Tag Archives: popular science

Book Review: The Emperor’s New Mind by Roger Penrose

This was another of my ‘books of shame’ that I felt the need to re-read. I actually got quite a long way into it first time and I can’t recall why I put it down. The aim of the book is to explore the notion of artificial intelligence (AI), whether or not machines can truly “think”. In order to get to this question, Penrose first spends a lot of time (most of the book, in fact) looking at a wide variety of seemingly unrelated topics.

After an initial discussion of AI, Penrose launches straight into what is probably the hardest chapter to get your head round. It’s all about algorithms, Turing machines and the computability of mathematical problems. He doesn’t spare the detail with pages of binary digits and computer programming languages. It takes a long time to work through, but if you can brave it, there is much easier, and more enjoyable, science in later chapters.

Once you get over the initial hump, we ease back into some gentle maths with Penrose first outlining his neo-Platonic view of notions of reality (one I admit that I share with him). He does this via some very basic complex analysis, looking at the detail of the Mandelbrot set, though without going into too much depth for the casual reader. From here he looks at the world of classical physics and then quantum physics, giving the reader a general grounding in the basics of modern physics whilst every now and then alluding back to the premise of the book, essentially asking if a machine could ever be constructed that would be capable of making the intuitive leaps that humans have managed in coming to our present understanding of the cosmos.

For the most part, this should be readily understandable with a modicum of scientific education, though to someone who didn’t do maths or physics at A-level, much of it may be new and take significantly longer to get to grips with. But even the expert reader shouldn’t get complacent. Penrose’s approach takes much which we may be familiar with and turns it sideways, giving good reason to scratch our heads and think things through anew. The 2nd half of the chapter on quantum mechanics is, admittedly, a bit tougher to get through; the section on spin was where I found my bookmark from the first time I tried to read it and gave up.

After finishing with quantum mechanics he looks at the thermodynamics of the universe, a line of thinking which led, many years later, to Cycles of Time. He ponders over some ideas of quantum gravity but not to any depth that one might be satisfied with. For other takes on that, I’d recommend The Road To Reality (also by Penrose), Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe or The Three Roads To Quantum Gravity by Lee Smolin.

Eventually, Penrose comes back to the question of AI. In order to do this though, he needs to look at the basic physiology of the brain. Now Penrose is a mathematician and a physicist; he’s not a neurologist. As such, this section of the book doesn’t come across anywhere nearly as strong as the rest of the book. It is clear that this is a written by an educated amateur in the field rather than an expert. For much more detail on how the brain works, I would recommend John Ratey’s A User’s Guide to the Brain.

One fascinating idea that Penrose puts forth is that what may distinguish human intelligence and consciousness is not our rationality, but our irrationality. If all people behaved in accordance with a strict rationality (though even most rationalists, myself included, exhibit some irrational behaviour from time to time) then the strong AI proponents might have more of a case. But the very evidence of irrational behaviour is what Penrose finds most interesting.

Ultimately, no firm propositions are put forward in this volume. The book ends with some musings and a tentative point of view. I intend to follow up, albeit not for a while, with Penrose’s later volume, Shadows of the Mind. In the meantime, what we have is a book which is very loosely about artificial intelligence, but which is really a book about the foundation of computing, along with a tour of some of the great ideas of maths and physics.

Book Review: A User’s Guide to the Brain by John Ratey

This was one of my “books of shame” that I started a few years ago but never finished. This is quite unusual for such a category of book, because I know I cannot have lost interest in it; it’s just too fascinating.

As suggested by the title, this is all about how the brain works. What is fascinating about it in particular are the anecdotes showing what happens when things in the brain go wrong. It is well-known to be amongst the complicated creations in the universe. The author opens up with a look at how we develop, before talking about how we perceive things. As is the case throughout the book, much of what we know (which the author admits is still very limited) comes about from examining the “extremities” of human existence. If you were looking for a discussion on anything other human brains, this isn’t the book for you. There is some discussion over our evolutionary roots, but this is minimal.

Moving on, Ratey controversially posits that ‘attention’ and ‘consciousness’ are simply different levels of the same basic phenomenon. This is based on attempts to distinguish the two and the failures of those attempts, with a particularly grey area in between them. He goes on to cover various functions of the brain such as movement, memory, emotion and language. All of this is told in a very straightforward manner, although Ratey doesn’t shy away from the more neurological language which may put off some readers.

Throughout the book, Ratey is keen to stress that there is rarely one area of the brain that is responsible for one thing. Instead, the brain is built of multiple overlapping and interconnected networks which, when the neurons are stimulated in certain patterns, produce effects we can recognise and label.

In his chapter on The Social Brain, which is certainly interesting for me, as a particularly non-social person (some might say antisocial), he touches on altruism, though not in anywhere near as much depth as Richard Dawkins does in The Selfish Gene.

At 380 pages, the book does seem a little longer than it needs to be and towards the end I was just wanting to get it over and done with, as Ratey started to cover ground already well-trodden earlier in the book. The last couple of chapters started ringing a few alarm bells. For example I’m not sure if most embryologists would concur with the statement, “The day an infant is conceived it begins to perceive the natural world, and also becomes aware of its own internal states…” He later goes on to talk about a “Home Brain Gym” which is a concept familiar to readers of Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science.

Book review: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

Having been familiar with Dawkins from some of his articles, videos and tv appearances, it seemed appropriate to go back to the book that made him famous. Also, I’m aware that of late, I’ve rather neglected my science reading (this is only the 4th science book I’ve read this year, compared to 6 fiction and 8 christianity books), so I needed to catch up a bit.

It’s important to note that this is a book written back in the 1970s. The author who wrote it should not be mistaken for the divisive figure that he has become within the last 10 years. So if you were expecting this to be an ad hominem attack, I’m afraid that you will likely be disappointed. I come to this with the same critical eye that I read any other book with, but this is in no way prejudices my review.

The edition I picked up was the 30th anniversary edition, which comes with 3 prefaces and a foreword. They’re well worth reading, with the latest preface being notable for a slightly barbed comment aimed at, though not naming, Mary Midgley, who has been a proverbial thorn in Dawkins’ side for many years.

Reading the first few chapters, the most striking thing is Dawkins’ engaging narrative style. It can be little surprise that subsequent to writing this he was made a professor for the public understanding of science, as his written communication is crystal clear. In addition to the main text, there are some lengthy endnotes which appear to be mostly the product of later editions where there is an extremely defensive tone, in some exasperation of opposition born out of misunderstanding of the ideas and terminology used in the first edition.

At times, these footnotes do irritate as they break up the text a lot. So in this respect, it might have been better to amend the original text. However, this may have been due to an editorial decision, so it would be unfair to criticize Dawkins unduly for this stylistic nuisance.

Although the title of the book implies a book on genetics, this is largely confined to the early couple of chapters with the majority of the book looking at animal behaviour (his specialist subject) from a gene’s point of view. It is easy to see why some might take him for an atomist from these discussions, as he gives little countenance to causes other than genetic inheritance. This may simply be a consequence of his emphasis rather than reflecting his actual views, though such atomism is common, in my experience, amongst those who cite Dawkins as a major source of their scientific knowledge and understanding.

However, one has to recall warnings given early in the book about Dawkins’ use of terminology. Much of the book is written in simile and metaphor, with many adjectives loaded with the capacity to be misread if one reads the text as a literalist.

One of the key themes is altruism. That is, how do organisms end up helping one another out if their genes inheritance follows a rough pattern that might be described as “selfish.” Aren’t selfishness and altruism polar opposites? Dawkins argues that this is not so. In so doing, the prime target in Dawkins’ crosshairs are proponents of “group selection” which (very broadly speaking) favour the idea that animals and plants behave in such a way as to ensure the survival of their particular group. Dawkins argues convincingly that this is an illusion and gives examples where such a theory is left somewhat lacking where the selfish gene theory can provide a reasonable hypothesis.

With all this said, though, it has to be noted that Dawkins includes very little hard evidence in his book. To keep things interesting and engaging for the lay reader, we are presented with multiple anecdotes rather than scientific studies. So, reading with due scepticism, one should be wary of accepting all of Dawkins’ ideas unquestionably. Indeed, shortly after finishing the book, I was given a link to a paper (though unfortunately, it is hidden behind a paywall) which calls into question Dawkins’ “kin selection.”

This brings us to the weak points of the book. It begins in chapter 10, ‘You scratch my back, I’ll ride on yours’ where Dawkins make a quite startling comment for a scientist:

“One cannot really speak of ‘evidence’ for this idea, but….”

(it’s on page 182 of the 30th anniversary edition, if you want the full quote, it’s rather too long to copy) – yet in the next chapter, where Dawkins introduces the idea of a meme, he makes his statement that faith is

“blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence.”

Of course, his definition has now become almost as famous as it is erroneous. Yet that fame could mistakenly lead one to think that this was an early example of Dawkins’ departure from science into the world of atheistic diatribe; it absolutely is not. It is merely an example that he used to illustrate his innovative idea on the transmission of information. Of course, subsequent decades of works on memetics have proved fruitless, and it is now abandoned as a serious line of enquiry by all but a vocal minority (here, I think of Susan Blackmore). If this surprises you, I would point you to the last ever edition of the journal of memetics where the situation was summed up quite nicely.

Following on from this, Dawkins looks at game theory which may seem out of place in a biology book, but which serves as a useful introduction to anyone who has not encountered it before. The book concludes with an additional chapter not included in the original edition. It is a concise summary of the follow-up book, The Extended Phenotype. It’s not an extract for a sequel, which I have seen in some publications, but it serves the same purpose, as an advert for the reader to make a further purchase. In this respect, it is quite successful, as it is as immensely fascinating as the rest of The Selfish Gene.

Though some of its ideas have now had severe doubt cast upon them, The Selfish Gene still stands as a wonderful pop science book on biology, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in science.

Book Review: Cosmos by Carl Sagan

I’m a little too young to have seen the legendary tv series, from which this book is the spin-off, when it was aired in the 1970s. I only picked this book up because I had ordered the 30th anniversary edition of The Selfish Gene but it didn’t get delivered. I spied this in one my local bookshops and, keen to make up for my lack of recent science reading, snapped it up in an instant.

On reading the first few chapters, there are two main things to notice. Firstly, Sagan was an excellent writer. His effusive style is poetic, at times rhetorical and conjures up great images in the mind. The second thing to note is that he wasn’t a very good historian. The anecdotes he uses are often highly anachronistic; an example being that he describes Eratosthenes as being a “scientist” though this term was not coined until about 2 millennia after Eratosthenes. So while his methodology might be akin to what we might loosely recognise as being scientific today, Eratosthenes would not have called himself such (regardless of translations) and would not have been recognised as such by his peers.

His narrative is also peppered with examples of where he sees “religion” as being inherently opposed to science. Though not factually incorrect, Sagan cherry picks his examples to give a metanarrative that agrees with his worldview. An example of this is where he uses a single quote from John Wesley to summarise all of Western religious thought. This is, and other examples like it are, simplistic in the extreme, to the extent that they are misleading; though no doubt many who would like to think of religion as science as being mutually incompatible will be predisposed to disagree with me on this. For a more thorough account I’d recommend James Hannam’s ‘God’s Philosophers’.

With that small critique aside, I can talk about the main substance of the book. There is no overarching narrative to the book, as Sagan jumps around quite a bit in his topics, but this does stabilise about half way into the book. This is, I think, a consequence of the chapters being based on individual episodes of the corresponding tv series.

For the most part, the book is dominated by the idea of space and what’s in it. Sagan gives us a brief guide on a few of the planets in our solar system, as well as looking out beyond the realms where we have travelled into the rest of the galaxy and onto distant superclusters of galaxies. In all this, Sagan stays well away from any hard science. He is purely descriptive and his aim seems to be to evoke wonder, rather than head-scratching.

It’s hard not to compare his writing with one of his contemporaries, Richard Feynman, who is the master of all science writing. How does Sagan measure up? Well, not bad. As already pointed out, he does let his own prejudices get in the way of his objectivity at times, but at all times he is incredibly intelligible. A few of the more puzzling aspects of physics are explained with analogies that have been used by countless pop-science writers following in Sagan’s footsteps.

This particular edition could do with a revision, as the publishers, Abacus, didn’t do much proof-reading of the text and in places there are multiple spelling and grammar errors in addition to the usual Americanisms.

The scale of the work is about as big as anything that could be conceived, from the origins of the universe, to the origins of life, along with discussions of philosophy, religion and science in general. His ebullient style of writing is both engaging and awe-inspiring, encouraging the reader to consider his or her place in the whole cosmos.

Some elements of the book are definitely of its time, already outdated a little some 30 years later. Sagan makes much of the search for intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy, a subject on which he expounded in his fictional work, Contact, later adapted into a film of the same name. His focus is on radio astronomy and even at the time of writing this review, news broke of a giant radio astronomical array that has been given the green light to be built in South Africa. Yet the pall of the Cold War hangs low over the final chapter in which Sagan pleads for sense in the face of imminent nuclear war. He pleads for reason and rationality as necessary measures that will preserve humanity against the unthinking use of powerful technology that could destroy us.

His work is a classic and should be rightly regarded as such. Along with Richard Feynman and Stephen Hawking, Sagan was at the vanguard of popular science writing, a field which has flourished in the last few decades, taking science out of the preserve of the university departments and making it accessible to the man on the Clapham Omnibus.