arguments dragged out for page after page, and ludicrously verbose explanations. Here, a character will say they know what has happened (or whatever) and then take five pages before they reveal what they think. It feels like famous author syndrome in action - Asimov’s editor should have been far firmer. Although the book follows on from the three books featu