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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…
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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…

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…