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The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

Bodyology - Mosaic Science ****

It's a good sign when you pick up a book intending to read one chapter and end up reading three. It's very moreish. This is because it's made up of short, self-contained articles, originally published on a website. Often an edited collection of articles by different authors suggests a boring read, but here the articles are good pieces of journalism with plenty to interest the reader.

The topics are all vaguely human body related, but thankfully not all medical (not my favourite subject) - so, for example, as well as stories of a person cured of Lyme disease by bee stings or a piece on miscarriages we get topics like the effects on the body of being struck by lightning or falling from a high place. Even some more explicitly health-related matters, such as the impact of losing your sense of smell, were engaging enough to get me past my medical squeamishness.

The only reason I can't give the collection five stars is because of one aspect of the writing style that runs throu…

Aurora Rising (SF) - Alastair Reynolds ****

Originally titled The Prefect, Aurora Rising is the first of the 'Prefect Dreyfus emergencies' books, already followed up by Elysium Fire - like its sequel it's a detective story with a hard SF setting. While I don't think it works quite as well as Elysium Fire, there's still a lot to like here - and given the choice, I wish I'd read this book first.

What is excellent is the complex future world Alastair Reynolds creates, complete with aspects of history, notably 'the 80' which are referred to several times before we get an idea of what was involved. There's a strong mix of cyber-technology - particularly in the form of two extremely powerful AI protagonists, each with their own agendas - and hardware that is in classic SF vein, but with some neat twists, such as the prefects' multipurpose weapon-cum-Swiss-Army-knife, the whiphound.

The main plot line, which involves significant moral decisions from whether it's okay to kill some of your citiz…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

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…