Skip to main content


Before Time Began - Helmut Satz **

This is an odd little book. The aim seems to be to provide more detail about the most widely accepted cosmological theories than we usually get in a popular science title, which to some extent it does - but in a way that, for me, fails the Feynman test (more on that in a moment).

In his introduction, Helmut Satz tell us that not everyone agrees with some of the things he is going to describe, but I'm not sure that's good enough. For example, we are presented with the full current inflation theory as if it were fact, yet it seems to be going through a whole lot of uncertainty at the time of writing. It's fine to present the best accepted theory, but when there is significant concern about it, it's important to at least outline why it has problems and where we go from here.

In content terms, it's hard to fault what Satz covers - it gives us everything from a description of spontaneous symmetry breaking to the Higgs field, all with significantly more detail than you mig…
Recent posts

Austral (SF) - Paul McAuley ****

When I was a teenager, I devoured post-apocalyptic disaster novels, but as an adult I've tended to think that life is too short to read depressing books. Luckily, despite Paul McAuley's Austral being set in a world that has been reshaped by catastrophic climate change, it hasn't got the entirely miserable feel of some of science fiction's more hangdog works - but it certainly isn't a bundle of laughs either.

Central character Austral is an outcast, genetically modified by her eco-poet parents (not writers of verse, but involved in shaping the environment to naturally deal with what hits it). She is bigger, stronger and far more able to cope with the cold of her Antarctic home than normal humans. And for most of the book she is on the run, taking with her cousin, a young woman she has saved from being kidnapped by kidnapping her herself.

The structure of the narrative is multi-layered. We get the straight Austral story, Austral telling her cousin the story of their mu…

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams (SF) – Philip K. Dick ****

The ten stories in this collection originally appeared in various science fiction magazines between 1953 and 1955, when Philip K. Dick was still in his twenties. They’re packaged here to tie in with the TV series Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, currently showing on Channel 4. I imagine most readers –certainly those who’ve never encountered any of these pieces before – will approach the book via the somewhat anachronistic perspective of the TV episodes (most of which are best described as ‘homages’ to the original stories rather than adaptations). In this context, there’s an illuminating two-page introduction to each piece by the screenwriters behind the corresponding TV episode.

Unfortunately, with this wrong-end-of-the-telescope approach, you’re more likely to spot elements that are ‘missing’ from the originals, rather than all the extraordinary and thought-provoking ideas they do contain (many of which get glossed over in the TV version). The ideal approach would be the exact oppos…

Science(ish) - Rick Edwards and Michael Brooks ****

Seeing the subtitle of this engaging hardback it would be easy to think 'Oh, no, not other "Science of Movie X" book - they were great initially but there have been too many since.' Somehow, though, the approach that Rick Edwards and Michael Brooks have taken transcends the original format and makes the whole thing fresh and fun again.

I think the secret to their success is that they don't try to cover all the science of a particular film, but rather that they use each of their ten subjects to explore one particular topic. It also helps that, rather than focus entirely on franchise movies we get some great one-offs, including The Martian and Ex Machina. I suspect you may find the interest level of the chapters reflects to some extent whether or not you've seen the films. So, for instance, In found 28 Days Later and Gattaca, which I haven't seen, less interesting. The only other topic that suffered a bit for me was Planet of the Apes, which I have seen but …

The Little Book of Black Holes - Steven Gubser and Frans Pretorius ****

I am always suspicious when a book has a comment on the back from a physics professor recommending it for the 'general reader', as in my experience, physics professors have little clue as to what works for a non-technical audience. But in the case of The Little Book of Black Holes, Roger Penrose has got it right... with one proviso. As long as the general reader has absorbed a good popular science title on special and general relativity first.

Without ever venturing into heavyweight maths, Steven Gubser and Frans Pretorius take us through the way that both Schwarzschild's non-rotating black hole and Kerr's rotating version were derived from Einstein's equations. And they help the reader explore many of the implications for such a body were it to exist in the real universe, from familiar aspects such as time dilation to the delightful zoom-whirl orbit. For an unfortunate individual passing towards the singularity we not only get spaghettification (though not named as…

Closing the Gap - Vicky Neale ***

Every now and then a working scientist will write a superb popular science book, but it's significantly rarer that mathematicians stray beyond recreational maths without becoming impenetrable, so I was cheering as I read the first few chapters of Vicky Neale's Closing the Gap about the attempt to prove the 'twin primes conjecture' that infinitely many pairs of prime numbers just two apart.

I'd say those first few chapters are far and above the best example I've seen of a mathematician getting across the essence of pure maths and why it appeals to them. Unfortunately, though, from then on the book gets bogged down in the problem that almost always arises, that what delights and fascinates mathematicians tends to raise a big 'So what?' in the outside world.

Neale interlaces attempts getting closer and closer to the conjecture, working down from a proof of primes several millions apart to under 600, adding in other, related mathematical work, for example on …