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Showing posts from February, 2008

Universe: A Journey – Nicholas Cheetham ***

I’ve never really understood the concept of the coffee table book, except that some of them are big enough to construct coffee tables out of. Like it or not, that’s exactly what this is. The concept is great. It’s a photographic journey through the solar system, then out into the void encountering all those photogenic galaxies along the way. So far, so good. But what’s it for? You certainly wouldn’t want to sit in bed and read it. (It’s too heavy apart from anything else.) So it is likely to head for that coffee table destination. In principle it would be a good book to have in the loo, something you glance at for a few seconds, then put down, but it’s too heavy and chunky for that. Part of the problem is the sameness after a while. Of course some of the planetary and galactic photos are beautiful, but when you come down to moon after moon, each a dull looking, slightly different circle of rock, it’s more a ‘because it’s there’ thing, than for any inspiration. Even those glorious gala…

The Sun Kings – Stuart Clark ****

Sometimes the ‘puffs’ on a book – the bits of the blurb that are supposed to get you all excited about it because other people liked it – actually turn you off. I found this a tiny bit here. ‘Undoubtedly the most gripping and brilliant popular-science (sic) history account that I have ever read,’ exudes Owen Gingerich. If that’s the case, he hasn’t read widely enough. But that shouldn’t be taken as put-down of Stuart Clark’s book. It certainly is very good, but just isn’t quite from the absolute best. This is a history of post-renaissance attempts to understand the Sun and its effect on the Earth. Like all good popular histories of science, it as much about the people as the science itself – in this, mostly British characters who speculated and wrestled with the stranger aspects of observing the Sun, particularly around sunspots, flares and magnetic storms. The most dramatic of the personal histories is that of Richard Carrington, who appears in the rather Victorian subtitle ‘The unex…

Dry Store Room No. 1: the secret life of the Natural History Museum – Richard Fortey *****

“Times they are a changing” and even such a venerable institution as the Natural History Museum is not exempt. Richard Fortey’s tour, it seems, is in the nick of time. The museum he takes us round won’t be like this much longer. He guides us along the corridors of his beloved Natural History Museum, opening doors to reveal rooms full of carefully labelled fossils, beetles or butterflies. He lingers in the library, reverently turning the pages of the leather-bound tomes. And he curates the scientists and keepers, a dedicated and eccentric bunch of workaholics, who continue to study long past their retirement date. Throughout there is a sense of urgency – the pressing need to catalogue and name every insect, every plant and every mammal. No scuttle fly and nematode is too insignificant. For Fortey it is a race against time, a race against the ever-increasing rate of climate change and he seems acutely pained by the thought of losing a species without it even being named, like losing a c…