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Showing posts from April, 2024

Mark Wolverton - Five Way Interview

Mark Wolverton is a science journalist, author, dramatist, and 2016-17 Knight-MIT Science Journalism Fellow. He writes for various national and international publications including WIRED, Nature, Undark, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Scientific American, American Heritage, The Atlantic, and Air & Space Smithsonian. He has also worked with the NASA Ames History Project, Argonne National Laboratory, MIT, the Franklin Institute, and the NASA ISS Science Office. His books include A Life in Twilight:The Final Years of J. Robert Oppenheimer and The Science of Superman. His latest title is Splinters of Infinity . Why science? As someone who was enthralled from a very tender age by 1950s science fiction movies, television shows such as Twilight Zone, Star Trek, and The Outer Limits , and the written works of authors such as Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke, it wasn't much of a leap to become fascinated by science - the reality underlying the fiction. Although

The Science of Weird Shit - Chris French ****

This is a highly engaging topic, but before diving into the content of the book I ought to mention two issues with its title. The first is that in this age of algorithmic censorship, the final word of the title can cause problems - the publisher had an issue with publicity emails being caught by spam filters, and I'm nervous enough about the contents of this review being pulled that I won't use it in the text. The other, more subtle problem is that it's only partially what the book is about - as the subtitle makes clear. Most of it doesn't concern the science of weird stuff, but rather the science of why many of us believe weird stuff. Those aren't the same things. Such is the joy of titles - often hard to get right. But what about the book itself? Considering it's covering what can be quite a showy field, it takes a measured approach (in fact, I'd say occasionally it's a bit too academic in feel, focused on relating facts with limited storytelling). Ho

Deep Utopia - Nick Bostrom ***

This is one of the strangest sort-of popular science (or philosophy, or something or other) books I've ever read. If you can picture the impact of a cross between Douglas Hofstadter's  Gödel Escher Bach and Gaileo's Two New Sciences  (at least, its conversational structure), then thrown in a touch of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest , and you can get a feel for what the experience of reading it is like - bewildering with the feeling that there is something deep that you can never quite extract from it. Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom is probably best known in popular science for his book Superintelligence in which he looked at the implications of having artificial intelligence (AI) that goes beyond human capabilities. In a sense, Deep Utopia is a sequel, picking out one aspect of this speculation: what life would be like for us if technology had solved all our existential problems, while (in the form of superintelligence) it had also taken away much of our appare

Roger Highfield - Stephen Hawking: genius at work interview

Roger Highfield OBE is the Science Director of the Science Museum Group. Roger has visiting professorships at the Department of Chemistry, UCL, and at the Dunn School, University of Oxford, is a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences, and a member of the Medical Research Council and Longitude Committee. He has written or co-authored ten popular science books, including two bestsellers. His latest title is Stephen Hawking: genius at work . Why science? There are three answers to this question, depending on context: Apollo; Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, along with the world’s worst nuclear accident at Chernobyl; and, finally, Nullius in verba . Growing up I enjoyed the sciencey side of TV programmes like Thunderbirds and The Avengers but became completely besotted when, in short trousers, I gazed up at the moon knowing that two astronauts had paid it a visit. As the Apollo programme unfolded, I became utterly obsessed. Today, more than half a century later, the moon landings are

Splinters of Infinity - Mark Wolverton ****

Many of us who read popular science regularly will be aware of the 'great debate' between American astronomers Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis in 1920 over whether the universe was a single galaxy or many. Less familiar is the clash in the 1930s between American Nobel Prize winners Robert Millikan and Arthur Compton over the nature of cosmic rays. This not a book about the nature of cosmic rays as we now understand them, but rather explores this confrontation between heavyweight scientists. Millikan was the first in the fray, and often wrongly named in the press as discoverer of cosmic rays. He believed that this high energy radiation from above was made up of photons that ionised atoms in the atmosphere. One of the reasons he was determined that they should be photons was that this fitted with his thesis that the universe was in a constant state of creation: these photons, he thought, were produced in the birth of new atoms. This view seems to have been primarily driven by re

Accidental - Tim James ***

Tim James' writing style is a bit like going to see a comedian who only tells one-liners. Initially it's amazing and highly entertaining, but eventually it can get a touch wearing. Having said that, thanks to the sheer variety of the content, James manages to keep the reader interested, and the short entries (not one liners, but mostly two to three pages), which feel as if they are coming at you at breakneck speed, make it decidedly moreish. James is writing about unintentional scientific breakthroughs, which he divides into clumsiness; misfortunes - where things went wrong for the desired outcome, but then achieved something different (a fair number of these are medical); surprises, where results are unexpected; and eurekas, where a major breakthrough is caused by an apparently insignificant observation or comment. The topics are wide ranging - everything from guncotton to the telephone, Super Soakers (oddly in the 'major breakthrough' Eureka section) to superglue. It&

Hey, there's science in this - Eva Amsen ****

In this slim collection of what were originally blog posts, Eva Amsen takes us around the scientific world looking for interesting stories where science crops up in unexpected places. It combines entertainment and information effectively, and because each article is short, it is satisfyingly moreish. I read the book in three short sittings - and each time I ended up reading more sections than I intended, as it's very tempting to read just one more. To give an example of some randomly enjoyable entries, we get 'Rubber ducks and Lego' about the way that containers of floating goods (accidentally) dropped in the sea have helped with studies of ocean currents, 'Manhattanhenge' on cityscapes that line up with the low Sun (like Stonehenge, though less purposefully) and 'Songs about Science', exploring how science turns up in songs, whether it's as a subject of an original or a comedy song changing the words of a classic, a trend started with Lehrer's perio