Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Hidden Figures - Margot Lee Shetterly ****

This is a truly remarkable human story, which is why it gets four stars despite a couple of significant issues. Many non-fiction literary agents have a mantra of 'Is it an article?' for a book proposal that really hasn't got enough content to justify a full length manuscript. The story of Hidden Figures would have made a superb 3,000 word article, but stretched to book length it does become extremely repetitious. The other problem I had was that I was sold this title as popular science - if the book had included science content it could have been far more engaging, but the author clearly has no interest in science or maths and skims over any technical issues as quickly as possible - what remains is pure social history.
Despite that disappointment I can only say in awe again, what a story! If you are familiar with the history of science you will know about the human computers, often women, who worked in astronomy and who were the engine behind significant astronomical discoveries. In Hidden Figures we meet the African American female mathematicians who worked hidden away in the US aerospace industry. This narrative is so remarkable because these women overcame a perfect storm of opposition. Not only were they female, they were black. Not only were they black, but they were working in Virginia, a Southern state whose white community appeared to resent the abolishment of slavery and fought to maintain as much segregation between blacks and whites as possible.
Despite all of this, despite the odds hugely stacked against them, the women featured in Hidden Figures started off as the human predecessors of electronic computers, crunching numbers for engineers, and went on to gain significant roles as mathematicians and engineers in their own right. They worked at the Langley, Virginia facility, set up in the Second World War to work on warplanes, and later helping to develop technology for missiles and on the space programme - these women were an important part of the team who put men on the Moon. (White, and just men, of course.)
As an example of the way that maths and science are given short shrift, the topic of Reynolds numbers is brought up at one point. Sounds interesting - what's that all about? I've no real idea.  All we are told about Reynolds numbers is that it was a 'bit of mathematical jujitsu '. 
I'm giving this book four stars because of the remarkable story and individuals involved. Treating the book purely as a social history title it only deserves three, as the writing isn't particularly engaging, and as popular science it only should get two. But put those concerns behind you and celebrate the work of these individuals.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

101 Bets You Will Always Win - Richard Wiseman ***

I'm a sucker for the kind of 'how can you do that?' challenge that featured regularly as ways to win bets on the TV show Hustle - so when I saw Richard Wiseman's new book I was so enthusiastic to lay my hands on it, I bought it with my own money. (Thankfully at an over 50% discount, as the list price is very steep for what it is.) I certainly enjoyed it, but it was also a little bit of a let down.
Psychologist Wiseman has made something of a speciality of 'quirkology' - the psychology of human quirks that lies behind our ability to trick each other, so when the subtitle promised 'the science behind the seemingly impossible' I expected plenty of good pop psychology on why we were taken in by this kind of thing. But in practice the slim book is mostly the tricks with just a few bits of interpolated trivia - the only sizeable bit of fact was about the history of the safety match. 
I read the entire book on a 45 minute train journey, though without, of course, trying out the betting tricks. I'm not sure whether I will or not - the trouble is, although the tricksters of Hustle look extremely smooth when they pull this kind of trick in a bar, in reality you are likely to look something of a prat if you try it on your friends down the pub, and most of us wouldn't try it on complete strangers, the only way to successfully make use of it to win money. Sadly, most likely, we will be exposed to children doing these tricks on us and will have to seem pleased and amazed. The only one I might try is the hundred-and-first trick, Wiseman's confessed favourite. Strictly speaking it's a magic trick rather than a psychological one, as it requires a prepared misleading prop - but it is very entertaining.
Of the main meat of the book, there were a lot of old favourites - I recognised about half of them. These included that old chestnut of the repeated word on a line break (spot what's wrong with this
this sentence), the only novelty being the word wasn't 'the', and the 'balance a glass on three knives balanced themselves on three glasses' trick which appeared in the copy of de Bono's Five Day in Thinking that I was given as a present 50 years ago. There were also rather too many problems that required irritatingly unnecessary accuracy of language - for instance, one where the mark is challenged to balance an orange on the top of a glass that is on a table bottom upwards. When they balance the orange, you claim to win as they've put the orange on the bottom of the glass, not the top.
Even so, there were enough novel challenges here that I still think the book is worth buying (and inevitably it would make an excellent stocking filler), especially if you try some of them out. I don't know if it's because I'm an impoverished writer, but I was particularly taken with some of the tricks involving bank notes, and both static electricity and surface tension have roles to play in some of the more imaginative challenges.
Don't expect, then, that these are going to be tricks that blow your mind. They mostly are done with everyday items (though I would probably avoid doing the ones involving lighting matches in a smoke-free pub) - in some the only prop is the human body - but it is entertaining to challenge yourself to work out the solution, where the challenge is not just 'do this' where you can't. And in some cases it's definitely worth having a go, even if it's probably best to do so solo to avoid embarrassment. 
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Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 23 September 2016

Weapons of Math Destruction - Cathy O'Neil ****

As a poacher-turned-gamekeeper of the big data world, Cathy O'Neil is ideally placed to take us on a voyage of horrible discovery into the world of systems making decisions based on big data that can have a negative influence on lives - what she refers to as 'Weapons of Math Destruction' or WMDs. After working as a 'quant' in a hedge fund and on big data crunching systems for startups, she has developed a horror for the misuse of the technology and sets out to show us how unfair it can be.
It's not that O'Neil is against big data per se. She points out examples where it can be useful and effective - but this requires the systems to be transparent and to be capable of learning from their mistakes. In the examples we discover, from systems that rate school teachers to those that decide whether or not to issue a payday loan, the system is opaque, secretive and based on a set of rules that aren't tested against reality and regularly updated to produce a fair outcome.
The teacher grading system is probably the most dramatically inaccurate example, where the system is trying to measure how well a teacher has performed, based on data that only has a very vague link to actual outcomes - so, for instance, O'Neil tells of a teacher who scored 6% one year and 96% the next year for doing the same job. The factors being measured are almost entirely outside the teacher's control with no linkage to performance and the interpretation of the data is simply garbage.
Other systems, such as those used to rank universities, are ruthlessly gamed by the participants, making them far more about how good an organisation is at coming up with the right answers to metrics than it is to the quality of that organisation. And all of us will come across targeted advertising and social media messages/search results prioritised according to secret algorithms which we know nothing about and that attempt to control our behaviour.
For O'Neil, the worst aspects of big data misuse are where a system - perhaps with the best intentions - ends up penalising people for being poor of being from certain ethnic backgrounds. This is often a result of an indirect piece of data - for instance the place they live might have implications on their financial state or ethnicity. She vividly portrays the way that systems dealing with everything from police presence in an area to fixing insurance premiums can produce a downward spiral of negative feedback.
Although the book is often very effective, it is heavily US-oriented, which is a shame when many of these issues are as significant, say, in Europe, as they are in the US. There is probably also not enough nuance in the author's binary good/bad opinion of systems. For example, she tells us that someone shouldn't be penalised by having to pay more for insurance because they live in a high risk neighbourhood - but doesn't think about the contrary aspect that if insurance companies don't do this, those of us who live in low risk neighbourhoods are being penalised by paying much higher premiums than we need to in order to cover our insurance. 

O'Neil makes a simplistic linkage between high risk = poor, low risk = rich - yet those of us, for instance, who live in the country are often in quite poor areas that are nonetheless low risk. For O'Neil, fairness means everyone pays the same. But is that truly fair? Here in Europe, we've had car insurance for young female drivers doubled in cost to make it the same as young males - even though the young males are far more likely to have accidents. This is fair by O'Neil's standards, because it doesn't discriminate on gender, but is not fair in the real world away from labels.
There's a lot here that we should be picking up on, and even if you don't agree with all of O'Neil's assessments, it certainly makes you think about the rights and wrongs of decisions based on automated assessment of indirect data.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Adam Rutherford - Four Way Interview

Dr Adam Rutherford is a science writer and broadcaster. He studied genetics at University College London, and during his PhD on the developing eye, he was part of a team that identified the first genetic cause of a form of childhood blindness. He has written and presented many award-winning series and programmes for the BBC, including the flagship BBC Radio 4 programme Inside Science, The Cell for BBC Four, and Playing God on the rise of synthetic biology for the leading science strand Horizon, as well as writing for the science pages of the Observer. His most recent book is A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived


Why science?

It's the best way I know of for answering questions about how stuff works. It's not the only way of course, and doesn't always provide the most interesting answers. Science might have a way of telling us why Bruce Springsteen and Bach makes my cry with joy, but I'm not sure that it'll be very informative. But in general, this self correcting process is an ever-rewarding, ever-refining way knowing. Historically, the scientific method has had limited value to the study of history, but I think that the advent of the techniques to get DNA out of the long dead has meant that the lines between history and science are becoming blurred, and that has to be a good thing. 

Why this book?

Because only in the last few years have we been able to apply a new scientific field to older academic pursuits, to know our past. DNA has been added to history, archeology, paleoanthropology and genealogy as a new text, a primary source that is helping unveil the question of how we came to be what we are. It's complementary to those older and equally valid pursuits, and has some advantages, for example it is the record of everyone, not just the very rare few who through luck, conquest or regal birthright have been retained through history. Our genomes are a record of sex and death, disease, warfare, farming, culture, invasion, migration, and is not limited to the lucky few.They're the stories of humankind, told with DNA in the armory. 

What’s next?

Ancient DNA is a relatively new field, and genetics itself only a century old. So there's a long way to go. We don't really understand our genomes, and how the complexity and sophistication of a human being emerges from this code. Geneticists, statisticians, medics, patients and historians all have plenty still to do in piecing together the past, and how DNA fits into the bigger picture of a life, and a species. As long as we keep reproducing, new, unique genomes are being made, and our infintie variation still needs to be understood. 

What’s exciting you at the moment?

The field of ancient DNA is changing so quickly that results are being turned over or revised almost every month. That makes it unbearably exciting. But also it was a pain in the arse to write a book about a field that is evolving so quickly, and my friends in genomics labs simply refused my request that they all take a year off so we can all catch up. Nevertheless, one review has already suggested that I do a revised edition of A Brief History every three years to keep it up-to-date. I think I've got some work to do...




The Rise of the Robots - Martin Ford *****

One of the best things in the world, in my opinion, is when you’ve been thinking about and discussing a subject for a while and come across a book by chance that deals precisely with that topic - in this case, the subject of automation and the enormous changes that it is having, and will have, on the world’s economic and political systems. 
A New York Times bestseller and recipient of the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award in 2015, the book handles the subject expertly. Martin Ford is the founder of software development firm based in Silicon Valley and has written two books on the subject of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation and their effects on society, employment and the economy at large.
Rise of the Robots systematically goes through the effects of automation on the economy and society, from the traditional areas of factory/manufacturing jobs through its advance into the service sector, typical office administrative jobs and even to the managerial level. The premise of the book is that while we have seen the effects of automation for a long time, a combination of factors - Moore’s Law (the doubling of processor speeds over approximately 18 months), advances in AI and the ability of computers to self-learn, the spread of fast broadband fibre and cloud computing - are converging to make changes in the workplace, economy and society that will be fundamental and irreversible.
Ford’s focus is primarily on the US, both in terms of historical reference and statistics, but the lessons can be applied globally. Ford makes an excellent case, for instance, that China and India may be worse off when it comes to advancing automation than the US, due to the lack of a widespread service economy that has historically been the transition from a manufacturing based economy. Unlike the West, China and India will go from labour intensive manufacturing-based economies straight to highly automised societies without the intervening service and consumer-based purchasing economies. What this will mean to the burgeoning middle class in China is anyone’s guess, but it may be that the current wage growth of China will stagnate or even decline with automation and the disappearance of jobs. This in turn could cause extreme societal pressures.
This is not to say that the US and Europe get off easy. The effects of advanced AI and atomisation will have profound effects there as well; the US suffering to a larger degree due to the increasing inequality in society and the lack of a European style welfare state. As Ford describes, the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of jobs that can be replaced by automation has already taken, such as robots manufacturing cars. The next step, where robotics are combined with AI, is the automation of low-level service jobs such as fast-food restaurants and warehousing. Following that, logistics and transport industries, and mid-level data processing jobs such as para-legals and administrative positions are susceptible. 
Ford also writes about IBM’s Watson project and how IBM gave themselves enormous challenges (from playing chess grandmasters to defeating trivia champions on televised game shows) and succeeding in creating a cloud based AI computing system that is now focusing on solving healthcare issues by absorbing and processing enormous amounts of medical data. The success rate for these projects, Ford argues, equals the progression of Moore’ Law and achieves accuracy levels that surpass trained human professionals. 
Ford also includes fascinating chapters on the potential downsides of AI, reflecting on the possibility of superhuman intelligence in machines, and nanotechnology. The book ends with some of Ford’s (and others) ideas about how society will have to be restructured to cope with massive amounts of job loss arising from robotics and automation.
While the book is rooted in business and economics, the central subject is the transformational power of computer science and technology. It is a well-argued and balanced book chock full of interesting historical descriptions and details of the development of computer science and technology, and  how we have gotten to where we are, including a very clear-eyed look at where we are going. In my opinion, this book is a must read for anyone interested in technology, business, economics, politics and society.
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Review by Ian Bald

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Calculating the Cosmos - Ian Stewart ***

This is a weird one - it's a book where I'm really struggling to identify who it's for and what it is supposed to do. The only conclusion I can draw is that Calculating the Cosmos is intended for people who like Ian Stewart's excellent maths books, but who don't usually read popular science books, so need a maths-driven introduction to astronomy, astrophysics and cosmology.
The particularly odd thing is that despite the subtitle 'how mathematics unveils the universe' there is very little explicit maths in the book - it's mostly just straightforward physics with little prominence given to the mathematical side. And the physics is put across in a fairly heavy handed 'fact, fact, fact...' way - the book is light on narrative throughout. Where it does stray into history there are one or two examples that don't quite get the story straight - for instance, when talking about Newton's development of his gravitational work, Stewart tells us that it took a 'stroke of genius' to see that the Moon is both falling and moving sideways so it misses. What he doesn't point out was that the genius in question was Robert Hooke, not Isaac Newton. This is one of the few points where Newton explicitly says the idea had not occurred to him until Hooke wrote to him about it.
Where the book does stand out is where Stewart delves into something that is usually glossed over in a popular science book. Sometimes this content feels a touch 'so what?' - for example in describing the method used to simulate the formation of the Moon - but in other cases, for example the analysis of how comet 67P got its 'rubber duck' shape, the route of the Rosetta probe, and in probably the best explanation of curved spacetime and manifolds I've seen. Best of all, Stewart explains how dark matter could not exist at all, simply being a matter of making the wrong assumptions in combining the interactions of stars in a galaxy and the way he eloquently dissects the many worlds hypothesis (many of the best bits are towards the end of the book). However, these are standout moments amongst a whole collection of information we've seen so many times before, and when he does explain the science, the approach taken is often not easy to grasp - for example his impenetrable use of Penrose diagrams in talking about black holes.
The story of the Rosetta probe is probably the closest we come to having some narrative to engage us, but even here the storytelling is bland, and, from a mathematical standpoint, we miss the opportunity to look at a different kinds of mathematical involvement, as there was interesting work done on the scheduling of Rosetta's experiments to deal with the very limited communications bandwidth.
This isn't a bad book, but apart from those handful of highlights where something is explained better than elsewhere, most of it fails to bring in anything new and lacks the engaging writing style of, say, Stewart's books written with Terry Pratchett. Here Stewart rarely makes use of mathematical insights to tell us anything different to straightforward familiar astronomy and cosmology, which is a shame as he is so excellent at making maths interesting. For the science, though, we get this distinctly 'here's a fact, here's another fact, here's yet another fact' style of writing. It might work as a book for that maths-based space newcomer, but I'm afraid its not for me.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Royal Society Science Books Prize 2016

The winner of for Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize has now been announced: 

WINNER

  • The Invention of Nature - Alexander von Humboldt's New World - Andrea Wolf

SHORTLIST
  • Cure - A journey into the science of mind over body - Jo Marchant
  • The Gene - an intimate history - Siddhartha Mukherjee
  • The Hunt for Vulcan - and how Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity and Deciphered the Universe - Thomas Levenson
  • The Most Perfect Thing - Inside (and Outside) a Bird's Egg - Tim Birkhead
  • The Planet Remade - The Challenge of Imagining Deliberate Climate Change - Oliver Morton


Once again they panel proved incapable of producing a longlist.

The judging panel for 2016 was: chaired by bestselling author Bill Bryson, who won the Prize in 2004 with A Short History of Nearly Everything, and joined by four other judges this year: theoretical physicist Dr Clare Burrage, celebrated science fiction author Alastair Reynolds, ornithologist and science blogger GrrlScientist, and Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at The Science Museum.

More details from the Royal Society website.