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Showing posts from April, 2004

Sex, Botany & Empire – Patricia Fara ****

It’s tempting to call this book a little gem. Despite being written by an academic, it’s an easy read and fulfils the promise of the title admirably. For most of us in the UK or the US, Joseph Banks is an unknown character. Australians will know him much better, as he was also largely responsible for the founding of the penal colony that would eventually become a great nation. Banks was present on Cook’s voyage of scientific discovery and imperial plunder, and traded on this ‘expertise’ for the rest of his life. So it is a good book – a gem indeed – but I still felt somewhat let down because of the other key word in that description – little. This is the shortest full-priced popular science book I have ever come across. Not only is it small – this hardback is about the size of a mass market paperback – its 157 main pages are in large print. In fact it seems an almost deliberate attempt to clone Longitude – both very short books about a little-known figure who made a small but signif

A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking *****

The one that started it all – at least the phenomenal interest in popular science books. Hawking’s media presence from Star Trek TNG to BT adverts does nothing to trivialize this remarkable book. It’s one of a very few books in this category that continues to fascinate despite the fact that much of its contents stretch the reader further than is usually expected in a book of this sort. To be honest, this reviewer avoided the book for many years for two reasons. The first, which really wasn’t justified, was that this was so much a book that ‘everyone is buying’ that it seemed the cool thing to do to avoid it altogether. If that was your excuse too, it has now had plenty of time to stop being trendy, so you’ve no excuse for not getting it. The other reason it seemed worth avoiding was its reputation as a book that rivalled Joyce’s Ulysses as one that most people never managed to get through because, trendy though it was, it’s almost impenetrable. If this is your reason for avoidin

The Universe Next Door – Marcus Chown *****

The universe is a strange place. A very strange place. And Marcus Chown’s book is a great way to find out just how amazingly, mind-bogglingly, wonderfully strange it is. By following some of the more extreme scientific speculations, Chown leads you on a fairyland tour of the remarkable possibilities of our universe. These vary from the near-mundane – that a pencil stood up on its point actually falls in all directions at once (or it would if nothing interfered with it) – to the out-and-out bizarre thought that the universe might have been intentionally created by super-intelligent beings. This isn’t a Physics of Star Trek type book, where real science is applied to science fiction stories (though Chown does use a number of quotes from science fiction), but valid (if sometimes not widely accepted) speculation about the nature of the real universe. The only slight flaw is that the book does read slightly like a number of articles that has been strung together – there’s a lack of c