Books

E&T's regular round up of the latest technology titles.

The Language of God: A scientist presents evidence for belief

Francis Collins, Pocket Books Ltd £8.99
ISBN 9-781847 390929

If you're a scientist and want to sell books then you've got to write about God. Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, and as such probably one of the world's leading scientists of the day, is happy to oblige. A committed former atheist, some time agnostic, but now member of what we broadly think of as the Anglican Church, Collins has come up with a compelling rationale for why religious belief and Big Science are not mutually incompatible.

While it is very tempting to see the hand of the publisher guiding Collins toward simply writing a rebuttal of Richard Dawkins's splenetic 'The God Delusion', Collins has actually got something interesting to say about compatibility issues between the world of objective technological reality and the less observable world of matters spiritual. While it's true that he's openly scornful of Dawkins - dismissing some of the British scientist's claims as 'eye-popping' - his agenda has more to do with unification and harmony of differing approaches to thinking, which is one of the main attractions of 'The Language of God'.

Clearly, with any such project there are key landing spots: Copernicus, Darwin, Crick and Watson, Intelligent Design, Young Earth Creationism, the Big Bang, and so on. But Collins has also stepped into the equally challenging world of moral philosophy and theosophy, both of which add intellectual ballast and balance to his ideas. Influenced by the seminal Oxford thinker of the mid-20th century, CS Lewis, he derives some beautifully crafted logical propositions for the mutuality of religion and science. And he is right to hold Lewis in such high regard: Lewis can make the subtlest of theological points clear and precise for the ordinary man. This is an interesting echo of the great physicist Ernest Rutherford, who said: "A theory you can't explain to a bartender is probably no damned good."

Whether or not 'The Language of God' is sufficient to silence the hordes of aggressive atheists rallying to Dawkins' flag, is moot. Of course, it all comes down to faith, and faith, unlike science, does not require evidence. For Collins, this explains why many scientists are uncomfortable with an argument where something more nebulous replaces data. On the other hand, recent research reveals that 40 per cent of all scientists believed in a god of some sort (Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking among them). One thing I know is that, for sheer clarity of argument and magnanimity of thought, this important book knocks Dawkins's 'The God Delusion' into a cocked hat.

Reviewed by Nick Smith, management editor of E&T and literary editor of Bookdealer.

The big switch: rewiring the world, from Edison to Google

Nicholas Carr, W.W. Norton £15.99
ISBN: 978-0-393-06228-1

If you are a reader of Nicholas Carr's blog 'RoughType', his second book, 'The Big Switch', will come as something of a surprise. For the last few years, Carr has taken delight in trying to puncture the bubble that surrounds Google and its many followers who seem to think the future of human society is some kind of bioelectronic hive mind. Yet, the hive-mind scenario is the one on which Carr ends his journey from the dawning of the age of electricity to the crawling tentacles of the world's most popular search engine.

To make the argument, Carr enlists the story of electricity generation. In the first half of 'The Big Switch', he finds parallels between the centralisation of electricity generation and the current trend towards computing in the cloud: where all the software runs in racks of shared servers in a windowless warehouse. Carr describes how the small power plants run by manufacturers gave way to larger, shared power plants. That did happen. But, with 'The Big Switch', he chose to make the parallel at a time when people are talking more about personalised microgeneration to alleviate pressure on the grid. Companies such as Sharp are fitting out the massive flat roofs of their factories with solar panels, able to support one-third of their total energy demand.

So, you have to ask: was such centralisation a one-way trend? Or was it just how the development of the technology helped push one way for a while until other inventions, with different economics, came to the fore? There are, right now, good arguments for consigning the bulk of computing to labyrinths of grey, air-conditioned racks. But such a trend could easily reverse.

In the second half, we leave Edison behind as Carr explores the desires of people like Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page to make their service not just a search engine but an auxiliary brain for the Average Joe. This techno-utopian ideal sits uneasily with Carr, who takes time to point out some of the many problems their vision might have. Yet, he does not go so far as to challenge the promises of the future of computing.

Part of the problem lies in the book's remit: that we are midway through a rewiring of the world, where the establishment of massive computer farms across the surface of the globe will result in fundamental changes to society. A world where the all-seeing server will be able to track our movements and possibly define our intentions. It's entirely possible that the Googlists will truly reshape our world through utility computing in ten, 20, maybe 50 years. But, then again, people thought we would be riding around in flying cars and wearing scratchy silver suits not all that long ago.

Reviewed by Chris Edwards, electronics editor of E&T

Pandora's box: Social and professional issues of the information age

Andrew A Adams and Rachel J McCrindle, Wiley £31.99
ISBN: 978-0-470-06553-2

For those unfamiliar with Greek myths, Pandora was given a wedding gift of a beautiful box on the condition that she never opened it. However, curiosity got the better of her, and when she unlocked it and lifted the lid, all the evil and suffering contained in it escaped into the world, leaving only hope remaining in the box.

The authors use this myth as a metaphor for the global explosion of technology, permeating all aspects of life and society for good or ill. It is incumbent on computing and related professionals to face up to the effects of this and to make appropriate ethical decisions.

Aimed at professionals working in the computer industry, teachers and students in various disciplines, and general readers interested in how their lives are influenced by technology, the book is written in a non-technical and accessible style. It might look imposing, weighing in with more than 600 pages of text, but it has short, self-contained chapters which can be dipped into if one has specific interests or is time-challenged.

To give a flavour of what is covered - digital entertainment, censorship, sex and technology, the Internet, privacy, warfare, medical issues, crime, copyright, unwanted communications, education. Controversial subjects are not sidelined and  there is something for everyone. Instead of giving answers, the authors relate what is happening and suggest how the issues might be addressed.

I am a self-confessed technophobe, and the book grabbed my attention. The authors have touched a chord in those who sometimes feel overwhelmed by the pace of technological change, but they have expressed it in a way that even those can understand.

Reviewed by Sue Rugg, assistant librarian, IET

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