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Showing posts from July, 2019

Chasing Solace (SF) - Karl Drinkwater ****

In the first book in this series, Lost Solace, Karl Drinkwater put his main character, Opal, through hell on what appeared to be, but wasn't, a space liner, along with developing her relationship with her ship's AI. Chasing Solace takes the next step, with an evolved AI (now called Athene) and Opal taking on another 'lost ship', more convinced than ever that this is the way to find Opal's missing sister, Clarissa.

As with the previous book there is only one significant human character in Opal. (In fact only one other human features at all, and then relatively briefly.) There's a long tradition of single-handed plays working well, but there the character is, effectively, in conversation with the audience. Here we don't get the benefit of being talked to, but Opal can, and does have conversations with Athene, or (when she can't contact the ship) with a limited version of Athene built into her suit.

Having the AIs to converse with does give us the opportu…

The Science of Breaking Bad - Dave Trumbore and Donna Nelson ***

At first sight I'm probably not the best person to review this book as I have never watched Breaking Bad (apart from repeatedly seeing bits of episode 2 when I played it more than 50 times while battery testing laptops) and have no desire to do so. However, I am very interested in how fiction portrays science and the claim this book makes is that Breaking Bad was uniquely impressive in the amount of real science it contained.

The format of the book is more than a little odd. One of the contributors, Donna Nelson, is a chemistry professor who responded to a call for a science consultant to the show. Each chapter starts with a section of reminiscence from Nelson about the joys and tribulations of the role. That's fine and often gives interesting insights, but for some reason it's printed in tiny text, significantly smaller than the rest of the book. I think the idea is to make it look like an email, but it just makes it hard to read. I remember chatting to a physicist who h…

The Hidden Half - Michael Blastland *****

Michael Blastland is co-author of one of my favourite titles on the use and misuse of numbers, The Tiger that Isn't - so I was excited to see this book and wasn't disappointed.

Blastland opens with the story of a parthenogenic crustacean that seems to demonstrate that, despite having near-identical nature and nurture, a collection of the animals vary hugely in size, length of life and practically every other measure. This is used to introduce us to the idea that our science deals effectively with the easy bit, the 'half' that is accessible, but that in many circumstances there is a hidden half that comprises a whole range of very small factors which collectively can have a huge impact, but which are pretty much impossible to predict or account for. (I put 'half' in inverted commas as it might be fairer to say 'part' - there's no suggestion that this is exactly 50:50.)

We go on to discover this hidden half turning up in all kinds of applications of …

Prime Suspects - Andrew Granville and Jennifer Granville **

Every now and then someone comes up with the bright idea of doing popular science (or in this case, popular maths) using the graphic novel format. Although I'm not a great fan of the genre, because it so vastly reduces the number of words available, making it very difficult to put across complex or nuanced information, I can see why the concept appeals. But for me, this particular attempt, illustrated by Robert Lewis, falls down on addressing the audience appropriately.

More on that in a moment. What Andrew and Jennifer Granville attempt to do here is put across a fairly obscure bit of mathematics - the relationship between the distribution of the primes and the cycles of permutations - using a very abstracted story in the form of a murder mystery where each victim represents one of the mathematical examples. The authors also claim in their epilogue that their aims include drawing attention to how research is done, the role of women in mathematics today and the 'influence and…

Intangibles Inc. And Other Stories (SF) - Brian Aldiss ****

Brian Aldiss was a brilliant science fiction and fantasy writer, though his books could sometimes come across as enigmatic or downright baffling, particularly when they involved some kind of slippage in reality - this 1969 collection of five novellas illustrates both his strengths and weaknesses wonderfully.

There's one out-and-out fantasy story, the rather wistful title story, where a never-aging traveller revisits a family with longer and longer gaps between visits after setting an original challenge. For me, the first two stories in the book Neanderthal Planet and Randy's Syndrome work best because, although they are challenging in their themes, they don't resort to the time/reality slippage scenario that was so central to many Aldiss books. The first features a rather clever double layered approach by sandwiching a science fiction story written by the main character into two parts of a story about his life. The second is fantasy, but less obviously than Intangibles In…

SOS - Seth Wynes ***

This very compact book (it took significantly less than an hour to read) offers a beguiling reward: ‘What you can do to reduce climate change’. This promise presents a real challenge, because it’s easy to think that as individuals we can make little difference. But would I feel any different after reading it?

Seth Wynes (who, we are told, is studying for a PhD in climate change) is sure, with all the enthusiasm of youth, that we can make our actions count. He divides up the book into getting around, what we eat, collective action and everyday living (basically energy use and purchases). Most of this is, frankly, very familiar ground. So we’re told to walk and use bikes more, drive less, fly less, eat less meat, use green energy and don’t buy new stuff unless we have to. The only part I’ve not seen very (very) many times before was is the collective action section. This is based primarily on a survey of MPs and the public in Belgium, with MP comparisons with seven other EU countries, …

Bloom - Ruth Kassinger ***

There is much fascinating material in this chunky book by Ruth Kassinger. It may be my total ignorance of biology and everyone else knows these things, but I learnt so much - for example that seaweed is algae and not a plant, about algae's role in the development of land plants, about the algae in lichen and its contribution to coral reefs.

The book is divided into four broad sections: on the origins and development of algae, on algae (and particularly seaweed) as food, on making use of algae, for example, for biofuel, and on algae and climate change, particularly the bleaching of coral and algal blooms. This is all done in a very approachable writing style, mixing descriptive material that is never over-technical with narrative often featuring visits to different locations and to talk to a range of experts from those who study to algae to those who cook them.

There are two problems though. Firstly, the book is too long at 380 pages. Each section could do with a trim, but this wa…

The Women of the Moon - Daniel Altschuler and Fernando Ballesteros ****

At the time this book was written, there were 1,586 craters on the Moon that had been named after scientists and philosophers - but only 28 of these were women. The idea, then, was to use this linking theme to provide short biographies of each  of the 28 women, along with a picture of their crater. Like all high concept books, there's a danger that the idea might be stronger than the actual content - after all, by biography number 28, the reader might be feeling a little dazed - but I'm really glad I gave it a try.

After a tweely titled 'Pretext', the book gives us a solid introduction to where the Moon came from, its craters and a brief history of lunar astronomy. This is written with a light touch and works at just the right level of detail. We then get onto our 28 mini-biographies. Inevitably, some of the individuals well-known. So we get names like Marie Curie, Caroline Herschel, Mary Somerville, Annie Cannon, Henrietta Leavitt, Lise Meitner and Emmy Noether - alo…

Nikola Tesla and the Electric Future - Iwan Rhys Morus ****

Nikola Tesla divides the world into three. Those who haven't a clue who he was, those who think he was a genius scientist, thwarted by the industrial/military complex, and those who think he was a brilliant electrical engineer who became a fantasist as he got older.

Presumably because it makes the best story, existing biographies of Tesla tend to support the second viewpoint: they lap up every fantastical suggestion Tesla made and give examples of what were nothing more than science fiction as an example of his 'ahead of his time' genius. So, for example, they claim he invented the mobile phone, because he said his (totally unworkable) project for transmitting energy through the Earth would mean you could have a device in your pocket that enabled communication anywhere in the world. This is a bit like saying Cyrano de Bergerac invented the Apollo space vehicles because he said you could get into space using rockets.

Compared with earlier biographers, Iran Rhys Morus strik…

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

Although there have been follow-up titles by his son, Chapter House Dune was Herbert's closing work in the Dune sequence. Here the focus is fully on the Bene Gesserit, giving us a more sustained central character in Darwi Odrade than was available in Heretics of Dune - though once again the ending of the book, detached from her story, seems rushed and skeletal.

Although Herbert always highlights the drawbacks of the Bene Gesserit approach, they come through here as the heroes in contrast to the almost entirely negative alternatives of the Honoured Matres. As always in the Dune books, we get a mix of meandering dialogue/interior monologue and highly engaging action - here the waffly parts were more political than philosophical, which made them more interesting for me. Despite apparent contradictions in earlier books, Herbert seems to have been marginally in favour of democracy, though in a very particular form that was structured to avoid bureaucracy taking over.

There's a lot…