Skip to main content

Electrified Sheep – Alex Boese ****

It’s difficult to read this title without thinking of Philip K. Dick’s story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep which was (very loosely) translated in the movie Blade Runner. Actually it’s difficult to read the title of this book at all because of strangely wordy cover. But what’s inside is not a freak show, but rather an exploration of some of the more bizarre experiments that scientists have in all honest decided to take on.
This is a field that is already covered by the igNobels (annual awards for real scientific papers that make you laugh and then make you think) and the Darwin Awards for people who do such stupid things they end up removing themselves from the gene pool. But Alex Boese treads a middle line of real scientific experiments – often major pieces of research – that sound mind boggling or just surely would never happen. But did. (Apart from nuking the Moon which ‘nearly happened’.)
If it wasn’t such an overused simile I’d say it was a roller coaster of a read – a very interesting mix of ups and downs, from the man who had an unhealthy relationship with a source of electricity to people who thought it would be educational to get two people to pretend to have a gun fight in the middle of a lecture. Not to mention the thousand tonne rocket propelled by hydrogen bombs that was genuinely worked on by American scientists at the end of the 1950s. It’s certainly an eye-opener!
Although the experience of reading the book was good, with an excellent mix of narrative and science fact, there were a couple of points I wasn’t so sure of. Each section started with a dramatisation of an event (Benjamin Franklin attempting to electrocute a turkey and instead shocking himself, for instance). These felt a little false, as if it were drama for the sake of it. And occasionally the author was perhaps a little loose with facts. He says, for example, that lightning is the biggest natural disaster killer worldwide – by most measures it comes in behind droughts and flooding/tsunamis at the very least.
Overall, though an excellent romp through some weird and wonderful scientists and their exploits that genuinely does both entertain and inform in equal measure.


Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Bits to Bitcoin - Mark Stuart Day ***

When I saw the title of this book, I got all excited - at last we were going to get an explanation of bitcoin for the rest of us, who struggle to understand what the heck it really involves. There certainly is an explanation of bitcoin, but it comes in chapter 26 - in practice, the book contains far more. Almost every popular computer science title I've read has effectively been history of computer science - this is one of the first examples I've ever come across that is actually trying to make the 'science' part of computer science accessible to the general reader.

I don't mean by this that it's an equivalent of Programming for Dummies. Instead, Bits to Bitcoin takes the reader through the concepts lying behind programming. If we think of programming as engineering, this is the physics that the engineering depends on. This is a really interesting proposition. Many years ago, I was a professional programmer, but I never studied computer science, so I was only fa…

Through Two Doors at Once - Anil Ananthaswamy *****

It's sometimes hard to imagine that there's anything new to say about the basics of quantum physics, yet Anil Ananthaswamy manages this in a twofold manner (appropriately, given the title). Through Two Doors at Once does so by using the double slit experiment as a constant reference point throughout the book, and by bringing in a number of the more modern variants on the experiment which rarely feature in popular accounts of quantum theory.

Strictly, the book should probably be called 'Through Two Doors at Once and Spooky Action at a Distance plus Things That Have a Similar Effect', as it uses both the double slit experiment and the EPR entanglement thought experiment, plus modern experiments which don't, for example, involve slits but rather beam splitters that are their logical equivalent - but I have to admit, that would be a clumsy title.

Ananthaswamy gives us a good overview of the development of quantum physics - sometimes quite summary - but by making repea…

By the Pricking of Her Thumb (SF) - Adam Roberts *****

Sometimes a sequel betters the original - think Terminator 2 - and Adam Roberts has done this with his follow-up to The Real-Town Murders. (It's sensible to read the first book before this: while it's not essential, there are plenty of references you will miss otherwise.)

Ostensibly this is a murder mystery, or, as Roberts tells us, a combination of a howdunnit and a whodunnit-to, as the central character Alma is called on to work out how someone found with a needle stuck through her thumb was killed and which of a group of four super-rich individuals is dead when all claim to still be alive - though one of the group who hires Alma is convinced that the death has occurred. 

However, this is anything but a conventional murder mystery - far more so than the strange crimes suggest. Alma and her partner Marguerite (the latter still trapped by an engineered polyvalent illness that requires treatment every 4 hours and 4 minutes) don't do a lot of detecting. In fact Marguerite hard…