Sunday, 27 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 book repeatedly showing pictures with decidedly overdramatic captions (‘Glastonbury Tor: is it a portal into other dimensions’) and quite often very obvious explanations are not well explored. So, for instance, there is a section on mysterious ‘waves’ of sightings without making the obvious suggestion that people see things because they have heard other people see things. Similarly, the totally discredited concept of hypnotic regression is cited a couple of times as helping people recall abduction incidents without pointing out there is very strong evidence that the technique creates memories rather than restoring them.
One of my UFO fakes
Similarly, though there is quite a lot on the latest ways that UFO photos can be faked (there’s an app for that – really), there is very little about why and how many of the ‘classic’ photos that weren’t simply misunderstood natural phenomena or planes could easily have been faked. I did my own bit of UFO photo faking in my teens just for fun and it very obvious (though I didn’t see it mentioned in the book) that the very easy approach of throwing a metal disk tends to produce exactly the sort of odd flight angles often shown for flying saucers. I have included one of my own efforts here – it is a metal camping plate, thrown frisby style.
Most important of all, the manual lacks the feeling of that old science mantra ‘data is not the plural of anecdote.’ It gives no suggestion that extreme theories require extreme evidence, where Occam’s Razor makes the obvious assumption that UFOs aren’t extra-terrestrial without good evidence that they are. So as science it doesn’t do very well – but it is an entertaining subject, put across in an appealing and entertaining way in this well illustrated volume. Read it like the Zombie title and you are fine – but don’t take it as seriously as you would the Ford Fiesta 1995-2002 manual, because it just isn’t that sort of book.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

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 the key players. And though the story really does get interesting when, for instance, we get onto Gordon Gould’s you’d-laugh-if-you-didn’t-cry security problems that meant he wasn’t able to read his own work, much of the storytelling gets horribly bogged down and repetitive, making it hard to follow the narrative.
The final problem is limiting the book to the race to create the first laser – it would have had a wider interest if Hecht had brought in the development of the solid state lasers we all have littering our homes in CD players and the like.
All in all, there is plenty of good stuff here, and I’m not aware of anyone else who has told the story in such detail, but you have to work quite hard to get to the nuggets.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 6 October 2013

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 complete the work itself. Sadly, the enlightened Pope died before he could read Bacon’s remarkable work, and Bacon was tried as a magician and incarcerated for ten years.
Legend transformed Bacon into a sorcerer, ‘Doctor Mirabilis’, yet he taught that all magic was fraudulent, based on human ability to deceive, and we can recognise today that his books were the first flowering of the scientific knowledge that would transform our world. He advanced the understanding of optics, he demanded a new calendar that prefigured the Gregorian reform, made geographical breakthroughs later used by Columbus, predicted everything from horseless carriages to the telescope, and stressed the importance of mathematics to science, a significance that would not be recognized for 400 years. Yet his biggest contribution was to link science and experiment, to insist that a study of the natural world by observation and exact measurement was the surest foundation for truth.
Up to now all the books about Bacon have been academic texts that were frankly less than exciting and readable. This is much more a work of popular science, though it is almost inevitable that a work on Bacon will have something of an academic feel, hence the low score in stars. Even so it gives a fascinating picture of life in a medieval university, and uncovers a man whose ideas on science have been hidden to most by years of myth and ignorance.
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Review by Jo Reed
Please note, this title is written by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion – and we could hardly omit the book – but do want to make the connection clear.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

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 come in as sidelines to the more dramatic stories of others. So, for instance, it is Lincoln Beachey, showman and record breaker, we discover in the era of the Wright brothers, while Jack Woolams and John Walker take more of the X-plane story than Yeager (or Neil Armstrong, an X-15 pilot), even though we do inevitably get Yeager’s story of breaking the sound barrier.
If I’m frank there is very little science in here. The subject is all technology, and there is much less on how flight and these specific planes worked, and much more on the lives, adventures and (all too often) deaths of these remarkable individuals. But then, the stories are remarkable enough to cover them. The only slight surprise was not to have more than a throw-away one liner on the rocketbelt, given that made such a great subject in The Rocketbelt Caper. Don’t expect to learn a lot of science – but do expect a rollicking, rip-roaring tale.
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Review by Brian Clegg