Saturday, 24 December 2016

Murder on the Einstein Express - Harun Siljak **

I've seen a fair number of books that try to combine science fact with fiction, but fewer in the world of mathematics. This extremely slim collection of just four short stories attempts the maths/fiction crossover, and is one of the strangest collection of stories I have ever read. I am honestly not sure if this is a good or bad thing.

The collection begins with a conceit that can in some ways be compared to Edwin Abbott's Flatland. That book had geometric shapes as its main characters. In the first of Harun Siljak's stories it is equations and mathematical concepts that take the leading roles. But where Abbott uses mathematical concepts in a story that any reader can follow (if few can honestly enjoy, in one of the dullest pieces of fiction known to man), Siljak produces a story that only a mathematician can love (or for that matter understand). It's a bold move. And for most of us, that leaves just three readable stories.

These are certainly more interesting. We meet a collection of computers that write mathematical theorems, a confusing Arabian Nights-ish storytelling story and the title story, which as you might imagine by now is not so much a murder mystery as a series of nine mini-lectures that might be thought as a good way to put across physics concepts (we've definitely strayed into physics here), but are fairly impenetrable. It may seem that the later stories are more conventional than the one based on equations, but in practice it's difficult to get any feeling of identification with the characters and the plots seem very much designed to get the point across without necessarily giving a lot of thought to how the narrative should develop.

In the end, the biggest problem throughout is the quality of writing. It's very much at high school level, and even there, the author clearly hasn't grasped the English use of articles. The likes of Isaac Asimov have shown that you don't have to be a sophisticated writer to be a great science fiction writer, as sheer weight of ideas can carry the reader past cardboard characterisation and so on. And it's true that Siljak has some genuinely interesting ideas, particularly computers taking over the generation of mathematical proofs, but working on a flawed basis and so getting it wrong. However, the author clearly needs considerably more practice before his writing is publishable, so it's slightly strange that it appears in print.

In summary, interesting ideas, but dire fiction, and at over £3 a story, it's a no from me.


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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Reality Is Not What It Seems - Carlo Rovelli ***

I was no great fan of Carlo Rovelli's flowery, overpriced previous title, and the introduction to this book on loop quantum gravity has a similar style, but thankfully it settles down a little. However, there is still rather too much of the woffle, reverting to floral form on Lucretius and his atomist poem on nature. For those who remember How to be Topp, this is the Fotherington Thomas school of popular science - all 'Hullo clouds, hullo sky!'

We then get onto Galileo. At times, Rovelli's history of science goes wildly astray - he says, for example, that Galileo was the first experimenter -  what of William Gilbert or the medieval optical experiments, for example? Similarly, Rovelli tells us that no one from Newton to Faraday tried to come up with an explanation for action at a distance - which just isn't true. Not only did Newton himself have an idea, there were plenty of mechanisms proposed. This isn't a matter of obscure history, you can read about it in Wikipedia. Best then to move on from mangled recounting of the past and get on to the more recent physics.

Here, in a gallop through special and general relativity and quantum theory we get far more rigour, though oddly it often comes in ways that aren't always obvious - for example we jump into to general relativity with the idea that spacetime is a field, without any of Einstein's far more accessible route using the equivalence principle. It fits better with the model that Rovelli is using, but it doesn't help the reader understand what he is talking about.

The last part of the book takes in what has been its goal all along - loop quantum gravity. In his opening, Rovelli remarks that a book (for the public) on loop quantum gravity didn't exist which is why he had to write it. This isn't true, there was Martin Bojowald's Once Before Time - but that failed singularly to explain the theory in a comprehensible way. This is where I hoped I could finally get the point of Rovelli's writing. I desperately want to see a good, accessible introduction to loop quantum gravity.The good news is that Rovelli on the topic reads a lot more smoothly than anything I've so far read - but he still fails to bring the topic to a level the general reader can get his or her head around. The book should have had an editor brave enough to keep sending it back until Rovelli had got there, but it clearly didn't happen.

You may gather I had problems with this book, but I have to congratulate Rovelli for trying. What was most frustrating was that if loop quantum gravity were as obvious to physicists and as complete as it's presented, it would be quantum gravity solved and no one would be bothering about string theory (which Rovelli only gives a passing mention to). Tick. Next problem? We know it's not really like that. Also, like many physicists seem to do, Rovelli either doesn't realise a model isn't the same as reality, or forgets to explain this to his readers. Even so, it is an interesting book despite its problems.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 12 December 2016

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 there's a foreword. Then there's another foreword. Then there's a background preamble. Then there's an introduction. And then, finally, we get to the content. But once you've run this gauntlet, we discover the seven obscure scientists referred to in the title, each of whom arguably made a contribution to our understanding of atomic structure and its implications for chemical behaviour, but all of whom are pretty much forgotten.

Specifically, we are talking about John Nicholson, Anton Van de Broek (no, not that bloke off Strictly Come Dancing), Richard Abegg, Charles Bury, John D. Main Smith, Edmund Stoner and Charles Janet, only one of whom I'd heard of, and that was for his main body of work, not this. Although A Tale is only a slim book, we find out a lot about the theories each of these developed. Almost all of these theories could be described as 'wrong' - and yet each contributed with incremental changes to thinking on the subject, influencing the big names such as Bohr (whose own theories were also arguably 'wrong' for much of the time).

That's a book in its own right (if a very specialist one with limited appeal), but far more interesting is Scerri's motive for introducing these characters - not to suggest that we ought to add them to the familiar names, but rather to illustrate that our model of the nature of scientific discovery and theory building is wrong. Of course, one of the differences between science and philosophy is that in science it is less common to have several theories in constant contention - there's more of a tendency to settle for a 'best supported current theory'. And so we don't have a single widely accepted theory of scientific discovery - but Scerri is pushing here for a new one, or at least one that is less supported - specifically that scientific discovery is like biological evolution - a gradual development based on lots of small changes, where it isn't meaningful to identify a single owner of a theory.

In a sense, like biological evolution, there's an element of this that is so obvious it's a surprise anyone argues about it. Clearly no scientist works in isolation but is constantly influenced by what he or she learns of the work of others. Newton famously made his 'shoulders of giants' remark, and though it was probably intended as an insult to Robert Hooke, Newton nonetheless at least once had to admit that Hooke introduced a concept to him (the nature of orbits). However, since Thomas Kuhn's work on the philosophy of science about 50 years ago, there has been the idea of sudden revolutionary changes in science - so-called paradigm shifts - which Scerri suggests don't exist.

Part of the problem Scerri identifies is our tendency to label a theory 'right' or 'wrong' where this is rarely possible to do. This sounds like woffly philosophising of the 'What is truth?' variety - but it's not, because theories are very rarely about finding the truth. They are more about developing the best model to fit observation. All theories are probably 'wrong' in a sense - because they are just models. But some fit beautifully and so we hang onto them until something better comes along.

I understand why Scerri includes his seven scientists, but there is far too much detail on their work, which for me gets in the way of the far more important thinking on the nature of scientific discoveries. While I'm not sure Scerri is right in entirely dismissing revolutions - it's hard not to see, for example, the shift to the general theory of relativity as anything other than revolutionary - he surely has an important point in the evolutionary model, which could have been more interestingly developed at greater depth in the book. And that would also have given a chance to explore his plea to dismiss scientific heroes further.

There's no doubt that popular science in particular, in simplifying the picture, tends to pick out a handful of individuals as the greats of science. But I'm not sure this is a bad thing. Just as the Apollo missions couldn't have happened without a vast number of individuals we know nothing about - but it's still worth celebrating what the astronauts did. This doesn't mean we should ignore the others. Their stories can be interesting in their own right, as Margot Lee Shetterley shows in Hidden Figures - but we still need the scientific equivalent of the astronauts in figures like Bohr or Einstein or Newton to keep a narrative interesting. We just need to bear in mind that superstars, whether in movies or in science, aren't the whole story.

In A Tale of Seven Scientists, Eric Scerri has a genuinely interesting story to tell, but he also demonstrates why, on the whole, we focus on certain figures in popular history of science, because the work of his seven scientists is sufficiently incremental that only an expert could love them. I hope he considers writing another book for a general audience that concentrates on the evolutionary nature of scientific discovery more - and develops it further, as here the same assertions are repeated rather frequently. As it is, the current book is something of chimera, but rewards the effort of reading it with some real topics for thought, if you are interested in what science does and what it is.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Are Numbers Real - Brian Clegg *****

To use Brian Clegg's own words, the question as to whether numbers are real seems, at first, 'like a crazy question.'  In my mind, numbers are somewhat like natural language, in that one could argue that we don't consciously think about our native language when using it - it just happens and flows out of us.  When we have thoughts, it's interesting to ask whether one was thinking those thoughts in words, and, therefore, whether one can have a thought without having available a language in which to structure them.  

As numbers obviously don’t exist in a physical sense - you can't trip over the number ‘2’ in the street - one might conclude that, as in the language case, numbers exist only in thought.  To answer such things one might decide to conduct an experiment, to observe the reasoning process.  Sadly, to do so is like observing which slit a particle passes through in the famous double-slit experiment from quantum mechanics; when an observation is made, the effect of the observation crashes the experiment.  It would seem that the machine (the mind) cannot watch itself in operation and observe its own subtle workings.

UK edition
In the book, Clegg takes us from aspects of mathematics which seem very natural - even suggesting in an entertaining way how a basic number system could be developed as a result of lending someone your goats - to those which certainly do require conscious thought and seem very far removed from the world, though paradoxically this kind of mathematics is used to drive the way that physics currently explores reality. It's both a brief history of the human love-hate relationship with maths and a look at the way that what was once clearly a direct representation of the physical has become a language and reality of its own.

In Are Numbers Real? Clegg tackles what is a very deep question in his usual way: with clarity, wit and a wonderfully clear narrative writing style.  Not only does he tackle a wide variety of subjects to seek out the truth of the matter, he does so in an engaging and hugely accessible way.  I personally couldn’t put it down and as an active researcher in the field itself, it has provided me with some very, um, real food for thought.

Hardback (UK paperback):  
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Review by Peet Morris
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.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Welcome to the Universe - Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael Strauss, Richard Gott ***

One of the first things a writer is encouraged to do is to be aware of his or her audience. I think it's interesting that this book, like many written by physicists, mostly has comments on the back from physicists, because the book is written as if they were the audience. Not as serious reading - more the equivalent of a heavy literary fiction reader indulging in a bit of Agatha Christie for light relief. The trouble is that this isn't the audience it's supposed to be for. To make things worse, each of the three authors pitches their writing differently.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is his usual ebullient self, using a style that mixes the shouty with a touch of condescension. However, his content is more detailed than usual with a strong smattering of equations - enough that this sometimes feels like an introductory textbook. The opening has something of the manic 'space is really big' approach of the Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but then settles down to a quick rattle through '3,000 years of astronomy.' However, to ensure it's not too interesting he also tells us that he is not going to include details of people and discoveries. To be fair, this may be because Tyson has been slated in the past for poor history of science.

Despite the style, Tyson manages a reasonable balance of general observation and introduction of physical concepts. There is one odd chapter, about the demotion of Pluto from a planet which doesn't fit with the rest at all - it seems a bit of a vanity project for Tyson - but the rest fits together quite well. We've already come across Michael Strauss in this first section on 'stars, planets and life' as he interposes a few chapters amongst Tyson's, but he comes into his own in the second, shortest section, 'galaxies'. This is probably the least technical section of the book, being mostly descriptive. In a dry, but generally accessible fashion, Strauss takes us from the interstellar medium to quasars and supermassive black holes.

Finally we get to Richard Gott's section, 'Einstein and the Universe'. This the heaviest section of a literally heavy book (1.35 kilograms - get the Kindle version), but in some ways the most satisfying. Gott is not a great explainer, and does perpetuate the myth that Wheeler named the black hole (a common enough misunderstanding 10 years ago, but generally done away with by now), however he gives us a brisk introduction to special and general relativity (John Gribbin would not be impressed that he refers to 'the theory of special relativity'), going on to the implications of these theories for astrophysics and even time travel. Reading Gott is hard work, but it is rewarding. However, this section feels like a completely different book - the first two parts very much fit with the subtitle, 'an astrophysical tour', but the final part is very much physics with astrophysical applications.

Overall, there's a lot going on in this book, with more equations and working out than I've ever seen in a book from a mainstream publisher aimed at a popular science audience. I think it will work well for a segment of that audience - high school students who are already specialising in physics, and regular popular science physics readers who want more depth (provided they can get through the Tyson section). But the book's inconsistent approach and heavy content won't be for everyone.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 2 December 2016

Ecotopia 2121 - Alan Marshall ***

This is, without doubt, one of the the strangest books I have ever reviewed. Around 500 years ago, the cleric and politician Thomas More wrote a book called Utopia that brought a new, and much misused, word into the world. Now, Alan Marshall has used some of the concepts of utopia (which he points out combines the meanings 'good land' or 'nowhere land') to provide a vision of an ecologically minded future 100 or so years from now.

The title emphasises that ecological aspect (it has been used before), though for me it's too close to 'ectopic' to be comfortable. In the book, Marshall takes 100 world cities and gives us a vision of what they might be like in 2121. Each has a rather beautiful image, plus between one and five pages of text which typically combine a bit of historical context, an idea of why he has chosen the particular approach he has used for that city and some details on what the future city is like.

The choice of cities is quirky. The obvious world capitals are there but we also find, for example, Andorra la Vella (with a very retro feel and a banning of nanotechnology). Inevitably the urge is strong to pick out the cities in your country first. For the UK we get the fairly obvious London and Birmingham, combined with Bristol, Oxford, Plymouth and Wolverhampton. Inevitably, also, the first response is 'Why these? Where's Cambridge and Manchester? What happened outside of England?' but in the end, the choice is the author's.

The range of environmental futures awarded the cities is impressive - and like all good utopia stories, there are some darker reflections. Paris, for example, is portrayed with the Eiffel Tower collapsing as the remains of a space elevator collapses from the sky (Marshall doesn't like space travel) and Palo Alto (is that really a city?) is a monstrous hi-tech future environment. Many, though seem impossibly wonderful. Marshall's cities seem largely redesigned from the ground up - yet history suggests that this rarely happens, with evolutionary change more likely than revolutionary.

All in all, like most books where you get 100 anything, it's difficult to read from end to end - it's more of a dip in book. There are some interesting environmental ideas here - for example, the Bristol entry concentrates on a tidal barrier to Cardiff, which is wide enough to be a very narrow city in its own right - and I think the future cities will also prove a rich source of settings for science fiction writers. There's not a lot of science here, so I can't score it more than three stars - but at the very least it's a book that's worth taking a look at for its imaginative vision of a very unlikely but inspiring set of future possibilities. It is available on Kindle, but I'd go for the hardback to get a better feel for those illustrations.


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Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 27 November 2016

What Colour is the Sun? - Brian Clegg ****

This is Brian Clegg's follow-up to How Many Moons Does the Earth Have? with the same format, but all new questions. As I may have mentioned before, science and fun go together like… well, like things that don’t often go together at all.  So it’s no mean feat to find that Brian Clegg has managed to combine the two so skilfully here.
Like its predecessor, the book is in the format of a pair of pub quizzes, but unless you’re drinking in a pub favoured by geeky academics in either Oxford or Cambridge, I would say that 99.99% of readers will just read the book through like I did, to entertain and test themselves.   
Each question is cleverly laid out, in that each is posed in the form of a puzzle, problem or brainteaser, augmented with a few related ‘while you wait’ fun facts on a single page; giving the reader the space to test themselves.  Once done, the reader then turns the page to find the answer - complete with a detailed explanation.  This makes each question an interesting standalone read in its own right.  For those who want to go further, each answer also has a ‘read more’ suggestion of a book that expands on the topic.
US readers needn't
worry...
The biggest problem with this book is being able to put it down, as each item is very short, it’s tempting to go for just one more… and another until you’re half-way through in a single sitting.  
The subjects are widespread, though all encompass science and technology; from the title question of the book (not as straightforward as it seems) to why your fingers go wrinkly in the bath (ditto) - there are also some great picture and puzzle sections.  In fact the majority of the questions have a little twist or surprise that mean they continue to delight all the way through, and I must say that I don’t believe that I’ve ever uttered ‘Well I never’ so many times and in such a short space of time before.
If you like QI or the New Scientist books like Why Don’t a Penguin’s Feet Freeze, you’ll just love this one!  It’s a great book for anyone with an interest in science and at a really good price that makes it an excellent stocking filler.  Once again, I am certainly going to be buying a whole stack as Christmas presents for my Oxford chums (who much appreciated the previous volume).

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Review by Peet Morris
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.

Astrophotography - Rhodri Evans ****

This is a book that falls pretty firmly in the coffee table bracket, weighing in at over a kilo, and nearly 30 cm by 24. I'd usually be rather put off by this, but I was pleasantly surprised here.

We've seen plenty of photo-based books of space before, such as the even bigger Hubble books, but for me, Astrophotography probably has the best balance. It combines those gorgeous photographs we have come to know and love (partly because NASA and the ESA are so generous with making them freely available) with a good text by astronomer Rhodri Evans, which never dominates the images, but gives enough information to avoid this being a pure picture book. 

Even so, as the title suggests, it's the photographs that make it remarkable. Evans takes us an a tour, starting with the solar system, where as well as the inevitable planets we get some funky moons and comets (yes, it's up-to-date enough to include 67P and those great Pluto photos). 

From the limits of our solar system, we zoom out to our galaxy, the local group and the wider universe, ending with the most distant views, the cosmic microwave background and a good text on gravity wave astronomy (though obviously no photographs of the outcome here).

I'm always a little unsure what coffee table books are for, but there's no doubt this would make a great gift for an astronomical beginner, or simply someone who enjoys the remarkable photographs from space that are now available.


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Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science - Nancy Cooke & Margaret Hilton (Eds.) ****

Editor's note: This book is not popular science in the usual sense and the primary audience is those working in science, but it gives insights that will prove valuable beyond the science community.

Research of biological, chemical or physical sciences in all their guises is increasingly the domain of large-scale, multi-centre, cross-disciplinary collaboration. Almost gone is the era when individual investigators secured funding to undertake narrowly defined projects, replaced by a ‘team science’ philosophy in which both practical and theoretical research, basic or applied, is performed by consortia of scientists with a range of skill sets who are brought together to address so-called grand challenges. As team members are typically in geographically distinct locations, often in different countries or continents, this provides logistical obstacles to project coordination, management and implementation. Knowing how a team-based approach can function optimally, as well as how universities and research institutions may best provide infrastructure and administrative support is critical to success in achieving scientific goals and translational outcomes.

It is in this context that Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science distils the collective thoughts of the research committees of the US National Academy of Sciences to proffer guidance on improving team effectiveness, facilitating virtual collaboration, enabling institutional backing and procuring funding. Individual sections focus on team composition, leadership and professional development of team members. How organisational research policies may help and not hinder collaborative research is also examined. This book offers robust recommendations to science research agencies and public policymakers, as well as valuable advice for university research managers, team science leaders and career researchers. It also debunks the clich├ęd myth that academics should be left alone in their ivory towers without any obligation to public accountability. We may prefer interacting with lab rats to engaging with the general public but society is a team effort and, for scientists, that starts with team bonding through research and research-led teaching.

A pdf version is free to download from the website of the publisher, The National Academies Press, while a hard copy book, excellent for libraries, is available for purchase.


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Review by Andrew Taylor-Robinson

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

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 book to be a beautiful object in its own right.


Why this book?

I followed science to degree level, but have made several subsequent forays into more artistic territory. Fusing art and science has always intrigued me and remains a lodestar. I’ve enjoyed talking to non-scientists about science and trying to understand, explain and illuminate the wonder and beauty of the natural world and the cosmos and it’s inner workings. I’ve long wanted to create sort-of anti-textbooks.  For some years I amused my friends (I think!) by talking of wanting to create lyrical, poetic, beautiful books about science for non-science readers, without any real idea of how you would do that. I still think that might be impossible!  But it’s worth a detour…


What’s next?

I like the idea of tackling more bite-sized chunks of science.  This book’s conceit of moving from the Big Bang to Now gave me a crash course in finding about where we are.  And while it’s a very satisfying structure, I’d love to dwell in greater, but hopefully still eccentric (!), detail on particular areas of scientific interest as there is just so much there. I’d like to do a series of smaller books like this, perhaps for a slightly younger readership. I’m also planning a graphic book that looks at the key technologies of ancient civilizations and how they link scientific insight with cultural and social flowerings. Oh… and there is the sumptuous book on artichokes that is always there on the back burner… (Don’t ask!)


What’s exciting you at the moment?

Advances in astronomy (now, including gravitational waves), high-energy particle physics and the ability to crunch big-data seems to be taking us to the threshold of another paradigm shift in our view of the Universe … well, at least that’s how it feels to me. The extraordinary fact that 95% of the Universe seems to be missing and that gravity is by most accounts inexplicably weak by many orders of magnitude, is frustrating and scintillating by turns. I’m excited by the idea of the next ‘Einstein’ to turn on the light bulb. Wouldn’t it be absolutely amazing if it happened within our lifetimes? I favour brane cosmologies and multidimensional space as the deeper reality. I mean, otherwise, how on earth could the Universe have emerged from ‘nothing’ – really… c’mon! But, perhaps, like the humble bee, we are irrevocably imprisoned within the limits of our perceptual systems and we will never get to see what ‘lies beyond’.  But it's fun trying!

The Realization of Star Trek Technologies - Mark Lasbury ***

When a popular science writer takes on the science of Star Trek, the result is inevitably going to be held up against Lawrence Krauss's The Physics of Star Trek - an early popular science book and one of the first I ever read. I'm glad to say that Mark Lasbury manages to avoid the danger of rehashing Krauss's book. Where the earlier title took key Star Trek technologies and explored whether they could be made possible with actual physics, Lasbury gives us the Star Trek explanations and some thoughts on their feasibility, but concentrates primarily on situations where real life technology can provide some of the features of the Star Trek equivalent. In doing this, unlike Krauss, he omits aspects such as the warp drive, instant communication and time travel where the technology doesn't have a real-world parallel.

It quickly becomes clear that Lasbury really knows his stuff on what happens in different Star Trek episodes and the assorted 'technical manuals' that have sprung up around the series. If anything this aspect is over-done. There doesn't seem too much point labouring over why a technology is explained differently in a later episode than an earlier one - in the end it's because they had different writers and the later one couldn't be bothered to check. There's an element of 'this is fiction, get over it,' about this kind of detail.

The level of detail on the real world technologies is impressive - I think this book will strongly appeal to an audience that loves this kind of working through possibilities systematically - for example, looking at all the different ways we can do something roughly similar to phasers. Some parts such as lasers are likely to be familiar, but others, for example the idea of using a laser to ionise a path through air, then sending an electric charge along the path - so-called directed lightning - is fascinating. All too often, though, the result deteriorates into a list approach that makes more for completeness than reading pleasure.

The sections which proved most interesting to me were mostly those where we were closest to the real thing - I found the universal translator section particularly enjoyable - though the tricorder section spent too long on assorted medical add-ons for smartphones. The transporter section (something that was also covered by Krauss) also had plenty of absorbing content, though it's a shame Lasbury doesn't mention the no cloning theorem - or more entertainingly, the objection to the Star Trek transporter raised in that brilliant film Galaxy Quest of why such an incredibly sophisticated piece of technology requires its operator to smoothly push a pair of sliders.

Pretty well all popular science books have a few errors or points where a rather odd comment is made, and there were a number here. When talking about cloaking devices, the author says 'interesting, in both [Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings], the cloaking devices were actually cloaks; I wonder if this is the genesis of the term "cloaking device?"' The only problem is that Star Trek predates Harry Potter, and the main cloaking device in the Lord of the Rings is, erm, a ring. Not all the problems are about cultural context. We're told photon torpedoes involve matter/antimatter annihilation, so no light is involved. Remind me what is produced when, particles and antiparticles annihilate? Oh, yes - photons.  Strangest of all is the description of the orbit of comet 2015 TB145; Lasbury tells us its orbit is 'very oblong.' I've seen diagrams of its orbit and - not surprisingly - it isn't at all rectangular.

If you really like getting into the detail of this kind of tech, this is going to be an excellent read for you. I can't give it more than three stars for the general reader, because it is too much of a 'listing every possible technology and how it works' book, but there's no doubt there will be an enthusiastic audience for this material.
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Review by Brian Clegg