Skip to main content

It’s ONLY Rocket Science – Lucy Rogers ***

This is a book I’ve really mixed feelings about – it does what it sets out to do very well. And it does what it says on the tin. It’s a plain English introduction to rocket science. But it’s not really popular science, and so it can’t score very well here.
You can tell that the publisher isn’t aiming at the popular science market without even opening the covers. The cover is too thin for a commercial book – it feels like a textbook – the pages are glossy, again unusual in a commercial book unless it’s a picture book, and the price is too high for a popsci paperback. But it doesn’t take too much reading to reinforce this message.
I have no doubt whatsoever that Lucy Rogers knows her stuff and gives us quite detailed coverage of everything from propulsion systems to commercial space flight. But the text is a chewy concatenation of facts. It’s just fact, after fact, after fact. To open at random and summarise what I see – this is what a launch vehicle is, these are the design decisions when building a launch vehicle, this is the significance of thrust to the launch vehicle, successful launch vehicles get modified into different forms, numerous factors influence the choice of launch vehicle. (In case you hadn’t gathered, that was the section on launch vehicles).
There is hardly any narrative, no flow through the book, very little focus on individual human beings. Narrative is the essence of popular science. It is not a collection of facts – that’s a textbook – popular science is a story that imparts fact along the way, and unfortunately Rogers has not provided much of that at all. Just occasionally her writing comes to life, usually when describing the more human parts of the process – for example what people eat in space, but it really isn’t enough.
Don’t get me wrong – there is definitely a market for this book. It’s the sort of thing I would have loved at age 11. In fact, if it wasn’t so obviously not aimed at children, I’d put it in the kids’ section, because the right kind of children are more tolerant of a bundle of bare facts than a more discerning adult reader. But I think that to do so would be unfair to the author and the reader. I want to emphasize again, this isn’t a bad book, and I would highly recommend it if you want to absorb all the basic facts about rocketry and space travel. But don’t expect an enjoyable read.
Paperback:  
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 …