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Showing posts from September, 2016

Hidden Figures - Margot Lee Shetterly ****

This is a truly remarkable human story, which is why it gets four stars despite a couple of significant issues. Many non-fiction literary agents have a mantra of 'Is it an article?' for a book proposal that really hasn't got enough content to justify a full length manuscript. The story of Hidden Figures would have made a superb 3,000 word article, but stretched to book length it does become extremely repetitious. The other problem I had was that I was sold this title as popular science - if the book had included science content it could have been far more engaging, but the author clearly has no interest in science or maths and skims over any technical issues as quickly as possible - what remains is pure social history. Despite that disappointment I can only say in awe again, what a story! If you are familiar with the history of science you will know about the human computers, often women, who worked in astronomy and who were the engine behind significant astronomical discov…

101 Bets You Will Always Win - Richard Wiseman ***

I'm a sucker for the kind of 'how can you do that?' challenge that featured regularly as ways to win bets on the TV show Hustle - so when I saw Richard Wiseman's new book I was so enthusiastic to lay my hands on it, I bought it with my own money. (Thankfully at an over 50% discount, as the list price is very steep for what it is.) I certainly enjoyed it, but it was also a little bit of a let down. Psychologist Wiseman has made something of a speciality of 'quirkology' - the psychology of human quirks that lies behind our ability to trick each other, so when the subtitle promised 'the science behind the seemingly impossible' I expected plenty of good pop psychology on why we were taken in by this kind of thing. But in practice the slim book is mostly the tricks with just a few bits of interpolated trivia - the only sizeable bit of fact was about the history of the safety match.  I read the entire book on a 45 minute train journey, though without, of course…

Weapons of Math Destruction - Cathy O'Neil ****

As a poacher-turned-gamekeeper of the big data world, Cathy O'Neil is ideally placed to take us on a voyage of horrible discovery into the world of systems making decisions based on big data that can have a negative influence on lives - what she refers to as 'Weapons of Math Destruction' or WMDs. After working as a 'quant' in a hedge fund and on big data crunching systems for startups, she has developed a horror for the misuse of the technology and sets out to show us how unfair it can be. It's not that O'Neil is against big data per se. She points out examples where it can be useful and effective - but this requires the systems to be transparent and to be capable of learning from their mistakes. In the examples we discover, from systems that rate school teachers to those that decide whether or not to issue a payday loan, the system is opaque, secretive and based on a set of rules that aren't tested against reality and regularly updated to produce a fair…

Adam Rutherford - Four Way Interview

Dr Adam Rutherford is a science writer and broadcaster. He studied genetics at University College London, and during his PhD on the developing eye, he was part of a team that identified the first genetic cause of a form of childhood blindness. He has written and presented many award-winning series and programmes for the BBC, including the flagship BBC Radio 4 programme Inside Science, The Cell for BBC Four, and Playing God on the rise of synthetic biology for the leading science strand Horizon, as well as writing for the science pages of the Observer. His most recent book is A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived


Why science?

It's the best way I know of for answering questions about how stuff works. It's not the only way of course, and doesn't always provide the most interesting answers. Science might have a way of telling us why Bruce Springsteen and Bach makes my cry with joy, but I'm not sure that it'll be very informative. But in general, this self correcti…

The Rise of the Robots - Martin Ford *****

One of the best things in the world, in my opinion, is when you’ve been thinking about and discussing a subject for a while and come across a book by chance that deals precisely with that topic - in this case, the subject of automation and the enormous changes that it is having, and will have, on the world’s economic and political systems.  A New York Times bestseller and recipient of the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award in 2015, the book handles the subject expertly. Martin Ford is the founder of software development firm based in Silicon Valley and has written two books on the subject of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation and their effects on society, employment and the economy at large. Rise of the Robots systematically goes through the effects of automation on the economy and society, from the traditional areas of factory/manufacturing jobs through its advance into the service sector, typical office administrative jobs and even to the managerial …

Calculating the Cosmos - Ian Stewart ***

This is a weird one - it's a book where I'm really struggling to identify who it's for and what it is supposed to do. The only conclusion I can draw is that Calculating the Cosmos is intended for people who like Ian Stewart's excellent maths books, but who don't usually read popular science books, so need a maths-driven introduction to astronomy, astrophysics and cosmology. The particularly odd thing is that despite the subtitle 'how mathematics unveils the universe' there is very little explicit maths in the book - it's mostly just straightforward physics with little prominence given to the mathematical side. And the physics is put across in a fairly heavy handed 'fact, fact, fact...' way - the book is light on narrative throughout. Where it does stray into history there are one or two examples that don't quite get the story straight - for instance, when talking about Newton's development of his gravitational work, Stewart tells us that …

Royal Society Science Books Prize 2016

The winner of for Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize has now been announced: 

WINNER

The Invention of Nature - Alexander von Humboldt's New World - Andrea Wolf
SHORTLIST
Cure - A journey into the science of mind over body - Jo MarchantThe Gene - an intimate history - Siddhartha MukherjeeThe Hunt for Vulcan - and how Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity and Deciphered the Universe - Thomas LevensonThe Most Perfect Thing - Inside (and Outside) a Bird's Egg - Tim BirkheadThe Planet Remade - The Challenge of Imagining Deliberate Climate Change - Oliver Morton

Once again they panel proved incapable of producing a longlist.

The judging panel for 2016 was: chaired by bestselling author Bill Bryson, who won the Prize in 2004 with A Short History of Nearly Everything, and joined by four other judges this year: theoretical physicist Dr Clare Burrage, celebrated science fiction author Alastair Reynolds, ornithologist and science blogger GrrlScientist, and …

Terrific opportunity to get science fiction with good science at a bargain price

The German publisher Springer has an impressive set of science fiction titles written by scientists (with a few science fiction-related non-fiction) - the only problem with them is that they are usually priced like textbooks. However, they currently have an unbelievably good value offer, running to 28 September 2016. They have three bundles of e-books, one with 6 titles, another with 12 and another with 16. Each bundle has a minimum price - and you can decide how your payment is spread between Springer and charity. Remarkably, the 6 e-book bundle costs just $1 (around £0.76) - though you can pay as much more as you like, bearing in mind the charity contribution. Add another 6 e-books for a minimum of $8 (£6.06) or the full set of 16, which includes the chunkier non-fiction, for $15 (£11.36) or more. The bundles include The Hunt for FOXP5, On the Shores of Titan's Farthest Sea, The Caloris Network and If the Universe is Teeming with Aliens... This is a brilliant initiative and well wor…

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived - Adam Rutherford *****

Science books can sometimes be rather stuffy or prissy - but no one can accuse Adam Rutherford of this. In his exploration of 'the stories in our genes' that word stories is foremost - and Rutherford proves himself time and again to be an accomplished storyteller. His style is sometimes extremely colloquial (and very British) - so at one point, when referring to the way some people react to the smell of a particular steroid he says 'to many it honks like stale urine' and rather than say 'what really interests me' he is likely to remark 'what turns me on'. 

I love the many meanders that Rutherford takes along the way, whether it's the horrendously inbred family tree of the Hapsburgs resulting in the sad case of Charles II, or the unique genetic laboratory provided by the small and relatively isolated population of Iceland. Rutherford is at his best when exploring an apparently trivial but genuinely interesting topic like variations in earwax type. Thi…

Laurie Winkless - Four Way Interview

Laurie Winkless is a physicist with an undergraduate degree from Trinity College, Dublin, and a master’s degree in space science from university College London. Laurie has been communicating science to the public for more than a decade, working with schools and universities, the royal Society, Forbes, and the naked Scientists, amongst others. She’s given TeDx talks, hung out with astronauts, and appeared in The Times Magazine as a leading light in STeM. Her first book is Science and the City.

Why science?

I guess part of the answer is that I was a curious child, full of questions on everything from how we make paint, or how a fridge works, to how car engines turn petrol into motion. Luckily, I have a very supportive family, so no matter how random the question, finding the answer was always encouraged. I've also always enjoyed doing things with my hands - learning through experimentation - and have been obsessed with space exploration for as long as I can remember! At school, Englis…

The Cyber Effect - Mary Aiken *****

This is a weird one - it's a book with huge flaws, yet I'm giving it five stars because the content is really important. It's generally considered that the big change in environment moving from forest to savannah had a huge impact on the development of early humans. Similarly the industrial revolution changed lives immensely. Mary Aiken's book describes the way that a much more recent change in environment could have an equally huge effect.

The book is about the impact of the internet and ever-present e-devices on human behaviour. This is not one of those 'screens fry your brains' books we've seen before - it's about the way that living in this very different environment is changing the way we interact with each other and behave generally. And some of it is downright scary. Aiken describes a scene on a train where she watches a mother feeding a baby. Rather than giving the baby eye contact and interaction during the process, the mother is looking at her …

Science and the City - Laurie Winkless ****

A welcome trend over the past few years is the increased number of popular science books involving materials science, in part inspired (I suspect) by the success of Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik.  Laurie Winkless, a physicist and writer who has had a place at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and has worked at the National Physical Laboratory, has written her first book, looking at the science of how cities function. The book has as its foundation (pun intended) the creation of a skyscraper. This skyscraper acts as a guide throughout the book to illustrate the science of materials, the accomplishments and methods of engineering involved in building superstructures, a reference for the history of construction and its technological achievements and a starting point for explanations of the science at work in the world’s cities. The book goes into depth into various areas of the commonplace around us: how cities provide and distribute energy, water, public transport, food production, logistics …

A Farewell to Ice - Peter Wadhams ***

This is a really important book from a highly experienced researcher on the Arctic ice and the impact of climate change - but it falls down as popular science. A lot of material in the introductory chapters feels far too much like the early parts of a textbook. Eskimos may not really have vast numbers of words for snow (the claim seems to be based more on the word formation processes of different languages, not word count), but ice scientists clearly have all sorts of different words for ice types and formations and Wadhams feels the need to define them all, even though most will never be seen again. It doesn't help get the message across, it gets in the way. The other big problem is that Wadhams clearly has very little idea of the knowledge level of non-scientists - so, for example, he makes the remark 'the Fourier series, by which any function can be split into a set of harmonics' without thinking through that anyone who knows what a function being split into harmonics in…