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Showing posts from May, 2019

Buzz - Thor Hanson *****

There is no shortage of books about bees - not surprising given their fascinating social structures and importance in pollinating plants. But the majority of titles concentrate on the most familiar bee species, the honey bee and their superorganism nature. However, that leaves out thousands of species of wild bees, from the familiar bumble bees to tiny black insects few would even realise were bees. What Thor Hanson does so well is introduce us to the intriguing world of the wild bee.

I don't find straight natural history books particularly engaging - rather too much of Rutherford's infamous complaint about stamp collecting - but Hanson overcomes this potential problem through storytelling, whether it's telling us about the origins of bees from wasps, his attempts to provide a home for bees with his son, or in his many meetings with bee experts. I was reminded of Fredrik Sjöberg's The Fly Trap in the way that it was the narrative that absolutely tied everything togeth…

Superior - Angela Saini *****

It was always going to be difficult to follow Angela Saini's hugely popular Inferior, but with Superior she has pulled it off, not just in the content but by upping the quality of the writing to a whole new level. Where Inferior looked at the misuse of science in supporting sexism (and the existence of sexism in science), Superior examines the way that racism has been given a totally unfounded pseudo-scientific basis in the past - and how, remarkably, despite absolute evidence to the contrary, this still turns up today.

At the heart of the book is the scientific fact that 'race' simply does not exist biologically - it is nothing more than an outdated social label. As Saini points out, there are far larger genetic variations within a so-called race than there are between individuals supposedly of different races. She shows how, pre-genetics, racial prejudice was given a pseudo-scientific veneer by dreaming up fictitious physical differences over and above the tiny distinct…

Breach (SF) - Eliot Peper ****

There are two sides to Breach - one excellent, the other so-so. We meet the so-so side first. This is the story of Emma Kim, aka Pixie, who has spent the last ten years or so as a fighter in a illicit fight club, risking death, apparently because she wants to die (yet somehow avoiding it for so long). This plunges us in with some action, certainly, but lacks any significant depth. However, the other side of the book is the story of Commonwealth, a former startup company now a sovereign state, that has subverted politics and nationality, pretty much taking over the world. This aspect is genuinely engaging.

What Eliot Peper has done is project into the future a combination of the internet and social media, known as ‘the feed’, and explored its implications for society. It has already done away with national borders and currencies. Now, one of its board members is suggesting turning its subscription into a progressive, redistributive wealth tax. And the ultra-rich don’t like it.

Though …

Susannah Gibson - Four Way Interview

Dr Susannah Gibson is an Affiliated Scholar of the Department of History & Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. She is the author of Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? How eighteenth-century science disrupted the natural order and was formerly Manager of the Cambridge Literary Festival. Her latest title is The Spirit of Inquiry.

Why history of science?

I took a class on history of science in my third year of a degree in experimental physics at University College Dublin. The class was worth 10% of my grade that year. I probably spent 60% of my time working on it. That was the first clue that maybe I wasn’t pursuing the right degree for me. I had always struggled to choose between science and arts subjects, but when I discovered history of science I realised I could do both. I went on to do a masters and PhD in history of science.

Why this book?

A few years ago the Cambridge Philosophical Society had their archives catalogued in preparation for their 200th anniversary in 2019.…

The Atlas of Poetic Zoology - Emmanuelle Pouydebat (trans. Erik Butler) ***

There something of a literary version of a cabinet of curiosities about The Atlas of Poetic Zoology - it features 36 species, selected because they were outstanding to the author for a whole range of reasons, though many seem to have been chosen because they're strange-looking. Each animal gets two or three pages of text and a full page illustration, which unfortunately is painted rather than photographed, so it can be difficult to be sure how accurate the representation is - though it does make some of the illustrations rather beautiful as items in their own right.

I found it entertaining to flick through, but isn't a book I can recommend to sit down and read end to end. In large part this is down to the text. Because it's a translation, I don't know if the wording, which feels a bit like a year 9 school essay, reflects the original or the way it has been rendered into English, but the result feels a distinctly immature piece of writing.

Here's the opening of the…

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…