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Showing posts from September, 2008

Coral – Steve Jones ***

I was thrown off kilter from the start by the quote on the front of this book. Jones is the Alan Bennett of science writing. What could this possibly mean? That he writes with a Yorkshire accent? That he has tendency to ruminative monologues? That he can be very funny and poignant at the same time? None of these really seemed to apply. In the end, all I could think of was that Bennett is the voice of the spoken word Winnie the Pooh books, and Steve Jones sometimes comes across a bit like Eeyore. When you get past the cover, you discover a subject that has just been crying out for good popular science coverage. Just as The Buzz About Bees transformed our view of the humble bee, here was a chance to reveal the sheer depth, complexity and interest of corals. And to an extent the book does it. There’s a lot to enjoy and be amazed by – but it’s all rather summary, because it only comprises about half the content of the book, the rest being huge asides that meander off on loosely related to…

Sacred Mathematics – Fukagawa Hidetoshi & Tony Rothman ***

This is a heavy, lushly produced looking book with a glossy golden cover and glossy pages throughout. When the introduction said it could be read as an art book ‘that delights simply by the perusal of it’ I expected it to be a collection of beautiful colour illustrations, but rather light on the ‘Japanese temple geometry’ promised in the subtitle. In fact it’s the other way round. There are a few colour plates in the middle, but all the rest of those glossy pages are used to display black and white that would have worked equally well on much cheaper ordinary paper. Overall it’s a strange book. The idea is to display the (mostly) geometrical problems, hung up by ordinary people on boards called sangaku in temples across Japan between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. It’s a wonderful and bizarre concept. After a bit of interesting history, page after page of the book – the vast bulk of it – is filled with these problems for the reader to solve (there are solutions later on). Th…

Physics for Future Presidents – Richard A. Muller *****

Sometimes I see a book title that is so brilliant that I can’t help feel (as a writer) ‘I wish I’d thought of that.’ This is just such a title. It’s a brilliant concept – the physics any decent US president really ought to know to be able to make the decisions that face him or her. What’s more, the contents live up to the title. Physics professor Richard A. Muller delivers some real surprises, separating what many of us think we know from reality. In five sections, handling terrorism, energy, ‘nukes’, space and global warming he delivers some devastating truths, putting across information that it’s hard to believe any president has really grasped – yet it’s so important that they do. I don’t want to go into too much detail – read the book – but, for example, in the terrorism section he points out that petrol (and aviation fuel) has more energy per tonne than TNT. This was why the Twin Towers came down on 9/11 – not because of the impact of the planes, but the energy released by the bu…

Future Proof [You Call This the Future] – Nick Sagan ***

There’s something about future-gazing that is simultaneously fascinating and frustrating. You just know it’s going to go horribly wrong. Although very little science fiction is really about predicting the future, science fiction writers are often portrayed as future visionaries – so, for instance, Arthur C. Clarke gets lots of brownie points for predicting the geostationary satellite. Sadly he gets less for 2001 A Space Odyssey. I’m not talking about the storyline, but more the technology in the Clarke/Kubrick film. Remember this was set in 2001, a good few years in the past. Not only do we have a talking computer with apparent consciousness we have full screen video phones, a manned mission to Jupiter’s moons and – best of all – PanAm operating a routine shuttle flight to a huge space station. Hands up who remembers PanAm? In this glossy, well illustrated little book, Nick Sagan (yes, son of Carl) looks at some of the predictions of the future, giving references to science fiction oc…