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Showing posts from February, 2019

The Spirit of Inquiry - Susannah Gibson ****

I have to say straight away that my four star rating comes with a proviso. I loved this book. And if you, too, are fascinated by the history of British science and are interested in Cambridge University, you will too. What we have here is a history of the Cambridge Philosophical Society (remarkably generously published by Oxford University Press, given it chronicles Cambridge's rise to be a superior science university) - a society that proved surprisingly influential in the rise in the study of science, and physics in particular, at the University of Cambridge.

Don't be surprised if you have never heard of the Cambridge Philosophical Society - I hadn't, and I studied natural sciences at Cambridge. (That's 'philosophical' in the sense of natural philosophy - i.e. science - not the wooly stuff, by the way.) The reason it is relatively unknown, I suspect, is that unlike the other philosophical societies and 'lit and phils' that sprang up around the UK at …

Mission to the Heart Stars (SF) - James Blish ***

It's interesting, going as I have from reading this 1965 science fiction novel to a modern one. The good news is the modern ones are better written and less sexist. The bad news is that the modern one is far too long (at least three times the length), weighs four times as much (it's bigger format too) and is, inevitably, book one of a series, where most 60s novels were standalone.
That last comparison is a little unfortunate as Mission to the Heart Stars is the second of James Blish's 'Heart Stars' novels - but still there were a lot more individual novels back then. It's only by going back to my old books that I can find a novel I can read in a couple of days, and that's something that can be very satisfying. I blame Dune and the successors in Herbert's series for giving us the doorstop SF book. I loved Dune back in the day (though I find it a bit heavy-handed now), but it still has a lot to answer for.
One advantage of the short SF novel is that the …

Solving Chemistry - Bernard Bulkin ***

This is an odd one - it's a memoir highlighting the chemistry in the career of Bernard Bulkin, who has been a significant figure in both academic and industrial chemistry (the latter primarily at BP). It's interesting that Bulkin does not really define what chemistry is - something we rarely attempt to do (the Royal Society of Chemistry's website doesn't say what it is either). Instead, Bulkin places chemistry with respect to the other sciences, filling the gap between physics and biology.

By far the most fascinating content here is Bulkin's assertion that chemistry is finished - that unlike any other significant field of science, it's pretty much complete in the academic sense. There are plenty of new applications to be worked out - but the fundamentals are pretty much there: perhaps this isn't a great time to be a theoretical chemist (as opposed to an applied one), though Bulkin certainly gives the impression that he enjoyed his time in academia (even if…

The Wonder Effect (SF) - Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth ***

Revisiting a classic collection of short stories by two greats of relatively early US science fiction, Pohl and Kornbluth (my copy dates to 1969, the collection to 1961). It's a short book with only 9 stories in it, which Fred Pohl in his introduction admits are a mix of relatively recent (1959-61) and somewhat ancient (early 1940s). Incidentally, that intro gives some interesting insights into how this duo worked together. Some of the early stories are quite weak, particularly the plodding adventure Mars-Tube, which has none of the edginess and wit of their later stories - and that's why I can only give the book three stars. But some of the other stories are top notch.

The opener, Critical Mass, is set 50 years into the Cold War - you really have to have been around during it to understand and really feel that sense of constant background fear and almost an acceptance that at some point the nuclear holocaust will come. There's a classic short twist-in-the-tail story in A…

The Future of Fusion Energy - Jason Parisi and Justin Ball ***

There is no doubt that fusion, the power source of the Sun, has the potential to be a significant contributor to our future energy needs. It's clean, green and continuous, able to fill in the gaps where wind and solar simply can't deliver. It uses cheap fuel and doesn't produce much in the way of nasty waste. And it can't undergo any sort of runaway reaction. So it's certainly a worthy topic for a popular science title. This book covers one aspect of fusion power - tokamak reactors - in great depth for a relatively non-technical book. But as we will see, it will only really work for a limited audience.

You won't necessarily realise it from the cover, which I interpreted as emphasising that Homer Simpson will still have a job when Springfield Energy converts to fusion power, but Jason Parisi and Justin Ball have packed The Future of Fusion Energy with information on the detail of how fusion reactors work, and all the difficulties that are faced in getting a stabl…

Space Exploration – Carolyn Collins Petersen ***

Normally when I’m reviewing a book I start by accentuating the positive. But with this one I’m going to begin with a negative, because I want to make a point. Why do publishers insist on marketing books at the wrong audience? The first thing you notice when you pick this one up is a strapline from Publishers Weekly: ‘A handy reference for space fans and professionals alike’. That sounds great to me – I’ve been a fan of space exploration for 50 years now, and while I’m not exactly a professional I’ve written several books of my own on the subject. So there’s nothing I’d like more than an up-to-date, pocket-sized reference book.

But that’s not what this book is – not by a long shot. A reference book has to be organised in a way that helps the reader find the specific fact they’re looking for very quickly. That means either a strictly logical arrangement – typically alphabetical or chronological – or else a really good index (this book doesn’t even have a bad index). Another thing a refer…

Professor Maxwell's Duplicitous Demon - Brian Clegg ****

‘It’s not uncommon when trying to give Maxwell his rightful place in the pantheon of physics to bracket him with Newton and Einstein’, Brian Clegg says towards the end of this book. In one sense that’s perfectly true. Dip into any physics textbook and you’ll see Maxwell’s name at least as often as the other two. His greatest achievement – Maxwell’s equations – did for electromagnetism what Newton had done for gravity, while laying the essential theoretical groundwork for everything Einstein was to do.

There’s a big difference, though. A few years ago, when I was offered the chance to write short biographies of Newton and Einstein, I jumped at it – because they addressed mysteries of the universe that anyone can relate to, and their lives outside physics were, if anything, even more fascinating. At the risk of sounding downright rude, you can’t say either of those things about James Clerk Maxwell. In spite of that, Brian Clegg has done a wonderful job here of recounting just what Maxwel…

Alice and Bob Meet the Wall of Fire - Thomas Lin (Ed.) ***

This book contains a considerable amount of good (and interesting) science - but, for me, it's not a good science book. A book should have structure and flow, leading the reader through its narrative. This is a collection of articles (from the website Quanta). As a result, what we've got here is a magazine in book's clothing. And at that it's not a very good magazine.

What do we look for in a science magazine? Good illustrations, for one. Even a top-level science magazine such as Nature has plenty of illustrations and graphics. Here there are none. Also we want a smorgasbord of interesting articles - the origin of the term 'magazine' is a storehouse - the editor's job is to ensure variety and range, so even if one article isn't really to your taste, the next one will be something completely different. Here, the articles are grouped in topics, and are often quite similar within the topic - many even have quotes from the same handful of scientists over a…

Paul Parsons - Four Way Interview

Dr Paul Parsons was a theoretical cosmologist at the University of Sussex, and is now a science journalist and author. He has contributed articles to the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph and New Scientist, and has served as editor of the award-winning BBC science magazine Focus and as managing editor of BBC Sky at Night magazine. His previous books include The Periodic Table, How to Destroy the Universe, The Science of Doctor Who (longlisted for the 2007 Royal Society Prize for Science Books) and 30-Second Theories: The 50 Most Thought-provoking Theories in Science. His latest book is The Beginning and the End of Everything.

Why science?

The short answer is I’m very lazy! I just don’t seem to get very much work done if I don’t find the work obsessively, head-hurtingly interesting. I’ve loved maths, physics and astronomy since school. Understanding how things work, and using that knowledge to make predictions and solve mysteries is fascinating to me. And the systematic nature of maths and t…

The Cosmic Mystery Tour – Nicholas Mee ****

This is another book, like last year’s Enjoy Our Universe by Alvaro de Rújula, that sets out to provide a light-hearted introduction to physics and astrophysics for the general reader. It’s from the same publisher (OUP) and packaged in the same way: as a high quality small-format hardback with 200 glossy pages, the majority of them adorned with colour pictures. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Unlike its predecessor, this new book by Nicholas Mee delivers exactly what it promises.

It’s not that de Rújula’s book was a bad one, but he just wasn’t able to think his way into the reader’s mind. He kept saying ‘physics is fun’, but he was talking about the fun a professional physicist gets out of doing it – which is a very arcane, often highly mathematical, type of fun. The result, for a non-specialist reader, was actually quite alienating. Mee, on the other hand, understands exactly how his readers think, what they find interesting, and the details that – no matter how important they …

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…