Skip to main content

Solar System – Marcus Chown ****

We’ve all seen the book of the movie, and even films based on theme park rides and computer games. But this could well be the first ever book of an iPad app. Not long ago I had a chance to take a look at the Solar System for iPad appand now we’ve got the book based on it.
Let’s get the downside out of the way first. I can’t be as enthusiastic about the book as I was about the app. Not only does it cost three times as much (before discounts) and threaten serious damage to the wrists from its weight, but also the book can’t compete with the interactive aspects of the app which work so well with this material. I also found that, compared with the iPad version, it was eye-straining to read the relatively small white text on a black background. But even so, there’s plenty to like here.
What we’ve got is a coffee table format book, which feels not unlike a Dorling Kindersley book in the way it uses two-page spreads with a bit of text, some great photographs and various graphics and little factoids to expand on the topic. Some of these can be quite surprising – at one point Brian May from Queen pops up, looking like a fantasy wizard in his doctoral robes, with a comment about his PhD thesis on the movement of solar system dust.
Perhaps to keep the translation from the app simple all the pages are black, which gets a little depressing (I got over my ‘decorate in black’ phase in my teens, thanks), but this is more than compensated for by the lush photography, with some superb imagery of the different components of the solar system. It was interesting to compare one of the pages of the book with the app – I randomly selected ‘Exploring Mars’. The basic text was the same (so as with my main criticism of the app, it could have done with a bit more meat), as was one of the key photographs (which could be panned on the app). The book then has four other photographs while the app has a rather more engaging speeded up video of the Mars rover Spirit in action. On other pages, some of the photographs not in the app were well worth having to expand the general feel of the content, so it wasn’t at all bad in the comparison.
Overall, then, an excellent photographic guide to the solar system and the astronomical basics behind it. Not as much fun as the app, and perhaps could have done with some more text (and fewer black backgrounds for text) – but an excellent book for any astronomy beginner, and would make a great gift.

Hardback 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…