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Showing posts from September, 2015

Royal Society Winton Prize 2015

MThe  books listed for the 2015 Royal Society Winton Prize, arguably a summary of the best popular science books published in 2014. Winner
Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet we Made by Gaia Vince
The judges said: “Vince’s passion and strong voice grabs you instantly and the story she tells is truly original. A finely-crafted book on an important, urgent topic.”

ShortlistThe Man Who Couldn't Stop by David Adam The judges said: “An amazingly gripping and informative look inside someone’s head, told with a depth of knowledge and genius turn of phrase that only an expert and gifted writer could wield.”


Alex Through the Looking-Glass: How Life Reflects Numbers and Numbers Reflect Life by Alex BelosThe judges said: “Bellos fizzes with enthusiasm, and his genuine love for the subject shines through and makes mathematics engaging and non-threatening even for math-phobes.”


Smashing Physics: Inside the World's Biggest Experiment by John ButterworthThe judges s…

The Master Algorithm - Pedro Domingos ***

I am really struggling to remember a book that has irritated me as much as this one, which is a shame because it's on a very interesting and significant subject. Pedro Domingos takes us into the world of computer programs that solve problems through learning, exploring everything from back propagating neural networks to Bayesian algorithms, looking for the direction in which we might spot the computing equivalent of the theory of everything, the master algorithm that can do pretty much anything that can be done with a computer (Turing proved a long time ago that there will always be some things that can't). As the subtitle puts it, this is the quest for the ultimate learning machine that will remake our world.

So far, so good. Not only an interesting subject but one I have a personal interest in as I had some involvement in artificial intelligence many moons ago. But just reading the prologue put my hackles up. It was one of those descriptions of how a technology influences eve…

Kathryn Harkup - Four Way Interview

Kathryn Harkup is a chemist and author. Kathryn  completed  a doctorate on her favourite chemicals,  phosphines, and went  on to further postdoctoral research before realising that talking,  writing and demonstrating  science appealed a bit more than hours  slaving over a hot fume-hood. For  six years she ran the outreach in  engineering, computing, physics  and maths at the University of Surrey,  which involved writing talks on  science topics that would appeal to  bored teenagers (anything disgusting  or dangerous was usually the most  popular). Kathryn is now a freelance  science communicator delivering  talks and workshops on the quirky side  of science. Her new book is A is for Arsenic: the poisons of Agatha Christie.

Why science?

I was probably one of those annoying kids that were always asking why. I’m still asking. It’s the puzzle-solving aspect of science that I love most. Working things out gives me an enormous sense of satisfaction. Science is a fantastic framework to use whe…

A is for Arsenic - Kathryn Harkup ***(*)

As someone who writes a lot about quantum physics, where systems can be in more than one state at a time, I want to give this book a superposition of star ratings: it's a beautiful book, excellently researched and painstakingly detailed, which gets it a solid four stars, but the nature of the contents makes it more like a mini-encyclopedia, rather than something that reads well from end to end, hence the three stars.

The book has a lot of promise to hit the spot. If, like me, you are interested in both science and crime writing, a study of the poisons used in Agatha Christie's books seems a natural fascinator. Kathryn Harkup takes us through a whole range, from familiar favourites (as it were) like arsenic and strychnine to more unusual possibilities like nicotine, phosphorous and ricin. Each poison has its own section, where we learn how Christie used it, how the poison works, what's an antidote (if anything), real life examples of using the poison and then return to Chris…

The Alteration (SF) - Kingsley Amis ****

I've come back to this book after a couple of decades and it still holds up well as one of the two great alternative history books where there is no Reformation in Europe, leaving the Catholic church with a  stranglehold that limits the development of science, technology and society (the other, of course, is Keith Roberts' lyrical Pavane).

The central theme to The Alteration is whether a ten-year-old boy with a superb singing voice should be turned into a castrato to preserve that voice for life at significant cost for the boy - but Kingsley Amis has immense fun with many references to familiar people, books and events, seen in the different light of the tightly Catholic Europe. The strange mix of Tudor and 1970s is done beautifully and atmospherically, as are the many differences between their world and ours (though it's never properly explained why Cowley, now known as Coverley, is the capital, rather than London). There are Protestants in this world - but they are mostly…