Skip to main content

New Stars for Old (SF) – Marc Read ***

I have said many times that there must be a way to combine fiction and popular science – to get a message across and provide a great story to enjoy as well. But it is a horriblydifficult thing to do, as the many failures fallen by the wayside have shown. In New Stars for Old, Marc Read takes the most original approach to this I have ever seen, and it holds out real promise to deliver on the dream.
In his introduction, Read points out that science is done by people, and as such we can’t really separate the achievements of science from the lives and times of the people making the discoveries. This is true, though his suggestion that the people are usually ignored applies more to textbooks than popular science – many popular science books spend a fair amount of time on the scientists and their lives. Read takes this one stage further, though, by giving us a series of fictional vignettes of the lives of people who have carried astronomy a step forward. Their scientific achievements come into it, but only incidentally. Each piece of fiction is then followed by a page of notes, which explain what is real and what is fiction, sometimes adding a tiny bit about the science.
There is a danger in taking this approach of producing a hilarious parody of a cartoon life. You could imagine a physics equivalent where we have a dialogue something like this:
‘Good morning, Michael. What are you doing today?’
‘Well, Mrs Faraday, or wife as I should call you, today I thought I would invent electromagnetism. Unless it’s sunny, in which case I shall take a stroll in the park. Or as us northerners would say, despite years living in the south, “a stroll in’t park”.’
Thankfully, the real thing is nothing like this. Read’s vignettes are well described, giving an effective picture of the time, and the science is introduced in as natural a way as is possible, though even here it can occasionally be a little stilted.
In terms of the idea and the broad direction, this is a five star book. But I do have some issues. The indirect nature of the science storytelling means that it isn’t always really very clear what it’s about. I know what Aristotle’s version of astronomy was like – but I struggled to see it in the occasional mentions amongst the rather lovey dovey description of the big man’s home life. It really needed more time on the science. Also, the downside of a series of vignettes is that the whole thing does not flow at all. It is, as they say in the fiction world, episodic in the extreme.
For me, the selection of scenes was too biassed to the early period. There are just too many medievals making minor steps forward. I wrote a book about Roger Bacon, so I am interested in the period, but still found the procession of King Roger II, Thomas Aquinas, Richard Swineshead, Nicolas Oresme, Cardinal Bessarion, Regiomontanus became more than a little dull. Newton is the final person covered, when arguably most of the really interesting astronomy was only just beginning. (Perhaps the rest are being saved for a sequel.)
Despite the fiction not really keeping my interest, particularly with the medievals (I had to resist flicking forward and just reading the notes), I still think this is a very brave and worthwhile venture. I think the format could well deliver that gold at the end of the rainbow that is popular-science-as-fiction – but more work is required to get the balance right.

Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

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…

How to Speak Science - Bruce Benamran ***

I can't remember a book where my mental picture of what the star rating would be has varied so much. At first glance, it looked like a solid 4 star title. It looks fun (despite the odd title - it sounds like it's a book on public speaking for geeks) and a flick through showed that it covers a huge amount of science topics, mostly physics - so it was promising as a beginner's overview. There is one small issue to be got out of the way on the coverage side. There's a whole lot of physics, with a gaping hole that is quantum theory. More on that later.

After reading a few pages, I had to downgrade that score to 3 stars because of the writing style. It oozes smugness. All became clear when I read the words 'For those of you who aren't familiar with my YouTube channel.' How to Speak Science reads like a transcript of a YouTube rant. The reason I love reading books and can hardly ever be bothered to watch videos is to get away from this kind of thing. However, I ac…

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…