Science Book Club: Hello World

Welcome to my Science Book Club!

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This is the first of two new categories I am starting this month and one I have been wanting to do for a while. However, my PhD kinda got in the way amongst many other things. But – now I spent a lot of time commuting on trains, and after setting myself a goal of reading more this year, it was about time that I started up my book club to share my thoughts with you and hopefully to encourage you all to read more STEMM books and educate yourselves.

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Don’t get me wrong, I love a good novel or story. But more recently I have much preferred getting my teeth stuck into a good bit of non-fiction. Probably because I just want to continue learning and my inner forever student will have to settle for these sorts of books now instead of more degrees.

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And I couldn’t be more excited than to start with today’s book: Hello World by one of my idols Hannah Fry.
So let’s take a closer look at Hello World: How to Be Human in the Age of the Machine…

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Why did I read this book?

I have never been the best person at maths, especially when put under pressure. I never really got on with it and never really understood why you would pursue it beyond more than A-levels to be completely honest with you.

But the further I have travelled down my scicomm journey, the more my eyes have been opened to the applications of maths and how doing a mathematics PhD isn’t always just the pure maths I thought it would be.
This is culminated when I went to New Scientist Live last year.

You all know I’m a molecular biologist by trade and I have always been amazed by space. But this trip to a science festival in London in 2018 caused me to leave feeling like I wish I had been exposed to the world’s of maths, coding and engineering when I was much younger – not that my maths skills would have ever got me to a career in these fields but I was hooked and wanted to know more.

I thought I would start with Hannah Fry’s new book – after all I am a huge fan and we have all had the word algorithm thrown around – especially if you spend a lot of your time blogging and on social media like I do. We hear about the upsides and the downsides to all these algorithms so I wanted to know more. I bought this book at New Scientist Live after the quickest interview in history with Hannah thanks to a wonderful human called Charlie E ready to get brain around the wonderful world of algorithms.

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What is this book all about?

So you might have guessed already that this book is about algorithms. But it is much more than that. Hello World takes us on a journey of how these machines will and are affecting our lives and how we as humans have to live with that now and in the future as things are improved and refined, the big decisions we have to make and the challenges we have to overcome to achieve our futuristic sci-fi society dreams.

We are taken on a tour of how algorithms bring strengths and weaknesses to our society in the 21st century in the categories of Data, Crime, Power, Justice, Medicine, Cars, Health and Art. Each chapter discusses the successes and disasters of how we have and are using algorithms in our lives now – with so many examples that are relevant to you that you had no idea about – think loyalty cards, autopilot and cookies to name a few – no not the ones you can eat! It makes you think about whether if you were accused of a crime, would you rather a judge or a computer decide your sentence, or whether you should reveal all your medical history if it could help cure cancer – and so many more ethical and moral dilemmas!

But simply, Hello World shows you all the cards in their hand and makes you question the relationship between humans and machine, and whether one is superior to the other or we need to work together to improve our society.

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The bits I didn’t enjoy

I want to offer both sides of the story in all the book reviews I do, even if I think the sun shines out the book’s backside – as you will read shortly about Hello World! In true scientist style of sharing a different perspective, I need to find something to critique, so added this section in.

In Hello World, I didn’t really get on with the Art chapter. Don’t get me wrong, it was a perfectly good chapter and I am all for collaborations between science and art. So what didn’t I like about this chapter?

I don’t think I connected with the Art chapter as much as all the others. As you will find out below, the reasons I loved all the other chapters in this book didn’t come across, to me at least, in this chapter. It was more niche and not something that I felt affected everyone so I couldn’t relate as much. Although it did provide an interesting insight and teach me something about how algorithms were used in the art world – probably not something you ever thought happened right?

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The bits I loved

The best science writers – in my opinion at least – are the ones that make you feel like you are sat in a cosy cafe having a coffee and a chat with them as you turn each page and get deeper and deeper into the book. It’s also a stage I would love to get to with my writing.

But, while I have never sat down for coffee with Hannah Fry – at least not yet anyway, girl can dream! – as I read each word on each page I felt like Hannah was saying it to me. Finding a balance between enthusiasm, expertise and clarity is a really tough gig – as I am also finding out in my new role as a scicomm officer too! But Hannah Fry has made it look easy in this book. All the complex details you would want to know with no compromise on accessibility for people like me who can do basic maths – just about in my case! – but aren’t fully aware of it’s applications.

It is safe to say I love Hannah Fry’s writing style. But this was a book about algorithms and mathematics, specifically the effects of maths rather than all the explicit details, that I couldn’t put down. A complete 180 from the last maths books I read – which admittedly were probably textbooks. The end of each section posed a question or another leading statement that made me want to know the chapter of the story.

Most of the chapters gave me what felt like a complete yet thorough overview of the good, the bad and the ugly algorithms and their effects. I was to-ing and fro-ing from being in the ‘Yes! Algorithms are amazing and we need them everywhere’ camp to the ‘Hell no! What are we doing with these algorithms’ camp and back again more times than I care to count as a result of the plethora of examples that Hannah shared within this book. I felt like I had a completely balanced view of the good things and the bad things that have happened and those we are still contending with when it comes to using algorithms in our society. My eyes and mind have been completely opened to this rabbit hole of questions and conundrums. Hello World made me question what my opinions were on using algorithms in each of the chapters explored rather than just feeling like I was being told a recollection of events and someone else’s opinion. A great feat considering my knowledge on the topic before this book was minimal.

But moreover, I learnt a lot. Not just about algorithms, but the underlying things that we just take for granted or readily agree to and accept without considering any of the consequences that might arise from leaving a machine in charge. The Data Chapter was my particular favourite.

It is safe to say that my list of things I loved in this book is rather long.

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Final thoughts

Quite simply – I loved it.

Considering it was a topic that I didn’t know much about previously, it definitely passes the ‘Teach Me Something New’ test. But it did it in a way that made me actually think about all the words, rather than just reading the words on the page. I have been questioning my whole feelings towards what algorithms I may or may not want in my life, and in society generally, since.

A book that makes complicated maths and its applications accessible to everyone. I am so glad I purchased this book back at New Scientist Live – it was a tough choice as there were sooooo many I wanted but being at the end of my PhD with no job, cash was a little bit on the non-existent side – and I can’t recommend it enough. There are not many books I want to pick up and read again, but Hello World is 100% an exception to my rule.

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Coming up next in Science Book Club: This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay

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Have you read this book? What were your thoughts? Would you be interested in learning more about the topics covered in this book in blogs and on social media? Do you have any more questions before you go and buy this book to read now?

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3 thoughts on “Science Book Club: Hello World

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