Monday, 16 June 2008

It’s ONLY Rocket Science – Lucy Rogers ***

This is a book I’ve really mixed feelings about – it does what it sets out to do very well. And it does what it says on the tin. It’s a plain English introduction to rocket science. But it’s not really popular science, and so it can’t score very well here.
You can tell that the publisher isn’t aiming at the popular science market without even opening the covers. The cover is too thin for a commercial book – it feels like a textbook – the pages are glossy, again unusual in a commercial book unless it’s a picture book, and the price is too high for a popsci paperback. But it doesn’t take too much reading to reinforce this message.
I have no doubt whatsoever that Lucy Rogers knows her stuff and gives us quite detailed coverage of everything from propulsion systems to commercial space flight. But the text is a chewy concatenation of facts. It’s just fact, after fact, after fact. To open at random and summarise what I see – this is what a launch vehicle is, these are the design decisions when building a launch vehicle, this is the significance of thrust to the launch vehicle, successful launch vehicles get modified into different forms, numerous factors influence the choice of launch vehicle. (In case you hadn’t gathered, that was the section on launch vehicles).
There is hardly any narrative, no flow through the book, very little focus on individual human beings. Narrative is the essence of popular science. It is not a collection of facts – that’s a textbook – popular science is a story that imparts fact along the way, and unfortunately Rogers has not provided much of that at all. Just occasionally her writing comes to life, usually when describing the more human parts of the process – for example what people eat in space, but it really isn’t enough.
Don’t get me wrong – there is definitely a market for this book. It’s the sort of thing I would have loved at age 11. In fact, if it wasn’t so obviously not aimed at children, I’d put it in the kids’ section, because the right kind of children are more tolerant of a bundle of bare facts than a more discerning adult reader. But I think that to do so would be unfair to the author and the reader. I want to emphasize again, this isn’t a bad book, and I would highly recommend it if you want to absorb all the basic facts about rocketry and space travel. But don’t expect an enjoyable read.
Review by Brian Clegg

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