Sunday, 26 April 2015

Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension - Matt Parker ****

Anyone who has seen Matt Parker perform standup maths as I have (with the excellent Festival of the Spoken Nerd) will immediately recognise the style of this entertaining recreational-ish maths book: an easy, if slightly obsessive communication style, warm and friendly and with a slightly groan-making sense of humour.

I absolutely loved the title, although in a way it's a bit of a let down, as their are relatively few things to 'make and do' here - it is mostly straightforward recreational mathematics - though you certainly can't fault the promise of dealing with the fourth dimension, as well as the fifth, sixth and  196,883rd dimension (and that not one of the joky bits - this is genuinely significant).

Like most rec maths books, while it's clear that the author finds it all fascinating I found some captivating, some vaguely interesting and some a touch 'meh'. But as long as you accept that not all of it will work for you and you might have to skip a few bits and pieces, it has some absolute gems. From interesting ways to cut up pizzas via computers made with dominos (see my blog post on mechanical computing) and those many dimensional shapes to networks, variants of Möbius strips I've never seen before and an equation that plots as the equation itself there's truly mind boggling stuff. I particularly loved the bit about the secret checking mechanisms in barcodes and VAT numbers (but that's just me) and I'm sure you'll have your own favourites.

Perhaps the weakest parts of the book are the dips into mathematical history. Parker falls for the usual problem of over-egging what was done in 'programming' the non-existent Analytical Engine, and his quick whiz through some of the big names of maths towards the end of the book seems a little out of place with the rest. He acknowledges maths history is a 'bit like herding porridge', but I'm not sure this section adds a lot to the book.

It's interesting to compare TtMaitFD with the work of the hyper-productive Ian Stewart, probably our best known living maths populariser. Despite his light style, Parker took significant risks in going into more depth than Stewart often does in his rec maths books, and I think the gamble pays off, though it may bamboozle some readers. Parker certainly gives Stewart a run for his money and packs plenty in. Recreational maths doesn't work for everyone, but for the naturally geeky this book has a distinct appeal.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Are the Androids Dreaming Yet - James Tagg ***

It would be easy to dismiss this book, with the reference in the title to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (the Philip K. Dick book) that Blade Runner was (very loosely) based on, as a vanity project by an entrepreneur who has too much spare time on his hands, but it turns out to be an interesting, if sometimes challenging read.

I think that James Tagg's aim was to compare the human brain with what is now and might ever be within the capabilities of an artificial intelligence, and to explore areas like creativity and free will where we may see a difference. And there are times that he does this very well. If you have the patience, you will find a lot to get you thinking in Tagg's meanderings through different aspects of the nature of thought and creativity, plus lots of insights into the developments of thinking computers (though not enough, I think on how AI has been developing using neural networks etc.). But the problem is that the book has no narrative arc - it is a series of almost independent chapters, which throw information at you, but don't tell a cohesive story. This is where the patience is required, but, as mentioned, you will certainly find plenty to make you pause and think, especially if you have accepted at face value the suggestion from IT experts that a conscious, more-intelligent-than-human supercomputer is inevitable.

Where I wasn't totally convinced was in a couple of chapters where Tagg tries to prove that there are some things humans can do that a Turing universal computer can't, because he reckons there are some things we can do that aren't computable. It's definitely true that there are some things that aren't computable. And I have to take Tagg's word for it that these include, for instance, Andrew Wiles' proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. But where it gets a bit doubtful is that he says that this also shows, for instance, that a computer could not write some of the music that humans could write, as you can turn Wiles' proof into a musical piece by substituting notes for characters. While this may technically be true a) I don't think any real musician (other than a poser) would want to compose that piece and b) there would still remain an infinite set of musical compositions a computer could produce, of which an infinite subset would be superb music. So does this really mean as Tagg argues that computers can't be creative as we can?

Even so, as we journey from the difference between communication with words and with full-on face-to-face human conversation, through microtubules in the brain and the nature of infinity to how creativity works, there is definitely a lot to make you think. I'm less certain about a topic I know a reasonable amount about, quantum theory, where Tagg makes the statement '[the uncertainty principle] does not prevent the universe knowing the information it needs to allow the particle to go about its business in an entirely deterministic fashion. There is a perfectly reliable an predictable wave function that governs the motion of every particle...' - unfortunately the wave equation is probabilistic, not deterministic, so I can't see how this is true.

One final concern is a certain sloppiness. In a single chapter, Tagg first confuses Babbage’s Difference Engine and Analytical Engine (he talks about the never-built Analytical Engine, but shows a picture of the Science Museum's completed Difference Engine). He describes the Antikythera mechanism, but that label is applied to a picture of a modern reconstruction. And Milton Sirotta, the nephew of mathematician Ed Kasner, who famously came up with the name ‘googol’ is turned into the more exotic Milton Sirocco. Oh, and there is hardly anything on the website the book keep referencing to find out more. (So I couldn't find out if his opening puzzle, supposedly solved there, was answered in a genuinely creative way, or using the uncreative stock answer.)

So it's an interesting mix of a book. It isn't brilliantly written and structured, and it's difficult to draw significant conclusions from it, but it does make you think, and that can't be a bad thing.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

The Vital Question - Nick Lane ****

This is a bravura, hit-you-between-the-eyes popular science book which, were it not for a couple of failings, would not only be five star, but quite possibly the best popular science book of the year so far.

Nick Lane succeeds on two levels. One is opening the eyes of a relatively ignorant reader on the subject of biology like me to the sheer, magnificent complexity of biological mechanisms. I was aware, for instance, of mitochondria as the power sources of eukaryotic cells,  but hadn't a clue just how complex the molecular machines that function across their boundary to the wider cell and inside each mitochondrion were. It is truly mind boggling and wonderful. At one point, Lane comments with raised virtual eyebrows on the number of physicists now working in biology - but that's not at all surprising when it becomes plain how much of what goes on is down to pure physics, whether it's pumping protons, passing electrical charges or quantum tunnelling. Lane does resort to the odd exclamation mark, normally frowned on by writers, but for once it seems entirely justified.

The other impressive aspect of the book might be less familiar even to some biologists when Lane explores the origins of life - no longer from an organic 'soup', but now thought to be primarily from water and carbon dioxide - how the energy requirements of life can sometimes tell us more than genetics about the way living cells turned out, how our complex cells seem to have developed initially from the embedding of bacteria into another prokaryotes, this time archaea. And that's just the start in a complex ride that involves changing membranes from one kind to another, the spontaneous formation of a nucleus, the changing nature of DNA and far more. It even explains why practically all eukaryotes like us have sexual reproduction. Perhaps most surprising is that the earliest common ancestor of eukaryotes seems to have already had most of these complex mechanisms and structures, for reasons that again Lane makes very plausible. It's fascinating and really changes the idea of how various kinds of living cells may have come into being.

So what's the downside? The writing is rather repetitious. It's amusing that early on Lane refers to this as a short book, saying that it is as short as it could possibly be to get the point across. But it is, in fact, a middle-sized book that could have been significantly more short and to the point with some of the repetition, particularly in the first few chapters, taken out.

More significantly, I think the book suffers from Feynman's ague - when the great American physicist was involved in biology he bemoaned the vast quantity of labels that had to be learned to get anywhere and I found there were plenty of pages where I didn't really understand what Lane was talking about because I had either never come across, or had already forgotten the explanation of yet another tedious term. The book really could have benefited from a co-author who wasn't a biologist to say 'you've lost me' ever few pages (or in some cases every few lines). I got the overall gist, but I felt I was missing out on some of the finer points and did skip a few pages where it was all getting too much for me.

Despite those misgivings, though, there is so much to discover in this book. I would recommend it for either of my two reasons for liking it alone - but taken together they make a potent package that will truly bring out the sense of wonder as only good science can.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 3 April 2015

Einstein Relatively Simple - Ira Mark Egdall ***

This review has turned out entirely different from the way I expected after the first chapter or two of Ira Mark Egdall's exploration of the special and general theories of relativity. Frankly, I was all set to give up, as I initially found the book very irritating, but I'm glad I continued, because it turned out to be like a good friend. Just as you like the friend despite their irritating habits, so there was enough here to make it worth suffering a little - at least, if you are part of the right kind of audience.

Let's get the irritating bits out of the way. Because the book is trying to be popular science, it includes a reasonable amount of biography, but it is pretty lightweight. The most glaring example is that we read 'He and his wife Mileva Marić were becoming increasingly estranged during this period. Nonetheless, Albert fathered a second child with Mileva, their son Eduard, in July of 1910.' No, that would be their third child. Poor old Lieserl doesn't get a mention. I also found the way that Edgall goes out of his way to use US units rather than scientific units, without even offering both (except on one single occasion, which makes me wonder if the publisher took them out) frustrating. Seeing the speed of light in miles per hour was just weird.

Perhaps the worst aspect was the author's determined attempt to drive the reader mad by repeated misusing the word 'per'. This Latin term has very specific uses in English, such as 'miles per hour'. But it is really painful when the author regularly uses it to mean 'taking the view of' or 'according to'. On one spread alone we get 'Per Einstein, you see my watch...', 'Per Einstein's theory...', 'Per special relativity, the length of an object...' and 'Per Einstein's formula...' I visibly flinched each time this happened, and never got over it.

All in all, the book feels like a de-mathematised text book, with a bit of historical context sprinkled in, while the examples are made cringingly embarrassing by the attempt to make them 'friendly' by putting in childish characters like Surfer Sally and Crash the rocket jockey. It's a bit like trying to make a limo out of a racing car by stripping out all the powerful stuff and adding in faux leather seats. You end up with something that isn’t satisfying for either requirement.

However, here's the weird thing. By about half way through the special theory section I discovered that I was finding the book interesting, and though there was lots that was familiar, there were also some examples I'd never seen before. What's more Egdall genuinely does have an ability to present his subject in a way that isn't too dry, only optionally includes equations (though I found them very useful) and really enhances the understanding. All the way through the general theory I continued to appreciate what I was getting.

So here's the payoff. This isn't really a popular science book. Ignore the so-so biography and it's real nature shines through: an easy reader textbook. And that is something that could genuinely be of interest to, say, an engineer who wants to pick up some basics of relativity, a science graduate who has forgotten half he was taught, or someone who has started with popular science books but wants something with a bit more teeth. This might be a quite narrow market, but the book fits into it brilliantly, and really delivers 100 per cent for that kind of reader - for them it's highly recommended. As long as they can cope with the 'per's.

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Review by Brian Clegg