Skip to main content

Science(ish) - Rick Edwards and Michael Brooks ****

Seeing the subtitle of this engaging hardback it would be easy to think 'Oh, no, not other "Science of Movie X" book - they were great initially but there have been too many since.' Somehow, though, the approach that Rick Edwards and Michael Brooks have taken transcends the original format and makes the whole thing fresh and fun again.

I think the secret to their success is that they don't try to cover all the science of a particular film, but rather that they use each of their ten subjects to explore one particular topic. It also helps that, rather than focus entirely on franchise movies we get some great one-offs, including The Martian and Ex Machina. I suspect you may find the interest level of the chapters reflects to some extent whether or not you've seen the films. So, for instance, In found 28 Days Later and Gattaca, which I haven't seen, less interesting. The only other topic that suffered a bit for me was Planet of the Apes, which I have seen but hated (even the authors say it's a terrible film, which makes you wonder why they picked it with so many others to choose from).

For the rest, though, Edwards and Brooks impressively manage to weave a whole lot of science into the topics they link to the movies. As well as the obvious subjects of The Martian and Ex MachinaJurassic Park is good on de-extincting (is that a word?) from ancient DNA. Similarly, Interstellar on black holes (even managing to get a very up-to-date chunk on gravitational waves in) and Back to the Future on time travel, for example, all balanced readability, fun and a fair amount of science. It would have been nice if each chapter had ended with some further reading suggestions, as in each case, inevitably, the topic had to be covered in quite a summary fashion. At the very least I would point readers to Destination Mars for The Martian and Build Your Own Time Machine for Back to the Future.

One of the reasons I liked the book a lot was that it turned my initial impression around. About page six I was close to giving up. This was partly because of the agonising attempt at humour in the constant backbiting 'conversation' between the authors that tops and tails each chapter (I can't say this got any better, but I got used to it). But mostly it was because of the painfully juvenile adjectives in the main text. We are told something is a ‘bum-busting 33.9 million miles away’, and something travels at a ‘pant-soiling 36,000 miles per hour’. Thankfully, this style disappears after page six, making me wonder if the whole book was like this originally and page six missed the edit. 

There were a couple of small errors - John Wheeler is credited with originating the term 'black hole' (something most of us thought until a few years ago, but it's now widely known he didn't), and the year of the first direct detection of gravitational waves is given as 2016 on one page and 2015 on another (it was 2015), but this is minor stuff. It doesn't in any way undo the fact that this is a great book which will appeal to a wide range of readers. Recommended.



Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Bits to Bitcoin - Mark Stuart Day ***

When I saw the title of this book, I got all excited - at last we were going to get an explanation of bitcoin for the rest of us, who struggle to understand what the heck it really involves. There certainly is an explanation of bitcoin, but it comes in chapter 26 - in practice, the book contains far more. Almost every popular computer science title I've read has effectively been history of computer science - this is one of the first examples I've ever come across that is actually trying to make the 'science' part of computer science accessible to the general reader.

I don't mean by this that it's an equivalent of Programming for Dummies. Instead, Bits to Bitcoin takes the reader through the concepts lying behind programming. If we think of programming as engineering, this is the physics that the engineering depends on. This is a really interesting proposition. Many years ago, I was a professional programmer, but I never studied computer science, so I was only fa…

Through Two Doors at Once - Anil Ananthaswamy *****

It's sometimes hard to imagine that there's anything new to say about the basics of quantum physics, yet Anil Ananthaswamy manages this in a twofold manner (appropriately, given the title). Through Two Doors at Once does so by using the double slit experiment as a constant reference point throughout the book, and by bringing in a number of the more modern variants on the experiment which rarely feature in popular accounts of quantum theory.

Strictly, the book should probably be called 'Through Two Doors at Once and Spooky Action at a Distance plus Things That Have a Similar Effect', as it uses both the double slit experiment and the EPR entanglement thought experiment, plus modern experiments which don't, for example, involve slits but rather beam splitters that are their logical equivalent - but I have to admit, that would be a clumsy title.

Ananthaswamy gives us a good overview of the development of quantum physics - sometimes quite summary - but by making repea…

By the Pricking of Her Thumb (SF) - Adam Roberts *****

Sometimes a sequel betters the original - think Terminator 2 - and Adam Roberts has done this with his follow-up to The Real-Town Murders. (It's sensible to read the first book before this: while it's not essential, there are plenty of references you will miss otherwise.)

Ostensibly this is a murder mystery, or, as Roberts tells us, a combination of a howdunnit and a whodunnit-to, as the central character Alma is called on to work out how someone found with a needle stuck through her thumb was killed and which of a group of four super-rich individuals is dead when all claim to still be alive - though one of the group who hires Alma is convinced that the death has occurred. 

However, this is anything but a conventional murder mystery - far more so than the strange crimes suggest. Alma and her partner Marguerite (the latter still trapped by an engineered polyvalent illness that requires treatment every 4 hours and 4 minutes) don't do a lot of detecting. In fact Marguerite hard…