Barbara Kiser reviews five of the week's best science picks.
From search engines to satnavs, artificial intelligence (AI) permeates society. In this masterclass of a book, cognitive scientist Margaret Boden traces the evolution of AI from conceptual framing by Ada Lovelace through key research by the likes of Alan Turing and Paul Churchland, to the schism between cybernetics and symbolic computing. Traversing today's landscape, she examines the 'holy grail' of artificial general intelligence and the potential of neural networks and robots, and winnows the apocalyptic predictions from the real ethical dangers of AI misuse.
As the quintessence of Earthly remoteness, Antarctica has drawn hordes of scientists, iconic explorers such as Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen, and novelists who have peopled it with vast humanoid lobsters or radioactive elephant seals. Historian Elizabeth Leane tours the research, literature, exploration and geopolitical manoeuvrings that swirl around the pole. Hers is a detailed, compelling portrait of a place at once central and marginal, fantastically inhospitable and beautiful, and a mecca for physicists, government claimants and extreme tourists.
Journalist Neal Bascomb delivers a deeply researched account of a half-forgotten episode in the Second World War: the Allied raids that sabotaged the Nazi effort to build a nuclear bomb. In 1940, the Third Reich co-opted Norway's Vemork hydroelectric plant, sole source of the heavy water (2H2O) needed for the bomb technology. Bascomb interweaves the stories of Hitler's 'Uranium Club' and of atomic chemist Leif Tronstad, who directed the Allied operation, with the thriller-esque tale of the commandos who put the plant out of action in 1943.
'Male-dominated' is an understatement in architecture: in Britain alone, just 24% of architects are women, and the late Zaha Hadid was a rare star. In this slim chronicle, architectural historian Despina Stratigakos incisively catalogues the setbacks. In 1908, for instance, German architectural critic Karl Scheffler claimed that female practitioners were “irritable hermaphroditic creatures”; Ayn Rand's 1943 paean to architectural misogyny The Fountainhead became a university cult. Despite the equality debate, Stratigakos notes, the work of architects such as Thekla Schild remains low profile.
Cryogenics and climate change permeate this existential science-fiction tale by novelist Don DeLillo. Set in a shadowy compound near Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, it centres on Zero K, a “faith-based technology” that promises future immortality in cyberhuman form. Sceptical protagonist Jeff meets the cultists, views videos of catastrophes and contemplates ageing in a satirical narrative shot through with poetic lyricism. Ultimately, a celebration of life's “mingled astonishments”, as a counterweight to fantasy futurism and pessimism alike.