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What we think
Science? Cool? Really? PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Tuesday, 13 April 2010 15:29

What today's headline on Futurehead.com "How science became cool" really demonstrates is that the media is finally becoming aware of how "cool" science is, and has always been.

But then again, isn't this just more headline generation? The media always wants to flag up step-changes that may not actually exist. They set up the straw man of the geeky and withdrawn lone scientist, and now they are all too keen to knock him down and replace him with a "new" breed of "cool" science-icon.

This is so much humbug. Doing science can be beautiful and exciting. "Cool" if you must. One of the things I really like about scientists is that most of them couldn't give a damn about what the media thinks of them. They continue with their important work unencumbered by religion, political dogma or daft media hyperbole. Or, perhaps, this is simply wishful thinking on my part. It's part of human nature to be attracted to glamour, acclaim, status. At least the scientist is more deserving of it than the actor or the Katie Price (whatever one of those is).

Science may be "cool" but it is also "hard" so at least we shouldn't expect a bunch of fake "celebrity scientists" to be popping up any time soon. Those who are becoming well-known to the general public are there because they are good at communicating difficult concepts. And in the stupefied, celebrity-obsessed culture we have become used to, difficult concepts feel like a breath of fresh air.

67 Votes


Review: ‘Excession’ - Iain M. Banks PDF Print E-mail
Written by Iain   
Monday, 01 March 2010 00:00
Back in 1996 Iain Banks released this, his 7th novel under his sci-fi ‘M’ moniker (although I’m counting one of those as The State of the Art, a collection of his short stories) and the first novel set in his Culture universe since Use of Weapons, a few years earlier.  It has for many fans become the seminal Culture book, exploring as it does its universe to a greater extent than perhaps the previous four novels in the series managed.  It probably also owes its popularity to the shift in focus from essentially individual human character’s stories, as in the likes of Use of Weapons and Player of Games, to what many consider the Culture’s most endearing aspect – sentient spaceships.

Yup, if Excession is really about one thing it’s those ships, or more specifically the Minds that control those craft; massive spacehuggers both physically and in their intelligence.  They display humour, aggression, compassion, they conspire, and at one point one even commits suicide.  They also have their usual whimsical names - the likes of Jaundiced Outlook, Fate Amenable to Change and Unacceptable Behavior - names in fact very deliberately chosen by Banks to express facets of each ships’ personality. Sure there are still flesh and blood characters who are indeed central to the narrative, but even then it’s more about how the ships (or at least one in particular) manipulate them.

Actually it might be easier to list what things don’t display artificial intelligence in this novel.  Everything from giant asteroid space habitats down to the small robotic drones introduced in earlier books and, most interestingly, the suits worn by human species in environments they’re not adapted to, have an intelligent Mind controlling them, the latter being prone to irascibility and sarcasm – I suppose I would be too if I had to spend my days as a sentient item of clothing.

I’d have to say though I wasn’t immensely impressed with the story’s main protagonists, an alien race known as The Affront.  I imagine them as sort of hyper-Klingons (although not humanoid), and in a universe as intelligent as the one Banks creates here they come across as out of place pantomime villains – warrior like, living for battle, sadistic towards other races and their own female population etc etc.  I’m quite sure this is exactly the slightly tongue in cheek race Banks intended them to be, and this is not a novel lacking good dollop of humour - see my comments about acerbic apparel – but they don’t chime well with the rest of the narrative.

This is an epic novel, not in number of pages but certainly in scope, and there’s a lot to take in here.  Not a good starting point for Iain M newbies – I’d personally refer you to The Player of Games for that, but if you’ve read one or two and now want to truly immerse yourself in the culture of The Culture, pick this one up.

68 Votes


Review: ‘House of Suns’ - Alastair Reynolds PDF Print E-mail
Written by Iain   
Tuesday, 17 November 2009 17:33
Alastair Reynolds first came to my attention with Revelation Space , his debut novel published in 2000.  The ‘Revelation Space universe’ has been the setting for a number of his other works, including short stories and four other novels.  This universe is set in the relatively near future (roughly various points between 2200 and 40 000 AD), and the stories have generally taken on a hard sci-fi bent.

I’d not been familiar with any of his non-Revelation Space universe novels until I read House of Suns.  This book takes place a rather unimaginable 6 million years into the future, where humanity has spread out into an apparently otherwise uninhabited galaxy, although a robot civilisation, known as the Machine People, has evolved.  The main focus is on Gentian Line, a group of originally 1,000 humans cloned from an individual, Abigail Gentian, millions of years previously, who set out to explore the galaxy separately, but meeting up for a grand reunion every 200,000 years.

So, unlike Revelation Space, you’d be hard pressed to classify this as ‘hard’ sci-fi.  The idea of a group of humans remaining alive for such an unfeasibly large amount of time having undergone little physical alteration is a tricky one to swallow.  Line members have seemingly made some changes to themselves in order to deal mentally with the enormous prolongation of their natural lifespans, as well as putting themselves into stasis or ‘abeyance’ for long journeys aboard their spacecraft – although in interstellar space, where at best only very close to the speed of light can be achieved, there’s no such thing for them as a short journey.

Post-humanism, in particular through one character - or perhaps more accurately, entity - is alluded to, and we have the aforementioned Machine People, who are pivotal to the plot.  But anyone looking for something imagining a post-singularity far future is in for a disappointment.

But that’s not really the point.  This novel, although meandering at times, is an enjoyable read, and one that takes an interesting twist (or maybe one I was just too dozy to have foreseen) towards the end.  It’s something of a love story (you’ve been warned hard sci-fi nerds!), and at times it almost reads more like fantasy.  Very obviously so when we get flashbacks to an extremely involving role-playing game Abigail played in her youth.  But also in some of the dialogue, particularly between members of the Line during their gathering, and then also in the naming of Line spacecraft; we have titles like Sliver Wings of Morning and Midnight Queen.

So, fantasy overtones, but this is still sci-fi (although with more of an emphasis on the ‘fi’) from the pen of a great sci-fi author.  I wonder what I’ll be up to in 6 million years time… PURVW6KFJWH5
75 Votes

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Alan Johnson on cannabis PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Monday, 09 November 2009 12:25

Somebody should explain endocannabinoids to UK Home Secretary Alan Johnson. Your brain is on cannabis Mr Johnson - everybody's is. Your brain is a drug-squirting machine. Perhaps you should have taken a good drag of THC from an external source before sacking Professor David Nutt in a fit of ill-educated pique. It might have calmed you down a little.

This issue is, of course, much larger. There is a scientific process which politicians simply don't seem to understand. The scientific evidence about the relative dangers of commonplace drugs is not a matter of political opinion - there are well-established factual studies which cannot be buried just because politicians do not like people who take proscribed drugs. Professor Nutt could not, in all conscience as a scientist, do other than point out these facts.

The easy availability of proper, detailed, scientific information should, I hope, make it increasingly difficult for politicians to hide the truth in a miasma of spin. But we need to make use of that information and hold them to account. Mr Johnson is starting to discover that the public is not quite as acquiescent, ill-informed and gullible as he thought.

64 Votes


Review: ‘Bad Science’ – Ben Goldacre PDF Print E-mail
Written by Iain   
Tuesday, 25 August 2009 14:27
I’m not entirely sure why I bought this book, since I was fairly certain it would tell me nothing I didn’t already know.  I already take a dim view of homeopathy and alternative therapy in general, believe that the tactics of big pharmaceuticals are hardly above-board, and, the main focus of the book, that science reporting in the mainstream media is at best a bit thin.

So perhaps I bought it for reassurance, but as it turns out there were some real eye openers.  Of particular enjoyment was the chapter on Dr Gillian McKeith PhD – her titles incidentally are not accredited.  This chapter also contains an amusing brief history of nutritionism – if you eat any Kellogg’s cereal for breakfast be warned that the origins of this company were in creating granola bars and the like “as a route to abstinence”.

McKeith, along with other self-proclaimed nutrition and alternative therapists, promote a seemingly benign approach medicine.  This approach though is certainly lacking should anyone dare to criticise their methods.  For example, apparently a tactic of Professor Patrick Holford (another nutritionist with an un-accredited title) is to throw a hissy-fit at authors of any study finding flaw with his work, questioning their integrity, and accusing them of being pawns of the pharmaceutical industry.

Crucially though both the above and others have been taken very seriously in the mainstream media, demonstrating the lazy and downright wrong journalism that has propagated in the field of science that surely wouldn’t be tolerated in any other topic.  If ever your cynicism alert goes off when you read phrases like “research has shown” or “an expert in [insert subject here]” you may find enlightenment in this book, and turn that alert into a full-blown bullshit detector.

Goldacre himself is a doctor, working full-time for the NHS, so understandably the vast bulk of this book concentrates on examples from the field of medicine.  But his approach can be applied to any scientific field.  As our technology continues to advance at an ever increasing rate, scare stories (some admittedly valid, simply because there are many unknowns, e.g. grey goo) are likely to abound.  Books like this are crucial in helping us assimilate the facts, before the media scare the bejesus out of us unnecessarily. esm69ky57r
72 Votes


The Singularity is near? PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Friday, 03 April 2009 11:03

You'll see that we've just posted up a new poll on the technological Singularity. We know that there's been a lot of hype on the Singularity issue over the last few years, since Ray Kurzweil's book, but it looks like the subject is now starting to come of age. However, it's still easy to get caught up in the hype. Look at how many people fell for Google's CADIE AI singularity prank.

It must be tricky to write a book about The Singularity. If the exponential explosion in technology and intelligence is really happening then your book is going to be vastly out of date as soon as it is published. I am sure Mr Kurzweil was aware of this but still couldn't resist putting out his seminal tome. He'll be keeping us up-to-date via his Kurzweil AI site anyway.

The technological Singularity will happen (probably) because the only alternatives would be stagnation or extinction. We don't like these alternatives much. That wouldn't have made for a great poll on a future and technology site would it? Which do you favour - extinction, stagnation or technological nirvana? We are, however, interested to learn when you think it might happen. We'll ask for your reasons another day.

71 Votes


What's it all about? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Iain   
Thursday, 29 January 2009 15:41

Greetings, and hopefully you've enjoyed what you've seen of our site so far.

Futurehead was launched quietly a couple of weeks ago, so we're obviously still in the process of generating interest (and, of course, traffic!), and indeed the process of building the site itself is really an ongoing one. However it struck me that so far it's all been a little anonymous, so allow me to explain...

Our main purpose will be to gather and publish interesting news stories from around the web dealing with new and future scientific and technological developments. Such articles will have to excite us and, hopefully, in turn they will excite you. This will be the main purpose of the home page, however you may have noticed we also have a Newsfeeds section. Here we've got a range of feeds from a variety of sources. Be sure to check this page often as anything cool that we've missed will likely appear somewhere in here.

In case you're wondering (aren't we always), the Extravolution Blog is not my responsibility, but rather that of my co-collaborator on this project. He chooses to remain anonymous at this time, but he's nonetheless quite the sage (probably) when it comes to all things futurist, so it's a blog well worth subscribing to.

As to this section, it's intended to have occasional pieces either by myself or a number of other collaborators. A blog of sorts, but more of a group effort.

So what am I doing? Well, my main involvement in this project has been to build the website you're currently staring at. Whilst I do have a very strong interest in the subject matter, I was spurred on to do this by my re-awakened interest in web-design, something which I'd previously abandoned many moons ago. Hopefully you'll agree the results are pretty decent, although if you really do have any gripes (or merely suggestions) you can of course contact us.

Cheers for now.

68 Votes


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