Sunday, 26 June 2016

Why does Quark rhyme with Pork? - David Mermin *****

It's important to pin down exactly what physics professor David Mermin's collection of essays is, as this book is brilliant, but won't appeal to everyone. The contents were mostly originally published in the American Institute of Physics' magazine Physics Today, and as such I would suggest it helps to get the best out of them if you have studied physics and/or are an academic - it's not that anyone with an interest in science won't get something out of it, but that's the audience for whom the five stars really deliver.

Don't expect Feynman-style anecdotes - although the writing is conversational, the style is fairly dry. However, the topics covered give insights into everything from the nature of writing in scientific papers and the interpretation of quantum entanglement, to a physics view of consciousness and that ever-ephemeral concept of 'elegance' in science. Collections of essays don't always work well as books, but Mermin's thoughtful and occasionally funny ponderings make ideal bite-sized reading, working brilliantly when you don't have time to sit down and read for an hour or two at a go.

To illustrate the pros and cons of the approach for different readers, I'll expand a bit on the first of the essays, published in 1988, entitled 'What's wrong with this Lagrangean.' (Why no question mark in the title?) In essence this is a long riff on the oddity that the journal Physics Review Letters spent two years spelling the word 'Lagrangian' wrong, and no one noticed. Of itself, the spelling error is relatively unimportant - it doesn't change the meaning and given the mathematical structure is named after someone called Lagrange, it isn't even odd. But what Mermin does is to extend the basic error into an investigation of the difficulties posed for anyone to keep on top or even bother to read journals when there were so many, expanding in size  and number all the time. This wasn't helped by the habit at the time was to send round preprints before the journal came out. And then there's the load on the library budget - should they subscribe to each journal or be selective?

Like many of the early essays, what we read is also fascinating because it portrays a very different academic world. Mermin (my spellchecker wants to call him Merlin) appends a postscript to each essay, and notes just how much, for example, the internet has changed things - not just in disposing of the idea of preprints, but in terms of the way papers are accessed and collated. He also notes in the postscript to his follow-up second essay, 'What's wrong with this library' (still no question mark) that 'Online journals have led to a phenomenon that had not occurred to me in 1988: the disappearance of the library,' noting that the Cornell Physical Sciences Library was closed and converted into a study hall in 2009. These postscripts are essential to the effective nature of the essays, allowing them to provide a commentary on the changing nature of science and science communication between professionals as much as they are about the science itself.

I could go on and on about the topics I found interesting, even though you might not necessarily expect them to be. There was, for instance, a really insightful piece on how equations should be presented in papers to make sure that they were part of the written communication, rather than plonked in to reside in splendid isolation, with a range of suggestions to make their use more effective.

Even the title of the book is worthy of comment. When someone pointed out the title recently, they got a host of comments explaining that quark can't rhyme with pork, because the particle was named in response to a James Joyce quote that clearly rhymes the world with 'Mark'. However, what the critics failed to realise, but Mermin does, is that the word's origins are more complex than the complainers thought. (In fact he ignores the real reason, but has fun with the language.) My only personal criticism of the title, which may be a UK/US thing, is that I think quark rhymes with fork, not pork - in English English the 'or' in the two words is pronounced quite differently.

There's only one thing extra I'd really have liked to have seen in the book, which was to have some explanatory footnotes added, which would have enabled Mermin to reach a wider audience than the book probably does at the moment. Given the vehicle he was writing for, Mermin inevitably assumes he can take for granted that we know, for instance, what a Lagrangian is - a couple of lines in a footnote would not have inconvenienced physicists, but would have made the book more accessible to non-scientists, both academics and mainstream readers. Another example in the second essay is where Mermin asks 'Why do so many particle theorists publish [in a commercial journal] rather than in Physical Review D? You guessed it: no page charges.' Unless you are an academic, a footnote on page charges would have been a useful touch of context to understand the complaint.

This, then, is a treasury for anyone who has an interest in how academic science, and specifically physics, is undertaken. Although it isn't a light set of fun essays (as the title perhaps misleadingly suggests), it is full of thoughtful and thought-provoking material, as well as documenting changes in the way that science is professionally communicated. I can't remember ever before reading a set of academic essays and doing that 'I'll just read one more' thing where you can't put the book down. But it happened to me with this one.

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Review by Brian Clegg


Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Bayes' Rule - James V. Stone ***

Of all the areas of mathematics, probability is arguably the most intriguing to the non-mathematician, and this is particularly the case with Bayesian analysis, which can be delightfully counter-intuitive. However, the more complex aspects can be tricky to get your head around, so I was delighted to have the chance to read this book, subtitled 'a tutorial introduction to Bayesian analysis.'

I need to say straight away that this isn't really a popular science title, and the author is very clear about this - it's a kind of textbook lite - but if you have found out a bit about Bayes this book is an opportunity to dive into it a little deeper without taking on the full rigour of a textbook approach. Why should you care? Bayes gives us a mechanism that enables us to do things like go from a known piece of information like 'what's the probability of a symptom given a disease' to estimate a much more interesting unknown like 'what's the probability of the disease given a symptom' - an extremely powerful mechanism.

James Stone does his best to accommodate us ordinary folk. The book opens well, apart from a bizarrely heavy smattering of references on page 1, with a gentle introduction, and keeps the mood light after the classic disease application by looking for a mechanism of determining whether some said 'four candles' or 'fork handles' in the Two Ronnies style. If you are prepared to make an effort, for most of us probably a considerable effort, you will go on to pick up a lot more about using Bayes than you already knew (if you aren't a mathematician).

It is rather unfortunate for the general reader, though, that the book obeys the rules of the textbook rather than a popular science exposition. This comes across in unnecessary use of terminology - defining things that, frankly we don't need to know - and in rapidly moving to using symbols in equations, where they are rarely necessary at this level and all they do is put readers off. I suspect the moment that Stone introduced the Greek letter theta (θ) he made things ten times harder - unless you do this kind of thing every day, suddenly the text gets far less readable - the eyes bounce off it.

Even though I enjoyed the fork handles, I also thought the choice of examples could have been better. It was okay to use disease and symptom once, as it's an important application, but most of us rarely have to deal with this kind of situation and it would have been better to use more personally relevant applications. It was also unfortunate that when explaining random variables Stone chose a coin which is 90% likely to be heads and 10% likely to be tails - there is too much baggage attached to coins being 50:50. It would have been less confusing to have something that we might encounter (a scratch card, say) that is likely to be one value 90% of the time and the other 10%.

If you make it to the final chapter you are rewarded with a very readable, if too brief, introduction to the distinction between Bayesian and frequentist approaches, and just a touch of the mind bending capabilities of Bayesian thinking. With a bit more of this contextual material throughout the experience would have been gentler and more enjoyable - but even as a closer to the book it provides interesting material.

Don't expect, then that this book will make fun, popular science bedtime reading. It's not that kind of exercise. However, if you are prepared to overcome the onslaught of thetas and don't mind reading some statements several times to get what's being said, it is an excellent way to expand a vague understanding into a more sound knowledge of the basic mechanics of Bayesian analysis.

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See one of the mind-bending implications of Bayes' rule in our feature.
Review by Brian Clegg

Fun with the Reverend Bayes

A recent review of Bayes' Rule by James V. Stone for review, has reminded me of the delightful case of the mathematician's coloured balls. (Mathematicians often have cases of coloured balls. Don't ask me why.)

This is a thought experiment that helps illustrate why we have problems dealing with uncertainty and probability.

Imagine I've got a jar with 50 white balls and 50 black balls in it. I take out a ball but don't look at it. What's the chance that this ball is black?

I hope you said 50% or 50:50 or 1/2 or 0.5 - all ways of saying that it has equal chances of being either white or black. With no further information that's the only sensible assumption.

Now keep that ball to one side, still not looking at it. You pull out another ball and you do look at this one. (Mathematicians know how to have a good time.) It's white.

Now what's the chance that the first ball was black?

You might be very sensibly drawn to suggest that it's still 50:50. After all, how could the probability change just because I took another ball out afterwards? But the branch of probability and statistics known as Bayesian tells us that probabilities are not set in stone or absolute - they are only as good as the information we have, and gaining extra information can change the probability.

Initially you had no information about the balls other than that there were 50 of each colour in the pot. Now, however, you also know that a ball drawn from the remainder was white. If that first ball had been black, you would be slightly more likely to draw a white ball next time. So drawing a white makes it's slightly more likely that the first ball was black than it was white - you've got extra information. Not a lot of information, it's true. Yet it does shift the probability, even though the information comes in after the first ball was drawn.

If you find that hard to believe, imagine taking the example to the extreme. I've got a similar pot with just two balls in, one black, one white. I draw one out but don't look at it. What's the chance that this ball is black? Again it's 50%. Now lets take another ball out of the pot and look at. It's white. Do you still think that looking at another ball doesn't change the chances of the other ball being black? If so let's place a bet - because I now know that the other ball is definitely black.

So even though it appears that there's a 0.5 chance of the ball being black initially, what is really the case is that 0.5 is our best bet given the information we had. It's not an absolute fact, it's our best guess given what we know. In reality the ball was either definitely white or definitely black, not it some quantum indeterminate state. But we didn't know which it was, so that 0.5 gave us a best guess.

One final example to show how information can change apparently fixed probabilities.

We'll go back to the first example to show another way that information can change probability. Again I've got a pot, then with 50 black and 50 white balls. I draw one out. What's the probability it's black? You very reasonably say 50%.  So far this is exactly the same situation as the first time round.

I, however, have extra information. I now share that information with you - and you change your mind and say that the probability is 100% black, even though nothing has changed about the actual pot or ball drawn. Why? Because I have told you that all the balls at the bottom of the pot are white and all the balls at the top are black. My extra information changes the probabilities.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Goldilocks and the Water Bears - Louisa Preston ***

Although it made me cringe, don't be put off by the title - this is a book about the equally strangely named astrobiology (the author says it combines biology and space - i.e. the biology and environmental considerations of potential alien life, but strictly the name means the biology of stars), which is potentially a very interesting subject.

The 'Goldilocks' part of the title, as most readers will recognise, refers to the Goldilocks zone - the region around a star where a planet would be not too hot, not too cold but just right for carbon-based, water-dependent life. As Louisa Preston makes clear, this is no longer given the significance it once was, as some of the best candidates for (low level) life in our solar system are the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, which appear to have liquid water oceans under a thick ice crust. Even so, the concept is useful.

As for the water bears, they were far and above my favourite part of the book - fascinating little 8-legged creatures that can go into a dehydrated state where they can be exposed to everything space can throw at them, from extreme low temperatures to radiation - and still come back to life when rehydrated at the right temperature. They are interesting in this context both as a type of life that could in principle support transport through space to seed a new planet and also as a model of some of the more extreme ways that life could survive in habitats that we might once have thought would never support it.

Apart from the water bears, the book is at its best in is its survey of possible places life could exist and its enthusiasm for the concept of astrobiology. But there are some problems. Large chunks of the book consist of what Rutherford referred to as 'stamp collecting' - little more than listing details of the various possibilities. This comes across particularly strongly in the section on extremophiles - organisms that can exist in extreme conditions - on Earth (as a model for life elsewhere). For page after page we get lists of bacteria and other organisms that can survive in various conditions. There is also heavy repetition. So, for example, there are three separate sections talking about the possibilities for life in the water beneath the ice on the moon Europa, with big overlaps in content. This reflects a distinct lack of narrative structure to the book, which is probably why one of the most interesting questions in the subject - if life came into existence easily, why does it appear to have only done so once on Earth? - isn't covered.

I'm sure Preston knows her stuff on astrobiology, but a science writer has to have a much wider knowledge and here she has the biggest problems. Every popular science book includes the odd error, but here there are so many, it's worrying. For instance, we are given the excellent movie The Martian as an example of a movie featuring aliens. Unless a martian pops up in the corner of a frame, or you count a potato grown on Mars as an alien, this could only be the result of simply looking at the title and assuming that it does without checking.

Things get worse when we look back into history. We are told that the Ancient Greek Democritus 'realised that the Sun was just as star... in his wisdom, he understood that the planets revolved around the Sun and that Earth itself is a planet. He even theorised about exoplanets...' But he didn't. Democritus didn't have a heliocentric model - I can only assume this is a confusion with the later Aristarchus - nor did he realise all that clever astronomical stuff. He did support (but not originate) the idea of the pluralism of worlds, but this was not an astronomical theory, more like the parallel universes beloved of pulp science fiction. Worse still, we are told that Aristotle with dates given as 460-370 BC had Plato (428-327 BC) as a mentor. Plato was, indeed, Aristotle's teacher, but you don't need anything but basic logic to suspect that Aristotle wasn't 32 years older than Plato.

Sadly, it's not just the history that is suspect - physics presents some issues too. We are told that 'deuterium is an isotope of hydrogen,  but holds two neutrons rather than just one in the nucleus'. Unfortunately hydrogen has no neutrons, and deuterium has just one. We are told there was no light before stars formed, which is unfortunate for the Cosmic Microwave Background, and we are told that the nuclei of two hydrogen atoms combine to make helium, which would make it rather underweight. And, yes, inevitably, we get the myth that Giordano Bruno was martyred for his idea that there were many suns with their own solar systems.

The combination of this error rate and the lack of writing style means that overall things could have been a lot better. There is plenty of interesting material in here (though how it can be described as an 'expert romp' as it is on the cover, I don't know), but the book does not do the subject justice.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

The Gene - Siddhartha Mukherjee ****

When this title arrived, before I opened the pack I thought there were two books inside, and my stomach sank a bit at the thought of ploughing through a 600 page wrist-buster. Apart from anything else, very long popular science books are often loaded with affectation, and this impression was not helped by the toe-curling praise of a previous title ('The notion of "popular science" doesn't come close to describing this achievement. It is literature.' Ick.) Not to mention the tedious, very personal prologue.

Thankfully, though, the writing settles down once Siddhartha Mukherjee gets on to the actual content, though the style remains a little flowery. There are minor quibbles of detail (friars, for example, are described as monks) but what follows is a detailed and well-told story of the development of genetics, from Darwin and Mendel's early work to the modern medical implications and dangers of making changes at a genetic level. In fact the potential negatives of genetic theory come in early and are repeatedly stressed. Starting with eugenics and the Nazis, that sense of threat never goes away - the reader gets the impression that at times that Mukherjee would probably rather we had never found about genes. This is the most original and strongest aspect of the book.

You will either love or be irritated by the regular return to the author's family story - I'm in the second camp as it really has very little to do with science or history of science, but I appreciate it will help those who find the idea of reading a purely science-based book scary.

The history of science side isn't bad, though Darwin is given a distinctly old-fashioned lone genius treatment. We are told 'The essence of Darwin's disruptive genius was his ability to think about nature not as a fact - but as a process' - but in reality this viewpoint was very much in the air as shown by Wallace's letter, independently duplicating many of Darwin's ideas, which panicked Darwin into publication. I am not doing down Darwin's contributions, which were huge - but the change of viewpoint we are told about was by no means unique to him.

I was also disappointed by the lack of coverage of epigenetics, the idea that genes don't have quite the sole central importance that was once thought, as what is more important is the combination of the genes and the various external factors that turn them on and off. In effect we've moved on from the gene being the lone controller to a major part of a much more complex (and hence harder to explain) system.This has had a major impact in the field, but perhaps because of the book's title, Mukherjee hardly gives the concept any coverage.

Overall there is plenty of material here both on the development of genetic theory and medicine and on the moral implications of such work. For me, Matt Ridley's Genome was a better backgrounder if you don't also want the medical content, and either book needs to be read alongside Nessa Carey's The Epigenetic Revolution. But there is no doubt that if you like the blockbuster approach to science reading - perhaps as something to get you through some long holiday flights - this is an excellent example of the genre.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

The Curiosity Box

 There's been something of a thing in the UK for boxes that you get sent regularly through the post, whether it's food, flowers or beauty products. But a new Kickstarter appeal is raising money to send out much more interesting boxes - boxes of science fun.

The Curiosity Box, described as 'seriously sciency fun for families' is produced by Renée Watson, founder of the Oxford-based science education startup WATS.ON, and her expert team of science communication specialists. It's described as the first monthly subscription service in the UK for 7-11year olds, bringing science to life through hands-on activities and lots of extras to inspire creative and curious minds.

The team is looking for £4,000 to kickstart their idea and achieve their vision of disrupting education and making science happen in every home across the UK and beyond. 

The Curiosity Box has been specially designed to get the whole family involved and to encourage kids to learn about science by developing their creative thinking and problem solving skills.

Renée says: "I want kids like me who don't fit the scientist mould to realise that STEM is absolutely for them too, I believe that the next Ada Lovelace or Emmett Chappelle is just waiting to be found and we want to find them! I am so excited to be launching The Curiosity Box, our future relies on the next generation of innovators and I want to get cracking igniting as many sparks of interest in STEM as possible!"

Pledges range from £5 to £1,000 with the usual range of goodies for those who contribute. The smallest contribution to receive a box (hopefully in August) is £20.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

The Age of Em - Robin Hanson ***

I recently said about Timandra Harkness's Big Data, 'welcome to the brave new world', but if there were ever a book to fully reflect Shakespeare's complete original line in The Tempest, 'O brave new world that has such people in't', it is surely Robin Hanson's new book The Age of Em.

I don't know if it was done so the book title would echo 'age of empire' , but I find the author's term for uploaded personalities 'ems' a little contrived, like many made-up names - it's just a bit too short for what he covers. (And sounds far too like a shortening of Emma.) However there is no doubt that what Hanson is doing here is truly fascinating. It is far more than the lame subtitle 'work, love and life when robots rule the Earth' suggests, as is it's not about robots. It is attempting to forecast the nature of a world dominated by electronic 'people', initially created by uploading the mental patterns of humans.

What Hanson does brilliantly is to take the reader through all the different implications of such a world. Implications that simply won't have occurred even to many science fiction writers. What, for example, would happen if a single person is copied many times to make a slave army? How would the ems interact socially? What would their civilisation be like? I've never seen a book that took this idea to such a detailed logical extreme.

Unfortunately, despite the brilliance of the concept, the execution is not at the same level. It's like a non-fiction equivalent of Tolkien's The Silmarillion. If you are interested in the subject, it feels like something that ought to be a delight, but in fact the plodding academic writing, based on making repeated statements with no narrative flow, make it a pain of a book to read. We get exactly the same here as in 
The Silmarillion, with the added joy of inline Harvard-style references, which make it even harder to get any pleasure from reading it.

I think the best way to describe The Age of Em as is as a theory of science fiction book. Although Hanson is of the opinion that his vision of a world dominated by uploaded personalities will be possible within 100 years, I suspect that the complexity of scanning a brain to the level of individual neurons, their connections, their chemical makeups and electrical balances will take rather longer to achieve. What's more, the author proudly tells us that he intends to have his brain frozen when he dies with the hope of one day becoming an em. If making this happen with living people is difficult, the chances of a personality remaining in a frozen brain that could even approximate to the original are negligible - think more of the episode in Buffy the Vampire Slayer when her dead mother is brought back. Not advisable.

The other reason I'd label this theory of science fiction is that the whole business of futurology has always been terribly inaccurate. Niels Bohr was spot on when he said 'predictions can be very difficult - especially about the future.' Hanson attempts to defend the accuracy of futurology by pointing out specific examples that have come up with a surprisingly accurate prediction. But when you look at those examples, the accuracy is mostly retrofitted with hindsight. More to the point, this is a classic example of the scientific no-no of cherry picking. You don't show that something is effective by picking out the handful of cases where it has worked and ignoring the many thousands where it hasn't worked. Statistically, some guesses about the future are bound to be correct - but that doesn't make them accurate forecasts, it makes them lucky.

So don't expect a great work of popular science (to be fair, given those inline references, I don't think the author intended it to be popular science). But if you can put the effort in and grind through it, there are some genuinely fascinating considerations about what a society of uploaded individuals might be like. In fact, I'd say any science fiction author worth his or her salt should be rushing out and  buying a copy of this book. There are enough ideas here to spark off a thousand stories.


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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 6 June 2016

Big Data - Timandra Harkness *****

I am very wary of books written by people who claim to be taking the wide-eyed outsider's viewpoint, claiming no knowledge of the topic and talking to lots of people in the know - despite the success of Bill Bryson's science book. However, as soon as I came up against Timandra Harkness pointing out that 'data' makes much more sense as a (singular) collective noun for data points, so we should say 'What is data?' rather 'What are data' (something I've been arguing for years), I knew that I was going to enjoy this book.

And despite the rather hard work attempts to be funny in footnotes (especially over number of cups of tea drunk while writing the book), mostly Harkness settles down into telling the story well with a clear amount of knowledge behind her writing (she is, after all, taking a maths degree). 

The story she tells is both fascinating and important. It takes in the historical introduction of statistics, Babbage (where she almost manages to talk about Ada King (aka Lovelace) without over-hyping Ada's contribution), the development of computing and most significantly the way dealing with large amounts of data has transformed the way many scientists do their work. Some of the approaches are mind-boggling - for instance the idea of monitoring mosquitos from airships (poor index, by the way - neither mosquitos or airships are in it), detecting the diseases they are spreading and where (and stopping some as they go).

Things start to feel a little more uncomfortable when Harkness takes us onto just how much can be found out about us from our smartphones. While I don't understand her distaste for a husband and wife who can find each other's location with their smartphone - all her reasons why this is bad seem the kind of thing that shouldn't be an issue (and you can always turn your phone off if you really want to be secretive), the systems being trialled that could, for instance, pick up conversations on the street, locate phones and track numberplates really do stray into big brother  territory, as do the potential misuses of medical data. Having said that, in the section on misuses, she only interviews activists/people who are suspicious, and has no one giving the positive sides. But it's worth noting when there is so much in the news about the balance between personal secrecy and the attempt to keep on top of terrorists and the like.

Overall, a great mix of plenty of information and views on the potential benefits and dangers of big data. Just occasionally it seems like Harkness is taking the party line - for instance taking the benefits of smart meters for customers for granted, even though they are really far more about making complex tariffs easier to impose for the electricity companies - but overall it's a truly fascinating tour of the data that lies beneath so many of the things we do everyday, from the adverts that pop up on our phones and computers to the customer loyalty cards of supermarkets.

A brilliant guide to our brave new world.

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Author interview
Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 5 June 2016

The Cambridge Phenomenon - Global Impact - Kate Kirk and Charles Cotton ***

Like its predecessor, The Cambridge Phenomenon, this is a very special kind of book. It’s a sort of cross between a personal photo album and a corporate history. Large companies rather like to produce them to highlight their achievements. In a sense this is such a book, but like its predecessor, it is more interesting than most.

It starts with introductions by Lord Sainsbury and Martin Rees, emphasising the significance of the way that Cambridge has changed to become the UK's equivalent of Silcon Valley, directly connected to the one of the world's top ten universities.

The book then goes on to take us through all the 'hidden impacts' of the work at Cambridge we don't necessarily think of, from specialist printing to the chips that are used in almost all smartphones. Sections cover life sciences and healthcare, computing, telecoms, tech consultancies, inkjet printing, research institutes, various other smaller sectors and a look to the future. It may be a bit like an incredibly glossy brochure for all the companies based on the Cambridge Science Park, but it manages to stay reasonably interesting despite this.

Although (like its predecessor) it is, without doubt, a superb example of its kind, it still isn’t a book that most of us will probably want to sit down and read through. There are just too many company names and people we’ve never heard of and just the mundanity of business. I’ll be honest, I couldn’t read it from cover to cover. But I did genuinely enjoy flicking through it, picking up on the interesting illustrations, dipping in when there were bits that appealed to me. While I couldn’t see myself rushing out and stumping up £50 for a copy (or about half that at online discounts), it is a book I would contemplate taking out of the library for a leisurely riffle - and with that pricing, I suspect libraries and the companies represented form the main target audience.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Timandra Harkness - Four Way Interview

Timandra Harkness is a writer, comedian and broadcaster, who has been performing on scientific, mathematical and statistical topics since the latter days of the 20th Century. She is a regular on BBC Radio, resident reporter on social psychology series The Human Zoo as well as writing and presenting documentaries including BBC Radio 4’s Data, Data Everywhere and FutureProofing series.

In 2010 she co-wrote and performed Your Days Are Numbered: The Maths of Death, with stand-up mathematician Matt Parker, which was a sell-out hit at the Edinburgh Fringe before touring the rest of the UK and Australia. Science comedy since then includes solo show Brainsex, cabarets and gameshows. She is currently writing a new comedy show about Big Data.

Why big data? 

I got interested a few years ago in statistics, partly because I enjoy the maths (I know! It's a niche hobby, but I like it), partly because it's a great way to understand new things about the world we live in, and partly because I found it odd that everyone was suddenly into infographics and percentages. I had a hunch that something else was going on, if statistics had suddenly got so sexy. I mean, I like stats as much as the next person,* but they'd suddenly acquired this almost mystical status. Which made me uneasy.

While I was debating, and writing about, and doing comedy shows about statistics, along came Big Data. It was like the sequel, only now with very expensive special effects and a bigger marketing budget. Like stats wearing a robotic exoskelton. So again, it was partly the appeal of the very clever mathematical ideas, and partly a hunch that it would tell me something wider about what's going on in society.

*Probably more than the next person, in fact, as I'm doing a Mathematics & Statistics degree with the Open University in my spare time. 

Why this book?

I've been working on the ideas in this book for about five years. I'm very lucky, because I spend most of my time either writing or debating or making radio about ideas. So I've spoken at, or chaired, dozens of events about big data, made a BBC Radio 4 programme about it, and generally explored not only what people are doing with big data, but why it's such a hot topic. 
People are doing some remarkable things with big data, things which simply weren't possible before. Scientific research is being transformed, businesses run more efficiently, new connections are found by linking sets of data that are collected by default, like weather records and medical histories. 

There are also developments that I find more worrying. It's so easy to collect data on each one of us, and then aggregate it without our knowledge or consent. I do worry about privacy, but also about the tendency to see us all as datapoints instead of people.

But I'm not somebody who thinks technology is evil and will destroy all we hold dear. If anything, the urge to trust big data more than we trust human judgment tells us more about how we see people than about the technology itself. I think it has huge potential, if we have the nerve to use it. In some ways big data needs to think bigger.

What’s next?

I'm writing a new comedy show based on big data. It's a topic that most people connect with on some level, even if it's just because they have a smartphone and hadn't really thought about how much information their own phone is collecting about them. So it should be very interactive. 
I also do a lot of live events, so I'm looking forward to getting the ideas in the book back out into public spaces to debate them. I expect some people will read the book and come along to tell me I'm wrong. If they make a good enough case, maybe I'll agree with them! Then I'll have to do a rewrite before the paperback comes out. 

That's what's so important about discussing ideas: if we don't keep testing what we think, how can we tell if our ideas are right?

What’s exciting you at the moment?

I co-present a BBC Radio 4 series called Futureproofing, so I get to talk to people at the forefront of new technologies and explore what they might mean for society. I'm always most interested in those questions: not just 'how does it work?' but also 'what can it tell us about the bigger questions?'

One of the recurring themes is asking: what makes humans unique? Is there anything about us that can't be modelled in machines? I think there is, but putting my finger on what, exactly, is a question that goes right through science and beyond.

And that takes me back to the other radio series I work on, Human Zoo, about social psychology. How do we think? Can studying how we think help us to think... better? What would better mean, in this context?

Small questions like that!