Jim Al-Khalili

Book Reviews

We take our pick of this month's technology book releases

Bantam

Paradox: The nine greatest enigmas in science

By Professor Jim Al-Khalili, £16.99, ISBN 978-0593069295

"Take paradox away from the thinker," wrote Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, "and you have a professor."

Well, he'd clearly never met a man like Jim Al-Khalili, a professor, author and broadcaster who is evidently so well acquainted with paradoxes he's dedicated an entire book to them.

Within this relatively slight volume Al-Khalili gamely takes on what are billed as the nine greatest enigmas in science (though in reality they are all concerned with physics, his own area of study at the University of Surrey). Among them are mind-twisting conundrums such as: Why can Achilles never catch up with a tortoise if he gives it a head start? What would happen if you travelled back in time and murdered your grandfather? And how can Schrödinger's infamous cat be both dead and alive at the same time?

The book opens with a series of logic-based problems allowing readers to dip their toes into a shallow pool of paradox before diving headfirst into the raging mental maelstrom of modern science. Al-Khalili leads readers through the arguments gently, breaking them down into a series of easily digestible nuggets as he goes. He packs his descriptions with intriguing detail, setting the paradoxes into the historical and scientific context in which they originally arose, but never shies away from the serious science. Indeed, along the way the reader is invited to tangle with some of the biggest ideas in modern science; quantum mechanics, special and general relativity and string theory all make an appearance.

A number of the paradoxes, and also the theories leading to their solutions, are likely to be familiar to some, particularly those with a background in physics. They are, nevertheless, worth revisiting as Al-Khalili's refreshing approach may help readers to see the problems in a new light, or at the very least furnish them with a series of concise explanations to try out on friends.

For those meeting the paradoxes for the first time the book provides a wonderfully oblique introduction to the weird and wonderful world of modern scientific thought. Understandably there's a certain amount of glossing over of the more complex theories, but those who find their interest sufficiently piqued can always go onto further study elsewhere.

More than a simple collection of puzzles or riddles, 'Paradox' is a workout for all but the supplest of minds and an entertaining illustration of the power of science to solve the seemingly unsolvable.

Jason Goodyer

 

Polity

Climate Wars

By Harald Welzer, £20.00, ISBN 978-0-7456-5145-3

"Whether wars in the 21st Century are directly or indirectly due to climate change, violence has a great future ahead of it." So says Harald Welzer in the opening pages of his apocalyptic 'Climate Wars', a book that unequivocally sets out the intellectual left's position on how the problems of the world are caused by technology. We've known for some time that the nature of conflict will be different in the 21st Century. Global mechanised slaughter of humans in traditional theatres of conflict, caused by political ambitions of territorial expansion, will give way to more localised, boundary-centric squabbles over resources such as water, and the accommodation of refugees "who wish to feed off the same area of land".

Welzer's argument is that all future 'ecocides' will be due to climate change. And since specifically global warming is caused by the emissions given off by energy-hungry industrial heartlands, if follows that the violent environmental conflicts that arise as a consequence are essentially technology's – and by default the West's, and by further default capitalism's – fault. By his own admission, the future is impossible to predict, apart from to point out the slightly obvious assertion that the unlimited use of fossil fuels can't go on forever. This state of affairs is backed up by his observation that "astronomy has not revealed any other planets within reach that might be colonized" technology again holding back the future of the human race.

Welzer's central notion that the future of global warfare is bound up with unchecked climate change caused by global warming is, to be kind, in the realms of academic speculation. His further accusation that it is the "thoughtless use of technology" that will bring about the systematic social disintegration of the planet he predicts, is bordering on 'green ink' fringe thinking. 

Nick Smith

 

Alma Books

Brilliance

By Anthony McCarten, £14.99, ISBN 9781846881787

Anthony McCarten's new book is classed as a novel; it's a word that sums up the novelty and, yes, brilliance, of Edison and his many inventions. However, strictly speaking, a novel pertains to fiction, whilst 'Brilliance' does not. Some may simply pigeonhole this book as historical fiction, but I would be tempted to label it as 'faction', for the contents are factual, albeit gingered with those essential tools of the autobiographer and memoirist: "amplifications, editorialising and compression", to use the author's own words.

McCarten makes plain his debt to the Edison Papers Project at Rutgers University, as well as Edison's many biographers, of whom McCarten states: "compared to their scholarly labours I did no more than swirl a teacup and watch a story suggest itself in the leaves".

Much of 'Brilliance' is concerned with the legendary rivalry of Edison and Nikolas Tesla, the DC and AC in the 'war of the currents'. Tesla, having worked hard for Edison, is treated shabbily by him when he presents his AC findings – propelling us into a fast-paced battle, backed on each side by J Pierpont Morgan for Edison and Westinghouse for Tesla.

The AC/DC rivalry led to what can only be described as a PR campaign, driven and executed by Edison, to convince the public, the shareholders and the policy makers, that AC was lethal. It was fit, Edison lied, only for the electric chair. Despite being against capital punishment, he then set out to demonstrate this for the world – with disastrous results.

The anti-AC propaganda put out by Edison came before that official father of PR/propaganda - Eddie Bernays - arrived on the scene. Bernays, nephew of Freud, would even go on to work for General Electric, coining the term 'engineering of consent'. Another term for this frighteningly totalitarian tactic could be that word heard in many a Whitehall corridor: 'nudging'."

What these links demonstrate is the cause and effect of such big figures, and the longevity of the ideas of the powerful.

Another legendary figure to take a main role in Brilliance is the banker J Pierpont Morgan. Yet the role of the banker as Edison's backer, which the publisher or author has saw fit to emphasise on the jacket's fly leaf, can be seen as part of the current trend of capitalising on the corrupt banker narrative, implying it to be the real culprit in pushing Edison to invent the electric or 'Westinghouse' chair.

The story features many tender moments, as in those of the inventor's relationships with wives one and two, both of whom could communicate with the almost fully deaf Edison using the telegrapher's language. His children, however, two of whom were nicknamed 'Dot' and 'Dash', barely get a look in.

It will be more than obvious, especially to E&T readers, that McCarten has used the copious information on Edison, Tesla and Morgan well. He has also deftly structured the story, weaving back and forth through the different stages of Edison's life.

However, having had previous novels turned into films, it seems that the author has made the job of the screenwriter who may adapt this book much easier. I wish novelists wouldn't do this, use the book as a way of 'engineering consent' of potential film producers; surely any great story serves as 'nudge' enough? When authors write books with one eye on the cinema, the reader is often short-changed of a depth of emotion, having to settle instead for 'snatches' that serves the visual well, but not print. That is my only complaint. You can be sure that 'Brilliance' will appear at a screen near you. In the meantime, read. 

Belinda Webb

 

Viking

Konstantin

By Tom Bullough, £12.99, ISBN 978-0670920921

At the dawn of the 20th Century, the deaf schoolmaster of an inconsequential Russian village school invented modern space flight, from the use of high energy liquid fuels and expendable rocket stages to inertial platform navigation and life support.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky is one of the most significant figures in early astronautics. How frustrating, then, that Bullough's beautifully written book ends just before Tsiolkovsky began his major work.

What we get is a convincing picture of a clever child growing up in a vast landscape of forests and tundras, as alien to our genteel European imagination as any other-wordly planet. The delicate boy is stricken one savage winter by scarlet fever and then copes as best he can with its legacy, sudden deafness. Little Konstantin ('Kostya' to his family) makes himself an ear trumpet, but the aural vividness of the outside world is lost to him, so he turns to books, and especially works of mathematics and physics, for stimulation.

A friendly philosopher, Nikolai Fyodorov, introduces the boy to radical ideas about immortality, based on the possibilities of technology and escape from the bounds of earth. This charmingly fictionalised episode is inspired by a genuine meeting. We and Kostya alike are introduced to the notion of 'cosmism' promoted by Fyodorov, which inspired the Soviet rocket effort in the lead up to Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin. Bullough's account of cosmism's influence on an impressionable young lad feels convincing.

As Tsiolkovsky grows up and becomes a school teacher, he tries to engage his lumpen pupils with stories of physics and astronomy, and the possibilities of interplanetary travel. Here, Bullough's prose lapses into clunky exposition, and here, too, the story stops just when one feels it should be getting into its stride. Konstantin is worth reading but doesn't quite deliver on its promises, despite the obvious quality of the writing. 

Piers Bizony

 

Also out now…

Being able to make use of online tools without becoming overloaded with information is an essential part of 21st century life. But how can we make sure that digital media make us empowered participants rather than passive receivers? In ‘Net Smart: How to Thrive Online’ (MIT Press, £17.95, ISBN 978-0262017459), cyberculture expert Howard Rheingold shows how social media can be used intelligently, humanely and above all mindfully. To Rheingold, mindful use of digital media means thinking about what we are doing, cultivating an ongoing inner inquiry into how we want to spend our time, and he outlines five fundamental ‘digital literacies’ that help achieve this: attention, participation, collaboration, critical consumption of information, and network smarts. By explaining how attention works, he shows how we can focus on the tiny relevant portion of the incoming tsunami of information and how doing so empowers the best of the bloggers, netizens, tweeters, and other online community participants.

A website's ranking on Google can spell the difference between success and failure for a new business, while product ratings influence everything from the clothes we wear to the movies we select from online services. Ratings and rankings are everywhere, but how exactly do they work? In ‘Who's #1?: The Science of Rating and Ranking’ (Princeton University Press, £19.95, ISBN 978-0691154220), mathematicians Amy Langville and Carl Meyer provide the first comprehensive overview of the mathematical algorithms and methods used to rate and rank sports teams, political candidates, products, Web pages, and more. As well as looking at the contributions made by many of the field’s pioneers, Langville and Meyer, who are also authors of ‘Google's PageRank and Beyond: The Science of Search Engine Rankings’, survey and compare the different methods employed today, showing why their strengths and weaknesses depend on the underlying goal, and explaining why and when a given method should be considered.

Two new titles in MIT Press’s ‘Platform Studies’ series, which investigates the relationships between the hardware and software design of computing systems and the creative works produced on them, focus on popular devices separated by two decades. ‘The Future Was Here: The Commodore Amiga’ by Jimmy Maher (MIT Press Platform Studies, £18.95, ISBN 978-0262017206) goes back to 1985, and a time when personal computers were divided between friendly, childish game machines and the boring, beige adult boxes used for business Into this environment came the Commodore Amiga 1000, a device featuring a palette of 4,096 colours, unprecedented animation capabilities, four-channel stereo sound, the capacity to run multiple applications simultaneously, a graphical user interface, and powerful processing potential. It was the Amiga's capacity to store and display colour photographs, manipulate video and use recordings of real-world sound, Maher argues, that provided were the seeds of the digital media future. The Amiga wasn’t perfect, and Commodore went bankrupt in 1994, but for a few years the Amiga's technical qualities were harnessed by engineers, programmers, artists, and others to push back boundaries and transform the culture of computing. Coming right up to date, ‘Codename Revolution: The Nintendo Wii Platform’ (MIT Press, £17.95, ISBN 978-0262016803) is the work of by Steven E Jones and George K Thiruvathukal professors of English and computer science respectively who are codirectors of Loyola University Chicago’s Center for Textual Studies and Digital Humanities. Introduced in 2006 and codenamed Revolution during development, the Nintendo Wii helped usher in a moment of retro-reinvention in video game play as users turned away from fully immersive, time-consuming games and back toward family fun in the living room. Each chapter of Codename Revolution focuses on a major component of the Wii as a platform: the console itself, designed to be low-powered and nimble; the iconic Wii Remote; Wii Fit Plus, and its controller, the Wii Balance Board; the Wii Channels interface and Nintendo's distribution system; and the Wii as a social platform. Finally, the authors connect the Wii's revolution in mimetic interface gaming to the economic and technological conditions that influence the possibility of making something new in this arena of computing and culture.

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