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Showing posts from 2016

Bete - Adam Roberts ****

For a long time, my taste in science fiction writers was limited to the favourites from my youth. The likes of Asimov, Blish, Brunner, Clarke, Heinlein, Kornbluth and Pohl. About as trendy as I got was Zelazny. But lately I've discovered two who have re-invigorated my love of SF - Iain M. Banks and Adam Roberts, both combining style and entertainment with superb ideas that really make you think.

The opening of Roberts' novel BĂȘte had me spellbound. The cow that a farmer is about to kill is pleading for its life - and the scene is handled brilliantly. So too are conversations exploring the borderline between AI and consciousness. If an animal is made apparently intelligent by an implanted chip, is it the chip that is intelligent or the animal... or neither?

Some of the rest of the book worked well for me as well. The surreal conversations, packed with popular culture quotes (some of which I got) were fascinating. However, I'm not a great fan of disaster novels - I loved Wyndh…

Murder on the Einstein Express - Harun Siljak **

I've seen a fair number of books that try to combine science fact with fiction, but fewer in the world of mathematics. This extremely slim collection of just four short stories attempts the maths/fiction crossover, and is one of the strangest collection of stories I have ever read. I am honestly not sure if this is a good or bad thing.

The collection begins with a conceit that can in some ways be compared to Edwin Abbott's Flatland. That book had geometric shapes as its main characters. In the first of Harun Siljak's stories it is equations and mathematical concepts that take the leading roles. But where Abbott uses mathematical concepts in a story that any reader can follow (if few can honestly enjoy, in one of the dullest pieces of fiction known to man), Siljak produces a story that only a mathematician can love (or for that matter understand). It's a bold move. And for most of us, that leaves just three readable stories.
These are certainly more interesting. We meet a…

The Shockwave Rider - John Brunner *****

I've recently re-read one of my favourite SF novels from the 1970s, John Brunner's The Shockwave Rider, and it has more than lived up to expectations.

Okay, like any book using future technology it gets some things wrong. Its early 21st century tech is mostly too advanced (but then they still use tapes to store information). However, this book absolutely sizzles with ideas, some taken from Alvin Toffler's far effective readable futurology book, Future Shock.

Just one example - the protagonist is in the business of creating digital worms to make changes to the net. At the time (1975), not only was ARPANet, the internet's predecessor very limited, the first actual network worm wouldn't be launched for another 13 years (Brunner originated the term in this novel).

Brunner also creates a stunning dystopian society, where the US government/major corporations (hand in hand) manipulate what could in principle be an exercise in effective distributed democracy - the public Delp…

Reality Is Not What It Seems - Carlo Rovelli ***

I was no great fan of Carlo Rovelli's flowery, overpriced previous title, and the introduction to this book on loop quantum gravity has a similar style, but thankfully it settles down a little. However, there is still rather too much of the woffle, reverting to floral form on Lucretius and his atomist poem on nature. For those who remember How to be Topp, this is the Fotherington Thomas school of popular science - all 'Hullo clouds, hullo sky!'

We then get onto Galileo. At times, Rovelli's history of science goes wildly astray - he says, for example, that Galileo was the first experimenter -  what of William Gilbert or the medieval optical experiments, for example? Similarly, Rovelli tells us that no one from Newton to Faraday tried to come up with an explanation for action at a distance - which just isn't true. Not only did Newton himself have an idea, there were plenty of mechanisms proposed. This isn't a matter of obscure history, you can read about it in Wik…

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…

Are Numbers Real - Brian Clegg *****

To use Brian Clegg's own words, the question as to whether numbers are real seems, at first, 'like a crazy question.'  In my mind, numbers are somewhat like natural language, in that one could argue that we don't consciously think about our native language when using it - it just happens and flows out of us.  When we have thoughts, it's interesting to ask whether one was thinking those thoughts in words, and, therefore, whether one can have a thought without having available a language in which to structure them.  

As numbers obviously don’t exist in a physical sense - you can't trip over the number ‘2’ in the street - one might conclude that, as in the language case, numbers exist only in thought.  To answer such things one might decide to conduct an experiment, to observe the reasoning process.  Sadly, to do so is like observing which slit a particle passes through in the famous double-slit experiment from quantum mechanics; when an observation is made, the ef…

Welcome to the Universe - Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael Strauss, Richard Gott ***

One of the first things a writer is encouraged to do is to be aware of his or her audience. I think it's interesting that this book, like many written by physicists, mostly has comments on the back from physicists, because the book is written as if they were the audience. Not as serious reading - more the equivalent of a heavy literary fiction reader indulging in a bit of Agatha Christie for light relief. The trouble is that this isn't the audience it's supposed to be for. To make things worse, each of the three authors pitches their writing differently.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is his usual ebullient self, using a style that mixes the shouty with a touch of condescension. However, his content is more detailed than usual with a strong smattering of equations - enough that this sometimes feels like an introductory textbook. The opening has something of the manic 'space is really big' approach of the Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but then settles down to a quick rat…

Ecotopia 2121 - Alan Marshall ***

This is, without doubt, one of the the strangest books I have ever reviewed. Around 500 years ago, the cleric and politician Thomas More wrote a book called Utopia that brought a new, and much misused, word into the world. Now, Alan Marshall has used some of the concepts of utopia (which he points out combines the meanings 'good land' or 'nowhere land') to provide a vision of an ecologically minded future 100 or so years from now.

The title emphasises that ecological aspect (it has been used before), though for me it's too close to 'ectopic' to be comfortable. In the book, Marshall takes 100 world cities and gives us a vision of what they might be like in 2121. Each has a rather beautiful image, plus between one and five pages of text which typically combine a bit of historical context, an idea of why he has chosen the particular approach he has used for that city and some details on what the future city is like.

The choice of cities is quirky. The obvious wo…

What Colour is the Sun? - Brian Clegg ****

This is Brian Clegg's follow-up to How Many Moons Does the Earth Have?with the same format, but all new questions. As I may have mentioned before, science and fun go together like… well, like things that don’t often go together at all.  So it’s no mean feat to find that Brian Clegg has managed to combine the two so skilfully here. Like its predecessor, the book is in the format of a pair of pub quizzes, but unless you’re drinking in a pub favoured by geeky academics in either Oxford or Cambridge, I would say that 99.99% of readers will just read the book through like I did, to entertain and test themselves.    Each question is cleverly laid out, in that each is posed in the form of a puzzle, problem or brainteaser, augmented with a few related ‘while you wait’ fun facts on a single page; giving the reader the space to test themselves.  Once done, the reader then turns the page to find the answer - complete with a detailed explanation.  This makes each question an interesting standal…

Astrophotography - Rhodri Evans ****

This is a book that falls pretty firmly in the coffee table bracket, weighing in at over a kilo, and nearly 30 cm by 24. I'd usually be rather put off by this, but I was pleasantly surprised here.

We've seen plenty of photo-based books of space before, such as the even bigger Hubble books, but for me, Astrophotography probably has the best balance. It combines those gorgeous photographs we have come to know and love (partly because NASA and the ESA are so generous with making them freely available) with a good text by astronomer Rhodri Evans, which never dominates the images, but gives enough information to avoid this being a pure picture book. 

Even so, as the title suggests, it's the photographs that make it remarkable. Evans takes us an a tour, starting with the solar system, where as well as the inevitable planets we get some funky moons and comets (yes, it's up-to-date enough to include 67P and those great Pluto photos). 

From the limits of our solar system, we zoom …

Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science - Nancy Cooke & Margaret Hilton (Eds.) ****

Editor's note: This book is not popular science in the usual sense and the primary audience is those working in science, but it gives insights that will prove valuable beyond the science community.

Research of biological, chemical or physical sciences in all their guises is increasingly the domain of large-scale, multi-centre, cross-disciplinary collaboration. Almost gone is the era when individual investigators secured funding to undertake narrowly defined projects, replaced by a ‘team science’ philosophy in which both practical and theoretical research, basic or applied, is performed by consortia of scientists with a range of skill sets who are brought together to address so-called grand challenges. As team members are typically in geographically distinct locations, often in different countries or continents, this provides logistical obstacles to project coordination, management and implementation. Knowing how a team-based approach can function optimally, as well as how universit…