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Brian Clegg - Four Way Interview

Brian Clegg is a science writer with over 30 books published on topics ranging from infinity and the big bang to relativity and quantum physics. His A Brief History of Infinity and Dice World were longlisted for the Royal Society Book Prize. Brian has spoken at the Royal Institution, British Library and Science Museum in London, and regularly appears at book and science festivals. His work has appeared in publications from Nature and Physics World to the Observer, the Wall Street Journal and Playboy. The editor of popularscience.co.uk, Brian's most recent titles are The Reality Frame and Big Data.

Why science?

The way the world works has always fascinated me, and I grew up influenced by both science in the news - the Apollo missions, for example - and science fiction, from Star Trek to Isaac Asimov. I thought initially that chemistry would interest me most, but at university, physics took over. I realised when I nearly burned a lab down that I probably wouldn't make a working sc…

Eureka: How Invention Happens - Gavin Weightman ***

Updated for paperback version There's an interesting point made by Gavin Weightman in Eureka - the way that many inventions were the brainchild of an amateur, a tinkerer, who managed to get the invention going pretty badly, before it was then picked up elsewhere, typically by a larger organization which carried it forward to become a commercial or practical product. It's certainly true of the five examples he focusses on in the book.

These are powered flight, television, the barcode, the PC and the mobile phone (cellphone). In each case, Weightman gives us a long section in which he introduces that individual (or small team) of amateurs, plunges back into their historical antecedents - because invention doesn't come from nowhere, there is plenty of groundwork that precedes it - and then takes us through the detailed work of the amateurs and the way that the invention was then taken up and commercialised.

For me, the two best sections were the ones on TV and the barcode, in pa…

Big Data - Brian Clegg ****

I first became involved with what we now term big data when providing some mathematical assistance to a major supermarket.  They wanted to know what products would suffer, or benefit, if another product were put on special offer – the victims and victors as they called them.  As an example, if fresh meat pies are put on buy one get one free, should the supermarket plan on stocking more fresh vegetables? That sort of thing.  The supermarket in question had a lot of data concerning historical sales, and what had previously been put on special offer, so it was just a case of designing a set of algorithms to analyse this data to provide the necessary forecast, and also to have the system learn through what we would now call reinforcement learning over time.  This was back in the mid 90s. One can imagine how things - in all camps - should have vastly improved since then.  That’s just one example of where Big Data transparently impacts our lives.

In Big Data, Clegg sets out an assortment of …

Improbable Destinies - Jonathan Losos ****

There's always a danger when a science author puts themselves at the heart of their book that it can come across as 'Me, me, me!' - but Jonathan Losos has a very amiable personal style that gives the impression of having a chat with the author over a beer - and some of the best parts of the book are those that talk about Losos's own work.

The topic here - whether evolution inevitably tends to produce particular biological approaches given an environmental niche - is an interesting one, so the combination of the writing style and the topic make the book well worth reading, but there are some drawbacks, particularly with the first 150 pages or so. Arguably these suffer rather from the 'Is it a book or an article?' syndrome - there really isn't enough going on in them. What we are told is that often there will be convergence on similar biological solutions, but equally sometimes you'll get an oddity (think duckbilled platypus). The vast majority of those 15…

Wolfbane - Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth ****

Every now and then I like to re-read an SF classic, and there are rarely safer hands to be in than those of Pohl and Kornbluth. I was surprised as I got into it that I couldn't remember a thing about this book - I suspect it's because despite featuring a number of 'adventure' scenes, it is so cerebral. And that is a limitation - but its one that reflects a daring and impressive piece of writing.

Wolfbane starts with what seems to be a fairly straightforward 'rebel in a straight laced society of the future' storyline, with the 'What's in it for me?' main character Glenn Tropile getting in trouble in a society where everything is buttressed by ritual and formality - but that's just the beginning. We get an Earth that has been ripped away from the solar system, just about kept alive by the Moon, recreated as a sunlet every few years. And we have some of the most enigmatic and alien aliens I've come across, pyramids that rarely move and that harv…

The Aliens are Coming! - Ben Miller *****

This book is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The packaging – from the exclamation mark in the title to the frequent use of words like “witty” and “entertaining” in the various celebrity endorsements, and the emphasis on the author’s track record as a comedian and TV personality – all lead you to envisage a flippant, unchallenging read. I opened the book expecting a light-hearted debunking of ufology (always good for a few laughs), followed by a journalistically glib recycling of the “real science” of SETI, exoplanets, extremophiles et al. But what I got went much, much deeper than that.

There’s a lot of science in this book – and not just the obvious topics. What other popular book on astrobiology embraces subjects like information entropy, or the anthropic principle, or gamma-ray bursts, or Zipf’s law? Miller’s explanations of the first two are as engaging and lucid as I’ve seen anywhere, and as for the last two – well, I never would have guessed they were relevant to SETI until he pointe…

Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize 2017

The Royal Society's shortlist (I really wish they still did a longlist) for their book prize has now been announced:

Beyond Infinity - Eugenia ChengI Contain Multitudes - Ed YongIn Pursuit of Memory - Joseph JebelliOther Minds - Peter Godfrey-SmithTestosterone Rex - Cordelia FineTo Be a Machine - Mark O'Connell Congratulations to all those on the shortlist. As always we've a list of other superb science books that should have been on the list too to round out our own longlist: Algorithms to Live By - Brian Christian and Tom GriffithsAre Numbers Real - Brian CleggGravity's Kiss - Harry CollinsStorm in a Teacup - Helen CzerskiFurry Logic - Matin Durrani and Liz KalaugherA Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived - Adam RutherfordThe Invention of Science - David Wootton


Mistress of Science - John Croucher and Rosalind Croucher ***

It's quite common these days to read clickbait headlines telling us about the 'Most brilliant woman scientist/mathematician you never heard of' - I doubt if I'm alone in saying quite genuinely I had never heard of Janet Taylor, or her work that John and Rosalind Croucher believe made her deserving of that title 'Mistress of Science.' In the preface to the book we are told that 'Janet Taylor, born Jane Ann Ionn, made her mark as a brilliantly gifted scientist of her era,' - but is this hyperbole or reality?

This is far more a conventional biography than a scientific one, so while Taylor's work is certainly mentioned, we don't get a lot of detail about the science or the maths (a bit odd, given one of the Crouchers is a professor of statistics). As a biography, it's readable, if in a fairly old-fashioned style that spends rather more word count than is necessary on the comings and goings of the royals - though to be fair, the Crouchers give us …

The Telescopic Tourist's Guide to the Moon - Andrew May ***

Once the potential reader gets over the concern of folding up like a telescopic umbrella, and realises that this book is about doing a tourist trail on the Moon using a telescope, this is a fine title, which deserves more than three stars if you are in the relatively small target market who will make use of a telescope - the three star rating treats it as a general popular science title - as an amateur astronomer's guide it gets five stars.

It's hard to imagine an aspect of science that is so relatively easy to get immersed in when you are young, whether it's simply naked eye stargazing or using basic binoculars, but if you are to take things a little more seriously you need a telescope, and, as Andrew May points out, once you've got one the Moon is the star attraction (pun intended). Of course it's nice to be able to make out more of Jupiter than a dot - but you can explore so much detail on the Moon. When I was about 12, my dad bought a 6 inch reflector, and by fa…

Significant Figures - Ian Stewart ****

Ian Stewart's books can be excellent, but sometimes he forgets that much maths that excites mathematicians produces from the mere mortal a response of 'So what?' When he's on form, though, he's very good - and in this book he definitely hits the spot.

Inevitably with a book like this, giving short summaries of the lives and works of leading mathematicians, it's easy to question the gaps. Where are John Wallis and assorted Bernoullis, for example? And there is one entry, frankly that seems bizarre. I can see no reason whatsoever for Ada King to be here (though I appreciate his use of her surname, rather than using her title). Whatever Stewart's thinking, there is absolutely nothing in this entry to suggest that King was in any sense a 'trailblazing mathematician' (as the subtitle puts it).

However, I really enjoyed the range of mathematicians covered, with a good mix of familiar figures (Archimedes and Newton, for example) to those I'm ashamed to s…

Rebecca Nesbit - Four Way Interview

Rebecca Nesbit studied butterfly migration for her PhD, then worked for a start-up company training honeybees to detect explosives. She now works in science communication and her projects have ranged from a citizen science flying ant survey to visiting universities around the world with Nobel Laureates. Her first novel was published in 2014, and her first popular science book Is that Fish in your Tomato? was published in July 2017.

Why science?

Because truth can be counterintuitive. If we agreed 'facts' simply based on what feels right, we would often be mistaken, so we need evidence to help us out. Take weed control. Intuitively, you would think that ploughing is an environmentally friendly way to control weeds because it is 'natural', yet it releases greenhouse gasses from the soil. The gap between what we feel and what science tells us is even wider when it comes to being human. I feel as if I have rational control over everything I do, but this is an alluring story m…

Forgotten Science - S. D. Tucker ***

The reader needs a strong stomach to cope with the introduction to this collection of weird, wonderful and often obscure scientific endeavours. S. D. Tucker spends a fair amount of the 37 pages (that's a long introduction) on animal (and human) experiments involving vivesection. But once we're past this, although we hit on the occasional stomach churner, there are more palatable if misguided attempts at science to enjoy that were mangled, muddled or simply mad. 

Tucker has a conversational style, which is sometimes dry, but at others could do with a little reining in. So, for instance, when describing the unfortunate treatment Tim Hunt when he made an unwise joke about women in the lab, we are told that Hunt was 'chased out by a gaggle of self-righteous harridans, puritanical Twitter mobs and other such ranks of the professionally offended', which probably is not an ideal description. 

Things don't get a lot better when Tucker gets on to climate change. Although he d…