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Peter Wothers - Four Way Interview

Dr Peter Wothers is a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Chemistry, University of Cambridge, and a Fellow and Director of Studies in Chemistry at St Catharine's College. He is heavily involved in promoting chemistry to young students and members of the public, and, in 2010, created the popular Cambridge Chemistry Challenge competition for students in the UK. Peter is known nationally and internationally for his demonstration lectures and presented the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, titled The Modern Alchemist, in 2012. In 2014, he was awarded an M.B.E. for Services to Chemistry in the Queen's Birthday Honours.. His new book is Antimony, Gold and Jupiter's Wolf.

Why chemistry?

I’ve been pretty much obsessed with chemistry from about the age of 8.  I built up quite a substantial home laboratory with all sorts of things that are (quite rightly) banned now (such as white phosphorus) and also used to go to second-hand bookshops to find chemistry texts.  Eventually I boug…

A Brain for Numbers: Andreas Nieder ***

In dramas it's not usual for someone dumping a partner to say 'It's not you, it's me,' - and that's how I felt about this book. I'm sure some readers would find it really interesting, but it didn't work for me.

I think the main problem is that that I'm interested in maths, but not so much in how human and animal brains handle numbers. So I found the opening and closing chapters, which deal with the nature of numbers (specifically zero in that closing chapter) I enjoyed, but the vast majority of the book explores the design of experiments to try to understand how animals perceive numbers (or don't), what we can learn from them, and how animals' and our brains react to numbers.

As soon as I see a map of the brain, I'm afraid I turn off - there's an element of Richard Feynman's famous complaint about biology students wasting their time learning the names of all the bits in a cat's nervous system. However, if you are interested …

The Story of the Dinosaurs in 25 Discoveries: Donald Prothero *****

Two things worried me about this book. One was the title. Publishers love the 'topic in n chunks' style for some reason, but often such books feel too bitty and insubstantial. And then there have been quite a lot of palaeontology books recently, making dinosaurs seem old hat. But I needn't have worried. After a couple of pages, Donald Prothero had me hooked. As his easy style introduced the earliest fossil discoveries, from a giant salamander originally assumed to be an antediluvian man (even though he or she would have had a head shape more suited to a Dr Who alien) to the knee-end of a dinosaur thigh bone that briefly gave the first identified dinosaur (megalosaurus) the Latin name 'Scrotum humanum', learning about our gradually growing understanding of the dinosaurs with Prothero was like attending the best kind of dinner party, replete with entertaining stories.

Although Prothero does give us plenty of information about the various dinosaurs covered (the 25 ch…

Brandon Brown - Four Way Interview

Brandon Brown is a Professor of Physics at the University of San Francisco. His research includes work on superconductivity and sensory biophysics. He enjoys writing about science for general audiences, including articles in such outlets as such outlets as New Scientist, Scientific American, Slate and Smithsonian.

Why science?

I had many interests in school, but science - physics in particular - seemed to come most naturally to me, and I had little capacity for memorization. I loved languages and cultural anthropology, for example, but these subjects didn't come as easily as physics. I also seriously considered a direct path toward 'being a writer', but I received what turned out to be excellent advice from a writing professor: Why don't you try to be a scientist, and write from there some day?

Why this book?


I do not have a background in space science, or space history. In fact, I was never too interested in NASA growing up. I simply took it for granted: NASA was just whe…

Antimony, Gold and Jupiter's Wolf - Peter Wothers ****

There aren't many popular science titles on chemistry topics, so it was great to see Antimony, Gold and Jupiter's Wolf (the last, in case you are wondering, is tungsten, aka wolfram). As a science writer I think I was the perfect target audience, because Peter Wothers combines history of science, the study of the origin of the names of the elements and general chemical revelations in his elemental tour, which proved delightful.

Wothers begins with the original seven metals, each with their links to the heavenly bodies (a number stubbornly held-to significantly after it was clear there were way more than seven metals), then brings in a range of other elements (and occasional element names that never made it, such as anglium, scotium and hibernium) in a series of equally entertainingly linked chapters, whether its 'Goblins and Demons' (think bismuth, antimony, cobalt, arsenic and zinc) or 'Lodestones and Earths'.

The book is primarily looking back quite a way in…

Starsight (SF) - Brandon Sanderson *****

The first book in this trilogy, Skyward, was good - but Starsight isn't in the same league. It's ten times better. From the opening few pages where we are plunged into a dogfight in space, readers are sucked into an adventure that doesn't let up. The previous novel was slow starting, but got to be a real page turner in the last few chapters - here, the need read on is relentless from the very beginning.

Apart from not needing to introduce the main character Spensa and go through the process of reassembling her find of a unique intelligent ship, which runs through the first half of the original novel, what really makes this addition to the trilogy so much better is it dispenses almost entirely with the juvenilia. Spensa may still be a teenager, but she spends the majority of the book away from her friends and what results is a much more mature piece of writing. It can still be read and enjoyed by younger readers, but it works far better for the older reader by effectively …

Saturn – William Sheehan ****

This book marks something of a milestone in my reviewing career: it’s the first time I’ve seen an excerpt from one of my reviews printed on the back cover. It comes from my review of Sheehan’s previous book, on Mercury, which I said ‘easily convinced me the Solar System’s 'least interesting' planet is still a pretty fascinating place.’ That wasn’t an easy task for the author, given Mercury’s unspectacular appearance and reputation – but Saturn is a different matter. With its iconic rings, easily visible through a small telescope, it’s the favourite planet of many amateur astronomers. For space scientists, too, it’s a prime target – given that two of its moons, Titan and Enceladus, look like the kind of places we might find alien life. So Sheehan’s challenge this time wasn’t to find enough material to fill 200 pages, but to distil a potentially huge subject down to that size.

He meets this challenge just as successfully as the previous one – but not quite in the way I was expect…

Galaxy - James Geach ***

This heavily illustrated tour of modern astronomy starts with a rather painful analogy of looking at distant cities from a tall hill on the outskirts of a great city. To be honest, I found the analogy significantly harder to envisage than the galaxies it is supposed to represent - but once we're past it, James Geach settles down to a more straightforward informative style.

If you want to absorb a wide range of facts about galaxies and the universe, this is a great source. Geach incorporates a lot of colour images - I must admit, after a while starfield after starfield got a bit similar, though there are always new and interesting structures to discover. As a reader, you will find out plenty of information on current astronomy, with a surprising amount of depth on some aspects of astronomy and cosmology for an illustrated title. Whether you are interested in the tools used to explore the galaxies or the latest findings, you will find something impressive here.

Overall, for me, tho…

The Apollo Chronicles - Brandon Brown *****

There were two reasons I wasn't expecting much from this book. Firstly, there have been so many titles on the Apollo programme and the space race. And secondly, a book that focusses on the engineering involved would surely be far too much at the nut and bolt level (literally), missing out on the overarching drama that makes the story live. Also there were so many people involved - 400,000 is mentioned - that we couldn't have much human interest because we would be bombarded with lists of names.

Instead, I was charmed by Brandon Brown's account. His father was one of the engineers, but he isn't given undue prominence - Brown picks out a handful of characters and follows them through, bringing in others as necessary, but never overwhelming us with names. And while it's true that there is a lot of nitty gritty engineering detail, it rarely becomes dull. Somehow, Brown pulls off the feat of making the day-to-day, hectic engineering work engaging.

I think in part this …

Fibonacci's Rabbits - Adam Hart-Davis ****

I'm not a great fan of '50 things' type books, though they seem eternally popular, but as was the case with Adam Hart-Davis's psychology title in the same series (Pavlov's Dog), I was pleasantly surprised, in part because the topic was well-suited to the format, and in part because the Hart-Davis has three pages of text to play with rather than just an illustrated spread.

After giving us some foundational and historical aspects of mathematics, from the origins of base 10 and base 60 to pi and zero, Hart Davis gets onto more meaty material, ranging through everything from chaos theory to game theory, plus some lighter weight but enjoyable mathematical deviations such as the Fibonacci sequence rabbits in the book's title, or the strange 3D shapes known as scutoids. It's all easy reading - no mathematical experience required - and a good way to get a feel for the way that maths is so much more than arithmetic, geometry and algebra.

One minor irritation is the…

Tim Woollings - Four Way Interview

Tim Woollings is an Associate Professor in Physical Climate Science at the University of Oxford, leading a team of researchers in the Atmospheric Dynamics group. He obtained his PhD in Meteorology in 2005 and since then has worked on a variety of topics spanning weather prediction, atmospheric dynamics and circulation, and the effects of climate change. He has studied how the jet stream varies over weeks, years, and decades, and how we can better predict these changes. He was a contributing author on three chapters of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report. Tim worked at the University of Reading as a postdoc, research fellow and then lecturer before moving to the University of Oxford in 2013. He is now the Oxford Joint Chair of the Met Office Academic Partnership. His new book is Jet Stream.

Why climate?

It has never been more important to learn about how our climate system works, and how we are affecting it. You certainly get a lot of satisfaction when your work touches on hugely important …

Extraterrestrial Languages - Daniel Oberhaus ***

Despite the title, this book isn't about the languages that aliens use, but rather how should we format messages that are intended for non-human recipients? Every now and then, we send something off into space, whether it's the inscribed plaques on the Pioneer probes or messages beamed from radio telescopes. Whether we should do this or not is a contentious issue - Daniel Oberhaus briefly examines the arguments for and against - but the meat of the book is trying to answer the question 'If we do want to communicate to aliens, how could we make our message comprehensible?'

Oberhaus opens the book with a fascinating story I hadn't heard of the astronomer Frank Drake sending a message (by post) in 1961 to 'nine of the smartest individuals in the United States' as a hypothetical message from outer space, consisting of 551 zeroes and ones. The recipients were supposed to spot that this is a multiple of prime numbers, array the zeroes and ones by these numbers a…