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Showing posts from May, 2017

Psy-Q: A mind-bending miscellany of everyday psychology - Ben Ambridge *****

I came to this book late, via Ben Ambridge's more recent title Are You Smarter than a Chimpanzee? In that book, it was the human side that I found more interesting than the animal psychology, so a whole book on people in Ambridge's amiable, entertaining style seemed a good bet - as it proved to be.
There was a fair amount here that you will have come across if you've read any other popular psychology books, from the ultimatum game to common psychological illogicalities, like our tendency to give more value to something we own than something we don't. However, there was also enough that I'd never seen before to make it an entertaining read, and even the familiar was often worth revisiting.

One of the more unusual things that Ambridge did was to take in a few borderline psychology/psychiatry concepts from the Rorshach Test to Freud's dream analysis and mildly debunk them. I say 'mildly' as Ambridge doesn't tear into them, but gently points out their lac…

The Perfect Shape: Spiral Stories - Øyvind Hammer

At first sight, a book with 53 chapters all about spirals from a mathematical viewpoint sounds up there with watching paint dry in the entertainment stakes. However, there is no need for those who don't find Euclid an entertaining holiday read to turn away - because Øyvind Hammer uses the concept of a spiral as a jumping off point to cover everything from architecture to biology, from tiling to toilet paper. That word 'stories' in the title is really important. Unlike some academics, Hammer really understands the importance of narrative in getting science across.

The mathematical aspect is always lurking in the background, and Hammer is not afraid to bring in equations regularly, but to be honest, you can read the book and still enjoy it while ignoring all the maths and entirely failing to remember the difference between a logarithmic, hyperbolic or Archimedes spiral, let alone a lituus (which my spellchecker thinks should be a litmus). 

What makes the book a genuinely enjoy…

The Hydrogen Sonata (SF) - Iain Banks ****

I've generally loved the Iain M. Banks 'Culture' novels, but was decidedly disappointed when I happened on Consider Phlebas, (admittedly his first) - but thankfully The Hydrogen Sonata was much more the kind of on-form writing I've come to enjoy.

I will get one moan out of the way up front - it's too long. I can't be doing with these doorstop books as a whole, and quite a lot of it felt in need of a good tightening edit. But having said that, there's a whole lot to enjoy here in the complex machinations between different races and seeing different Culture ships exhibit behaviour that isn't necessarily quite what you'd expect.
As usual with Banks there's plenty to ponder in the 'what if' department, here particularly around the concept of 'subliming' where individuals or whole races opt to become part of a disembodied multidimensional spacetime - probably some people's idea of heaven and others of hell. But equally, as Banks did…

In the Shadow of the Moon - Anthony Aveni ***

This is a book with niche appeal. For a reader who is aware of Anthony Aveni’s specialist field of research, and who shares the same interests and outlook, it might be worth more than the three stars I’ve given it. On the other hand, a general reader buying the book at face value is likely to be disappointed. It’s a heavier-going and more specialised read than the packaging suggests.

The book’s subtitle is ‘The Science, Magic, and Mystery of Solar Eclipses’, while the publisher’s blurb reads ‘In anticipation of solar eclipses visible in 2017 and 2024, an exploration of the scientific and cultural significance of this mesmerising cosmic display’. That led me to expect certain things even before I opened the book: a simple but lucid explanation of the science of eclipses, a description of how to observe them safely and what to look out for, and various quirky myths, superstitions and anecdotes connected with eclipses. The book does include these things, but they only account for about a …

Four Way Interview - Ben Ambridge

Ben Ambridge is Reader in Psychology at the University of Liverpool and the ESRC International Centre for Language and Communicative Development (LuCiD). He is a recipient of the Guardian-Wellcome Science Writing Prize and his first book Psy-Q: A Mind-Bending Miscellany of Everyday Psychology was a Sunday Times Book of the Year and has been translated into a dozen languages. He lives in Sale, Greater Manchester. His latest title is Are You Smarter than a Chimpanzee?

Why science?

If you want to figure out how something works, you’ve got two options. You can collect the best possible evidence, look at it even handedly, and do your best to come up with a theory that explains this evidence and predicts what will happen in similar scenarios in the future. Or you can just make shit up.

Why this book?

We humans like to think that we’re not only much more intelligent than other animals - which we clearly are - but a whole different type of creature altogether; that we’re unique in having logica…

Out of the Shadow of a Giant - John and Mary Gribbin *****

We should be truly grateful to John and Mary Gribbin for this opportunity to find out more about two stalwarts of 17th/18th century British science, Robert Hooke and Edmond Halley (apparently pronounced 'Hawley', as presumably it was thought of as Hall-ley). This pair have been unfortunately and unfairly overshadowed by Isaac Newton, and this book does a lot to bring them into the open. (I wish the Gribbins had also included another in Newton's shadow, the mathematician John Wallis.)

The aim here is very much to get a feel for the scientific contribution of this pair, though we do get some biographical detail, particularly of Hooke (in whose household it seemed to be decidedly risky to be young and female, even if you were his niece), with rather less of Halley's life. Both men were polymaths to a far greater extent than I had realised - for example I had no idea how much architecture Hooke was responsible for, including designing some of Wren's churches and coming …

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (SF) - Cory Doctorow ****

I'm not quite sure where I picked up a recommendation for this book, but I'm glad I did as I've been able to add Cory Doctorow to my fairly short list of contemporary science fiction writers that I truly enjoy.

In this entertaining short novel, Doctorow takes on the classic SF question of 'What if?' for something that genuinely could come to pass - the no wage economy, where everyone gets the basics they need and it's up to them, through ad-hoc arrangements, to find ways to earn social credit to get more, should they want it. In a way, the social credit (known for unexplained reasons, unless I missed it, as Whuffie) is the equivalent of the rating system in the Black Mirror episode where everyone constantly rates everyone else. The other major change to society, which is far less likely to happen, is that when someone dies they are recreated from a clone which is imprinted with their backed up memory - so death becomes a minor irritation (unless you aren't e…

Are You Smarter than a Chimpanzee? - Ben Ambridge ****

There's a whole lot of entertainment - but also surprising facts - to be discovered in Ben Ambridge's book Are You Smarter than a Chimpanzee?

Ambridge sets out to compare many human mental abilities with those of animals (and even insects), showing how often we share capabilities, and in some (rather limited) circumstances can even be beaten by animals, hence the title of the book. Ranging from the way that, for example, some animals aren't taken in by the optical illusions that fool us, to feats of memory and logic, page after page Ambridge presents us with fascinating examples from the natural world.

Sometimes what's most amazing is the lengths to which researchers (who can't ask the animals what they are thinking) have to go to devise their experiments to see, for example, how ants would deal with the Tower of Hanoi problem, or whether or not chickens are less likely than us to be fooled by optical illusions where one object (in a 2D image) is apparently in front …

The Mathematics Lover's Companion - Edward Scheinerman ****

The worrying thing about this title is that I'm not sure I am a maths lover. I find some parts of mathematics interesting - infinity and probability, for example - but a lot of it is just a means to an end for me. The good news is that, even if you are like me, there's a lot to like here, though you may find yourself skipping through some parts.

Edward Scheinerman takes us through 23 mathematical areas, so should you find a particular one doesn't work for you, it's easy enough to move onto another that does. Sometimes it wasn't the obvious ones that intrigued - where I found the section on infinity, for example, a little underwhelming, I really enjoyed the section on factorials. The book opens with prime numbers, which while not the most exciting of its contents, gives the reader a solid introduction to the level of mathematical thought they will be dealing with. It's enough to get the brain working - this isn't a pure fun read and you have to think - but no…

The Brain - Gary Wenk ***

There have been plenty of books about the brain, but 'Professor of Psychology and Neurosciences and Molecular Virology, Immunology and Medical Genetics' (I bet he has a big business card) Gary Wenk is, according to the subtitle, out to tell us 'what everyone needs to know' about this important organ. (As the subtitle has a registered trademark symbol, I assume the book is part of a series.)
I found The Brain an easy read in terms of the language (though inevitably we get a string of labels for different parts of the brain), but sometimes I struggled to make sense of what was being said. For example, we're told: 'The brain is the organ of your mind; therefore, food and drugs can have a profound influence on how you think, act and feel.' There seemed to be something missing in the logical argument that allowed that 'therefore' to be used. Further down the same page we read 'Human behaviour has impacted [tobacco and coffee] plants as much as they ha…

Screen sharing of the future: where will we be looking at photos and videos in 100 years' time?

Picture the scene: bright neon vectors, 2D images flying around in thin air, Tom Cruise waving his hands around - yes it’s Minority Report, and the iconic ‘gesture interface’. At the time this vision of the future seemed so far beyond modern technology we called it science fiction. However, the idea that any surface can be a screen is no longer as far-fetched as it once seemed.

This tech is moving quickly into the home. LG recently showed a 64 inch screen at CES 2017 called Wallpaper. LG now has a screen which is just 1mmthick and can be attached to a wall with magnets. In under one year technology has gone from curved screen TVs to screens that can be rolled up like a piece of paper. Truly incredible.
By 2018 it is estimated that there will be around 759 million TV sets connected to the internet globally. This figure represents about 25% of the world’s TVs. By 2019, more than 50% of TV households in Japan, the US, the UK,France and Germany will have Smart TVs, according to the IHS TV S…

The Calculus of Happiness - Oscar Fernandez ***

There's something of the 'How to win friends and influence people' about the subtitle of this book 'How a mathematical approach to life adds up to health, wealth and love.' Big promises indeed. While I assume that there's an element of tongue in cheek about Oscar Fernandez's choice of these words, it's hard to read them and not expect this to be a book full of practical life lessons from maths - so we'll see how it does.

In three sections, Fernandez looks at ways we can use mathematics to analyse those three key areas. The first section takes on health, which is brave. I was rather surprised that a book published in 2017 didn't reflect the latest thinking on diet and health. Specifically, there's no mention of the research that reduces the distinction in health impact of saturated and unsaturated fats, there is no mention of the greater concerns about transfats, and sugar is only considered negative from its calorific content, not reflecting …