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Science & Technology

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Vanishing Points of Representation: How They Change and Why

How does science manage to represent the world around us? Beyond the abstract question of how scientific theories represent the world, in recent years the material practices and the important role of formats and media have come into full view. More than twenty years ago, the volume ‘Representation in Scientific Practice’ (MIT Press, 1990) did much to bring out the material side of scientific representation as a process. Now, the original editors, together with a team of younger-generation scholars in science and technology studies, have returned to the question of representation in their ‘Representation in Scientific Practice Revisited’ (MIT Press, 2014). An important new dimension: the digital processing and representation of data. While there may not be, in the end, such a thing as a unified notion of ‘scientific representation’ simpliciter, and hence, as BRB reviewer Gabor Istvan Biro argues, the exact location of the ‘vanishing points’ of the discourse on representation may not be found in this volume, it nonetheless has much to offer in terms of insight into how and why scientists struggle with scientific representation in the digital era.

Photography and the Art of Chance

How does photography deal with, and co-opt, the element of chance that comes with any engagement with the material world around us? In his book ‘Photography and the Art of Chance’, Robin Kelsey brilliantly interweaves the history of photography with a broader history of art and an intellectual history of chance. This interdisciplinary approach helps Kelsey sidestep certain problematic moves in the historiography of art, which often result in a certain exceptionalism about photography as being qualitatively unlike other art forms. As reviewer Lauren Kroiz argues, Kelsey makes a persuasive case for the centrality of chance to the history of photography, starting from its early days and ending with a critique of our current enthusiasm for digital manipulation and posed photography, be it in the works of Cindy Sherman or in the — nowadays ubiquitous — “selfies” of individual consumers.

The Dream of Algorithms: Our Calculated Existences

Most visibly for Google, Facebook, and Amazon, but perhaps more importantly for banks, insurance companies, and major corporations, “Big Data” provides a new paradigm for organizing information, to which the use of algorithms has become ever more central. In his book ‘What are Algorithms Dreaming Of: Our Lives in Times of Big Data’ (‘A quoi rêvent les algorithmes: Nos vies à l’heure des big data’, Seuil, Paris 2015), Dominique Cardon aims to show how these new computing techniques are revolutionizing our society. Through new ways of classifying information, personalized advertising, product recommendation, and the track of consumers’ behaviour and interested, large-scale calculating infrastructures are trying to interfere ever more intimately in individuals’ lives. Yet far from being merely technical tools, algorithms bring with them an emergent political project. As reviewer Thorsten Botz-Bornstein notes, there is a sinister paradox here. People are by and large suspicious of centralized powers, be it the power of politicians, journalists, or unions; they (profess to) abhor being classified into broad categories, believing instead that their individuality fits into no “box.” Yet, these very same individuals allow themselves to become locked into the bubble of algorithms – partly because this new algorithmic authoritarianism has successfully been camouflaged as non-authoritarianism, partly because they are impressed with the speed and the effects of algorithmic coordination.

Churchill’s Bomb

Graham Farmelo, known as a biographer of physicist Paul Dirac, in his new book, ‘Churchill’s Bomb’, argues for a reassessment of Churchill’s role in British science policy. While not a scientist himself, Churchill drew inspiration from the work of writers such as H.G. Wells, speculating as early as 1924 that a bomb could be made, “no bigger than an orange….with the explosive power of tons of cordite”. When the possibility of actually building an atomic bomb came within reach, however, Churchill made various moves that ensured Britain’s exclusion from the American-led project to build the bomb. While, on one interpretation, Churchill allowed himself to be “fobbed off” by an evasive U.S. President Roosevelt, a fuller picture, as Farmelo makes clear, needs to take into account the various parties — individual and institutional, political and scientific — involved. In what reviewer Martin Underwood considers “a clear, lucid manner”, Farmelo reconstructs “Churchill’s often confused views on The Bomb and possible deployment”.

Optimists Beware!

Geoengineering — the idea that humans should deliberately engage in planetary-level interference with the Earth’s natural systems, in an attempt to partially reverse anthropogenic climate change — is a contentious idea, which nonetheless has quickly spread in policy circles and in the public’s imagination. Partly this is the result of the dismal failure of the global community to agree on, and enact, mitigation measures; partly, it is fuelled by a desire to see human beings as ‘in control’. Adding to several recent books on geoengineering, Clive Hamilton in ‘Earthmasters’ (Yale UP 2013) surveys the types of technologies being talked about under such labels as ‘solar radiation management’ and ‘carbon dioxide removal’, and inquires into the reasons for our collective inaction on climate mitigation. While much of the terrain has been covered elsewhere, reviewer Rose Cairns argues, Hamilton succeeds in bringing to the fore the issue of the enormous scale of the infrastructures that would be required to deploy any of the geoengineering techniques currently being explored.

After the Great East Japan Earthquake

Two and a half years after the tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan in March 2011, a number of books have appeared which explore the impact of the events on Japanese politics and policy-making. In ‘After the Great East Japan Earthquake’, published by the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, based in Copenhagen, a number of contributors analyze those policy areas most likely to be affected by the tragedy – politics, economics, energy, climate, agriculture and food safety – and describe how the sectors have been affected and what the implications are for the future. This adds up to a useful set of additional perspectives, according to reviewer Hansley A. Juliano, in this review originally written for the LSE Review of Books.

Poetry and the Brain

When an award-winning novelist-translator and a renowned psychologist join forces to explore their common areas of interests, one can expect a wealth of interesting insights — and perhaps even answers to such questions as: How does poetry affect our thinking? Is poetical experience different from ‘ordinary’ experience? How does the brain make sense of poetical patterns in language? And, last but not least: Why do certain texts arouse aesthetic pleasure and what happens in the brain, when we feel the urge to read a poem again and again? In their recent book ‘Gehirn und Gedicht’ (The Brain and the Poem, Hanser Verlag, Munich 2011), poeta doctus Raoul Schrott and Berlin psychologist Arthur Jacobs explore these and other questions, aiming to offer an synthesis of contemporary neurolinguistic, evolutionary, and aesthetic research. And yet, says reviewer Hans-Dieter Gelfert, the result falls short of the professed goal of making sense of poetic experience from a neuroscientific perspective. For, nearly everything that is being said about the neurological responses to visual, musical or verbal stimuli in poetry applies to such stimuli in general, irrespective of their aesthetic quality. In the end, what fuses the various neuroscientific elements into the kind of poetic unity that gives rise to aesthetic enjoyment is something which the theoretical framework of the two authors cannot explain.

Negative Thinking as a Path to Happiness?

In his book ‘The Antidote’, Oliver Burkeman argues that ‘positive thinking’ and relentless optimism aren’t the solution to the happiness dilemma, but part of the problem, and advocates instead ‘the power of negative thinking’. But, writes reviewer Berit Brogaard, while the book offers a spirited and witty account of some of the best ways to get through periods of distress or sorrow (or sheer annoyance), in the end, what Burkeman proposes isn’t all that different from standard cognitive-behavioural therapeutic practices, which include the positive thinking methods he so strongly criticises.