Skip to main content

Backroom Boys – Francis Spufford ****

Perhaps the least atypical popular science book we’ve ever come across – in part because it isn’t really popular science, but is rather a book that fits there better than any other category (much of it could just as easily be business/technology history). Spufford’s text comes across more as that of a pop historian – and very enjoyable it is too – as he catalogues the development of six quirky technological breakthroughs.
Recently TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson mentioned he was writing a book about machines with a soul – and if you extend this concept to technology with a soul, you’ve got a good picture of what Spufford is about. They overlap in handling Concorde, that remarkably ahead-of-its-time machine that merged antiquated technology – its flight deck looked an antique many, many years before it went out of service – with the most stunning achievement – an airliner than flew like a Mach 2 fighter. This ‘machines with soul’ label is true even of the section on the human genome project, where the industrial machine of modern biology is portrayed.
Perhaps the two most fascinating segments are on Concorde, where there’s some excellent business history in the way the new-look BA turned around what had been a millstone round the government’s neck into a money-spinner, and one on the computer game Elite. It’s easy to forget this game now – but it single-handedly made the leap from the Space Invaders style trivia of the day to a modern, mission-based game, all crammed into a ridiculous 22K of memory. At the time we all marvelled at how such a huge game, with hundreds of planets to visit, could be crammed into such a space. Now we know.
Spufford’s style is smooth and easy to read. If there’s one slight criticism it’s that a number of his small facts are wrong. As an example, he mentions that Elite was launched at the Thorpe Park theme park in the UK where they had just built ‘the world’s first underground rollercoaster’. Thorpe Park never had an underground rollercoaster – the ride in question was a rather feeble space-themed coaster that was indoors and in the dark, but came long after Space Mountain, and was so small scale that the machinery (now outside and fish themed) is now regarded as a smaller children’s ride. These little errors (there are several more) never get in the way of the story, though. (The subject of the last section is also unexpectedly depressing, but you’ll have to read the book to find out why.)
The book isn’t available in the US, because they’re all UK stories – but that’s a shame. It doesn’t detract from the universal appeal of people working ridiculous hours in an underfunded environment to crack some techno-problem. In this it is just as fascinating as stories of the early days at Microsoft. It’s a great book, that only loses its fifth star because it isn’t really popular science.
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…