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SOS - Seth Wynes ***

This very compact book (it took significantly less than an hour to read) offers a beguiling reward: ‘What you can do to reduce climate change’. This promise presents a real challenge, because it’s easy to think that as individuals we can make little difference. But would I feel any different after reading it?

Seth Wynes (who, we are told, is studying for a PhD in climate change) is sure, with all the enthusiasm of youth, that we can make our actions count. He divides up the book into getting around, what we eat, collective action and everyday living (basically energy use and purchases). Most of this is, frankly, very familiar ground. So we’re told to walk and use bikes more, drive less, fly less, eat less meat, use green energy and don’t buy new stuff unless we have to. The only part I’ve not seen very (very) many times before was is the collective action section. This is based primarily on a survey of MPs and the public in Belgium, with MP comparisons with seven other EU countries, …

Bloom - Ruth Kassinger ***

There is much fascinating material in this chunky book by Ruth Kassinger. It may be my total ignorance of biology and everyone else knows these things, but I learnt so much - for example that seaweed is algae and not a plant, about algae's role in the development of land plants, about the algae in lichen and its contribution to coral reefs.

The book is divided into four broad sections: on the origins and development of algae, on algae (and particularly seaweed) as food, on making use of algae, for example, for biofuel, and on algae and climate change, particularly the bleaching of coral and algal blooms. This is all done in a very approachable writing style, mixing descriptive material that is never over-technical with narrative often featuring visits to different locations and to talk to a range of experts from those who study to algae to those who cook them.

There are two problems though. Firstly, the book is too long at 380 pages. Each section could do with a trim, but this wa…

The Women of the Moon - Daniel Altschuler and Fernando Ballesteros ****

At the time this book was written, there were 1,586 craters on the Moon that had been named after scientists and philosophers - but only 28 of these were women. The idea, then, was to use this linking theme to provide short biographies of each  of the 28 women, along with a picture of their crater. Like all high concept books, there's a danger that the idea might be stronger than the actual content - after all, by biography number 28, the reader might be feeling a little dazed - but I'm really glad I gave it a try.

After a tweely titled 'Pretext', the book gives us a solid introduction to where the Moon came from, its craters and a brief history of lunar astronomy. This is written with a light touch and works at just the right level of detail. We then get onto our 28 mini-biographies. Inevitably, some of the individuals well-known. So we get names like Marie Curie, Caroline Herschel, Mary Somerville, Annie Cannon, Henrietta Leavitt, Lise Meitner and Emmy Noether - alo…

Nikola Tesla and the Electric Future - Iwan Rhys Morus ****

Nikola Tesla divides the world into three. Those who haven't a clue who he was, those who think he was a genius scientist, thwarted by the industrial/military complex, and those who think he was a brilliant electrical engineer who became a fantasist as he got older.

Presumably because it makes the best story, existing biographies of Tesla tend to support the second viewpoint: they lap up every fantastical suggestion Tesla made and give examples of what were nothing more than science fiction as an example of his 'ahead of his time' genius. So, for example, they claim he invented the mobile phone, because he said his (totally unworkable) project for transmitting energy through the Earth would mean you could have a device in your pocket that enabled communication anywhere in the world. This is a bit like saying Cyrano de Bergerac invented the Apollo space vehicles because he said you could get into space using rockets.

Compared with earlier biographers, Iran Rhys Morus strik…

Chapter House Dune (SF) - Frank Herbert ****

Although there have been follow-up titles by his son, Chapter House Dune was Herbert's closing work in the Dune sequence. Here the focus is fully on the Bene Gesserit, giving us a more sustained central character in Darwi Odrade than was available in Heretics of Dune - though once again the ending of the book, detached from her story, seems rushed and skeletal.

Although Herbert always highlights the drawbacks of the Bene Gesserit approach, they come through here as the heroes in contrast to the almost entirely negative alternatives of the Honoured Matres. As always in the Dune books, we get a mix of meandering dialogue/interior monologue and highly engaging action - here the waffly parts were more political than philosophical, which made them more interesting for me. Despite apparent contradictions in earlier books, Herbert seems to have been marginally in favour of democracy, though in a very particular form that was structured to avoid bureaucracy taking over.

There's a lot…

A Sonnet to Science - Sam Illingworth ***

In this book, Sam Illingworth is on a mission - to 'present an aspirational account of how the two disciplines [of science and poetry] can work together.' He does this by presenting shortish biographies of six scientists (one of whom isn't) who wrote poetry, showing how the two aspects of their life were intertwined. I confess my immediate reaction to this was a Spock-style raised eyebrow: I'm not a great fan of poetry, and it seemed suspiciously like the kind of arty-sciency crossover that wouldn't help either side of the C. P. Snowian divide. However, I was genuinely prepared to be persuaded otherwise, and entered into the six biographies (Davy, Lovelace, Maxwell, Ross, Holub and Elson) with an open mind. I don't know if it's intentional, but the mix of relatively well-known and distinctly obscure names was part of the attraction.

Humphry Davy is a familiar enough individual, but his biographical details tend to come in as a side dish to the greater Mich…

The Newton Papers - Sarah Dry ***(*)

At one point I went through a phase of reading some of Pevsner's Buildings of England books from end to end. It was a bit of a slog, but I felt it was worth it for the insights I gained. This feeling came back a little with Sarah Dry's study of the 'strange and true odyssey of Isaac Newton's manuscripts.' I could not, in all honesty, give it more than three stars for readability, but I felt I got a lot out of it.

Newton left millions of words in piles of unstructured documents, covering science, maths, alchemy, theology and the business of the Royal Mint. Now we would expect such documents to end up in some sort of archive, but in Newton's day there was far less regard for such rough and 'foul' documents. To make matters worse, Newton was destined for scientific sainthood, and the amount of effort he put into the more dubious aspects of alchemy and virtually heretical theology was of distinct concern to those who wanted to preserve this illusion.

What …

David Whitehouse - Four Way Interview

Dr David Whitehouse studied astrophysics at the world-famous Jodrell Bank radio observatory. He is a former BBC Science Correspondent and BBC Science Editor. He is the author of five books including The Sun: a biography and Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and has written for many newspapers and magazines including The Times, The Guardian, Focus, New Scientist and the Economist. He regularly appears on TV and radio programmes. Asteroid 4036 Whitehouse is named after him. His latest title is Apollo 11: the inside story.

Why space?
I have been interested in astronomy since I was four years old. I recall the exact time. My mother and I were Christmas shopping in Woolworths on the Soho Road in Handsworth, Birmingham. I pointed to a very big book - an encyclopaedia  - that I wanted, but mum thought I wanted the rather thinner book on astronomy I was leaning on. Needless to say I wasn’t happy on Christmas Day, but a few days later I read it, and was hooked forever. It was the time of Mercu…

Artificial Intelligence - Yorick Wilks ****

Artificial intelligence is one of those topics where it's very easy to spin off into speculation, whether it's about machine conciousness or AI taking over the world (and don't get me onto the relatively rare connection to robots - cover designer please note). All the experience of AI to date has been that it has been made feasible far slower than originally predicted, and that it faces dramatic limitations. So, for example, self-driving cars may be okay in limited circumstances, but are nowhere near ready for the commute home. Similarly, despite all the moves forward in AI technology, computers are so-so at recognising objects after learning from thousands of examples - sometimes fooled by apparently trivial surface patterning - where humans can recognise items from a handful of examples.

Even so, we can't deny that AI is having an influence on our lives and Yorick Wilks, emeritus professor of AI at the University of Sheffield, is ideally placed to give us a picture …

Heretics of Dune (SF) - Frank Herbert ****

While not quite up to its predecessor, an interesting step forward by Frank Herbert as he developed the Dune saga. The other titles to date have had one or two clear central characters - here there are far more, few of which it's easy to be wholly supportive of - in fact, the main character is the Bene Gesserit as a body, the manipulative female sect that has played a role throughout the books.
Although this lack of someone to identify with means the reader is slightly more detached from the action than usual, this approach is interesting as it enables Herbert to bring politics, rather than philosophising to the fore (though there is still more than enough of that). In particular we see some Bene Gesserit figures wondering about their own motivation.
There are also the magical aspects that keep the series in science fantasy, rather than science fiction, both in a young girl who is obeyed by sand worms and in something strange that happens to what seems initially to be a backgroun…

Apollo 11 - David Whitehouse *****

The problem with doing a book about the Apollo programme is that it's hard to find something that hasn't been said before - but with the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing just weeks away, the publication of this elegant book is extremely timely, and science-reporting veteran David Whitehouse manages to make the story feel fresh, even if you're one of the just 20 per cent of the world population who were alive on the remarkable day in 1969.

Although he has worked a lot with New Scientist, Whitehouse was for many years a TV journalist, and that comes through in his impressively engaging prose as he takes us back to the origins of the US/USSR space race that would lead to the moon landing. He passes through the wartime aspects relatively quickly, but once the two superpowers are flexing their space technology muscles, Whitehouse achieves a near perfect balance between the far less-heard USSR side of the story and the US. This is probably the best bit of the whole bo…

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…