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Showing posts from August, 2017

Don't Look Back (SF) - John Gribbin ****

Despite the frequent misunderstanding of journalists, science fiction isn't all about rocket ships and space travel (though, of course, they do crop up). It's about asking 'What if?' That's true of all fiction, but science fiction has a much more extensive canvas, and the bit that follows 'What if...' has the opportunity to go places other fiction can't, even if this can be at the cost of reducing the interpersonal insights we expect from a novel. Perhaps that's why science fiction is such a perfect genre for the short story.

In this collection, science writer and physicist John Gribbin is enthusiastic to write hard science fiction, where, as much as the story allows, the science is real. Faster than light travel and time machines are usually allowed as special permission to break that rule - and here there's quite a lot of bending of the rule elsewhere too. For example, the 'many worlds' interpretation of quantum physics (a little overus…

The Planet Factory - Elizabeth Tasker ***

The way this book opens has the feel of an author trying too hard to get her personality across, as popular science books sometimes do. Elizabeth Tasker opens by asking an astrophysicist 'What would make you throw my book out of the window?' and as a reader, I hardly take in the next page and a half wondering why anyone would ask such a question. Then, just as I regain the ability to process what I'm reading, I get 'In 1968, Michael Mayor fell down an ice crevice and almost missed discovering the first planet orbiting another sun'. And I'm thinking 'But no one made such a discovery in 1968', not realising that this statement had nothing to do with his much later work on exoplanets (planets that orbit other stars) but was just a way to try to make the character more interesting.

Thankfully, once we get past the introductory section, Elizabeth Tasker's style settles down in a big way - if anything it goes to the other extreme and becomes distinctly dry…

Adam Roberts - Four Way Interview

Adam Roberts is commonly described as one of the UK's most important writers of SF. He is the author of numerous novels and literary parodies. He is Professor of 19th Century Literature at Royal Holloway, London University, and has written a number of critical works on both SF and 19th Century poetry. His latest novel is The Real-Town Murders.

Why science fiction?

Because it's the best thing in the world. I work for the University of London, which is to say: in effect, I'm paid to read books (and teach them, and write about them) and that means I read a lot of books; and that means you can believe me when I say that SF/Fantasy, and especially (even though it's not something I write) YA SF/Fantasy, is where all the most exciting writing is happening nowadays. You might wonder why I think so: but that's a whole other question, and you've already used up your four ...

Why this book?

So, I came across an account of one of Alfred Hitchcock's (many) unfinished projec…

Rats, Lice and History - Hans Zinsser ***

This classic of popular science has just had a welcome reissue. I say popular science, but Hans Zinsser regularly claims his book is nothing of the sort, as 'we detest and have endeavoured to avoid [popular science]'. (The use of the royal 'we' is another of Zinsser's foibles.) Yet popular science it certainly is - his attempt to avoid the label seems to be because it was somewhat despised as a type of writing by academics in the 1930s when this book was written - and Zinsser wanted to make this more personal than popular science tended to be back then, hence his instance that the book was a 'biography' of the disease typhus.

Such is Zinsser's enthusiasm to underline this more arty, biographical approach, he spends the first couple of chapters not talking about typhus, but rather the range of the arts and sciences, their relationship and the point of biography. If you are interested in these topics (as I am) this is interesting and amusing (in part becau…

The Real-Town Murders (SF) - Adam Roberts *****

Of all the contemporary science fiction writers, Adam Roberts can most be relied on to deliver a book that combines an engaging story with extensions of current science and technology that really makes you think - and The Real-Town Murders does this perfectly.

Set in the south east of England, a few decades in the future, this book delivers a trio of delights. The main character, Alma, is faced with constant time pressure as she faces physical and mental challenges (including a lovely homage to North-by-Northwest), there is an apparently impossible locked room mystery and there is fascinating speculation about the impact three technologies - AI, nanotechnology and virtual reality - may have on human life and politics.

Roberts' inventiveness comes through time after time - for example, Alma's partner is locked into a genetically engineered nightmare where she suffers a different medical emergency every four hours which only Alma can fix. It's just a shame, in a way, that Marg…

Ripples in Spacetime - Govert Schilling ***

The only example of Govert Schilling's work I'd come across was his co-authorship of the quirky but ultimately unsatisfying Tweeting the Universe, so it was interesting to see a 'proper' book by him on the timely topic of gravitational waves.

I struggled a little with his writing style - it's very jerky, jumping from one topic to another in a kind of popular science stream of consciousness, but once I got used to it, there is no doubt that he gives a thorough non-technical picture not only of gravitational waves themselves, but all kinds of background material from Einstein's biography to aspects of general relativity that really don't have much to do with gravitational waves. In a sense this a curse of the topic - because gravitational wave astronomy is so new (at the time of writing fewer than 4 confirmed observations) there's a limit to how much there is to write about.

What Schilling does well is the science explanation. His description of gravitation…

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, 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…

Foundation - Isaac Asimov ****

If a science fiction expert is asked to name the top ten of the genre, it's very likely that Isaac Asimov's sweeping Foundation would be in there. But I think it's also true that many such experts won't have read it in a long time - so it's worth revisiting with a more modern viewpoint.

What Asimov does so strikingly is to take the lessons of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and apply them to a vast future galactic empire. Of course much is different - but the basic occurrences of Roman decline are echoed strongly. Asimov's masterstroke is to add in a fictional psychology/statistics crossover science, 'psychohistory', which makes it possible for Hari Seldon and his researchers to lay out the future of the empire and a route involving rare interventions which will take it from collapse to a new empire spending a fraction of the time in barbarism than otherwise would be the case.

This whole psychohistory thing fascinated me when I first read the boo…

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…