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Showing posts from November, 2019

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…

Ship of Strangers (SF) - Bob Shaw ***

Bob Shaw was a solid performer amongst British SF writers in the second half of the twentieth century. He's perhaps best remembered for Other Days, Other Eyes, which has the very clever conceit of 'slow glass' - glass that it takes light years to pass through - but Ship of Strangers is a more straightforward story of interstellar exploration, featuring a survey ship that specialises in surveying uninhabited planets.

Shaw does a respectable job - it's readable and the challenges faced by the protagonists are imaginative. Most of all, it reminds me of what I really miss about older SF books - it's only 160 pages long and couldn't be used as a doorstop. In format it's effectively a set of linked long short stories (or short novellas), with the main character Dave Surgenor involved in a series of adventures from unexpected alien encounters to a bizarre new cosmological phenomenon.

The only things that date the book are the use of tapes for data storage (it'…

Something Completely Different - Conundrum

The Popular Science site specialises in reviews of popular science and science fiction books, but with the gift-buying season upon us, we wanted a chance to let you know about a book by our editor, Brian Clegg, that makes an idea present for the kind of person who reads the books reviewed here. 
The ultimate trial of knowledge and cunning, Conundrum features 200 cryptic puzzles and ciphers. The solutions link throughout the book – so you need to solve them all to get to the final round.

With a focus on ciphers and codebreaking, Conundrum contains twenty sections, each built around a specific subject from music to literature, physics to politics. To take on Conundrum you need good general knowledge and the ability to think laterally. But if you need help, there are plenty of hints to point you in the right direction. 

Whether you attempt to crack it alone or work in a team, Conundrum will challenge you to the extreme.


Can you take on Conundrum and win? There’s only one way to find out…

Pap…

Foyles - a new name on our reviews

For many years we have provided links to Amazon to make it easy to buy copies of the books reviewed here. We receive a small affiliate fee for this, with no extra cost for the buyer.


We are continuing to do this, but we have moved UK sales to one of Britain's best-known bookshops, Foyles. There are a number of reasons for this, but from the buyer's viewpoint, you will be supporting a UK business and there's free shipping on all books.

You can find out more about Foyles on their website.

Deep Learning: John Kelleher **

This is an entry in a series from the MIT Press that selects a small part of a topic (in this case, a subset of artificial intelligence) and gives it an 'essential knowledge' introduction. The problem is, there seems to be no consistency over the target audience of the series.

I previously reviewed Virtual Reality in the same series and it kept things relatively simple and approachable to the general reader, even if it did overdo the hype. This book by John Kelleher starts gently, but by about half way through it has become a full-blown simplified textbook with far too much in-depth technical content. That's exactly what you don't want in a popular science title.

What we get is plenty of detail of what deep learning-based systems are and how they work at the technical level, but there is practically nothing on how they fit with applications (unless you count playing games), which are described but not really explained, nor is there anything much on the problems that a…

Fire, Ice and Physics - Rebecca Thompson **

It's easy to see the way that science fiction can fit with a 'science of' treatment - less so a fantasy such as Game of Thrones, which is the topic of the latest in this long-lasting genre. However, it's certainly not impossible. The Science of Middle Earth, for example, does a great job of exploring the scientific content of Tolkien's output, so it doesn't seem unreasonable that Rebecca Thompson should be able to do the same for George R. R. Martin's blockbuster series of books and the accompanying TV show.
I ought to say straight away that the title here is a little misleading, as by no means all of the content is physics. It covers paleantology, biology, zombieology (is that a word?) and more - but physics probably has the biggest word count, perhaps fitting as Thompson is a physicist. She tells us that the idea of the book is to use the popular fantasy series to introduce science to a wider audience, but I'm not sure that the way the material is pr…