Skip to main content

Strange Angel – George Pendle *****

This is a case of truth being stranger than fiction in all it’s glory – you really couldn’t make this one up. John Whiteside Parsons (his real first name was Marvel, but you can understand why he was called John or Jack from an early age) was that most euphemistic of people, a genuine rocket scientist. Yet it’s hard to imagine anyone further from the typical idea of the role – and George Pendle does a superb job of painting a picture of the very strange and confused life of this man.
In one sense it’s a typical American story of the triumph of individual ability over lack of formal academic training. Despite dropping out of his college degree very early on, Parsons went on to become a recognized expert in explosives, to inspire a team at Caltech to built experimental rockets, and to devise single handed the first usable solid fuel for rockets. Along the way, you’ll discover why the US experimental rocket facility is confusingly called the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But that’s only the start.
For instance, Parsons didn’t exactly have the poor start in life you might expect from the story above. And much more importantly, there were two strands in his life that make the story particularly fascinating, each intertwined with his rocket science. First there was science fiction. Now it’s a bit more respectable, but back then it was considered pulp garbage – yet Parsons had a strong involvement in the SF community, and many of the well known names of the period appear in his story. Secondly, he was an avid member of Aleister Crowley’s bizarre cult, the OTO. This made for a very interesting social life, not to mention some complicated family relations. Apart from anything else, this heady mix of science, sci-fi and pseudo-religion seems to have been directly responsible for launching the notorious L. Ron Hubbard into creating his own “science” based religion, Scientology.
The whole mix is fascinating. Parsons’ struggles to achieve a working rocket would make a good story in their own right, but add in the science fiction, add in the strange religion and characters like Hubbard – and finally, throw into the mix Parsons’ horrendous death in an apparently accidental explosion at home… it’s powerful stuff.
The only slight moan, and it is very slight – Pendle uses the common trick of opening with the most dramatic part of the story, in this case Parsons’ death. Because of that, the book ends rather abruptly because it leads up to the dramatic moment, but doesn’t actually mention it because that has already been done. But hey, who could resist that opening.
It’s a cracker, that rarest of things a popular science book that’s a page-turner too. What more can we say?
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…