Review | Hello World – Hannah Fry

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I received Hello World for Christmas along with a few other books, and it was my favourite of the set … I actually abandoned one of the other books part-way through as this one was so much more appealing.

Hello World opens with the famous chess battle between grandmaster Kasparov and Deep Blue. Fry shows how Kasparov’s shock defeat wasn’t caused by Deep Blue’s mechanical power, but by how Kasparov interpreted and reacted to the computer’s actions. The engineers who programmed Deep Blue’s algorithm tactically let it appear hesitant. Deep Blue couldn’t play mind games, but the programmers understood human reactions well enough to make Deep Blue seem like it could, which threw Kasparov off his game.

This example lays out one of the three principles which run through the book – that we often blindly trust algorithms because we see them as infallible machines rather than instructions written by other humans. The other two principles are first that all systems, whether human-led or machine-led, are flawed, and second that algorithms and humans working together creates a better future than either rejecting algorithms or replacing humans with algorithms.

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Review | Because Internet – Gretchen McCulloch

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The blurb for Because Internet calls it “essential reading for anyone who has ever puzzled over how to punctuate a text message or wondered where memes come from”. But this book is not a fussy “how-to” guide for internet etiquette. Instead, it’s a broader look at how the weird world of the internet has changed how we use English.

McCulloch’s primary point is that writing produced on the internet – from Twitter and Tumblr to reactions and memes – is important because it lets linguists explore the missing piece of a linguistic puzzle.

We use different versions of speech – formal and informal speech – at specific times and contexts. While the same is true for writing, informal writing has historically been nearly impossible to study. McCulloch argues that our current era of internet communication marks the first time that linguists have been able to see people’s spontaneous informal writing in real-time. Positioning internet writing as the key to a previously-inaccessible aspect of studying language is a powerful approach, and this chapter conveys its importance well.

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Review | Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole – Dr Allan Ropper and Dr Brian Burrell

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Reaching Down The Rabbit Hole is a collection of medical stories from patients at the renowned Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Jointly written by neurologist Allan Ropper and neuroscience researcher Brian Burrell, the book melds Ropper’s perspective and experiences with Burrell’s extensive notes and related information.

“If (an aneurysm) reaches a critical size and form, it can burst open with the entire force of the body’s blood pressure. Blood then fills the spaces around the brain in a split second and causes a thunderbolt of a headache that no one forgets and many don’t survive.”

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Review | Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything – Lydia Kang and Nate Pedersen

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10 years ago, I took a GCSE history course on Medicine through Time, which was so engaging for me that I now credit it as part of why I ended up studying science communication. Since then, medical history has stayed as one of my cyclic background interests.

Quackery aims for a tone somewhere between a medical history textbook and a standard popular-science narrative, then strikes that note precisely throughout. It focuses on information about historical treatments, figures and ideas, rather than any autobiographical elements or personal narratives. Because Quackery is so consistent, it skirted the edge of monotony when I read much of the book in one sitting. However, the authors’ quick pace, and their frequent dry-humoured side notes and reactions, liven up the text.

“Edinburgh phyisician James Young Simpson was another nineteeth-century pioneer in anasthesia. That is, if pioneering meant inhaling random substances with your colleagues, just to see what would happen.”

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Review | In the Land of Invented Languages – Arika Okrent

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Although we use language in everything we do, we rarely need to wonder about how our languages could be improved. Even if we do, the thought of making a whole new language to fix those flaws seems ridiculous.

Language creators, from scientists to philanthropists to eccentric sociologists, take centre stage in “In The Land of Invented Languages”. The book makes sense of invented languages — languages developed by just one person — by explaining why some of those languages were developed and what the inventors were trying to achieve by creating new languages.

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Review | The Violinist’s Thumb – Sam Kean

A hardback copy of the book The Violinsts Thumb.
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Biology is a conspicuous weak spot in my knowledge. My psychology education taught me a little about neurons, neurotransmitters, and brain structure. Beyond that, my main biological knowledge is trivia about platypi. So I read The Violinist’s Thumb less to learn about specific topics than to better understand how all these concepts of DNA, genes, cells and chromosomes related to each other.

The introduction sets up a powerful tension between the  scientific value gained by understanding DNA and the fears thrown up by confronting our genetic building blocks. From there, we discover the parallel stories of Gregor Mendel and Friedrich Miescher, who first isolated genes and DNA. Using these building blocks of genes, Kean leads readers towards larger structures such as chromosomes, viruses, humans, and human cultures.

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Review | Scientific Babel – Michael Gordin

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This year, about 2.5 million scientific articles will be published. Roughly 90% of them will only exist in English. So how and why did English become the default language for scientific work? If that question interests you, you might appreciate Scientific Babel.

Scientific Babel is about the languages we use to create scientific knowledge, and how the “language of science” has changed over time. It’s partly a history of science, and partly a discussion of how languages and cultures rise and fall.

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