Skip to main content

The Science Behind Jules Verne's Moon Novels - Andrew May ****

His work may be far less prominent now, but when I started reading science fiction as a teenager, the pioneering French SF writer, Jules Verne was still very popular. Unlike his UK rival H. G. Wells, Verne tried hard to make the science and engineering in his books as accurate as possible. Wells was a far better writer (when he wasn't indulging in non-fiction polemic), but Verne set the scene for 'hard science' SF.

In this delightful little book, Andrew May takes us through the science of Verne's two novels that covered a voyage around the Moon and back. His 1865 US protagonists from the Baltimore Gun Club build a huge cannon that propels them into space. As May points out, the space gun is the weakest part of the story, in that the acceleration would have been deadly for the occupants. However, that apart, Verne put a remarkable amount of effort into trying to get the science right.

It's a long time since I read the books - and I did so in a translation, which May points out dropped a lot of the original text. Specifically, and remarkably, in the original Verne included a lot of science, even packing in calculations and references. This isn't so much hard science SF, it's more an attempt at a SF/popular science crossover.

Taking us through different aspects, such as the physics of space travel, ballistics, life support questions and Verne's excellent portrayal of the Moon given the science of the day (they thought, for example, that the lunar craters were volcanic), May's enthusiasm for Verne shines through. As a reader I'm more of the Wells camp, however, I was persuaded of the impressive amount of science content in the Verne original.

This makes the Moon books an ideal topic for a 'science behind' title. If I'm honest, it's probably a little specialist for the casual science fiction reader. But if you are interested in the history of SF, The Science Behind Jules Verne's Moon Novels is a must.

Paperback:  

Kindle:  


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

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…