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Showing posts from March, 2018

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…

Pavlov's Dog - Adam Hart-Davis ****

This was a book I was not expecting to like. Although books of this format with 50 heavily illustrated things you need to know about something, seem to sell well, they usually irritate me. However, a combination of the topic - 50 experiments that revolutionised psychology - and a slight variant of the format - Adam Hart-Davis was allowed significantly more text than is often the case in this type of book - meant that it was surprisingly effective.

There's plenty here that will be familiar to anyone who has grazed the surface of popular psychology, from Pavlov in the book's title and the infamous Milgram electric shock experiments, up to very late 20th century work (there are just two from the 21st). While it's fun to see familiar old friends, it's the ones that are a novelty that inevitably stand out. Which these are will vary from reader to reader - I lapped up the likes of 'can dogs get depressed?' and 'why can't you tickle yourself (and what's the…

Astroquizzical - Jillian Scudder ****

Described as a 'curious journey through our cosmic family tree', Jillian Scudder's Astroquizzical, takes the very positive inspiration of questions asked about the universeon Scudder's blog and gives us that 'curious journey' in light, readable prose. The family tree in question has Earth as our parent, the Sun as our grandparent, then the Milky Way and finally the universe. So we work outwards in a genuinely entertaining exploration of our cosmic habitat.

The book is pitched a beginner's level - but even though there was relatively little that was new to me as a reader, it was well-written enough to keep my interest. This was particularly helped when Scudder threw in an incentive in the form of a fascinating, quirky fact. For me, without doubt, the best was the discovery that mats of sulfur-loving bacteria (which could possibly survive in the atmosphere of Venus) that hang in caves are known as snottites or snoticles.

The book is at its best in the earlier s…

Catching Stardust - Natalie Starkey ***

It is a truth universally acknowledged that geology is by far the hardest topic to make interesting in popular science. We're fine when it comes to stories of some of the characters of geological history, but as far as the geology itself, it's difficult to get excited. So what better way to raise the interest levels than to move your geology* into space? This is what Natalie Starkey does in Catching Stardust. But does it work?

The main focus of Catching Stardust is comets and asteroids. What they are, where they came from, what they're made of (lots about what they're made of) and their (literal) impact on Earth from potentially supplying water and amino acids to the destruction of the dinosaurs to the possibility of us getting a major strike in the future and what we could do to prevent it.

There's certainly plenty to interest us here, and though the focus is primarily on those space objects, Starkey gives us a fair amount on how the Earth and the Moon formed - in f…

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs - Lisa Randall ****

I did my PhD in galactic dynamics - which is an awkward subject when people want to know what its relevance to the 'real world' is. So I was excited when Clube and Napier's book The Cosmic Serpent came out, around the same time, because it provided me with a ready-made answer. It argued that the comets which occasionally crash into Earth with disastrous results - such as the extinction of the dinosaurs - are perturbed from their normal orbits by interactions with the large-scale structure of the galaxy.

I was reminded of this idea a few years ago when there was a flurry of media interest in Lisa Randall's "dark matter and the dinosaurs" conjecture. I was sufficiently enthusiastic about it to write an article on the subject for Fortean Times - though my enthusiasm didn't quite extend to purchasing her hardback book at the time. However, now that it's out in paperback I've remedied the situation - and I'm glad I did.

Dark matter is believed to exi…

Quantum Sense and Nonsense - Jean Bricmont ****

You wait years for a book on the interpretation of quantum physics, then two come along within a couple of months of each other. However, while both Quantum Sense and Nonsense and Philip Ball's Beyond Weird are aimed at a popular science audience (or popular sience as the back cover unfortunately categorises Jean Bricmont's book), they take a very line different. Without resorting to textbook levels of complexity, Quantum Sense and Nonsense goes into the quantum physics in considerably more depth, though at the cost of losing some readability.

Although Bricmont explains various quantum bits and pieces, such as the wave function, along the way, his focus throughout is on three key issues that need to be dealt with in getting an understanding of what the theory's really doing. These are the role of the observer, whether or not there is determinism (as opposed to true randomness) and whether or not locality holds - the alternative being what Einstein referred to as 'spooky…

Everything You Know About Space Is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

What we have here is a feast of assertions some people make about space that are satisfyingly incorrect, with pithy, entertaining explanations of what the true picture is. Matt Brown admits in his introduction that a lot of these incorrect facts are nitpicking - more on that in a moment - but it doesn't stop them being delightful. I particularly enjoyed the ones about animals in space and about the Moon.

Along the way, we take in space exploration, the Earth's place in space, the Moon, the solar system, the universe and a collection of random oddities, such as the fact that Mozart didn't write Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Sometimes the wrongness comes from a frequent misunderstanding. So, for example, Brown corrects the idea that Copernicus was the first to say that the Earth moves around the Sun. Sometimes there's some very careful wording. This is used when Brown challenges the idea that the Russian dog Laika was the first animal in space. What we discover is that, i…

Wonders Beyond Numbers - Johnny Ball ****

For many people, Johnny Ball's TV programmes were the first indication that mathematics does not have to be frightening or hard work, but could actually be fun. In the introduction to Wonders Beyond Numbers, Ball mentions being particularly inspired by Martin Gardner's books of mathematical puzzles and diversions - as were so many - and Ball's TV programmes had a similar inspirational effect, particularly for younger viewers.

In this chunky (480 page) book, Ball takes on 'a brief history of all things mathematical.' In doing so, he gives us a broad sweep, making things more interesting than would be possible if concentrating purely on the work of mathematicians. So, for example, in starting with the Ancient Greeks, he brings in philosophers who had little direct input to maths, but who helped produce the thought processes that would inspire the big numerical names. Towards the end of the book, there are a good number of physicists brought in who, again, didn't c…