Big Data: A Very Short Introduction, by Dawn E. Holmes

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A very short introduction to a very big subject, Big Data: A Very Short Introduction by Dawn E. Holmes is arguably the most topical of this book series. Big data is everywhere, and not just in the sense that it is constantly being gathered and amalgamated to carry out all manner of market-based and statistical analysis – it is also an immensely overused buzzword, present everywhere from the daily news to popular culture, and all points between. This very short introduction is perfect for anyone who is a little bit baffled by the very concept of big data. Holmes introduces the subject in a format that is both concise and manageable, drawing on the fields of statistics, probability and computer science to illustrate the power of big data in everyday life, the associated security risks of such information falling into the wrong hands, and the issues surrounding the use of big data by companies and businesses today.

This review was first published online for E&T Magazine

Projects: A Very Short Introduction, by Andrew Davies

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In this Very Short Introduction Andrew Davies delves into the world of projects. It may sound like a dry subject, but the history of projects is nothing short of fascinating – and a very long history it is too. By definition, a project is any sort of collaborative mission planned to achieve a particular aim, a temporary measure with a limited lifespan. Throughout history mankind has used projects to reform and transform the natural world, creating innovative spaces for people to work, live and play. Throughout the course of this very short introduction Davies references some of the greatest projects of all time, including examples such as the Erie Canal and the Apollo Moon landing, to highlight how different projects are managed and organised to cope with the changing conditions and immense uncertainties unveiled within any form of breakthrough innovation. Moving forward, Davies presents his own ideas for how future projects can be organised to best address the challenges of modern post-industrial societies. If you are considering a career in project management or are already involved in one or more projects and want to know how to improve the system then let this book become your bible. Projects: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Davies offers a veritable goldmine of insights, anecdotes and analysis of the very basics of project management, showing how it is done, and advising on how it can be done better.

This review was first published online for E&T Magazine 

The Future: A Very Short Introduction, by Jennifer M. Gidley

41724522An attempt to analyse and condense something which encompasses everything that is yet to come feels like an exercise in failure, and yet I hold in my hands a book which does just this. A wonderfully concise and brilliantly written book, The Future: A Very Short introduction by Jennifer M. Gidley takes a look at the future by travelling into the past – a literal oxymoron if ever there was one. To understand the future, says Gidley, we must look backwards, beginning with the emergence of theories of linear time in Ancient Greece. Within the book Gidley introduces the reader to the future as a concept, exploring prophecies and predictions from throughout history, discussing the potential for machine- vs human-centred futures and highlighting the reality that is ‘multiple futures’.  The future is inevitable, but our treatment of it doesn’t have to be; by exploring ‘the past of the future’ and its links with ‘present-day futures’, says Gidley, we are better prepared to create wiser futures for tomorrow.

This review was first published online for E&T Magazine 

Frankenstein: The First 200 Years by Christopher Frayling

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“If you could have been around on a single say in the historical past – which day would it have been?” This question, posed by a BBC reporter, and answered in truth by author Christopher Frayling, is the perfect frame within which to set this book. Given a choice, it is incredibly difficult to select a single moment in time. Scientists, artists, philosophers and critics will each have very different choices. History has so many possibilities, but for Frayling, the choice was simple.

The obvious answer, says Frayling, is not a day, but a night. A night filled with boredom and anguish, which ultimately lead to the creation of one of the greatest ghost stories ever told. It was a dreary evening in June 1816 when a young Mary Shelley (then Godwin) first sought to horrify her companions with a tale of science and technology gone insane, a tale that would go on to become one of the best known tales of horror ever written.

Just 18 months later on New Year’s Day 1818, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, complete with a preface by her husband Percy Shelley, was released into the world. The coming days, months, years, and now, centuries, would see this limited-edition fiction become one of the defining pillars of British culture. Frankenstein: The First 200 Years, a new and stunning hardbound production from Reel Art Press, celebrates the 200th birthday of literature’s greatest monster, by tracing its journey from fireside fiend to cultural celebrity.

The last two hundred years have seen Frankenstein’s creation break away from the paper-bound confines of the novel to stalk the stage and screens small and large, creeping into cartoons, comics and even cereal packets. The creature first snuck onto the big screen back in 1910, in a 16-and-a-half-minute ditty for the Thomas Edison Film Company, as a hideous beast with a misshapen body, twisted face and wild matted hair. Since this time, the costume changes have been many and various, occasionally adopting a somewhat ‘cuddly’ caricature afforded by the face of Herman Munster and modern-day Frankenweenie.

Within the pages of this stunning edition, the reader is taken on a journey through literary history, which includes new research on the novel’s origins, reprints of the earliest known manuscript of the creation scene, and a 90-page visual celebration of Frankenstein’s presence within popular culture.

Outside of obvious realms of literature and popular culture, Frankenstein’s exploits continue to roam – in a much less flattering light. If Mary Shelley’s novel held a message, it was surely a warning that manipulating that which you do not understand can only lead to devastation. Today, among newspaper pages constantly splashed with stories of the latest and greatest exploits in genetic engineering, nano-technology and artificial intelligence, Frankenstein’s monster often bares his ugly head.

The yellow-eyed, sallow-skinned being from Shelley’s novel, is indeed a far-cry away from any of the images we all recognise today – the bolt-necked beast made famous by Boris Karloff in James Whale’s 1931 onscreen adaptation being the most obvious. It is somewhat telling, perhaps, that the creature itself cannot be controlled. Just as Victor Frankenstein failed to coerce his creation, Mary Shelley’s tale has proved itself to have a life of its own.

If given the chance to travel back in time, there’s no telling where you might go, but for those intrigued by what occurred on that fabled night back in 1816, the very least you should do is read this book. Frayling has created as close to a time machine as you might hope to get, revealing, not just the humble origins of history’s greatest monster, but a thoroughly fascinating breakdown of all his exploits since.

This review was first published online for E&T Magazine 

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley – Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of all kinds

Edited by David H Guston, Ed Finn and Jason Scott Robert

There are some books which, regardless of their age, continue to resonate with audiences, and of none is this so true as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. From its origins as a ghost story written by an intelligent yet rebellious teenage girl on the shores of Lake Geneva almost 200 years ago, the book has gone on to become a defining pillar of English literature, one which has much to say about the way we as humans imagine science and its moral, societal and technological consequences.

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Over the years Shelley’s text has become standard comparison for every scientific attempt to harness the power of nature, be it in the form genetic engineering, stem cell cloning, or even the creation of artificial intelligence. Yet despite its clear relevance to science and engineering, the study of Frankenstein has often been left solely to students of the arts and humanities.

This new publication from The MIT Press strives to change this, by directly applying Shelley’s classical text to the modern, scientific world. The original 1818 edition of Frankenstein is paired with annotations discussing the ethical aspects of scientific creativity and providing additional background information on the period in which the novel came to life including references to industrialisation, and scientific studies in alchemy and galvanism.

The comparisons to our own situation are clear: Shelley’s society was caught up in a tumultuous network of changes, experiencing for the first time the wonders of steam power and industry, and today, we find ourselves caught up in a similar situation – though travelling in very different directions – and still with many of the same concerns. The editors present the idea of a modern day Victor Frankenstein creating a form of self-replicating nanotechnology – not unlike the ideas we explored last year in our Frankenstein special edition of E&T – highlighting the continued significance of Shelley’s warning.

While the book is written as a companion to those of scientific thinking, it also drives up discussion about the importance of literary thinking within science and technology, and of incorporating art into STEM subjects. The editors encourage a scientific respect of the humanities as offering a valid means of defining and even improving the world. Indeed, the factors driving scientific imagination are not so far removed from the literary mind as one might imagine. Shelley’s work speaks of an interest in the scientific and technological discoveries occurring in the early 19th century, but was no doubt also inspired by nature, and the tumultuous rainfall the girl experienced at Lake Geneva. In much the same way her creation, Victor Frankenstein, experienced his first sparks of creativity after witnessing a tree smashed to smithereens during a thunderstorm. Both occurrences, though literary, are not so far removed from Edison’s inspiration for the study of gravity coming from an apple falling from a tree.

To give further context and encourage thought and discussion, the annotated book is accompanied by a chronology of scientific developments throughout the life of Shelley, as well as several essays by leading scholars which explore the social and ethical aspects of scientific creativity and discovery within Frankenstein. Questions emerge surrounding the responsibility behind scientific creation, the place of science fiction as an influence rather than a predictor, of the future, and the changing conceptions of human nature, and their relevance and emergence within the text – providing food for thought for STEM and humanities students alike.

Interestingly enough although the book has been edited by men, the idea for the project itself came from a woman, the colleague of Guston, Finn and Robert, Cajsa Baldini. The irony of group of middle aged men following in the footsteps of a teenage girl is not lost on the editors, and they take the time to confront the issues of gender in Frankenstein, as well as pay homage to the author, for whom writing and publishing a novel without the support of her family, and with open disdain from society, was no mean feat. In this way, the book serves not just to represent how Shelley’s work provides an opportunity to reflect on how science is framed and understood by the public, but as a commemoration of all that Shelley achieved.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine

‘To Pixar and Beyond: My Unlikely Journey with Steve Jobs to Make Entertainment History’ by Lawrence Levy

 

The feature films churned out by Hollywood studios today are a far cry from the pioneering motion pictures of the late 19th century. Technology is often highlighted as a key driver for innovation and in no sector is this more evident than in entertainment. Whether you want to look at improvements in video-capture devices, or changing film-editing processes and software capabilities, developments across film and entertainment are largely driven by developments in technology.

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The story related in ‘To Pixar and Beyond’ is a perfect example of the relationship between technology and innovation. While the majority of people will have heard of Pixar, and know of the company’s wide success in the film industry, few may be aware of its surprisingly humble origins. Written by Lawrence Levy, the former chief financial officer of Pixar, this book tells the tale of how a tiny, struggling start-up went on to revolutionise the animated film industry.

The story begins with Levy, a Harvard-trained lawyer and Silicon Valley executive, receiving an unexpected phone call from Apple founder Steve Jobs attempting to persuade him to join his latest venture, which at that point was on the verge of failure. This small, little-known software-development firm had begun creating computer-animated short films to advertise its work, and was now working towards creating the first ever computer animated feature film – a family-friendly adventure featuring toys that come to life. Levy recalls being struck by an odd mix of excitement and scepticism at hearing Pixar’s story, feelings that were all the more confused by a visit to the company’s dingy headquarters next to an oil refinery in Richmond Point, San Francisco.

Levy compares Pixar to the native Ohlone tribe, who roamed the land where Silicon Valley resides long before business took ownership of the area. Traditions capable of sustaining a tribe for thousands of years had been swept away by a wave of innovation. In the modern day, Levy says, those who can’t keep up with progress go the same way, becoming artefacts left behind. Outwardly Pixar had the appearance of a company that could be easily outstripped by its competitors, but among the rickety armchairs and stained ceiling tiles was a company that harboured a wealth of creative talent.

Of course, we know how the story pans out. There will be few people who have not heard of the first film to emerge from Pixar’s humble offices. In fact, ‘Toy Story’, as it came to be called, was not just successful, it went on to be the biggest film of 1995 – a feat virtually unheard of in the animated film world – and, at the time, became the third biggest grossing animated film of all time. A generation of millennials have now grown up alongside Toy Story’s beloved characters Buzz and Woody and will no doubt have shed a tear when the final film in the franchise was released in 2010.

Regardless of what you know about Pixar’s journey and subsequent success, though, Levy manages to make the story legitimately exciting. Joining the Pixar team was a huge decision, but this was really just the beginning. Once on board Levy and Jobs had a mountain to climb, in committing to transform Pixar into a company focused solely on animated feature films, and leaving behind the software sales and other piecemeal activites, which just barely kept the corporation afloat.

This book, like Pixar’s story, is truly remarkable. At times it reads like a novel, but informs like a documentary, advises like a self-help guide and inspires like any unexpected success story. Above all, the story is inspirational and should serve as encouragement for people wanting to innovate. Pixar’s story is rare, but not impossible. Innovation is out there, waiting to be discovered. As Levy says, creativity is a “dance on the precipice of failure”. There are no shortcuts, no formulas and no well-worn paths to victory, but the results speak for themselves.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine

‘Destroy this Book in the Name of Science’ by Mike Barfield

 

Science is exciting and at no point is this more apparent than when viewed through the eyes of a child, as this fun-filled new publication from Mike Barfield goes to show.

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As an impressionable ten-year-old, mere mention of the word ‘science’ had me thinking about dissolving just about anything in huge beakers of acid. With real-world scientific knowledge limited to the realms of mixing salt in water and weird Brainiac-related science abuse involving walking on custard and testing out slippery socks, I just couldn’t wait to get to secondary school and discover what wonders awaited me in the teenage science lab. Who could possibly resist the temptation of flammable alkaline metals, fizzing rainbow-coloured liquids and sooty beakers tarnished by improperly adjusted Bunsen burners?

When I first visited my secondary school, the chemistry teacher set up an experiment to show that the colour of fire could be changed using different types of salt. I’ll never forget adding borax to the soft glow of a Bunsen burner and seeing the flame change to a vivid apple green. The teacher managed to feign delight at what was no doubt the same experiment he’d seen dozens of times already that evening, musing ‘I’d rather like a pair of trousers that colour’ as I happily trotted off for my next lab tour.

What’s the point of this weird childhood anecdote, you may ask? To show that children are impressionable and liable to be amazed by even the simplest feats of science. It’s a good thing, too, because we all know how important it is to get children interested in STEM from an early age. As a parent, older sibling, aunt, uncle or concerned observer, it’s never too soon to get the young Isaac Newtons in your life excited about the wonderful world of science – and what better place to start than in the home.

The good news is that hands-on, kid-friendly science doesn’t have to be limited to the chemicals, crystals and compounds in the average chemistry set. A solution comes in the form of Destroy this Book in the Name of Science, an entertaining new publication from author Mike Barfield, which proves the perfect literary addition to the lab/bedroom of curious children.

Complete with its very own cut-out Einstein mask, this book is filled with projects and tasks to push out and pull apart, with pages reserved for colouring, doodling, cutting, tearing and flat-out destroying – all in the name of science. With the help of a little glue and some determination, even the most fledgling of boffins can discover the physics behinds some exceptional magic tricks, build a working cardboard hoop glider to out-fly any paper aeroplane and race paper sea turtles with the help of just a little washing up liquid.

The comically illustrated book is a simple affordable method of awakening the latent scientist nestled within each young brain. I would recommend this book for adults wanting to engage children in a little scientific fun or, equally, tired editorial staff in need of a Friday afternoon pick-me-up.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine.