Skip to main content

International Space Station: Architecture Beyond Earth - David Nixon ***

There is a danger of discounting this square, chunky book, running to over 400 pages, as a coffee table book, and that would be a great shame. It's true that International Space Station has some wonderful photographs - I particularly love an image of the International Space Station transiting the Moon, which I assumed was a mocked up shot, but according to the caption was taken by someone from Australia with a telescope - it's stunning. However, the photographs are not the be-all and end-all of this book, which contains a very detailed text on the history of the ISS, from its initial planning and construction all the way through to 2011, with an epilogue adding information that takes us up to 2015.

There's a reasonable amount on the build-up to the ISS, with some mentions of its predecessors, and plenty on the design stage. In fact this features more so than might be expected, perhaps because the author is an architect - and proves one of the most interesting sections. Overall, the tone of the book is somewhat reverential, and arguably not questioning enough. David Nixon likens the ISS to the Large Hadron Collider, yet a good number of scientists have pointed out that the American Superconducting Super Collider, which would have been more advanced than the LHC was cancelled in favour of the ISS. And where these colliders are involved in fundamental research, the science done on the ISS is mostly trivial, and often could have been done easier and cheaper without human involvement. Human spaceflight is not primarily about science, and this isn't brought out anywhere near enough in the book.

For me there were a couple of other negatives. This is an expensive book, yet it is not printed on glossy paper, so although the photographs are impressive, they aren't quite as high quality as they could have been. And the main body of the text, although it incorporates assorted human interest stories, is primarily about giving us a huge amount of detail on the step-by-step history of the ISS, where an account that concentrated on narrative high points may have been more readable.


Even so, there is an awful lot to get your teeth into here. If you are a space fan, fascinated by the kind of venture the ISS represents, this book is an absolute must, full of juicy details and intriguing insights into what might have been had NASA taken different decisions. This is a landmark book for the field - it's just a shame that it isn't better at putting the ISS into its scientific context (or lack thereof).


Paperback 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

Artificial Intelligence - Yorick Wilks ****

Artificial intelligence is one of those topics where it's very easy to spin off into speculation, whether it's about machine conciousness or AI taking over the world (and don't get me onto the relatively rare connection to robots - cover designer please note). All the experience of AI to date has been that it has been made feasible far slower than originally predicted, and that it faces dramatic limitations. So, for example, self-driving cars may be okay in limited circumstances, but are nowhere near ready for the commute home. Similarly, despite all the moves forward in AI technology, computers are so-so at recognising objects after learning from thousands of examples - sometimes fooled by apparently trivial surface patterning - where humans can recognise items from a handful of examples.

Even so, we can't deny that AI is having an influence on our lives and Yorick Wilks, emeritus professor of AI at the University of Sheffield, is ideally placed to give us a picture …

Apollo 11 - David Whitehouse *****

The problem with doing a book about the Apollo programme is that it's hard to find something that hasn't been said before - but with the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing just weeks away, the publication of this elegant book is extremely timely, and science-reporting veteran David Whitehouse manages to make the story feel fresh, even if you're one of the just 20 per cent of the world population who were alive on the remarkable day in 1969.

Although he has worked a lot with New Scientist, Whitehouse was for many years a TV journalist, and that comes through in his impressively engaging prose as he takes us back to the origins of the US/USSR space race that would lead to the moon landing. He passes through the wartime aspects relatively quickly, but once the two superpowers are flexing their space technology muscles, Whitehouse achieves a near perfect balance between the far less-heard USSR side of the story and the US. This is probably the best bit of the whole bo…