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Showing posts from March, 2018

Big Bang (Ladybird Expert) - Marcus Chown ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Marcus Chown does a remarkable job at packing in information on the big bang, given only around 25 sides of small format paper to work with. He gives us the concepts, plenty about the cosmic microwave background, plus the likes of dark energy, dark matter, inflation and the multiverse. To be honest, the illustrations were largely pointless, apart from maintaining the format, and it might have been better to have had more text - but I felt …

Conjuring the Universe - Peter Atkins *****

It's rare that I'd use the term 'tour de force' when describing a popular science book, but it sprang to mind when I read Conjuring the Universe. It's not that the book's without flaws, but it does something truly original in a delightful way. What's more, the very British Peter Atkins hasn't fallen into the trap that particularly seems to influence US scientists when writing science books for the public of assuming that more is better. Instead of being an unwieldy brick of a book, this is a compact 168 pages that delivers splendidly on the question of where the natural laws came from.

The most obvious comparison is Richard Feynman's (equally compact) The Character of Physical Law - but despite being a great fan of Feynman's, this is the better book. Atkins begins by envisaging a universe emerging from absolutely nothing. While admitting he can't explain how that happened, his newly created universe still bears many resemblances to  nothing a…

Drawdown - Paul Hawken (Ed.) ***

When I was at university there was a book (sometimes classed as a magazine) I often thumbed through in Heffers, though I could never bring myself to buy a copy as it was too expensive. It was called The Whole Earth Catalog, and combined ecological articles with reviews of products, many of them for living an independent lifestyle. I find it hard to believe that it's accidental that the look and feel of Drawdown, with its large format, coarse paper covers and heavily illustrated interior, very different from a typical Penguin paperback, is so reminiscent of The Whole Earth Catalog.

So apart from the gimmick of the appearance (as it makes it very clumsy to read), what does the book provide? We are promised 'the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming', which sounds promising. What we get is a range of 80 solutions, each presented as a separate article, plus a collection of (sometimes more interesting) articles on what are described as 'coming attra…

Stone (SF) - Adam Roberts ****

I'm beginning to think that Adam Roberts holds the same  position in science fiction writing as Gene Wolfe does as the ultimate fantasy writer. Although some of Wolfe's books are delights to read, others are hard work - but often rewarding. Some seem not to quite hit the mark, but this is inevitable because he pushes the boundaries so effectively. Every time I read a new (to me) Adam Roberts title, there's something new and interesting, even in the ones that don't quite make it.
This is one of Roberts' early titles, which I hadn't come across until a friend reviewed it. I'll say straight away that it is somewhat limited by its format, made up as it is of a series of letters addressed by the main character to the titular stone. (Yes, a pebble.) However, that's part of the way that Roberts regularly plays around with the way fiction works. And it doesn't get in the way of some fascinating content. 
In part, Roberts is examining the impact of an apparent…

Thinkonomics - Robert Johnson **

Although Thinkonomics is borderline as popular science, it claims to cover logic and critical thinking, aspects of mathematics and the scientific method respectively, so I thought I’d give it a go.

This is, without doubt, an unusual little book. In fact I’d go so far as to say I’ve never read anything like it. It’s like sitting in a pub, listening to a highly opinionated person hold out on his favourite topics of the day, from politics and sport to animal rights.

Despite the promise of insights into critical thinking and logic, what we get instead is opinions stated as if they were facts. Some of them may indeed be true, but the weakness in terms of presenting arguments in an allegedly scientific fashion is that there is very rarely data provided or any other evidence given to back up the statements.

This means that sometimes we get what feel like political stereotypes (the Conservative party is intent on selling off the National Health Service, for example) and sometimes there are evide…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Gravitational Waves - Brian Clegg ****

The message of this book is summed up in its subtitle: 'How Einstein’s spacetime ripples reveal the secrets of the universe.' Gravitational waves really do reveal secrets – astronomical phenomena that can’t be observed any other way. The Einstein connection comes via general relativity – his alternative to Newton’s theory of gravity which is, notoriously, almost indistinguishable from it for most practical purposes. There are a few situations where the two theories make slightly different predictions, and in these cases general relativity comes out on top. When the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) reported the detection of gravitational waves in February 2016, most journalists treated it as just another of these academic “ticks in the box” for Einstein.

That’s underselling one of the most exciting breakthroughs in modern science – and this book aims to put the record straight. According to Brian Clegg, the LIGO announcement 'signalled the beginning…

The Ascent of John Tyndall - Roland Jackson ****

The Victorian physicist John Tyndall is one of those figures who tend to appear on the periphery of other people’s biographies. He socialised and worked with many famous individuals, and was himself famous and influential in his day. But his fame rapidly diminished after his tragic death.

Roland Jackson suggests, at the conclusion of this excellent biography, that Tyndall’s relative obscurity these days can be attributed to three factors: (1) his wife’s failure to produce a planned biography meant no biography appeared until 1945 (over 50 years after Tyndall’s death); (2) Tyndall was a great experimentalist, rather than theoretician, and it is the theoreticians who tend to be remembered in physics; (3) Tyndall was one of the last of the great classical physicists, missing out on the revolutionary discoveries that took place in his chosen field within a few years of his death. By the time the first biography appeared, Tyndall’s physics was, in some respects, out of fashion.

Tyndall’s rep…

Jillian Scudder - Four Way Interview

Jillian Scudder is an astrophysicist and assistant professor at Oberlin College, Ohio. She has been writing Astroquizzical, a blog answering space-related questions from the public, for over four years. Her writing has also been published in Forbes, Quartz, Medium, and The Conversation. Astroquizzical is her first book.
Why science?

 I honestly really just love the process of trying to work out something new. Being a scientist lets me do that on multiple fronts - research is a process of trying to sort out something that no one has ever learned before in the most careful way you can, but at the end of that process, you've learned something absolutely brand new. Being a scientist also means explaining what you do to other people, and that's it's own kind of puzzle. No two people have the same information background, so when you're trying to figure out how to explain something, it's different every time. 

Why this book?

I'd been running Astroquizzical the blog for ab…

Asteroid Hunters – Carrie Nugent ****

If a book of this title had been written fifty years ago, it would have been a history book – and probably a rather dull one. There was a brief craze for asteroid hunting in the early nineteenth century when they were first discovered, but the excitement wore off when people realised they were (a) boringly small and (b) boringly numerous. 'Formerly, the discovery of a new member of the solar system was applauded as a contribution to knowledge; lately it has been considered almost a crime,' as Carrie Nugent quotes one scientist as saying in 1912. Over the next few decades, the astronomical action moved to bigger and more exotic things, like galaxies, quasars, black holes and the Big Bang.

Then, towards the end of the 20th century, asteroid hunting came back into fashion. A significant factor was the realisation that, unlike almost any other astronomical object (comets are the other obvious exception), they have more than academic interest for the inhabitants of Earth. A large on…

The Science Behind Jules Verne's Moon Novels - Andrew May ****

His work may be far less prominent now, but when I started reading science fiction as a teenager, the pioneering French SF writer, Jules Verne was still very popular. Unlike his UK rival H. G. Wells, Verne tried hard to make the science and engineering in his books as accurate as possible. Wells was a far better writer (when he wasn't indulging in non-fiction polemic), but Verne set the scene for 'hard science' SF.

In this delightful little book, Andrew May takes us through the science of Verne's two novels that covered a voyage around the Moon and back. His 1865 US protagonists from the Baltimore Gun Club build a huge cannon that propels them into space. As May points out, the space gun is the weakest part of the story, in that the acceleration would have been deadly for the occupants. However, that apart, Verne put a remarkable amount of effort into trying to get the science right.

It's a long time since I read the books - and I did so in a translation, which May p…