Wednesday, 28 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 discoveries. In Hidden Figures we meet the African American female mathematicians who worked hidden away in the US aerospace industry. This narrative is so remarkable because these women overcame a perfect storm of opposition. Not only were they female, they were black. Not only were they black, but they were working in Virginia, a Southern state whose white community appeared to resent the abolishment of slavery and fought to maintain as much segregation between blacks and whites as possible.
Despite all of this, despite the odds hugely stacked against them, the women featured in Hidden Figures started off as the human predecessors of electronic computers, crunching numbers for engineers, and went on to gain significant roles as mathematicians and engineers in their own right. They worked at the Langley, Virginia facility, set up in the Second World War to work on warplanes, and later helping to develop technology for missiles and on the space programme - these women were an important part of the team who put men on the Moon. (White, and just men, of course.)
As an example of the way that maths and science are given short shrift, the topic of Reynolds numbers is brought up at one point. Sounds interesting - what's that all about? I've no real idea.  All we are told about Reynolds numbers is that it was a 'bit of mathematical jujitsu '. 
I'm giving this book four stars because of the remarkable story and individuals involved. Treating the book purely as a social history title it only deserves three, as the writing isn't particularly engaging, and as popular science it only should get two. But put those concerns behind you and celebrate the work of these individuals.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

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, trying out the betting tricks. I'm not sure whether I will or not - the trouble is, although the tricksters of Hustle look extremely smooth when they pull this kind of trick in a bar, in reality you are likely to look something of a prat if you try it on your friends down the pub, and most of us wouldn't try it on complete strangers, the only way to successfully make use of it to win money. Sadly, most likely, we will be exposed to children doing these tricks on us and will have to seem pleased and amazed. The only one I might try is the hundred-and-first trick, Wiseman's confessed favourite. Strictly speaking it's a magic trick rather than a psychological one, as it requires a prepared misleading prop - but it is very entertaining.
Of the main meat of the book, there were a lot of old favourites - I recognised about half of them. These included that old chestnut of the repeated word on a line break (spot what's wrong with this
this sentence), the only novelty being the word wasn't 'the', and the 'balance a glass on three knives balanced themselves on three glasses' trick which appeared in the copy of de Bono's Five Day in Thinking that I was given as a present 50 years ago. There were also rather too many problems that required irritatingly unnecessary accuracy of language - for instance, one where the mark is challenged to balance an orange on the top of a glass that is on a table bottom upwards. When they balance the orange, you claim to win as they've put the orange on the bottom of the glass, not the top.
Even so, there were enough novel challenges here that I still think the book is worth buying (and inevitably it would make an excellent stocking filler), especially if you try some of them out. I don't know if it's because I'm an impoverished writer, but I was particularly taken with some of the tricks involving bank notes, and both static electricity and surface tension have roles to play in some of the more imaginative challenges.
Don't expect, then, that these are going to be tricks that blow your mind. They mostly are done with everyday items (though I would probably avoid doing the ones involving lighting matches in a smoke-free pub) - in some the only prop is the human body - but it is entertaining to challenge yourself to work out the solution, where the challenge is not just 'do this' where you can't. And in some cases it's definitely worth having a go, even if it's probably best to do so solo to avoid embarrassment. 
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Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 23 September 2016

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 outcome.
The teacher grading system is probably the most dramatically inaccurate example, where the system is trying to measure how well a teacher has performed, based on data that only has a very vague link to actual outcomes - so, for instance, O'Neil tells of a teacher who scored 6% one year and 96% the next year for doing the same job. The factors being measured are almost entirely outside the teacher's control with no linkage to performance and the interpretation of the data is simply garbage.
Other systems, such as those used to rank universities, are ruthlessly gamed by the participants, making them far more about how good an organisation is at coming up with the right answers to metrics than it is to the quality of that organisation. And all of us will come across targeted advertising and social media messages/search results prioritised according to secret algorithms which we know nothing about and that attempt to control our behaviour.
For O'Neil, the worst aspects of big data misuse are where a system - perhaps with the best intentions - ends up penalising people for being poor of being from certain ethnic backgrounds. This is often a result of an indirect piece of data - for instance the place they live might have implications on their financial state or ethnicity. She vividly portrays the way that systems dealing with everything from police presence in an area to fixing insurance premiums can produce a downward spiral of negative feedback.
Although the book is often very effective, it is heavily US-oriented, which is a shame when many of these issues are as significant, say, in Europe, as they are in the US. There is probably also not enough nuance in the author's binary good/bad opinion of systems. For example, she tells us that someone shouldn't be penalised by having to pay more for insurance because they live in a high risk neighbourhood - but doesn't think about the contrary aspect that if insurance companies don't do this, those of us who live in low risk neighbourhoods are being penalised by paying much higher premiums than we need to in order to cover our insurance. 

O'Neil makes a simplistic linkage between high risk = poor, low risk = rich - yet those of us, for instance, who live in the country are often in quite poor areas that are nonetheless low risk. For O'Neil, fairness means everyone pays the same. But is that truly fair? Here in Europe, we've had car insurance for young female drivers doubled in cost to make it the same as young males - even though the young males are far more likely to have accidents. This is fair by O'Neil's standards, because it doesn't discriminate on gender, but is not fair in the real world away from labels.
There's a lot here that we should be picking up on, and even if you don't agree with all of O'Neil's assessments, it certainly makes you think about the rights and wrongs of decisions based on automated assessment of indirect data.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

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 correcting process is an ever-rewarding, ever-refining way knowing. Historically, the scientific method has had limited value to the study of history, but I think that the advent of the techniques to get DNA out of the long dead has meant that the lines between history and science are becoming blurred, and that has to be a good thing. 

Why this book?

Because only in the last few years have we been able to apply a new scientific field to older academic pursuits, to know our past. DNA has been added to history, archeology, paleoanthropology and genealogy as a new text, a primary source that is helping unveil the question of how we came to be what we are. It's complementary to those older and equally valid pursuits, and has some advantages, for example it is the record of everyone, not just the very rare few who through luck, conquest or regal birthright have been retained through history. Our genomes are a record of sex and death, disease, warfare, farming, culture, invasion, migration, and is not limited to the lucky few.They're the stories of humankind, told with DNA in the armory. 

What’s next?

Ancient DNA is a relatively new field, and genetics itself only a century old. So there's a long way to go. We don't really understand our genomes, and how the complexity and sophistication of a human being emerges from this code. Geneticists, statisticians, medics, patients and historians all have plenty still to do in piecing together the past, and how DNA fits into the bigger picture of a life, and a species. As long as we keep reproducing, new, unique genomes are being made, and our infintie variation still needs to be understood. 

What’s exciting you at the moment?

The field of ancient DNA is changing so quickly that results are being turned over or revised almost every month. That makes it unbearably exciting. But also it was a pain in the arse to write a book about a field that is evolving so quickly, and my friends in genomics labs simply refused my request that they all take a year off so we can all catch up. Nevertheless, one review has already suggested that I do a revised edition of A Brief History every three years to keep it up-to-date. I think I've got some work to do...




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 level. The premise of the book is that while we have seen the effects of automation for a long time, a combination of factors - Moore’s Law (the doubling of processor speeds over approximately 18 months), advances in AI and the ability of computers to self-learn, the spread of fast broadband fibre and cloud computing - are converging to make changes in the workplace, economy and society that will be fundamental and irreversible.
Ford’s focus is primarily on the US, both in terms of historical reference and statistics, but the lessons can be applied globally. Ford makes an excellent case, for instance, that China and India may be worse off when it comes to advancing automation than the US, due to the lack of a widespread service economy that has historically been the transition from a manufacturing based economy. Unlike the West, China and India will go from labour intensive manufacturing-based economies straight to highly automised societies without the intervening service and consumer-based purchasing economies. What this will mean to the burgeoning middle class in China is anyone’s guess, but it may be that the current wage growth of China will stagnate or even decline with automation and the disappearance of jobs. This in turn could cause extreme societal pressures.
This is not to say that the US and Europe get off easy. The effects of advanced AI and atomisation will have profound effects there as well; the US suffering to a larger degree due to the increasing inequality in society and the lack of a European style welfare state. As Ford describes, the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of jobs that can be replaced by automation has already taken, such as robots manufacturing cars. The next step, where robotics are combined with AI, is the automation of low-level service jobs such as fast-food restaurants and warehousing. Following that, logistics and transport industries, and mid-level data processing jobs such as para-legals and administrative positions are susceptible. 
Ford also writes about IBM’s Watson project and how IBM gave themselves enormous challenges (from playing chess grandmasters to defeating trivia champions on televised game shows) and succeeding in creating a cloud based AI computing system that is now focusing on solving healthcare issues by absorbing and processing enormous amounts of medical data. The success rate for these projects, Ford argues, equals the progression of Moore’ Law and achieves accuracy levels that surpass trained human professionals. 
Ford also includes fascinating chapters on the potential downsides of AI, reflecting on the possibility of superhuman intelligence in machines, and nanotechnology. The book ends with some of Ford’s (and others) ideas about how society will have to be restructured to cope with massive amounts of job loss arising from robotics and automation.
While the book is rooted in business and economics, the central subject is the transformational power of computer science and technology. It is a well-argued and balanced book chock full of interesting historical descriptions and details of the development of computer science and technology, and  how we have gotten to where we are, including a very clear-eyed look at where we are going. In my opinion, this book is a must read for anyone interested in technology, business, economics, politics and society.
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Review by Ian Bald

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

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 it took a 'stroke of genius' to see that the Moon is both falling and moving sideways so it misses. What he doesn't point out was that the genius in question was Robert Hooke, not Isaac Newton. This is one of the few points where Newton explicitly says the idea had not occurred to him until Hooke wrote to him about it.
Where the book does stand out is where Stewart delves into something that is usually glossed over in a popular science book. Sometimes this content feels a touch 'so what?' - for example in describing the method used to simulate the formation of the Moon - but in other cases, for example the analysis of how comet 67P got its 'rubber duck' shape, the route of the Rosetta probe, and in probably the best explanation of curved spacetime and manifolds I've seen. Best of all, Stewart explains how dark matter could not exist at all, simply being a matter of making the wrong assumptions in combining the interactions of stars in a galaxy and the way he eloquently dissects the many worlds hypothesis (many of the best bits are towards the end of the book). However, these are standout moments amongst a whole collection of information we've seen so many times before, and when he does explain the science, the approach taken is often not easy to grasp - for example his impenetrable use of Penrose diagrams in talking about black holes.
The story of the Rosetta probe is probably the closest we come to having some narrative to engage us, but even here the storytelling is bland, and, from a mathematical standpoint, we miss the opportunity to look at a different kinds of mathematical involvement, as there was interesting work done on the scheduling of Rosetta's experiments to deal with the very limited communications bandwidth.
This isn't a bad book, but apart from those handful of highlights where something is explained better than elsewhere, most of it fails to bring in anything new and lacks the engaging writing style of, say, Stewart's books written with Terry Pratchett. Here Stewart rarely makes use of mathematical insights to tell us anything different to straightforward familiar astronomy and cosmology, which is a shame as he is so excellent at making maths interesting. For the science, though, we get this distinctly 'here's a fact, here's another fact, here's yet another fact' style of writing. It might work as a book for that maths-based space newcomer, but I'm afraid its not for me.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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 Marchant
  • The Gene - an intimate history - Siddhartha Mukherjee
  • The Hunt for Vulcan - and how Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity and Deciphered the Universe - Thomas Levenson
  • The Most Perfect Thing - Inside (and Outside) a Bird's Egg - Tim Birkhead
  • The 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 Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at The Science Museum.

More details from the Royal Society website.

Friday, 16 September 2016

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.
This is a brilliant initiative and well worth supporting - plus you get lots of great reading for a bargain price. Click the image below to go to the Humble Book Bundle page.

by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 15 September 2016

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. This is dependent on a single gene and his exploration of its distribution across the world is delightful. This kind of material brings a lot of QI appeal to the book.

Though there is coverage of that 'everyone who every lived', for the UK reader there is lots specific to our origins and how groupings we tend to make don't necessarily make any sense genetically. For instance, Rutherford points out that Scottish Celts are more different from Welsh Celts than either are from the English. There's also plenty of delving into the past, from the latest version of Out of Africa to our relationship (literally) with Neanderthals. 

Darwin, as you might imagine, features quite a lot. I'd say that Rutherford rather overdoes the Darwin fandom, calling him 'the greatest of all scientists across all disciplines.' I certainly don't want to do Darwin down, as he certainly made a great contribution, but as the work of Wallace and others show, his ideas were very much in the air, so if you really want to make the invidious comparison of scientists this way I'd be inclined to say someone like Einstein, who with general relativity came up with something that really came out of the blue, probably should be ranked higher.

What begins with a genetic exploration of early humans takes us into all kinds of genetic adventures (including a section where Rutherford crushes a pathetic attempt to identify Jack the Ripper that was scientifically full of holes).  While I'd recommend reading Henry Gee's The Accidental Species as well for more of the paleontology of early humans, and the evolutionary considerations of our ending up the way we have, Rutherford makes humankind's genetic origins and identity his own. 

Mostly the book is hard to fault. Sometimes it felt just a bit too unstructured - jumping all over the place in the manner of an over-excited mountain goat. And the final two main chapters lacked some of the engagement of the others. There was a fascinating section on the worrying legal cases where the defence has been ‘my genes made me do it’, but that apart, there’s an awful lot at the specific gene level, whether it’s the ins and outs of the Human Genome Project or the relationship of genes and diseases, and after a while, to the non-biologist, this got a bit samey. 

Having said that, it’s hard to see how Rutherford could have written the book without these chapters and overall it’s a magnificent achievement, a big, friendly bear of a book that pummels the reader with delightful stories and no doubt would buy you a drink if it could. I can’t help but wonder if the cover was deliberately designed to pick up DNA - it has become far more marked than any book I can ever remember reading - if it was, it wouldn’t surprise me because Rutherford fills his book with clever little detail like this. Either way, it’s a fantastic popular science read.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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, English, science and maths were my favourite subjects, and I genuinely, briefly, considered studying journalism at university. But once I got into my physics degree, I knew I'd made the right call. That led to a summer scholarship at the Kennedy Space Centre, and a masters in space science. My years at the National Physical Lab were hugely eye-opening for me - I felt as if I was finally doing science 'properly' - and I loved the process of research. Asking the right question is key to that - half of the scientific process, I'd say - and the best ones lead you  down a path you might not have expected. They were my favourite days in the lab - when I had a result that didn't make sense! I  see myself as a 'lapsed physicist', taking time out to explore the other side of my interest - writing about science  for the general public. I hope to find a way to combine the two eventually!

Why this book?
Firstly, because I'm an adopted Londoner - I moved here from Ireland in 2005, and I fell in love with the living, breathing metropolis that is London. But as a physicist, it was understanding how it all worked that really drew me in. And then I read a report that said that more than half of our global population - 54% - now lived in cities. I found that extraordinary. With that proportion showing no sign of stopping, I wondered about how our future cities would cope with the challenges that would bring. How we would  deliver power to people, provide water, remove waste, build transport networks... all in the face of a changing climate and unprecedented population growth. Science and the City gave me opportunity to explore all of those questions and more, and importantly, to introduce them to non-scientists.

What’s next?

Well, I'll be leaving London in a few months - off on a new adventure. I'm hoping that it'll come with lots more inspiration, and plenty of 'I've never done that' moments! I also have the beginnings of an idea for another book - a little different from Science and the City, but still physics / engineering / materials-y. I still need to convince Bloomsbury to let me write it... so we'll have to wait and see!

What’s exciting you at the moment?

Oh all good science/tech/engineering excites me! But if I were to pick a few, I'd say the use of waste products in new and interesting ways - human faeces as a transport fuel, and landfill plastic that is being transformed into roads and bricks for homes. Also, developments in batteries, and a smarter approach to energy harvesting, such as perovskite solar cells and Power Over Wifi.

Friday, 9 September 2016

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 phone.  Contact and interaction is absolutely fundamental in early child development, yet Aiken shows how time and again - from parents' own obsession with screens, to plonking infants in front of TV and tablets - we are taking away this hugely important environmental contribution.

Similarly, in chapter after chapter (it's quite repetitious), Aiken shows how we are living more and more of our lives in the cyber-environment, where we feel safer than in the physical world, so counterintuitively we put ourselves at risk more. Whether we're talking constantly checking phones and Googling - Aiken points out that searching is a natural human tendency, essential for a hunter-gatherer, and a lot of our obsession could be tied into the build-in rewards we get from a successful search - spending many hours on immersive computer games (to the extent some users have died), cyberbullying, the darknet or other risks to our behavioural norms, there's a lot to take in. Aiken is not saying 'go and live in the woods and never touch tech'. She accepts the benefits - but argues we need to be more aware of the risks and to act accordingly, particularly when it comes to protecting children and teenagers.

So that's the good part. There are, however, three issues with the book. One, which may be the fault of the publisher, is that it is presented in a very show-off fashion - Aiken mentions narcissism as an issue for teen users of the internet, and yet seems unaware of the way it threads through the book from the use of 'Dr' on her name, through the subtitle identifying her as a 'pioneering cyberpsychologist', through a totally irrelevant story about her going on a police raid to repeatedly bringing herself into the picture. 

Although glaringly obvious, that's a relatively minor issue. A bigger worry (although it's fascinating in itself as an exposé of some aspects of psychology) is the unscientific nature of some of her arguments. She is positive about Freud, despite a total lack of scientific basis for his theories. She worries about radiation from tablets. She emphasises correlation is not causality, but then follows it up with 'no smoke without fire' responses, totally undoing the scientific bit. And one sees time and again the way psychological theories and definitions of mental conditions are made up by experts and then clung to, rather than being derived from good, evidence-based science. When she strays outside psychology, the facts can suffer a little too. She calls Tim Berners-Lee the 'father of the Internet' confusing the internet and the web, and calls Stephen Hawking 'the worlds foremost physicist,' something that would have most physicists rolling in the aisles.

Finally, though the book is very strong on the problems of our cyber-culture, it's all rainbows and unicorns when it comes to offering a solution. In a vague final chapter, Aiken suggests that the UN can sort it out, China might have a good idea in censoring web content and we'd be okay if there was a web-in-a-web where children were safe (despite all her previous arguments that children are going to outsmart parents' attempts to control their use). She suggests rightly that those who make lots of money from the internet, and are great at technology, should be devising solutions - but doesn't describe any incentive system for making this work. And then, finally, she seems to suggest that what we really need to do is live in the Irish countryside like she does and go for a walk.

As you might gather, I had real problems with a lot of this book. But I feel that the central information and observation of our changes in behaviour as a result of the internet and e-devices is so powerful, that the rest can be forgiven.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

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 and how they deal with the enormous amounts of waste produced by their citizens. Winkless does an excellent job at revealing the fascinating science behind what most of us take for granted as we make our daily commutes. I found the intricacies and complex designs underlying a regular day in a metropolis endlessly fascinating. 
While describing how cities have functioned and how they function now, the author also looks at the future, based on proposed projects that various cities around the world are planning and based on research into potential solutions for providing for the increased urban populations of the future. Winkless readily admits that many of the plans are very speculative and her candour is welcome and represents science done properly; that is that she is frank about the possibilities and the limitations of science that has not been verified by experiment. 
One small complaint is that some of the coverage of scientific principles, such as the explanation of the electromagnetic spectrum, is slightly confusing and would benefit from diagrams or illustrations, but I’m being picky with this criticism. 
If you are interested in learning more about how science affects our everyday lives, how it can be that fresh produce is available in food stores around the world throughout the year, why there is a rush of wind when the tube arrives (and why it is necessary), how it is possible to build buildings over half a kilometer tall and many other things, then this is an excellent book to read, particularly on your daily commute.
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Review by Ian Bald

Thursday, 1 September 2016

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 involves, probably knows about Fourier analysis - it's a non-definition.
Part way through the book, we read about the author's experience of being on a submarine under the Arctic ice when an explosion killed two sailors and put everyone's life at risk. Never have I seen a better example of the importance of narrative in non-fiction. Suddenly, the whole book comes alive. But sadly this section is labelled a 'personal interlude' and in a few pages we are back to dryly related facts. I am not saying that all the book had to be based on personal experience (I generally find science books like this slightly nauseating), it's just that the author needs to be aware throughout that he is telling a story, shaping the way information is put across, and this just doesn't happen elsewhere. 
The message of A Farewell to Ice, though not new, is indeed very important. There is zero doubt the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causes warming (along with other greenhouse gasses). It isn't about consensus, as Wadhams clearly shows, it is basic physics. There is also zero doubt that human activity has raised the greenhouse gas levels. The only doubt is over how fast and to what degree (literally) the warming will occur - but with the unique insight that Wadhams brings from his work with Arctic ice, we have good evidence that it is likely to be a problem sooner rather than later. The sad thing is, though, that without the kind of engaging writing seen briefly in that interlude, the only audience listening to this preaching will be those who are already converted.
This a shame, because there is still a lot of good stuff here. The other place the book comes alive is in the last few pages, where the author makes an appeal to do more about climate change - but by then, many readers might have turned off. Wadhams berates 'green' organisations like Greenpeace for opposing two  potential tools - nuclear power and geoengineering. He makes it very clear that it simply isn't enough to reduce carbon emissions. It's too late for that alone to do the job. We have to actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere. And Wadhams also emphasises that current technology is nowhere near good enough - we need a Manhattan Project scale effort. But such an effort is likely to come when we are feeling the delayed effects much more, and when many millions are suffering or dying. I perhaps shouldn't criticise Wadhams' book, as it will still provide ammunition for thinking environmentalists (as opposed to knee-jerk greens) - I just wish the bulk of the book put the message across better. 
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Review by Brian Clegg