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Showing posts from July, 2024

Love Triangle - Matt Parker ****

There's no doubt that Matt Parker can make practically anything interesting - this is one of the few books I've ever read where I genuinely enjoyed the introduction. But there was a real challenge here. In a review of a recent book about maps and mathematics I said 'I always found [geometry and trigonometry] the most tedious aspect of maths.' Take a look at the subtitle here: 'the life-changing magic of trigonometry'. It's no surprise that the 'trig' word turns up - it literally means triangle measuring (trigon is an obsolete term for a triangle). But it inevitably raises a shudder for many. Parker does acknowledge this in his pure trigonometry section, suggesting it's primarily because it's a pain remembering what tan and cos and sin refer to, but pointing out convincingly how useful and powerful trigonometry is. I confess, however, it was still my least-favourite chapter in the book. Thankfully there's a lot more, introduced with Parke

Chain Reactions - Lucy Jane Santos ***

I very much enjoyed Lucy Jane Santos' previous title Half Lives , which covered 'the unlikely history of radium'. Her enthusiasm for the topic shone through (in true radium fashion). As well as the straight history of the discovery and deployment of radium, we got lots on its use in commercial products - initially in quack medicine, but later in every type of product imaginable, with Boots even selling radiated soda syphon cartridges. In this follow-up Santos takes on what might seem a quite similar topic: the history of our discovery and use of uranium. There is obviously a degree of overlap between the topics, particularly in the quack medicine usage - particularly delightful were some of the more wacky US attempts to monetise atomic appeal by, for instance, setting up treatment barns where you could be immersed in allegedly (though often not actually) radioactive soil in a process that felt more like going to Lourdes than a true medical treatment. But in practice both be

Jules Howard - Infinite Life interview

Jules Howard is a zoological correspondent, science writer and broadcaster, whose recent book, Wonderdog , won the 2022 Barker Book Prize for non-fiction. He writes on a host of topics relating to zoology, ecology and wildlife conservation and appears regularly in BBC Science Focus magazine and on radio and TV, including BBC Breakfast and Radio 4's Nature Table and The Ultimate Choice. He lives in Northamptonshire with his wife and two children. His latest title is Infinite Life . Why write about eggs? Like many, I have always loved those big epic tales, based on science, that chart the evolution of animals – the Cambrian Explosion, fish moving onto the land, early amphibians and reptiles, the demise of dinosaurs and the rise of mammals… Gould, Dawkins, Attenborough did it so well, and I loved this kind of information when I was starting out in zoology. I guess I was always looking for an opportunity to tell my own version of this… and that’s where the eggs idea comes into it. Eggs

The AI Mirror - Shannon Vallor ****

Some titles tell you nothing about the book itself - but The AI Mirror puts Shannon Vallor's central argument front and centre: that artificial intelligence, particularly generative AI such as ChatGPT, is not intelligence at all, but rather holds a mirror up to our own intelligence. As Vallor points out, your reflection in a mirror certainly looks and acts like you - but it is not a person. This is a metaphor that works impressively well. It reflects (get it?) the total lack of understanding in systems that are simply reflecting back data from a vast amount of human output. That's not to say that they have no value, but we always have to be aware of their nature and their abilities both to produce errors as a result and to reflect our in-built biases, which we may consciously suppress but nonetheless come through in the data. To quote Vallor, these systems 'aren't designed to be accurate, they are designed to sound accurate'. What Vallor tells us we have that AI d