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The SB&F Reviews page is updated regularly with new reviews. See our featured reviews below. Check back often for the latest science book reviews from SB&F.

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Featured Children's Book Review

Wallmark, Laurie. Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code. (Illus.) (Illus. by Katy Wu.) New York, NY: Sterling, 2017. 48pp. $16.95. 2016035342. ISBN 9781454920007. C.I.P.

K, EP, EI, EA

Rating: **

A playful rhyme on the front endpaper highlighting the personality characteristics and achievements of the woman people called Amazing Grace draws young readers into this picture book biography of Grace Hopper (1906 1992). A lively text peppered with quotes incorporated into the digitally-created cartoon illustrations tells the life story of a young girl curious to understand how things worked and who went on to study mathematics and physics. During World War II, Hopper joined the Navy and was assigned to write programs for one of the first computers. This was the beginning of a life-long career for the woman who revolutionized computer coding by inventing a program that allowed the use of words rather than codes with only “1”s and “0”s in writing commands for computers. Young readers will be particularly interested in the description of how the discovery of a moth blocking the switch in the Navy’s new Mark II computer led to the coining of the word “bug” for a computer glitch. The back matter for this engaging biography includes a timeline of events in Grace Hopper’s life as well as key advances in computer science, a selected bibliography, additional reading about other women in STEM, and a list of Grace Hopper’s honors.--Carolyn Angus, Children's Literature Specialist, Mountain View, CA

 

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Featured Young Adult Book Review

 

McPherson, Stephanie Sammartino. Artificial Intelligence: Building Smarter Machines. (Illus.) New York, NY: Lerner Publishing Group, 2017. 104pp. $35.99. 2016034037. ISBN 9781512418262. Glossary; Index; C.I.P.

JH, YA, GA

Rating: **

This book is an engaging introduction to Artificial Intelligence. I am impressed with its breadth—from history and motivation of AI to the history of computing to robots past, present, and future (in movies, factories, competitions, operating rooms, the military, emergency rescue services, and companions) to future developments. Using Watson's truly amazing victory over human Jeopardy champs as the touchstone, the book touches on many of the major themes of AI (strong vs. weak, deep learning, Turing Test) at an introductory level. I think the target audience of this book would be junior high or older, but it could be of interest to anyone.

The underlying theme and thought-provoking unanswered question of the book is, “How smart will AI get, and will AI become a boon or threat to mankind?” There is enough technical discussion and quotes from experts on both sides of the argument to promote further research and open discussion.

I think the author missed the opportunity to discuss current applications of the Watson program and how the very same machine that learned algorithms that enabled it to read newspapers and magazines is currently being used to learn surgical strategies. And I think, even at this introductory level, McPherson could have added a little more depth in the discussion of why AI may or may not do harm to humankind.

The book is very well illustrated with photos of early computers, robots in action, and computer scientists. A bibliography and reference list of films and websites is included. This could be an excellent teaching tool as well as an elementary introduction to AI for adults.--Alan Zagoria, Senior Consultant, UOP, Durham, NC

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Featured Adult Book Review

Costa, James T. Darwin's Backyard: How Small Experiments Led to a Big Theory. (Illus.) New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2017. 464pp. $27.95. ISBN 9780393239898. Index.

C, T, GA

Rating: **

Over my many years of enjoying Darwin biographies and articles, I often thought that a book specifically devoted to discussing his numerous and varied experimental activities was needed. Too many people believe that Darwin drafted the Origin of Species simply by taking a five-year boat journey and thinking about it in an easy chair afterwards. The author here skillfully dispels that notion in detail with a wealth of information about Darwin’s extensive experimentation activities.

We learn here of how Darwin’s intense curiosity, a childhood love of chemistry, and tutelage by England’s foremost botany and geology instructors all contributed to a passion for experimentation at an early age as well as throughout his life. Darwin constantly pondered questions about nature and he actively sought answers. He was willing to consider a wide variety of methods to get to the truth. That is the very focus of the author here.

Much of the book delves into Darwin’s time post Origin of Species, illustrating the continued drive to further the case about the wondrous details of evolutionary science. It is simply amazing to read of the extent of dedication and innovation Darwin put into his experiments with orchids, climbing plants, and worms, among other subjects. The discussion of his experimentation with honeybees and the great lengths taken to understand them particularly highlights the depths of his keen inquisitive nature. All these efforts, collectively, led to great insight using simple means of the science at hand in absence of a functional knowledge of genetics.

One key theme the author brings to light here is that Darwin’s various experiments helped define for him the tremendous role of natural variation and its influence on evolution. Variation is the fuel on which the natural selection engine runs.

Many Darwin biographies merely examine how and why he came to draft the Origin of Species. This book is about so much more. It is a highly recommended and required read for all those who wish to more fully understand the scientist and the origin of his ideas.--Gary W. Finiol, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Denver, CO