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Showing posts from February, 2018

Applied Mathematics - a very short introduction - Alain Goriely ***

This little book in Oxford University Press's vast, ever-expanding 'A Very Short Introduction' series starts off with a very positive note. After a quote from Groucho Marx, Alain Goriely takes us on a jovial tour of what 'applied mathematics' means. I was slightly surprised it needed such an introduction. It seems fairly obvious that it's mathematics that is, erm, applied, rather than maths for maths' sake. However, in the process Goriely gives us some of the basics involved. 

One thing I would have liked to have seen, but didn't get, was more of an exploration of the boundary between applied maths and theoretical physics. (Cambridge even has a 'Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics'.) I appreciate that some applied mathematics is used in other disciplines, but it does seem that the bulk of it is in physics, and the distinction between what an applied mathematician and a theoretical physicist does seems fairly fuzzy, to say th…

A Most Elegant Equation - David Stipp ****

Aside from E = mc2, there is no other mathematical formula that has had more books dedicated to it than Euler's equation, eiπ+1 = 0. In some ways it's not surprising - like Einstein's equation, Euler's is simple, yet combines essential quantities in a way that surprises and has interesting uses.

Not long ago I read Robin Wilson' Euler's Pioneering Equation, which started really well with some good history of maths on the main components of the equation, but then became too complex for the typical non-mathematician. I'm pleased to say that David Stipp in A Most Elegant Equation doesn't fall for this same trap. This book remains easily readable throughout. 

Stipp also takes us through a little of the background to the main components of the equation (though in a far more summary fashion for 1 and 0). It would have been nice to have had a little more history of maths to round out these introductions - as it was, what you get is plenty to understand e or i, f…

Kathryn Harkup - Four Way Interview

Kathryn Harkup is a chemist and author. Kathryn  completed  a doctorate on her favourite chemicals,  phosphines, and went  on to further postdoctoral research before realising that talking,  writing and demonstrating  science appealed a bit more than hours  slaving over a hot fume-hood. For  six years she ran the outreach in  engineering, computing, physics  and maths at the University of Surrey,  which involved writing talks on  science topics that would appeal to  bored teenagers (anything disgusting  or dangerous was usually the most  popular). Kathryn is now a freelance  science communicator delivering  talks and workshops on the quirky side  of science. Her new book is Making the Monster: the science behind Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Why science?

I know I'm biased but science really is the best. It is an incredibly powerful tool for trying to make sense of the universe around us. The more time I spend learning about science and reading about it, the more amazing it become…

The Beautiful Cure - Daniel Davis ****

The subtitle of this book, 'Harnessing Your Body's Natural Defences' makes it sounds like a celebrity lifestyle book, or a collection of New Age nonsense. But this is a very different beast from its (dare I say it, possibly intentionally misleading) subtitle: instead its a scientific exploration of the immune system.

Despite the woo of alternative health practitioners, the immune system is not a single thing, but rather a complex collection of mechanisms that between them help us fight off invading organisms. And Daniel Davis's book is not a 'how to' manual, but rather a description of how we have gradually uncovered the workings of the many components and how it may be possible to make more of our immune system's powerful capabilities by manipulating it into doing an even better job than it does at the moment.

Professor of immunology Davis has an approachable, easy style, helped by the fact that he doesn't try to be literary. I loved the way that he comm…

Elysium Fire - Alastair Reynolds *****

Reading an author for the first time is always a step in the dark, but just occasionally it becomes immediately clear that here's someone you'll have to keep reading. The last SF authors I can remember feeling this about were Adam Roberts and the late Iain M. Banks - but I am going to have to include Alastair Reynolds in this class.

One of the puffs on the back of the book describes Reynolds as a 'mastersinger of the space opera'. To be honest, I think this was a critic who had thought up a clever turn of phrase and was going to lever it in come what may - because I certainly wouldn't class this as a space opera. Okay, it's set on multiple locations in space and there are spaceships - but adventures in space aren't central to the way the book works. Instead, this is very much a detective story in futuristic science fiction setting.

Although the main character is flagged up on the cover as being Prefect Dreyfus, this is very much an ensemble piece, with half a…

Gavin Smith - Four Way Interview

Gavin G. Smith is the Dundee-born author of the hard edged, action-packed SF novels Veteran, War in Heaven, Age of Scorpio, A Quantum Mythology and The Beauty of Destruction, as well as the short story collection Crysis: Escalation. He has collaborated with Stephen Deas as the composite personality Gavin Deas and co-written Elite: Wanted, and the shared world series Empires: Infiltration and Empires: Extraction. His latest title is The Bastard Legion.

Why science fiction?

Good question. I grew up with 2000AD and then all the first wave cyberpunk writers, and then a little later the new space opera writers like Iain M. Banks and Peter F. Hamilton. So a love of the genre is an obvious answer. I do think that the speculative genres offer us an excellent tool to take tricky problems facing humanity an comment, warn or even cathartically deal with them. It’s also nice to escape to other places. 

Why this book?

After finishing writing the Age of Scorpio trilogy I felt like I’d been trying to fl…

Making the Monster - Kathryn Harkup ****

Subtitled 'the science behind Mary Shelley's Frankenstein', what we get here is a mix of a biography of Mary Shelley and historical context for the various aspects of science that feature in Frankenstein, from electricity to preserving organs after death. I found this a much more approachable work than the annotated Frankenstein - in fact the perfect title would probably have been a combination of the two, with annotation based on Kathryn Harkup's words plus the text of the original.

I have given the book four stars despite some reservations, because the good bits were very readable and interesting. The biographical sections filled in a lot I didn't know about Mary, her parents and her relationship with Shelley and his family. What's more, Harkup manages to make this engaging in a way a lot of the 'life story' parts of popular science tend not to achieve. The other chapters that really engaged me were the straight science ones - for example, the chapter …

The Laser Inventor - Theodore Maiman ****

While the memoirs of many scientists are probably best kept for family consumption, there are some breakthroughs where the story is sufficiently engaging that it can be fascinating to get an inside view on what really happened. Although Theodore Maiman's autobiographical book is not a slick, journalist-polished account, it is very effective at highlighting two significant narratives - how Maiman was able to construct the first ever laser, despite having far fewer resources than many of his competitors, and how 'establishment' academic physicists, particularly in the US, tried to minimise his achievement.

On the straight autobiographical side, we get some early background and discover how Maiman combined degrees in electrical engineering and physics to have an unusually strong mix of the practical and the theoretical. Rather than go into academia after his doctorate, he went into industry - which seems to have been responsible for the backlash against his invention, which we…

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …