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A Most Elegant Equation - David Stipp ****

Aside from E = mc2, there is no other mathematical formula that has had more books dedicated to it than Euler's equation, eiπ+1 = 0. In some ways it's not surprising - like Einstein's equation, Euler's is simple, yet combines essential quantities in a way that surprises and has interesting uses.

Not long ago I read Robin Wilson' Euler's Pioneering Equation, which started really well with some good history of maths on the main components of the equation, but then became too complex for the typical non-mathematician. I'm pleased to say that David Stipp in A Most Elegant Equation doesn't fall for this same trap. This book remains easily readable throughout. 

Stipp also takes us through a little of the background to the main components of the equation (though in a far more summary fashion for 1 and 0). It would have been nice to have had a little more history of maths to round out these introductions - as it was, what you get is plenty to understand e or i, f…

Kathryn Harkup - Four Way Interview

Kathryn Harkup is a chemist and author. Kathryn  completed  a doctorate on her favourite chemicals,  phosphines, and went  on to further postdoctoral research before realising that talking,  writing and demonstrating  science appealed a bit more than hours  slaving over a hot fume-hood. For  six years she ran the outreach in  engineering, computing, physics  and maths at the University of Surrey,  which involved writing talks on  science topics that would appeal to  bored teenagers (anything disgusting  or dangerous was usually the most  popular). Kathryn is now a freelance  science communicator delivering  talks and workshops on the quirky side  of science. Her new book is Making the Monster: the science behind Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Why science?

I know I'm biased but science really is the best. It is an incredibly powerful tool for trying to make sense of the universe around us. The more time I spend learning about science and reading about it, the more amazing it become…

The Beautiful Cure - Daniel Davis ****

The subtitle of this book, 'Harnessing Your Body's Natural Defences' makes it sounds like a celebrity lifestyle book, or a collection of New Age nonsense. But this is a very different beast from its (dare I say it, possibly intentionally misleading) subtitle: instead its a scientific exploration of the immune system.

Despite the woo of alternative health practitioners, the immune system is not a single thing, but rather a complex collection of mechanisms that between them help us fight off invading organisms. And Daniel Davis's book is not a 'how to' manual, but rather a description of how we have gradually uncovered the workings of the many components and how it may be possible to make more of our immune system's powerful capabilities by manipulating it into doing an even better job than it does at the moment.

Professor of immunology Davis has an approachable, easy style, helped by the fact that he doesn't try to be literary. I loved the way that he comm…

Elysium Fire - Alastair Reynolds *****

Reading an author for the first time is always a step in the dark, but just occasionally it becomes immediately clear that here's someone you'll have to keep reading. The last SF authors I can remember feeling this about were Adam Roberts and the late Iain M. Banks - but I am going to have to include Alastair Reynolds in this class.

One of the puffs on the back of the book describes Reynolds as a 'mastersinger of the space opera'. To be honest, I think this was a critic who had thought up a clever turn of phrase and was going to lever it in come what may - because I certainly wouldn't class this as a space opera. Okay, it's set on multiple locations in space and there are spaceships - but adventures in space aren't central to the way the book works. Instead, this is very much a detective story in futuristic science fiction setting.

Although the main character is flagged up on the cover as being Prefect Dreyfus, this is very much an ensemble piece, with half a…

Gavin Smith - Four Way Interview

Gavin G. Smith is the Dundee-born author of the hard edged, action-packed SF novels Veteran, War in Heaven, Age of Scorpio, A Quantum Mythology and The Beauty of Destruction, as well as the short story collection Crysis: Escalation. He has collaborated with Stephen Deas as the composite personality Gavin Deas and co-written Elite: Wanted, and the shared world series Empires: Infiltration and Empires: Extraction. His latest title is The Bastard Legion.

Why science fiction?

Good question. I grew up with 2000AD and then all the first wave cyberpunk writers, and then a little later the new space opera writers like Iain M. Banks and Peter F. Hamilton. So a love of the genre is an obvious answer. I do think that the speculative genres offer us an excellent tool to take tricky problems facing humanity an comment, warn or even cathartically deal with them. It’s also nice to escape to other places. 

Why this book?

After finishing writing the Age of Scorpio trilogy I felt like I’d been trying to fl…

Making the Monster - Kathryn Harkup ****

Subtitled 'the science behind Mary Shelley's Frankenstein', what we get here is a mix of a biography of Mary Shelley and historical context for the various aspects of science that feature in Frankenstein, from electricity to preserving organs after death. I found this a much more approachable work than the annotated Frankenstein - in fact the perfect title would probably have been a combination of the two, with annotation based on Kathryn Harkup's words plus the text of the original.

I have given the book four stars despite some reservations, because the good bits were very readable and interesting. The biographical sections filled in a lot I didn't know about Mary, her parents and her relationship with Shelley and his family. What's more, Harkup manages to make this engaging in a way a lot of the 'life story' parts of popular science tend not to achieve. The other chapters that really engaged me were the straight science ones - for example, the chapter …

The Laser Inventor - Theodore Maiman ****

While the memoirs of many scientists are probably best kept for family consumption, there are some breakthroughs where the story is sufficiently engaging that it can be fascinating to get an inside view on what really happened. Although Theodore Maiman's autobiographical book is not a slick, journalist-polished account, it is very effective at highlighting two significant narratives - how Maiman was able to construct the first ever laser, despite having far fewer resources than many of his competitors, and how 'establishment' academic physicists, particularly in the US, tried to minimise his achievement.

On the straight autobiographical side, we get some early background and discover how Maiman combined degrees in electrical engineering and physics to have an unusually strong mix of the practical and the theoretical. Rather than go into academia after his doctorate, he went into industry - which seems to have been responsible for the backlash against his invention, which we…

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

The Electric Century - J. B. Williams ***

After reading J. B. Williams' The Electronics Revolution I couldn't resist also having a go at The Electric Century. The mysterious J. B. provides a similar mix of historical data and narrative, in this case for aspects of electricity, from generation to household products using it. Covering a total of 21 topics, plus intro and conclusion, Williams reminds us just how far the use of electricity has spread into our lives. As well as the obvious, we get, for example, the use in cars - not so much electric cars, but a requirement from day one in even the most basic petrol vehicle.

I say petrol, but Williams would say gasoline, as there is a really strange approach taken here. Although it covers both the US and the UK (and to an extent Europe), this is a very British book, giving far more detail on what happened in the UK than you would otherwise expect. Yet it's not only got American spelling it uses US words (so, for example, we hear of people in the UK using 'faucets'…

The Bastard Legion (SF) - Gavin Smith *****

Science fiction has a long tradition of 'military in space' themes - and usually these books are uninspiring at best and verging on fascist at worst. From a serious SF viewpoint, it seemed that Joe Haldeman's magnificent The Forever War made the likes of Starship Troopers a mocked thing of the past, but sadly Hollywood seems to have rebooted the concept and we now see a lot of military SF on the shelves.

The bad news is that The Bastard Legion could not be classified as anything else - but the good news is that, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer subverted the vampire genre, The Bastard Legion has so many twists on a straightforward 'marines in space' title that it does a brilliant job of subversion too.

The basic scenario is instantly different. Miska is heading up a mercenary legion, except they're all hardened criminals on a stolen prison ship, taking part because she has stolen the ship and fitted them all with explosive collars. Oh, and helping her train her &…

Euler's Pioneering Equation - Robin Wilson ***

The concept of a 'beautiful equation' is a mystery to many, but it seems to combine a piece of mathematics that expresses something sophisticated in relatively few terms and something that looks satisfying. The equation that has proved standout amongst mathematicians, as by far the most beautiful (and is only placed second to Maxwell's equation amongst physicists) is Euler's remarkable eiπ+1 = 0. What seems remarkable to me about this is that it just seems bizarre that this combination of things produces such a neat result. (Incidentally, as far as I can see, the only reason for the 'pioneering' in the title was to enable the fancy graphic on the cover of the book.)

Getting popular maths books right is incredibly difficult. When I started reading this book, I really thought that Robin Wilson had cracked it. After an introduction, he gives us a chapter on each of the elements of the equation (except the plus and equals signs), from the more basic aspects like 1 a…