Skip to main content

Exploring the Planets: a memoir - Fred Taylor ***

 Back in the day, it seems that every senior officer in the armed forces felt the urge to write a memoir, and publishers churned them out, either out of patriotic duty, or because they felt that these people were involved in something very significant (true), so their stories must be interesting (not always true). There's an echo of this practice that creeps into scientists' memoirs, such as Exploring the Planets by Oxford professor Fred Taylor. There are, without doubt, some really interesting space experiments described in these 360 fairly small print pages, but there's also an awful lot of material that is unrewarding for the reader.

What's good? Taylor gives us an excellent picture of the processes and procedures and bureaucracy needed to get an experiment onto a satellite - and all too often that would fail to get a place, or get funding, after a huge amount of work had been put into it. We get the feeling for the sheer expanse of time involved in these space-based projects. For example, the 'With Galileo to Jupiter' chapter starts with events in 1976, but doesn't strictly end until 2003 when the Galileo orbiter plunges into Jupiter's atmosphere. For me, the three most interesting experiments were Taylor's very first, involving equipment suspended from a balloon that ended up in an unhappy farmer's field near Newbury, the failed Mars Climate Orbiter and the second mission to Venus that involved Taylor.There's certainly plenty here for the (unmanned) space exploration fan to get his or her teeth into.

However, there is also a lot that could be better. Much of the mundane, everyday life material lacks any great interest to the outside observer (except to note that I shall from now on raise an eyebrow when scientists claim to be underpaid, as Taylor had already bought his first Aston Martin - a DB5 - when he was in his twenties). It's hard to plough through pages packed with acronyms, concentrating far more on the politics and the engineering aspects of the job than the underlying science. In fact, Taylor does not seem to be a very good science communicator. He delights in telling us how when being interviewed by Connie Chung for the CBS evening news, she looked puzzled as his explanations were too technical saying 'This pleased me no end.' That's more a failure than something to celebrate. And he rarely makes an attempt to explain the science behind text like 'Some elementary theory, imported from terrestrial atmospheric physics, can explain the behaviour as a consequence of the equator-to-pole overturning Hadley cell, combining with the super-rotating zonal winds and a wavenumber-two instability near the poles.' It's hard to see the point of putting this in at all without explanation.

Another irritating tendency is to get to a point where the text might truly become interesting - then skip over the bits we want to hear about. So, for instance, he tells us that failure of the Mars Climate Orbiter was due to confusion between imperial and metric units, but doesn't give any details to explain how such a mind-boggling error could have occurred. Worse, on a number of occasions Taylor just tells us that he (or someone else) has described something in another book, so he isn't going to tell us about it here. This tends to happen at the most engaging parts, and is hugely frustrating.

There is no doubt that the reader will get some impressively in-depth insights into what goes on in scientific academia (though in many cases it may result in a suspicion that scientists could do with a serious injection of management skills). But it's such a shame that as a scientific memoir it is not more engaging or effective at exploring the science.


Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

  1. This is the author responding. Thanks for the review, mostly fair, except why did you expect in-depth science when it is made clear that the in-depth science is in my other books? There wasn't room for it here, and anyway this book is for the people who are interested in the topic but don't have a science background, or those familiar with the science but who want to read about the more human aspects. Those like yourself would be happier with The Scientific Exploration of Mars (Cambridge, 2009), and The Scientific Exploration of Venus (Cambridge, 2011) – perhaps you’d like to review those? Oh, and the Connie Chung experience was a (partial) failure so far as she was concerned, but what I was pleased about was not that but getting some science out on the CBS evening news, an extremely rare experience particularly then, and the fact that they couldn’t cut it as the programme went out live.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your comments. As a popular science book review site, we do tend to review books on the science content. It doesn't have to be in-depth or for those with a science background - in fact the majority of the books we review are for the general reader without any particular science background. But that doesn't mean it's not possible to communicate more about the science.

      Delete
  2. OK, but do please read my Mars and Venus books. I'd like to know what you think of those, in the light of your comments on my Memoir.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Happy to do so - ask your publisher to drop me an email at info@popularscience.co.uk

      Delete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

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…