Review | Homo Deus – Yuval Noah Harari

Homo Deus front cover
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I restarted Homo Deus this week, as I had previously been put off by the reviews which claimed it was far less impressive than Sapiens (which I had enjoyed). But the more I read Homo Deus, the more ambivalent I became about whether or not to continue reading. I felt like Harari’s style could work when applied to topics that I’m already interested in such as AI and big data. Yet, Homo Deus quickly fell from being interesting to infuriating, as I learned just how badly it misrepresented one of its main subjects. (See the The Turning Point section below for details).

The Starting Point

The first few pages impressed me, as Harari painted a memorable picture of an improving world. Within the prologue there are some fascinating ideas and questions that are worth thinking about. Pages 71-74 go in to the history of garden lawns; this narrative shows how ideas about what an object means travel across countries and over time, and how those ideas become unquestioned assumptions baked into our societies and world-views.

Homo Deus also keeps the same casual and accessible writing style as Sapiens. Harari’s explanations contain bursts of flair, like rhetorical devices, assonance, and pop-cultural references, that make the text engaging and occasionally humorous. It almost reads like fiction, and sometimes that’s a downside; its smooth nature meant I found myself sliding from one chapter to another and then suddenly realising that I hadn’t questioned whether the segues and connections Harari made were logical as a result.

As I kept reading, my opinion of the book kept changing even within pages. There are paragraphs which contain thought-provoking questions, and which make predictions that have to some extent been shown to be correct. For example, Homo Deus contains this description of how targeted algorithms might affect voting:

“in future US presidential elections, Facebook could know not only the political opinions of tens of millions of Americans, but also who among them are the critical swing voters, and how those voters might be swung. Facebook could tell that in Oklahoma the race between Republicans and Democrats is particularly close, identify the 32,417 voters who still haven;t made up their minds, and determine what each candidate needs to say in order to tip the balance. How could Facebook access this priceless political data? We provide it for free.”

This was written in 2015, before the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal was widely publicised, but its certainly close to what happened. At the same time, Harari makes other predictions that have already been proven false. Talking about Microsoft’s Cortana, first developed just a year before Homo Deus was written, Harari envisions that;

“Next thing I know, a potential employer will tell me not to bother sending a CV, but simply allow his Cortana to grill my Cortana‚Ķ.As Cortanas gain authority, they may begin manipulating each other to further the interests of their masters‚Ķ”

That’s already wrong, because Cortana is being switched off from most of its planned customer-focused purposes, even on Microsoft’s own devices. Harari’s rush to ascribe world-changing powers to the 12-month-old Cortana is a red flag that should make readers question how many of his other predictions could be similarly over-hyped.

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Review | In the Land of Invented Languages – Arika Okrent

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Although we use language in everything we do, we rarely need to wonder about how our languages could be improved. Even if we do, the thought of making a whole new language to fix those flaws seems ridiculous.

Language creators, from scientists to philanthropists to eccentric sociologists, take centre stage in “In The Land of Invented Languages”. The book makes sense of invented languages — languages developed by just one person — by explaining why some of those languages were developed and what the inventors were trying to achieve by creating new languages.

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Review | The Violinist’s Thumb – Sam Kean

A hardback copy of the book The Violinsts Thumb.
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Biology is a conspicuous weak spot in my knowledge. My psychology education taught me a little about neurons, neurotransmitters, and brain structure. Beyond that, my main biological knowledge is trivia about platypi. So I read The Violinist’s Thumb less to learn about specific topics than to better understand how all these concepts of DNA, genes, cells and chromosomes related to each other.

The introduction sets up a powerful tension between the  scientific value gained by understanding DNA and the fears thrown up by confronting our genetic building blocks. From there, we discover the parallel stories of Gregor Mendel and Friedrich Miescher, who first isolated genes and DNA. Using these building blocks of genes, Kean leads readers towards larger structures such as chromosomes, viruses, humans, and human cultures.

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Impressions | The Two Cultures – CP Snow

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I was introduced to “The Two Cultures” during the first lecture of my scicomm MSc. When we were talking about scicomm history, “The Two Cultures” stood proudly on our timeline alongside documents which were fundamental to the field. So I wanted to read it for myself.

Originally “The Two Cultures” was a lecture, presented by scientist-turned-fiction-author C. P. Snow in 1959. Snow’s titular cultures were “people of the humanities and literature” and “people of the sciences”. In the lecture, Snow sketched out  divisions between these cultures, with anecdotes from his experiences as a novelist amongst scientists and a scientist amongst literary intellectuals. He blamed this cultural divide on Britain’s education system, which forced people to specialise in one subject too early and prioritised humanities at the expense of science and engineering.

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Review | A Mind of Its Own – Cordelia Fine

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Books that ask “what’s wrong with our brains?” are a current pop-psychology staple. Cordelia Fine’s A Mind of Its Own was ahead of this trend, as it was first published in 2005.

A Mind of Its Own explores ways in which our brains don’t make sense and cognitive biases that funnel us down faulty mental shortcuts. The book starts with the bias equivalent of little white lies, detailing how almost all of us are biased to see things as a little easier, happier, and less flawed than they really are. From this gentle introduction, Fine talks us through the progressively larger mental failings discovered through social psychology studies.

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Review | Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari

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I first noticed Sapiens because of its polarising reviews; its readers seemed divided over whether it was one of the greatest books in existence or one of the most pretentious. With my curiosity piqued, Sapiens jumped to the top of my to-buy list.

As I haven’t studied much biology or early history, I expected that Sapiens might be a challenging read. However, I was surprised by Yuval Harari’s clear writing style – Harari generally limits jargon words, and he uses conversational language rather than unnecessarily academic sentence structures. The challenge in reading Sapiens comes from its ideas, not its style.

“imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively”

“This is why today monogamous relationships and nuclear familes are the norm in the vast majority of cultures, why men and women tend to be possessive of their partners and children, and why even in modern states such as North Korea and Syria political authority passes from father to son” .

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Review | The Disappearing Spoon – Sam Kean

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I’ve previously read Kean’s third book, The Tale of the Duelling Neurosurgeons, which I found very informative and fun to read, so I was looking forward to reading The Disappearing Spoon.

Initially, The Disappearing Spoon was a more difficult read than Duelling Neurosurgeons, although that’s partly because I have less background knowledge about chemistry than I do about psychiatry or neurology. In comparison to Duelling Neurosurgeons, TDS is denser and more complex. While I could read a chapter of Neurosurgeons in one go and follow its major ideas and mechanics, I couldn’t do the same with TDS. Instead, I needed to stop and retrace my steps frequently to ensure I was keeping track of how new details related to previous information. (This applies most to the early chapters, which focused on the chemicial knowledge required to make sense of featured elements.)

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Review | The Accidental Scientist – Graeme Donald

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I picked up a copy of The Accidental Scientist thanks to its title- one of my favourite scientific topics is how luck has influenced science and medicine, so this book seemed like a good idea.

The Accidental Scientist is a short and fast read which covers the story of various inventions such as Botox, explosives, and telephones. Each 8-12 page chapter starts with one invention as a theme. From this point, single-page subsections handle each link in a chain of discoveries. This book is concise by necessity, as it aims to pack a large collection of trivia in tightly limited space.

As a result, every sentence has a role; either moving the chronological narrative onwards or bringing in a new character or development. Nothing here is padded or wasted. While admirable, the speed and constant progress also results in some individual stories losing their impact and gravity. Given what has been shown here, plenty of the events in single chapters could fill their own book if treated differently. For example, I found the section on nitroglycerin and the Nobel family a little disjointed when compared to other sections- keeping track of the many names, inventions and connections discussed in sequence was difficult.

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Review | The Tale of the Duelling Neurosurgeons- Sam Kean

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I’m revisiting my pop-science book collection, partly to get back into a habit of reading and partly to look at the range of styles available in popular science writing. First on my list is Sam Kean’s The Tale of the Duelling Neurosurgeons.

Duelling Neurosurgeons initally surprised me by not opening with duels or with neurosurgery. Instead, it dives into the world of sleep paralysis, an experience often compared to possession or even alien abduction.

Once the sleep paralysis scene is set, Kean then pulls the rug out from under it by explaining how the near-supernatural experience is caused solely by physical circuits and responses. This unorthodox opening demonstrates his message- that small physical brain events can produce irrational, unexpected, and even spiritual/religious-seeming changes – in an accessible way which makes the idea easier to grasp.

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Review | Fun Science – Charlie McDonnell

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I’ve recently finished Fun Science by Charlie McDonnell, and after reading it I’m surprisingly impressed both by the book itself and its potential value for science communication.

Firstly, some context. Charlie McDonnell is a filmmaker/musician/ vlogger/presenter… and now author. Last month he released Fun Science (the book), inspired by his 2011 YouTube series of the same name. Fun Science (the show) has also returned,and covers topics included in the book. (A playlist of all of the YouTube episodes is below).


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