Skip to main content

The Rocketbelt Caper – Paul Brown ****

There’s something hypnotically attractive about the concept of a rocketbelt – a device to enable an individual to fly through the air. This aspect of flying without a plane seems to tie directly into our dreams. (UK readers may be familiar with comedian Paul Merton’s occasional rant about his desire for a jetpack, one of the many alternative names for this unusual technology.)
In this book, Paul Brown brings the topic alive. It has to be one of the most readable science/technology focussed books of the year. Brown has an excellent journalistic style, and pulls the reader on relentlessly through the tales of technical inspiration and human weakness that litter the history of the rocketbelt.
Starting with its science fiction origins, we learn how a practical rocketbelt was first constructed, how the most famous appearance of a belt – in the James Bond movie Thunderball – was real, even though most moviegoers assumed it was pure special effects, and the convoluted history of the rocketbelts themselves. Almost uniquely, it is possible to chart the existence of every belt ever built – fewer than there were Apollo spacecraft. This is the irony of the rocketbelt. Though the idea was often originally sold as a commercial wonder – everyone flying around the place in rocketbelts – or as a military vehicle, in practice they have proved hugely expensive to build, difficult and dangerous to fly, and are limited to totally impractical flight times of 20 to 30 seconds. Even so, the few rocketbelts that have had a commercial career have made a lot of money, because they have been in high demand for public demonstrations and publicity stunts.
When the book is charting the rise of the rocketbelt and the lives of those involved with the technology, it is truly fascinating. Things only fall down a little when Brown takes us into the murkiest part of the rocketbelt’s history, involving fraud, theft, kidnapping and murder. It sounds a writer’s dream, the icing on the cake that will make the story even more attractive, but after a while, because the main characters in this aspect of the story seem so unpleasant and difficult to identify with, it actually detracts from the overall impact of the book, and it might have been better to have had less pages on this human tragedy that is interwoven with the history of one particular rocketbelt.
Despite this, however, the book overall is a delight to read, and the sheer enthusiasm that rocketbelts have generated in those who have built and flown them is amazing. This is never going to be an everyday piece of technology, but the rocketbelt remains a remarkable achievement – the more so for being largely in semi-amateur hands – and the story is genuinely one where reality is stranger than fiction.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lost in Math - Sabine Hossenfelder *****

One of my favourite illustrations from a science title was in Fred Hoyle's book on his quasi-steady state theory. It shows a large flock of geese all following each other, which he likened to the state of theoretical physics. In the very readable Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder exposes the way that in certain areas of physics, this is all too realistic a picture. (Hossenfelder gives Hoyle's cosmological theory short shrift, incidentally, though, to be fair, it wasn't given anywhere near as many opportunities to be patched up to match observations as the current version of big bang with inflation.)

Lost in Math is a very powerful analysis of what has gone wrong in the way that some aspects of physics are undertaken. Until the twentieth century, scientists made observations and experiments and theoreticians looked for theories which explained them, which could then be tested against further experiments and observations. Now, particularly in particle physics, it…

Gravity! - Pierre Binétruy ****

I had to really restrain myself from adopting the approach taken by The Register in referring to Yahoo! by putting an exclamation mark after every word in the text when faced with reviewing Gravity! One thing to be said about the punctuation, though, is it makes it easier to search for amongst a whole lot of books on gravity and gravitational waves (the subtitle is 'the quest for gravitational waves') since their discovery in 2015.

Despite the subtitle, Pierre Binétruy gives us far more - in fact, gravitational waves don't come into it until page 160, which makes it really more of a book about gravity with a bit on gravitational waves tacked on than a true exploration of the quest. 

However, those early pages aren't wasted - Binétruy gives us plenty of detail on all kinds of background, for example plunging in to tell us about element synthesis, something you wouldn't expect in a book on gravitational waves. I also really liked a little section on experiments you can…

Brain Based Enterprises - Peter Cook ****

A quick flag on this one: it's a management/business book, and the four star rating is with that in mind. Brain Based Enterprises does contain a surprising amount of science, considering this, which is why it's here, but don't expect it to be like a four star pure science book.

This is an eclectic attack on the status quo of our ideas about business. Peter Cook suggest that much of current business simply isn't oriented to the realities of a modern, technological world, and that we need to handle things very differently in a knowledge-based economy.

The book is divided into three sections. For me, the most interesting was the first 'brainy people' part, as my own business doesn't have teams and such - but for those who do there are also 'brainy teams' and 'brainy enterprises' sections. Cook stirs together a heady mix of science - from psychology to economics - music (a passion of his and a significant part of the way he works) and business the…