Skip to main content

Chilled - Tom Jackson ****

I was inclined to call Chilled a good, solid, old-fashioned popular science book. But I'm concerned that people will get the wrong idea, as I meant this as a positive thing. 'Solid' is often taken to mean stodgy and dull, but here it's a matter of being comprehensive and interesting in covering the topic of cold and coldness from the earliest ice houses of prehistory to the superconducting magnets of the Large Hadron Collider. 

As for 'old-fashioned' what I meant is that the book is full of stories about the history of humanity's relationship with coldness, and producing cold where and when we want it. I've read quite a lot of trendy popular science books that are much more about the story of the writer, with only a tangential relationship to the science. While there is plenty of storytelling here, it is all about the scientific and technical content, and about the people in history (and there have been some wonderful, dramatic near failures, particular among American ice shippers) who are concerned with that science and technology. As you may gather, this is the kind of 'old-fashioned' I very much like.

Because 'cooling' is inextricably entwined with 'heating', there is a lot here about heat and thermodynamics. But still the main thrust (and most of the stories) concern our attempts to cool things down, whether it's a summertime drink or an MRI scanner. Some of the historical material is fascinating. When, for instance, the first attempts were made to take ice to the Caribbean it was a flop because no one knew what to do with it. But they did love ice-cream. And there's inevitably a lot here about fridges, where there's a whole lot of physics going on - not to mention some unintended consequences of using far too much air conditioning (really just an fridge split into two pieces). Plenty of good stuff to get your teeth into. Solid, in the sense that ice is, but water isn't.

I have a few small criticisms, but they are small. The author has a tendency sometimes to get into list mode, telling us this person did that, and this other person did the other, without enough depth to make the narrative interesting. That's by no means all of the book, but where it happens it jars a little. Also, for me, Tom Jackson writes just a bit too far towards the end of the spectrum where the science is hardly explained, but just wondered at. We don't get into enough depth in exploring the science behind the technologies of chill. 

The final irritant is probably the fault of the publisher. There are comments on both the front and back covers by Tony Hawks. Now, my first inclination was to wonder what a pro skateboarder had to do with the science of cooling. But it turns out that this is Tony Hawks the comedian and raconteur. Ah, well, it's obvious what his connection is. Well, no, it isn't. Apparently he did a TV show and/or book where he went round Ireland with a fridge, and this is the only reason for having him along to give the book a puff. It seems, to say the least, a little tenuous.

So, as long as you didn't think this was a book about the chilled sport of skateboard (man), I can wholeheartedly recommend Chilled as an exploration of the history of an under-represented science and technology.

Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

The Bastard Legion (SF) - Gavin Smith *****

Science fiction has a long tradition of 'military in space' themes - and usually these books are uninspiring at best and verging on fascist at worst. From a serious SF viewpoint, it seemed that Joe Haldeman's magnificent The Forever War made the likes of Starship Troopers a mocked thing of the past, but sadly Hollywood seems to have rebooted the concept and we now see a lot of military SF on the shelves.

The bad news is that The Bastard Legion could not be classified as anything else - but the good news is that, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer subverted the vampire genre, The Bastard Legion has so many twists on a straightforward 'marines in space' title that it does a brilliant job of subversion too.

The basic scenario is instantly different. Miska is heading up a mercenary legion, except they're all hardened criminals on a stolen prison ship, taking part because she has stolen the ship and fitted them all with explosive collars. Oh, and helping her train her &…

On the Moor - Richard Carter ****

There's much to enjoy in Richard Carter's pean to the frugal yet visceral delights of being one with England's Pennine moorland. If this were all there were to the book it would have made a good nature read, but Carter cleverly weaves in science at every opportunity, whether it's inspired by direct observations of birds and animals and plants - I confess I was ignorant of the peregrine falcon's 200 mile per hour dive - or spinning off from a trig point onto the geometric methods of surveying through history all the way up to GPS.

Carter is something of an expert on Darwin, and inevitably the great man comes into the story many times - yet his appearance never seems forced. It's hard to spend your time in a natural environment like this and not have Darwin repeatedly brought to mind.

I confess to a distinct love of these moors. Having spent my first 11 years in and around Littleborough, just the other side of Blackstone Edge from Carter's moor, the moorland…