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Space Exploration – Carolyn Collins Petersen ***

Normally when I’m reviewing a book I start by accentuating the positive. But with this one I’m going to begin with a negative, because I want to make a point. Why do publishers insist on marketing books at the wrong audience? The first thing you notice when you pick this one up is a strapline from Publishers Weekly: ‘A handy reference for space fans and professionals alike’. That sounds great to me – I’ve been a fan of space exploration for 50 years now, and while I’m not exactly a professional I’ve written several books of my own on the subject. So there’s nothing I’d like more than an up-to-date, pocket-sized reference book.

But that’s not what this book is – not by a long shot. A reference book has to be organised in a way that helps the reader find the specific fact they’re looking for very quickly. That means either a strictly logical arrangement – typically alphabetical or chronological – or else a really good index (this book doesn’t even have a bad index). Another thing a refer…
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Professor Maxwell's Duplicitous Demon - Brian Clegg ****

‘It’s not uncommon when trying to give Maxwell his rightful place in the pantheon of physics to bracket him with Newton and Einstein’, Brian Clegg says towards the end of this book. In one sense that’s perfectly true. Dip into any physics textbook and you’ll see Maxwell’s name at least as often as the other two. His greatest achievement – Maxwell’s equations – did for electromagnetism what Newton had done for gravity, while laying the essential theoretical groundwork for everything Einstein was to do.

There’s a big difference, though. A few years ago, when I was offered the chance to write short biographies of Newton and Einstein, I jumped at it – because they addressed mysteries of the universe that anyone can relate to, and their lives outside physics were, if anything, even more fascinating. At the risk of sounding downright rude, you can’t say either of those things about James Clerk Maxwell. In spite of that, Brian Clegg has done a wonderful job here of recounting just what Maxwel…

Alice and Bob Meet the Wall of Fire - Thomas Lin (Ed.) ***

This book contains a considerable amount of good (and interesting) science - but, for me, it's not a good science book. A book should have structure and flow, leading the reader through its narrative. This is a collection of articles (from the website Quanta). As a result, what we've got here is a magazine in book's clothing. And at that it's not a very good magazine.

What do we look for in a science magazine? Good illustrations, for one. Even a top-level science magazine such as Nature has plenty of illustrations and graphics. Here there are none. Also we want a smorgasbord of interesting articles - the origin of the term 'magazine' is a storehouse - the editor's job is to ensure variety and range, so even if one article isn't really to your taste, the next one will be something completely different. Here, the articles are grouped in topics, and are often quite similar within the topic - many even have quotes from the same handful of scientists over a…

Paul Parsons - Four Way Interview

Dr Paul Parsons was a theoretical cosmologist at the University of Sussex, and is now a science journalist and author. He has contributed articles to the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph and New Scientist, and has served as editor of the award-winning BBC science magazine Focus and as managing editor of BBC Sky at Night magazine. His previous books include The Periodic Table, How to Destroy the Universe, The Science of Doctor Who (longlisted for the 2007 Royal Society Prize for Science Books) and 30-Second Theories: The 50 Most Thought-provoking Theories in Science. His latest book is The Beginning and the End of Everything.

Why science?

The short answer is I’m very lazy! I just don’t seem to get very much work done if I don’t find the work obsessively, head-hurtingly interesting. I’ve loved maths, physics and astronomy since school. Understanding how things work, and using that knowledge to make predictions and solve mysteries is fascinating to me. And the systematic nature of maths and t…

The Cosmic Mystery Tour – Nicholas Mee ****

This is another book, like last year’s Enjoy Our Universe by Alvaro de Rújula, that sets out to provide a light-hearted introduction to physics and astrophysics for the general reader. It’s from the same publisher (OUP) and packaged in the same way: as a high quality small-format hardback with 200 glossy pages, the majority of them adorned with colour pictures. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Unlike its predecessor, this new book by Nicholas Mee delivers exactly what it promises.

It’s not that de Rújula’s book was a bad one, but he just wasn’t able to think his way into the reader’s mind. He kept saying ‘physics is fun’, but he was talking about the fun a professional physicist gets out of doing it – which is a very arcane, often highly mathematical, type of fun. The result, for a non-specialist reader, was actually quite alienating. Mee, on the other hand, understands exactly how his readers think, what they find interesting, and the details that – no matter how important they …

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…

Our Universe: Jo Dunkley ****

A book that does pretty much what it says on the tin, providing an 'astronomer's guide' to the universe. Jo Dunkley does so in an approachable, non-technical style, generally speaking not doing anything that a number of other such guides haven't done in the past (all the way back to the likes of Patrick Moore), but with good up-to-date content. And without going over the top on the physics, there's a fair amount of astrophysics as well, from the mechanics of stars to dark matter and dark energy.

If the book has a USP other than being up to date, it is in its claim to give us 'the electrifying story of the deep history, latest science and forgotten women who illuminate our understanding of the cosmos.' I don't think Dunkley's calm writing style can really be described as electrifying, but I'd certainly agree that the science and deep history is up-to-date. Dunkley is at her best when either bringing out some small detail - I love her descriptio…