Wednesday, 30 May 2012

A Wealth of Numbers – Benjamin Wardhaugh ***

I’m probably the last person who should be reviewing this book because quite a bit of  it is about mathematical puzzles, and I’m hopeless with these. I enjoy them as long as I can get the answer off the top of my head within 30 seconds – then I feel smug. But otherwise  I get bored, and I’m certainly not going to do anything that involves writing out a series of equations.
That’s perhaps a bit picky, though. Because the book has a much wider brief than mathematical puzzles and diversions – it provides us with many excerpts from maths books aimed at the general reader over the last five hundred years. As such it’s a box of curiosities. Reading it is a bit like going around one of those really old fashioned, fusty local museums. A lot of the stuff you see you think ‘Why are they bothering to display this?’ But then you will come across a little gem like a mummified mermaid and it is all, briefly, worthwhile.
So it is, for example, quaintly interesting to see extracts from Robert Recorde’s famous sixteenth century mathematical textbooks, giving us instructions in how to add two numbers together, or to dally with the mathematical problems set in The Girls’ Own Book(even if I had to read the answer to one several times to understand what it was getting at). But there was a lot that wasn’t particularly thrilling.
I may be biassed but I think I got more from some of the science writing that somehow  creeps in (who couldn’t enjoy A Mother Explains Comets from 1823 or the incomparable Richard Feynman on The Character of Physical Law) but I can see for the enthusiast for the history of popular maths writing this is a must-have book. I just suspect that this is a relatively limited market. For the rest of us, it would liven up a wet weekend in Margate, but would be trumped by most other entertainment.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

The Geek Manifesto – Mark Henderson ****

It’s interesting that the ‘added puff’ fake sticker on the front of this book calls it ‘important’ because that is actually a very informative word about this book. What is packed into ‘important’ is that this is a really essential topic with lots of well argued material… but it’s a bit boring. And that’s kind of how I felt about the book.
In a way it suffers from the target of my agent’s non-fiction mantra: ‘Is this a book or is it an article?’ I felt that this really was more an article taken to book length. But the problem is more than that and it sits at the heart of the issue that Mark Henderson is addressing. Talking about the politics of science can be rather boring. It’s a turn off. It’s quite easy to make science itself interesting if you are good writer, as Henderson indubitably is – but it’s very hard to make politics of science engaging.
I read a lot of science blogs – in fact I’ve met many of the people Henderson quotes  – and much though I love someone like Stephen Curry when he’s talking about science, when he gets on a politics of science rant I lose interest because I’m not professionally involved in science – and that same difficulty of engagement comes across here.
That said, this genuinely is a very important topic, and Henderson covers many aspects of it well. There were times (when he was talking about homeopathy, say, or the lack of science education amongst our politicians) I got highly involved. And even when it was a little more dull, it was indubitably worthy and necessary.
I guess what it comes down to is that this is, yes, an important book and you genuinely ought to read it. Just don’t expect it to be overwhelmingly thrilling along the way.
Incidentally I was slightly miffed he didn’t mention my book Ecologic, which covers many of the underlying issues he mentions on the environment and organic food in a very readable fashion (doubly miffed as we had the same editor) – but that has no influence on my review.
Hardback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 25 May 2012

Dana Mackenzie – Four Way Interview

Dana Mackenzie is the author of The Big Splat, or How Our Moon Came to Be (Wiley), among other books. He is a frequent contributor to Science, Discover, and New Scientist. He has a PhD in mathematics from Princeton and was a mathematics professor for thirteen years before becoming a full time writer. His latest book is The Universe in Zero Words.
Why maths?
To me, mathematics is the most universal language. It is a subject with a continuous unbroken tradition from the ancient Chinese, Babylonians, and Egyptians to the present day – a longer tradition than any other science and virtually any other human endeavor. It is an enabling subject, in the sense that every other science depends on it to some extent, and generally speaking the more modern a science becomes, the more explicitly it incorporates mathematical reasoning and ideas.
Most importantly and most personally for me, I love mathematics because there is no other field I know of where truth and beauty are so closely intertwined. They are related in the other sciences as well, but I still feel feel that scientific truths are to some extent contingent and occasionally a result of happenstance. Our knowledge is based upon imperfect data and our imperfect interpretations thereof. In
mathematics, by contrast, nothing is ever true by accident. A mathematical theorem, once proven correctly, can never be falsified. (It can only become irrelevant, and even then it often returns to relevance when you least expect it.) The best theorems, and the best proofs, are almost always the ones with the greatest beauty and economy of ideas.
Why this book?
My purpose in writing this book is to demystify mathematics, and in particular to demystify equations.
For many people, an equation is a forbidding and scary thing. It looks like some kind of mystical incantation filled with secrets they are not privy to. And yet for scientists, and especially for mathematicians, it is exactly the opposite. Words are too imprecise and clumsy to express the fine details of a mathematical idea; an equation is often the only way to do it. This is why I called the book The Universe in Zero Words - because by opening yourself up to equations (which typically have zero words), you open yourself to seeing the universe more clearly.
To compare words to equations, imagine comparing a painting of Earth to a Google map. No matter how well executed, the painting is rough and inaccurate. When you zoom in on it, you don’t see any new geographic details. By contrast, the farther you zoom into a Google map, the more interesting details you see. It is the same way with an equation. This book is an attempt to help the reader through that process, to see the “Google Maps” version of mathematics rather than the caricature version that popular culture presents us.
I also wrote this book because I wanted to write a mathematics book! My first book (The Big Splat, or How Our Moon Came to Be) was about a subject that I had no special training in when I began the project. It was a great way to exercise and develop my journalistic muscles. For my second book, I wanted to write about something that I already knew a lot about. This allowed me to write from a much more personal point of view, rather than the dispassionate view of the journalist or historian.
What’s next?
In the short term, I am continuing to write a series of booklets for the American Mathematical Society called What’s Happening in the Mathematical Sciences. The next one in the series, volume 9, should come out early next year, and I am very busy with that and hoping that I can meet my deadline.
In the long term, I expect that at some point I will get to work on another trade book. I love writing the “What’s Happening” series, but I have to admit that it reaches a rather narrow audience. At this point I can only describe the broadest features of what I am looking for in my next mass market book. Having written one book “far from home” (about planetary science) and one “close to home” (about mathematics) I will probably venture “farther from home” again. But I may change that plan if The Universe in Zero Words is a big success, and if there seems to be a big demand for another mathematical book from me. I would also be interested in writing a book that takes place over a shorter time frame, because both of my previous books covered nearly the whole period of recorded history. There is something to be said for the classical unities of time, space, and action (although I would not interpret themtoo literally).
What’s exciting you at the moment?
Mostly the things I have written about most recently and the things I am writing about right now. That would include an article I wrote for Science magazine about robotic flapping birds, and a chapter I wrote for What’s Happening in the Mathematical Sciences about mathematical algorithms to solve Rubik’s cube. An interesting thing that they had in common was that for the first time I found myself using YouTube as a research tool! There is an absolutely amazing video on YouTube of one of the new robotic birds, designed by a German company called Festo, flying over the audience at a TED conference in Edinburgh. You should look it up if you haven’t seen it. And there are many, many amazing videos on YouTube of “speedcubers” — people who solve Rubik’s cube as quickly as possible. Some use their hands, some use their feet, some do it blindfolded! The current world record for solving Rubik’s cube (by a human) is 5.66 seconds. I don’t know about you, but I can’t even unlock the door to my house in 5.66 seconds!

Thursday, 24 May 2012

The Nanotechnology Myth – Brian Clegg

Imagine an army of self-replicating robots, each invisibly small, endlessly reproducing, forming a grey mass that swamps the world, and destroys its resources. This was the premise of Michael Crichton’s thriller, Prey, but the concept of using invisibly small technology is not just science fiction. This so-called ‘grey goo’ scenario is fantasy (grey goo because the nanobots are too small to be seen individually, and would collectively appear as a viscous, self-moving grey liquid). But nanotechnology is real and has a huge potential.
Until recently, that prefix ‘nano’ was an unfamiliar one. At the 11th Conférence Générale des Poids es Mesures in 1960 a faceless committee defined the SI (Système International) units. As well as agreeing standards of measurement like the meter, the kilogram and the second, the conference developed a range of prefixes for bigger and smaller units from tera (multiply by 1,000,000,000,000) to pico (divide by 1,000,000,000,000). The penultimate prefix was nano, (divide by 1,000,000,000), derived from nanos, the Greek word for a dwarf. One billionth, a truly tiny scale.
Twenty-six years later, American author K. Eric Drexler combined “nano” with “technology” in his book Engines of Creation. Although Drexler outlined a wide range of possibilities for products smaller than a microbe, the majority of the book focuses on molecular manufacturing, using nanomachines to assemble objects at the molecular level, a concept first suggested by physicist Richard Feynman. A single assembler working at this scale would take thousands of years to achieve anything –assembly would require trillions of nanomachines. Drexler speculated that this would require nanomachines that could replicate like a biological creature, leading to the vision of grey goo and Crichton’s Prey.
Real nanotechnology does not involve anything so complex as an assembler. One very limited form of nanotechnology is already widely used – nanoparticles. Substances reduced to particles on this scale have a very different physical behaviour to normal materials. The most common use of nanotechnology currently is sunscreens, where nanoparticles of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide are used to protect us from the sun’s rays, allowing visible light to pass through, but blocking harmful ultraviolet. In fact we have used nanoparticles unwittingly for centuries in some of the pigments used in pottery glazing.
A more recent development is to use nanotechnology in the form of films of material that are around a nanometre in thickness. We’ve seen this in the lab with graphene, the amazing new form of carbon developed at the University of Manchester, which looks to have huge potential, but nano-coatings are already employed in the real world, protecting everything from mobile phones to footwear from liquids.
Being nanotechnology makes all the difference to the protective films produced by UK manufacturer P2i, based on research originally undertaken at Durham University. Their incredible thinness makes them ideal for this purpose because the polymer coating is not noticeable to the user –visibly or to the touch – and can be used to treat an electronic device inside and out or to cling to the fibres of clothing and footwear. The coating is applied using plasma in a vacuum chamber, bonding it to the surface, as this video demonstrates:
A little further down the line are nanotubes and fibres. Often made of carbon, these molecular filaments are grown rather than constructed and have the capability both to provide super-strong materials (as an extension of the current cruder carbon fibres) and incredibly thin conductors for future generations of electronics. Semi-conducting nanotubes have already been built into (otherwise) impossibly small transistors, while carbon nanotubes could make one of the more remarkable speculations of science fiction a reality.
Writer Arthur C. Clarke conceived of a space elevator, a 100,000 kilometre cable stretching into space that could haul satellites and space craft out beyond the Earth’s gravity without the need for expensive and dangerous rocketry. Bradley Edwards, working for the NASA Institute of Advanced Concepts commented in
Nanotubes (image from NASA)
2002: “[With nanotubes] I’m convinced that the space elevator is practical and doable. In 12 years, we could be launching tons of payload every three days, at just a little over a couple hundred dollars a pound.” Clearly his timescales were way out – but the concept is still amazing.
Today’s practical applications of nanotechnology derive largely from the special properties of small assemblies of atoms, but nanotechnology has one other incredible trick up its sleeve: quantum theory. At the scale of an atom, physics operates by rules that are entirely different to the familiar world. The counter-intuitive nature of quantum behaviour, from single particle interference to tunnelling opens up new possibilities for the technology of the very small.
Perhaps the best example of nanotechnology showing the promise of quantum effects is plasmonics. Something remarkable happens if, for example, light is shone on a gold foil peppered with millions of nanoholes. It seems reasonable that only a tiny fraction of the light hitting the foil would pass through these negligible punctures, but in fact they act like funnels, channelling all the light that hits the foil through the sub-microscopic apertures. This bizarre phenomenon results from the interaction between the light and plasmons, waves in the two dimensional ocean of electrons in the metal.
The potential applications of plasmonics are dramatic. Not only the more obvious optical ones – perfect lenses and superfast computers that use light (photonics) rather than electrons to function – but also in the medical sphere to support diagnostics, by detecting particular molecules, and in drug delivery. Naomi Halas of Rice University in Texas envisions implanting tiny cylinders containing billions of plasmonic spheres, each carrying a minuscule dose of insulin. Infra red light, shone from outside the body, could trigger an exact release of the required dose. ‘Basically, people could wear a pancreas on their arm,’ said Halas.
Nanotechnology may be scary in fiction, but away from the mythology it has an awful lot to offer.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

The Ultimate Book of Saturday Science – Neil A. Downie ****

We get quite a lot of books in that are made up of ‘fun experiments’ to do, and often, if I am honest, they are trifle lame. Sanitised and safe,  they are the sort of ‘acid and baking powder’ experiment – of themselves entirely worthy, but not the sort of thing that would have interested me as teenager when I was blowing things up, making miniature rocket motors and trying to build a laser from scratch. This book, however, would have been right up my street.
Neil Downie does a lot of work with Saturday Morning science clubs, school science clubs and the like, and although they can be done in the home, these are often the sort of experiments that would benefit from that kind of environment. I could also, frankly, see grown up engineers doing this kind of thing in there spare time, just for a bit of fun.
It’s not that every experiment involves danger, although we do have a dramatic vacuum powered cannon, electrical explosives and more – but there isn’t the usual feel of restraint and ‘health and safety gone mad’, which is excellent. Each of the 72 experiments comes with detailed instructions, but also some learning information and perhaps best of all the opportunity to try things out. Downie doesn’t give you a rigid approach – often you are encouraged to experiment with different possibilities to make your experiment even better. This is wonderful – it is encouraging the real scientific/engineering spirit to get out there, get your hands dirty and try things out.
Obviously this doesn’t really work as a book to sit down and read cover to cover, but that’s not what it’s for. My only slight criticisms concern the writing style and the book’s cover. The writing style is a jarring cross-Atlantic combination, which feels a bit like an elderly school-teacher trying to be hip. Unless the photos are very old, Downie isn’t elderly, but he rather writes as if he is. As for the cover, the design looks very amateurish, and to make matters worse in a book that should have a reinforced (preferably blast-proof) plastic cover, it feels  very fragile – more paper than cardboard.
But don’t let the look put you off. If you either run a science club or are a teenager who likes getting your hands dirty experimentally, you are going to love this. I certainly would have in my youth.
Paperback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The Puzzler’s Dilemma – Derrick Niederman ****

For me, the best popular science books are those that get you actively involved and thinking about what’s being looked at, rather than merely allowing you to take in the information passively. Whether it’s through exercises to get stuck into, little experiments to try out for yourself, or puzzles which challenge you to think things through – it just makes a book more enjoyable and memorable, and allows you to get more from it.
I really enjoyed this book from Derrick Niederman, then – it’s jam packed full of puzzles and logic problems which really get you thinking, and which get across well the themes covered. The puzzles slot in around what the book fundamentally is – a collection of short reflections on all kinds of aspects of puzzles and puzzle solving. We look at, for instance, how puzzles can be categorised, strategies for solving puzzles, and what puzzles can reveal about the mind and human reasoning.
One thing I found fascinating was the way we often unnecessarily complicate problems by failing to see the simple solutions to them. Asked, for example, to work out the area of a triangle with sides of 6, 8, and 14 inches, many of us would at first massively overestimate the amount of calculations and thinking we’re going to need to do to solve the problem. Whereas, in fact, the answer is simple and no difficult calculations are required. 6 and 8 equal 14, so what we essentially have is the two smaller sides lying flat on top of the longest side – the area is 0.
I found it incredibly difficult to put this book down – I either wanted to keep reading to find out the solutions to the puzzles, or was totally immersed in one of the many interesting stories the author tells about particular puzzles and their history. Add to this the author’s sense of humour, and this is one the most fun little books I have read in a long time.
Paperback:  
Also in Hardback:  
Review by Matt Chorley

The Universe in Zero Words – Dana Mackenzie *****

In awarding this book five stars I am rather reminded of the infamous Samuel Johnson quote on women preachers: ‘A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.’ Leaving aside that Doctor Johnson might have had to rethink his opinion had he seen Pudsey, the reason I say this is because I’m reviewing a book about mathematical equations. Taken purely as a piece of popular science writing it probably only merits four stars, but I am so amazed that anyone can write a book about a series of equations and make it readable and interesting that I have had to award it five.
When I first saw the title I thought I was about to flick through a nice picture book of astronomical photos, but in fact Dana Mackenzie provides us with plenty of words – it’s just that they are describing these ‘no words’ equations. Mackenzie eases us in gently with the work of the ancient Greeks, then brings us forward in time, allowing the maths (and the equations) to grow in complexity as we go.
What makes the book work so well is that there is plenty of context – we learn about the individuals behind these equations (not always the obvious ones when it comes to, say, Pythagoras) and the historical setting of their devising. There are some rather beautiful hand drawn illustrations of the equations themselves and diagrams (I just wish the handwriting was a little more legible) and the amazing, dog-walking-on-hind-legs feat is that we aren’t turned off by the equations, but rather get some feeling for their beauty and power.
I am not saying this book brings me round to a mathematician’s viewpoint. I still think that their view is too abstract, and that much of the maths they get excited about is hugely ‘so what?’ – but this book really does give you a flavour of why they get so worked up.
Strangely, the book tails off towards the end. This is in part because Mackenzie spends more time on physics (which he is less effective at explaining than maths), and partly because there is less focus on equations. Maxwell’s equations, for example, aren’t explored, just mentioned. Yes, remarkably, by then the reader is so drawn in that we want more equations!
I have two specific gripes apart from this. One is about the introduction. We are told how the great Richard Feynman took on someone with an abacus and beat them on the calculation of cube roots because he knew ‘a famous equation from calculus called Taylor’s formula’ – yet we aren’t told what the equation is. In a book that is all about making equations visible, this rankled for the rest of the book.
The other problem I have is with a bizarre mini-rant that Mackenzie has about those who worry about the impact of mobile phones on their brains. He points out that the photons produced by a mobile phone have not got enough energy to ionise atoms, so don’t present a danger. But this entirely misses the point. After all, the photons produced by microwave ovens aren’t ionising radiation either, but few us would feel comfortable sticking our heads in a functioning microwave. It’s not that I agree with the ‘danger from phones, phone masts and wifi radiation’ lobby – I don’t – but Mackenzie merely muddies the water with this strange irrelevancy.
That’s a very minor complaint, though. If you’ve always been puzzled by mathematical formulae, or wondered why mathematicians bother to get out of bed in the morning, this is the book to let you into their secret world. A remarkable achievement.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 21 May 2012

The Sun is Dying and Global Dimming – Brian Cox

Two mini-features from the CERN physicist, media star and scientific advisor to the movie Sunshine.
The Sun is Dying
The Sun will not live forever. It has enough fuel left, if our current understanding is correct, for another 5 billion years, at which point it will die. But could it be possible for the Sun to die much sooner, within the next 100 years even? From a scientific perspective, it should be said that this is very unlikely. But, it is also true that there is a lot about the universe that we do not understand.
Over the last few years astronomers have observed that there is extra “stuff” in the universe that we can see only by its gravitational influence on stars and galaxies. This stuff goes by the name of Dark Matter, and there is five times as much Dark Matter in the universe as there is normal matter, the stuff that makes up you, me, and the stars and planets we can see with our telescopes. What is this mysterious stuff? It’s possible, some scientists would say likely even, that this stuff is made of particles known as supersymmetric particles, a new and exotic form of matter that is high on the list of potential discoveries at CERN’s giant Large Hadron Collider, a 27km in circumference machine which begins operations this year after almost a decade of construction.
Theoretical physicists have spent many years calculating the properties of these supersymmetric particles, and we have a reasonable theoretical understanding of how they might behave. One possibility is that they could clump together into giant balls known as Q-balls. If this is true, then these heavy and exotic objects could have been made billionths of a second after our Universe began, and still be roaming the Universe today. It is speculated that, if a Q-ball drifts into the heart of a super-dense object such as a neutron star, it could begin to eat away at it’s core like a cancer, until the star is no longer massive enough to maintain itself and explodes in a violent explosion. Such explosions, known as gamma ray bursts, are seen in the Universe, although their cause is as yet unknown.
Could such a dangerous, exotic object drift into the Sun’s core and cause it to stop shining? It is likely that the Sun is many times too diffuse to stop a Q-ball – it would power right through. But maybe, just maybe, some strange exotic form of matter from the earliest times in the universe could settle deep within the Sun’s core, and disrupt its function enough to cause the catastrophic scenario seen in Sunshine. It’s far-fetched, but we have a saying in physics that anything that isn’t explicitly ruled out is therefore possible, so in the final analysis, you never quite know.
Global Dimming
It is now suspected that pollution in the Earth’s atmosphere, caused by industrialization and natural phenomena such as volcanic eruptions, may have significantly reduced that amount of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface. It is estimated that this could have led to a cooling effect of over 1 degree overt he last 40 years, which would go some way to offsetting the effect of global warming. Global warming is caused primarily by increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere that prevent heat being radiated back out into space from the Earth’s surface.
The phenomenon of global dimming may therefore have saved us, so far, from the worst affects of climate change, although it has been noticed that as pollution levels have been reduced, particularly in Western Europe, the affects of global dimming seem to be reducing, leading to an accelerating temperature rise once again. We may therefore be in the paradoxical situation that reducing pollution might INCREASE the effects of global warming, leading us ever more quickly towards catastrophe.
This discovery isn’t all bad, however, because it may suggest a short term solution to climate change. Why not intentionally put pollutants, which may be designed to be benign in other respects, into the atmosphere to accelerate global dimming, and therefore slow the climate change caused by carbon dioxide emissions. Several suggestions along these lines have been made, including adding small particles to airplane fuel, and therefore using one of the main contributors to climate change, aircraft, to slow its effects. It’s an intriguing possibility, and one that is the focus of significant research, although it should be said that we cannot at present predict the effects of such fine-tuning of the climate, so global dimming shouldn’t be seen as a means to allow us to continue to increase carbon dioxide emissions.
Brian Cox is science advisor to the movie Sunshine – see www.sunshinemovie.co.uk

Sunday, 20 May 2012

The Cambridge Phenomenon – Kate Kirk ***

There is a certain, very specific kind of book that rarely makes it into the bookshops. It’s a sort of cross between a personal photo album and a corporate history. Large companies rather like to produce them to mark anniversaries. In a sense this is such a book, but it is certainly the most interesting one I’ve ever come across.
It starts with an introduction by Bill Gates, which shows the importance of the technology spin-offs and business parks that have benefited so hugely from easy contact with the one of the world’s top science universities. Of itself it isn’t very readable – our Bill is no author, as his previous books have proved – but it does give the book a certain kudos.
We then get into a history of the development of this outer circle of technoknowledge from the string and sealing wax Cambridge Consultants and Sinclair Radionics (nostalgic sigh from British geeks of a certain age) to the modern and hugely successful science parks. All this with glossy pages that have a generous dusting of quite interesting photographs in a near-coffee table 1.5 kilo wrist-buster.
Although it is, without doubt, a superb example of its kind, it still isn’t a book that most of us will probably want to sit down and read through. There are just too many company names and people we’ve never heard of and just the mundanity of business. I’ll be honest, I couldn’t read it from cover to cover. But I did genuinely enjoy flicking through it, picking up on the interesting illustrations, dipping in when there were bits about Sinclair and other aspects that I’ve had direct contact with. While I couldn’t see myself rushing out and stumping up £50 for a copy (or about half that at online discounts), it is a book I would contemplate taking out of the library for a leisurely riffle.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Listening to Chemistry

We don’t often see chemistry appearing in popular science, so it’s great that the Royal Society of Chemistry has built a a collection of 5 minute podcasts on each of the chemical elements, forming an audio periodic table. You can look over the whole table and click on element to hear a podcast (or read a transcript).
There is also a second, more open-ended series on compounds. Both element and compound series feature a range of podcasts by our editor, Brian Clegg. Here, for example, is his podcast on DNA.
You can see the whole list of elements here at the podcast site, and the new set of compounds here.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Introducing Artificial Intelligence – Henry Brighton & Howard Selina ****

It is almost impossible to rate these relentlessly hip books – they are pure marmite*. The huge Introducing … series (a vast range of books covering everything from Quantum Theory to Islam), previously known as … for Beginners, puts across the message in a style that owes as much to Terry Gilliam and pop art as it does to popular science. Pretty well every page features large graphics with speech bubbles that are supposed to emphasise the point.
Funnily, Introducing Artificial Intelligence is both a good and bad example of the series. Let’s get the bad bits out of the way first. The illustrators of these books are very variable, and I didn’t particularly like the pictures here. They did add something – the illustrations in these books always have a lot of information content, rather than being window dressing – but they seemed more detached from the text and rather lacking in the oomph the best versions have.
The other real problem is that this is a book that really should have been updated. It was written in 2003 and though all but the last few pages are spot on in terms of content, clearly things have moved on in the last few years. We are introduced to something called the Sony Dream Robot, clearly the predecessor of Asimo – but in the predictions of one Hans Morovec that basic menial humanoid robots would be common by 2010, we see the classic divide between academic and real world. It just doesn’t make economic sense. And remarkable though Asimo was, it was extremely expensive to build and still has major limitations.
However, limitations aside, the book was brilliant at getting across the basics of AI and managing to pack a huge amount of information into this pocket-sized volume. It’s by no means all about robotics, with large chunks of the philosophy and nature of cognition, and the different mechanisms and approaches proposed for AI. I was briefly in charge of the AI group at British Airways and I thought the book represented well the  hope, occasional value but general lack of usefulness of AI, which contrasted well with similar books on chaos theory which dwell on their applications without pointing out that they are largely unfulfilled.
There were some old friends here like Alan Turing and the Turing test, and John Searle’s ‘Chinese room’ where someone appears to pass the Turing test by communicating in written Chinese using a large set of rules without ever being able to speak Chinese, demonstrating that the ability to mimic this kind of mental process isn’t the same as the process itself. You will get your mind in the occasional twist, but there’s a lot of meat in this text for such a small book.
Overall, then, very worthwhile as an introduction to AI, provided you aren’t too disappointed by the out of date nature of the last few pages – and like the best of these books, fun along the way.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg
*Marmite? If you are puzzled by this assessment, you probably aren’t from the UK. Marmite is a yeast-based product (originally derived from beer production waste) that is spread on bread/toast. It’s something people either love or hate, so much so that the company has run very successful TV ad campaigns showing people absolutely hating the stuff…

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

30 Second Maths – Richard Brown (Ed.) ***

I sometimes feel like I’m becoming a Victor Meldrew of science publishing. It happens when I can’t understand why a book exists. This is just such a book. It’s a lovely book. It feels nice to hold, it looks great, the design is superb. But I don’t understand what it’s for.
30 Second Maths (nice to see that ‘s’) is divided into chunks covering things like ‘Numbers and Counting’ and ‘Algebra and Abstraction’. Each chunk starts with a glossary and then is mainly two page spreads, the left text, the right a stylish illustration. The text is divided up into a number of bitettes, including the main ’30 seconds maths’ section, and sidebars including a ‘3 second sum’ and a ‘3 minute addition’. My biggest bugbear is the ‘3 second biography’ section which is just a list of names and dates.
This whole layout is design over readability. The headings don’t make any sense –  the ‘3 minute addition’ may be adding a little depth but it is a lot shorter than the ’30 second maths’ section. The main chunk of text is the sort of thing that would work well as a poster to read on the underground, but hardly seems worth the effort in a book. These are fragments in search of reconstruction – it’s like looking at a few shattered remains of a narrative.
The only time the book comes alive is when we get to a profile. Each of the chunks contains a profile of a mathematician – the likes of Pascal and al-Khwarizmi – and suddenly the whole thing comes alive. It’s two pages of flowing text, enough to be readable and interesting. These articles show what the rest of the book could have been like if it wasn’t dominated by the design.
Frustrating, then. A handsome book, but not a great popular science read.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg