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Showing posts from June, 2019

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 greate

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

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 t

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 pi

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 b

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 w

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 pr

Jacob's Ladder (SF) - Charlie Pike ****

This book had two things on the back that might have put me off - but having read it, I'm really pleased they didn't. First, from the blurb it's clearly a dystopian work, about an extremely unpleasant Earth in 2203. With a few notable exceptions, I really don't like dystopias. The world is miserable enough as it is - the last thing I need is to read about more misery for entertainment. And it's also labelled Young Adult. I think this is a mistake - it's no more Young Adult (which in bookspeak means teen) than an X-rated horror movie. The protagonists may be late teen, but for me this is solid adult fare. This made reading the first few pages a matter of trepidation - but I was soon reassured by Charlie Pike's strong writing style. The reader is engaged quickly with the main characters, and drawn along by a powerful, page-turning narrative. The Earth is dying due to solar flares, made worse by weird weather, manmade killer bugs and more. But there h

Make, Think, Imagine - John Browne ***

When you read a politician's memoirs you know that, nine times out of ten, it won't really quite work, because the message can't carry a whole book. It's reminiscent of the old literary agent's cry of 'Is it a book, or is it an article?' It's not that there aren't a lot of words in such tomes. It's almost obligatory for these books to be quite chunky. But it's a fair amount of work getting through them, and you don't feel entirely satisfied afterwards. Unfortunately, that's rather how John Browne (former head of oil giant BP)'s book comes across. It's not that the central thread is unimportant. It used to be the case, certainly in the UK, that science, with its roots in philosophy and the pursuit of knowledge, was considered far loftier than engineering, growing out of mechanical work and the pursuit of profit. There is, perhaps, still a whiff of this around in some circles - so Browne's message that engineering ha

Thor Hanson - Four Way Interview

Thor Hanson is a biologist whose research and conservation activities have taken him around the globe. His previous books include The Impenetrable Forest,   Feathers (longlisted for the Samuel  Johnson  Prize) and The Triumph of Seeds . He has appeared on BBC Radio 4 and contributed to publications including BBC Wildlife and the Huffington Post. He lives on an island in the Pacific Northwest, USA. His latest book is Buzz . Why history of science? Simply put, curiosity.  I can’t stop asking questions, and that habit led me naturally to a career in science, where questions are the coin of the realm.  Writing books allows me to dive even more deeply into the topics that I find so fascinating, ferreting out stories that I hope will make others feel the same way! Why this book? I wanted to broaden our appreciation of bees beyond the one species we know best, the domestic honeybee.  In an era when  pollinators are experiencing widespread population declines, it behooves us to know,

The Moon - Oliver Morton ****

Like most amateur astronomers, as a teenager I found the Moon by far the most rewarding subject for observation with my little telescope. Stars remained just points. The planets showed little detail. But the Moon became a landscape I could explore. Reading Oliver Morton's book brought back that feeling of fascination with our nearest neighbour in space, an engagement that was intensified for me by the book's exploration of the Apollo programme and Morton's regular excursions into science fiction references, most notably a lengthy stroll through Heinlein's classic The Moon is a Harsh Mistress . There's a lot to like here, whether it's Morton's description of the cramped conditions in the lunar module, the consideration of the collision that is thought to have caused the Moon to be formed or the lyrical, almost polemical exploration of the sadness felt by those who witnessed the Apollo 11 landing and assumed it was a beginning of something wonderful, n

God Emperor of Dune (SF) - Frank Herbert *****

The fourth book in a series is a test for any author, especially at the time this was written (the 1980s), when trilogies were frequently the limit. Frank Herbert exceeded expectations with God Emperor of Dune , which managed to capture some of the scope and power of the original. Although not quite as effective as Dune itself, Herbert here manages the near impossible of taking a no-longer-human character in the apparently monstrous part-human, part-sandworm Leto and making him both interesting and sympathetic. For a few pages, the reader suffers a significant disconnect. The action is set more than 2,000 years after the previous book. Yet it's to Herbert's credit that with such an apparently unlovable central character and this disjoint from our old familiar characters, it doesn't take long before the reader is immersed. There are inevitably some irritations. As always with Herbert you get rather more cod-philosophy and metaphysical musings than are desirable - a