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Showing posts from January, 2018

The Electric Century - J. B. Williams ***

After reading J. B. Williams' The Electronics Revolution I couldn't resist also having a go at The Electric Century. The mysterious J. B. provides a similar mix of historical data and narrative, in this case for aspects of electricity, from generation to household products using it. Covering a total of 21 topics, plus intro and conclusion, Williams reminds us just how far the use of electricity has spread into our lives. As well as the obvious, we get, for example, the use in cars - not so much electric cars, but a requirement from day one in even the most basic petrol vehicle.

I say petrol, but Williams would say gasoline, as there is a really strange approach taken here. Although it covers both the US and the UK (and to an extent Europe), this is a very British book, giving far more detail on what happened in the UK than you would otherwise expect. Yet it's not only got American spelling it uses US words (so, for example, we hear of people in the UK using 'faucets'…

The Bastard Legion (SF) - Gavin Smith *****

Science fiction has a long tradition of 'military in space' themes - and usually these books are uninspiring at best and verging on fascist at worst. From a serious SF viewpoint, it seemed that Joe Haldeman's magnificent The Forever War made the likes of Starship Troopers a mocked thing of the past, but sadly Hollywood seems to have rebooted the concept and we now see a lot of military SF on the shelves.

The bad news is that The Bastard Legion could not be classified as anything else - but the good news is that, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer subverted the vampire genre, The Bastard Legion has so many twists on a straightforward 'marines in space' title that it does a brilliant job of subversion too.

The basic scenario is instantly different. Miska is heading up a mercenary legion, except they're all hardened criminals on a stolen prison ship, taking part because she has stolen the ship and fitted them all with explosive collars. Oh, and helping her train her &…

Euler's Pioneering Equation - Robin Wilson ***

The concept of a 'beautiful equation' is a mystery to many, but it seems to combine a piece of mathematics that expresses something sophisticated in relatively few terms and something that looks satisfying. The equation that has proved standout amongst mathematicians, as by far the most beautiful (and is only placed second to Maxwell's equation amongst physicists) is Euler's remarkable eiπ+1 = 0. What seems remarkable to me about this is that it just seems bizarre that this combination of things produces such a neat result. (Incidentally, as far as I can see, the only reason for the 'pioneering' in the title was to enable the fancy graphic on the cover of the book.)

Getting popular maths books right is incredibly difficult. When I started reading this book, I really thought that Robin Wilson had cracked it. After an introduction, he gives us a chapter on each of the elements of the equation (except the plus and equals signs), from the more basic aspects like 1 a…

On the Moor - Richard Carter ****

There's much to enjoy in Richard Carter's pean to the frugal yet visceral delights of being one with England's Pennine moorland. If this were all there were to the book it would have made a good nature read, but Carter cleverly weaves in science at every opportunity, whether it's inspired by direct observations of birds and animals and plants - I confess I was ignorant of the peregrine falcon's 200 mile per hour dive - or spinning off from a trig point onto the geometric methods of surveying through history all the way up to GPS.

Carter is something of an expert on Darwin, and inevitably the great man comes into the story many times - yet his appearance never seems forced. It's hard to spend your time in a natural environment like this and not have Darwin repeatedly brought to mind.

I confess to a distinct love of these moors. Having spent my first 11 years in and around Littleborough, just the other side of Blackstone Edge from Carter's moor, the moorland…

The Electronics Revolution - J. B. Williams ***

If I'm honest, The Electronics Revolution was a lot better than I thought it would be. it has 27 topic-based chapters plus intro and conclusion, covering the development of electronic technology - some of it where electronics was not always involved - in everything from radio and TV to recorded music and computing. There is a real danger with this kind of format that you end up with chapter after chapter with very little substance, simply recounting examples of a particular application. Just occasionally, there is a touch of this - for example in dealing with the Millennium bug. However, mostly what we get is much better.

What is impressive about the way that J. B. Williams (we are told nothing concerning the author, not even a first name) covers these topics is the detail of the early history that he or she digs out. So, for example, I thought I knew a fair amount about the origins of thermionic valves/vacuum tubes, but I hadn't seen before the story of Edison accidentally inv…

Feature - Can you discover the periodic table?

I follow the excellent historian and philosopher of chemistry Eric Scerri on Facebook and a recent post of his intrigued me.

In it, Eric uses the verb 'discovered' for what Mendeleev did with periodic table. When I queried this, he suggested that the use of the term depended on whether or not you are a realist. But I'm not sure if that's true.

Let's take a simpler example, then come back to the periodic table. Specifically, we'll use the star Betelgeuse, the distinctly red one of the four main stars of Orion.

If I'm a realist*, then I think there is something real out there that I am labelling Betelgeuse. In good Kantian fashion, I can't know the reality - the 'Ding and sich' - but I can report on the sensory data from Betelgeuse and believe that I am talking about something that really exists. As it exists independent of humanity, we can discover it. However, Betelgeuse is also a class M star on the endearingly random looking stellar classificatio…

The New York Times Book of Science - David Corcoran (Ed.) ***

If I'm honest, I didn't have high hopes for a collection of newspaper articles on science, as, sadly, even the best newspapers tend not to do science very well. And these doubts were born out with the more modern articles here, which were often over-verbose (presumably in an attempt to win the Pulitzer Prize) and not very good at explaining the science. But I had reckoned without the sheer delight of the pre-1950 pieces.

There was no attempt at clever-clever writing back then - it was good, blocky, solid, gum-chewing journalistic writing, with just that little edge of 'gee-whizz, wow!' from a time when science was perhaps more amazing to the general public than it is now.

I won't go through a whole list of favourites, but just point out three to show the kind of thing I mean. The very first entry in the book (by no means the oldest, but they're ordered by topic first before date) is the magnificently titled 'Tut-Ankh-Amen's Inner Tomb Is Opened, Revealing…

Logan's Run (SF) - William Nolan and George Clayton Johnson ****

If you've only ever seen the rather pallid and denatured 1976 movie, the original 1967 novel of Logan's Run will come as a sensory overload. Sometimes when I re-read a book of this vintage it's a let-down, but Logan's Run has really held up well (with a couple of small exceptions). It's pleasantly short - not a wasted page - and drags the reader from glittering set piece to set piece with a relentless power that makes it obvious that this could be made into a much better movie these days.

Having said that, even 21st century Hollywood would struggle with the sexuality and brutal shortness of the lives of the characters who are required to submit to euthanasia on their 21st birthday (the film opted for the less controversial 30) - however the sheer fact that all the 'adults' here are aged between 14 and 21 adds to the visceral nature of the plot - especially in a sequence where the main characters are attacked by the sub-14 'cub scouts.'

It's hard t…

Strange Chemistry - Steven Farmer ***

There is a dire shortage of popular chemistry books, so it's always a pleasure to find a title that is undoubtedly chemistry, yet is also likely to be of interest to the general reader.

Steven Farmer's subtitle for this book is 'the stories your chemistry teacher wouldn't tell you,' making it intriguingly suggestive of the interesting bits of chemistry that for one reason or another are considered to risky (or morally dubious) to feature in the chemistry classroom. It's a neat idea - and in many cases, it works very well as a way in.

There's a lot here on drugs, whether they are over the counter medication, prescription drugs or the illegal stuff. This certainly fits into the category of 'unlikely to be taught at school' with a few exceptions like aspirin (of which more in a moment), though after a while it did get to feel a bit samey, especially when having already had a couple of long sections on them we then get chemistry in popular culture, and we…

Ten Great Ideas About Chance - Persi Diaconis and Brian Skyrms ***

There are few topics that fascinate me as much as chance and probability. It's partly the wonder that mathematics can be applied to something so intangible and also because so often the outcomes of probability are counter-intuitive and we can enjoy the 'Huh?' impact of something that works yet feels so far from common sense.

I think I ought to start by saying what this is isn't. It's definitely not an introductory book - the authors assume that the reader 'has taken a first undergraduate course in probability or statistics'. And though there's an appendix that claims to be a probability tutorial for those who haven't got this background, it's not particularly reader-friendly - in theory I knew everything in the appendix, but I still found parts of it near-impossible to read.

As for the main text, if you pass that first criterion, my suspicion is that, like me, you will find parts utterly fascinating and other parts pretty much incomprehensible. Th…

Thinking Big - Clive Gamble, John Gowlett and Robin Dunbar ****

When I was young, my main exposure to popular science was through my Dad's collection of Pelican paperbacks, where academics expounded on the likes of animals without backbones or some archeological wonder such as Howard Carter's discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb or Schliemann's adventures uncovering Troy. On the whole I preferred the archaeology titles, as they tended to have more of a story - but when I read Thinking Big, I was plunged back into that world.

The topic helps - we've got a combination of archaeology, palaeontology and psychology here - but there's also something about the feel of the book. The authors are generally rather serious about what they're doing, there's that same small, finicky print and the reader does have to work reasonably hard to get much out of it.

Part of the difficulty is that the thread of the book is quite meandering and the underlying science sometimes feels distinctly vague. At the core is the 'social brain hypothes…