Skip to main content


Charge - Frank Close ****

Anyone who writes popular science books that are so thick they could act as doorstops should pay more attention to what Frank Close achieves. In a slim, small volume he manages to pack in a huge amount of information without compromising at all on quality. His latest such book is Charge - dealing with various types of charge from electrical to colour (in the quark sense). This starts off brilliantly with a point about electrical charge that had never occurred to me. Close tells us that with every breath you inhale sufficient electrons to absorb a charge of around 15,000 coulombs 'enough to spark 1000 bolts of lightning'. And if breathing steadily, the equivalent current would be about 3,000 amps. Thankfully, though, the balancing positive charge from the nucleus means you don't fry. (This is slightly misleading as the comparison with lightning only works if you consider charge - the current in a lightning bolt is typically about 10 times higher as it lasts a much briefer t
Recent posts

Chris French - Five Way Interview

As well as being Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and the head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit, Chris French regularly appears on TV and radio and is an expert skeptic on the popular BBC show, Uncanny . His new book is The Science of Weird Shit . Why science? Science may not be perfect – because scientists are only human and are susceptible to the same foibles as everybody else – but for my money it is by far the best approach we have for trying to figure out the truth about how the universe works and our place in it. Why this book? I taught an optional module on anomalistic psychology for over 20 years at Goldsmiths, University of London. The topics covered, including alien abduction claims, ghosts, people claiming psychic abilities, and belief in conspiracies, are topics that most people, whether believers or sceptics, find inherently fascinating. The module allowed me to discuss a wide range of relevant psychological phenomena

Infinite Life: Jules Howard ****

There's been something of a trend for 'big picture' books that trace a feature of life, the universe or whatever from billions of years ago to the present day, arguably started by Henry Gee's excellent  A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth . The new book by Jules Howard follows this trend in tracing eggs back to their earliest origins and following them step by step through to (biologically) recent times. I was a bit wary about this one. It felt in danger of being a lengthy catalogue of eggs that would only appeal to the ovoid equivalent of a trainspotter. But I had very much enjoyed Howard's Wonderdog and found it hard to believe he wouldn't have found a way to make the story of the egg much more interesting - which on the whole he has. The slight reservation here is that there are an awful lot of species described and many variants of the egg concept. But Howard's excellent storytelling skills allow him to get away with this by giving us a series of sc

Machine Vendetta (SF) - Alastair Reynolds *****

I recently read another SF thriller and moaned that it was very slow to get going. You can’t say that about Machine Vendetta . In the first few chapters we get three separate major incidents - and that’s just the beginning of the problems for central character Prefect Dreyfus and his colleagues at Panoply. Alastair Reynolds set up a rich political position for this organisation - its primary role is to ensure the voting at the heart of democracy keeps going, but they effectively act as a sort of inter-habitat FBI as well. It’s been a while since I read the previous novels in the series ( Aurora Rising and Elysium Fire ) , and was concerned I’d have trouble keeping up, but Reynolds does an excellent job of filling in what’s needed without ever going into boring synopsis mode. At the heart of the story are two rogue AIs, so powerful that they are god-like in their abilities - this, combined with the after effects of a failed attempt to control them, a conspiracy to continue this effort

Quantum Drama - Jim Baggott and John Heilbron ***

On a first glance of the cover you might think that Jim Baggott and John Heilbron were brilliant Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein impersonators. In fact Baggott is an excellent popular science writer and Heilbron was an esteemed historian of science, both specialising in quantum physics. There's another way the cover is misleading - you might think this was an in-depth exploration of Bohr and Einstein's relationship. The topics they argued about certainly come into it, but instead this is detailed look at how quantum theory developed. I've read a lot of books on quantum physics, but I've never come across one that goes into such painstaking detail of every step along the way, introducing the work of a good number of physicists who rarely make it into the public eye. These range from John von Neumann - well known but usually sidelined as a quantum physicist - to the likes of Oskar Klein and Hans Kramers. Similarly, Baggott and Heilbron go into many (many) steps along the w

The Affirmation (SF) - Christopher Priest ****

Defining science fiction is tricky. The most obvious way this interesting novel is SF is the catchall ‘it’s by an SF author’, which is why I presume it made its way onto the SF Masterworks list. Generally acclaimed as one of the much-missed Christopher Priest’s best books, at its simplest The Affirmation can be seen as the musings of the mentally ill Peter Sinclair, whose attempt to construct a better life by writing himself a fictional autobiography gradually results in a loss of awareness of what is and isn’t real. What makes it an exceptional novel is that its structure very cleverly takes the reader into the relationship between memory and reality, exploring what is real if memory can no longer be relied on. As such it is extremely clever and sophisticated. Where it falls down a little is in engagement with the reader. If this book is an affirmation of anything, it’s that old storytelling distinction between showing and telling. The Affirmation is almost pure tell as Sinclair, bo

Harry Cliff - Space Oddities Interview

Harry Cliff is a particle physicist at the University of Cambridge working on the LHCb experiment, a huge particle detector buried 100 metres underground at CERN near Geneva. He is a member of an international team of around 1400 physicists, engineers and computer scientists who are using LHCb to study the basic building blocks of our universe.  Harry also spend a big chunk of his time sharing his love of physics with the public. From 2012 to 2018 he held a joint post between Cambridge and the Science Museum in London, where he curated two major exhibitions: Collider (2013) and The Sun (2018). His latest title is Space Oddities . Why science? It’s hard to remember a single moment that turned me on to science, but like a lot of small children, I was fascinated by dinosaurs and tried to drag my parents up to the Natural History Museum as often as I could. Aged about six, I wanted to be a palaeontologist, which was probably the longest word I knew at the time. Another moment came at secon