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Showing posts from September, 2016

Alarming logic

I am faced with a small but satisfying logical puzzle in my office at Bristol University. When I come in first thing (actually, even if I come in about 10), the alarm is often set. In fact, the first time I ever entered the building the blasted thing started beeping at me, and no one had bothered to tell me there was an alarm. So now, as I belatedly know the code, I unset it. But the puzzle is - how and when does it get set? I certainly never set it on leaving. I wouldn't know how to, and anyway I have no way of knowing if the building is empty. It's a tall, old house - my office is on the second floor and I can often spend the entire day here without seeing another inhabitant, though I regularly hear them. The same uncertainty must surely apply to any ordinary resident. So how is it done? In principle it could be automated. To be safe, there would have to be motion sensors in every room, which as far as I can tell there aren't. So if it is automatic, perhaps they ju

Roald Dahl's Marvellous Medicine - review

I've never tried that US favourite of combining peanut butter and jelly (jam, for those who use proper English), but sometimes unlikely combinations do work well together - and that's the case here, where neuroscience professor and medical doctor Tom Solomon manages to bring together Roald Dahl's life story and medical popular science. Don't be put off by the university press publisher - this is not a heavy title. The thing that links the topics together - the sandwich for the peanut butter and jelly - is Dahl's stays in an Oxford hospital, when Solomon was a junior doctor there. The two struck up a friendship, and Solomon very effectively makes use of their conversations as leaping off points both to take us through Dahl's fascinating life story and the medical incidents that peppered the author's life. We also get a few of Solomon's own experiences (if anything I'd have liked more of these), though it's not long before we are back with Da

Sugary science?

Sucrose - image from Wikipedia It is well known that the cigarette companies were aware of the dangers of smoking long before the general public, yet spent large amounts of money on attempting to counter the science. Similarly, many of the oil companies have actively sponsored attacks on global warming. Now it appears there is a new bad guy on the block - the sugar industry. It is only in the last few years that we have displaced some of our concern about fat in the diet to take on sugar as a dangerous substance to over-consume. And it's easy to assume that this awareness also took the sugar industry by surprise. But research undertaken by the University of California, San Francisco suggests that the US sugar giants were aware of the risks of sugar consumption as far back as the 1950s. To make matters even worse, the paper tells us Together with other recent analyses of sugar industry documents, our findings suggest the industry sponsored a research program in the 1960s

Listen to the infinite

I don't think it's particularly surprising that my bestselling book so far is A Brief History of Infinity . Infinity is just one of those topics that grabs your interest, not because it necessarily has any impact on your everyday life (though thanks to calculus, it does), but because it's genuinely mind boggling and has fascinated people for millennia. Now, philosophy professor Adrian Moore is bringing a touch of the infinite to your ears with a 10 episode series of surprisingly bite-sized 15 minute programmes , starting today at 1.45pm on BBC Radio 4 (or listen later on iPlayer). I know Adrian does a great job, as I appear in episode 5 on Friday, so I've seen him in action. It was also fascinating to discover that Adrian was inspired with an interest in philosophy by the same teacher who inspired me to write the book - it's really true what they say about a great teacher. So buckle in to your radio/computer/phone or however you get hold of it for a fun ride

Splice the mainbrace and read me a novel

Image modified from Wikipedia Last year I had the pleasure of appearing at the Manx Literary Festival alongside other, more stellar literary luminaries including Chocolat  author Joanne Harris. Generally, I find Joanne's words of wisdom on the writing life spot on - particularly her recent campaign to get writers paid for appearing at literary festivals (I'm pleased to say we were paid for the Manx Festival). However, I've got mixed feelings about her recent, interesting piece on piracy . Don't get me wrong. I absolutely agree that piracy is wrong. People should pay for a book (or borrow it from a library) if they want to read it. I am not in any way condoning piracy.  Book pirates should be locked up and the key thrown away. Full stop. The only point I'm not sure about is whether piracy is as much of an issue with books as it has been for music. There are two big reasons for this. One is that when music piracy was at its height there were glossy sites like

The Bestseller Code - Review

Despite all the efforts of publishers, it has always seemed impossible to predict whether or not a book would be runaway bestseller. This isn't too surprising - it's the kind of thing that is inherently unpredictable because there are simply so many variables involved. Yet a newly published book suggests it is possible to do just that. Are the authors crazed or brilliant? Neither, really. They have put together a mechanism based on computerised text analysis that is good at spotting bestsellers - and yet, oddly, this doesn't contradict that inherent unpredictability. Why? Because there are two different levels of bestsellerdom involved - and because I think there's one bit of information missing from the book (apologies to the authors if I've missed it). So what does the software do? By looking at various word uses, patterns and shaping, it can make a good shot at predicting whether or not a book is likely to have featured on the New York Times bestseller list. Th

Smart queues, dumb queues and Metro queues

A shop - contains checkout queues I've done a fair amount of work on queuing in my time, which is why I was very doubtful to see a Metro headline 'Why you're better queuing behind one person with a full trolley than people with baskets.' And I had good reason to be doubtful, because the argument was, well, total rubbish. 'Do you queue behind the person with a trolley filled to the brim, or do you wait behind the line of people in the "10 items or fewer" queue?' the article asked. Then it introduced Dan Meyer 'a former high school maths teacher' (a queuing expert, then), whose research tells us that transactions have a fixed time of 41 seconds, plus 3 seconds per item scanned. 'This means,' says the article, 'that queuing behind a line of people who have fewer things will take longer than a couple of people with full trolleys'. Again, I'm afraid, this is total garbage. The article points out that one person buying

Shock, horror, BBC News in Star Trek ignorance probe

I generally ignore people who moan about how the quality of BBC News reporting is going downhill, but now they've reached a new low. They quote actor Robert Picardo on how Star Trek inspired scientists, naming him as the ship's doctor in the original series - there's even a picture of Dr McCoy... the character who unfortunately was played by DeForrest Kelley, who died in 1999. Ricardo was in the much later (and lesser) Voyager series. You can listen to Picardo's words of wisdom by clicking through here  (the BBC corrected their text after I tweeted about it, but you can still see the original text opposite), or even better you can take a look at my book Ten Billion Tomorrows on the relationship between science and science fiction which explores just how various works of science fiction - with Star Trek one of the big hitters - has influenced scientists, just as much as SF is, of course, influenced by scientific discoveries.

In defence of Victoria

Image from Wikipedia I would like to defend Victoria . This is not the railway station, nor the monarch, but the ITV drama of that name. There have been moans about the accuracy of the series. Now some of these are based on historical supposition, where a degree of drama has been added for the sake of being, well, interesting. So, for instance, Victoria certainly hung on Melbourne's every word... but probably didn't have a crush on him (he didn't look a lot like Rufus Sewell). You can take this kind of thing either way - I'm sure even Wolf Hall  took the occasional liberty with historical accuracy to make the drama work better. No, what really gets my goat are the two allegations: Victoria is too tall and she's too pretty. Or to be precise, former Dr Who sidekick Jenna Coleman is. I find these moans both irritating and frankly sexist. At 5 foot 2, she's all of three inches taller than Victoria. Big deal - she's still quite short, and that's enough.

Warlords of Llantatis review

I was puzzled to receive an offer of a review copy of Warlords of Llantatis as I'm not a fan of swords and sorcery fantasy, but I was reassured that it was in reality science fiction - which it is, despite being virtually a fantasy. The keyword here is 'virtually'. The majority of the book is set in the (fictional) total immersion fantasy adventure game that the book is named after. Like Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash , what we get is a mix of the main characters' experiences in the real world and in the game, which is far more detailed than is currently possible - so this genuinely is science fiction. In parts this works brilliantly, in parts there are issues. The book starts with page after page of fictional non-fiction, describing the writing of the virtual world system and the setting up of Warlords . This background is quite interesting (especially if, like me, you have an IT background) but not as engaging as fiction should be, making it a risky opening. Th

Science writing at its best

I suspect both of my blog readers know about the Popular Science book review site that I run ... but just in case you don't, it has been running for around 14 years now and - as the name suggests - contains reviews of popular science books. If you're looking for some interesting/inspiring reading about science from black holes to the nature of life it's well worth a visit. What's more, sign up for the free mailing list during September and (along with existing subscribers) you can enter a competition to win one of three free books from my catalogue - you even get to choose your own title. What's not to love?

What are the chances?

Randomness is something that most of us struggle to understand - it's one of the main reasons I wrote my book Dice World to explore the influence of randomness and probability on our lives. I try to make randomness something that's better understood by the reader. However, not everyone has read the book (yet) and confusion caused by randomness often comes up in the media. So, for example, in a recent article on jury service entitled What Are You Chances of Being Called up Again and Again we were regaled with the statement Plenty of people go through their lives never being summoned; others are called repeatedly. Is selection really, as the government says, entirely random, or is something else at work here? Now, to be fair to the writer of the article, Patrick Collinson, he does go on to explain that, yes, it is entirely random. But there is definitely a strong implication in that statement that the selection process can't be random if some people get repeated call