Thursday, 28 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 galaxies become rather dull after a while.
So there it is. Great concept, but what on Earth (or even in space) can you do with it?
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 24 February 2008

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 unexpected tragedy of Richard Carrington and the tale of how modern astronomy began.’ In part Carrington’s tragedy was the difficulties he had in getting round to his astronomy (the sort of difficulties, like being distracted by owning a brewery, that many would now cherish), but the big one was the disastrous affair of his wife, whose ‘brother’ turned out to be nothing of the kind, and who attempted to kill both her and himself in a knife attack, a personal history that is rivalled only by Eadweard Muybridge’s murder of his wife’s lover (see The Man Who Stopped Time).
Generally speaking both the historical context and the gradual realization of what was happening on the Sun and how it influenced our world is well realized. The only time it really doesn’t quite work is when Clark is detailing contemporary reports of the aurorae during solar storms – these just go on too long and really don’t add much to the narrative.
Although one or two old friends like the Herschels pop up, there are plenty of new characters in this saga that have relatively infrequently cropped up in other popular histories of science – altogether, it’s best just to ignore the overblown jacket and enjoy this for what it is – a good, solid example of it type.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 16 February 2008

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 child before a christening.
There’s a wistful obituary-like feeling about this book, a sadness at the demise of the scientist hunched over his microscope. The machines are taking over: why follow a complex classification procedure when a species’ DNA can be read instead? Why bother naming something when we known its gene sequence? Although Fortey recognises their potential, for him some of the magic has gone.
Dry Store Room No. 1 is a fascinating book and Fortey’s passion is clear. The curious habits and foibles of the museum’s botanists and entomologists bring the book alive. It’s a shame that the mineralogists are such a dull lot though: gemstones and meteorites are interesting enough but without the human stories this department doesn’t really sparkle. Even so, the book is easy to read and will inspire a sense of awe for the work of the museum.
Paperback:  
Review by Maria Hodges