Skip to main content

International Space Station: Architecture Beyond Earth - David Nixon ***

There is a danger of discounting this square, chunky book, running to over 400 pages, as a coffee table book, and that would be a great shame. It's true that International Space Station has some wonderful photographs - I particularly love an image of the International Space Station transiting the Moon, which I assumed was a mocked up shot, but according to the caption was taken by someone from Australia with a telescope - it's stunning. However, the photographs are not the be-all and end-all of this book, which contains a very detailed text on the history of the ISS, from its initial planning and construction all the way through to 2011, with an epilogue adding information that takes us up to 2015.

There's a reasonable amount on the build-up to the ISS, with some mentions of its predecessors, and plenty on the design stage. In fact this features more so than might be expected, perhaps because the author is an architect - and proves one of the most interesting sections. Overall, the tone of the book is somewhat reverential, and arguably not questioning enough. David Nixon likens the ISS to the Large Hadron Collider, yet a good number of scientists have pointed out that the American Superconducting Super Collider, which would have been more advanced than the LHC was cancelled in favour of the ISS. And where these colliders are involved in fundamental research, the science done on the ISS is mostly trivial, and often could have been done easier and cheaper without human involvement. Human spaceflight is not primarily about science, and this isn't brought out anywhere near enough in the book.

For me there were a couple of other negatives. This is an expensive book, yet it is not printed on glossy paper, so although the photographs are impressive, they aren't quite as high quality as they could have been. And the main body of the text, although it incorporates assorted human interest stories, is primarily about giving us a huge amount of detail on the step-by-step history of the ISS, where an account that concentrated on narrative high points may have been more readable.


Even so, there is an awful lot to get your teeth into here. If you are a space fan, fascinated by the kind of venture the ISS represents, this book is an absolute must, full of juicy details and intriguing insights into what might have been had NASA taken different decisions. This is a landmark book for the field - it's just a shame that it isn't better at putting the ISS into its scientific context (or lack thereof).

Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

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…

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…