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Light (SF) - John Harrison ***

There's no doubt that John Harrison sets out to stretch the bounds in Light, the first of a trilogy. Nor is there any doubt that what Harrison does in this book is very clever. The result is something that is arguably both a great book and a mess, so the three stars is something of an average.

Some readers may be put off by the fact that the narrative starts out in a way that is highly disjointed. We've got three interlaced story strands, one in present day England and two in a distant future, though there is no obvious connection between them. You have to read a whole lot of the book without much clue as to what's going on before it all comes together. Done properly, and if the reader has a lot of patience, this technique can be stunning. Gene Wolfe does it to perfection in the fantasy classic There Are Doors. Here it sort of works.

The two future strands, with central characters who are respectively an addict of an immersive entertainment system and someone who has given u…

Plate Tectonics (Ladybird Expert) - Iain Stewart ***

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

The good news is that, unlike the other entries in this series I've seen so far (Big Bang and Artificial Intelligence), Iain Stewart (not to be confused with mathematician Ian Stewart) has a topic in plate tectonics where the illustrations can sometimes put across some useful information, as opposed to being mere irritating decoration. This only applies to the theoretical topics - for the historical pages, which is more than half of th…

Artificial Intelligence (Ladybird Experts) - Michael Wooldridge ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Michael Wooldridge takes us on an effective little tour of artificial intelligence. Given the very compact form, he fits a lot in, taking us through some of the historical development including the 'golden age' (when everything seemed possible and very little was done), through the rise and fall of expert system, robotics, and the modern split between machine learning and 'good old-fashioned AI'. He emphasises how much in t…

Norbert Wiener - A Life in Cybernetics **

This autobiography combines two volumes by electrical engineering/computing pioneer Norbert Wiener 'Ex-prodigy: my childhood and youth' and 'I am a mathematician: the later life of a prodigy'... and it is profoundly hard going.

The first volume takes us from Wiener's birth to adulthood, though by this time he had experienced more than most as he went to university aged 11. The descriptions of life and goings on in general are distinctly dull to a modern eye. Occasionally things liven up a little, for example when he describes the suffering of a fellow child-prodigy in later life, or talks about his experience at Cambridge (the real one) with Bertrand Russell. 

However, there's a lot that is either of little interest or has lost its context with time. So, for example, we are told that 'I have had no contact with Berle [a contemporary child prodigy at Harvard] since his graduation. He became one of that group of young lawyers and statesmen sponsored by Felix Fr…

Peter Atkins - Four Way Interview

Peter Atkins is a fellow of Lincoln College, University of Oxford and the author of about 70 books for students and a general audience. His texts are market leaders around the globe. A frequent lecturer in the United States and throughout the world, he has held visiting professorships in France, Israel, Japan, China, and New Zealand. His latest title is Conjuring the Universe.

Why science?

Science is the only reliable way of acquiring knowledge, especially when it is supported by the austere language of mathematics. Science depends on publicly shareable knowledge, and is gradually building an interconnected reticulation of concepts and theories, which show how the very large illuminates the very small, and vice versa, and how aspects from different disciplines augment each other rather than conflict.

Why this book?

It deals with a question that lurks inside everyone and, in my view, provides a framework for understanding. Deep questions often have simple answers: I wanted to share that at…

Feature - Don't put your money in perpetual motion, Mrs Worthington

Physicists dismiss perpetual motion machines and 'free energy' devices out of hand. Some consider this a lack of open-mindedness, but in reality it's just that the physicists understand the second law of thermodynamics.

The second law is often stated as 'in a closed system, heat moves from a hot to a cold body' (there's another definition using entropy, we'll come onto in a moment). That's the basis at some point in the chain of every way we source energy, from a clean, green wind turbine to a dirty diesel. And, for that matter, it applies to the way your body uses energy too. Such is the respect for the second law that one of the UK's top astrophysicists of the first half of the twentieth century, Arthur Eddington, wrote:

If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations [James Clerk’s masterpiece that describe how electromagnetism works] – then so much the worse for Maxwell’s equations. I…

Big Bang (Ladybird Expert) - Marcus Chown ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Marcus Chown does a remarkable job at packing in information on the big bang, given only around 25 sides of small format paper to work with. He gives us the concepts, plenty about the cosmic microwave background, plus the likes of dark energy, dark matter, inflation and the multiverse. To be honest, the illustrations were largely pointless, apart from maintaining the format, and it might have been better to have had more text - but I felt …

Conjuring the Universe - Peter Atkins *****

It's rare that I'd use the term 'tour de force' when describing a popular science book, but it sprang to mind when I read Conjuring the Universe. It's not that the book's without flaws, but it does something truly original in a delightful way. What's more, the very British Peter Atkins hasn't fallen into the trap that particularly seems to influence US scientists when writing science books for the public of assuming that more is better. Instead of being an unwieldy brick of a book, this is a compact 168 pages that delivers splendidly on the question of where the natural laws came from.

The most obvious comparison is Richard Feynman's (equally compact) The Character of Physical Law - but despite being a great fan of Feynman's, this is the better book. Atkins begins by envisaging a universe emerging from absolutely nothing. While admitting he can't explain how that happened, his newly created universe still bears many resemblances to  nothing a…

Drawdown - Paul Hawken (Ed.) ***

When I was at university there was a book (sometimes classed as a magazine) I often thumbed through in Heffers, though I could never bring myself to buy a copy as it was too expensive. It was called The Whole Earth Catalog, and combined ecological articles with reviews of products, many of them for living an independent lifestyle. I find it hard to believe that it's accidental that the look and feel of Drawdown, with its large format, coarse paper covers and heavily illustrated interior, very different from a typical Penguin paperback, is so reminiscent of The Whole Earth Catalog.

So apart from the gimmick of the appearance (as it makes it very clumsy to read), what does the book provide? We are promised 'the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming', which sounds promising. What we get is a range of 80 solutions, each presented as a separate article, plus a collection of (sometimes more interesting) articles on what are described as 'coming attra…

Stone (SF) - Adam Roberts ****

I'm beginning to think that Adam Roberts holds the same  position in science fiction writing as Gene Wolfe does as the ultimate fantasy writer. Although some of Wolfe's books are delights to read, others are hard work - but often rewarding. Some seem not to quite hit the mark, but this is inevitable because he pushes the boundaries so effectively. Every time I read a new (to me) Adam Roberts title, there's something new and interesting, even in the ones that don't quite make it.
This is one of Roberts' early titles, which I hadn't come across until a friend reviewed it. I'll say straight away that it is somewhat limited by its format, made up as it is of a series of letters addressed by the main character to the titular stone. (Yes, a pebble.) However, that's part of the way that Roberts regularly plays around with the way fiction works. And it doesn't get in the way of some fascinating content. 
In part, Roberts is examining the impact of an apparent…

Thinkonomics - Robert Johnson **

Although Thinkonomics is borderline as popular science, it claims to cover logic and critical thinking, aspects of mathematics and the scientific method respectively, so I thought I’d give it a go.

This is, without doubt, an unusual little book. In fact I’d go so far as to say I’ve never read anything like it. It’s like sitting in a pub, listening to a highly opinionated person hold out on his favourite topics of the day, from politics and sport to animal rights.

Despite the promise of insights into critical thinking and logic, what we get instead is opinions stated as if they were facts. Some of them may indeed be true, but the weakness in terms of presenting arguments in an allegedly scientific fashion is that there is very rarely data provided or any other evidence given to back up the statements.

This means that sometimes we get what feel like political stereotypes (the Conservative party is intent on selling off the National Health Service, for example) and sometimes there are evide…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…