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Pocket Einstein: 10 Short Lessons in Space Travel - Paul Parsons ****

This handsome little hardback manages to pack a surprising amount of information into the '10 short lessons' that are its chapters. Paul Parsons lucidly and engagingly takes us through the history and future of space travel. The prime focus is on human travel, though there's reasonable coverage of unmanned satellites and missions which, in practical terms have contributed far more both scientifically and usefully than manned missions.

Inevitably, Parsons brings up the big players of space history - the early days of the space race, Apollo, the International Space Station, the move towards more commercial players being involved - but  there is also the opportunity to explore the essentials of space travel, such as the physics of leaving the planet and the considerations of practical rocketry, space survival, the business possibilities and even the chances of reaching the stars. Here there is some brief exploration of some of the more science fictional aspects such as wormhol…
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Half Lives - Lucy Jane Santos ****

The story of radium's rise and fall as a glamorous substance for everything from health and beauty to glow-in-the-dark watch dials is a fascinating one, and Lucy Jane Santos explores it with clear enthusiasm for the topic.

Although radium is the main theme, there are a number of X-ray based stories woven in through the book, plus a relatively small amount of non-radium radioactivity coverage, including a rapid run through the development of nuclear weapons. But it is radium that is the star. Inevitably Marie Curie (or Marie Sklodowska Curie as Santos usually refers to her), plays a significant part, although we don't get a huge amount of detail of Curie's biography (though this has been covered in many other books), primarily focusing on her work on radium and X-rays.

We then see radium being taken up by both the medical profession and by quack producers of patent medicines with equal verve as a near-magic cure-all for everything from arthritis to cancer. What comes through …

The Idea of the Brain: Matthew Cobb *****

Matthew Cobb is one of those people that you can’t help but admire but also secretly hate just a little bit for being so awesome. He is professor for zoology at the University of Manchester with a sizable teaching load that he apparently masters with consummate skill. He’s a scientific researcher, who researches the sense of smell of fruit fly maggots; I kid you not!  He’s also an attentive and loving family father but he still finds time and energy to write brilliant history of science books, three to date. His first, The Egg and Sperm Race, describes the search for the secret of human reproduction in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and is one of my favourite history of science books, on the period. His second, Life’s Greatest Secret is a monster, both in scope and detail, description of the hunt to decipher the structure and function of DNA that along the way demolishes a whole boatload of modern history of science myths. The most recent, and the subject of this review, is

The Search for Life on Mars - Elizabeth Howell and Nicholas Booth ***

From the book’s enticing subtitle, ‘The Greatest Scientific Detective Story of All Time’, I was expecting something rather different. I thought the authors would kick off by introducing the suspects (the various forms life might take on Mars, either now or in the past) and the kind of telltale traces they might leave, followed by a chronological account of the detectives (i.e. scientists) searching for those traces, ruling out certain suspects and focusing on others, turning up unexpected new clues, and so on. But the book is nothing like that. Continuing with the fiction analogy, this isn’t a novel so much as a collection of short stories – eleven self-contained chapters, each with its own set of protagonists, suspects and clues.

Some of the chapters work better than others. I found the first three – which despite their early placement cover NASA’s most recent Mars missions – the most irritating. For one thing, they unfold in a way that’s at odds with the cerebral ‘detective story’ na…

Patricia Fara - Four Way Interview

Patricia Fara lectures in the history of science at Cambridge University, where she is a Fellow of Clare College. She was the President of the British Society for the History of Science (2016-18) and her prize-winning book, Science: A Four Thousand Year History (OUP, 2009), has been translated into nine languages. An experienced public lecturer, Patricia Fara appears regularly in TV documentaries and radio programmes. She also contributes articles and reviews to many popular magazines and journals, including History Today, BBC History, New Scientist, Nature and the Times Literary SupplementHer new book is Erasmus Darwin.

Why history of science?
I read physics at university, but half-way through the course I realised that had been a big mistake. Although I relished the intellectual challenge, I was bored by the long hours spent lining up recalcitrant instruments in dusty laboratories. Why was nobody encouraging us to think about the big questions – What is gravity? Does quantum mechani…

The Big Ideas in Science - Jon Evans ***

The starting point of a review like this has to be to congratulate the author on his achievement, Jon Evans, because getting all of science into one relatively short book is a massive (and thankless) task. Although inevitably the result is a fairly hectic dash through the material, with limited space for subtleness, Evans manages to make the experience readable and has a light touch that is effective without becoming too simplistic.

There is only one reason this book doesn't get four stars - it's not the quality of the writing but rather the selection of the contents. Of course, there is bound to be plenty of stuff missed out - how else could you get all of science into 269 pages? But the balance is strangely skewed. Chemistry is pretty much omitted, though aspects of chemistry occur under other headings. But for me, the real problem is that physics is really under-represented. It's interesting to use Jim Al-Khalili's recent excellent physics summary title The World Acc…

Stormblood (SF) - Jeremy Szal ****

Practically all the action-based SF books I've read in the last few years have had female protagonists, so it seemed almost odd to find Stormblood taking us into the world of Vakov Fukasawa, a male former soldier, bio-enhanced using 'stormtech', an addictive substance that gives the user added strength, self-healing and courage in return for becoming more aggressive - sometimes uncontrollably so. However, it didn't take long to get swept up in Jeremy Szal's fast-moving story.

Part of the development in the story is finding out more about what stormtech actually is (a revelation that sets us up nicely for a sequel - it's not really a spoiler to say it's alien DNA, as it's on the book's cover), but a lot simply involves Fukasawa taking on his demons, fighting to stay alive in the face of an increasingly imposing set of enemies, and trying to extricate his brother from a drug-smuggling ring that proves to be far more than it first seems. Initially, Fuka…