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Showing posts from 2015

The Thing Itself (SF) - Adam Roberts *****

This latest book from the master of intellectual science fiction, Adam Roberts, is a mind-bending delight - and nothing like the combination of the title and the cover suggests (yet even this deception is not entirely straightforward). Anyone versed in the genre would instantly make the leap, with the combination of 'The Thing' and a polar setting, to the classic science fiction film The Thing - and indeed Roberts does make a passing bow to this in the opening of the book. However, the monster in the movie is about as crude as they come - here, what we experience as alien is both horrible and transfigured as a possible reality for the concept of god.

Another classic theme we meet in the book is SETI - the search for extraterrestrial intelligence - but, once again, Roberts subverts the standard genre concepts. Here what is alien is not just not-human, but involves a different perception of the universe itself.

The way that Roberts makes this near-impossible portrayal of something…

Atmosphere of Hope - Tim Flannery *****

With the Paris summit on climate change just concluded, it's hard to imagine a better time for a new book on the subject, and the subtitle of Tim Flannery's chunky little volume is very encouraging: 'solutions to the climate crisis.' In fact it is just as well he is offering solutions. Not only are the shelves pretty full of titles telling how terrible the impact of climate change is going to be, but (misery memoirs apart) there is quite a strong feeling that doom and gloom books don't sell.
It's not that Flannery begins in cheerful mood. He takes us through the increasingly indisputable evidence that climate change is not just happening but is already having impact on everyday lives, from bush fires in Australia to flooding in the UK. After presenting a picture of increasingly disastrous implications if we choose to carry on as normal, Flannery takes us through the various key means of producing energy, their impact on the climate and where we need to be conc…

Ten Billion Tomorrows - Brian Clegg ****

There was a time, long before the days of blockbuster sci-fi movies, when anyone professing an interest in science fiction – or who had even heard of the genre – was likely to be a science geek. These days it’s different. Everyone has heard of science fiction, and even people who automatically think ‘all science is boring’ may count themselves as sci-fi fans. This translates into a huge opportunity for science communicators. After all, how can a science book be boring if it uses ideas from science fiction as a springboard? Brian Clegg has already used this approach on two of science fiction’s best known themes: time travel (How to Build a Time Machine) and interstellar travel (Final Frontier). In his latest book he applies the same logic to a whole range of other sci-fi tropes, from robots and ray guns to clones and cloaking devices.
If the book has a recurring message, it’s that real-world technology is less impressive than its sci-fi counterpart. Present-day quantum teleportation may…

Black Holes: a very short introduction - Katherine Blundell ***

Black holes have to be amongst the most fascinating phenomena of astronomy/cosmology and as such make a perfect topic for a new addition to OUP's vast collection of pocket guides, the 'very short introduction' books. I read my copy on a couple of 45 minute train journeys - it's long enough to give a good grounding in the basics of black holes, without being heavy or over-technical.
We are taken on a tour that includes the early black hole-like concepts, and the nature of the real thing, what would happen if you fell into one, the black hole's thermodynamics (which is more interesting than it sounds), how we discover things like their mass and spin rate, how they grow (and shrink) and plenty more. Considering this is just 93 pages, Katherine Blundell packs in the good stuff.
The writing style is generally approachable, and this is a popular topic, so I was all set to give the book four stars, but there were sufficient issues to pull it back down. The first was the err…

Ten Physicists - Rhodri Evans and Brian Clegg ***

I have little time for list books. You know the kind of thing. Fifty things you always wanted to know about chemistry, or whatever. I used to review a lot of children's science books. The kind of 'all you want to know in an easily digestible two page spread (with lots of pictures)' approach is okay in that context, but in something aimed at adults seems downright condescending to me. They must be popular, though, because publishers keep churning them out. But I really don't understand why.
Technically, this too is a list book, but at least it's a more grown-up list with a proper chapter of real sentences on each of the ten physicists featured. There is no doubt, as the introduction suggests, that there is a fascination produced by this particular kind of top ten list, if only because it's pretty easy to disagree with the list used. We discover that both Steven Weinberg in the preface and the authors in the introduction do disagree. (This gives the rather odd out…

Gladiator-at-Law (SF) - Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth ****

I have a horrible feeling there will be plenty of younger science fiction readers for whom the names of Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth mean nothing, but for those of us of a certain age they are among the greats.

I've just re-read this classic title, Gladiator-at-Law. It's over sixty years old (I see on you can buy the June 1954 Galaxy Magazine part of it first appeared in), and yet apart from a few niggling details, it is as fresh as ever. This bread and circuses dystopia, with an early focus on the dangers of corporations and lawyers having too much power is superbly crafted. It's a page turner, but thoughtful as well.

Those niggles? There are inevitably technology flaws - in this case, most notably the use of microfilm to store data. And, as is common for writing of the period, the female characters mostly fit within limited stereotypes (although some of the younger female characters are pretty violent). While you can argue also with aspects of the embedd…

Mathematics and Art: a cultural history - Lynn Gamwell ****

I have to start by saying that I have never really understood the point of coffee table books. There is no way anyone is going to comfortably read Mathematics + Art as it's around 25 cm by 32 cm, and weighs in at a wrist-crunching 3 kg, heavier than many laptops. (The price is fairly wallet-crunching too.) Although it is heavily and beautifully illustrated, though, this is much more than just a picture book of images with a mathematical association. It is a genuinely interesting text, running across over 500 pages, which I found I liked far more than I wanted to.
While there is, as is often the case with this kind of attempt to link science and the arts, sometimes a rather tenuous link to the mathematics, it is still fascinating to discover how the influence of maths on culture at large has had an impact on the arts. Sometimes this is in a quite explicit form, where an image, say, is mathematically derived or features a mathematician at work, while on other occasions it's a m…

Failure - Stuart Firestein ***

I am a big fan of Stuart Firestein's previous book Ignorance. It does a superb job of demolishing the traditional picture (as seen from outside) of scientific endeavour. As the author makes clear, facts may sometimes be interesting, but the driver behind real science is far more likely to be exploring our delicious areas of ignorance. 
This meant I had huge expectations for this follow-up title, and it's entirely possible that this anticipation resulted in an unnecessary feeling of being let down. But in all honesty I think it was also due to the writing. 
What Firestein sets out to do is to build up failure as the second parallel pillar to ignorance as a driver of science. Now, there's lots of good stuff in here about the importance of failure to science, and how too much of it is overlooked as it is very valuable, and how Popper was right but also wrong and so on and so forth, but it all seems flung together with little idea of structure and comes across as a failure (se…

How Many Moons Does the Earth Have - Brian Clegg *****

Science and fun go together like… well, like things that don’t often go together at all.  So it’s no mean feat to find that Brian Clegg has managed to combine the two so skilfully in How Many Moons Does the Earth Have.   The book is in the format of a pair of pub quizzes, but unless you’re drinking in a pub favoured by geeky academics in either Oxford or Cambridge (I would have just said Oxford, except that Brian went to the other place!) I would say that 99.99% of readers (I can say that confidently as no one can check it) will just read the book through like I did, to entertain and test themselves.    Each question is cleverly laid out, in that each is posed in the form of a puzzle, problem or brainteaser, augmented with a few related ‘while you wait’ fun facts on a single page; giving the reader the space to test themselves.  Once done, the reader then turns the page to find the answer - complete with a detailed explanation.  This makes each question an interesting standalone read in…

Gut Feelings - Gerd Gigerenzer *****

Although this book dates back to 2007 (it was shortlisted for the Royal Society Science Book Prize in 2008), the information within doesn’t seem dated. Psychologist and behavioural expert Gerd Gigerenzer has written a number of books about risk and probability in recent years, and while this book has some of that, this book is focused on the secrets of fast and effective decision making. That is not to say that it is a self-help book, but rather a description, based on neurological and psychological research, of how the brain uses heuristics in order to make decisions with limited information, though readers will find much of the information useful when thinking about decisions. Gigerenzer explains how intuition works in easy to understand terminology and also uses numerous examples throughout the book to illustrate how intuition is the basis for decision making, such as how we are able to catch a ball without conducting calculations of its speed or distance.  In short, Gigerenzer descr…

Seven Brief Lessons in Physics - Carlo Rovelli ***

This strikes me as the kind of book that would really impress an arts graduate who thought it was giving deep insights into science in an elegant fashion, but for me it was a triumph of style over substance - far too little content to do justice to the subject. It is, in effect, seven articles strung together as a mini-book that can be read comfortably in an hour, but is priced like a full-length work. Don't get me wrong, Carlo Rovelli knows his stuff when it comes to physics and gives us postcard sketches of a number of key areas, mostly in the hot fields like cosmology and quantum gravity (though interestingly focussing on the generally rather less popular loop quantum gravity). However he's not so good on his history of science, and can, as scientists often do when writing for the general public, over-simplify. The last of the articles is different from the rest - rather than take in a specific field (quantum physics, say) as the earlier articles do, it looks at how people…