Category Archives: Science

The Information by James Gleick

The Information by James GleickReview: The Information by James Gleick (Vintage, 2012)

‘In the beginning there was information. The word came later.’

James Gleick has never been shy of approaching big topics. I first came across him many years back reading his just-published Chaos which remains for my money the single best introduction to the mind-bending world of chaos theory on the market. Since then he’s tackled biographies of intellectual behemoths Isaac Newton and Richard Feynman as well as a thoughtful treatise on the apparently accelerating pace of modern life. However, he’s saved the best for this release. The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood takes on the very concept of information itself, tracing its transmission and dissemination from African drumming through to modern-day quantum computing. A daunting task to say the least.

Thankfully he’s more than up to the task. The first half of The Information is essentially a fast-track history of our attempts at communication beginning as mentioned with African drumming. For many westerners our only exposure to this art has been a patronising, distorted or outright racist depiction of bongo-pounding savages in the darkest jungle. Gleick swiftly puts the lie to this outdated notion with a gushing account of the incredible complexity achieved by so simple an idea. However, key to this section as well as those following on from it is his razor-sharp analysis of the limitations inherent in them. The recurring notion of redundancy rears its head here for the first time and you’d better pay attention because it’s one of the stars of the show.

From here we travel spatially and temporally, stopping in at the Middle East and Ancient Greece to check out the invention of the written word. Given the gusto with which I rail against anti-piracy copyright barons in the internet age it was with no small chuckle that I discovered Plato himself was none too keen on this new-fangled ‘writing’. It wasn’t for the same reasons as the grisly media cartels – he maintained it would forever destroy our memories – but it’s interesting to note that technophobia has been present at every advancement in the informational arena. There are a few more pitstops along the way but I’ll not delve too deep here save to mention there early dictionary pioneer about whom we know nothing save that in 1611 he visited London where he may or may not have seen a dead crocodile. For an information pioneer this is a cruel irony indeed.

So much for the history, for me the exposition on the current state of information theory was the icing on the cake and it’s all down to one Claude Shannon, a little-known mathematician who by all rights ought to be a household name. I’ll leave the details to Mr Gleick but without Shannon we would have little in the way of telephony, internet, satellite communication, almost everything we currently take for granted. At this point in the books the heavier scientific concepts come into play but the author is a master at boiling down fuse-blowing theories and equations into easily handled chunks. At no point does the technical load become heavy enough to put the casual reader off and if anything they’ll come away greatly enlightened. Reference junkies will be happy too as almost a third of the book is taken up by comprehensive notes and a bibliography which had me salivating.

It’s hard to give an idea of the scope of The Information in a short review but take it from me that it’s one of those books which peels your eyelids back and lets you see farther and wider than you could have imagined before. James Gleick manages to achieve a near perfect balance between humourous historical anecdotes and masterful scientific presentation. The previous titles I read of his were true classics in the popular science genre and this is possibly his greatest to date. Simply essential for any citizen of the information age.

Buy The Information via the Vintage website.

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Time Warped by Claudia Hammond

Review: Time Warped by Claudia Hammond (Harper Perennial, 2013)

Time Warped by Claudia HammondAs Einstein famously noted in reference to relativity, put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour but sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. Time is rigid, immutable. Immune to our machinations it marches by (or do we march through it?) with no regard for our attempts to manipulate it. Why then does it seem so flexible? Why, as I pass the halfway mark in my expected lifespan, does it seem that the minutes stretch out but the months vanish as if they were never there? In Time Warped: Unlocking The Mysteries of Time Perception Claudia Hammond, presenter of BBC Radio 4’s All In The Mind series takes a look at the working’s of our grey matter to discern what causes our subjective view of such a fundamental part of our existence to vary so wildly.

Thanks to her experience on the radio and psychology background, Hammond has a wealth of knowledge from which to draw when it comes to her subject matter. Through the course of the book she bombards you with study after study demonstrating just how precarious our grasp on time really is. For example, were you aware that if you believe that people have a high opinion of you then time will seem to pass far quicker? Yes, experimental evidence confirms that something as simple as our self-esteem can have a dramatic effect on subjective timespans.

Or consider this simple thought experiment. Imagine it’s the weekend. You had a meeting scheduled for Wednesday but you hear that it’s been “moved forward two days”. Is the meeting on Monday or Friday? Your answer determines whether you see yourself as moving through time or time as marching inexorably toward you. This in turn has quite the effect on your general outlook on life and mental well-being.

Through these and countless other examples, Time Warped does its best to get to the bottom of such strange findings. The subject matter is pretty expansive so it seems meandering at times but it’s always eventually dragged back to the point. And it’s not all just theoretical musings. In the closing chapter Hammond lists eight problems which people may experience in terms of their perceptions of time’s passing – passing too slowly, too quickly, etc – and suggests practical methods to counter them.

One minor niggle I had was with the author’s obsession with their own pet theory, the ‘holiday paradox’. You know how time flashes by while on holiday but once you’re back home it seems like you were away forever? Of course you do, everyone does. yet Hammond seems to think she just discovered it and rarely lets more than 10 pages go by without at least one mention of ‘her’ paradox. But hey, she’s the author so she gets to big herself up. It’s small beer when compared to the bulk of a book which does an admirable job of tackling a subject which could easily have taken up several books rather than just one. While I would have preferred a more in-depth treatment, Time Warped is a great read for anyone with a casual interest in how our brains handle the fourth dimension.

Buy Time Warped from Harper Collins

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How We Learn by Benedict Carey

How We Learn by Benedict CareyReview: How We Learn by Benedict Carey (Random House, 2014)

Note: Thanks to Netgalley and Random House for providing the ARC of this title.

Teaching is a significantly more vexing job than the vast majority of non-teachers may assume. I’m not even a certified teacher, just an ESL drone in Taiwan slaving away at a cram school, but the task is onerous nonetheless. I mean aside from the lesson planning, the crowd control, the constant quest for variety, the caffeine addiction and daily having to deal with an onslaught of proto-humans and the feckless creatures who spawned them, there’s one burning question I face time and time again: “Why isn’t it bloody well sinking in???”

Okay, okay, I know the answers. Laziness, lack of interest, overschooling in a shoddy system and absentee parents cover most of my charges. But then I turn the question back on my own floundering attempts to gain some level of fluency in Mandarin. Why so many mental blocks when I’m so desperate to reach my goal? Why, despite my best efforts, does my brain seem so intent on jettisoning every new character, every grammatical construct I try to cram in there?

In How We Learn (The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens), NYT science reporter Benedict Carey peers behind the brain’s curtain to uncover just what goes on during the process of education. Keenly aware of the ocean of folk wisdom and old wive’s tales surrounding learning and retention he attempts to separate the wheat from the chaff and come out with a working model which will be useful to students and teachers alike.

The book kicks off with a brief, layman-friendly look at the neuroscience of learning. Without going into any scary detail, Carey gives us an enlightening tour of the physical mechanisms which come into play when trying to cram a new skill or set of dates into our crania. However, this is just by way of an introduction. Soon he gets on to the meat of the matter and the part in which most readers are doubtless interested: how do we make it work better?

Much of How We Learn takes the form of holding pieces of time-worn ‘wisdom’ up to the harsh light of scientific study (padded by Carey’s own enthusiastic personal anecdotes for some light relief) and seeing how they hold up. Take routine for example. Everyone and their gran knows that if you want to get some serious learning done you sit yourself down in your learning chair, turn off the music and totally immerse yourself in exactly the same way you did the day before. Bzzzt! Wrong! It transpires that a lack of variety in the learning environment can actually be an impediment to successful retention and recall of information. In the real world we’re seldom going to be using the information we ingest in exactly the same environment or on the same schedule. Injecting variety into the study schedule acknowledges this fact and strengthens our ability to dredge the subject matter back up whenever we need it.

And so it goes for myth after myth. It turns out that forgetting is actually good for you, strengthening the memory in a manner not unlike the tearing of muscle fibre being used to beef up the body. The repair system itself makes us stronger. Or what about cramming the night before an exam? Well, it does indeed work – in the short term. However, give it a few weeks and you’ll be struggling to even remember what was on the exam paper. What about doing your studies every day, simply pounding in those facts till they stay in place? Nope, spaced repetition is the key as any student who has attempted to use an online language learning tool will doubtless be aware.

To Carey’s credit, How We Learn is scrupulously backed up with references. This isn’t some flimsy, new-age book – it’s all based in hard science and experimentation. However it’s presented in such a way as to make it both immediately accessible to those needing a boost in their study endeavours and deep enough to satisfy the curiosity of educators. I’m already working on ways to incorporate his findings and advice into my classes, boss’s approval pending. Definitely worth a read no matter which side of the educational fence you’re currently occupying.


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Intuition Pumps by Daniel Dennett

Intuition Pumps by Daniel DennettReview: Intuition Pumps by Daniel Dennett (W. W. Norton and Co., 2013)

Or, to give the book its full title, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. Daniel Dennett has broached many topics in his illustrious writing career but he remains by far best known for his forays into the murky depths of consciousness and free will. Within the realms of psychology, neuroscience and philosophy it’s hard to imagine two more highly charged and contentious issues as these. Battle lines are drawn in the journals and intellectual blood is shed with every publication but often the conflict boils down to, “If you could only see things from my perspective! You’d change your mind immediately!”

Intuition Pumps is Dennett’s attempt to solve this very problem. In an extensive series of very short chapters, often only a few pages long, his aim is to equip the reader with an armoury of thinking tools. These tools or pumps, mostly taking the form of simple and well-known thought experiments, guide us slowly, inexorably towards Dennett’s conclusions; namely that free will is an illusion (albeit a useful one we need not discard, the Compatibilist stance) and that consciousness is nothing but a by-product of mechanical processes in our brains. Not the most romantic of opinions admittedly, but certainly the one bearing the closest resemblance to the ever-expanding mountain of evidence provided by neuroscientists and psychologists alike. It also happens to be the view I’ve shared ever since my degree in Mental Philosophy. So, how does he fare in guiding novices and old hands alike towards his desired goal?

Well first, to be clear, this book is indeed accessible to the lay reader despite its daunting mix of content from computer programming to gestalt psychology and all stops in between. In fact the book’s structure makes it all the easier for non-experts to get up to speed with the less familiar concepts, while Dennett provides handy guidelines as to which sections can be skipped by the pro’s. The books initial sections are more or less Critical Thinking 101, training the reader to analyse the arguments they encounter and specifically to be on the lookout for certain classes of error. He provides bite-sized guides to basic notions familiar to all philosophy students such as the Reductio Ad Absurdum as well as his own extensive list of polemical errors (‘rathering’, ‘Goulding’ and so on). Key among these is his command to all readers to tweak the controls of any thought experiments or analogies cast before them – play with the variables, break out of the boundaries imposed by your interlocutor and see if it still holds water. Much fun to be had!

Soon the topic moves to computing, and here you actually have to get your hands dirty by imagining the most basic of machines and considering how to program it using a limited vocabulary. This leads slowly into evolution, a topic with which any Dennett reader will be familiar. Evolutionary theory underpins every aspect of his thinking and he is rightly evangelical about it given that it is possibly the most successful thinking tool we have ever encountered. Doubting Thomases be wary. It’s only in the closing chapters of the book that we get to the really meaty topics, free will and conscious experience as viewed from an arch-materialist’s perspective. By this point it’s somewhat harder going and readers should be reminded that there’s no shame in backtracking to wrap your head around any number of points. Hell, I do it all the time and I studied this for four years!

For my money the book is a resounding success. I will admit that I may be biased in that I already agreed with his conclusions (more or less) before beginning the book. However, the path down which he leads his audience is straight and true. It was carved out by classes of Philosophy graduates in Dennett’s own classes where he tested the material, all the wrinkles ironed out before publication. While some similar tomes can feel like a mental struggle this was more like being pulled towards your by a welcome and increasingly strong current.

That’s not to say the book won’t have its critics. Dennett pulls no punches when confronting the likes of John Searle and Stephen Jay Gould on their stances regarding artificial intelligence and evolution respectively. Supporters of these camps will no doubt attempt to pick holes but try as I would to be Devil’s Advocate I could find precious few chinks in the armour, and no significant ones. Honestly the only fault I could find was the familiarity of much of the material, large swathes of it being pulled from his previous books and other publications. For the Dennett newbie this will not be a problem though, so I can let it slide.

Will Intuition Pumps succeed in changing the minds of staunch dualists, anti-evolutionists, AI doubters or free will advocates? I’m not sure. The arguments contained within are sound but it’s well known that rational argument tends to have little effect on the already entrenched. On the other hand, as an introduction to the fundamental interconnectedness of the range of topics it covers – philosophy, critical thinking, computation, AI, evolution, free will and consciousness – it’s difficult to think of a better volume. Easily digestible but substantial enough to give you plenty to meditate on for months, as well as exponentially increasing your reading list. Another victory for advocates of rationalism, skepticism and the scientific method.

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The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian by Andy WeirReview: The Martian by Andy Weir (Crown, 2014)

If you haven’t already heard or seen countless reviews raving about The Martian then you’re reading the wrong newspapers, surfing the wrong websites or hanging around the wrong water coolers. And guess what? They’re all right on the button. This is one of the most insanely addictive books I have read for years, and I really mean for years. It was glued to my hands. Don’t even bother reading this review, just go and buy it now, strap yourself into your comfiest chair with a pot of coffee next to you and enjoy the ride. Then come back and see if you agree with me.

Mark Watney is an astronaut privileged with being part of Ares III, the third manned mission to Mars. Part engineer, part botanist, he was selected as much for his personality as his intellect, his sardonic sense of humour helping to bond and calm teammates during times of crisis. Unfortunately he’s also one of the unluckiest beings on the red planet. Mere days after landing the mission is aborted due to a storm, forcing the crew to evacuate from their habitat to the lander vehicle for immediate take-off. En route a detached antenna striked and impales Mark, separating him from the group and causing him to become lost in the swirling sands. The damage to his suit disrupts its signalling ability – the crew now reading zero life signs. After brief but extremely painful deliberation they realise they have no choice but to leave him for dead.

But he’s not dead…

A combination of physics, NASA engineering and extreme coincidence leaves Mark able to return to the habitat they abandoned and, after some minor panic and disaster, restore everything to working order. There’s a minor problem though. He has food. He has water. He has oxygen. But he has enough to last for roughly one year, and the next scheduled mission will be there three years after that. He’s screwed. He’s one tenacious Martian though and refuses to give up, utilising every ounce of problem-solving power he has. NASA doesn’t send idiots into space and Watney’s resourcefulness is the most vital life-saving tool he has. Soon his life coalesces into two distinct priorities – restore some form of communication with Earth and figure out how the hell he’s going to outlast his supplies and avoid unexpected catastrophes for the next 1,300 or so days.

Right, I’m not even going to pretend to find fault with this book. Andy Weir is a bloody masterful writer, dragging you right into the cabin with Watney so it feels like you’re peering over his shoulder at every turn. You’re jumping out of your seat at every minor victory and covering your eyes and groaning when the fates fuck with him. And despite the very technical nature of the problems and solutions involved, Weir takes great pains to make sure it’s accessible to the lay reader as well as interesting to those with some knowledge of the science and mechanics in question.

Comparisons to previous works, especially movies, are easy to make. Yes, it’s Apollo 13 meets Castaway, no doubt about it. It’s MacGyver in space for sure. Hell, anything involving constant peril and/or isolation could be added to the mix. But in the end it’s a truly original story told in a wonderfully engaging way. I honestly can’t think of a single person I know who wouldn’t get something out of this book, whether from its scientific grounding, its sheer enjoyability as a page-turner or from the over-riding message of persistence, endurance and hope running through it from start to finish. It says a lot that Chris Hadfield, star astronaut formerly of the ISS, gave it his own ringing endorsement.

In short, books like The Martian are rare and precious. Read it now before Hollywood does something horrible with the movie rights like giving it to Micheal Bay…

Note – I have since discovered that Weir was initially given the cold shoulder by publishers and released the title for free on his website. Word of mouth led him to create a Kindle (bleurgh) edition for $0.99 and only then did it attract a deal from Crown. I love this, yet more proof that free availability leads to bigger and better things.

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Seven Modern Plagues by Mark Jerome Walters

Seven Modern Plagues by Mark Jerome WaltersReview: Seven Modern Plagues (And How We Are Causing Them) by Mark Jerome Walters (Island Press, 2014)

Note: Thanks to Island Press for providing an Advance Reading Copy of this title.

Everyone knows I love a good end-of-the-world tale, whether the apocalypse is brought by nuclear warfare, zombie hordes or aliens. However I hold a special place in my heart for tales where the aggressor is nature herself, unleashing a relentless microbial attack against which we find ourselves helpless. Even better? When it’s all our own fault. So what could be more welcome than a non-fiction book about how our natural human fecklessness and recklessness are giving a deadly boost to all kinds of viruses and bacteria?

Seven Modern Plagues takes us on a brief tour of the origins and terrifying development of seven illnesses which have become household names. Taking in HIV, salmonella DT104, West Nile Virus, hantavirus, Lyme disease, BSE and bird flu you soon realise just how serious our impact on our ecology has been. Our misadventures have ranged from feeding antibiotics to farm animals in order to promote growth to simply travelling too much and not giving a damn about the consequences. Whatever the cause, the final result is the same – novel diseases are cropping up everywhere we look and we’re running out of ways to fight them. When we ultimately face our extinction event it could well be brought by our own hands.

Take for example BSE, or mad cow disease, which had the whole of the UK contemplating vegetarianism for a while in the 90’s. Britain’s livestock farms were chugging along quite happily until from out of nowhere cows started going a little… wonky. Standing around listlessly or suddenly going berserk and endangering or killing other animals, it was soon clear that something serious was happening. Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy was striking herds up and down the country, alarming the farming community. But worse, the malady which had afflicted the cows was also capable of infecting humans in the form of CJD (Creutzfeld-Jakob’s Disease), throwing the country into a state of panic.

Before long the alarm bells were also sounding in other countries, fatalities cropping up both in the cows themselves and those working with them or even eating them. Of course it should have been obvious where the root cause lay but hindsight is always 20-20. It was the brains. No, not the brains of the cows, the brains of the other carriers of BSE-like diseases they were being fed, often unbeknownst to their owners. The practice of rendering the cast-off parts of livestock – organs, brains and all – into a high-protein feed for livestock was widespread yet no-one had paused to consider the possible consequences, let alone the ethical nightmare it raised, until bodies were already in the morgue.

Similar tales are repeated across the other six of the Seven Modern Plagues, scrupulously footnoted and referenced stories of over-forestation, predator depletion, antibiotic resistance and more. Again and again the questions arise – Why didn’t we see it coming? Why wasn’t it stopped quicker? How will we stop it happening again? And the answers are always the same, essentially that the drive for ever-greater profits always leaves common sense behind. The modern economic system, ultimately founded on old-fashioned greed as it is, simply isn’t designed to put human welfare ahead of dollars. Hospital wards pay endless testament to this fact and will continue to do so.

Next time we might not bounce back though…

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Scatter, Adapt and Remember by Annalee Newitz

Scatter, Adapt and Remember by Annalee NewitzReview: Scatter, Adapt and Remember by Annalee Newitz (Doubleday, 2013)

The subtitle to this book – How Humanity Will Survive A Mass Extinction – should tell you all you need to know about the content. I’m a huge fan of post-apocalyptic fiction, in part because of the utter inevitability of its subject matter. No matter what we do, disaster looms on the horizon and the only decision left in our hands is how we handle the aftermath. The hands of the clock keep ticking, sweeping ever closer to midnight and we need to get our collective thinking caps on. Newitz illustrates the urgency of the situation by taking us on a guided tour of mass extinctions, analysing the events and survivors to piece together some kind of contingency plan for our entire race.

Scatter, Adapt and Remember starts off in the deep past, looking at what we can learn from previous mass extinction events in our planet’s history. It’s somewhat ironic, given our current dire climatic straits, that the first great extinction was caused by a relatively new lifeform poisoning the atmosphere and causing massive temperature changes. Yes, the humble cyanobacteria – ocean-going algae – is one of earth’s greatest mass-murderers. Some billions of years ago our atmosphere was extremely unfriendly towards modern life. Baking temperatures and masses of CO2 were the order of the day, until cyanobacteria arose and began absorbing the carbon dioxide and releasing unprecedented levels of oxygen in its stead.

Good news for us, right? Well, we are a little biased. The falling CO2 ratio freed Earth from its greenhouse state and temperatures plummeted. The overwhelming majority of organisms alive at the time were simply not equipped to deal with the cold or the newly poisoned atmosphere and simply vanished, the slate wiped clean. In their place sprang up the predecessors of the rich biosphere we currently inhabit. From these humble beginnings we go through the Great Dying, the asteroid which killed of the dinosaurs (or did it?) and other similarly catastrophic events. Newitz does a sterling job of picking through the minutiae of each incident and throwing the spotlight on the salient features which provide the clues vital to our own survival.

Now that we’re up and running we get to the ‘scatter’ part of Scatter, Adapt and Remember. Starting with a recounting of the Jewish diaspora – which the author thankfully points out is merely an allegory, with no historical evidence for the Biblical version – we’re given a guide to the importance of spreading out. Eggs in many baskets and all that. Taking in both historical and genetic sources, Newitz describes just how humanity and other species have successfully colonised large and diverse environments, and why failure to do likewise has spelled doom for many others, including our cousins the Neanderthals.

Of course, in the case of a global disaster we’re not talking about seeking out new nooks and crannies on Earth. No, we must look further afield for our eventual survival, to our neighbouring planets and even star systems. That’s where ‘adapt’ comes in. We’ve done well for ourselves in the varying terrestrial niches we inhabit but space is a hostile environment. Massive distances and cosmic rays are but two of the dangers we will face, and beyond that there is the issue of the planets we’ll eventually encounter. The human frame is incredibly fragile and would need massive modification in order to pull through. Or would we even take the ultimate step and say farewell to the flesh altogether? These are among the very real possibilities discussed in the book’s closing chapters.

During the course of reading Scatter, Adapt and Remember I was forced to field the same question several times: “Why are you reading something so depressing?” Well the answer is this – Scatter, Adapt and Remember is among the most positive books I have ever read. It’s not about how we might survive, it’s about how we will survive. At it’s heart is a call for humanity to fearlessly tackle the most daunting of problems and create our own future. There’s nothing grim between these pages, no shambling survivors turning to cannibalism in the wreckage of society. This is a vision of our species  moving ever onwards.

On a closing note, I’d say that one of the marks of a great non-fiction book is that on finishing your reading list has not decreased by one but increased by several. This is certainly the case here. Newtiz provides copious notes and references, opening up avenues into all aspects of her study for interested readers. For that I am eternally grateful, even if my new list of must-read titles will now keep me busy right up to our eventual cataclysm.

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