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The Dialogues - Clifford Johnson ***

The authors of science books are always trying to find new ways to get the message across to their audiences. In Dialogues, Clifford Johnson combines a very modern technique - the graphic novel or comic strip - with an approach that goes back to Ancient Greece - using a dialogue to add life to what might seem a dry message.

We have seen the comic strip approach trying to put across quite detailed science before in Mysteries of the Quantum Universe. As with that book, Dialogues manages to cover a fair amount of actual physics, but I still feel that the medium just wastes vast acres of page to say very little at all. This is brought home here because quite a lot of the sections of Dialogues start with several pages with no text on at all, just setting up the scenario.

As for using a discussion between two people to put a message across, Johnson makes the point that, for instance, Galileo's very readable masterpiece Two New Sciences is in the form of a dialogue (more accurately a discu…

Liam Drew - Four Way Interview

Liam Drew is a writer and former neurobiologist. he has a PhD in sensory biology from University College, London and spent 12 years researching schizophrenia, pain and the birth of new neurons in the adult mammalian brain. His writing has appeared in Nature, New Scientist, Slate and the Guardian. He lives in Kent with his wife and two daughters. His new book is I, Mammal.

Why science?

As hackneyed as it is to say, I think I owe my fascination with science to a great teacher – in my case, Ian West, my A-level biology teacher.  Before sixth form, I had a real passion for the elegance and logic of maths, from which a basic competence at science at school arose.  But I feel like I mainly enjoyed school science in the way a schoolkid enjoys being good at stuff, rather than it being a passion.

Ian was a revelation to me.  He was a stern and divisive character, but I loved the way he taught.  He began every lesson by providing us with a series of observations and fact, then, gradually, between …

Polyphonic Minds - Peter Pesic ***

This book conjures up distinctly mixed feelings. The title feels rather misleading, as it is primarily a book about musical polyphony. The 'minds' part comes in during the final 10% of the book, where we do have some consideration of the relationship between polyphony and the way the brain works - but it's certainly not the main focus here.

As it happens, in covering the development of polyphony in the West through the ages, with particular reference to church music, it covers something I am very interested in - so I found it highly engaging (if rather stodgy in writing style). However, without that interest it doesn't have enough on the mind and brain to interest a purely popular science reader (it is classified as music/science).

What we get is a thorough exploration of the way musical structures have changed in time, from what we can deduce about Ancient Greek music, through the earliest recorded church music as it moved from primarily being monophonic chant to having…

A Galaxy of Her Own - Libby Jackson ****

This is an interesting book, even if it probably tries to be too many things to too many people. I wondered from the cover design whether it was a children's book, but the publisher's website (and the back of the book) resolutely refuse to categorise it as such. The back copy doesn't help by saying that it will 'inspire trailblazers and pioneers of all ages.' As I belong to the set 'all ages' I thought I'd give it a go.

Inside are featured the 'stories of fifty inspirational women who have been fundamental to the story of humans in space.' So, in some ways, A Galaxy of Her Own presents the other side of the coin to Angela Saini's excellent Inferior. But, inevitably, given the format, it can hardly provide the same level of discourse.

Despite that 'all ages' comment and the lack of children's book labelling we get a bit of a hint when we get to a bookplate page in the form of a Galaxy Pioneers security pass (with the rather worrying…

I, Mammal - Liam Drew *****

It's rare that a straightforward biology book (with a fair amount of palaeontology thrown in) really grabs my attention, but this one did. Liam Drew really piles in the surprising facts (often surprising to him too) and draws us a wonderful picture of the various aspects of mammals that make them different from other animals. 

More on this in a moment, but I ought to mention the introduction, as you have to get past it to get to the rest, and it might put you off. I'm not sure why many books have an introduction - they often just get in the way of the writing, and this one seemed to go on for ever. So bear with it before you get to the good stuff, starting with the strange puzzle of why some mammals have external testes.

It seems bizarre to have such an important thing for passing on the genes so precariously posed - and it's not that they have to be, as it's not the case with all mammals. Drew mixes his own attempts to think through this intriguing issue with the histor…

Brian Hayes - Four Way Interview

Brian Hayes writes about science, mathematics, computation, and technology. In the 1970s he was an editor at Scientific American, and later at American Scientist. The essays collected in his latest book, Foolproof, and Other Mathematical Meditations, began life as columns in the latter magazine. He holds a courtesy appointment at Harvard University and is supported by a fellowship from Y Combinator Research. Next year he will be journalist-in-residence at the Simons Institute for Theory of Computing in Berkeley, California.

Why maths?

I suppose I could go on about the austere beauty of mathematical truths — and there’s actually something in that. The world of mathematics has a comforting stability and solidity. It’s 'a less fretful cosmos,' according to Bertrand Russell. When the turmoil of life is getting you down — or keeping you up at night — it’s a relief to noodle away on a little maths problem, tucked away in the back of your head. And it’s such a pleasure when you finally…

Just for Graphs (DVD/Download) - Festival of the Spoken Nerd ****

We don't usually review DVDs or video downloads here, but I'm making an exception for The Festival of the Spoken Nerd (FotSN). I'll start with a of disclaimer. I've seen FotSN both live, and on the download version of this video, and their shows do work a little better in the flesh than on the screen. I think it's partly because their exuberance is less overwhelming at a distance on a stage than it is a couple of feet away - and also because you get a lift from the rest of the audience, as you do with any live performance. But Just for Graphs still proved immensely entertaining when viewed at home.

The trio of physicist/singer Helen Arney, physicist/fire-fan Steve Mould and mathematician/more mathematician Matt Parker provide a funny and sometimes surprising canter through all sorts of things about graphs, charts, diagrams and more. If there's a possibility that you don't find this concept fills you with thrills, it's not what they do, it's the way t…

The Quotable Darwin - Charles Darwin, Ed. Janet Browne ***

There's something rather satisfying about a nice, chunky book of quotations. I treasure my Oxford Dictionary of Scientific Quotations, for example. However, single author collections can be quite a struggle to get through. 

I've already seen both The Quotable Feynman and The Ultimate Quotable Einstein for two of the great names of physics, each of them rather good at profound sound bites and witty interjections. But also in each case, even though I like the author's writing, I found it difficult to get too enthusiastic, as it's neither a book you can read from end to end, nor one where you can necessarily find a useful quote on a particular topic, as is the case with the dictionary of quotations. And any concerns I have about those two are probably increased here because, though Darwin was, without doubt, an accomplished writer, the Victorian style rarely makes for a pithy quote.

As I'd recently seen (in the excellent Inferior, for example) some sharp criticism of Da…

The Joy of Festival

One of the best bits about being an author is the chance to turn up at book festivals (and as a science author, I get a double bite of the cake with science festivals).

Last week I was lucky enough to be invited to two very different festivals, each with a very special feel. I've done a couple of the big numbers (Cheltenham and Edinburgh), but for me, small and mid-size festivals like these are far more charming.

The first was Taunton Literary Festival, run in a very friendly, relaxed fashion from Brendon Books, an impressive indie bookshop that mixes new and used books on the shelves with refreshing abandon. As the event was actually in the bookshop, I was expecting a tiny audience, but somehow organiser Lionel Ward managed to cram in a good 60 seats, all of which were filled by an appreciative audience. I've done my Reality Frame talk a few times, but never quite so intimately with my audience. I particularly enjoyed a moment when I was waiting to start, sitting on children…

The Calculus Story - David Acheson ***

According to the back cover 'This little book is more ambitious than it looks.' Apart from a distinct feeling of damning with faint praise, there's an element of truth in this, which proves both a negative and a positive, depending on what you're looking for from a book on calculus.

Let's get the negative out of the way first. To make it a mathematical adventure, as the subtitle suggests, it would need rather more story and rather less calculus. Although David Acheson does get some history of maths in, this is much more 'getting your head around calculus for beginners' than it is 'the calculus story.' So, yes, you will discover, for instance, the battle between Newton and Leibniz - and Bishop Berkeley's magnificently titled 'the Analyst, or a discourse addressed to an infidel mathematician' - but only in a few passing lines.

What we get instead is a step by step introduction to calculus from first principles, which builds on Ancient Greek …

Foolproof - Brian Hayes *****

The last time I enjoyed a popular maths book as much as this one was reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions as a teenager. The trouble with a lot of ‘fun’ maths books is that they cover material that mathematicians consider fascinating, such as pairs of primes that are only two apart, which fail to raise much excitement in normal human beings. 

Here, all the articles have something a little more to them. So, even though Brian Hayes may be dealing with something fairly abstruse-sounding like the ratio of the volume of an n-dimensional hypersphere to the smallest hypercube that contains it, the article always has an interesting edge - in this case that although the ‘volume’ of the hypersphere grows up to the fifth dimension it gets smaller and smaller thereafter, becoming an almost undetectable part of the hypercube.

If that doesn’t grab you, many articles in this collection aren’t as abstruse, covering everything from random walks to a strange betting game. What'…

Artemis (SF) - Andy Weir ****

It's impossible to read Artemis and not be reminded of that one-time SF great, Robert A. Heinlein. Not only was what was arguably Heinlein's best book also set on a Moon colony (more on that later), he had a penchant for feisty young female lead characters who were very intelligent but do not make conventional use of their abilities (think anything from Podkayne of Mars to Friday) - a perfect match for the central character of Andy Weir's new novel, Jasmine (Jazz) Bashara.

Artemis is set on a permanent Moon colony of around 2,000 inhabitants. Its bubble habitats are set up a short train ride from the Apollo 11 landing site, which reflects the colony's main source of income - tourism. Jazz makes her living apparently as a porter, moving goods around the colony, but in reality as a smuggler. This brings her into contact with others who will involve her in something far bigger, with drastic consequences.

Told in the first person by Jazz, this is a fairly conventional space …

Karl Drinkwater - Four Way Interview

Karl Drinkwater is originally from Manchester, but has lived in Wales half his life. He is a full-time author, edits fiction for other writers and was a professional librarian for over twenty-five years. He has degrees in English, Classics and Information Science. When he isn't writing, he loves exercise, guitars, computer and board games, the natural environment, animals, social justice, cake and zombies - not necessarily in that order. His latest novel is Lost Solace.

Why science fiction?

My favourite books have always been any form of speculative fiction. As a child I began with ghost stories, which were the first books to make me completely forget I was reading. By my teenage years I was obsessed with fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Although I read literary and contemporary books, non-fiction, historical works, classics and so on, it is speculative fiction that I return to when I want escape and wonder. When I read reviews of my last book, the fast-paced novella Harvest Fe…