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Showing posts from September, 2017

How Language Began - Daniel Everett ***

As someone with an interest in both science and language, How Language Began seemed an ideal combination - which managed to intrigue and disappoint me in equal measures.

Let's get that disappointment out the way first, as it's hardly the fault of Daniel Everett. This isn't really science (and so the title of the book is rather misleading, but I suppose 'One possibility for how language began' wouldn't be as punchy). It's hard to see how this could be science. Our ideas on the exact detail of hominin/hominid development aren't 100 percent clear - how much more vague are we inevitably about something that leaves no direct traces whatsoever: the beginnings of language? 

Because there is so little evidence to base arguments on, what we end up with is far more like a philosophical debate than modern science. Ancient Greek philosophers would have been totally comfortable with this battle of ideas with very limited recourse to data (and would also have been very…

Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize 2017

The winner of the Royal Society Insight Investment Science book prize 2017 has been announced:

Congratulations to Cordelia Fine for her success with Testosterone Rex.

The shortlist was:
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


Life 3.0 - Max Tegmark ***

I have to confess that my first reaction to this book was not anything to do with the contents, but trying to work out if there was something really clever about the the way the book's title is printed on the spine in white on cream, so it's illegible - would it be, for example, a subtle test of human versus artificial intelligence (AI)? However, that was just a distraction.

Max Tegmark is an interesting and provocative thinker in the physics arena, so I had high hopes for what he'd come up with exploring the future of AI and its relationship to human beings. It's worth explaining that the title of the book refers to three 'levels' of life where 1.0 is 'can survive and replicate' (e.g. bacteria), 2.0 is can design its own software (e.g. us - where 'software' refers to our concepts, ideas and extended abilities such as language) and 3.0 is can design its own hardware, enabling it to transform itself more directly and quickly than our creativity en…

Exodus (SF) - Alex Lamb ***

Exodus is full throttle, rip-roaring space opera, with a side helping of virtual reality and biotech. It strongly brings to mind two classics of the genre. The first is Star Trek's Borg episodes. As is the case with the Borg, the humans here face up to the conquering Photurians - who seek to assimilate whole species into their strange mix of hive mind and individuality. The tech behind the invaders may be at the biological cellular level rather than cyborg, but the effect is equally terrifying. I can't help but feel that this was a conscious influence, given the Borg's catchphrase, as at one point one of Alex Lamb's characters says:  'I mean resistance is worth it. The opposite of futile.'

Then there is E. E. 'Doc' Smith's Lensman series. Though obscure now, in its time, the Lensman series was one of the founding sagas of space opera. Thankfully, Lamb writes a lot better than Smith does - frankly, his style was distinctly clunky -  but if you know th…

Marty Jopson - Four Way Interview

Marty Jopson has a PhD in cell biology and builds science props, but he is best known for his regular appearances as the resident scientist on the BBC's The One Show. He does live stage performances around the UK, which involve naked flames and end in a loud bang. His latest book is The Science of Food.

Why Science:

Because it’s fun and I get a huge buzz finding out new things and then passing that knowledge on to other people. As a science communicator, it’s my job to talk to people about science on the telly, on stage and in books, so I’ve spent a lot of time considering why science is important, not just to me but to everyone. I could harp on about how science and technology have shaped our world, how medicine keeps us alive or how engineers have built everything. I could spend my time trying to communicate the science behind the deeper secrets of the mind or the darkest recesses of the universe. But in the end the audience I am interested in is the audience that doesn’t know the…

UFO Drawings from the National Archives - David Clarke ***

This is a lovely little book that, sadly, not every reader will see the point of. If somebody’s anecdotal account of a presumed alien encounter is obviously a misperception of a mundane occurrence, or else too vague – or too far-fetched – to be taken seriously, then it’s all too easy to dismiss it as worthless. But that’s missing the point. The fact that so many incidents are reported in these terms makes the witnesses’ testimony worthy of serious study – to teach us, not about extraterrestrial civilisations, but about our own culture.

That was the core message of David Clarke’s excellent How UFOs Conquered the World published a couple of years ago. Now Clarke is back with another take on the same basic theme.  His day job is Reader and Principal Lecturer in Journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, but for the last ten years he’s also acted as consultant for the National Archives project to release all of Britain’s official Ministry of Defence (MoD) files on UFOs. Throughout the Cold…

Surfing the Quantum World - Frank Levin ***

In Surfing the Quantum World, physicist Frank Levin attempts to take a third way in communicating the marvels of quantum physics. It's not popular science. It's not a textbook. It's something in between. But is there a market for such a book?

To make this a crossover title, Levin starts with a fairly brisk trot through the history of our understanding of light and the development of quantum mechanics. You can get an idea for the briskness in that there's only one development mentioned (Alhazen's work) between Lucretius (in the last century BC) and Kepler at the end of the sixteenth century. It's rather a dark ages approach to the history of science, when they still thought there was such a thing as the dark ages. Similarly, for example, Newton gets an old-fashioned uncritical mention - and his work on light, mostly done in the in 1670s, is only referenced in terms of his 1704 publication of Opticks.

The result overall of the history bit is something that is rathe…

Crashing Heaven (SF) - Al Robertson ****

There's an engaging mix of powerful thriller and science fiction in this impressive novel. After the Earth has been rendered uninhabitable, human life is limited to vast space station. Our central character, Jack, has a symbiotic artificial intelligence, Hugo Fist, designed to destroy other AIs in a mysterious collective that is said to have committed an atrocity - but with a kick in the tail that because of an unbreakable contract, Fist will take over Jack's body in a few weeks' time.

Al Robertson packs remarkable technology concepts into the cyber side of this story, from AI corporations that act as a pantheon of gods to the 'puppet' that is Fist (he usually come across as a virtual cross between Mr Punch and an evil ventriloquist's dummy). Robertson does all the cyber stuff so well that it's easy to miss that this is, in effect, a myth in electronic clothing - you could substitute the myths of 'real' Greek gods and magic for what happens here. Alt…

The Science of Food - Marty Jopson ****

This is a tasty little volume, packed with kitchen-based science. I must admit, when I saw that the author was the One Show's science expert and Marty Jopson's author photo has that 'Hey, I'm a mad scientist, kids!' look, my heart fell - I was sure the book would be the written equivalent of a 'Wow, look, aren't I clever, I can make this go bang!' science show - but, in fact, it's packed full of (appropriately) meaty scientific content.

I was really pleased that Jopson didn't stick purely to the chemistry of cooking, but launched with the working of some familiar kitchen gadgets - there was genuinely fascinating reading to be had about apparently humdrum equipment in the form of the physics and materials science of a knife and chopping board. And Jopson took us into industrial kitchens too, to reveal, for example, the remarkable process required to make puffed wheat.

Inevitably, the chemistry of cooking - how, for example, proteins denature and em…

Thought X (SF) - Rob Appleby and Ra Page (Eds.) *****

One of the best stories in the collection Thought X, written by veteran SF author Ian Watson, features the old idea of monkeys on typewriters writing Shakespeare (though with a brilliant new twist). For years I've hoped for science fiction that works well both as a story and at putting science across - I was beginning to think it was as likely as those monkeys typing out Hamlet. But to my surprise and delight, Thought X absolutely fills the bill.

With one somewhat disastrous exception (I'll come to that later), every single story in this collection is both a really high quality piece of writing and superbly illustrates a 'thought experiment' - the approach beloved, for example, of Einstein, of trying out scientific or philosophical concepts in a theoretical fashion to work out what would happen. Bearing in mind that this is essentially saying 'What if?' - absolutely the role of science fiction - this seems a natural pairing with SF stories. And it is. Even bette…

What's Your Bias? - Lee De-Wit ***

We have seen plenty of books on the psychology of decision making and how psychology can give us insights into the way that we misinterpret information or get things wrong, such as Richard Nisbett's Mindware, but this is the first that I have come across that explicitly addresses the psychology of the way we vote.

This is, perhaps, the ideal time to come out with such a book, as there have been so many surprise results in the last few years from the last two British general elections to Brexit and Trump. And there is some interesting material in this slim volume (I got through it on a longish train journey). It's very pleasing also, that Lee De-Wit gives us a good balance between UK and US examples.

Perhaps the most surprising result covered is the discover that the biggest predictor of how we will vote is how open we are to new experiences rather than, say, class or wealth. We also see how traditional party support has changed over time. Other aspects will be more familiar if y…

The Gradual (SF) - Christopher Priest ****

Christopher Priest may not be a prolific writer, but he was writing when I first got interested in science fiction, and he's still producing remarkable novels - most recently The Gradual. It's a remarkable book - mysterious, intriguing and with a main character who really takes the reader along on his sometimes dream-like experience.

But for one problem, it would have a solid five stars - and that's that it shouldn't really be here at all, because it's not science fiction, it's fantasy. (Unless you take the old definition that 'science fiction is what science fiction authors write.') I need to note a few specifics to explain why, but I'll try not to make them spoilers.

What makes it fantasy? Firstly it's set on a world that clearly isn't Earth, yet absolutely everything about the culture and environment (other than the fantasy elements we'll come to) is exactly like Earth, from the alcoholic drinks to the musical instruments and gramophone…