Thursday, 31 March 2016

Exploring the Planets: a memoir - Fred Taylor ***

 Back in the day, it seems that every senior officer in the armed forces felt the urge to write a memoir, and publishers churned them out, either out of patriotic duty, or because they felt that these people were involved in something very significant (true), so their stories must be interesting (not always true). There's an echo of this practice that creeps into scientists' memoirs, such as Exploring the Planets by Oxford professor Fred Taylor. There are, without doubt, some really interesting space experiments described in these 360 fairly small print pages, but there's also an awful lot of material that is unrewarding for the reader.

What's good? Taylor gives us an excellent picture of the processes and procedures and bureaucracy needed to get an experiment onto a satellite - and all too often that would fail to get a place, or get funding, after a huge amount of work had been put into it. We get the feeling for the sheer expanse of time involved in these space-based projects. For example, the 'With Galileo to Jupiter' chapter starts with events in 1976, but doesn't strictly end until 2003 when the Galileo orbiter plunges into Jupiter's atmosphere. For me, the three most interesting experiments were Taylor's very first, involving equipment suspended from a balloon that ended up in an unhappy farmer's field near Newbury, the failed Mars Climate Orbiter and the second mission to Venus that involved Taylor.There's certainly plenty here for the (unmanned) space exploration fan to get his or her teeth into.

However, there is also a lot that could be better. Much of the mundane, everyday life material lacks any great interest to the outside observer (except to note that I shall from now on raise an eyebrow when scientists claim to be underpaid, as Taylor had already bought his first Aston Martin - a DB5 - when he was in his twenties). It's hard to plough through pages packed with acronyms, concentrating far more on the politics and the engineering aspects of the job than the underlying science. In fact, Taylor does not seem to be a very good science communicator. He delights in telling us how when being interviewed by Connie Chung for the CBS evening news, she looked puzzled as his explanations were too technical saying 'This pleased me no end.' That's more a failure than something to celebrate. And he rarely makes an attempt to explain the science behind text like 'Some elementary theory, imported from terrestrial atmospheric physics, can explain the behaviour as a consequence of the equator-to-pole overturning Hadley cell, combining with the super-rotating zonal winds and a wavenumber-two instability near the poles.' It's hard to see the point of putting this in at all without explanation.

Another irritating tendency is to get to a point where the text might truly become interesting - then skip over the bits we want to hear about. So, for instance, he tells us that failure of the Mars Climate Orbiter was due to confusion between imperial and metric units, but doesn't give any details to explain how such a mind-boggling error could have occurred. Worse, on a number of occasions Taylor just tells us that he (or someone else) has described something in another book, so he isn't going to tell us about it here. This tends to happen at the most engaging parts, and is hugely frustrating.

There is no doubt that the reader will get some impressively in-depth insights into what goes on in scientific academia (though in many cases it may result in a suspicion that scientists could do with a serious injection of management skills). But it's such a shame that as a scientific memoir it is not more engaging or effective at exploring the science.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Small Doses of the Future - Brand Aiken ***

Small Doses of the Future bears the sub title 'A Collection of Medical Science Fiction Stories', which is an entirely accurate description of the book, in more ways than one. My given task as its reviewer is to consider how the stories work as fiction, what the average reader will make of the science and how the science and the fiction work together (or don’t, as the case may be). I come to this task as a writer of SF fantasy and an averagely non-scientific reader (though at least one scientist friend is wont to insist that my grasp of science makes his cat seem scientifically knowledgeable).

Small Doses is published as part of the Springer Series of Science and Fiction, which claims to 'appeal equally to science buffs, scientists and science-fiction fans'. I most definitely don’t fall into either of the first two categories. Based on the description of the series provided at the front of the book, I think Small Doses fits into the approach summarised as 'Tell fictional short stories built around well-defined scientific ideas, with a supplement summarizing the science underlying the science in the plot'. The book contains nine short stories and two factual articles on 'The Science Behind the Fiction' and 'The Invasion of Modern Medicine by Science Fiction'. My focus is on the fiction, though I did read the articles too.

As noted above, the description 'Medical Science Fiction Stories' struck me as apposite. I found the focus, first and foremost, to be on the medicine, secondly on the science fiction and thirdly on the story. Medical conditions around which the stories have been built include: Locked-In Syndrome; health insurance (Brad Aiken is a US doctor) and technocentric diagnoses; long distance star travel and a fatal reaction to alien life forms; log distance medical interventions; a medical breakthrough you can’t afford to share; nanorobots, cloning and the danger of being an early adopter of technology; the difference between AI and a human brain; world destruction by human-engineered virus and medical advances in dealing with physical disability. I’ve listed the medical conditions because I found them to be the raison d’etre of most of the stories. The science fiction and the stories woven round the medical issues sometimes worked, but sometimes seemed more like afterthoughts, reasonably well written afterthoughts, but afterthoughts nevertheless. In some instances, once the medical issue had been explored, either technically or ethically (medical ethics and social future-gazing play a role in these stories too), it seemed as if the purpose of the story had run its course. Character and plot development were not given as high a profile as I personally would have liked and, as a result, I found the stories reasonably entertaining, but no more than that.

Perhaps because it was medical and related to the human condition, the science involved seemed highly accessible as far as I was concerned. I wasn’t bemused or scientifically traumatised, but nor did I learn anything new. I didn’t feel intellectually stretched or provoked to deep thought. Similarly the SF interpretations of the medical science didn’t strike me as particularly imaginative or quirky. I felt I could have dreamed up the scenarios myself (and I’m convinced my friend’s cat is miles ahead in terms of envisioning brain-stretching SF scenarios).

All in all, I found the collection to be an okay read, but I didn’t feel it was going to set the worlds of either SF story telling or medical science alight.

Editor's note: as has been the case with other books in this series (see, for instance On the Shores of Titan's Farthest Sea), the pricing, at around twice what might be expected for a slim paperback of short stories, seems to limit the audience significantly. Academics may have free access to the ebook from Springer ebook deals.

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Review by J. S. Watts 
J.S.Watts lives and writes in the flatlands of East Anglia. Her poetry and sh-ort stories appear in a diversity of publications. Her dark fiction novel, “A Darker Moon”, and paranormal novel, “Witchlight”, are published in the UK and the US by Vagabondage Press. See www.jswatts.co.uk 

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Death on Earth - Jules Howard ****

I've never before come across a book that I found so likeable despite quite significant failings - most notably, the biggest scientific howler I've ever seen in a popular science title. It's like a friend whose company you enjoy, even though you know that you shouldn't. Underlying that likeability is Jules Howard's constant presence. Publishers like an author to put themselves into a book, to make it their own. Howard is so strongly part of the narrative that occasionally I wished he'd go out for a while.

In this respect, Death on Earth (are we laughing yet, Life on Earth fans?) reminds me of the remarkable books of Jon Ronson. Ronson's best books - the inspiration for the Louis Theroux style of knowing 'innocent abroad' first person TV documentaries - are marvellous. You are never quite sure how much what he writes is really what he feels and how much he is manipulating the reader, but Ronson takes you right into the world of psychopaths or psi abilities (to name but two of his books). In Death on Earth there is less of a sense of manipulation because Howard's progress is so bumbling that it's hard to believe it is anything other than the reality of life.

As yet I haven't really strayed onto the topic of the book - death. As Howard admits early on, many potential readers might consider this an off-putting topic. Yes, some strange individuals are obsessed with death, but most of us prefer not to think of it more than we have to. However, when it comes to it, the book doesn't exactly skirt around the subject, but equally doesn't push it in your face. It's not trying to present platitudes about death, but to examine behaviour and natural history linked to this inevitable eventual demise (or in the case of many living things, the early and tragic version).

In Howard's seemingly random meanderings he comes across a long-lived mollusc, ants dealing with death, frog and toad mortality, and plenty more. It's not that the book is without content. But somehow the content is always dominated, for good or ill, by his bizarre non-adventures - crossing half the country to bring home a dead magpie (used in a half-hearted failed attempt at an experiment in avian behaviour), suffering a frightening medical condition at a life-extension show at Olympia (oh, the irony) and haplessly confusing his very young daughter by trying to explain death to her.

I've put it off long enough - I need to detail the outstanding science fail. Howard writes: 'This understanding of states moving endlessly toward disorder (in a closed system) was first offered up by Newton: it was, famously, his Second Law of Thermodynamics.' If this doesn't leave you rolling around on the carpet guffawing, this is a confusion of Newton's second law of motion (in equation form, force = mass times acceleration) with the second law of thermodynamics, a totally different and hugely important nineteenth century development in physics. It is a bit like a literary expert referring to Shakespeare's novel War and Peace. Every book has a few mistakes, but this is in a class of its own.

It might seem difficult to reconcile giving this book four stars with the sometimes faint praise. But it is a tribute to the author that it remains enjoyable to read and it does have plenty of interesting content along the way. Getting there might be like taking part in a meandering conversation down at the pub - but sometimes that's exactly what you want out of a book. And after a few drinks, we might even forgive Newton's second law of thermodynamics. Perhaps.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

International Space Station: Architecture Beyond Earth - David Nixon ***

There is a danger of discounting this square, chunky book, running to over 400 pages, as a coffee table book, and that would be a great shame. It's true that International Space Station has some wonderful photographs - I particularly love an image of the International Space Station transiting the Moon, which I assumed was a mocked up shot, but according to the caption was taken by someone from Australia with a telescope - it's stunning. However, the photographs are not the be-all and end-all of this book, which contains a very detailed text on the history of the ISS, from its initial planning and construction all the way through to 2011, with an epilogue adding information that takes us up to 2015.

There's a reasonable amount on the build-up to the ISS, with some mentions of its predecessors, and plenty on the design stage. In fact this features more so than might be expected, perhaps because the author is an architect - and proves one of the most interesting sections. Overall, the tone of the book is somewhat reverential, and arguably not questioning enough. David Nixon likens the ISS to the Large Hadron Collider, yet a good number of scientists have pointed out that the American Superconducting Super Collider, which would have been more advanced than the LHC was cancelled in favour of the ISS. And where these colliders are involved in fundamental research, the science done on the ISS is mostly trivial, and often could have been done easier and cheaper without human involvement. Human spaceflight is not primarily about science, and this isn't brought out anywhere near enough in the book.

For me there were a couple of other negatives. This is an expensive book, yet it is not printed on glossy paper, so although the photographs are impressive, they aren't quite as high quality as they could have been. And the main body of the text, although it incorporates assorted human interest stories, is primarily about giving us a huge amount of detail on the step-by-step history of the ISS, where an account that concentrated on narrative high points may have been more readable.


Even so, there is an awful lot to get your teeth into here. If you are a space fan, fascinated by the kind of venture the ISS represents, this book is an absolute must, full of juicy details and intriguing insights into what might have been had NASA taken different decisions. This is a landmark book for the field - it's just a shame that it isn't better at putting the ISS into its scientific context (or lack thereof).

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Review by Brian Clegg

Richard Feynman: A Life in Science - John and Mary Gribbin ****

Every once in awhile one comes across books that are out of print that makes one wonder how that possibly could have happened. This biography of Richard Feynman is one of those books that should never be out of print. 

Feynman is a personal hero of mine and I have made it something of a mission in life to consume all the books, audiobooks, videos, podcasts and whatever other media available that has something to do with Feynman. To me, he is endlessly fascinating. With that said, it is easy to be disappointed by many books that have been written about him. There is a tendency to focus on his wild tales without adding any context to them, while certainly not telling them better than the man does himself. There are also many texts that try to capture the man and bypass, to a large extent, his enormous scientific output and why it was important. Some of this is due to Feynman himself who spread so many amusing tales about his adventures, but it is a disservice to those who are particularly interested in physics, and in science in general. This is because Feynman had incredibly important things to say about the nature of science and its limitations, and why it is a beautiful and wondrous thing because of its nature and its limitations. He also demonstrated through his work and, more importantly, how he approached his work, how science should be conducted and what it is to really know something. 

The two books that I have read that have been the best at trying to capture as much of the man as possible, both his irreverent personal side and his scientific achievements, are James Gleick’s excellent biography Genius and Lawrence Krauss’s Quantum Man. The former capturing Feynman’s interesting life and the latter exposing his gigantic contributions to physics and science at large. 

This book written by the Gribbins, however, is the best at combining both elements of the personal and the scientific. John Gribbin is one of the best science writers around and demonstrates, yet again, his splendid grasp of the importance of the science and ability to describe it for the lay reader. The book flows spectacularly well, alternating by chapter between Feynman’s personal life and more in-depth analysis of his scientific exploits. It is stated, and obvious, that Gribbin is an admirer of Feynman, but he treats his subject with as much objectivity as one can expect. Gribbin convincingly argues that had Feynman been faster to publish several of his projects it is conceivable that he could have won at least one more Nobel Prize and possibly more than that for his contributions to modern physics. 

Beyond winning the prize for quantum electrodynamics (QED), Feynman made enormous contributions to the understanding of superfluidity, weak interaction, quantum chromodynamics (QCD) and a quantum theory of gravity. Interestingly, though the book was published in 1998, the chapter on Feynman’s long attempt to develop a quantum theory of gravity chimes well with the recent discoveries by the LIGO project. Had Feynman been in better health and lived longer, it is conceivable that he would have made a major breakthrough in this area as well. 

Another aspect of the book that is excellent is the inclusion of quotes from Feynman’s many televised appearances and recordings to illustrate or make a point. The book feels distinctly modern in that it relies on a wide array of source material to provide a more complete picture of the man and his science.

Though it is out of print, it is relatively easy to find good used copies through online booksellers. I would urge anyone who has a deep, or even passive, interest in Feynman to read this book, as it really is a great biography of one of the most interesting and important figures in science of the last century.

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Review by Ian Bald