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Showing posts from January, 2019

Our Universe: Jo Dunkley ****

A book that does pretty much what it says on the tin, providing an 'astronomer's guide' to the universe. Jo Dunkley does so in an approachable, non-technical style, generally speaking not doing anything that a number of other such guides haven't done in the past (all the way back to the likes of Patrick Moore), but with good up-to-date content. And without going over the top on the physics, there's a fair amount of astrophysics as well, from the mechanics of stars to dark matter and dark energy.

If the book has a USP other than being up to date, it is in its claim to give us 'the electrifying story of the deep history, latest science and forgotten women who illuminate our understanding of the cosmos.' I don't think Dunkley's calm writing style can really be described as electrifying, but I'd certainly agree that the science and deep history is up-to-date. Dunkley is at her best when either bringing out some small detail - I love her descriptio…

Revenger (SF) - Alastair Reynolds *****

I confess I got this rather back-to-front, reading the second novel in this series, Shadow Captain before this, the first. If anything, Revenger is slightly better than the second title, though both are excellent, and my opinion of the second book has been raised by reading this one, because it benefits from the context.

We follow the Ness sisters Arafura and Adrana into space in this far future adventure. What I didn't realise on reading the second novel, which is written from the viewpoint of Adrana, is that the first was written from the viewpoint of Arafura, and this contrasting approach really opens up some interesting aspects of what's going on and the differences between the sisters.

By far the best thing about this book is Reynolds' superb world-building. This is a very different solar system, millions of years in the future, when the planets have been long demolished producing millions of small habitats which have been repeatedly occupied and lost in a series of …

Shadow Captain (SF) - Alastair Reynolds *****

One again, Alastair Reynolds demonstrates his mastery of complex world building. This is a sequel to Revenger, but while it's ideal to have read that first, I didn't feel a huge loss from not having done so. (But I'll be going back to read it.)

What sets these books apart is the richness of the setting. The Ness sisters, Adrana (the narrator of the book) and Arafura, along with their small motley crew, sail their spaceship through a far future solar system, where the planets have long since been dismantled to produce millions of small habitats and storage asteroids known as baubles. The civilisation in the system has risen and fallen many times, leaving mysterious technology (and contact with some low grade aliens) in a scenario that mixes high tech with a setting that is strongly (and intentionally) reminiscent of the world of seventeenth century shipping.

Spaceships are primarily powered by vast acreage of solar sails, privateers hunt bounty from the baubles and even th…

The Beginning and the End of Everything - Paul Parsons ****

It's a brave science writer who puts into a single, not over-long book, the entire cosmology of the universe from beginning to end, all the physics required to support it, and some of the history of science of the development of both the physics and cosmology. Luckily, Paul Parsons is a steady and highly experienced hand, who is able to introduce some of the most esoteric aspects of modern science while still leaving the reader feeling that they have a grasp of what's going on.

The individual components of the book - the big bang, the formation of stars and galaxies, black holes, dark matter and dark energy, the general theory of relativity and quantum physics, and all the rest - have been well covered in separate books many times, but what Parsons is able to do is to give us the latest information, including material from 2018, and to pull the whole together impressively well. So, for example, along with the more traditional means of exploring the universe through electromag…

Blue Shift (SF) - Jane O'Reilly ****

Blue Shift, published by Piatkus, is the first novel in O’Reilly’s The Second Species Trilogy. It’s a fast paced, page-turning, planet-hopping space adventure set at the end of the Twenty-Second Century as the Earth is in the final stages of decline. It also blends erotic romance with science fiction, so may not be the first choice of some hard-core tech-geek science fiction fans. If, however, you’re not adverse to a bit of cross-genre writing and some intimately detailed sex scenes, then look no further.

Blue Shift introduces us to Jinnifer Blue, a poor little rich girl on the run and an expert pilot with some interesting and illegal genetic modifications. When a particularly dangerous job goes wrong she ends up stranded on an all-male prison ship with a notorious and dangerous space pirate, who turns out to have some modifications of his own. If that’s not bad enough, the pair of them discover an horrific secret on board the prison ship that is destined to have serious repercussions …

Surveillance Valley - Yasha Levine ***

This is a very powerful and insightful book on the relationship between the internet, the big US tech companies and the US military and intelligence services. It's just such a shame that its message is almost ruined by a naive, black hat/white hat polarised approach that totally distorts some of the facts.

Broadly, Yasha Levine makes five claims. The the internet has a military background, that it was set up to to undertake surveillance on the American people, that the big tech companies sell to the military and intelligence services, that the Tor 'dark web' was supported by the US authorities to act as a honey trap and that the internet is used by both business and intelligence as a surveillance tool.

The military background is no surprise to anyone who has read anything about the internet's origins as ARPANET. Levine covers the history in a sometimes summary fashion, making a rather dismissive reference ('upbeat and zany') to the excellent technical history,…

Jim Baggott - Four Way Interview

Jim Baggott is a freelance science writer. He trained as a scientist, completing a doctorate in physical chemistry at Oxford in the early 80s, before embarking on post-doctoral research studies at Oxford and at Stanford University in California. He gave up a tenured lectureship at the University of Reading after five years in order to gain experience in the commercial world. He worked for Shell International Petroleum for 11 years before leaving to establish his own business consultancy and training practice. He writes about science, science history and philosophy in what spare time he can find. His books include Atomic: The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb (2009), Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ (2012), Mass: The Quest to Understand Matter from Greek Atoms to Quantum Fields (2017), and, most recently, Quantum Space: Loop Quantum Gravity and the Search for the Structure of Space, Time, and the Universe (2018). For more info see: www…

The Rise of Science - Peter Shaver ***

This is a bit of weird one. The book combines history and philosophy of science with everything from an assessment of religion to futurology and it's hard to see how it all fits together.

We begin with the history bit. In an 84-page section, Peter Shaver takes us on a whirlwind tour of the entire history of science. It's too long to be compact, but too short to develop any interesting stories. We then go on to a rather laboured collection of requirements for knowledge elicitation (things like curiosity, imagination, determination and so forth), an exploration of the nature of science today and a brief consideration of the future.

Throughout, the presentation is very summary (except, perhaps for those requirements for knowledge, which seem to go on too long - but that may be because they themselves are too summary). We end up with a collection of facts - never getting into enough depth and lacking any sense of narrative flow. There is plenty of information here but it could al…