Skip to main content

Backroom Boys – Francis Spufford ****

Perhaps the least atypical popular science book we’ve ever come across – in part because it isn’t really popular science, but is rather a book that fits there better than any other category (much of it could just as easily be business/technology history). Spufford’s text comes across more as that of a pop historian – and very enjoyable it is too – as he catalogues the development of six quirky technological breakthroughs.
Recently TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson mentioned he was writing a book about machines with a soul – and if you extend this concept to technology with a soul, you’ve got a good picture of what Spufford is about. They overlap in handling Concorde, that remarkably ahead-of-its-time machine that merged antiquated technology – its flight deck looked an antique many, many years before it went out of service – with the most stunning achievement – an airliner than flew like a Mach 2 fighter. This ‘machines with soul’ label is true even of the section on the human genome project, where the industrial machine of modern biology is portrayed.
Perhaps the two most fascinating segments are on Concorde, where there’s some excellent business history in the way the new-look BA turned around what had been a millstone round the government’s neck into a money-spinner, and one on the computer game Elite. It’s easy to forget this game now – but it single-handedly made the leap from the Space Invaders style trivia of the day to a modern, mission-based game, all crammed into a ridiculous 22K of memory. At the time we all marvelled at how such a huge game, with hundreds of planets to visit, could be crammed into such a space. Now we know.
Spufford’s style is smooth and easy to read. If there’s one slight criticism it’s that a number of his small facts are wrong. As an example, he mentions that Elite was launched at the Thorpe Park theme park in the UK where they had just built ‘the world’s first underground rollercoaster’. Thorpe Park never had an underground rollercoaster – the ride in question was a rather feeble space-themed coaster that was indoors and in the dark, but came long after Space Mountain, and was so small scale that the machinery (now outside and fish themed) is now regarded as a smaller children’s ride. These little errors (there are several more) never get in the way of the story, though. (The subject of the last section is also unexpectedly depressing, but you’ll have to read the book to find out why.)
The book isn’t available in the US, because they’re all UK stories – but that’s a shame. It doesn’t detract from the universal appeal of people working ridiculous hours in an underfunded environment to crack some techno-problem. In this it is just as fascinating as stories of the early days at Microsoft. It’s a great book, that only loses its fifth star because it isn’t really popular science.
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Superior - Angela Saini *****

It was always going to be difficult to follow Angela Saini's hugely popular Inferior, but with Superior she has pulled it off, not just in the content but by upping the quality of the writing to a whole new level. Where Inferior looked at the misuse of science in supporting sexism (and the existence of sexism in science), Superior examines the way that racism has been given a totally unfounded pseudo-scientific basis in the past - and how, remarkably, despite absolute evidence to the contrary, this still turns up today.

At the heart of the book is the scientific fact that 'race' simply does not exist biologically - it is nothing more than an outdated social label. As Saini points out, there are far larger genetic variations within a so-called race than there are between individuals supposedly of different races. She shows how, pre-genetics, racial prejudice was given a pseudo-scientific veneer by dreaming up fictitious physical differences over and above the tiny distinct…

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 

An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …