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Stargazer’s Almanac 2017 – Bob Mizon et al ****
* UPDATED * To 2017 edition
If your idea of an almanac is a thick old book full of folk wisdom (‘If ye plant in October, your crops will fall over’), phases of the moon and tide times, you’ll only get one thing right about this almanac – it does contain phases of the moon. But the Stargazer’s Almanac is much more.
The format is one of a large month-by-month calendar, but instead of having spaces to write in when you take the dog to the vets, the children to the cinema or vice versa, it has two big spreads of the horizon, looking North and looking South on the 15th of the month at 10pm GMT from a UK viewpoint. With this in hand you should be able to explore the night sky and sort out Andromeda from Perseus. As well as constellations it shows the positions of planets, points out interesting stars, and, yes, shows the phase of the moon through the month.
After the charts there are a couple of pairs of pages of information, as additional reading. This year, we get a page on the astronomer Charles Messier, one on the 'great American eclipse one 2017 (handy if you can get there) and a regular feature on the effects of street lights and light pollution general. But these are a minor addition - the important thing is the maps. I really felt that with this in hand I could find my way around the sky as I never have before. I can spot a couple of constellations and three planets, but with the help of the almanac, much more of the sky opens up.
I have now seen several of these almanacs and I continue to be slightly disappointed with the production values – the almanac is not particularly cheap, but the paper is matt, quite dull in appearance (probably very eco-friendly). On the plus side there's a metal rim on the hanging-up hole, so it's unlikely to get damaged. And there could have been more help on what you do if it’s not 10pm on the 15th of the month, though to be fair there is a bit of guidance, but more handholding would have been appreciated.
As it is, though, this is a really valuable asset to the amateur astronomer and a good gift for anyone with even the slightest interest in the stars. It’s the kind of thing that over time is likely to be pushed out by smartphone and iPad apps like SkyView, but it does have the advantage that you can still sit and enjoy it on a wet Tuesday afternoon, and it's much more decorative than that old Abba calendar.
This is an important book, though I'm not sure Eugenia Cheng would agree with my logic in saying so.
Going on the marketing, what we have here is a counter to fake news and dodgy argumentation in the form of mathematical logic. The back cover tells us 'Newspaper headlines and social media use emotions to warp the facts. Politicians and companies master rhetoric to mislead us. What one book could help us make sense of it all?' Admittedly they don't answer their rhetorical question, but I assume the answer is intended to be The Art of Logic. (Did the company behind this book realise it was using rhetoric, though presumably not to mislead us?)
What we actually have is a combination of a lucid and interesting explanation of the basics of logic with the mathematical equivalent of those books such as Algorithms to Live By that were so popular a couple of years ago. They used the logic of algorithms (differently worded, and, to me, easier to understand), the heart of computer…
David Orrell's earlier title Economyths is one of my favourite popular science books of all time. Or, perhaps, I should say popular non-science, as Orrell shows just how devastatingly traditional economics uses the tools of science without having a scientific basis. I was, therefore, really looking forward to reading Orrell's new book - until I saw the title. As anyone involved with physics can tell you, there's nothing more irritating than the business of sticking the word 'quantum' onto something to give a pseudo-scientific boost to waffle and woo. Was Orrell doing the same thing? Thankfully, his introduction put my fears aside.
Orrell, a mathematician with a physics background quickly makes it clear that the way he is using quantum theory is not just employing magic words, but involves making use of strong parallels between the nature of quantum objects and concepts like money (more on money in a moment). Yes, this is to some extent a metaphorical use of quantum …
Wow. When someone suggested I read a book called The Ashtray, written by a documentary film-maker, it didn't strike me that it would be a book that gave deep insights into the history and philosophy of science - while also being a remarkable reading experience. In fact, I almost didn't bother with it, but I'm glad that I did.
The titular ashtray was thrown at the author when he was a grad student - thrown by one of the two best known names in the philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn, he of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the concept of paradigm shifts. Kuhn didn't like the young Errol Morris daring to challenge his ideas and reacted with what some would regard as a less than philosophical reply by hurling a heavy glass ashtray at him.
Part of the reason that reading The Ashtray is a remarkable experience is because it's a book that feels in some ways like watching a documentary. I have to confess I've never seen any of Morris's work, but he uses vis…