Wednesday, 27 April 2016

A World From Dust - Ben McFarland ***

This is, without doubt, one of the strangest popular science books I've ever read. A quote in the blurb says 'this book is very approachable for people with a minimal background in chemistry,' though given the author of this remark is a professor of geobiology, it's tempting to wonder how he knows what would be approachable to such a person. 

Where he's definitely right, though, is when he says 'in ways that have not been attempted by earlier writers on the topic.' I have never before read a science book quite like this. The reason is that you will generally read about physics the way a physicist would look at it, or about biology as understood by a biologist. This reframes all the science it uses as seen by a chemist. The result is novel, certainly, though I'm not convinced it makes the subjects more approachable - instead, for me, it obscures the message.

In Ben McFarland's obsessive attempt to represent any science from a chemistry viewpoint, what he writes can sometimes be confusing. At times, it even sounds worryingly like the way pseudoscience uses scientific terminology e.g. 'Energy rate density (ERD) is the ratio of watts to kilograms. As such, the ERD for a system measures the river of energy that is spread out as it flows through a system. If the river flows more quickly and more energy is processed, then the ERD increases, too.' 

Having said all that, there is some interesting material in the book. McFarland challenges the great biologist and science communicator Steven J. Gould, who suggested that if you rewound the 'tape of life' and played it again, things would have turned out to be very different. According to McFarland, everything is so limited by chemistry, that the new history of life would seem extremely familiar. That's fair enough, though I think McFarland exaggerates Gould's point to be able to challenge it, which he does repeatedly. I don't think Gould was really suggesting that another run of the development of life would produced silicon-based lifeforms using arsenic where we would use phosphorus. Rather, Gould was suggesting that within a very basic related framework, many of the outcomes were dictated by chance in a hugely complex (and indeed chaotic) system, meaning that the results would be likely to be significantly different to lifeforms we see today.

However, if you overlook McFarland's obsession with proving Gould wrong, his exploration of how very few elements could play the part they do in living creatures is genuinely absorbing, especially where he demonstrates the importance of size, charge and bond strengths as determiners of the possible outcomes. Much of the book focuses on how life might have developed, seen from his unique chemist's viewpoint. This isn't the best book to get a feel for the nature of biological life and the complexity that is involved - a far better read on that subject is Nick Lane's The Vital Question. Yet it's impossible to deny that McFarland's unique way of looking at things gives new insights to the reader on the topic established in the subtitle: how the periodic table shaped life.

I personally found the approach and style irritating (and struggled with most of the fuzzy illustrations). But the book may well work for other readers, especially if they have a chemistry background. And this is a a true, brave attempt to be different in approach to popular science writing, which must be applauded.

Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg


Thursday, 21 April 2016

Algorithms to Live By - Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths *****

I was captivated by much of this book. It's the perfect antidote to the argument you often hear from young maths students - 'What's the point? I'll never use this in real life!' This often comes up with algebra (which often is useful), but reflects the way that we rarely cover the most applicable bits of maths to everyday life at high school. Although this book is subtitled 'the computer science of human decisions', it's really about the maths of human decision making (which is often supported by computers) - I suspect the 'computer science' label is to make it more sexy than boring old mathematics.

If there is any danger that the 'M' word would turn you off, the book tends to skip over the mathematical workings, concentrating on the outcomes and how they're relevant to the kind of decisions we make in everyday life - and it's that application side that makes it particularly interesting (helped by a good, readable style from the co-authors). So, for instance, one of the earliest areas covered is the kind of decision where you are selecting between a number of options that arrive sequentially and where you have to make a decision on which is best for you part way through the sequence, even though there may be better options in the future. The classic examples for this are some kinds of job interviews, house buying and finding a partner for life.

It might seem there can be no sensible advice, but mathematically it's very clear. You wait until you've got through 37% of the choices, then pick the next one that's better than any you've seen before. It's not that this will necessarily deliver your best of all possible worlds. More often than not it won't. But it will give you a better result than any other mechanism for deciding when to go for a particular option. Of course it's not always easy to apply. For example, unless it's something like an interview with closed applications, how do you know when you are 37% of the way through the available options? Luckily, the authors point out that there are approximations to get around this, which include that the approach can also apply to the amount of time available for the process.

And that's just the start. Along the way you will discover the best way to sort the books on your shelves into alphabetic order (something I confess I did last year, using a sub-optimal mechanism), how to balance exploration (for example, trying out new restaurants) with exploitation (for example, returning to tried and tested restaurants), how the concept of caching can revolutionise your filing system (and make that pile of papers on your desk that everyone mocks the sensible approach), why Bayes theorem is so important and much more. I absolutely revelled in this book.

The content only fades a bit when the applications aren't about real world decisions. So, for instance, there's some material about how the internet works that is very interesting if you like that kind of thing (I do), but hasn't got the same feeling of personal utility to it, so lacks some of the bite of the other chapters. This is even more obvious in the section on randomness. I would also have liked to see more acknowledgement that most of the content was really from the area of study called operational (operations in the US) research, a discipline that happens to make use of computers, rather than true computer science - but that's a specialist moan.

Realistically speaking, I don't think much of the content of this book will truly change how any of us do things. Interestingly, the authors reveal than an expert in the field pretty much consciously ignored the mathematical approach in a particular case, opting for more of a 'feels right' choice. But that doesn't stop the whole business, whether it's the relative simplicity of the 37% rule or the mind twisting possibilities of game theory, from being both potentially practical and highly enjoyable as presented here. Recommended.

Hardback:  
Kindle:  

Author interview
Review by Brian Clegg

The Tyrannosaur Chronicles - David Hone ***

For most of us, dinosaurs have a strangely Victorian feel, with the associations of large, scary skeletons in nineteenth century buildings like the Natural History Museum. However, not only has knowledge of this remarkable group of animals moved on hugely since those skeletons were first put on show, the amount we have learned in the last 20 years eclipses everything that has come before, so it is valuable to have a really up-to-date view of dinosaurs, and in particular that most popular of groupings, the tyrannosaurs.

It's appropriate that I mention a Victorian feel, as David Hone's writing does have something of a fussy academic style. Unlike some academics who write popular science, he retains a precision and requirement to note uncertainty in some detail that doesn't make for the best reading, even if it is strictly the most accurate way to present what is, and isn't known. (I assumed he was about 70 from his style, but from the photo he's a lot younger.) However, this isn't disastrous and there is no doubt that what he gives us is a thorough grounding in dinosaurs in general, how the various tyrannosaurs (it's not just T. rex, by any means) fit into the bigger picture and a lot of the detail we know about them.

What's refreshing about this book is the clear presentation of just how difficult it is to make definitive statements based on a few, often fragmentary remains of animals that lived many millions of years ago. Even an apparently obvious distinction like whether an animal is male or female, or whether it is a small species or the juvenile of a different large species, is anything but straightforward. This approach is a wonderful counter to the likes of the TV show Walking with Dinosaurs (ironically Hone has written for the WwD website), which may have entertained its large audiences with its apparent 'facts', but made vast unsupported assumptions that Hone sweeps aside to show what we really know and don't know.

It's not possible to give this book more than three stars, because it suffers deeply from what you might call Rutherford's disease. The great physicist Ernest Rutherford infamously said 'All science is either physics or stamp collecting,' mocking the way some scientific disciplines are primarily about collecting and collating information, and the majority of The Tyrannosaur Chronicles is a step-by-step, working through what we know about different bits of the skeletons, what we can deduce about their diet from their skeletons, what we can deduce about the way they moved from their skeletons, what we deduce about their feathers from fossil remains and so forth. It will delight the young (or old) dinosaur enthusiast who wants to absorb every last piece of evidence, but it can be quite hard going for the general reader.

I found in working through the book that some chapters came across much stronger than others - a topic would suddenly become interesting and give some real insights, but then we'd be back to the stamp collecting. This may have been because some chapters take on a wider remit - so, for instance, one of the chapters I found most interesting was on the physiology of the tyrannosaurs, because rather than just describe (for instance) the skull and its implications, as one chapter does, the physiology chapter talks about the difference between being warm and cold blooded, showing it's not a simple binary option, and exploring whether dinosaurs, and tyrannosaurs in particular, could be fitted into a particular category and why.

For me, as a reader, by far the best part of the book was something the author probably thinks is totally trivial. I was aware that birds were some kind of relation to dinosaurs, but Hone makes it clear that birds are dinosaurs - and that simple revelation was startling. I'm sure others would get a lot more out of the detailed descriptions and illustrations (I wish there had been more illustrations) than I did. And Hone does a splendid job of showing both how far our understanding has moved on and how much more we need to discover. But it was a book that I found involved a fair amount of work to continue reading.

Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Beyond Zero and One - Andrew Smart ***

This is an unusual book, in a small pocket-sized format that reminds me of the old science fiction doubles pocket books. Apart from their small size, these books had a special trick up their sleeve, because when you flipped them over, the back was a cover for a different book - each copy held two books, starting from opposite ends. Beyond Zero and One may be a single title, but it too has very different topics that Andrew Smart wants to convince us go naturally together: artificial intelligence and the drug LSD.

As we go, in a rather rambling fashion, in the first topic, Smart takes us through the nature of artificial intelligence, how likely it is that computers could become truly intelligent and/or conscious and explores a little of the nature of consciousness himself. As far as the second goes, we get a really interesting description of his one and only LSD trip, details of its chemical structure and possible method of the drug's operation, its history and how it has been used. However, these two parts to the book are not structurally separate, but interwoven.

So what's going on here? Why are these two apparently unconnected things together? Because Smart believes that an LCD experience is not a true hallucination, but rather an opening up of the subjective side of our perception. He thinks that the ability to have this kind of altered perception is a fundamental aspect of consciousness (I think - his arguments are not all very clear), and as such, if we could give LSD to a supposed AI (he doesn't propose a mechanism for doing this, as there would be much point simply dripping the chemical substance into it), then it would give us great insights into the nature of consciousness and intelligence. Quite why, I'm not really sure.

Each of the two significant parts of the book has some genuinely interesting bits. I didn't know much about LCD, and that aspect is highly informative, while some of the sections on intelligent computers are genuinely fascinating. When, for example, Smart counters the assurance of the likes of Ray Kurzweil that true AI is just around the corner and will be stable and problem free, Smart points out the dangers of Byzantine faults, which stress error correction mechanisms to the point of collapse and could ensure that any computer capable of intelligence was unable to run without failure.

The problem with the book is that it is difficult to uncover any good reason for putting the two topics together. Smart makes arguments from the Kantian idea that we can't perceive reality, just a subjective model of it. This is clearly true to a degree. For example, what we see as our visual field, looking out on the world, is assembled from a set of inputs of things like shapes and shades - it's not a camera view, which is why optical illusions occur and we don't notice saccades where our eyes jerk around. However Smart has a tendency to go too far with this to asserting that perceptions are no different from hallucinations, as our waking experience is a construct of the brain.

The trouble with this approach is that we have far too good an agreement over how we interpret what we perceive for it to be subjective enough to draw the parallels that Smart makes. For example, he says that colour does not exist outside our brains saying 'the redness of the apple is entirely constructed in your brain.' In reality it's only partly constructed in the brain. The colour of an object is a response to the energy of photons it emits - in the case of this apple, they are in the range of the spectrum identified as red. The fact that the red light is far more intense on a sunny beach than on your desk on a rainy day, which Smart uses to suggest that colour is purely subjective, is about number of photons, not photon energy. And that is not subjective.

In making the steps he has to take to link his topics, Smart goes too far in attempting to show that all perception is subjective. We all, after all, agree that what perceive as a cliff is a cliff. It's not subjective, and anyone who argues otherwise is welcome to walk off it to prove otherwise. There are also rather too many assumptions made. At one point, for instance, Smart claims that 'a strong AI would have to be conscious' - but he doesn't justify this in the face of, for instance, the evidence that the vast majority of brain activity is unconscious.

I was also a little worried that someone writing a book with computing at its heart could make as fundamental an error as to say that the IBM Watson computer has '80 teraflops of memory and 15 terabytes of RAM.' No - RAM is memory, and teraflops is a measure of the number of floating point operations the computer can make in a second: it has nothing to do with memory.

Despite the flaws in the book, there's much to get you thinking about the nature of artificial intelligence and consciousness (plus that second topic of LSD, which is also eye-opening if you have no experience of the culture that might use it). Beyond Zero and One is a thought provoking book - it's just that a fair amount of the time, the thoughts provoked may not be in agreement with those the author wants to promote.

Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths - Four Way Interview

Brian Christian is the bestselling author of The Most Human Human, which was named a Wall Street Journal bestseller and a New Yorker favourite book of 2011. His writing has appeared in Wired, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal and The Paris Review, among others. Brian has been a featured guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Charlie Rose Show, NPR's Radiolab, and the BBC, and has lectured at Google, Microsoft, SETI, the Santa Fe Institute, the Royal Institution of Great Britain, and the London School of Economics.

Tom Griffiths is a professor of psychology and cognitive science at UC Berkeley, where he directs the Computational Cognitive Science Lab. He has received widespread recognition for his scientific work, including awards from the American Psychological Association and the Sloan Foundation.

Algorithms to Live By is reviewed here.

Why science?

BC: I think of my own orientation towards science in essentially religious terms. That anything exists at all (let alone life, let alone my own conscious experience) is wonderfully and sublimely mysterious. The most reverential attitude to adopt toward this grand mystery, in my view, is curiosity. One of the most powerful and profound frameworks we have for expressing that curiosity is science.

TG: When I went to university I deliberately chose not to do science, or at least to do a Bachelor of Arts rather than a Bachelor of Science degree. From my time in school I felt like science was about things that we already understand very well, and I wanted to learn about all the things that are still mysterious — minds, cultures, and thoughts. About half way through my degree I read a philosophy book that had a chapter at the very back about using mathematics to model the mind, and that was it! Suddenly I realized that it was possible to explore those mysterious things using rigorous, quantitative methods, and I was hooked.

Why this book?

BC: Since my teenage years if not even earlier, I have been fascinated by the correspondences and parallels, the homologies and isomorphisms, that exist between formal systems and natural ones. Sometimes drawing on real-world intuition enables us to solve a formal problem; sometimes it goes the other way, and a problem teaches us something that’s more broadly applicable. What we can learn about our own lives from the formal systems we’ve discovered in nature and designed in our own image? Algorithms to Live By explores and pursues this question, using computer science as a way of thinking about human decision-making.

TG: My academic research focuses on developing mathematical models of cognition, drawing on ideas from computer science — artificial intelligence and machine learning — to better understand how human minds work. As a result, I spend a lot of time thinking about the computational structure of everyday life, and out of that comes a vocabulary for describing the decision-making problems people face and a set of strategies for solving them. For me, this book is a way of sharing those insights.

What’s next?

BC: As a lover of both computer science and language, I’ve been fascinated for many years by their intersections in computational linguistics, and I’m excited to work more deeply on some projects at that particular conjunction.

TG: I’m currently working with my students and collaborators on the research questions that relate to topics we discuss in the book, specifically how thinking about human rationality in terms of using efficient algorithms (rather than always producing the right answer, regardless of the effort involved) changes the way we understand human cognition.

What’s exciting you at the moment?

BC: Data visualization. We’re living in an open-data boom, and I see this as the other great literacy, as critical in a civic context as in a scientific one.

TG: The last couple of years have seen significant advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence, and I’m excited about exploring what these advances can tell us about human minds.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

The Great Acceleration - Robert Colvile ****

With the subtitle 'how the world is getting faster faster', this is a Gladwellesque exploration of the way that, primarily driven by information and communication technology, we are getting increasingly frantic. And yet, somehow, Robert Colvile (or Collie as my spellcheck insists on calling him) argues that this is a good thing. Arguably, the mark of the book is how persuasive he is in his cheery acceptance.

In echoing the books of Malcolm Gladwell, I am referring more to a fast paced (appropriately) throwing in of examples, overwhelming the reader with context - but I'm glad to say that Colvile is much better at acknowledging sources as he goes. 

In each of the main chapters, Colvile takes an area of life - socialising, art, news, politics, finance etc. - and looks at the way that our increasingly high speed, always on, connected world has radically transformed the nature of each area. The format tends to be very much the same chapter to chapter - so much so that it was getting a little samey by the end - in each case we first discover all the scary and worrying implications of acceleration... then Colvile tells us why it's actually okay, or, rather, better than okay because the benefits outweigh the risks. 

One big message is something the publishing world has been aware of for a long time - but Colvile makes a convincing argument that this will be the case in all fields - the squeezed middle. In publishing, there used to be a healthy living as a midlist author. Now you are either a bestseller writer or earning peanuts. (And that mostly means earning peanuts.) The same applies all over, Colvile suggests. One side effect of the acceleration is the tendency to have megaplayers and tiddlers and very little in between.  And as Colvile points out, although the idea of the 'long tail' has been around a while, it's a lot longer and thinner than was first predicted. Meanwhile the Disneys and Apples and Googles and Amazons of this world trample over everything. This is quite scary - as Colvile points out, this process inevitably results in massive loss of good midrange employment, leaving a few very high paid placements and a lot of minion jobs.

This makes it difficult to be totally supportive of Colvile's enthusiasm for the process, and sometimes the examples given entirely fail to convince. In the news section, for instance, after showing the decline in traditional news reporting, Colvile holds up Buzzfeed (where he used to work) as an example of how things are actually better now. No, really. He says 'it's easy to mock Buzzfeed's viral news posts if you have not seen the craft that goes into them' - but this is a bit like arguing that something is crap, but it's still wonderful, because it is beautifully polished crap.

Similarly on the news agenda, the book is full of enthusiasm for the wonders of citizen journalism, but there's very little about the way that the vehicles for this process control the agenda. And though Colvile does acknowledge the increasingly strong effect where we tend only to see news and views that agree with our own viewpoint, he dismisses this as being insignificant. Yet I don't see anything in his description of the future of news that gives the degree of balance of something like BBC News - yes, they get it wrong sometimes, but they are trying to be balanced, which is absolutely not the case of the examples given as the future of news reporting.

I am sometimes criticised in my books for being overly positive about the impact of science and technology on the future, but Colvile takes this to the extreme, time and again putting up really worrying outcomes of the ICT acceleration - and then dismissing them with counter-arguments that have far less weight. Yes, in some cases the counter arguments are convincing - for example in the impact of social media on young people. But in some areas, such as finance and politics, the 'positive spin' end of the chapter really leaves a lot to be desired. At the time of writing we're discussing possible UK exit from the EU and there is so much uncertainty in the benefits and risks it's difficult to make a decision. The same was the case with the pros and cons of acceleration.

It doesn't help that occasionally Colvile comes across as very much someone with high tech London-based blinkers. For example, he makes the remark 'Services such as Uber... will bring the taxi of your choice to you at the moment of your choice... Particularly in cities ' - no, that would be only in cities at the moment. Us hicks don't have Uber.

Although I was not convinced by many of Colvile's 'it will all be fine in the end' arguments, I still very much liked the book. He has an easy, readable style with a Transatlantic tone, but British enough that it doesn't feel like something imposed on a UK reader by a US guru. In a way, the solutions are not the issue. What matters here is that Colvile is bringing up in area after area of our everyday lives how speeding up is changing us and what we do. Some of it you may well like (I certainly do). Some - particularly his bizarre generalisation that we don't really care about eating any more and would prefer to just shovel in anything as long as it's quick - doesn't really work. Some - for instance the way the financial system is pretty much out of human control - should scare the pants off us. But all of it is worth discussing. That's what makes this book so valuable. All this stuff is happening, and apart from complaining about teenagers' inability to concentrate on one thing, we tend to ignore it. Colvile opens our eyes - and that is an essential service.

Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Ironically, given the subject, at the time of writing this review, the accelerated version (Kindle) is more expensive than the hardback.
Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 1 April 2016

The Compelling Scientific Evidence for UFOs - Erol A. Faruk **


 You can see immediately from the cover that this is no ordinary popular science book. There are some issues with The Compelling Scientific Evidence for UFOs, but if you have an interest in the field, particularly if, like me, you are an open-minded sceptic on the subject, I would consider reading it. This is because it is one of the few attempts to use proper scientific methods on UFO evidence, and though I don't agree with Erol Faruk's conclusions, it is refreshing not to see simplistic acceptance or knee-jerk denial of what is, for many people, a genuinely interesting topic.


This isn't a general discussion of the UFO phenomenon - for that I'd recommend How UFOs Conquered the World by David Clarke, but instead gives us the author's take on a specific incident at Delphos, Kansas, where an alleged UFO landing left behind some very interesting material. The book has as an appendix made up of Faruk's scientific paper describing an analysis of the unusual organic material found, and some suggestions as to what it might be, and a main section that gives background to that paper and repeats a lot of the non-technical content.

The format doesn't work wonderfully well, because we start with 80 pages of introduction, then get 40 pages of the paper, which repeats a lot of what came before. By far the most interesting part is Faruk's analysis of the material, which is detailed and does show some unusual properties. We aren't talking the usual X-Files stuff of 'unknown substances' or 'alien material' - these are straightforward, if complex organic compounds, but they are unusual ones with interesting water repellant and fluorescent properties, which Faruk suggests could be indicators of previous bioluminescence.

What is this stuff and where does it come from? Faruk suggests it was material left behind when a UFO landed, leaving a circular mark on the grass. His book opens with an overview of the UFO phenomenon. This could be more balanced - at the moment it merely presents the 'believers' view and places far too much dependence on witness testimony. Although the author makes it clear that the best evidence is not about seeing lights in the sky - which are very common and often optically misleading - but seeing clear, detailed craft. Yet he doesn't really explain why in one of the best documented examples he gives where ‘hundreds, possibly thousands of witnesses’ say they saw a craft at Phoenix in 1997, there are no good photographs of anything other than... lights in the sky.

We then move onto the Delphos incident, with a description of what was reported, the evidence to support this, an overview of Faruk's analysis of the material and a series of attempts to get his paper on the subject published in a non-specialist journal, including Nature. It does no benefit to Faruk's argument to show us a series of email exchanges with journals where they reject a paper for what seem to be perfectly sensible reasons, but which are taken to be something close to suppression. Finally we get the paper itself. With any experience of journals like Nature, it's easy to see why it was rejected. The 'science' part of the paper is fine, but the long opening background section with links to Wikipedia as sources would put off any mainstream scientific journal.

As for the analysis, the problem is the leap from the genuinely interesting chemical analysis to the assumption that this vindicates the story of a UFO landing. The other evidence is mostly a family's testimony, plus a single Polaroid photograph said to show the ring where the UFO landed glowing in the dark. (It just looks like a ring of white material in the photo as printed - hardly useful evidence.) Faruk suggests that the existence of material he analyses could be the result of a hoax, a fungal ring or a UFO, and comes down in favour of the third option. But of itself there is no reason to make the leap to UFO other than the witness testimony - there are plenty more possible reasons for the existence of this material. It's strange, for instance, that Faruk doesn't mention the suggestion easily found online that a galvanised iron chicken feeder used to stand where the ring is, and that the ring is where chicken droppings accumulated for years.

So, a frustrating read, not delivering the compelling evidence promised. But I very much support the author's attempt to put UFO studies on a proper scientific basis, rather than leave reports of sightings and landings to be either lapped up uncritically or dismissed without any consideration by a sometimes heavy-handed scientific community.

Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg