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Questions about the physical world, the mind, and technology in conversations that reveal a rich seam of interacting ideas.

Science today is more a process of collaboration than moments of individual “eurekas.” This book recreates that kind of synergy by offering a series of interconnected dialogues with leading scientists who are asked to reflect on key questions and concepts about the physical world, technology, and the mind. These thinkers offer both specific observations and broader comments about the intellectual traditions that inform these questions; doing so, they reveal a rich seam of interacting ideas.

The persistent paradox of our era is that in a world of unprecedented access to information, many of the most important questions remain unsolved. These conversations (conducted by a veteran science writer, Adolfo Plasencia) reflect this, with scientists addressing such issues as intelligence, consciousness, global warming, energy, technology, matter, the possibility of another earth, changing the past, and even the philosophical curveball, “is the universe a hologram?”

The dialogues discuss such fascinating aspects of the physical world as the function of the quantum bit, the primordial cosmology of the universe, and the wisdom of hewn stones. They offer optimistic but reasoned views of technology, considering convergence culture, algorithms, “Beauty ? Truth,” the hacker ethic, AI, and other topics. And they offer perspectives from a range of disciplines on intelligence, discussing subjects that include the neurophysiology of the brain, affective computing, collaborative innovation, and the wisdom of crowds.

Conversations with
Hal Abelson, Ricardo Baeza-Yates, John Perry Barlow, Javier Benedicto, José Bernabéu, Michail Bletsas, Jose M. Carmena, David Casacuberta, Yung Ho Chang, Ignacio Cirac, Gianluigi Colalucci, Avelino Corma, Bernardo Cuenca Grau, Javier Echeverria, José Hernández-Orallo, Hiroshi Ishii, Pablo Jarillo-Herrero, Henry Jenkins, Anne Margulies, Mario J. Molina, Tim O'Reilly, John Ochsendorf, Paul Osterman, Alvaro Pascual-Leone, Rosalind W. Picard, Howard Rheingold, Alejandro W. Rodriguez, Israel Ruiz, Sara Seager, Richard Stallman, Antonio Torralba, Bebo White, José María Yturralde

Over the coming decades, Artificial Intelligence will profoundly impact the way we live, work, wage war, play, seek a mate, educate our young, and care for our elderly. It is likely to greatly increase our aggregate wealth, but it will also upend our labor markets, reshuffle our social order, and strain our private and public institutions. Eventually it may alter how we see our place in the universe, as machines pursue goals independent of their creators and outperform us in domains previously believed to be the sole dominion of humans. Whether we regard them as conscious or unwitting, revere them as a new form of life or dismiss them as mere clever appliances, is beside the point. They are likely to play an increasingly critical and intimate role in many aspects of our lives. The emergence of systems capable of independent reasoning and action raises serious questions about just whose interests they are permitted to serve, and what limits our society should place on their creation and use. Deep ethical questions that have bedeviled philosophers for ages will suddenly arrive on the steps of our courthouses. Can a machine be held accountable for its actions? Should intelligent systems enjoy independent rights and responsibilities, or are they simple property? Who should be held responsible when a self-driving car kills a pedestrian? Can your personal robot hold your place in line, or be compelled to testify against you? If it turns out to be possible to upload your mind into a machine, is that still you? The answers may surprise you.
AIDS is not caused by HIV. Coal and oil are not fossil fuels. Radiation exposure is good for you. Distributing more guns reduces crime. These ideas make headlines, but most educated people scoff at them. Yet some of science's most important concepts-from gravity to evolution-have surfaced from the pool of crazy ideas. In fact, a good part of science is distinguishing between useful crazy ideas and those that are just plain nutty. In this book, a well-known physicist with an affinity for odd ideas applies his open mind to nine controversial propositions on topical subjects. Some, it turns out, are considerably lower on the cuckoo scale than others.

Robert Ehrlich evaluates, for the general reader or student, nine seemingly far-out propositions culled from physics, biology, and social science. In the process, he demonstrates in easy-to-understand terms how to weigh an argument, judge someone's use of statistics, identify underlying assumptions, and ferret out secret agendas. His conclusions are sometimes surprising. For instance, he finds that while HIV does cause AIDS and the universe almost certainly started with a big bang, our solar system could have two suns, faster-than-light particles might exist, and time travel can't be ruled out as mere science fiction.


Anyone interested in unorthodox ideas will get a kick out of this book. And, as a fun way of learning how to think like a scientist, it has enormous educational value. Of course, only time will tell whether any of these nine ideas will be the next continental drift--the now orthodox account of the Earth's geology that was for years just a crazy idea.

Forty years after first chewing on sugar cane in New Guinea, the home of sugar, the author underwent some complex dental work as a direct result of his sweet tooth. This led him to explore sugar cane's journey from New Guinea to Shakespeare's England. In the days before dentistry, people paid dearly for this sweet new food from exotic places. Queen Elizabeth I became so partial to hippocras, sugared almonds and pastilles that her teeth turned completely black.

Bittersweet is full of ripping yarns and acts of bastardry. Through the ages, sugar has offered opportunities of tremendous riches to the unscrupulous few who grew and sold it. But in the days of manual processing, these fortunes were built on the backbreaking labour of slaves.

Bittersweet explores the effects that sugar has had on the world. A foodstuff we take for granted and indulge in more than we should has caused wars and geopolitical balances that have shaped the modern world and the power balances we see in the 21st century.

'The breadth of the connections Macinnis weaves through his tale continually surprises, all the more because the substance sugar is so deceptively simple that, before this book, we have taken it for granted. He has put his encyclopaedic knowledge to excellent use, placing science and technology naturally in a social context.' - Dr Peter Pockley, Australasian Correspondent for Nature.

'Few foods have had such an impact on human history as sugar, from its origins, its influence on the slave trade and its use as a medicine, a luxury, a comfort food and now a cheap filler in the modern processed food supply. Peter Macinnis has traced its path carefully, cleverly crafting the story of all its sweet and sour effects.' - Dr Rosemary Stanton, Nutritionist.
Knowledge is a big subject, says Stuart Firestein, but ignorance is a bigger one. And it is ignorance--not knowledge--that is the true engine of science. Most of us have a false impression of science as a surefire, deliberate, step-by-step method for finding things out and getting things done. In fact, says Firestein, more often than not, science is like looking for a black cat in a dark room, and there may not be a cat in the room. The process is more hit-or-miss than you might imagine, with much stumbling and groping after phantoms. But it is exactly this "not knowing," this puzzling over thorny questions or inexplicable data, that gets researchers into the lab early and keeps them there late, the thing that propels them, the very driving force of science. Firestein shows how scientists use ignorance to program their work, to identify what should be done, what the next steps are, and where they should concentrate their energies. And he includes a catalog of how scientists use ignorance, consciously or unconsciously--a remarkable range of approaches that includes looking for connections to other research, revisiting apparently settled questions, using small questions to get at big ones, and tackling a problem simply out of curiosity. The book concludes with four case histories--in cognitive psychology, theoretical physics, astronomy, and neuroscience--that provide a feel for the nuts and bolts of ignorance, the day-to-day battle that goes on in scientific laboratories and in scientific minds with questions that range from the quotidian to the profound. Turning the conventional idea about science on its head, Ignorance opens a new window on the true nature of research. It is a must-read for anyone curious about science.
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