vol 6 issue 6

BookReviews

13 June 2011
By James Dempsey, Nick Smith, Erika Burrows, Vitali Vitaliev
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The Moral Landscape

The Moral Landscape: How science can determine human values

Technological Nature

Technological Nature: Adaptation and the future of human life

Inflight Science

Inflight Science: A guide to the world from your airplane window

Physics of the Future

Physics of the Future: How science will shape human destiny and our daily lives by the year 2100

Europe by Rail

Europe by Rail: The definitive guide for independent travellers

Moving Targets

Moving Targets

Nightwork

Nightwork

A Widening Sphere

A Widening Sphere

Mens et Mania

Mens et Mania

Out of this World

Out of this World

Numbers - A Very Short Introduction

Numbers - A Very Short Introduction

Related stories

Books

Gadgets

Software

A look at the ethical issues of science and technology leads off this month's selection of new books.

Bantam Press

The Moral Landscape: How science can determine human values

by Sam Harris, £20, ISBN 978-0593064863

Sam Harris argues for the relevance of science to questions of morality, and in doing so investigates a number of important intersections between the two that have been neglected by both scientists and ethicists.

Harris's main thesis is that 'morality' can only have its basis in assessments of the wellbeing of conscious creatures. Given that such wellbeing must be represented as states of the brain, science should (at least in principle) be able to help answer moral questions. He also uses evidence from neuroscience to inform discussion of such morally relevant subjects as free will, responsibility and belief formation.

The aim is to convince us that the rational methods of science can find purchase on moral questions and to urge scientists to try to answer them, rather than taking refuge in misplaced agnosticism or relativism. He argues eloquently that a clear distinction between 'facts' and 'values' is unsustainable in either scientific or moral enquiry, and that rationality underpins them both. This also serves as a call to moral philosophers to pay attention to the insights that neuroscience can offer their subject. These are important and often neglected questions and this book should be applauded for how it addresses them.

However, it is not without its flaws. When arguing for his view of the 'moral landscape' Harris takes a particular moral position, whereas his later discussion focuses on promoting rational argument in general. This change of focus is not made explicit, and hence the book reads like a collection of related thoughts rather than a consistent and clear thesis. A related issue arises since in the later parts of the book Harris sets the idea of 'rationality' against the notion of 'faith' that underlies religious moral pronouncements. Given this championing of rationality it is not clear enough how, in arguing for the moral position he favours, Harris can so easily reject the position of philosophers such as John Rawls whose arguments explicitly appeal to rationality.

Perhaps most frustrating are the challenges that Harris raises for his theory but then passes over with little comment. For example, even if we accept all his arguments we will still be no nearer knowing what morality requires in situations that involve trading one person's wellbeing against another's, or where benefiting one person a lot would harm a lot of people a small bit. To say that morality relates to the wellbeing of conscious creatures may be significant in the context of getting scientists to renounce relativism, but it is hardly a revolutionary idea in the context of moral philosophy.

There is much to recommend in this book, but the reader will be left feeling that there are important questions left unanswered. James Dempsey

MIT Press

Technological Nature 

by Peter H Kahn, £18.95, ISBN 978-0262113229

It won't come as any surprise to E&T readers that we are living in an increasingly virtual world. We're familiar with military applications such as telesurgery and remotely-operated weaponry. We use robots to explore off-world and subsea environments.

For those of us so minded, there was once the opportunity to hunt, shoot and kill wildlife in Texas from the comfort of our own PCs. Closer to home, our children's first encounter with the wildlife of the African grasslands is through HDTV. Kids play their sport through handsets and even have robotic dogs called AIBOs that won't make a mess on the carpet.

All this technology is removing us one step at a time from the natural world, contends Peter H Kahn in his latest book 'Technological Nature', and he sets out to discover if this is a good thing. What are the benefits, if any, he asks, to a society that looks at the world through the digital interface?

These questions are all part of the day job for the 'director of the human interaction with nature and technological systems at the University of Washington'. He wants to find out how, as our relationship with the world is increasingly conducted in binary code, we are affected physiologically and psychologically. The answers are completely compelling.

Robotic dogs can help children with autism, while telegardening can help rehabilitate those suffering with lost mobility. For office workers without windows, a large-screen TV depicting the outside world can have a positive effect on our mental wellbeing.

'Technological Nature' is a brilliant analysis of the way we live today, caught between the real and the virtual. But, Kahn warns, while digital nature may be better for us than no nature at all, it's no substitute for the real thing. Nick Smith

Icon Books

Inflight Science: A guide to the world from your airplane window 

by Brian Clegg, £12.99, ISBN 9781848312418

If you're looking for harder-working summer literature, then Clegg's foray into the science of air travel should be awarded some precious space in your hand luggage. Written to follow an aeroplane journey from check-in to touch-down, this detailed companion will guide you through the trivial and groundbreaking science that you encounter (potentially in real time if you are travelling long-haul) as you take to the skies.

Posing questions such as: Why don't clouds fall out of the air? Why does aeroplane food taste so bad?; and, why shouldn't you attempt to break a window mid-flight? (something we've all thought about, let's face it), 'Inflight Science' reveals the massive scientific leaps we make without even removing our seatbelts, as well as some fascinating facts along the way.

Clegg's infectious fascination with the way things work is not limited to air transport technology either; his easy-to-read explanations encompass everything from X-ray machines and turbulence, to crop-circles and aeroplane toilets. The book covers a massive range of topics and includes a number of experiments designed to be carried out mid-flight (and some specifically for ground-use only) that help reinforce the ideas and give you a chance to create your own piece of science in action.

Though it could benefit from a little more wit, the accessible and informative explanations will certainly open your eyes to the science that's constantly taking place around you, and the interspersed suggested experiments provide a welcome – if slightly sadistic toward any fellow sweaty-palmed passengers – avenue of mid-flight entertainment.

The beauty of the book, though, lies in the way it makes you see the world afresh, learning about the way things work and like a child, constantly questioning why. The opportunity for such entertaining enlightenment - or should that be enlightening entertainment - are few and far between when you pass the age of ten; grasp it with both hands. Erika Burrows

Allen Lane 

Physics of the Future 

by Michio Kaku, £22, ISBN 978-1 846-14268-0

Wearable electronics, contact lens-mounted Internet access, space elevators. These are all familiar concepts in technology-based futurology and Michio Kaku is one of the world's best-known authors on the topic. His books are always worth reading, being high-concept, philosophical discussions based on his 'public intellectual' career in theoretical physics. His latest – Physics of the Future – may have a rather prosaic title, but to his credit, Kaku delivers what it promises, as well as a relaxed and refreshingly plausible read.

One of the reasons his new book works is that Kaku carves up tomorrow into time zones. He once said that the problem with the future is that it never arrives on time, and you can see what he means. In the 50 years that digital technology has revolutionised our lives, the double-decker bus has hardly changed. With this in mind, Kaku takes his core subjects of space travel, nanotechnology, energy, artificial intelligence and so on, and makes predictions over short-range 'near future' (from now up till 2030), 'mid-century' (2030-70) and 'far future' (2070-2100). This structure is an important device that allows us to distinguish between what is already happening, probable and possible.

While so many predict that the 21st century will be remembered for being dominated by breakthroughs in biology, Kaku posits that it will also be when developments in energy-efficient electromagnetism really starts to play a pivotal role. He sees laser technology taking central stage inspace travel propulsion, while thefull effects of our reliance on fossil fuels will come home to roost.

As with his previous books – 'Physics of the Impossible' and 'Parallel Worlds' – there is a strong bias towards an optimistic view of how technology will help humankind. Kaku is nothing if not a visionary, and his new book provides an inspiring counterbalance to the doomsday scenario pessimists who think we're simply heading to hell in a handcart. Nick Smith

Thomas Cook 

Europe by Rail 

by Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries, £14.99, ISBN 978-1848483613

With the recent demise of Thomas Cook's 'Overseas Timetable' (see http://bit.ly/cook-timetable), it is good to know that the British family of great railway guides, started by George Bradshaw in the early 19th century and later joined by Thomas Cook, is being kept alive.

The latest edition of 'Europe by Rail' – a worthwhile heir to Bradshaw's annual (and now very rare) 'Special Continental Railway Guide and Descriptive Hand-Book for the Whole of Europe' – is a remarkable achievement not just in the field of railway travel, but in the realm of literature too.

Listen to this: 'The real widening of horizons comes in Berlin, when suddenly you realise that you could catch a direct train from the German capital to dozens of destinations across Russia. Europe's most outlandish train leaves Berlin every Saturday afternoon bound for Saratov and beyond... Such journeys are the marathons of rail travel, strictly for addicts and not to be attempted before you've tackled some of the longer routes in this book and know you have an appetite for endless days on trains.'

The secret behind this high-quality writing is simple. Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries, the authors, compilers and designers of 'Europe by Rail 2011', are Berlin-based British writers and compulsive travellers, who also produce a unique and superbly written magazine, with the self-explanatory title 'Hidden Europe', of which I am a devoted fan and subscriber.

I would not hesitate to call Gardner and Kries the doyennes of European travel and the subtle connoisseurs of Europe's railways. Apart from detailed descriptions of trains, stations and railway routes in every single European country, including a rather charming entry on the Faroe Islands, 'the curious little island polity in the North Atlantic' with 'no railways at all', this compact, easy-to-handle and neatly designed volume is brimming with bang-up-to-date additional information.

There are recommendations for accommodation, museum and gallery opening times, and so on. The substantive reference section contains fascinating sub-chapters on night trains, ferry links and even in the rare cases 'when a train is not a train' ('the non-stop trains between Nuremberg and Prague operated by Deutsche Bahn are in fact buses').

In short – a sheer delight, an indispensable book for both real life and armchair travellers and a spectacular achievement, of which the likes of George Bradshaw and Thomas Cook would feel proud. Vitali Vitaliev

Also out this month…

The Elliott-Automation company’s role in the birth of the information age in Britain was significant enough that by 1961 it was supplying half the digital computers delivered to UK customers. Yet by the end of the decade Elliott-Automation had effectively disappeared in a flurry of takeovers. Moving Targets: Elliott Automation and th Dawn of the Computer Age in Britain, 1947-67 by Simon Lavington (Springer, £41.99, ISBN 978-1-84882-932-9) charts the take-up of IT in Britain as seen through the eyes of this one innovative company. Lavington, who is emeritus professor of computer science at the University of Essex, examines how the dawn of the digital computer age in Britain took place for different applications, from early government-sponsored work on secret defence projects to the growth of the market for Elliott computers for civil applications. He examines early digital computers designed for classified military applications developed following the establishment of Elliott’s Borehamwood Research Laboratories in 1946, and analogue computers including the giant TRIDAC. Moving on to the first commercial Elliott computers, the growth of applications in industrial automation, and the competition offered by rival manufacturers in Britain, he investigates the mergers, takeovers and eventual closure of the Borehamwood laboratories that led to Elliott-Automation’s eventual demise. Aimed mainly at technology and business historians, this unique text will also be of interest to general readers curious about the emergence of digital computing in Britain and the work of some previously unsung pioneers.

 

The upside down lounge room on the cover of Nightwork (MIT Press, ISBN ), complete with chair, lamp, pool table and sleeping cat, , was set up on the underside of the arch at the MIT Media Lab for a 2010 campus preview weekend and is among the latest in a long history of sophisticated practical jokes, or ‘hacks’, perpetrated by MIT students. Hacks are benign practical jokes, the more ingenious the better and usually requiring the level of scientific or engineering expertise expected of MIT students. This history of hacks by MIT official historian TF Peterson describes pranks ranging from the low-key to the abducation of rival Caltech’s two-ton fully functioning 19th century cannon, an exercise that took months of planning.

Nightwork is just one of the books published ths year to mark the 150th anniversary of MIT’s founding. In contrast with neighbouring Harvard, which offered a classical education to the young men of America’s ruling class, the newcomer opened its doors to the young people from all strata of soceity who were to join US industry. In A Widening Sphere (£20.95, ISBN 978-0262015639), MIT research associate Philip N Alexander looks at how the subsequent years saw the Institute expand that mission into other fields. Whereas hacks are largely anonymous element of MIT history, this story is told through the lives of MIT’s first nine presidents, from founder William Rogers to Karl Compton, whose 1950s visiion of a new kind of institute set the scene for a university based on science and technology.

Mens et Mania by Samuel Jay Keyser (£17.95, ISBN 978-0-262-01594-3) is subtitled ‘the MIT nobody knows’ and recounts the author’s academic and administrative adventures during a career of more than thirty years following his arrival at MIT in 1977 to head the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. Keyser describes the administrative side of his MIT life, not only as department head but also as associate provost and special assistant to the chancellor. Keyser had to run a department ("budgets were like horoscopes") and negotiate student grievances—from the legality of showing Deep Throat in a dormitory to the uproar caused by the arrests of students for anti-apartheid demonstrations.

 

If you think you know what science fiction is, you’ll probably be prompted to think again by Out of This World: Science Fiction but Not as You Know It by Mike Ashley (British Library. £27.95, ISBN 978-0712358316). Published to accompany a major British Library exhibition on the scope and nature of science fiction, this beautiful book is packed with illustrations drawn from the Library’s collection. According to Ashley, a renowned expert in the world of science fiction and fantasy literature who received the Science Fiction Research Association's Pilgrim Award for lifetime achievement in science fiction research, the genre makes us think, and helps us prepare for the future, understand the present and cope with the unknown by posing such questions as 'What if...?' or 'Just suppose...' and reveals what science fiction has achieved and seeks to achieve. Divided into six sections - Alien Worlds, Parallel Worlds, Future Worlds, Virtual Worlds, Perfect Worlds and The End of the World - the book explores how science fiction has responded to the impact of science, technology and socio-political change on ourselves and our societies. From the works of Cyrano de Bergerac to Ray Bradbury and Mary Shelley to J G Ballard this book reveals the full heritage and wonder of science fiction.

Out of this World is complemented by a CD, Science Fiction Writers (British Library/BBC, (£9.95, ISBN 9780712351133), that addresses a series of questions about the genre through interviews with some of its most well known figures drawn from the BBC archives. What is science fiction? Are science fiction writers under-appreciated compared to literary novelists? Is their prime mission to predict the future or to comment on the present? These and other questions are discussed by writers including Isaac Asimov, Douglas Adams, Brian Aldiss, J G Ballard, Doris Lessing and Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

If you’ve ever doubted that numbers are integral to our everyday lives and feature in everything we do, you’ll be persuaded otherwise by Numbers: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, £7.99, ISBN 978-0-19-958405-5), in which  mathematics writer Peter M. Higgins unravels the world of numbers; demonstrating its richness, and providing a comprehensive view of the idea of the number. As well as considering how the modern number system matured over centuries, Higgins explains the various number types and shows how they behave, introducing key concepts such as integers, fractions, real numbers, and imaginary numbers. By approaching the topic in a non-technical way and emphasising the basic principles and interactions of numbers with mathematics and science, Higgins also demonstrates the practical interactions and modern applications, such as encryption of confidential data on the internet.

Additional reviews by Dominic Lenton

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