Skip to main content

Posts

Music by the Numbers - Eli Maor ***

If you wanted to classify this book, you might guess ‘music’ or ‘mathematics’ from the title. Actually, ‘history of science’ is a better fit than either of those. Roughly half the book deals with various ways in which music influenced the development of science. These weren’t always to the good, either. For example, we’re told that Pythagoras – who tried to shoehorn musical and cosmic harmonies into an over-simplified geometric model – ‘impeded the progress of science for the next two millennia’.

There are some surprises, too. Fourier analysis, which might top many people’s list of musically-relevant mathematical techniques, was originally developed in the context of the propagation of heat in solids. On the other hand, the world’s first partial differential equation – courtesy of  d’Alembert in 1746 – really did come out of music theory. Personally I found these insights fascinating, but readers who aren’t sure what Fourier analysis and partial differential equations are might not sha…
Recent posts

Brainology - Mosaic Science ****

A companion to Bodyology, Brainology consists of articles originally published on the Mosaic Science website and funded by medical charity Wellcome. These are well-written, professional articles: if you hit on a topic that interest you, it's very easy to be sucked in.

Because I'm not a great fan of medical journalism, I was less interested by topics such as 'the nerve cure for arthritis' and 'you can train your body to receive medicine.' However, some of the other articles really rewarded my read: for example, 'How should we deal with dark winters' and (despite the 'doctor' word) 'How doctors are reclaiming LSD', which was genuinely interesting on the history of attempts to use LSD and MDMA for medical purposes (though perhaps a little light on the deaths allegedly caused by the latter). 

For me, though, the standout article was 'What tail-chasing dogs reveal about humans', which uses studies of the compulsive behaviour of dogs to …

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…

Beyond the Aquila Rift (SF) - Alastair Reynolds ****

In an article I read recently, the author opined that would-be novelists shouldn't consider writing short stories as training for the craft of novel-writing, as the discipline is totally different. This is certainly true for most short stories - but, strangely, this collection by Alastair Reynolds (almost all on the long side as short stories go) is the exception that proves the rule. The majority of these pieces are, in effect, the seeds of novels.

Usually a short story will be a compact, self-sustained morsel of reading - a tiny delight, often with a twist in the tail.  These chunky pieces feel as if they could so easily be continued to fill out a full novel. It's not that they don't work standalone. This book isn't like reading a collection of opening chapter samples (thank goodness). The stories are satisfying as they stand - but cry out to be expanded. They're rather like the pilot episodes for TV shows.

I don't think this is a bad thing at all - there is so…

Before Mars (SF) - Emma Newman *****

Perhaps the most impressive thing with a good piece of writing is when careful plotting brings together disparate  pieces of information that the reader has absorbed (in this case over two previous books) to provide a lucid whole. In Before Mars, Emma Newman powerfully  combines a truly engaging mystery, based on a small Mars base, with the unfolding drama that took place on Earth in the previous novel After Atlas.

While it's not essential to have read the earlier book first, it's highly recommended to do so. This gives the reader a strong sense of having an overview of what's happening in the background, where the characters don't - only to have the twist near the end of the book add satisfying complexity.

As with the previous novels, Newman perhaps works a bit too hard at making her central character someone with personal difficulties, not helped by a distinct lack in places of 'show, don't tell' with page after page of internal monologue - some of which (p…

After Atlas (SF) - Emma Newman *****

If, like me, you read Emma Newman's first Planetfall novel and expected After Atlas to be a direct sequel, it is initially a little off-putting to discover that it involves a whole new set of characters - but after a little bedding in, this proves to be an advantage as the plotting in After Atlas is much tighter than the first novel and it works brilliantly both as science fiction and as a murder mystery.

The setting is Earth, decades after the departure of the Atlas spaceship that carried the colonists who featured in Planetfall, with a central character who is related to one of the Planetfall characters. For me, the Earth setting worked significantly better than the Planetfall one and the whole thing slotted together better, actually making the first novel seem better than it did on its own, as now we got a lot more of the context of the people involved.

The only small negatives here were weaker versions of the problems of the first novel. The central character seemed irritatingly…

Planetfall (SF) - Emma Newman ****

In Planetfall, and its sequels After Atlas and Before Mars, Emma Newman has produced some of the most original and intriguing science fiction I've read in a good while. There are many familiar SF tropes here, yet they are handled in an extremely intelligent and unexpected fashion. 

Planetfall sees a group of colonists on a distant star, who enjoy a high tech lifestyle alongside a strange relationship with a non-human construct known as God's City. Exactly how and why they are there is only very gradually made clear, helped by the arrival of a stranger in paradise, a survivor of a group of the colonists who were cut off from the rest on arrival and were presumed to be dead. The stranger does not have the same technology and seems better integrated with the natural environment.

Central character Renata, who quickly becomes one of the main contacts for the stranger, is a damaged individual - we only gradually learn why she is like this and the extent of the personality problems tha…