Saturday, 26 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.”


Shortlist

  • The 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 Belos
The 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 Butterworth
The judges said: “With his unique insider perspective, Butterworth has humanized a classic science story that we all thought we knew. His writing is so engaging that he makes some of the most advanced science around seem within our grasp.”


  • Life's Greatest Secret: The Story of the Race to Crack the Genetic Code by Matthew Cobb
The judges said: “A brilliantly written account of one of the most important scientific discoveries of the century, with a fresh perspective that also dispels the myths popularised by previous reports.”


  • Life on the Edge: The Coming Age of Quantum Biology by Johnjoe Mcfadden and Jim Al-Khalili
The judges said: “A topic that could have been incomprehensible to the average reader becomes unexpectedly enthralling in the hands of these skilled communicators. A controversial work that deserves its already wide audience.”

Longlist

Bizarrely, there was no longlist this year.

and here are our favourites that didn’t make the long list, but should have:

Judges

Award-winning author Sarah Waters is one of six judges chaired by mathematician and Royal Society Fellow Ian Stewart, widely known for the Science of Discworld series, which he co-wrote with Terry Pratchett and Jack Cohen.

They are joined by: Channel 4 anchor Krishnan Guru-Murthy, science journalist and presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science Dr Adam Rutherford, electrical engineer Dr Jo Shien Ng and Guardian Books Editor Claire Armitstead.

The Prize has worked with many eminent judges over its illustrious 28-year history, among them Ian McEwan, Terry Pratchett, Brian Cox, David Attenborough, Tracy Chevalier and Michael Frayn.

Founded in 1988, (and previously known under various banners including the Royal Society Prize for Science Books, Aventis Prize and Rhône-Poulenc Prize), the Prize celebrates outstanding popular science books from around the world and is open to authors of science books written for a non-specialist audience. Over the decades it has championed writers such as Stephen Hawking, Jared Diamond, Stephen Jay Gould and Bill Bryson.

Sarah Waters said: “Although I was very interested in science as a child, I've been more at home, as an adult, with literature and theatre. So I'm not a traditional science buff by any means, but fundamentally I'm still interested in how things work, in systems and in processes, and I’m keen to reconnect with that. I am awed by the range of knowledge that is being brought to the table by my fellow judges, and I'm looking forward to what's sure to be a lively judging process. The great thing about this Prize is that it celebrates accessibility as well as expertise, and I think my novelist's perspective will be a very useful one.”

Judge Adam Rutherford added: “Last year marked the first time a scientist joined the Man Booker judging panel, but by comparison, this Prize has a long history of inviting expertise from non-scientists. This panel has been assembled by The Royal Society precisely because we’ve all got different interests and talents – a sort of hybrid of the Bloomsbury Set and The Avengers. These books are for everyone, and it's important that we judge not just the science but also the quality, clarity and beauty of the writing.”

Chair of judges Ian Stewart said: “I’m honoured to have been chosen to chair the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books judging panel. The Prize is a marvellous way to recognise the achievements of authors who write about science for the general public, as well as emphasise the importance of public engagement with science.”

Thursday, 24 September 2015

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 every moment of your life, as the author takes us through a typical day. Except 90% of his examples have only ever been experienced by a Silicon Valley geek, and those that the rest of us have come across, like algorithms to make recommendations to you on shopping websites and video streaming sites, in my experience, are always so terrible that they are almost funny.

The pain carries on in part because of a kind of messianic fervour for the topic that means that the author seems convinced it is about to totally takeover the world - and like most fanatics, he presents this view while viciously attacking everyone who disagrees, from the likes of Marvin Minsky and Noam Chomsky to Black Swan author Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It's interesting that Domingos is totally dismissive of the early knowledge engineers who thought their methodology would take over the world, but can't see that his own pursuit of the 'master algorithm' (think of Lord of the Rings, but substitute 'algorithm' for 'ring') is equally likely to be a pursuit that is much easier to theorise about than to bring to success.

To make matters worse, Domingos repeatedly claims, for instance, that thanks to learning algorithms it's possible to predict the movement of the stock market, or to predict the kind of 'black swan' events that Taleb shows so convincingly are unpredictable. Yet I have never seen any evidence that this is true, it seems to go totally against what we know from chaos theory, and Domingos doesn't present any evidence, he just states it as fact. (Could you really have predicted the existence of black swans before they were discovered? How about blue ones?)

One other problem I have with the book is that the author isn't very good at explaining the complexities he is dealing with. I've seen many explanations of Bayesian statistics over the years, for instance, and this was one of the most impenetrable I've ever seen.

I can't tell you to avoid this book, because I've not come across another that introduces the whole range of machine learning options in the way that Domingos does. But any recommendation has to be made through gritted teeth because I did not like the way that information was put across.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Eureka: How Invention Happens - Gavin Weightman ***

There's an interesting point made by Gavin Weightman in Eureka - the way that many inventions were the brainchild of an amateur, a tinkerer, who managed to get the invention going pretty badly, before it was then picked up elsewhere, typically by a larger organization which carried it forward to become a commercial or practical product. It's certainly true of the five examples he focusses on in the book.

These are powered flight, television, the barcode, the PC and the mobile phone (cellphone). In each case, Weightman gives us a long section in which he introduces that individual (or small team) of amateurs, plunges back into their historical antecedents - because invention doesn't come from nowhere, there is plenty of groundwork that precedes it - and then takes us through the detailed work of the amateurs and the way that the invention was then taken up and commercialised.

For me, the two best sections were the ones on TV and the barcode, in part because I'd read more detailed books on the other topics. The TV section is interesting because it gives the best balance between Baird and Farnsworth I've seen. In my youth (in the UK) John Logie Baird was the only name you ever heard, while more recently the magnificently named Philo T. Farnsworth has taken centre stage (because unlike Baird, his TV concept was not a dead-end mechanical approach), but Weightman puts both in their rightful positions. 

The barcode section was particularly interesting because it's something I've never read about, and it's easy to overlook the barcode as an invention, even though it plays a part every time we go shopping, not to mention its role in inventory and stock control. It was fascinating to learn that it was inspired by Morse code. My only real criticism of this chapter is the way that it concentrates solely on the hardware, where the development of the software was equally crucial in the story.

These are without doubt interesting stories, but the reason I haven't given the book a higher star rating is that it's not a great read. The historical sections get rather dull and over-detailed (this is particularly the case in the flight section, not helped by jumping around wildly chronologically in a way that really doesn't help the reader. I also think that the central thesis that inventions come from isolated amateurs, which the author presents as if it's a new observation, would have been better if he had read more around the study of creativity and innovation. It's an observation dating back for decades that in the creative field ideas come from individuals, while development tends to come from teams, which is why in part there was a strong historical tendency for the more individual-oriented UK of the early to mid 20th Century to come up with inventions, while the US, where businesses tended to have a stronger team approach, was better at developing those inventions to finished products.

The other problem with the thesis is selectivity. It's certainly true that these inventions were the work of amateurs, but it's not true of, say, the laser and a whole host of modern inventions where the technology level is often too high for amateurs to get anywhere in a garage lab. An interesting set of stories, then, but could have been told better and the central thesis could do with some expansion and extra sophistication. 
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Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 10 September 2015

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 when asking questions. Scientists make amazing discoveries because they spot something intriguing or unusual and have the tenacity and systematic approach that often reveals something far more interesting than their initial observation.

There is a great example of how initial curiosity can lead to astonishing science in the discovery of the 'killer bean of Old Calabar.' Missionaries travelling in West Africa in the 1840s witnessed ordeal trials where people accused of serious crimes swallowed beans to determine their guilt. The guilty died and the innocent survived. Intrigued as to how the beans could possible determine guilt or innocence, some of the beans were collected and sent to a toxicologist in Edinburgh, Robert Christison. Initially experimenting on himself Christison, discovered the beans slowed his heart rate. Further investigations found an extract of the beans, physostigmine, (used by Agatha Christie in her novels Curtain and Crooked House) could be used to treat glaucoma, and as an antidote for certain poisons. Another scientist, Otto Loewi, used physostigmine to help determine how nerve signals are passed from one cell to another and was awarded a Nobel Prize in recognition of his work. A whole series of amazing discoveries came about because someone saw something interesting and wanted to know more.

Why this book?

Poisons seem to fascinate many people and Agatha Christie is renowned for her use of poisons in her crime fiction stories, it seemed an obvious match. I had been researching poisons for a while before being given the opportunity to write a book. Christie’s name occasionally popped up in the poison and forensics books I was reading. I had been a fan of her work since I was teenager and so it seemed a great opportunity to learn more about poisons and their history as well as being able to re-read all the Agatha Christie stories.

What impressed me most about the books was how accurate Christie was in her descriptions of poisons and poisoning. Though her work is hugely popular I don’t think many people credit her with the scientific knowledge she incorporated into her writing. I wanted to show that, though her stories may appear deceptively simple, she clearly put in a lot of effort to get her facts right. What may on the face of it appear to be an intriguing puzzle is in fact a very cleverly plotted and well-researched description of poisoning. One toxicologist claimed the descriptions of thallium poisoning in her 1961 novel The Pale Horse as 'the most reliable outside of a specialist textbook.'

What’s exciting you at the moment?

I find that I am more and more interested in the history of science. How discoveries were made and what lead scientists to investigate certain phenomena and this has only increased after researching A is for Arsenic. After spending a lot of time researching how certain compounds kill, I am now looking into how science might be able to bring you back. I’m reading a lot about body snatchers, or resurrectionists as they were known, in the early 19th century. There are some fascinating stories about experiments with electricity that tried to reanimate dead bodies. It sounds very grim and the even at the time many people were horrified by what these scientists did. Many questioned whether these really were scientific experiments or some gruesome form of entertainment. At the time scientists thought they were close to being able to resurrect the dead or create life and, though this still isn’t possible, our understanding of life and death has increased enormously over the last century.

These early experiments have eventually led to a better understanding of how the body works as well as medical devices such as pace makers and defibrillators which save lives. What I love is how seemingly bizarre and, on the face of it, gratuitously disgusting public displays of science have led to major scientific developments that no one at the time could have foreseen.

What’s next?

I’m looking forward to doing lots of talks about poisons and Agatha. I’ve been doing poison talks for a few years now and the audience questions are always great. People are also really enthusiastic about the book so I’m going to have a busy few months going to lots of exciting events like Bloody Scotland, the British Science Festival and the Agatha Christie Festival. I get to meet great audiences, lots of interesting new people and talk science in some lovely parts of the UK. It’s going to be a great autumn.

Beyond that? Who knows? There is a whole world of interesting things to find out more about. I have no problem finding things to interest me. Whatever I end up doing I'm sure it will be based in science and trying to share my enthusiasm for an incredibly varied and interesting subject.

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 Christie for more details of the way that the poison fits with her plots.

We start with some really interesting biographical material on why Christie was so good on the subject of poisons (she was trained as a pharmacist's dispenser), and once we settle down into the individual poison sections there is some genuinely fascinating material, particularly in the real life poisonings. But the repeated format does become a trifle tiresome after a while. This particularly applies to the bits that describe how the poison attacks the body (which can be somewhat repetitious) and also when Harkup describes the Christie plots - not because these are spoilers (though sometimes they are), but more because descriptions of novel plots are almost always tedious to read.

I am reminded of the two different ways books have approached the elements of the periodic table. Some work through element by element - and reading such titles gets to be a bit of grind. But others, notably Sam Kean's excellent The Disappearing Spoon, are story driven and meander around without the same rigid structure. That approach is so much better to read because even non-fiction books need a narrative to be readable, and an encyclopedia-like repeated format can't deliver that.

So there's nothing wrong with this book. It is beautifully made - one of the most elegant popular science books I've ever seen with a gorgeous textured cover and elegant chapter heading graphics. And Harkup combines some interesting stories of real life poisoning with a generally light and highly readable tone. But the format naggingly gets in the way of this being a true popular science masterpiece.

All Agatha Christie fans, and many with an interest in poisons and true crime will enjoy the book and will want it in their collection, but it could have been even better.

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Review by Brian Clegg