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Showing posts from April, 2018

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…