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Showing posts from March, 2012

Space Chronicles – Neil de Grasse Tyson **

I really struggled with this book. I love space and space travel – I have lived through and been thrilled by the entire space race and the development of space science. I expected to love a book by a great astronomer and science populariser, but instead I pretty well had to give up, part way through. There are two problems. The lesser one is the structure of the book. It consists of a collection of articles, interviews and such that Tyson has produced on the subject of space exploration. This inevitably means there is repetition. A lot of repetition. It’s not that what he is saying is not interesting, but after you’ve heard it for the tenth time it loses its novelty. Perhaps the most interesting thing is the way Tyson is so obviously pulled in two directions. On the one hand he appreciates how superior unmanned satellites and explorers are from a bang-per-buck science viewpoint. On the other hand he believes manned missions are essential to raise interest levels. But of course manned…

The Righteous Mind – Jonathan Haidt *****

Don’t be put off by the title of this book (or the subtitle ‘why good people are divided by politics and religion’). Although they are technically correct they don’t give a full sense of the glory of what is certainly the best popular science book I have read this year, and comes easily into my top ten ever. Jonathan Haidt is a psychologist who specializes in morality. We are inundated with books about human behaviours and traits – and many of them are rather tedious – but this is a totally different beast. Not only is it a real page turner but it is full of ‘Oh! Is that why?!’ moments when the reader gets an explanation for some strange behaviour of human beings that they have never fully understood. I ought to say that this isn’t like a book about general relativity, say, where even though there are alternative theories, the core has been vastly tried and tested over the years. What is presented here is the work of Haidt and his team and there may well be psychologists who disagree …

Hubble: the mirror on the universe – Robin Kerrod & Carole Stott ***

I was asked to review this book as I also looked at a book with a scarily similar title, Hubble: window on the universe. Both are coffee table books that depend on pictures from the Hubble telescope for their appeal. Both have 224 pages of big colour pictures, using those stunning images that Hubble has provided over the years. I can’t fault the image selection in either. Here, after a quick look at the telescope itself we progress through stars, stellar destruction, galaxies, the big bang, the solar system and planets. Of the two, the text is definitely better in this book, while the other title has the edge on the photos because of the sheer size of the book – 37×30 to this book’s 28×23. That extra size means that ‘window’ really wows you visually. However the bigger pictures here are still stunning, and it is noticeably easier to hold. You can just about read this in your lap, where ‘window’ probably needs to be on a table to have a chance. This is an excellent choice, and in its 2…

Weather Wonders – Gordon Higgins ***

The weather can make for a good book of pictures, and it was interesting to compare this book with Extraordinary Weather from the same publisher. I would say that a fair number of the pictures work better here – they are brighter and more contrasty, though I have to offset the fact that many are significantly smaller in a book that is little bigger than a large postcard, so isn’t really able to offer really stunning sized photographs. Like the other title we have a few pages of introduction and then what is essentially a set of photographs with captions. Here, though, there is a wider spread of pictures. The book is split into two sections with photos ‘from above’ and ‘from below.’ Extreme weather inevitably features, but here there is a much wider spread of reasonably ordinary weather, from fog over London to a pretty comprehensive collection of photographs of the different cloud types. It’s all mildly interesting, but I can’t get hugely excited about either the topic or the photos.…

Spacecam – Terry Hope ****

I love a good book of space pictures, but it’s a difficult balance. For a book to be readable it can’t be too big – yet you want the pictures to be as large as possible. Spacecam comes in at the bottom end of the compromise. It’s about the size of a trade paperback, but in landscape format, which helps with the pictures. I’d really like it to be a little bigger to get the full glory of these images, but it’s big enough that the shots can be quite stunning, while at the same time it is a manageable size. Having said that it is surprisingly heavy as it packs in 256 glossy pages – a lot for a book like this. After a couple of pages of introduction, this is a picture book with captions, rather than a flowing text, which I don’t generally like, but the quality of the images and quite informative captions (packing a lot in at the price of pretty small text) make the best of the format. There’s a good mix here. Lovely colour shots from the Apollo missions, excellent Hubble space shots, a goo…

The Met Office Book of the British Weather – John Prior ***

The book trade is a strange one. Many authors have what they think are really good ideas for books that publishers won’t touch. But then you see a book put out by a proper publisher and you can’t help but ask ‘Why?’ This is such a book. I have to ask why they thought anyone would want to buy it? It’s not that the basic concept is unappealing. If you are British (I can’t see it would go down too well in Australia, say), then you are interested in the British Weather. It’s a given. And so the book may have some success with people buying it for someone else. (The press release helpfully points out that it has ‘attractive gift packaging’.) But if you do, any thank-you you get will be purely for show. The trouble is, the vast majority of the book is page after page of maps of the UK showing how (for instance) hours of sunshine, rainfall and average temperature vary across the British Isles. It has all the readability of an atlas, and to be honest, to classify it as popular science seems a…

How to Save the World with Salad Dressing – Thomas Byrne & Tom Cassidy ***

I first read this book as a manuscript to provide a puff for the cover. As my comment says ‘Brilliant! I couldn’t stop reading,’ it might seem hard to reconcile with three stars. In a sense both are true. The book uses a frankly lame storyline to link a series of science-based problems where you have the opportunity to think through a problem (supposedly faced by the hero in the storyline) and then check with the answer, learning some science painlessly along the way. It starts with a brief science guide (well, mechanics really), then plunges you into the problems, where you take on Erik van Basten ‘the world’s foremost evil genius’ and ‘creator of the world’s most powerful criminal empire.’ Ho hum. The trouble with this kind of fictional approach is it’s fairly cheesy for children – if the book’s for adults, which I think it is, then it doesn’t work for me. What is good, though, is the series of problems. These were the reason ‘I couldn’t stop reading’ – it’s very tempting, having wo…

Extraordinary Weather – Richard Hamblyn ***

Probably the next most photogenic aspect of science after astronomy is the weather. From red skies and dramatic thunderstorms to snow scenes and lightning, the weather can truly hit you between the eyes. This new book from David & Charles and the Met Office, put together by Richard Hamblyn, aims to show us some of nature’s most dramatic views thanks to the weather. The photographs are great, at least as far as the subjects go. A lot of effort has gone into finding some amazing shots of weird and wonderful weather phenomena. The only criticism I’d have is that they have often come out too dark – the colour doesn’t jump off the page. Instead they can be rather murky and low contrast, which with a subject like this (and despite fancy glossy pages) is a real disappointment. Even so, there are, just as the title suggests, some extraordinary weather effects here, including storms, ice and snow, heat and drought, bizarre clouds and my favourite ‘strange phenomena’. This is very much a p…

Moonwalking with Einstein – Joshua Foer *****

There is a very particular style of popular science writing, often from America, that combines information on science with a personal voyage of discovery. On the whole they tend to be written either by quite young writers or by someone very well funded by a magazine or a TV company (book publishers rarely pay well enough) because they involve giving up maybe a year of your life to go on the road and follow up a high concept. The cream of these books are superbly enjoyable – and I think Joshua Foer’s is the best I’ve ever read, making it a classic of the genre. In Moonwalking with Einstein he explores the world of competitive memory skills – a small, almost unknown cadre of (dare we say) rather weird individuals who spend the year practising to be able compete at tasks like memorizing the order of a pack of cards (allegedly very useful in casinos, though Foer doesn’t really explore this particular application), an unseen poem, a list of names and faces, and random binary digits. Along …

Exploring the Universe – Brian Clegg ***

There are few subjects better suited to a picture book than the universe, and the latest title from www.popularscience.co.uk’s prolific editor proves this admirably. When the title says ‘Exploring the Universe’ it might seem that this is a book about space travel, but Brian Clegg makes the important point that pretty well all of our exploration has been (and will continue to be into the foreseeable future) using light. The sheer scale of the universe means that nothing slower is practical – and only a vehicle that has been in use for billions of years like light will enable us to see far enough. The pictures are great, and I was unusually comfortable with the format. All too often picture books are so big that they aren’t practical to sit and read, they are only suited to thumbing through on the proverbial coffee table. This one is big enough for the colour pictures to have impact, but compact enough to be readable. That readability is necessary because unlike many picture books with…