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Symphony in C - Robert Hazen ***

Robert Hazen clearly loves his subject - his fascination with mineralogy, chemistry and geology shines through in this book. And there's a lot to discover here. But, strangely, that enthusiasm is one of the two reasons I had a bit of a problem with Symphony in C. I am passionate about Tudor and Elizabethan church music - but I am conscious of the fact that most people glaze over after I've raved about it for two minutes. Sadly, earth sciences cover arguably the dullest aspects of science to the general public, and though there were many individual parts of the book that did engage me, only a geologist could love the coverage of what seemed like many (many) minerals in the opening section.

The other issue I had was a lack of coherent structure. This might seem strange, as the book has a very definite themed plan. It's based on a four-movement symphony (in his spare time Hazen is a semi-professional classical musician), with the four movements representing the old pre-scien…
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Jacob's Ladder (SF) - Charlie Pike ****

This book had two things on the back that might have put me off - but having read it, I'm really pleased they didn't. First, from the blurb it's clearly a dystopian work, about an extremely unpleasant Earth in 2203. With a few notable exceptions, I really don't like dystopias. The world is miserable enough as it is - the last thing I need is to read about more misery for entertainment. And it's also labelled Young Adult. I think this is a mistake - it's no more Young Adult (which in bookspeak means teen) than an X-rated horror movie. The protagonists may be late teen, but for me this is solid adult fare.

This made reading the first few pages a matter of trepidation - but I was soon reassured by Charlie Pike's strong writing style. The reader is engaged quickly with the main characters, and drawn along by a powerful, page-turning narrative.

The Earth is dying due to solar flares, made worse by weird weather, manmade killer bugs and more. But there have been…

Make, Think, Imagine - John Browne ***

When you read a politician's memoirs you know that, nine times out of ten, it won't really quite work, because the message can't carry a whole book. It's reminiscent of the old literary agent's cry of 'Is it a book, or is it an article?' It's not that there aren't a lot of words in such tomes. It's almost obligatory for these books to be quite chunky. But it's a fair amount of work getting through them, and you don't feel entirely satisfied afterwards. Unfortunately, that's rather how John Browne (former head of oil giant BP)'s book comes across.

It's not that the central thread is unimportant. It used to be the case, certainly in the UK, that science, with its roots in philosophy and the pursuit of knowledge, was considered far loftier than engineering, growing out of mechanical work and the pursuit of profit. There is, perhaps, still a whiff of this around in some circles - so Browne's message that engineering has been…

Thor Hanson - Four Way Interview

Thor Hanson is a biologist whose research and conservation activities have taken him around the globe. His previous books include The Impenetrable Forest,Feathers (longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize) and The Triumph of Seeds. He has appeared on BBC Radio 4 and contributed to publications including BBC Wildlife and the Huffington Post. He lives on an island in the Pacific Northwest, USA. His latest book is Buzz.

Why history of science?
Simply put, curiosity.  I can’t stop asking questions, and that habit led me naturally to a career in science, where questions are the coin of the realm.  Writing books allows me to dive even more deeply into the topics that I find so fascinating, ferreting out stories that I hope will make others feel the same way!

Why this book?
I wanted to broaden our appreciation of bees beyond the one species we know best, the domestic honeybee.  In an era when  pollinators are experiencing widespread population declines, it behooves us to know, celebrate, and prot…

The Moon - Oliver Morton ****

Like most amateur astronomers, as a teenager I found the Moon by far the most rewarding subject for observation with my little telescope. Stars remained just points. The planets showed little detail. But the Moon became a landscape I could explore. Reading Oliver Morton's book brought back that feeling of fascination with our nearest neighbour in space, an engagement that was intensified for me by the book's exploration of the Apollo programme and Morton's regular excursions into science fiction references, most notably a lengthy stroll through Heinlein's classic The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

There's a lot to like here, whether it's Morton's description of the cramped conditions in the lunar module, the consideration of the collision that is thought to have caused the Moon to be formed or the lyrical, almost polemical exploration of the sadness felt by those who witnessed the Apollo 11 landing and assumed it was a beginning of something wonderful, not an e…

God Emperor of Dune (SF) - Frank Herbert *****

The fourth book in a series is a test for any author, especially at the time this was written (the 1980s), when trilogies were frequently the limit. Frank Herbert exceeded expectations with God Emperor of Dune, which managed to capture some of the scope and power of the original. Although not quite as effective as Dune itself, Herbert here manages the near impossible of taking a no-longer-human character in the apparently monstrous part-human, part-sandworm Leto and making him both interesting and sympathetic.

For a few pages, the reader suffers a significant disconnect. The action is set more than 2,000 years after the previous book. Yet it's to Herbert's credit that with such an apparently unlovable central character and this disjoint from our old familiar characters, it doesn't take long before the reader is immersed.

There are inevitably some irritations. As always with Herbert you get rather more cod-philosophy and metaphysical musings than are desirable - and its ha…

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 Sj√∂berg's The Fly Trap in the way that it was the narrative that absolutely tied everything togeth…