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Austral (SF) - Paul McAuley ****

When I was a teenager, I devoured post-apocalyptic disaster novels, but as an adult I've tended to think that life is too short to read depressing books. Luckily, despite Paul McAuley's Austral being set in a world that has been reshaped by catastrophic climate change, it hasn't got the entirely miserable feel of some of science fiction's more hangdog works - but it certainly isn't a bundle of laughs either.

Central character Austral is an outcast, genetically modified by her eco-poet parents (not writers of verse, but involved in shaping the environment to naturally deal with what hits it). She is bigger, stronger and far more able to cope with the cold of her Antarctic home than normal humans. And for most of the book she is on the run, taking with her cousin, a young woman she has saved from being kidnapped by kidnapping her herself.

The structure of the narrative is multi-layered. We get the straight Austral story, Austral telling her cousin the story of their mu…

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams (SF) – Philip K. Dick ****

The ten stories in this collection originally appeared in various science fiction magazines between 1953 and 1955, when Philip K. Dick was still in his twenties. They’re packaged here to tie in with the TV series Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, currently showing on Channel 4. I imagine most readers –certainly those who’ve never encountered any of these pieces before – will approach the book via the somewhat anachronistic perspective of the TV episodes (most of which are best described as ‘homages’ to the original stories rather than adaptations). In this context, there’s an illuminating two-page introduction to each piece by the screenwriters behind the corresponding TV episode.

Unfortunately, with this wrong-end-of-the-telescope approach, you’re more likely to spot elements that are ‘missing’ from the originals, rather than all the extraordinary and thought-provoking ideas they do contain (many of which get glossed over in the TV version). The ideal approach would be the exact oppos…

Science(ish) - Rick Edwards and Michael Brooks ****

Seeing the subtitle of this engaging hardback it would be easy to think 'Oh, no, not other "Science of Movie X" book - they were great initially but there have been too many since.' Somehow, though, the approach that Rick Edwards and Michael Brooks have taken transcends the original format and makes the whole thing fresh and fun again.

I think the secret to their success is that they don't try to cover all the science of a particular film, but rather that they use each of their ten subjects to explore one particular topic. It also helps that, rather than focus entirely on franchise movies we get some great one-offs, including The Martian and Ex Machina. I suspect you may find the interest level of the chapters reflects to some extent whether or not you've seen the films. So, for instance, In found 28 Days Later and Gattaca, which I haven't seen, less interesting. The only other topic that suffered a bit for me was Planet of the Apes, which I have seen but …

The Little Book of Black Holes - Steven Gubser and Frans Pretorius ****

I am always suspicious when a book has a comment on the back from a physics professor recommending it for the 'general reader', as in my experience, physics professors have little clue as to what works for a non-technical audience. But in the case of The Little Book of Black Holes, Roger Penrose has got it right... with one proviso. As long as the general reader has absorbed a good popular science title on special and general relativity first.

Without ever venturing into heavyweight maths, Steven Gubser and Frans Pretorius take us through the way that both Schwarzschild's non-rotating black hole and Kerr's rotating version were derived from Einstein's equations. And they help the reader explore many of the implications for such a body were it to exist in the real universe, from familiar aspects such as time dilation to the delightful zoom-whirl orbit. For an unfortunate individual passing towards the singularity we not only get spaghettification (though not named as…

Closing the Gap - Vicky Neale ***

Every now and then a working scientist will write a superb popular science book, but it's significantly rarer that mathematicians stray beyond recreational maths without becoming impenetrable, so I was cheering as I read the first few chapters of Vicky Neale's Closing the Gap about the attempt to prove the 'twin primes conjecture' that infinitely many pairs of prime numbers just two apart.

I'd say those first few chapters are far and above the best example I've seen of a mathematician getting across the essence of pure maths and why it appeals to them. Unfortunately, though, from then on the book gets bogged down in the problem that almost always arises, that what delights and fascinates mathematicians tends to raise a big 'So what?' in the outside world.

Neale interlaces attempts getting closer and closer to the conjecture, working down from a proof of primes several millions apart to under 600, adding in other, related mathematical work, for example on …

Cracking Quantum Physics - Brian Clegg ****

This is a handsome little hardback (or a good value ebook) - significantly smaller than I thought it would be from the cover photo. In the grand scheme of things I am not a fan of picture books for grown-ups, which this kind of is. But, if you are going to do something like this, it is one of the better ones I've seen.

This is an introduction to quantum physics for beginners (I suppose that's what 'cracking it' is about). It's not something to go for if you've already absorbed the contents of a more substantial quantum title, such as the author's own The Quantum Age, but if the whole business currently leaves you mystified, this would be an excellent way to get started. It fills in a lot of the background, going right back to ancient Greek ideas on what matter is and taking you in around 300 pages to quantum gravity and M-theory.

The whole thing is divided into short sections, often just two pages, which tend to have a lot of illustration. Some of this works …

The Naturalist (SF) - Andrew Mayne ****

There's a twilight border of science fiction, sometimes known as lab lit. It features science/scientists, but the science is more current than speculative - and one aspect of The Naturalist falls into this category. Its protagonist, Professor Theo Cray, is a computational biologist, who gets sucked into a murder enquiry and uses the tools of his trade to crack the case.

You could argue that Dan Brown's Robert Langdon books fit in the same category, but unfortunately Brown gets so much of the science so horribly wrong that it would be an insult to link it with science fiction. That apart, there is one other good reason for mentioning Brown - his writing isn't exactly high quality, but he knows how to produce a book you can't put down, and Andrew Mayne uses similar page turning techniques (including very short chapters) to keep the reader wanting more. Thankfully, though, he does this with a better writing style than Brown.

With a clever twist at the beginning we're pl…

A turnround from Tyson

I am delighted that one of our reviewers has been able to give a five star review to Neil deGrasse Tyson's latest book. The astrophysicist has taken over Carl Sagan's old post as the number one science populariser in the US, but his written output in the past has been patchy, to say the least.

There have been at least two significant problems. One is dubious history of science. For example, in the cases of both Galileo and Bruno he has passed on undiluted the comic book version of history where Galileo is persecuted for mentioned heliocentricity (rather than his disastrous political handling of the  pope) and mutters 'Eppur si muove!' at his trial, and Bruno is burned at the stake for his advanced scientific ideas (both misrepresentations). Some argue that it getting history of science accurate doesn't matter if we get the right message about science across - but if we are prepared to distort historical data, why should anyone take scientific data seriously?

The o…

The Element in the Room - Helen Arney and Steve Mould *****

Two thirds of the excellent science performance group Festival of the Spoken Nerd have produced an extremely entertaining 'find out more about science by messing around with stuff' book. (The remaining member of the group, Matt Parker, has his own book.)

This is a fun, rambling, joy of a title - Helen Arney and Steve Mould are present as distinct characters, writing individual segments (they even have their own, differently labelled footnotes) which take us through everyday experiences of science in our lives, from the mystery of noodles turning turmeric red, to optical illusions, to a whole host of experiments you can do yourself, including their infamous (and risky) rotating wastebasket vortex inferno.

Although not specifically a book for teenagers, it will certainly go down well with that market as well as adults who like science as entertainment. If it had been too heavily 'Gee, whiz, wow, BANG!' - always a danger with a science show approach to writing books - it co…

The Seduction of Curves - Allan McRobie *****

Having recently been somewhat underwhelmed by a science/art crossover book, I was expecting to be equally unimpressed by The Seduction of Curves, which promises to cover 'the lines of beauty that connect mathematics, art and the nude' - but the result is, in truth, stunning (in a good way).
Using both examples from art and impressive original photography by Helena Weightman, Allan McRobie introduces us to the significant shapes that form the 'alphabet' of catastrophe theory. This sounds like something dealing with sudden and drastic failures of systems - and certainly it can be involved in them. But at its heart, it's about mathematical functions where a small change in a parameter makes a sudden and distinctive shift in the output - from example when a curve suddenly takes a totally different direction (as it often does on the contours of the human body).
What makes this very different from the other title I mentioned is that this is not just a coffee table book of …