Sunday, 19 February 2017

The Turing Guide - Jack Copeland et al ****

There have been plenty of biographies of Alan Turing, including Jack Copeland's own excellent Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age, but this chunky volume is something quite different - a massive, 42 section collection of articles about different aspects of Turing's work, from the inevitable Enigma and Tunny deciphering working during the Second World War, through the development of programmable computers, the Turing test and Turing's little-known foray into biology.

Like all such collections, it suffers a little from overlap in sections and variability in quality, however what the approach enables the authors to do is to go into far more depth than I have seen elsewhere. So, for instance, there is an article on the use of the Manchester computers to produce the first computer-generated music which includes the details of how this was programmed and an analysis of the notes produced (and how the recording was made at the wrong speed, changing the frequencies). Similarly there is far more depth on the approaches taken to crack the German codes, the mechanisms of the bombes and Collosus computers used at Bletchley Park. This is a goldmine of information if you enjoy delving into the depths of these examples of human ingenuity.

I did find that after about the first half I was rather losing steam. The sections on AI and the mind, biology and mathematics seemed less approachable than the rest, though that may just be reader fatigue. Even so there's lots here that will appeal. Only one section stands out as particularly poor - a contribution by Stephen Wolfram which is entitled 'A century of Turing' but might have been better described as 'How Turing was Nearly as Clever as I am', as it seems far more about Wolfram than Turing.

The biggest appeal of this book is likely to be for those who want to dig into more depth in the ways that Enigma and Tunny were dealt with, and in those early ACE and Baby computers, than can be covered in a typical scientific biography. There are also some highlights of information about Turing the person I have not seen elsewhere, although the Guide doesn't really work to give a rounded picture of the man. Rather than a book to read end-to-end, this collection seems better suited as a reference on these different aspects of Turing's work, providing excellent snapshots of this remarkable individual, who should have been recognised far earlier for his contributions than security restrictions allowed.

Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Four Way Interview - Matt Brown

Photo by José Farinha
Matt Brown is a former scientific editor and journalist and has contributed to several popular science books. He is the Editor-at-Large of and author of Everything You Know About London Is Wrong, the predecessor to his popular science book Everything You Know About Science Is Wrong, both published by Batsford.

Why science?

It's a combination of factors, really. First and foremost, science has a unique ability to befuddle. So much is counter-intuitive or outside of everyday experience that it's easy to get the wrong end of the stick. At the same time, we're fed a steady diet of misinformation about science. Exaggerated press reports, the spread of pseudoscience and the misrepresentation of science in popular culture all take their toll. The field - or people's perceptions of it - needs a regular debunking to shake out all the nonsense. 

On a more prosaic note, I have a long background in science editing, writing and quizmastering, so science was the natural choice as successor to the first volume in this series, Everything You Know About London Is Wrong.

Why this book?

I've always found that learning from mistakes is the most effective way to lodge something in the memory. Why not embrace 'wrongness' as a tool? The conceit lets me turn the usual format of a popular science book on its head. Instead of filling a gap in the reader's knowledge, I hope to challenge what's already there. Plus, everybody loves a bit of nitpicking and pedantry, don't they?

What's next?

There's a whole universe of false facts out there to be debunked so I'm now moving on to other volumes in the series. Expect books specifically covering space and the human body, in the near future. I'm also working on a volume about the art world.

What's exciting you at the moment?

The prospect of a new Star Trek series has me giddy with anticipation. I'm a life-long Trek fan. Indeed, these Everything You Know books were partly inspired by The Nitpicker's Guide To Star Trek - a favourite tome of my teenage years. I'm also excited to have a 14-month old daughter who's growing ever-more curious about the world. I can't wait to show her all the wonders out there.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Mega Tech - Ed. Daniel Franklin ***

It's almost impossible to review a book like this without quoting Niels Bohr, who (amongst others) said 'Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future,' so I'm not going to try. 

In principle, futurology is the most hilarious part of science writing, as it is so entertaining when unworldly academics get their predictions wonderfully wrong. (Dresses made from paper will be the norm by 2000, Dr Toffler? Really?) Yet strangely, in practice, futurology tends not to be very amusing because the books are almost always unbelievably dull to read.

To an extent, Mega Tech gets over this by having lots of short pieces by different authors. I am often critical of the 'piecemeal appraisal' approach to a topic, because the essays rarely integrate well, but at least here it means there are nuggets of gold amongst the mediocre - notably, for example, Ann Winblad's ideas on computing based on her early experience with Bill Gates and Ryan Avent's take on the socioeconomic impact of technological development and innovation. I was also fascinated by the essay on military technology, which captured me at the start with the remarkable statistic that the current record for a sniper using a rifle is a British soldier who, in Afghanistan in 2009, shot two Taliban machine-gunners from a distance of 2,475 metres. That's further than my walk to the post office.

Even so, some of the suggestions here already seem wide of the mark. A couple of frontrunners mentioned are virtual reality and voice interaction with technology. Both are promising, yet the authors fail to recognise that it's almost always the case that such technologies end up in a very different form to the early versions. They really need to learn the lesson I got from attending the Windows 95 launch over 20 years ago. Microsoft confidently told us in 1995 that the internet would remain a university and military domain, while the commercial future was with the commercial networks of the likes of AOL, Compuserve and Microsoft's newly launched MSN. That went well.

Looking at the two examples I mention, virtual reality will definitely catch on, but I suspect that it will come in two forms. The book simply carries forward current headsets, but those may well only ever have a significant presence in gaming and the short-term use spaces like cinemas, not, as Mega Tech suggests, replacing our general screen use. Look at 3D TV. As I write, manufacturer after manufacturer is pulling out of 3D television production. Very few people wanted it. We're happy to wear 3D glasses to watch a 2 hour movie in the cinema, but not for our mainstream screen use. Apart from anything else, when watching the TV, we talk to others, interact with phones, eat and drink... we don't want something clamped on our face while doing this. Virtual reality in this environment is only likely to become the norm when we can do it without strapping something on.

As for voice interaction, it's brilliant, but Mega Tech doesn't do enough to reflect its limitations. I wouldn't be without my Amazon Echo - but the book claims voice input will soon replace old-fashioned keyboards and mice/trackpads. This is only true for a subset of uses. Firstly, voice struggles outside the commonplace. I spent a hilarious ten minutes trying to get the Echo to play Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht. I failed. Voice won't cope with this for a long time. And secondly, while many of us might be happy to dictate a tweet, have you ever tried to edit text by voice? Imagine it: 'The word "the", hang on... erm... sixteen, no, seventeen lines down on the current page, the second occurrence on the line, should actually be "thee" with a second "e" at the end of the word' is never going to seem convenient when compared with a click on the mouse and a single keypress.

Overall, this was one of the better futurology books I've read. There were large chunks that needed skim reading to avoid them becoming tedious, but there were some really captivating points too. Indubitably most of it was wrong - but, as the introduction points out, that doesn't stop it being worthwhile speculating... as long as no one takes this as a true picture of the future.

Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Everything You Know About Science is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

There's a bold claim in the title of Matt Brown's attractive little hardback - it firmly throws down a gauntlet. It doesn't tentatively say 'Quite a lot of things some people think they know about science are wrong.' (Admittedly that would make an awful title.) It says EVERYTHING and it says YOU. Now, I could accept 'Everything Your Aunty Knows About Science is Wrong' (though, of course, someone else's aunty could well be a scientist). But my initial reaction is for my hackles to rise - so let's see if Brown can smooth over this reaction inside.

The book is a short, easy read - I got through it on a mid-length train journey. It eases us in with some misapprehensions about what scientists and science are like, taking on the stereotypes and clichés, whether it's about appearance, gender or choice of workwear in the case of scientists or always being right in the case of science. (To be fair, in my experience some of the stereotypes, such as 'more likely to be socially inept than the average population' are true, which Brown doesn't mention.) This is something the profession has been hammering on at for years, but does need repeatedly reinforcing, particularly at the school level.

We then move on to a range of areas where Brown pulls apart some 'everyone knows that...' type statements on space travel, physics, chemistry, biology, earth sciences and human biology. Quite a few of them are now widely known, such as the inaccuracy of 'The Great Wall of China is the only man-made object visible from the Moon', while others, at Brown's admission, are nit-picking. So, for instance, one is 'Astronauts float in zero gravity.' If we are going to nit-pick, this is a perfectly true statement. What he really means is 'Just because astronauts float does not mean they are in zero gravity' - because, for example, the strength of the Earth's gravitational pull in orbit is still very strong, and they float on the International Space Station because they are in free fall, but missing the Earth. (If you really want to be a nit-picker, even there, because of the equivalence principle, you could describe this as zero(ish) gravity.) Other topics are likely to take even the seasoned reader of popular science by surprise. But the familiarity of some topics doesn't really matter, because they're still engaging and worth reading about, especially with Brown's chatty, informative style.

As an example of one that did pleasantly surprise me, we have 'Without a heat shield, spacecraft re-entering Earth's atmosphere will burn up from friction.' I expected the nit-pick that it's perfectly possible to land slowly under rocket control if you have enough fuel - and it came. But the big reveal was that it's not friction but compression of the air that is the primary problem causing heat on re-entry, something that should, perhaps, have been obvious, but that hadn't occurred to me.

Even when the topics were fairly familiar, then - such as pulling apart the assertion that glass is a liquid - I never felt that reading the book was dull, and there were always novelties to keep me turning the pages. I didn't want to put the book down. After the main text we get an 'A to Z' of pseudoscience, taking on everything from acupuncture to 'zoology (crypto)' - Brown admits this is a bit of cheat, and arbitrary to get one entry per letter. However, although short, these little nuggets are well worth reading. The same goes for short sections of myths about scientists and how we pronounce science words incorrectly - don't skip them as appendices, they're all excellent. (There's even a short section of intentionally made up 'false facts', somehow appropriate for the age of alternative fact, though the humour there didn't really work for me.)

In terms of content, my only other quibble is that Brown doesn't always have the courage of his convictions in picking out science myths, repeating some himself - not pointing out, for example, the doubtfulness of the facts behind the suggestion that Ada Lovelace can be considered 'the world's first programmer.'

So we come back to the book's title. I'll be honest, I don't like it - it feels like clickbait, like one of those headlines you see on social media that says 'Ten things you never knew about [Celebrity of your Choice]! You'll be amazed what happens next!' It can't sensibly deliver on its promise. But that doesn't stop it from being an interesting book of quirky science factoids and things that often are or used to be misrepresented. It's also nicely enough finished to be a good gift book - I can imagine it on the shelves in Urban Outfitters, say - with the one proviso that I'm not sure I can bring myself to give someone a book where the cover tells them they're ignorant. Joking apart, it's an enjoyable book that deserves to do well.

Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

How Population Change Will Transform our World - Sarah Harper ***

This is a book for people who like their numbers. Wow, there are a lot of numbers. And charts. Lots and lots of charts. I do like numbers myself, but by about 1/4 of the way through I had become totally chart blind - I couldn't take in any more data. And yet, strangely, despite its incredibly rich data content, I'd also say that primarily this is a book that fails the 'is it really a book' test - there may be lots of data here, but not enough information. In terms of narrative, interpretation and answers to 'So what?' questions, it really is more of a magazine article.

We learn that there are three types of country - ones where we're over the hump and strongly headed for a shrinking, top-heavy, ageing population, ones that are in transition, and ones that at the moment are still in the 'natural' condition of 'have lots of children to survive' leading to population growth as health care gets better and very bottom heavy age distributions.

Throughout, I struggled to understand where Sarah Harper was going with this. When talking about the advanced economies there was clearly a problem of having enough young workers to support the ageing population. But equally, there seemed to be emphasis on moving away from the more traditional population distributions because these had lower average ages and less social benefits - there was no real feel for what the ideal is in population terms, or how to achieve it.

There were also some strange gaps. In talking about how a population got into its current state, there was very little mention of cultural/religious influence on, say, contraception or women's education. This was despite the impact of women's education on birth control getting a large mention - but we get little feel for what restricts this. And the reader is presented with a lot of correlation as if this were clearly causality, but with very little mention of how the causal links are being established.

The book gets most interesting, I think, towards the end, where the contributions of climate change and migration were discussed. But I still got the feel for having vast quantities of data thrown at me with very little attempt to answer the crucial 'And so?' questions. We got a good feel for how population age distributions are likely to change with time (although there is a big dose of uncertainty rather quietly thrown in part way through, without really dealing with it), but no real idea of what the implications are. I can see this book working for students to use as a source from which to write essays - but not as a vehicle for to inform the public on the implications for all of us of the way that the world population is changing.

Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 2 February 2017

All These Worlds Are Yours - Jon Willis ***

There used to be a popular saying amongst scientists (at least, those who weren't cosmologists) to the effect of 'there's speculation, then there's wild speculation, then there's cosmology.' Even now, there is plenty of uncertainly about how things all started, though we have pinned down a remarkably good picture of most of the last 13.8 billion years. However, at least cosmologists were arguing about something that definitely is there. Remarkably, there's a whole new science of astrobiology which spends its time working on the science of something that may not even exist. Life on other worlds. (As far as I can tell, it was renamed from xenobiology, I suspect either because a) no could pronounce it or b) they thought it was to do with Xena Warrior Princess.)

Most people think there probably is life out there, even if it doesn't fly spaceships around exciting Fox Mulder, but as yet we know nothing about it - so you might think that speculation is absolutely at the heart of this science. And in a way, it is. The science bit comes in deciding to how to look for potential life in the universe, rather than (as yet) studying any alien lifeforms.

Jon Willis takes us on a conventional journey through the potential locations for life in the solar system. He gives the feeling that he thinks Mars is over-rated in this respect, but gets decidedly excited about the various moons of Jupiter and Saturn that could support life, whether in salty water under a thick ice crust or in an enticing mix of frigid liquid methane and ethane. From here we take the further leap to planets around other stars, of which there appear to be billions in our galaxy. As yet we can do very little about detecting life there, but Willis has the chance to take us through the detection mechanisms for remote planets and what might prove to be markers of life in the future.

Throughout, Willis maintains an exhausting energy and bounciness. It's a bit like reading a book written by a puppy. We are battered with rhetorical questions and chatty little remarks. Yet even all this enthusiasm can't avoid making the journey a little dull in places - because we just haven't arrived yet.

Although this book clearly didn't work too well for me, I should stress that there is a lot of information about the various missions to Mars and the outer moons, plus exoplanets here, and even a glancing discussion of SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, which keeps going despite its loss of government funding.

It's interesting to make the comparison with Louisa Preston's book Goldilocks and the Water Bears, subtitled 'the search for life in the universe.' Although I enjoyed the quirky involvement of tardigrades, the weird little re-animatable creatures known as water bears, I found Willis far better both on looking beyond Earth-inspired types of life and in his scientific coverage. If you can cope with that puppy dog style, this is an informative book, even if it does reinforce the oddity of putting so much effort into studying something we've never seen and may not even exist.
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

The Big Picture - Sean Carroll ***

Most popular science books either focus in on a specific bit of science, or explore the work of a particular scientist. However, every now and then, authors get the urge to go large - to take on life, the universe and everything. It’s what you might call the science writer’s midlife crisis - and this title typifies the genre.

Of itself, this isn’t a bad idea, though it can be a struggle to decide how to organise such a vast subject matter, and the ‘big book’ syndrome frequently rears its ugly head. Because this is a big topic, either the publisher or the author often feels it has to be a big book. This translates into a painfully long book, something this certainly is, at over 400 pages. The result is page after page of waffle, which in a subject that naturally inclines the author to philosophy can be more than a little deadening. So, for instance, although Sean Carroll does actually put quite a lot into his opening section, it can feel like he’s spent 80 pages saying ‘things do or don’t have a cause, depending on what they are and what you call a cause.’ And there’s only so much you can take of that kind of thing.

At the book's heart is the concept of poetic naturalism, which Carroll presents as the best scientific approach to universal topics. This amounts to having a clear naturalist approach (nothing is supernatural, everything can in principle be explained by reductionist means), but building on it the storytelling aspect of our understanding that takes us beyond the fundamentals like quantum theory to add on emergent aspects reflecting the world as we understand and experience it. The poetic naturalist knows that it's all particles and fields underneath, but accepts that we need the higher level stories to relate to the universe. Carroll covers this at great length in his six sections: Cosmos, Understanding, Essence, Complexity, Thinking and Caring.

At page 159 we finally get away from philosophical hand waving, but given that, so far, Carroll has been hammering out each point at great length it's unfortunate that when he is on more familiar ground, he leaps into assumptions about what his readers understand. So we are told, for instance, that an electron in a hydrogen atom only gives off 'certain discrete wavelengths'. It's a shame that, while philosophical jargon was given pages of explanation, a word like 'discrete' which isn't commonly used the way physicists employ it, isn't given a brief explanation. 

When get onto the serious science bit, after acres of pages telling us about the difficulty of being certain of everything, it’s a wave of the magic wand and physics has all the answers (admittedly to a small subset of questions). It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the physics presented here, but the way it is described there seems a danger of falling into the trap Carroll himself identifies of declaring that nothing much new will emerge as we pretty well know it all. And after all the philosophical justifications and exploration, it feels unsatisfactory to be presented with the physics on a ‘this is how it is, and you have to believe it because I say so’ basis. This comes across particularly strongly in the description of crossing symmetry. The lack of explanation and justification here is disappointingly different from Carroll’s lucidly explanatory From Eternity to Here.

The good news is that in the next section (Complexity) things finally get both interesting and better explained. As we move into biology, Carroll continues to keep the writing interesting and delivers significantly more than he has to date. Unfortunately, this doesn't last and we head back to the philosophising and logic-chopping as Carroll makes one of several attempts to provide a logical consideration of the existence or non-existence of God, saying that the fine tuning of the universe is probably the best argument for theism, but it proves to be a weak one. There's something dated about attempts to make logical and/or Bayesian arguments for or against a deity and it just doesn't do a lot for the reader. This is followed by a long, occasionally interesting, philosophical discussion of the nature of consciousness.

Towards the end of the book, interest is re-kindled with some thoughtful material on ethics and we finish with an absolutely lovely chapter, where Carroll relates his move from his early Christian beliefs to a naturalist viewpoint. This is the best writing in the whole book - simple yet personal, and far more effective as a flag carrier for atheism than any of Dawkins' raging.

Overall it's an odd book and one that has way too much philosophising and meandering for me to have enjoyed it. Interesting nonetheless.

Review by Brian Clegg