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Showing posts from June, 2007

Digging Up the Dead – Druin Burch *****

There is a rather good British TV drama called Waking the Dead that follows the work of a fictional cold case squad, which made the title of this book instantly attractive to me, and though it’s not the same subject – this is a biography of the great surgeon from the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, Astley Cooper – the book is just as engaging as the drama. If the name of this surgical superstar of the day means nothing to you (I’d never heard of him), don’t worry – Druin Burch does a wonderful job of bringing the times alive in sometimes stomach churning, but always enticing fashion. There’s a brightness about his writing – the brightness of fresh arterial blood. Burch really makes this story vibrate with energy. Admittedly he is helped by the fact that Cooper’s early life story is almost too good to be true. Leading a charmed life as a boy, nearly dying half a dozen times, he was a terrible student when first sent to London as an apprentice to his surgeon uncle (in those days, s…

Scientists Confront Intelligent Design and Creationism – Andrew J. Petto & Laurie R. Godfrey (Eds.) ***

When I get a book to review that is a collection of essays by academic authors, I have to confess it tends to sink to the bottom of the review pile. Often this is the mark of a cheaply assembled book in the sense that there is no attempt to avoid overlaps, so there’s lots of repetition, and frankly the writing standard (even from well established authors) can be a trifle dull. So it was a very pleasant surprise to discover that this book, which is in that worrying format, is in fact well edited to avoid overlaps, and is almost entirely very readable. I have really agonized over the rating to give this book. Considering the topic, it is relatively easy going, and I think everyone should be interested in understanding just what is going on when creationists and their intelligent design offspring take on evolution. So from those two points the book was really deserving of 5 stars. Yet in the end, it is an academic assault on creationism and intelligent design – which isn’t a bad thing, b…

The Cosmos: A Beginner’s Guide – Adam Hart-Davis and Paul Bader ****

Is it book? Is it a TV show? No, it’s very obviously the book of a TV show – in this case, a BBC series of six parts looking at the way we explore the cosmos, presented by the UK’s one time favourite science presenter before Brian Cox came on the scene, one of a long tradition of eccentrics who have graced the British screen, Adam Hart-Davis. This is a man who thinks nothing of wearing clothes that would only be considered fashionable by a demented boy scout leader. (You may wonder what Mr H-D’s dress sense has to do with the book – his photograph does appear in it rather a lot, and his name is much bigger on the front than co-author Paul Bader’s (see the image) – this is, to some extent, a celebrity propelled vehicle.) Once you get a big disappointment out of the way, which is down to the way it has been lifted from the TV show, it’s actually quite a good book. The disappointment is that it doesn’t do what it says on the tin. It’s not really about the cosmos, it’s mostly about the ma…

The Man Who Ran the Moon – Piers Bizony ***

I have to confess, on picking up this book, there was a slight feeling of “oh no, not another book about the history of manned space flight.” We had already had the definitive look at the conflict between the US and the USSR in Deborah Cadbury’s Space Race, and an interesting political history of the race to get to the moon in Gerard deGroot’s Dark Side of the Moon. In fact, at first glance there seems to be a strong overlap with de Groot’s book, and for the same reason that title only got 3 stars, we can only give 3 stars to this. It doesn’t mean it’s not a very readable book – it’s a real page turner – but there’s hardly any science in it (as, cynics would say, there was very little science but plenty of politics in the race to the moon). I ought to stress, by the way, that there is no suggestion that this book or de Groot’s is a “me too” title. It’s very easy for two books to come out on a similar topic at the same time – I’ve had this happen to me as an author, and it’s highly fru…

Beyond UFOs – Jeffrey Bennett ***

Jeffrey Bennett does a lot of public talks, and admits that he often has to let people down gently that he isn’t talking about UFOs and little green men. The important point here is the word ‘Beyond’. The book is about whether extra-terrestrial life exists, and where it’s like to be found, not about visiting aliens. (He also tells a sad but smile-raising story of giving a public talk where he expected a few tens of people to turn up and in fact the hall was packed out. It seems the advertisements had promised a talk on astrology rather than astronomy – but Bennett kept the audience anyway, and gave them something to interest them.) It’s entirely understandable that he kept that audience. Bennett is clearly a good, engaging speaker, because a lot of his text comes across just like that, and it’s not a bad thing. It feels personal, warm and interesting. The book spends quite a while on how the Earth came into being and how life was formed, so we can extrapolate to the rest of the univer…

Ten Questions Science Can’t Answer (Yet) – Michael Hanlon *****

At first glance, a book of questions that science can’t answer is a pretty dull read. Questions alone aren’t enough – we need answers as well. Yet Michael Hanlon makes this topic a voyage of discovery into the unknown. Once you get started, it’s hard to put it down. Each of the first eight topics (yes, I know there are ten – I’ll come back to this) is a surprising and engaging excursion into a subject that you may not have thought about before, but you certainly will be thinking about once you’ve read the book. It starts with the exploration of whether or not animals are conscious. Next up is the whole matter of time – a strange phenomenon, once you start to think about it. Then after a section on aging and whether we can live forever comes one of the big surprises – a fascinating discussion entitled “what are we going to do with the stupid.” Hanlon points out that where in past centuries we used to happily mock the disabled, or those of different race, now it’s only politically corre…