RaveArts Desk (UK)Admirably compact ... Biography’s focus on the individual life comes with a temptation to overestimate one person’s historical importance, but it seems fair to claim there was no-one like von Neumann ... Bhattacharya, a seasoned science writer, is understandably selective about the maths, and focuses on work that had wider implications. There was a lot of that, too, and he works in impressively clear brief accounts of quantum mechanics, Gödel’s theorem, and the physics of explosives ... Bhattacharya manages to cover this dazzling range of ideas clearly and compellingly in not much more than 200 pages.
RaveArts Desk (UK)A brilliant series of reconstructions of life in the deep past, richly imagined from the fine details of the fossil record ...There are passing hints of how particular fossils were formed, and why specific locations yielded a rich haul, but the details are passed by – if you wan that kind of thing you will have to follow up the extensive notes. The exposition is also mercifully light on the cliches of Attenborough-style narration, where every scene seems to be either a mating opportunity or a meal ... Both omissions align with Halliday’s main goal, which is to give a sense of past organisms framed in ways of living that are part of a complete ecosystem ... It’s a commonplace idea since evolution became the accepted theory of how the biological world developed across our planet, or any planet. It has rarely been so vividly illustrated. Halliday’s effort compares well with other tales of Earth history ... Otherlands offers more finely drawn vignettes of past life than either. Composing any one of them calls for an impressive synthesis. Assembling the whole set is a real achievement.
PositiveThe Arts Desk[Raihani] starts at the simplest level. Humans do not take centre stage until halfway through, after a long look at the roots of co-operation between \'selfish\' genes, in cells, then multicellular organisms, and groups of organisms ... The explanations of what is going on in each situation are nicely done, and she points the overall narrative skilfully towards what we are really interested in – why humans may co-operate and how to do it better ... In this fashion, for all its care in argument, the book’s turns into what most considerations of our nature rooted in evolutionary psychology become: a new treatise on original sin. Science, alas, offers a more elaborate description of that condition, but does not point the way to redemption. Raihani closes with some positive remarks about the response to COVID-19, and with hopes for collectively rising to the challenge of climate change through enhanced global co-operation. However, she wisely declines to offer advice on how we do this. That remains largely a matter of faith.
PositiveThe Irish TimesFarmelo deftly retraces the growing realisation that maths can unlock understanding of real phenomena ... He is a bit of devotee – of the man and of his \'principle of mathematical beauty\', that theorists should heed the most aesthetically pleasing maths they can find. That allegiance that serves him well in the second part of this book, built on insightful interviews with contemporary theorists ... For this science buff, trying to follow theoretical physics feels like a knowledgeable football fan trying to make sense of a chess tournament – a tournament, moreover, where the rules of the game have been encrypted in an unbreakable code ... Farmelo does proffer an occasional equation, always in the simplest form. He will then explain with some variation of: \'Symbol A is a mathematical object representing a crucial physical parameter.\' We do not learn what kind of mathematical object it is, or what properties it may have. The author does not know how to convey that in words. Nor does anyone else, really. Real understanding depends unavoidably on doing the maths, not describing it. The universe does speak in numbers. Yet assurances that its utterances are incomparably poetic have to be taken on trust.