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Showing posts from July, 2020

Lucy Jane Santos - Four Way Interview

Lucy Jane Santos is an expert in the history of 20th century leisure, health and beauty, with a particular interest in (some might say obsession with) the cultural history of radioactivity. Writes & talks (a lot) about cocktails and radium. Her debut book Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium was published by Icon Books in July 2020.

Why science?

I have always been fascinated by the idea of science especially our daily interactions with and understandings of science – especially in a beauty context. I could spend hours pondering the labels of things on my bathroom shelf. What is 4-t-butylcyclohexanol (as a random example)? Do I really understand what I am putting on my face and spending my money on? Would it change my purchase habits if I did?  

Why this book?

This book came from an accidental discovery – that there was a product called Tho Radia which contained radium and thorium. I found out about it because I actually bought a pot of it – along with a big batch of other produc…

Grubane (SF) - Karl Drinkwater ****

Following on from Helene, this is the second novella that Karl Drinkwater has used to fill in some of the backstory of his Lost Solace novels. Here we meet the strategic genius ship captain Major William Grubane in a complex game of an engagement where the relatively dove-like Grubane has to fulfil  a mission that involves suppressing a rebellious planet while appeasing the more hawk-like side of his chain of command.

As is common to all the books in this series, an important factor is the interaction between a human and an artificial intelligence, in this case one of the many clone-like parts of the ship's AI known as Aurikaa12, which Grubane has encouraged towards a more human-like state of general intelligence than the other 'splinters'. The story is narrated from Aurikaa12's viewpoint. 

Along the way, chapters are interlaced with sections from Grubane's treatise The Philosophy and Application of Ancient Games in which he considers strategy in chess in a way that …

Is Einstein Still Right? - Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes ***

If there's one thing that gets a touch tedious in science reporting it's the news headlines that some new observation or experiment 'proves Einstein right' - as if we're still not sure about relativity. At first glance that's what this book does too, but in reality Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes are celebrating the effectiveness of the general theory of relativity, while being conscious that there may still be situations where, for whatever reason, the general theory is not sufficient.

It's a genuinely interesting book - what Will and Yunes do is take experiments that are probably familiar to the regular popular science reader already and expand on the simplified view of them we are usually given. So, for example, one of the first things they mention is the tower experiments to show the effect of gravitational red shift. I was aware of these experiments, but what we get here goes beyond the basics of the conceptual experiment to deal with the realities of d…

The Science of Sci-Fi Music - Andrew May ****

If you had to write a description of the target audience for this book - interested in science, science fiction and serious music - I am such a perfect match that I confess my rating of it may be slightly inflated. Andrew May takes on the whole gamut of the interaction between science fiction and music, from the use of music in science fiction films to the influence of science on music which gave it a 'sci-fi' feel. Along the way we get a whole host of revelations, and though May makes it clear that there will be very limited consideration of the theory of music itself, even there for many there will be discoveries.

We begin with 'alien sounds' - what makes music sound in some way alien or spacey. This mixes musical ideas and the move away from classical techniques in serious composing. From the 1950s, music for science fiction movies had a tendency to look to both electronics (for example in the downright weird soundtrack of the classic Forbidden Planet) to using much …

Captured by Aliens? - Nigel Watson ***

Some might regard a 'history and analysis of American [alien] abduction claims' as more science fiction than science fact, but Nigel Watson makes a reasonable case that either the abductions are real - in which case we're talking astrobiology - or they are in the minds and imaginations of the alleged abductees, in which case it's an interesting psychological phenomenon.

As someone who really enjoyed the X-Files, it was fascinating to see how much of that TV show appears to have been based on 'real' claims. Far and above my favourite show was a season three episode called José Chung's "From Outer Space". Not only is it extremely funny, it explores well the multiple layers of how incidents can be seen from different viewpoints in totally different and entirely contradictory ways - and this seems absolutely typical of the experts that Watson calls on (some believers, others sceptics) in looking at how abductions have been handled.

The backbone of the b…

Jeremy Szal - Four Way Interview

Jeremy Szal was born in 1995 and was raised by wild dingoes, which should explain a lot. He spent his childhood exploring beaches, bookstores, and the limits of people's patience. He's the author of over forty science-fiction short stories, many of which have been translated into multiple languages. He was the editor for the Hugo-winning StarShipSofa until 2020 and has a BA in Film Studies and Creative Writing from UNSW. He carves out a living in Sydney, Australia with his family. He loves watching weird movies, collecting boutique gins, exploring cities, cold weather, and dark humour. Stormblood is his first novel. 

Why SF?

It’s a genre I’ve loved since I was a kid watching Star Wars on a wet Sunday afternoon. Giant spaceships, laser cannons, desert planets, bizarre aliens, mind-bending weapons, the outlandish nature and weirdness of all it just struck a chord with me, and I know it always will.

Why this book?

I wanted to try something first-person, something voice driven, while …

Smoke and Mirrors - Gemma Milne ***

It's a bit of a strange one, this. The subtitle is 'how hype obscures the future and how to see past it'. Hype is a real problem in science communication, and I was really looking forward to an exploration of the nature of science communication hype, where it comes from, why it happens and how to correctly interpret it. Gemma Milne starts promisingly by explaining the origins of that familiar term 'smoke and mirrors'... but then it's as if you've bought a whole different book - because Smoke and Mirrors is not primarily about hype.

Don't get me wrong, hype does come into it as a linking theme, but what we really have here is a set of well thought out polemics on issues in the science and technology field, with the main thrust being on what the issues are and what might be done about them, but with a sideline in how hype can give the wrong focus and result in us addressing the wrong problems. So, for example, the first chapter is about 'finding the tr…

Pocket Einstein: 10 Short Lessons in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics - Peter Bentley ****

Another handsome little hardback in the '10 short lessons' format that manages to pack in a surprising amount of information. AI is a subject where it's easy to get carried away with enthusiasm for the wonders of the subject, so we end up with much marvelling about too little substance - a trait that has dogged the AI profession leading a couple of 'winters' where it over-promised and under-delivered. Thankfully, Peter Bentley largely avoids this trap. Although he is certainly broadly positive about the topic, he does make some of the shortcomings clear.

The book is genuinely interesting and carries the reader along with a light touch that never betrays the author's academic background - it is a heartfelt compliment that this is a book by a professor that feels like it was written by a science writer. We get a good mix of the history with a brief explanation of how the technology works and a broad exploration of applications, both what has already been achieved …

Pocket Einstein: 10 Short Lessons in Space Travel - Paul Parsons ****

This handsome little hardback manages to pack a surprising amount of information into the '10 short lessons' that are its chapters. Paul Parsons lucidly and engagingly takes us through the history and future of space travel. The prime focus is on human travel, though there's reasonable coverage of unmanned satellites and missions which, in practical terms have contributed far more both scientifically and usefully than manned missions.

Inevitably, Parsons brings up the big players of space history - the early days of the space race, Apollo, the International Space Station, the move towards more commercial players being involved - but  there is also the opportunity to explore the essentials of space travel, such as the physics of leaving the planet and the considerations of practical rocketry, space survival, the business possibilities and even the chances of reaching the stars. Here there is some brief exploration of some of the more science fictional aspects such as wormhol…

Half Lives - Lucy Jane Santos ****

The story of radium's rise and fall as a glamorous substance for everything from health and beauty to glow-in-the-dark watch dials is a fascinating one, and Lucy Jane Santos explores it with clear enthusiasm for the topic.

Although radium is the main theme, there are a number of X-ray based stories woven in through the book, plus a relatively small amount of non-radium radioactivity coverage, including a rapid run through the development of nuclear weapons. But it is radium that is the star. Inevitably Marie Curie (or Marie Sklodowska Curie as Santos usually refers to her), plays a significant part, although we don't get a huge amount of detail of Curie's biography (though this has been covered in many other books), primarily focusing on her work on radium and X-rays.

We then see radium being taken up by both the medical profession and by quack producers of patent medicines with equal verve as a near-magic cure-all for everything from arthritis to cancer. What comes through …