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Showing posts from January, 2017

Chemistry in Your Kitchen - Matthew Hartings ****

As author Matthew Hartings, chemistry lecturer by day and kitchen wizard by night (well, he has things he says he's pretty good at cooking) points out, chemistry and cooking have a lot in common. You don't have to be into molecular gastronomy like Heston Blumenthal, running your kitchen more like a lab than an everyday part of the home. Whenever we deal with food and drink, we are inevitably dealing with chemistry.

As Hartings also points out, chemistry is the Cinderella of the popular science world, so it's great to see a book in this field that works reasonably well (I'll come back to that 'reasonably').

What we get here are trips through a whole host of familiar (at least, familiar if you are American) food and drink experiences, from coffee via Kraft Mac and Cheese, through meat to beer and cocktails. At his best, Hartings is an engaging storyteller, for example taking us through his experience being hauled onto a TV show at the last minute to talk about the …

Science Fiction by Scientists (SF) - Michael Brotherton Ed. ***

I'm all in favour of science fiction that puts across interesting science, but I was a little put off by the preface by editor Michael Brotherton, who seems to think that the science part is more important than the fiction, and that the best SF writers have been scientists, something that is only rarely true. I don't think it's a good idea to go into science fiction writing with the smug idea that 'I'm a scientist, so I'm bound to do this well,' because it will end in tears. Luckily some scientists are excellent writers, and some of the good ones have turned up here (along with a few of the clunkers). At least we have to admit that the title is 100% accurate.

It's interesting to contrast the first two stories as they illustrate very well some of the extremes of what can be done. The first, Down and Out by Ken Wharton, features one cracking idea (though the author seems to think he has kept it from us a lot longer than he really does), but pedestrian writ…

Yellow Blue Tibia (SF) - Adam Roberts *****

After enjoying Jack Glassand being blown away by The Thing Itself, I have been familiarising myself with the back-catalogue of science fiction writer Adam Roberts, and Yellow Blue Tibia is a cracker.

At first sight, the plot starts brilliantly but veers into the farcical. It begins just after the Second World War with Stalin bringing together a group of Russian science fiction writers to create a new menace to unify the people, a fiction that is then rapidly concealed - so far, a wonderful idea. But the menace the writers create seems to start becoming real an increasingly unlikely events. What Roberts manages to do, though, is to weave the same kind of magic as my favourite fantasy author, Gene Wolfe in his real-world set fantasies. When you read a Wolfe book, you know the whole thing may seem absurd, but somehow it will eventually all come together, even if you have to read it several times to real get into the depth of it. Similarly, Roberts manages in the end to tie together the un…

The Voynich Manuscript - Raymond Clemens (Ed.) ***

It might seem a little strange to review a book on a possibly fake medieval manuscript here - yet with its botanical illustrations and some-time alleged connection to Roger Bacon, the Voynich manuscript does have a history of science flavour. If you haven't come across it, the Voynich manuscript is a heavily illustrated (with a mix of botanical and really weird images) book, written in an unknown script that has never been deciphered. Some believe that the book is a genuine work, others that the writing can't be deciphered as it never had any meaning, thinking it a fake, probably with the intention of producing a saleable oddity.

What is undeniable is that this new book on the manuscript is a handsome and weighty tome, over 30 cm tall and weighing in at 1.78 kilos. It's an expensive production featuring a semi-transparent dustcover with a vellum-like texture. Closing the book are around 60 pages of commentary - but what makes this volume remarkable is that the majority of i…

Consider Phlebas (SF) - Iain Banks ***

This title didn't quite work for me. The absolute joy and totally original creation of Banks' science fiction books is the Culture. This hedonistic, clever, human and machine, seemingly anarchistic yet superbly functional empire without an emperor is a work of creative genius and in most of his Culture books it is front and centre. One of the problems with Consider Phelbas is that, although the Culture has a presence throughout as one side in a war, the book isn't about the Culture but rather an individual and his crusade against the Culture, which he feels is ultimately wrong for humanity. Because of this, he sides with the three-legged species with which the Culture is reluctantly at war.

The result is that the book descends into baroque space opera pure and simple, where Banks' books are usually far more, even though they use all of the language and paraphernalia of the space opera genre. If you enjoy pure space opera, this will be good news - but it's rarely my …

Swiftly (SF) - Adam Roberts ***

As usual with Roberts this is an exploration of an audacious idea - in this case, we are in a world where the various species from Swift's Gulliver's Travels (see what he did with the title?) are real and encroaching on business and life in Victorian Britain. Of itself this is wonderfully imagined - the abuse, for example of Lilliputians (or their neighbours Blefuscudians, who have to repeatedly point out they aren't Lilliputians) to perform extremely detailed work in factories is brilliant. And the employment in war by the French of giants from Brobdingnag who reluctantly help them to partially conquer the UK, helped by Babbage engines with a twist, is equally clever.

However, Roberts also introduces other layers, going bigger and smaller than Swift's variants, with a destructive ultra giant in a spaceship and a plague caused by tiny creatures that wipes out large swathes of humanity. As is almost always the case with disaster stories, the result is a depersonalisation…

Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction - James Binney ****

For many readers, the very word ‘astrophysics’ is a daunting one. That’s ironic, because astronomy is one of the most popular of popular-science subjects, and it’s almost 100% applied physics. You can’t understand planetary orbits without invoking the theory of gravity; you can’t understand how stars shine without invoking nuclear fusion; you can’t understand a galaxy’s spiral arms without invoking the physics of waves. Yet apart from a few exotic topics like black holes and dark matter, the crucial role played by physics is all too often glossed over in popular astronomy books.

So this ‘Very Short Introduction’ is a welcome antidote to all that. It would be ideal for a reader who is already keen on astronomy, and has some basic school-level physics, who wants to see how the two fit together. Most amateur astronomers will have heard of ‘main sequence stars’ and the Hertzsprung–Russell diagram, but this book shows you how the mysteries of stellar evolution all have their roots in solid …

The Secret World of the Brain - Catherine Loveday ****

I tend to be a little wary of highly illustrated books like this, as often they can be a matter of style over substance, but The Secret World of the Brain has plenty of text content to accompany the detailed colour pictures, and Catherine Loveday packs in plenty of valuable and up-to-date information on the human brain, with a few 'users manual' elements (e.g. how to get to sleep) but mostly simply exploring and explaining what we know and don't know about the brain (and to some extent the nervous system too).

There are wide ranging sections, from very broad description to brain functions and memory through to very specific chapters on, for instance, the brain and music, why we cry at films and laugh at jokes and altered states of consciousness. If I have any criticism it's that some of these sections (for example the altered states one) felt a bit 'so what?', while I was disappointed that there wasn't a section on creativity, innovation and ideas, my person…

Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life - Helen Czerski *****

As 2017 has just started it might seem presumptuous to claim that Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life will be one of the best books of the year, but I will be very surprised if it doesn’t end up high on a number of such lists over the next twelve months. 

Helen Czerski should be familiar to frequent watchers of science programmes on the BBC as she has hosted a few and has been a panel member on others. She is a lecturer in physicsat University College London, specialising in the field of bubbles. 

The book aims to show the incredible amount of science that surrounds us on a daily basis and how that seemingly mundane science is an expression of far grander things on a terrestrial and cosmic level that follow the same basic principles. What I found excellent about this book was the adeptness with which Czerski moves from the physics of the everyday to a description of how a fundamental force works. An example of this is the section of the book discussing waves where she uses a…

The Geek Guide to Life - Colin Stuart and Mun Keat Looi ***

There's no reason at all why good popular science should be heavy and loaded with leading edge theory. I've a lot of time for fun and/or practical science facts type books, which TheGeek Guide to Life promises to be - the subtitle tells us its about 'science's solutions to life's little problems' with examples such as 'how to boil the perfect egg' and 'how to rock at rock, paper, scissors.'

The text by Colin Stuart and Mun Keat Looi does a solid job of covering a whole range of questions in two or four page spreads. Sometimes the titles of the articles overreach themselves - for example, there is one headed 'How to cure an hangover' which half way through, in response to 'But, I hear you cry, how do I get rid of my hangover?' remarks 'Sadly, science doesn't have a clear answer to that question.' Inevitably, that headline feels a bit overblown at this point. 

I was less enthusiastic about the illustrations - for no obvio…