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Showing posts from June, 2024

A Crack in Everything - Marcus Chown *****

This is a book about black holes - and there are two ways to look at these amazing phenomena. One is to meander about in endless speculation concerning firewalls and holographic universes and the like, where there is no basis in observation, only mathematical magic. This, for me, is often closer to science fiction than science fact. The alternative, which is what Marcus Chown does so well here (apart from a single chapter), is to explore the aspects of theory that have observational evidence to back them up - and he does it wonderfully. I'm reminded in a way of the play The Audience which was the predecessor to The Crown . In the play, we see a series of moments in history when Queen Elizabeth II is meeting with her prime ministers, giving a view of what was happening in life and politics at that point in time. Here, Chown takes us to visit various breakthroughs over the last 100 or so years when a step was made in the understanding of black holes.  The first few are around the ba

Mapmatics - Paulina Rowińska ***

Popular mathematics can be hard to make engaging. Though some topics (such as infinity or zero) can be made interesting in isolation, usually it's best if it can be tied to something more concrete, and what Paulina Rowińska does here is to bring us the story of maps and the the maths behind them. Although Rowińska starts with Mercator and other early projections, it's not really a history of mapping - for example, there is no mention of Roger Bacon's description of using coordinates for mapping - instead the focus is the twin mathematical bases of mapping, geometry and trigonometry before moving onto other maths connections from fractals and operational research to Bayes' theorem. We start with the nature of a curved world and the compromises that need to be made to translate a 3D surface onto a sheet of paper - compromises that are rarely stated and make a huge difference to the look of the map. This is mostly very engaging, except when it spends too long on geometry a

Revelation Space (SF) - Alastair Reynolds ***

Having recently been hugely impressed by Machine Vendetta , the closing part of Alastair Reynolds' Prefect Dreyfus trilogy, I was delighted to notice in its prelims that these books were set 'within the Revelation Space universe'. I rushed to get a copy of Revelation Space , the first of five novels I hadn't read - and I'm very pleased that I did. One of the interesting things about this book is seeing just how far Reynolds' writing has come on in the near quarter century between the novels. What we get here is a future universe beautifully conceived with lots of crunchy detail. The science behind it is carefully thought through, and even though the scale of the technology can be overblown, it only feels like fantasy in the final few chapters. Reynolds gives us a complex but well set out plot line and though it's very much in the style where terms are thrown in and you've got go with the flow and work out what they are referring to over time, it never fe

The Atomic Human - Neil Lawrence ****

This is a real curate’s egg of a book. Let’s start with the title - it feels totally wrong for what the book’s about. ‘The Atomic Human’ conjures up some second rate superhero. What Neil Lawrence is getting at is the way atoms were originally conceived as what you get when you pare back more and more until what’s left is uncuttable. The idea is that this reflects the way that artificial intelligence has cut into what’s special about being human - but there is still that core left. I think a much better analogy would have been the god of the gaps - the idea that science has taken over lots of what was once attributed to deities, leaving just a collection of gaps. At the heart of the book is an excellent point: how we as humans have great processing power in our brains but very limited bandwidth with which to communicate. By comparison, AIs have a huge amount of bandwidth to absorb vast amounts of data from the internet but can’t manage our use of understanding and context. This distinct

Tom Chivers - Five Way Interview

Tom Chivers is a science writer and author. He was given Royal Statistical Society 'Statistical Excellence in Journalism' awards in 2018 and 2020, and was declared the Science Writer of the Year by the Association of British Science Writers in 2021. His two previous books are The Rationalist's Guide to the Galaxy and How to Read Numbers (with David Chivers). His latest title is Everything is Predictable . Why statistics? Because I want to believe true things, and I want to achieve my goals. There are a lot of questions we can answer without statistics, and goals we can achieve without statistics – if I want to know whether the shop has milk I can go and check, and if I want to cook my children dinner I can just do it. But there are also lots of situations where, if we want to do a good job, we need statistics, and to use them carefully. That’s true both at a policy level and at a personal one. Should the government spend billions of pounds on cancer screening? We can’t ans

A Brief History of Stuff - Science Museum ***

Ever since A Brief History of Time there have been regular outbursts of brief histories in popular science writing (even though A Brief History of Infinity should perhaps have been the end of it). The latest such offering features stuff. It's a neat topic for the illustrated Dorling Kindersley style with a total of 50 articles, typically four to six pages long on subjects ranging from electric taxis to hot water bottles via the likes of roller skates, PCs and scissors. Strictly it's about objects rather than stuff (which I would think of as concerning material science) - but I suspect calling them objects would be too close to the history of the world in 100 objects. Most of the items here are everyday, with a mix of high and low tech. This includes an odd mix of the very general (plastic and tinned food, for instance) and the strangely specific such as the Rover safety bicycle, the AXBT microphone and the Kenwood A700 (no, me neither). With the bewildering array of authors (

Charge - Frank Close ****

Anyone who writes popular science books that are so thick they could act as doorstops should pay more attention to what Frank Close achieves. In a slim, small volume he manages to pack in a huge amount of information without compromising at all on quality. His latest such book is Charge - dealing with various types of charge from electrical to colour (in the quark sense). This starts off brilliantly with a point about electrical charge that had never occurred to me. Close tells us that with every breath you inhale sufficient electrons to absorb a charge of around 15,000 coulombs 'enough to spark 1000 bolts of lightning'. And if breathing steadily, the equivalent current would be about 3,000 amps. Thankfully, though, the balancing positive charge from the nucleus means you don't fry. (This is slightly misleading as the comparison with lightning only works if you consider charge - the current in a lightning bolt is typically about 10 times higher as it lasts a much briefer t

Chris French - Five Way Interview

As well as being Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and the head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit, Chris French regularly appears on TV and radio and is an expert skeptic on the popular BBC show, Uncanny . His new book is The Science of Weird Shit . Why science? Science may not be perfect – because scientists are only human and are susceptible to the same foibles as everybody else – but for my money it is by far the best approach we have for trying to figure out the truth about how the universe works and our place in it. Why this book? I taught an optional module on anomalistic psychology for over 20 years at Goldsmiths, University of London. The topics covered, including alien abduction claims, ghosts, people claiming psychic abilities, and belief in conspiracies, are topics that most people, whether believers or sceptics, find inherently fascinating. The module allowed me to discuss a wide range of relevant psychological phenomena

Infinite Life: Jules Howard ****

There's been something of a trend for 'big picture' books that trace a feature of life, the universe or whatever from billions of years ago to the present day, arguably started by Henry Gee's excellent  A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth . The new book by Jules Howard follows this trend in tracing eggs back to their earliest origins and following them step by step through to (biologically) recent times. I was a bit wary about this one. It felt in danger of being a lengthy catalogue of eggs that would only appeal to the ovoid equivalent of a trainspotter. But I had very much enjoyed Howard's Wonderdog and found it hard to believe he wouldn't have found a way to make the story of the egg much more interesting - which on the whole he has. The slight reservation here is that there are an awful lot of species described and many variants of the egg concept. But Howard's excellent storytelling skills allow him to get away with this by giving us a series of sc

Machine Vendetta (SF) - Alastair Reynolds *****

I recently read another SF thriller and moaned that it was very slow to get going. You can’t say that about Machine Vendetta . In the first few chapters we get three separate major incidents - and that’s just the beginning of the problems for central character Prefect Dreyfus and his colleagues at Panoply. Alastair Reynolds set up a rich political position for this organisation - its primary role is to ensure the voting at the heart of democracy keeps going, but they effectively act as a sort of inter-habitat FBI as well. It’s been a while since I read the previous novels in the series ( Aurora Rising and Elysium Fire ) , and was concerned I’d have trouble keeping up, but Reynolds does an excellent job of filling in what’s needed without ever going into boring synopsis mode. At the heart of the story are two rogue AIs, so powerful that they are god-like in their abilities - this, combined with the after effects of a failed attempt to control them, a conspiracy to continue this effort