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Showing posts from 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 thoughtf…

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 d…

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, …

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 tha…

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 …

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 developi…

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 Ha…

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 tal…

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…

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 foun…