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The Ultimate Interplanetary Travel Guide - Jim Bell **

Not too long ago, NASA brought out a series of spoof ‘space tourism’ posters for various destinations in the Solar System. For people like me, who have watched NASA depressingly fail to send humans to the other planets for decade after decade, it was just another painful twist of the knife. On the other hand, the posters probably have more appeal for younger and less cynical minds, by presenting familiar astronomical objects in a new and engaging way. There may even be scope for a whole book along these lines – and that’s what Jim Bell has attempted here.

The main thing I learned from it is that my brain is programmed to read either fiction or non-fiction, and can’t handle a 50:50 mix of the two – which is what this book is. It drove me mad –  not least because I could see that the same material, presented as straight non-fiction, could have made a really excellent book. Using the NASA posters as a starting point, he could have enumerated the potential ‘tourist sights’ at each location…
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Is That a Big Number? - Andrew Elliott ***

This is a curious book, which has the very worthy intent of giving us more of a feel for numbers - so, as the author points out, it's not really about maths at all. It's more about statistics in the original meaning of a collection of numbers about a state, rather than the modern analytical sense of the word. Andrew Elliott approaches this problem with a very individual and amiable manner, giving all kinds of approaches, while throwing in little quizzes, tables of comparisons and more.

Broadly, Elliott divides our mechanisms for assessing numbers into five. The first is landmark numbers, which act as a known milestick - classic examples would be the approach often adopted by newspapers of measuring things in blue whales, football pitches or Eiffel Towers, though it's about far more than measuring height or volume. The second technique is visualisation - picturing the numbers in some sort of visual context. Thirdly he suggests dividing the number up into smaller parts, and f…

David Orrell - Four Way Interview

David Orrell is a writer of general audience books on science and economics, and an applied mathematician in his spare time. He has written books on topics including the science of prediction The Future of Everything, the relationship between science and aesthetics Truth or Beauty, and the problems with economics Economyths. His most recent book is Quantum Economics: The New Science of Money.

Why science (and economics)? 

I came into science through mathematics. My university offered undergraduate mathematics as part of an arts program, so you had to take half mathematics courses, but the rest could be from arts or sciences. So I combined subjects like set theory and topology with philosophy and art history. One thing I always liked about mathematics is that, being abstract, it can be applied to many different things and doesn’t lock you into a particular way of seeing the world. I became interested in economics after writing a book (The Future of Everything) about the science of predic…

Friendly Fire (SF) - Gavin Smith ****

Way back in the hoary old days of pulp science fiction, militaristic stories were common, culminating in the truly unpleasant Starship Troopers (1959). From the second half of the 60s, though, when I first got seriously into SF, far more thoughtful and interesting books began to dominate. The military SF space operas never went away, but were relegated to the backwaters. Space opera as a sub-genre became far more sophisticated with Iain M. Banks' superb Culture series. 

However, first person shooter video games such as Doom, plus movies such as Star Wars plus its successors, and the rise of superhero films, brought the militaristic aspect front and centre to the cinema and now it's relatively common again to find novels that glorify big guns and combat. With The Bastard Legion, Gavin Smith showed how to do it with style, combining a Buffy the Vampire Slayer-style subversion of the genre, featuring one woman in charge of 6,000 enslaved hard criminals, with a superb example of &#…

The Graphene Revolution - Brian Clegg ****

Graphene's one of those words that gets bandied around a lot without getting more than some vague feeling of what it's all about. In the end, it's just a material, and everyone knows that books about materials don't make for very exciting reading. But the advantage Brian Clegg has here is that graphene is not just a wonder material (which it certainly is) but it also has a brilliant story attached to it.

The two Russian discoverers of graphene (sort of - more on that in a moment), working at Manchester University are, to say the least, characters. This is particularly the case with Andre Geim, who first came to fame (or infamy) when he successfully levitated live frogs using a very powerful magnet. Geim and his co-discoverer Konstantin Novoselov had the idea that you should be able to spend some time on what they called 'Friday Night Projects' (spare time activities to look at something completely different) and they succeeded remarkably with graphene.

Clegg give…

The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being - Alice Roberts *****

A few years back, I went to see my doctor. I’d been experiencing a number of apparently unrelated minor ‘symptoms’. I wanted to make sure the symptoms really were minor and unrelated, and not due to some more serious, underlying, undiagnosed condition. One of my symptoms was a recurring, dull pain in my left shoulder. I could never work out precisely where the pain was coming from, but it was, I explained, 'definitely somewhere in the shoulder region.'

My doctor smiled and said she knew exactly what my problem was, as she experienced it too! Like me, she suffered occasional bouts of acid reflux in her stomach. When acid reflux kicks in, excess gases expand the stomach wall, putting pressure on your diaphragm. One of the nerves associated with the diaphragm runs a convoluted route via the left shoulder blade and hooks up with the rest of the nervous system in the neck. So, when my acid reflux kicked in, I experienced pain signals that seemed to be coming from my shoulder, but wh…

Totally Random - Tanya Bub and Jeffrey Bub **

It's difficult to decide just where the problems start with Totally Random. It's an attempt to communicate the oddities of quantum entanglement using a comic book format. There has already been an attempt to do this for quantum theory in general - Mysteries of the Quantum Universe, which managed to both have a bit of a storyline and get in a fair amount of quantum physics. Unfortunately the format also got in the way - so much space was taken up by the pictures that the words simply didn't manage to get the message across. Doubly unfortunately, this is also true of Totally Random, with the added negatives that it has no discernible storyline and it's rarely even visually interesting.

The attempt to explain entanglement suffers hugely because Tanya and Jeffrey Bub decided to use a set of analogies for quantum entanglement ('quoins', a kind of magic toaster device that entangles them, various strange devices to undertake other quantum operations) that don't so…