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Showing posts from October, 2013

UFO Investigations Manual – Nigel Watson ***

Buying a Haynes manual is a rite of passage for young car enthusiasts in the UK. These detailed illustrated guides tell you how to service a particular make and model of car. But of late there has been something of tendency to spread the field into entertainment, with manuals on the likes of the USS Enterprise and the Death Star, and more bizarre how-to subjects, including the Zombie Survival Manual.
So, almost inevitably, we get the UFO Investigations Manual. In a sense it is a bit of misnomer. Although there are a couple of pages of appendix on how to make a UFO report, this primarily isn’t a how-to guide at all, but rather an illustrated assessment of UFO history and attempts to explain them. I ought to say straight away that this less wide-eyed and trusting than UFOs Caught on Film, which merely shows photographs and comments on them with little attempt to rule out alternative causes. There is a section here on non-extra terrestrial causes, for instance. But it doesn’t stop the bo…

Beam – Jeff Hecht ***

Beam‘s subtitle is ‘the race to make the laser’ and this was a story that was crying out for a good popular scientific history. Not only is there really interesting physics behind the laser, there was a genuine tense race, strong personalities, bizarre problems with security clearances and more to make for a gripping story. I’ve come rather late to Beam (first published in 2005) because, frankly, the book doesn’t seem to have been very visible – and I’m afraid I can understand why. Although there are all the elements of a great story there, Jeff Hecht is probably not the right person to tell it. On the physics side, while there is a lot of detail of the precise excitation processes required for masers and lasers, there isn’t really enough background on quantum physics to give it context. As for the story itself, the book suffers from kitchen-sink-itis. Hecht seems to feel it necessary to mention ever single tiny contribution to the research, whether or not it had a direct impact on th…

Roger Bacon: The First Scientist – Brian Clegg ***

* UPDATED * for Kindle edition – note original hardback has different cover and was called The First Scientist Roger Bacon takes us back to thirteenth-century Europe, to the early years of the great universities, where learning was spiced with the danger of mob violence and a terrifyingly repressive religious censorship. Roger Bacon, a humble and devout English friar (not to be confused with the Elizabethan/Jacobean politician and philosopher Francis Bacon), seems an unlikely figure to challenge the orthodoxy of his day – yet this unworldly man risked his life to establish the basis for true scientific knowledge. Born around 1220, Bacon was passionately interested in the natural world and how things worked. Banned from writing on such dangerous topics by his Order, it was only when a new Pope proved sympathetic that he began compiling his encyclopaedia of knowledge, on everything from optics to alchemy – the synopsis took him a year and ran to 800,000 words, but he was never to compl…

The Rocket Man – David Darling ****

The full title of this book is ‘The Rocket Man and other extraordinary characters from the history of flight,’ and David Darling has got that right, sure enough. These are amazing individuals from the earliest days of flight, through the amazing barnstorming aerial performers, via the risk-taking test pilots of the first supersonic jets to the people who jump off buildings wearing wing suits. Two things seems to unite these people – an urge to live on the edge that puts them at very high risk of death, and remarkable stories that are both uplifting and horrifying in equal parts. I really don’t know whether to class these people as very brave or very stupid. Certainly they have to be people who aren’t too worried about their long-term survival, given the number of stories that end with the main character dead. David Darling has cleverly avoided wheeling out all the old familiar names. It’s not that the likes of the Wright brothers and Chuck Yeager, for instance, aren’t there, but they …