Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age book cover

Book Reviews

A biography of one of history's first celebrity scientists is among our pick of new books.

Haynes Publishing

Nasa Mars Rovers - Owners' Workshop Manual

By David Baker, £21.99, ISBN 978-0-85733-370-4

The public's interest in Mars and the search for life beyond our planet has grown during what space aficionados might call 'the era of the Mars rovers': 1997-2013, as defined by this guide to Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity. Part of this growth is due to the increasing use of social media by Nasa, with Curiosity getting four million YouTube views, 1.2 million Twitter followers and half a million 'likes' on its Facebook page within weeks of landing. Meanwhile, book publishers have capitalised on this new bout of Mars fever.

'Nasa Mars Rovers' is well illustrated with more than 300 colour photos and diagrams, providing a technical overview of the missions and their instruments. The author's decision to pepper the text with sizes, weights and other specifications is a nod to the engineering, but Haynes has missed a trick in not making it more like the Owners' Workshop Manuals of old. Although no-one will be wielding a spanner on Mars anytime soon, the inclusion of more detailed engineering drawings of the rovers would allow readers to dream of the day a Martian astronaut ambles over to 'kick the tyres'.

Armchair Mars explorers will want to add this book to their shelves, while engineers should marvel at the technical solutions for delivering the rovers to a distant planet (not least the innovative, sci-fi-come-true Skycrane) and maintaining them in an alien environment. It's worth remembering that Spirit and Opportunity had design lifetimes of just three months, during which they would drive some 600m. Opportunity began its 10th year in January 2013, having explored more than 35km of Mars terrain.

With budgets too tight for manned missions, how will the perennial question of life on Mars be answered? As the author puts it, "Only our robotic ambassadors could tell us".

Mark Williamson


John Murray

Big Data

By Kenneth Cukier and Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, £20, ISBN 978-1-84854-790-2

There are information technologists still unsure whether the term 'big data' describes a phenomenon of real significance that will bring major changes to the way societies interpret the world, or a buzzword that's being talked-up as the IT industry's latest 'next big thing'. The authors of this book at times embrace both positions, mixing discursive appraisal of big data's potential to impact our lives for the better with real-life examples of the phenomenon in action as presented throughout these pages. They do not go too deeply into the inner mechanics of big data, or of the analytical management tools (such as Hadoop) needed to explore its potentiality in full; but 'Big Data' does a fairly good job in explaining its broader dynamics for the lay reader.

Arguably big data has come about due to two important developments in IT: the emergence of affordable, highly extensible storage systems capable of containing massive data sets drawn from a variety of sources, allied to ever-faster high-performance compute resources that can examine them in a more timely fashion. Innovative analytics are a key factor: for the first time we are able to interrogate much 'bigger' data much faster, so that value patterns or characteristics can be discerned and exploited - often in real-time - to create new services, applications, or decision support aids.

Yet to take full advantage of the big data opportunity, Cukier and Mayer-Sch'nberger say, scientists must also abandon some centuries-old practices intrinsic to a basic scientific approach, and have their basic understanding of how to make decisions and comprehend reality challenged: "Society will need to shed some of its obsession for causality in exchange for simple correlations," they say - i.e., "not knowing why but only what".

'Big Data' is big on case studies, ranging from how big data has been used to analyse fluctuating airline ticket prices to secure the best deals, to providing mechanisms that enable astronomy to make better sense of the hundreds of terabytes that new radio telescopes will soon be spewing out. The diverse range of these examples show that the big data effect - 'datafication' - is already affecting our lives, from steering Amazon customers to 'personalised' purchasing options, to helping doctors make smarter diagnostic decisions for premature babies.

This book also explains some of the risks to this brave new 'datafied' world - such as the pitfalls of using big data to 'predict' potential behavioural characteristics in individuals or groups, and thereby legitimise pre-emptive remedial controls. If ready to adopt a 'messier' approach to large-scale data management, as the authors of this book characterise it, big data advocates should not lose sight of the fact that we are operating on a view of reality governed by the limitations of the data gathering mechanisms at our disposal.

James Hayes


Third Millennium

Cambridge Computing: The First 75 Years

By Haroon Ahmed, £40, ISBN 978 1 906507 83 1

A history of a single department at one university, however prestigious, would usually be considered of marginal interest to most readers. The work that's come out of the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory, however, has had such a significant impact that this account of its first 75 years is almost an account of the development of computing itself.

The story is told by Haroon Ahmed, professor emeritus of microelectronics at Cambridge and a visiting professor at the Laboratory. It dates back to 1937, almost a decade before the first modern electronic computer was built, when Professor - later Sir - John Lennard-Jones realised that his work on the application of quantum mechanics to problems associated with chemistry wasn't the only research for which increasing numbers of complex equations had to be solved. The result was a single facility, the Mathematical Laboratory, which would serve the needs of a range of departments.

As Ahmed acknowledges, Lennard-Jones may have had the foresight to recognise the role numerical methods would play in all branches of science, but it was his successor, Professor Sir Maurice Wilkes, the 'father of British Computing', who in his three and a half decades as head of the Laboratory came to dominate its history. He would have been 100 this year, and this book is almost as much a tribute to his achievements as it is to those of the Laboratory itself.

In fact 'Cambridge Computing' is as much about the people behind the rise of the computer as it is about the machines themselves. It's refreshing to flick through a heavily illustrated book and see as many pictures of people as hardware. These take us from an engraving of Cambridge graduate Charles Babbage, via a roll call of some of the key figures in the discipline, right through to a team photo of current staff and students, including Laboratory head and IET President Professor Andy Hopper, in their 21st Century home at the William Gates Building.

Today, the range of subjects studied has ballooned to include natural language and information processing, semantics, artificial intelligence and a host of other subjects alongside the more familiar worlds of computer architecture and programming.

And in a chapter devoted to links with industry and the many successful businesses to have emerged from the Laboratory over the years, Ahmed reminds us how much it prides itself on the culture of entrepreneurship it instills in its alumni, having become as well known as a nursery for entrepreneurs as it is for its teaching and research.

Dominic Lenton

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