Best of the Occasional Book

I’ve covered so many excellent and informative books in this column that the idea of picking a handful for a ‘best of’ feature was initially daunting. However, since we appear cursed to live in interesting times, a theme rapidly suggested itself. Physicist David Deutsch has written that civilisations don’t fall directly from the problems of ecology, economy, violence or disease that beset them (I’m sure I need draw you no parallels), instead they fall from a failure of imagination when societies come to believe that no solutions are even possible. 

It can be hard to see the forest for the trees so I thought I’d refrain from the joys of cosmology, technology, AI and biology and instead present you with works that help lift your gaze past the looming trunks of despondency to the sylvan glades of possibility beyond.

by Hans Rosling
Published by Sceptre

At every level from school children to UN administrators, the human race seems addicted to doom and gloom. It’s an opinion formed in diametric opposition to the reality, Rosling says, that almost everywhere, almost everyone is better off than ever. We stand in a better place than our parents because of their actions, as they did because of their parents; an almost imperceptible generational hoisting on the shoulders of a million giants. Rosling gives us the numbers to back it up along with graphs, lots of graphs. Granted, some of their happy little lines would be taking a bit of a dip if they were extended to this last year but progress isn’t a smooth curve and it’s not automatic – we have to work at it. Still, look how far we’ve come says Rosling, and, with diligence and effort, how far we can yet go. 


Utopia for Realists / Humankindutopia-human-rgb
by Rutger Bregman
Published by Bloomsbury

OK, I’m cheating a bit here with a straight up ‘twofor’ but these two books are sort of complimentary; ‘Utopia’ dealing with society at large and the just released ‘Humankind’ concentrating on human nature. Bregman is an ‘angry young man’ version of the late Hans Rosling. Tumultuous to Rosling’s ebullience, Bregman’s arguments are not quite as polished but he is equally passionate about countering our collective doom addiction. ‘Utopia’ and ‘Humankind’ are bulwarks against the sea of despair and despondency served up by news and social media – litanies of grounded optimism with humane, real-world examples tackling problems in the economy, education, crime, violence, democracy and more.


by Robert Sapolsky
Published by Bodley Head/Penguin Random House

When it comes to the mind I was especially spoiled for choice. I could have picked  ‘The Irrational Ape’ or ‘The Idiot Brain’ or ‘The Intelligence Trap’ but in the end I eschewed the definite article and went with ‘Behave’; Neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky’s wide ranging magnum opus. In 2017 I called this book “an extraordinarily relevant and significant work”. Over the last three years of ever more fractionalised and polarised public discourse, that significance has only increased. ‘Behave’ is an unflattering, and occasionally grim, mirror revealing the origins and consequences of our many subconscious flaws and faults but also shows how we can circumvent the worst in ourselves.  


Empty Planetempty-planet-rgb-1
by Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson
Published by Robinson

David Attenborough thinks we have to control human population to save the planet. Well, job done then. Bricker & Ibbitson do the legwork here to show that the population bomb has run out of steam. There are fewer Millennials than Boomers and fewer Gen Z-ers than Millenials. In almost every continent – Europe, North America, China, Russia, large parts of South America – the birth rate is already below replacement level and falling. Good news for the planet is bad news for the economy though with declining births meaning fewer new workers and tax payers.


by David A. Sinclair PhD with Matthew D. LaPlante
Published by Thorsons

If we’re not going to have enough young people, why not keep the old ones? Sinclair is a geneticist specialising in ageing (LePlante is the writing half of the duo). His position gives him, he claims, a ten year heads-up on the sort of drugs and treatments we’ll be taking to live longer, healthier lives. His life extension vision is less ambitious than some (and more credible for it) promising, not eternal youth, but extra decades of health and vitality. It’s a future of beguiling promise where (fingers crossed) 90 year old marathon runners and teachers are the rule rather than the exception.

In George Pal’s 1960 version of “The Time Machine”, Philby notes that his friend has returned to the far future with only some books from his library to help build civilisation. ‘Which books would you choose?’ he wonders. Well, these would be my choices. While full of imaginative solutions they can’t quite give us a roadmap because there isn’t one sure path to a better future. Collectively however, they do clearly illuminate a preferred direction of travel. The route we choose is up to us.


by Robert Plomin
Published by Penguin Books

“DNA isn’t all that matters but it matters more than everything else put together,” says psychologist and geneticist Robert Plomin.

If you’ve heard about personality studies done on sets of twins reared in different families, Plomin is probably the guy who did them. His results (and many others) reveal that our personality, education and health are mostly contingent on the genetic mix we are handed at birth. It’s not that environment doesn’t matter but like roly-poly clowns buffeted by the winds of life, we usually return to our genetic equilibrium.

The predictive power of this new genetics is probabilistic rather than deterministic and the book necessarily leans a bit more towards the science end of popular science. Plomin does his best to keep it non-technical but some acronyms and statistics are unavoidable. It would be a gross simplification to reduce ‘Blueprint’ to a handful of takeaways but this is a short review so here we go.

For mental health says Plomin, “the abnormal is normal” with only quantative rather than qualitive differences between arbitrary ‘sick’ and ‘well’ distinctions. We’re all ‘on the spectrum’ for everything. Good news for parents; how you raise your kids mostly doesn’t matter. Read to them, or don’t, send them to a good school or a bad one. Ultimately, the numbers show, differences even out. The bad news is that genetic influences become more prominent as we age so yes, you’ll probably turn into your parents.

The ideas in ‘Blueprint’ require a complete about face in how we approach education, mental health, work and many other aspects of our lives. There’s a danger that some things (like private medicine) might go all Gattica on us but against that there’s unprecedented opportunity to, as Plomin says, “prevent problems and promote promise”.

Genes, as Plomin is keen to point out, may not be fate but they certainly seem to be stacking the deck.

Until the End of Time

Until the End of Time
by Brian Greene
Published by Allen Lane

Ancient Babylonians had the Enuma Elish, Hinduism the Rig Veda, Christians Genesis. We have “Until the End of Time” – a creation myth (with significantly less ‘myth’) for the scientific age.

Its an ambitious task Greene has undertaken, to set down in a single volume and to the best of our current knowledge, everything about how the universe came into being, how it produces time, atoms, stars, planets, DNA, life, mind and how it might all end in the unimaginably distant future (or not, that’s all a bit ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ at our current stage of ignorance). In some parts you will definitely think, “yes, yes, I get it, move on”, unfortunately, no more so than in the opening chapter on entropy. Don’t let it put you off though. The subject is more elaborate than you might think and important to understand for the rest of the book but honestly you can probably skim once you’ve got the gist of it. I can’t say I’m on-board with his ‘people-as-happy-automatons’ conclusions in the chapter on consciousness either but can’t, right at this moment, think of a counter argument. Give me a minute on that.

Mostly however, ‘Until the End of Time’ has clear explanations, intriguing insights and illuminating analogies to refresh or expand your understanding. A particularly striking metaphor is having the floors of the Empire State building represent multiples of 10 years that brings a very concrete image to the mind-boggling spans of time we have to consider when talking about the possible end of the Universe.

For all the knowledge Grene lays on current readers, I think he might have half an eye on a different audience. When future historians reach for a volume to understand 21st Century creation myths, I can’t imagine they’ll find a better choice than this.

Human Compatible

Human Compatible
AI and the Problem of Control
by Stuart Russell
Published by Allen Lane

Let’s be clear, Stuart Russell, Computer Science professor at UC Berkeley and Oxford, doesn’t think we have to worry about malevolent robot overlords, sentient Internet or Terminators any time soon. Why waste time worrying about the destination he asks, when the journey is so full of peril?

We’re already experiencing some of those perils in the unintended consequences of filter algorithms contributing to the growth of political polarisation and tribalism. Next up will probably be how our self driving cars make their decisions. Or maybe it will be the rules governing the behaviour of autonomous military robots. Or possibly corporate planning algorithms or medical research or, or, or…

These sort of partially intelligent AI systems will infiltrate more and more of our daily lives in the coming years and decades simply because of their huge potential (an extra $674 trillion per year, or a tenfold increase, in global GDP suggests Russell). AI systems that may not be conscious but are motivated and goal-orientated with an astoundingly greater grasp of situational variables than humans and vastly greater ability to model, and act on, those variables into the future.

Some have suggested putting the AI in a box or just turning off the power if we start having problems. Russell isn’t overly optimistic here, pointing out that a truly intelligent machine will be able to find work rounds for anything our monkey brains can come up with. After all, we can’t build a firewall that keeps other humans out let alone an AI. He’s not even on board with the solution of merging with AI by directly connecting our brains to their silicon. “If humans need brain surgery merely to survive the threat posed by our own technology, perhaps we’ve made a mistake somewhere,” he suggests.

Russell’s solution is to make sure the AI’s goals and ours are aligned before flipping the on switch. You don’t want your self-driving car mowing down pedestrians to get to your destination nor your smart kitchen eyeing up the caloric content of the cat (the shop is 20 minutes away, the cat is right there). However, as Russell’s version of AI becomes more powerful, it starts to sound like a really dumb genie. Huge potential benefits along with lots of opportunities to completely fork things up. Ask an AI to make you happy and you may end up on a permanent heroin drip. How can an AI know what we really (really, really) want when we hardly ever do? What we want at 15 is rarely what we want at 50 and often what we want may not be what we want to want, or indeed, how we want it.

All, however, is not lost. Russell has followed Asimov’s lead by coming up with three, well, not laws as such. They’re principals, suggestions, directions of thought that AI researchers should explore when building AI. They mostly centre around AI being altruistic, humble and learning about human wants and needs from observation. If that last is raising some red flags for you, you’re not alone and Russell explores a bunch of the caveats and provisos implied. “We will need to add ideas from psychology, economics, political theory, and moral philosophy”, he says. Honestly, it seems like a lot to squeeze into an AI. The big problem though, and one Russell only lightly touches on (perhaps because its more political than technological), is making sure everybody sings from the same hymnbook. Asimov’s three laws of robotics were universal because in those stories there was only one company making robots. It’s unlikely that there will be one company or country making superintelligent AI so ensuring there is a universal set of ideals installed in each from the get go will be a challenge.

The Day It Finally Happens


The Day It Finally Happens
by Mike Pearl
Published by Hodder & Stoughton

Mike Pearl – Vice columnist and anxiety disorder sufferer – worries about the future. To help quantify that worry, he’s sought advice from a selection of experts on exactly how much he should be worried about a variety of potential futures.

Pearl sets the scene for each scenario with a little fictional version of the proposed future then gives it a worry and probability rating before delving into the nitty gritty of expert opinion on the hows and whys. With an enviably easy writing style he draws you in and takes you on a tour of optimism and existential dread while pointing out silver linings and unexpected clouds en route.

Humans, Pearl suggests, don’t really believe in the future. We didn’t believe in this one after all which is why we’re in such a mess right now. You probably won’t believe all the futures explored here but you’ll definitely be better prepared to worry about the ones you do.

The Moon


The Moon
A Brief History for the Future
by Oliver Morton
Published by Profile Books

When the Israeli lunar probe ‘Beresheet’ crashed into the Moon in April 2019, it contained a library of 30,000 books engraved on 25 nickel disks. ‘The Moon’ by veteran space correspondent Oliver Morton wasn’t among them. Hopefully the next probe will preserve a copy because the real audience for this book won’t be born for centuries and maybe not on Earth.

The Moon will come to mean something else to them – holiday resort, home, industrial park or maybe just advertising hoarding. However harsh a mistress it may be to those future Selenites, Morton wants to preserve this historical record of what it has meant to us – to all the Earthbound artists and lovers, scientists, explorers, smugglers and dreamers who came before.

In elegant and lyrical prose, collating science along with myths and legends from around the world (mostly the Western parts), Morton entertainingly and informatively teases out the Moon’s place as both symbol and stone in our cultural and scientific zeitgeist.



A Brief History of How We F**cked It All Up
by Tom Philips
Published by Wildfire

“Humans” is a school report card on our first 70,000 years of term as written by Monthy Python. Author Tom Phillips (editor at the fact checking charity has scoured history to illustrate our species’ seemingly unerring ability to just not think things through. One ‘it-seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time’ decision can loose everything. You can loose a battle even if the other side doesn’t show up. You can loose your country’s harvest because you don’t like birds, you can even loose a whole empire (the secret to that last one is to massacre Genghis Khan’s peaceful trade delegation).

Phillips’ humour and engaging style in “Humans” makes it easy to laugh as you learn about those dumb ass decisions made by dumb ass folk in bygone days. Just remember who the last laugh is on though. I suspect that it’s we who will be the butt of the jokes for the 2120 edition.

The End is Always Near

The End is Always Near
by Dan Carlin
Published by William Collins

What if the electricity went off tomorrow and never came back on? It would be the end of civilisation as we know it suggests author Dan Carlin. Of course, civilizations have ended before. The Bronze Age collapse laid waste to the epitome of civilistation at the time. The Assyrian Empire, brutal even by the standards of a brutal age, ruled for 2,000 years yet collapsed so thoroughly it was all but forgotten until its modern rediscovery. What does it even mean for a civilisation to ‘fall’? Did Rome fall or just “transition to a more decentralised era with a distinct Germanic flair” asks Carlin? He looks back at these events as well as some of our own close calls to explore the hows, whys and what-comes-nexts of ‘THE END’.

He starts off with a question; does civilisation make us soft? Is it always rough pioneers building what their effete descendants loose – ‘wooden shoes going upstairs and silk slippers coming down’ as Voltaire suggested? Earlier folk certainly had it tougher than today. Parents could expect half their children to die (diarist Samuel Pepys lost all six of his siblings) and if they did live, the children could expect to experience ‘norms’ of physical and sexual abuse that would consign any modern victim to years on a psychiatrist’s couch. Did all this, wonders Carlin, make for tougher societies or just more barbarous ones?

The chapter on Pandemics makes for pertinent – and chilling – reading back here in early February with the Covid-19 virus taking hold. Hope it works out OK for you future folk. Certainly better than for the 25 million victims of the Plague of Justinian 1,500 years ago or the 75 million lives claimed by the Black Death in Europe or the 50 to 100 million people who died from Spanish Flu in the early 20th century (when they knew all about germ theory, disinfection and isolation).

Wars and their moral mutability get a couple of chapters of their own and, oh, how quickly atrocity becomes routine! It takes less than 30 years for the ‘crime against humanity’ of dropping a handful of small bombs onto Paris from a single, rickety bi-plane to transform into the just-another-day-at-the-office of burning 100,000 souls to death in a 1,000 plane bombing raid on Tokyo. The awful irony is that the road to these and even fresher hells are paved by good intentions. But, asks Carlin, if thwarting an evil empire costs megadeaths, how much evil do you get splashed on you in the process? Carlin reports contemporary accounts from victims and perpetrators are, by turns, heart-wrenching and utterly chilling.

One issue is that Carlin doesn’t really have an argument as such and consequently the book lacks focus. By his own admission, it’s just a loosely connected series of vignettes (albeit engrossing ones). His background is as a radio talk show host turned history blogger (mostly the shooty, stabby kind of history) and he tells us he aims for an unbiased ‘what-would-a-Martian-visitor-think-of-all-this’ viewpoint. I don’t think he quite makes it. For example, the closest we’ve come to extinguishing ourselves by nuclear war (on purpose anyway) is the Cuban Missile crises. While Kennedy doubtless deserves credit for resisting his advisor’s earlier unanimous recommendations for the use of nuclear weapons, some historians believe he prolonged the crises for political capital. There’s no hint of this controversy in Carlin’s ‘Kennedy-the-hero’ take on the subject.

We tend to act as if we are impervious to the sort of historical collapses explored here but that’s just what their citizens thought before they were ground to pulp in the gears of history. If there is a take-away from ‘End…’ it is, to quote Carlin’s dad: “don’t get cocky.”

The Irrational Ape

The Irrational Ape
by David Robert Grimes
Published by Simon & Schuster

Frankly, it’s not looking good for us apes in ‘The Irrational Ape’ by physicist David Robert Grimes. After a strong start courtesy of a couple of Russians you’ve never heard of who saved the world, things go downhill fast. One of the very many low points would be the mathematician Hippasus of Metapontum who, according to legend, was drowned as punishment for discovering irrational numbers. Not by an ignorant mob mind you, but by his fellow Pythagorians (yes, the triangle guy, also religious nut). If mathematicians can’t be logical, what hope do the rest of us have?

Grimes does his best to boost our chances. He starts off with a quick rundown of the steps needed to formulate a reasoned argument and the subtle – and not so subtle – twists of logic and retoric that give the veneer of creditability to hollow or emotive positions. Then he rounds up the usual suspects that scupper our thinking. There’s perennial favorites like echo chambers, confirmation bias and false dichotomies (the with-us-or-against-us ruse popular with demagogues from Lenin to Bush). False memory syndrome makes our memories more Wikipedia than Britannia and manipulated statistics show that dressing as a pirate alleviates Global Warming.

If the book feels familiar it’s not just because it reuses the gorilla hand graphic from Brian Cox’s ‘Human Universe’ for it’s cover. The absences and errors of logic that “hammer nonsense into narrative” have been covered by many previous writers. When I started reading I was unsure that we needed another reminder of the problems but the book provides plenty of motivation. Perhaps we need it because a study of 126,000 internet news stories between 2006 and 2017 showed that ‘falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster and more broadly than truth’. Perhaps it’s because bloggers who claim airplane air is dangerous since it’s not ‘pure oxygen’ can get to No.1 on the New York Times bestseller lists. Most pressingly it might be because the Internet’s promised democratisation of information has instead evolved, as Grimes describes it, into weaponised disinformation. ‘Outrage machines’ pander to the voluntary Balkanization of public discourse by generating pantomime villains & heroes and the comforting illusion of understanding (along with, of course, lots and lots of revenue producing clicks).

And, not least, perhaps we need it because Grimes is a clear and engaging writer with a lovely turn of phrase and personal experience countering anti-vaxers, conspiracists and climate deniers. He also fills the book with plenty of funny / disheartening / heartbreaking examples of tragic error, forehead-smacking-idiocy and outright chicanery to keep the reader entertained.

The only real problem with ‘The Irrational Ape’ then is that it’s destined for an echo chamber of it’s own. Any readers will already consider themselves pretty reasonable. They’re not, obviously. You’re not, I’m not. Even a cursory examination of our own motives reveals exactly the sort of glaring errors in logic and motivation Grimes describes. Books like ‘The Irrational Ape’ can help us get better at countering them but I suspect we’re the wrong market. Some of you reading this are teachers of all stripes from Montessori to tenured Professors. How difficult is it to develop a standard curriculum to teach the basics of how to think? Maybe some simple rules for primary students, funny examples to keep the attention of bored secondary classes, elementary statistics for college courses in business, finance and – especially – politics. The basics of how to reason (or, at least, recognise when others aren’t) should be as ubiquitous at all education levels as our ABC’s and 1,2,3’s. A fourth R to add to the other three. If we are to become even slightly more rational apes, it will have to start (and I apologise for laying this extra burden on your shoulders) with you.


by David A. Sinclair PhD with Matthew D. LaPlante
Published by Thorsons

Ray Kurzweil famously said that he wants to ‘live long enough to live forever’. In ‘Lifespan’, the goals of genetics and ageing researcher David Sinclair are rather more modest. He doesn’t promise us forever, he promises us Harriette Thompson.

Harriette Thompson looked 70 when she broke records at the 2014 San Diego marathon. She was 91. Harriette was a rare exception but she won’t stay that way for much longer Sinclaire says. His position gives him an inside track on the treatments and drugs coming down the pipeline that will extend life and healthspan. The future he sees for us is one where 90 year old marathon runners raise no more comment than 50 year old ones do today. A future where 90 year old teachers instruct 70 year old students and great, great grandparents rough-and-tumble-it with their great, great grandchildren. Its a future, he says, that is sitting on lab benches today.

‘Lifespan’ is full of acronmys; NR and NMN, SIR2 and NAD boosters, AMPK activators, TOR inhibitors and Metformin (a diabetic drug). All molocules, genes and drugs that work to restore vitality to the old and extend health and lifespan. Despite their tsunami of promise and Sinclair’s boundless enthuasism, the caveat is that most of the hard data is from experiments on yeast, fruitflys and mice. Trials with people are ongoing but results and treatments are years away so Sincalir isn’t waiting. He’s confident enough in the research as it stands to take a bunch of the stuff that works so well in animal studies. So does his dad, his brother, his co-workers and their families. Evidence is anacedotal of course but very positive.

On one level, ‘Lifespan’ is basically a funding pitch but Sinclair is up front about it. Ageing isn’t seen as a disease so research grants are hard to come by while doctors won’t prescribe, nor insurance companies cover, treatments. It’s hard to fault his logic. We spend billions on what he describes as ’whack-a-mole’ treatments and research for cancer, heart disease and Alzheimers while ignoring their overwhelming contributing factor; ageing, Being a smoker, he reminds us, increases your cancer risk fivefold but just being over 50 increases it a hundredfold.

Sinclair is aware that all these extra years come with consequences, challenges and risks – who needs an immortal Cyril Smith or Idi Amin? He also expects extending vitality will “fundamentally alter the way our economy works”. Overall though (and unsuprisingly) he’s confident that the personal, social and financial gains will outweigh any downsides.

I have to mention LePlante (the writing half of the duo). He may be over-fond of short, melodramatic sentenses but he makes a decent fist of translating complex research for the layman’s ear – not shying away from the science but not overloading us with it either.

Sinclair’s message is certainly an alluring one, especially for those of us with the cool winds of mortality whistling around our ankles but – for that very reason – it behoves us to make sure our critical faculties are fully engaged while listening to it. Sinclair is involved to varying degrees with commercial companies selling us the stuff he’s talking about. This, by no means, makes him a snake oil salesman but readers should allow for the possibility that it might motivate him – consciously or unconsciously – to ocasionally be more bullish than perhaps prudence might dictate. For instance, he doesn’t discuss the side affects of the Metformin drug I mention above and of which he has such high hopes. In practice it is often discontinued by diabetic patients due to the side affects of explosive flatulence and galloping diarrhoea. An extra ten years of vitality sounds great but less so if you have to spend nine of them in the bathroom.