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Showing posts from February, 2017

A Brief History of Mathematical Thought - Luke Heaton ***

I had great hopes at the start of this book that we'd get a meaty but approachable history of the development of mathematics. When describing the origins of number, arithmetic and mathematical processes the opening section is pitched well, but things go downhill when we get to detailed mathematical exposition.

The problem may be that Luke Heaton is a plant scientist, which may have prepared him better for using maths than for explaining it. If we take, for instance, his explanation of the demonstration that the square root of two is irrational, I was lost after about two lines. As soon as Heaton gets into mathematical detail, his fluency and readability are lost.

There's a central chunk of the book where the mathematical content seems too heavy for the way the contextual text is written. We then get back onto more effective ground when dealing with logic and Turing's work, before diving back into rather more impenetrable territory.

One slight concern is that, in talking about…

The War on Science - Shawn Otto ****

If, like me, you are a consumer of popular science books, it can be bewildering when reading newspapers and following social media that there is so much antipathy, confusion and hostility towards science and scientists. Where does it all come from, is it a problem and what can we do about it? Those are the questions that Shawn Otto attempts to answer in The War on Science. While the book primarily covers science policy and politics, it contains a wealth of information on scientific topics (creationism vs evolution, the anti-vaccine movement and climate change) that feature heavily in the political debate today. 

Although the book is very US-centric, the topics and debates are of worldwide concern and, one could argue, the degradation of science in the public debate has progressed the farthest and is at its most extreme in the United States. Otto does an excellent job of describing the backstories on a number of scientific issues behind the shift in the US from a country based on the pr…

Time Travel, a history - James Gleick ***

It's hard to imagine a topic that is more rife with paradoxes than time travel (or 'Time Trave' as this book's trying-too-hard cover design appears to call it), so it shouldn't be surprising that this book itself is a paradox. There are few subjects more dripping with potential for fun popular science than time travel - but this isn't a popular science book. It's true that there are few writers who can rival James Gleick when he's on form at writing a popular science title. But this isn't one. Quietly, without fuss, he announces that time travel is impossible. It's not real. It could be a very short book... but it isn't.

Perhaps I should have got a clue from the amount of time Gleick spends in the first two chapters on The Time Machine. Of course, it makes sense now. He's going to give us a rollicking exploration of the science fiction that has made time travel a part of our everyday lives and tell us more about the writers who've mad…

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 t…

Four Way Interview - Matt Brown

Matt Brown is a former scientific editor and journalist and has contributed to several popular science books. He is the Editor-at-Large of Londonist.com 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 c…

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 so…

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 clich├ęs, 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 'mo…

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.

Throu…

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 absolute…

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…