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Showing posts from July, 2013

John Gribbin – Four Way Interview

John Gribbin is one of Britain’s foremost science writers. John gained a PhD from the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge (then under the leadership of Fred Hoyle) before working as a science journalist for Nature and later New Scientist. He is the author of a number of bestselling popular science books, including In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat, In Search of the Multiverse, Science: A History and The Universe: A Biography. He is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Sussex and in 2000 was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. His most recent book is  Computing with Quantum Cats . Why science? From my earliest memories I have been interested in how things (things at large) work, and where it all comes from. I was specifically turned on to science by reading the Sf magazine Astounding (as it then was) from about the age of 8 or 9. Each issue included a “Science Fact” article. This led me to non-fiction by Asimov and Clarke. The rest is history. Why this book? L

A Tale of 7 Elements – Eric Scerri ***

Eric Scerri, author of this book, is the wizard of the periodic table. He knows more about the chemistry student’s bane, and about elements and their history, than pretty well anyone else, full stop. His book  The Periodic Table  is the ultimate history of the development of this distinctive layout of the elements showing their relationships. But the blessing of his expertise and knowledge can also be a bit of a curse. The trouble is, because he does know so much, Scerri does sometimes give us a bit too much detail. In this book, after a couple of chapters introduction to the origins of the periodic table (the least readable part of the book, which he hints you may wish to skip over) he tells us about the discovery of seven ‘missing’ elements, added late to their places in the table: protactinium, hafnium, rhenium, technetium, francium, astatine and promethium. What is great about these discoveries is that they aren’t straight forward. Far from it. In fact in many cases there we

101 Things I Learned in Engineering School – John Kuprenas & Matthew Frederick ***

This is a classic example of one of those books that you are much more likely to buy for someone as a present than to know exactly what to do with when you get it. It consists of 101 small two page spreads with an illustration on one page and a short burst of text on the other. These are words of wisdom for engineers, or for ordinary folk who want to learn the engineering equivalent of the force. Some of the entries are a little hokey, and sound more like a line from a self-help manual, (‘The heart of engineering isn’t calculation; it’s problem solving.’) but many are genuinely useful little engineering tips or thoughts that may have a broader application. Some give a little historical background, others showing, for instance, why roundabouts are better than conventional four-way intersections (because civil engineering is engineering too – in fact, according to another entry, the granddaddy of them all). You’ll find out why aircraft parts aren’t designed for perfect reliability (

To a Distant Day – Chris Gainor ***

It’s entertaining, in a way, that the expression ‘It’s not rocket science’ has such a hold because if there’s one bit of technology that’s not rocket science, it’s, er, rocket  science. I am not saying that it is easy to get successful rockets into space – the many failures, crashes and burns of the early space programme attest to this, and space flight remains a risky activity. But the science itself is pretty straightforward – far more Isaac Newton than Einstein. This is an effective and straightforward history of the development of rocket flight in the US, Russia and Germany. With some background on the history of rockets, we find out plenty about key characters like Goddard, Tsiolovsky, Oberth and von Braun. All the successes and failures along the way are carefully spelled out. There is enough about the people to avoid this being a purely technological saga – all in all, it does the job well. This book is not really in competition with an in-depth study of the key US versus

Computing with Quantum Cats – John Gribbin ****

A new John Gribbin book is always a delight, and he is at his best when exploring the bizarre possibilities of quantum theory. If you aren’t familiar with his previous books on the subject, the title here might be worrying as it suggests some fiendish bio-electronic device where collections of unwilling cats are wired into a computer, but in fact it’s a follow on from earlier titles  In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat   and  Schrödinger’s Kittens , where the relevance of the cats to the topic has become increasingly strained. What we have here is an introduction to the wonderful world of quantum computers. Usefully, Gribbin leads us in through conventional computing, with workmanlike short biographies of Turing and von Neumann to help make the route to understanding what is going on in devices we use every day, but of which we have little comprehension, much clearer. It’s good to have a computing history that fully takes into account the British contribution, often sidelined by US work,

The Player of Games (SF) - Iain Banks *****

The Player of Games was recommended to me when I admitted that as an SF fan I had never read any Banks, and I'm glad it was - I thoroughly enjoyed it and can't wait to get my hands on another of the Culture novels. I was a bit worried from all I had heard that Banks's writing would be too clever-clever, but this was never the case, and he manages to make what is in some ways quite a cerebral concept into an engaging story. I was particularly impressed with the way he gave us enough detail of the game at the centre of the story to make it interesting without ever having to fill in lots of dull detail or, probably, expose the fact that it simply couldn't exist for real. What is also very impressive is the way that Banks leaves a lot unsaid, with passing references to concepts which I believe are expanded in other Culture novels, but manages to do this without it being frustrating for the reader. I have always considered most of the modern SF writers not even close to be

Sciencia – Ed. John Martineau ***

This compact but chunky 400 page book packs in six different titles covering an eclectic if not entirely logical combination of topics (with authors whose names seem almost made up). We have Burkard Polster on mathematical proofs, Matthew Watkins packing in useful mathematical and physical formulae (sounds a laugh a minute), Matt Tweed on both the periodic table and the cosmos, Gerard Cheshire on evolution and Moff Betts on the human body. Each of the mini-books inside consists of a series of two pages spreads, which given the relatively small size of the book and the fact that the right hand page is all illustration, means that there is relatively little space for text. This is an adult equivalent of the  Basher books , but thankfully without the irritating tendency to allow the topics to address the reader in the first person. I think it is fair to say the approach works better for some topics than others. Of the two maths sections, the first on proofs is a lot more readable tha

Mark Miodownik – Four Way Interview

Mark is an engineer and materials scientist. He is the Professor of Materials and Society at UCL where he teaches and runs a research group. His research areas include self-assembling materials, self-healing materials, psychophysical properties of materials. Mark is the Director of the Institute of Making which is a multidisciplinary research club for those interested in the made world: from makers of molecules to makers of buildings, synthetic skin to spacecraft, soup to clothes, furniture to cities. Mark is a broadcaster and writer on science and engineering issues, and believes passionately that to engineer is human. He gave the 2010 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, and is a regular presenter of science and engineering BBC TV programmes. Mark’s first book is  Stuff Matters . Why science? I got stabbed, and became obsessed. Not with science, but first with knives and then the stuff they were made from. I noticed materials everywhere and went a bit mad, they call it OCD th