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

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Conjuring the Universe - Peter Atkins *****

It's rare that I'd use the term 'tour de force' when describing a popular science book, but it sprang to mind when I read Conjuring the Universe. It's not that the book's without flaws, but it does something truly original in a delightful way. What's more, the very British Peter Atkins hasn't fallen into the trap that particularly seems to influence US scientists when writing science books for the public of assuming that more is better. Instead of being an unwieldy brick of a book, this is a compact 168 pages that delivers splendidly on the question of where the natural laws came from.

The most obvious comparison is Richard Feynman's (equally compact) The Character of Physical Law - but despite being a great fan of Feynman's, this is the better book. Atkins begins by envisaging a universe emerging from absolutely nothing. While admitting he can't explain how that happened, his newly created universe still bears many resemblances to  nothing a…

Big Bang (Ladybird Expert) - Marcus Chown ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Marcus Chown does a remarkable job at packing in information on the big bang, given only around 25 sides of small format paper to work with. He gives us the concepts, plenty about the cosmic microwave background, plus the likes of dark energy, dark matter, inflation and the multiverse. To be honest, the illustrations were largely pointless, apart from maintaining the format, and it might have been better to have had more text - but I felt …