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Showing posts from May, 2024

Quantum Drama - Jim Baggott and John Heilbron ***

On a first glance of the cover you might think that Jim Baggott and John Heilbron were brilliant Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein impersonators. In fact Baggott is an excellent popular science writer and Heilbron was an esteemed historian of science, both specialising in quantum physics. There's another way the cover is misleading - you might think this was an in-depth exploration of Bohr and Einstein's relationship. The topics they argued about certainly come into it, but instead this is detailed look at how quantum theory developed. I've read a lot of books on quantum physics, but I've never come across one that goes into such painstaking detail of every step along the way, introducing the work of a good number of physicists who rarely make it into the public eye. These range from John von Neumann - well known but usually sidelined as a quantum physicist - to the likes of Oskar Klein and Hans Kramers. Similarly, Baggott and Heilbron go into many (many) steps along the w

The Affirmation (SF) - Christopher Priest ****

Defining science fiction is tricky. The most obvious way this interesting novel is SF is the catchall ‘it’s by an SF author’, which is why I presume it made its way onto the SF Masterworks list. Generally acclaimed as one of the much-missed Christopher Priest’s best books, at its simplest The Affirmation can be seen as the musings of the mentally ill Peter Sinclair, whose attempt to construct a better life by writing himself a fictional autobiography gradually results in a loss of awareness of what is and isn’t real. What makes it an exceptional novel is that its structure very cleverly takes the reader into the relationship between memory and reality, exploring what is real if memory can no longer be relied on. As such it is extremely clever and sophisticated. Where it falls down a little is in engagement with the reader. If this book is an affirmation of anything, it’s that old storytelling distinction between showing and telling. The Affirmation is almost pure tell as Sinclair, bo

Harry Cliff - Space Oddities Interview

Harry Cliff is a particle physicist at the University of Cambridge working on the LHCb experiment, a huge particle detector buried 100 metres underground at CERN near Geneva. He is a member of an international team of around 1400 physicists, engineers and computer scientists who are using LHCb to study the basic building blocks of our universe.  Harry also spend a big chunk of his time sharing his love of physics with the public. From 2012 to 2018 he held a joint post between Cambridge and the Science Museum in London, where he curated two major exhibitions: Collider (2013) and The Sun (2018). His latest title is Space Oddities . Why science? It’s hard to remember a single moment that turned me on to science, but like a lot of small children, I was fascinated by dinosaurs and tried to drag my parents up to the Natural History Museum as often as I could. Aged about six, I wanted to be a palaeontologist, which was probably the longest word I knew at the time. Another moment came at secon

Gaia’s Web - Karen Bakker ***

Sadly deceased in 2023, Karen Bakker combined geographical, environmental and technology interests, a crossover that she presented in her last book, Gaia’s Web . The idea here is to make use of the abilities of modern information technology, from machine learning to specialist sensors and satellite data to monitor both the state of the environment and those who are misusing it. As such there is some fascinating material here. Bakker  shows the power of digital eco-surveillance to protect the environment from everything from overfishing to forest fires, but emphasises rightly the accompanying danger that the same technologies can be used for surveillance by states. But Bakker sometimes undermines her own powerful arguments by taking a simplistic academic’s ‘capitalism bad’ approach that fails to recognise that without capitalism we wouldn’t have all this wonderful technology. There’s hypocrisy here.  This leads to the (highly confusing) sentence: ‘Researchers have raised concerns that s

Making Sense of Chaos - Doyne Farmer *****

This is a remarkable book, pulling together two key threads - chaos theory and economics. Doyne Farmer has a reputation as someone who breaks the mould: famously, he dropped out of studying physics at graduate level, working with a handful of others to put together a wearable computer (back in the 70s, when such a thing would have seemed pretty much impossible) to enable them to successfully beat the odds at casinos, picking up on the slight biases in roulette wheels. Now, he presents a powerful case for applying chaos theory to economics, modelling economies in a totally different, agent-driven way rather than the traditional approach taken by economists. This combines for me the impact of two books I've read and greatly admired, but in both cases had felt that there needed to be a next step. The first of these was Chaos by James Gleick, which got me all fired up about chaos theory, but proved a bit of a let down as it was great to explain why, for example, it's difficult to

The Coming Storm (SF) - Greg Mosse ***

It's a difficult task to write a sequel to a successful thriller and make it work as a standalone novel - sadly, this wasn't achieved well with The Coming Storm. It follows Greg Mosse's generally well received The Coming Darkness , a near future SF thriller set in a dystopian 2037 where both climate change and rampant infections have made the world a far less pleasant place and a worldwide conspiracy sets out to wreck modern civilisation. Unfortunately, this book is way too slow to get started. Most of the first half of the book is just the three principle characters recovering from their exertions in the previous book. Admittedly there are a couple of assassination attempts, but mostly this is decidedly tedious. To make matters worse, the writing style can be a touch amateurish. In just a few pages, a characters hire car is described as a 'powerful EV saloon three times'. And some of the attempts at inner monologue are cringeworthy. For example we get the mind-num

Alien Earths - Lisa Kaltenegger ****

After an introduction to exoplanets - planets orbiting stars other than the Sun - Alien Earths concentrates on the theory of and the search for life on these planets. Written by astronomy professor Lisa Kaltenegger, who runs the Carl Sagan Institute for the Search for Life in the Cosmos at Cornell University, it's a gentle guide to one of the most imaginative aspects of astronomy. A fair amount of the content looks at what makes a habitable planet (which is not always an Earth-like situation), what life is and how we may be able to detect it a great distance. There are some good details here, though I would have appreciated more depth. Given this is such a speculative subject, there is also relatively little questioning of assumptions. For example, there's a description of the gold records sent out on Voyager 1 and 2, with detail of how to put a time interval across to aliens. 'The team [behind the records] solved this problem by using a time constant that any spacefaring c

High (SF) - Adam Roberts ****

Reading this novella was a strange experience. It was more like watching an episode of an SF anthology TV series such as The Twilight Zone  or Black Mirror than reading a book. Like these, there is limited character development and a restricted plot with interesting ideas, but not a full story arc. It did made me wish Adam Roberts had fleshed it out to a full novel - I could see so many more opportunities that were unfulfilled - but like the better episodes in the TV shows, as long as you take it for what it is, it's still a fun experience. The central character Hi (a name with echoes of Snow Crash 's Hiro Protagonist) is a very talented future mercenary. Taking on the job of liberating an extremely rich woman's daughter from the girl's father's fortified home on Mars, Hi achieves the impossible in getting to Mars without being discovered and killed (Roberts toys with us as to how this could have happened), and then sets about preparing for a ridiculously David an

Everything is Predictable - Tom Chivers *****

There's a stereotype of computer users: Mac users are creative and cool, while PC users are businesslike and unimaginative. Less well-known is that the world of statistics has an equivalent division. Bayesians are the Mac users of the stats world, where frequentists are the PC people. This book sets out to show why Bayesians are not just cool, but also mostly right. Tom Chivers does an excellent job of giving us some historical background, then dives into two key aspects of the use of statistics. These are in science, where the standard approach is frequentist and Bayes only creeps into a few specific applications, such as the accuracy of medical tests, and in decision theory where Bayes is dominant. If this all sounds very dry and unexciting, it's quite the reverse. I admit, I love probability and statistics, and I am something of a closet Bayesian*), but Chivers' light and entertaining style means that what could have been the mathematical equivalent of debating angels on