Skip to main content

Hollyweird Science - Kevin Grazier and Stephen Cass ***

When reading this book I was reminded of the H. G.  Wells horror/SF novel, The Island of Dr Moreau,  which features heavily in the TV science fiction show Orphan Black (far more impressive than most of the shows mentioned in the book). This is because, like the human/animals in Wells' story, Hollyweird Science is neither one thing nor another. It's as if two entirely different books have been merged, and the result is quite disconcerting.

The first few chapters are a reasonably intense, media studies type exploration of the nature of science fiction films (and, somewhat randomly, TV). There's no attempt to put science and technology in science fiction alongside real world equivalents as in Ten Billion Tomorrows - this is much more about the nature of SF film making, the need in the end for story to overrule science quibbles and the role of science advisors. (As an aside I think movie science advisors are almost always a waste of time and money as, however well meaning, they are mostly ignored. I had coffee with Brian Cox just before he became famous, and he was really excited about being science advisor for the movie Sunshine. Cox knows his stuff, but the science in Sunshine is rightly slated in Hollyweird Science.) This part of the book worked well and probably deserved four stars, though didn't have a place in a popular science review site, as it was very media oriented.

Then, suddenly, there is a massive change of gear. The book becomes a straightforward physics and astronomy primer with occasional references to a movie to pretend that the science fiction is driving the content. But it isn't. There are frequently four or five pages at a time with no significant film references, and when they come they tend to be very shallow. The pure science bits are okay, though a touch plodding, but the problem is expectations. I thought the book would be built around the Hollywood examples, but in fact they're loosely scattered nuggets, far too infrequent to do anything but highlight their inadequacy.

The science content is generally fine, though occasionally either vague or odd. So, for instance, we are told that the observable universe has a radius of 13.8 billion light years where is actually 45.7 billion light years, a quite significant difference. Most amusingly, the book has a dig at Star Trek's use of 'degrees Kelvin' for the Kelvin scale, then messes up its correction by saying the units of the scale should be Kelvins, where they are actually kelvins. Trivial, absolutely, but then so was the original complaint.

It's a shame, but the book's lack of clarity about what it is trying to do, combined with very limited movie and TV references in the solid science part and a hefty price tag for a paperback mean that it doesn't really deliver.


Paperback 
Kindle 
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…

Five Photons - James Geach ****

It is generally acknowledged that Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time is one of the most common books to be bought but not read beyond the first few pages. If you are the kind of popular science reader who found Hawking hard going, you can stop now - Five Photons is not for you. If, on the other hand, you found A Brief History of Time a piece of cake and wished you could get into more depth without resorting to heavy mathematics or a tedious textbook style, Five Photons could be just up your street.

Astrophysicist James Geach starts of fairly gently with a chapter on the nature of light that mostly sets aside quantum physics, leading up to the observation that light is our vehicle for for stripping back the history of the universe to its earliest times (or, at least, the point where the universe became transparent). From here on, the five photons of the title take us on different journeys, from the oldest surviving light of the cosmic microwave background radiation to that fr…

Mercury - William Sheehan ****

Driving to work one morning several years ago, I spotted a tiny white dot close to the rising sun. ‘That’s Venus,’ I said to myself. Almost immediately I saw another, much brighter dot a few degrees away. ‘No, that’s Venus – the first one must be, um ... Mercury.’ Even with a lifelong interest in astronomy, I always manage to forget Mercury.

With eight planets in the Solar System, one of them has to be the least interesting – and Mercury got the short straw. That’s a relative statement, though, and a diligent author could still dig up enough fascinating facts about that tiny dot by the Sun to fill a short book. William Sheehan has done a brilliant job of doing just that.

One of the reasons Mercury is so easy to forget is that it’s almost impossible to get a good view of it from Earth. Even after the invention of the telescope, which turned planets like Mars and Jupiter into explorable worlds, Mercury remained a mystery – and the subject of some pretty wild speculations. In 1686, for exa…