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Celestial Calculations - J. L. Lawrence ***

These days, amateur astronomers don’t need to do any calculations. If their telescope is of the ‘go-to’ kind, they just type in the name of the object they want to observe and the telescope does the rest. If they have an old-fashioned manual telescope, or if they want to see something that isn’t in the telescope’s database – such as the ISS or a satellite – they consult a mobile app or a website. With all these handy software aids, it’s easy to forget that what they’re doing – in a fraction of a second – is a long series of calculations of the sort astronomers used to have to do by hand.

Those calculations are what this book is all about – but before you go running for the hills, there’s no advanced mathematics in it. You’ll scour it in vain for differential equations, complex numbers, logarithms or x-y graphs – for the simple reason that none of those things existed when astronomers started doing the calculations we’re talking about. It does use a few trigonometric functions like sine…

Children of Dune (SF) - Frank Herbert ****

After a slightly bumpy second title in the series, Frank Herbert returned to form with Children of Dune, which has a lot of the positive aspects of the original, but moves things forward considerably. With Paul's children Leto and Ghanima centre stage (though, to be honest, Ghanima gets a little sidelined), we have a second run at what Paul attempted... in perhaps a more measured fashion.

One huge step forward in the writing over the first novel is that there are more shades of grey - the baddies here have redeeming features and are capable in some cases of change and development. Although Children of Dune could never have the impact of the original Dune, bursting as it did fresh onto the science fantasy stage, it is a very worthy successor.

Perhaps the biggest fault of the book is that, even more so than the first title, there is a huge amount of agonising and philosophising. It's not that there's not a good spine of action - there is - but it's surrounded by a lot o…

The Best of R. A. Lafferty (SF) – R. A. Lafferty ****

Throughout my high school years (1973–76) I carefully kept a list of all the science fiction I read. I’ve just dug it out, and it contains no fewer than 1,291 entries – almost all short stories I found in various SF magazines and multi-author anthologies. Right on the first page, the sixth item is ‘Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne’ by R. A. Lafferty, and his name appears another 32 times before the end of the list. This isn’t a peculiarity of my own tastes. Short stories were much more popular in those days than they are today, and any serious SF fan would have encountered Lafferty – a prolific writer of short fiction – in the same places I did.

But times change, and this Gollancz Masterworks volume has a quote from the Guardian on the back describing Lafferty as ‘the most important science fiction writer you’ve never heard of’. Hopefully this newly assembled collection will go some way to remedying that situation. It contains 22 short stories, mostly dating from the 1960s and 70s, each w…

No Shadow of a Doubt - Daniel Kennefick ***

It's something of a truism that science tends to go through stages, where each new stage can be typified as 'It's more complicated than we thought.' This book demonstrates that this assertion is also true of history of science. It examines the 1919 eclipse expeditions and their conclusions used to bolster Einstein's general theory of relativity, and how those results have been treated.

This is a very tightly focussed subject for a whole book, and there is a distinct danger here of the material of an article being stretched out to book length - it often did feel that Daniel Kennefick was dragging out a handful of conclusions by repeating the same assertions over and over in subtly different ways. However, this isn't entirely fair as he does give exhaustive detail of the two expeditions which wouldn't have fit in an article, covering how their results were produced and how the controversy (if it could really be called that) arose.

Like many physics professor…

Dinosaurs Rediscovered - Michael Benton ****

When I give talks about science in junior schools, there is one magic word that I only have to mention to get children's attention: dinosaurs. They have a fascination that may dim a little with age, but still stays with us, whether it's their dramatic side (as brought out in the Jurassic Park films) or the fascination of finding out more about a set of animals that once dominated the Earth.

Mention of Jurassic Park tends to produce grinding of teeth amongst professionals in the field - leaving aside the impossibility of the premise (thanks to the half-life of DNA, amongst other things), our understanding of what dinosaurs looked like, how they moved and lived - and far more - has transformed immensely in last 30 or so years - and yet the representations we see on the screen often hark back to an earlier vision.

Michael Benton eases us in with a chatty introduction about how science works and how we now think we know far more about the dinosaurs than was possible even ten year…

Dune Messiah (SF) - Frank Herbert ***

In the sequel to his massive 1965 hit Dune, Frank Herbert widens his canvas considerably. Published four years later, Dune Messiah is nowhere near as good as the original - it's almost like a filler between Dune and the books that were to come later, feeling distinctly as if it was thrown together rather quickly.

[SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW]

The additions here include a whole new set of players in the Bene Tleilaxu, some of them 'face dancers' who can magically transform their body to any appearance, but who also provide technology such as artificial eyes that are treated suspiciously by others. A major character killed in the first book is brought back to life by this group as a 'ghola' - initially his regrown body with a new mind, but somehow endued with the original personality and memories by pushing him to a crisis. (Once again, emphasising how much the Dune series was science fantasy, not science fiction.) At the same time, we get added details on some of the play…

Einstein's Unfinished Revolution - Lee Smolin ****

You wait years for a book on the interpretations of quantum theory and then they appear in droves. In reality though, it's a good thing - each of them has brought its own slant and approach, and never more so than in Einstein's Unfinished Revolution from theoretical physicist Lee Smolin.

Although Smolin takes us on a tour of the best-known interpretations, he sets out his intention from the beginning - he is a realist and wants an interpretation that incorporates realism. That might not seem much of an ask - surely everyone in science wants realism? - until you realise that the long-prevailing approach, the Copenhagen interpretation is anti-realist. This is because we're dealing with a particularly theoretical physics view of the world. It's not that those who have held the Copenhagen interpretation don't think the world as a whole is real. Rather that the requirement that, say, a quantum particle has no location, just probabilities, until it interacts with somethi…

The Scientific Attitude - Lee McIntyre ****

Like many with a science background, I generally struggle to take philosophy of science seriously - it can too inward-looking and generally more fond of using impenetrably big words than having any true meaning. However, Lee McIntyre manages to make his take on the scientific method and the demarcation between science and either non-science or pseudoscience (we'll come back to that split) genuinely interesting.
Most of us come across the idea of the scientific method - the approach taken by scientists that gives science that 'special sauce' that makes it so good at doing what it does. Rather like the way that some physicists like to say that time doesn’t exist (until it’s dinner time), philosophers of science like to say the scientific method doesn’t exist - but then can’t help but acting as if it does. I think this is because they (and many scientists) want 'the scientific method ‘ to be a step-by-step series of rules, but Lee McIntyre makes it clear it’s something m…

Dune (SF) - Frank Herbert *****

According to the blurb on my 1974 edition (the book dates back to 1965), Dune is 'the finest, most widely acclaimed Science Fiction novel of the [20th] century.' I thought it would be worth re-reading it after a few decades - and found that it has held up surprisingly well. In fact, make it 'one of the finest' and I'd only quibble about one assertion in that blurb.

What we have here is an impressively wide-scale space opera, centring on the desert planet of Arrakis, known as Dune, source of a unique spice that is both anti-ageing and, in excess, supportive of a kind of prescience. The planet is occupied by a people strongly modelled on traditional Middle Eastern Arabic cultures and is the subject of political in-fighting between two 'great houses' and an Emperor. The whole thing is feudal and, though set in a high-tech future, has a shield technology that conveniently for those who like a bit of medieval atmosphere, make knives the most appropriate weapon fo…

Will AI Replace Us? - Shelly Fan ***

Although a review should largely be about the content of a book - and we'll get onto that - sometimes, the format it is presented in can have such an impact that this comes to the fore. Will AI Replace Us? falls into this category as part of Thames & Hudson's The Big Idea series which makes use of 'Quick recognition text hierarchy'. Throughout the book there are four different font sizes used. The idea is that you can read the biggest two sizes to get an overview in about half an hour, add in the next size down for an hour's quick read, or go the whole hog for a two-hour in-depth read.

It's an interesting concept, but the execution is horrible. The designer seems to have no idea how book pages should be laid out. The text is chunky sans serif - hard on the eyes on paper - and has far too little white space, getting uncomfortably close to the edge of the page and looking like it has been thrown in, rather than carefully set. To make matters worse, there are…

John Gribbin - Four Way Interview

John Gribbin was described as 'one of the finest and most prolific writers of popular science around' by the Spectator. John gained a PhD from the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge (then under the leadership of Fred Hoyle) before working as a science journalist for Nature and later New Scientist. He is the author of a number of bestselling popular science books, including In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat, In Search of the Multiverse, Science: A History and Computing with Quantum Cats. He is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Sussex. His latest title is Six Impossible Things.

Why science?

 I grew up wanting to be a science fiction writer, inspired by Astounding magazine and the works of Arthur Clarke and Isaac Asimov.  When I realised there was no chance of making a living this way, I turned to science fact.  But I have always been especially interested in science fact that sounds like science fiction.

Why this book?

This book (Six Impossible Things) is to some extent the culmi…

Feynman and His Physics - Jörg Resag ***

So much has been written about the charismatic twentieth century physicist Richard Feynman that it's hard to think of a book about him presenting anything new - so Jörg Resag needs to be congratulated for achieving just that. What's more, it's an excellent book for a particular audience - the only reason I'm giving it three stars is that this is quite a narrow audience... but for them it deserves four.

Feynman and his Physics contains relatively little biographical material: Resag makes it clear from his introduction that this isn't the main thrust of the book. What there is serves as context for Feynman's work in physics. I'd almost wish Resag had not bothered, as without a bit more depth, biography can seem a little tedious, but there was nothing tedious about Feynman's life. (There were also one or two contextual details, such as the now discarded suggestion that Wheeler devised the term 'black hole', which could do with updating.)

When it co…