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Showing posts from 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…

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 ficti…

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 abil…

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. Over…

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 particularl…