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Showing posts from March, 2014

Ken Thompson – Four Way Interview

Dr Ken Thompson was for many years a lecturer in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield. He now writes and lectures on gardening and ecology. His latest book, Where Do Camels Belong? looks at the puzzling realities of ‘alien’ and ‘natural’ species. Why science? I’ve always loved discovering how the world works. There’s no thrill like finding out something new – and thinking that, just for a short while, no-one knows what you know. And without getting too philosophical about it, doing science gives life a purpose, and guarantees your own tiny bit of immortality. Why this book? For a long time, I was signed up to the orthodox view of alien species, i.e. ‘the only good alien is a dead alien’, so it’s probably best to ‘shoot first and ask questions later’. But then I found that the more I read, the less convincing the basic science seemed. In short, much of it read like post-hoc justification by people who had already decided what they thought, and just w…

Blind Spot – Gordon Rugg with Joseph d’Agnese ****

I read this book with a mix of responses. One was fascination, the other frustration. The fascination came from the topic, which we catch a glimpse of in the subtitle ‘why we fail to see the solution right in front of us.’ Gordon Rugg, with the help of journalist d’Agnese, gives us a remarkable analysis of how we all – including experts – make errors in our decisions and research. But not limiting himself to saying what’s going wrong, Rugg also provides a method to root out the errors in the ‘Verifier method’, a suite of techniques to pull apart the way we approach, assimilate and make use of information to come to a decision. The frustration is that the method is seen through a veil of vagueness. We are constantly hearing about this Verifier toolkit, but only get sideways glimpses of what it entails. I would have loved an appendix with a brief description of the contents of the toolkit and a couple of the tools explained in more detail. I appreciate that Rugg and his colleagues proba…

Where Do Camels Belong? – Ken Thompson *****

Some of the best popular science books are the ones that change your way of looking at something. They might show you, for instance, that time travel is real, not just science fiction, or that quantum theory is not just for Nobel Prize winners – or, in this case, that our whole attitude to invasive species is down to emotional knee-jerk response, not to real science. Ken Thompson’s fascinating and highly readable book takes us on a tour of the way that ecologists have made invasive species public enemies without any good basis. He shows how it is very difficult to say whether a species is native or alien, and whether this matters. Often, it seems to come down to whether we like the species or not. He shows how many of the invaders we panic about actually improve species diversity, how it’s a perfectly natural thing for species to move from place to place, and how bad science means that ecologists confuse correlation and causality – a classic scientific error. While turning the view o…

30-Second Brain – Anil Seth (Ed) ****

I have mixed feelings about this kind of book. Personally I don’t get a lot out of reading them – I would rather have a book that reads through with ‘proper’ text – but a lot of people do like this kind of bite-sized format, with two page articles, the left a couple of hundred words of text and the right an image to support the text. Frankly, some work a lot better than others, and for some reason, 30-Second Brain is one of the better ones in the series. Perhaps because there isn’t a lot of mathematical depth to the subject, the short essays did build up a rather nice picture of our knowledge of the workings of the brain. I was rather unnerved to see the discredited Freud mentioned, but it was only a passing reference, and wasn’t really supporting one of his top-of-the-head (literally) theories. There are an awful lot of good popular science books out there on the brain, and I would regard this as a smorgasbord taster – an opportunity to sample some of the delights, but being aware th…

You Are the Music – Victoria Williamson ***

Although there’s quite an industry now in debunking claims that something or other is what makes us human, I’ve some sympathy with the slightly different twist in the subtitle of Victoria Williamson’s book: ‘how music reveals what it is to be human.’ You may not have to be human to be musical, but it certainly gives us some interesting insights into our brains. In a detailed exploration of the psychology of music, Williamson takes us into the fact and fable of claims like the old chestnut that listening to music (particularly Mozart) can improve your child’s intelligence. The simple answer is that listening doesn’t, but learning to play an instrument or sing does make a small difference in some very specific brain functions, like being able to distinguish sounds. However it’s worth pointing out that, unless the real aim is to learn how to play or sing, the amount of effort required is totally out of proportion to the gain. And if children aren’t young enough for our voyage into the ca…