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Showing posts from July, 2016

Dragonflies - Pieter van Dokkum ***

I am immediately a touch suspicious of any book in a landscape format - it says 'I'm not really to be read, just to be flicked through' - it's a coffee table format at best. Sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised by the content, where far more is delivered that the format suggests - but here, I'm afraid the result is pretty, but only scratches the surface of what really should be inside.

Dragonflies are fascinating creatures and what Pieter van Dokkum - rather oddly an astronomy professor - does well is to capture their nymphs and mature forms in close up in every possible activity from metamorphosis to catching prey. However it's hard to escape that this is essentially a picture book without even the kind of text support you might get in something like a Dorling Kindersley book. 

In the past I've been pleasantly surprised by what I thought was going to be little more than a set of good illustrations with a book like The Buzz about Bees, because that containe…

Make Way for the Super Humans - Michael Bess ****

There have been plenty of books about human enhancement - the pros, cons and possibilities - so Make Way for the Super Humans (Our Grandchildren Redesigned in the US) needed to do something quite different, and I am pleased to say that it does.

The opening section is fairly standard fare, describing the basic possibilities for pharmaceuticals, bioelectronics and genetics/epigenetics to change the nature of humans and human life, plus a bonus chapter on what Michael Bess refers to as 'wild cards': nanotechnology, AI, robotics and synthetic biology. The most original part of this section is that Bess attempts to give some structure to the concept of futurology, splitting predictions into long structural processes, short structural processes and conjectural processes. He rightly points out the difficulties of getting it right with technology prediction. Look, for instance, at how far out the movie 2001 was, despite every effort being made to get it right. For that matter, I rememb…

The Planet Remade - Oliver Morton ****

We've had plenty of books on climate change - its impact, what we can do about it and so forth. But one of the aspects that tends to be treated very narrowly is that 'what we can do about it.' Specifically, solutions tend to be about reducing production of greenhouse gasses. But all the evidence is that this will not be enough, and that there will be a requirement for geoengineering - taking on active changes to reduce warming or to get carbon out of the atmosphere or both.

Many green organisations don't like geoengineering, because they see it as more of the same - humans interfering with the environment which they should leave alone - but if you take a logical, rather than emotional approach, then some form of geoengineering will almost certainly be necessary.

Oliver Morton makes a persuasive case for this in an odd book, which meanders between the factual and unnecessarily poetic in a way that readers will either love or hate. Considering the content, the book is far …

Stargazer’s Almanac 2017 – Bob Mizon et al ****

* UPDATED * To 2017 edition
If your idea of an almanac is a thick old book full of folk wisdom (‘If ye plant in October, your crops will fall over’), phases of the moon and tide times, you’ll only get one thing right about this almanac – it does contain phases of the moon. But the Stargazer’s Almanac is much more.

The format is one of a large month-by-month calendar, but instead of having spaces to write in when you take the dog to the vets, the children to the cinema or vice versa, it has two big spreads of the horizon, looking North and looking South on the 15th of the month at 10pm GMT from a UK viewpoint. With this in hand you should be able to explore the night sky and sort out Andromeda from Perseus. As well as constellations it shows the positions of planets, points out interesting stars, and, yes, shows the phase of the moon through the month. After the charts there are a couple of pairs of pages of information, as additional reading. This year, we get a page on the astronomer …

The Caloris Network - Nick Kanas ***

As the subtitle 'a scientific novel' suggests, this is another in Springer's innovative series attempting to combine science fiction and science fact, but is sadly not one of the stronger entries in the series.

In this novella (despite that subtitle, I can't really bring myself to describe 100 pages of fiction as a novel), we join the crew on a mission to Mercury - but they haven't been told the whole truth about their mission, lives have already been lost, and what they discover there proves quite a shock - a totally alien form of life.

On the good side, we discover quite a lot about Mercury, not often written about in science fiction (perhaps, in part, because it's a touch boring). There's also a bit about astrobiology, and the possibilities of life that isn't carbon-based. Of itself, this is nothing new, but the approach taken by Nick Kanas, slightly bizarrely a psychiatrist who used to work for NASA, is relatively novel.

The biggest problem, perhaps, i…

The Hunt for FOXP5 - a genomic mystery novel - Wallace Kaufman and David Deamer ****

I've read a good few novels that attempt to provide edutainment - to work as a good story while simultaneously providing the reader with the kind of interesting information about science you might find in a popular science book. Most don't work at all. Either they fall over on the fiction writing, painfully lathering on the facts and writing amateurish prose, or they are so science-light that they are, in effect just straightforward hard science fiction, perhaps with a 'science behind the story' at the back. This title by Wallace Kaufman and David Deamer, I would say, is the best I've ever read in terms of achieving a balance of the two.

In the Hunt for FOXP5 we meet genetics professor Michelle Murphy and her extremely intelligent daughter Avalon (yes, really), adopted from a Kazakhstan orphanage, the way you do. In a mix of archeology, genetics and nationalist political intrigue we get a feel for how the FOXP2 gene may have resulted in human language ability distin…

Information Theory: a tutorial introduction - James V. Stone ***

Information theory is central to the technology that we use every day - apart from anything else, in the technology that brings you this review (though ironically not in the book being reviewed as it doesn't appear to have an ebook version). As in hisBayes' Rule, James Stone sets out to walk a fine line between a title for the general reader and a textbook. And like that companion title the outcome is mixed, though here the textbook side largely wins.

The opening chapter 'What is information?' walks the line very well. It gradually builds up the basics that will be required to understand information theory and though it would work better if it had a little more context (for example, more about Claude Shannon as a person) to anchor it, the general reader will, with perhaps a few pages that needs re-reading, find it approachable and providing more depth than a popular science title usually would. I like the way that Stone uses variants of a photograph, for instance, to de…

The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick - Kyle Arnold ***

Although a huge fan of science fiction, I've never been overly fond of the New Wave authors of the 1960s. Their ideas were remarkable - but their stories tended to be relentlessly bleak and unrewarding - a bit like post-Syd Barrett Pink Floyd without the wonderful music. And there's no better example than Philip K. Dick. (It's Kindred, since you ask.) The sheer inventiveness of Dick's stories come through in the number of 'adaptations' of his work, from Blade Runner (taken from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) to The Man in the High Castle. But the negative side of his work comes across in those inverted commas round 'adaptations' - the stories usually need a lot of adapting to be less odd and nihilistic to work for a wider audience.

I knew nothing about Dick himself before reading The Divine Madness, a kind of psychoanalytic biography that attempt to retro-analyse Dick's strange life and thinking. His upbringing was never going to leave him nor…

The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century - Hugh Aldersey-Williams ***

I first came across this book in an interview that the author gave in which he said about the readers of popular science: 'There’s no point in making ultra-subtle points about how science is done, you have to bang them over the head with it.' I thought this was an unfair comment and suggested I'd give his books a miss. The author pointed out this was petty, so I've taken the plunge into Sir Thomas Browne, and I'm glad I did - though it isn't a book that worked all the way through for me.
Browne was a seventeenth century man with a strong interest in science in the widest medieval sense of being 'knowledge of the world'. It's equally possible to regard him as a dilettante or someone with an enormous appetite for finding things out, who was prepared to question some of the beliefs of his day to an unusual degree.

Hugh Aldersey-Williams comes close to a kind of hero worship of the man, admiring his writing style, his thoughtfulness about the world around…