Skip to main content

Posts

Showing posts from February, 2016

Why String Theory? - Joseph Conlon ****

If, like me, you've tended to think of string theory as a way that applied mathematicians and theoretical physicists can have endless fun without ever contributing anything practical to our understanding of the universe, Joseph Conlon's is a useful book to remind us that string theory isn't quite so unlikely and useless as it can seem.
I must admit I've been strongly influenced by anti-string theory books such as Not Even Wrongand The Trouble with Physics. After reading Why String Theory? I have a more balanced view (if still being pretty doubtful of the theory's value). One thing that Conlon does, which I've never never seen elsewhere, is give a detailed description of it how the theory came into being, including the original, 26-dimensional approach that was an attempt to deal with the strong interaction. When this was trumped by quantum chromodynamics, it was almost as if the string theorists were so enamoured with their theory, which has some mathematically …

Jules Howard - Four Way Interview

Jules Howard is a zoologist, writer, blogger and broadcaster. He writes on a host of topics relating to zoology and wildlife conservation, writing regularly for BBC Wildlife Magazine and the Guardian, and on radio and TV including BBC Breakfast, Sunday Brunch and BBC 5 Live. Jules also runs a social enterprise that has brought 100,000 young people closer to the natural world. His second book, Death on Earth followed the successful Sex on Earth (Bloomsbury, 2014).

Why Science? 

What better way is there to solve nature's mysteries? For me personally, I'm particularly drawn to science because I really like pressing, however slightly, on the boundary between what is unknown and known. It's a real privilege to ask questions that no one in the universe, maybe, has ever before questioned. It's a greater privilege still to try and answer them. Having fun along the way (which I try to do) is an additional bonus.

Why this book? 

What can I say? I like challenging taboos. And, when i…

Beautiful, Simple, Exact, Crazy - Apoorva Khare and Anna Lachowska ***

This is a rare example of a book that is pretty much a textbook, but works well as entertaining educational maths for a certain section of the audience. To be honest, that's probably quite a small section - but for those it does appeal to, I can heartily recommend to it.
What the authors set out to do is to give those who aren't mathematicians or scientists a feel for how useful mathematics is in the real world. All too often, the maths we are taught at school seems strangely abstract. Okay, they might give you those irritating problems about people filling baths or meeting each other part way on a journey to make the 'numbers come to life' - but these aren't real world applications. And all too often we are just presented with, say, an abstract geometric or algebraic problem to solve and expected to get on with it, with no idea of what the point is in anything vaguely connected with normal life.
The authors assume that the reader has maths to high school algebra lev…

How long is a piece of string?

String theory is something that I've been highly sceptical about for some time, influenced by books like Not Even Wrongand The Trouble with Physics. This meant that a recent book, Why String Theory? by Joseph Conlon has proved a very interesting read to provide an explanation for the popularity of string theory among physicists, despite its apparent inability to make predictions about the real world.

I can't say the new book has won me over (and I ought to stress that, like Not Even Wrong, it's not an easy read), but what I do now understand is the puzzle many onlookers face as to how physicists can end up in what appears to be such an abstruse and disconnected mathematical world to be able to insist with a straight face and counter to all observation that we need at least 10 and probably 11 dimensions to make the universe work.

It seems that string theory emerged from an attempt to explain the strong force back in the late sixties, early seventies. The idea of particles as …

Hollyweird Science - Kevin Grazier and Stephen Cass ***

When reading this book I was reminded of the H. G.  Wells horror/SF novel, The Island of Dr Moreau,  which features heavily in the TV science fiction show Orphan Black (far more impressive than most of the shows mentioned in the book). This is because, like the human/animals in Wells' story, Hollyweird Science is neither one thing nor another. It's as if two entirely different books have been merged, and the result is quite disconcerting.
The first few chapters are a reasonably intense, media studies type exploration of the nature of science fiction films (and, somewhat randomly, TV). There's no attempt to put science and technology in science fiction alongside real world equivalents as in Ten Billion Tomorrows - this is much more about the nature of SF film making, the need in the end for story to overrule science quibbles and the role of science advisors. (As an aside I think movie science advisors are almost always a waste of time and money as, however well meaning, they…

Tom Lean - Four Way Interview

Tom Lean is a historian of science and technology.  He has a PhD on the history of computing and a particular interest in old technologies and the people who made and used them.  In his day job he records scientists and engineers life stories for an oral history archive project at the British Library, helping to preserve the memories of scientists' pasts for future generations. His new book is Electronic Dreams – How 1980's Britain Learned to Love the Home Computer.


Why Science? 

It's really more the history of science and technology for me, and particularly their interaction with the world at large. I enjoy the puzzle aspect of complex systems involving technologies, science, people, organisations, ideas and more, and seeing how all the parts fit together and interact. I'm interested in how science and technology develop over time and the way that society, the things that we think and do, helps to shape those developments. 

Why this book?

I've been fascinated by 1980s…

Electronic Dreams - Tom Lean ****

At the end of Tom Lean's book, subtitled 'How 1980s Britain learned to love the computer' is an epilogue where he points out the remarkable success of the cheap and cheerful Raspberry Pi computer, which has sold over 6 million units in just a few years. He puts this, at least in part, down to nostalgia for the early days of home computers - and certainly any UK readers of the right age will feel a wave of that nostalgia when they read this book and come across their first home computers.
There have been plenty of books on the introduction of microcomputers in the US, but far less on the distinctive British experience, so this was a welcome addition to the field. Unlike When Computing Got Personal, it doesn't try to take on the whole PC revolution, but concentrates on the distinctive concept of the home computer. The major stars here are the output of Sinclair, Acorn (responsible for the BBC computers that were the school standard in the UK for years) and Commodore. Betw…

If the Universe is Teeming with Aliens... Where is Everybody? - Stephen Webb ***(*)

I started this book with a sense of foreboding. The subtitle is 'Seventy-five solutions to the Fermi paradox and the problem of extraterrestrial life'. Any premise based on giving 75 different answers to the same question - in this case, effectively 'Where are the aliens?' - sounds like a trainspotter of a book. A title that is obsessed with collecting every possible viewpoint, over and above any value that can be gained from reading it. However, the first proper chapter, giving some background to the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, and the 'where is everybody' paradox that it is named after him, reassured me hugely, as it was entertaining and well written.
I can honestly say that if Stephen Webb had continued in this vein and had written a book about the Fermi paradox and its possible solutions in the same narrative style as his chapter on Fermi and the origins of the paradox, I would have given this book four to five stars. That chapter demonstrated just how w…

On the Shores of Titan's Farthest Sea - Michael Carroll ***

On the Shores forms part of a major initiative from German publisher Springer to produce books that cross over between the pure entertainment of science fiction and the more informative (if, hopefully still entertaining) genre of popular science.
I was initially somewhat baffled by this self-styled 'scientific novel' as it seemed nothing more than an old-fashioned (more on that in a moment) hard science SF novel. Then I spotted the appendix that gives the 'science behind the fiction'. This is certainly one way to get round the difficulty of incorporating too much technical exposition in a novel (one of the few examples that manages put learning in the text without making the fiction stodgy is the recent L. A. Math), but the 'science bit at the end' approach didn't work for me because the 'science part' had none of the readability of good popular science - it felt more like encyclopaedia content. I suspect many readers would give it a miss. It also st…