Skip to main content

Wizards, Aliens and Starships – Charles L. Adler ***

Subtitled ‘physics and maths in fantasy and science fiction’, this is one for the hardcore science fan. In fact the best reader may well be a scientist who likes a bit of science fictionand wants to play around with how likely all the science in the stories really is.
Strangely, the most readable part is the first section, where Charles Adler deals with the goings on of fantasy, rather than science fiction. I think this is because we don’t really expect the science to work in fantasy, and we can enjoy laughing at distortion of the conservation of energy, or the second law of thermodynamics, and thinking about the physics of dragons. But when the book starts to pull apart basics like space travel, it feels like something of a betrayal.
Once we got onto science fiction, Adler shows us that practically every major theme of space-based science fiction from the basics of space travel being possible to constructing vast space stations and ring worlds and the like is all extremely unlikely because of problems with energy and many other aspects of physics. It’s frankly a bit depressing, but I could cope with it, were not that the style gets considerably more hardcore than it was in the fantasy section. In the science fiction parts we have far more pages of calculation with relatively little and relatively impenetrable explanation.
This can make the book decidedly opaque to the non-technical reader. Take, for instance, the section describing the trajectory of an apple thrown inside a spaceship that is being rotated to produce artificial gravity. Adler points out the way that the Coriolis effect will result in strange movements. But the whole description, complete with completely unnecessary equations and diagrams which explain nothing is difficult to follow and lacks any feel for the reader’s response. It is far more like a simplified textbook than anything else. This is disappointing, as it wasn’t the case with the early sections.
In the end, I didn’t enjoy the book as I much as I thought I would initially. There are two reasons. One is the old W. B. Yeats favourite ‘Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.’ For many science fiction and fantasy fans (even quite a few who became scientists), what is particularly wonderful about SF&F is that it is a matter of dreams. It takes us away from boring reality, and if it has to sacrifice a little accuracy in the way of a good story, so be it. Forget treading softly, here the dreams get the hobnail boot treatment. The other problem is that there is too much calculation and not enough explanation, as a result of which it all too often reads more like an exercises section in a textbook, rather than a popular science book.
Don’t get me wrong – this is an interesting, well-written book, and Adler has put a lot of work into it. It should be invaluable for anyone wanting to write really accurate science fiction. But it isn’t as much fun as I expected it to be.
Hardback:  
Kindle version:  

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…