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Showing posts from December, 2019

Peter Wothers - Four Way Interview

Dr Peter Wothers is a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Chemistry, University of Cambridge, and a Fellow and Director of Studies in Chemistry at St Catharine's College. He is heavily involved in promoting chemistry to young students and members of the public, and, in 2010, created the popular Cambridge Chemistry Challenge competition for students in the UK. Peter is known nationally and internationally for his demonstration lectures and presented the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, titled The Modern Alchemist, in 2012. In 2014, he was awarded an M.B.E. for Services to Chemistry in the Queen's Birthday Honours.. His new book is Antimony, Gold and Jupiter's Wolf.

Why chemistry?

I’ve been pretty much obsessed with chemistry from about the age of 8.  I built up quite a substantial home laboratory with all sorts of things that are (quite rightly) banned now (such as white phosphorus) and also used to go to second-hand bookshops to find chemistry texts.  Eventually I boug…

A Brain for Numbers: Andreas Nieder ***

In dramas it's not usual for someone dumping a partner to say 'It's not you, it's me,' - and that's how I felt about this book. I'm sure some readers would find it really interesting, but it didn't work for me.

I think the main problem is that that I'm interested in maths, but not so much in how human and animal brains handle numbers. So I found the opening and closing chapters, which deal with the nature of numbers (specifically zero in that closing chapter) I enjoyed, but the vast majority of the book explores the design of experiments to try to understand how animals perceive numbers (or don't), what we can learn from them, and how animals' and our brains react to numbers.

As soon as I see a map of the brain, I'm afraid I turn off - there's an element of Richard Feynman's famous complaint about biology students wasting their time learning the names of all the bits in a cat's nervous system. However, if you are interested …

The Story of the Dinosaurs in 25 Discoveries: Donald Prothero *****

Two things worried me about this book. One was the title. Publishers love the 'topic in n chunks' style for some reason, but often such books feel too bitty and insubstantial. And then there have been quite a lot of palaeontology books recently, making dinosaurs seem old hat. But I needn't have worried. After a couple of pages, Donald Prothero had me hooked. As his easy style introduced the earliest fossil discoveries, from a giant salamander originally assumed to be an antediluvian man (even though he or she would have had a head shape more suited to a Dr Who alien) to the knee-end of a dinosaur thigh bone that briefly gave the first identified dinosaur (megalosaurus) the Latin name 'Scrotum humanum', learning about our gradually growing understanding of the dinosaurs with Prothero was like attending the best kind of dinner party, replete with entertaining stories.

Although Prothero does give us plenty of information about the various dinosaurs covered (the 25 ch…

Brandon Brown - Four Way Interview

Brandon Brown is a Professor of Physics at the University of San Francisco. His research includes work on superconductivity and sensory biophysics. He enjoys writing about science for general audiences, including articles in such outlets as such outlets as New Scientist, Scientific American, Slate and Smithsonian.

Why science?

I had many interests in school, but science - physics in particular - seemed to come most naturally to me, and I had little capacity for memorization. I loved languages and cultural anthropology, for example, but these subjects didn't come as easily as physics. I also seriously considered a direct path toward 'being a writer', but I received what turned out to be excellent advice from a writing professor: Why don't you try to be a scientist, and write from there some day?

Why this book?


I do not have a background in space science, or space history. In fact, I was never too interested in NASA growing up. I simply took it for granted: NASA was just whe…

Antimony, Gold and Jupiter's Wolf - Peter Wothers ****

There aren't many popular science titles on chemistry topics, so it was great to see Antimony, Gold and Jupiter's Wolf (the last, in case you are wondering, is tungsten, aka wolfram). As a science writer I think I was the perfect target audience, because Peter Wothers combines history of science, the study of the origin of the names of the elements and general chemical revelations in his elemental tour, which proved delightful.

Wothers begins with the original seven metals, each with their links to the heavenly bodies (a number stubbornly held-to significantly after it was clear there were way more than seven metals), then brings in a range of other elements (and occasional element names that never made it, such as anglium, scotium and hibernium) in a series of equally entertainingly linked chapters, whether its 'Goblins and Demons' (think bismuth, antimony, cobalt, arsenic and zinc) or 'Lodestones and Earths'.

The book is primarily looking back quite a way in…

Starsight (SF) - Brandon Sanderson *****

The first book in this trilogy, Skyward, was good - but Starsight isn't in the same league. It's ten times better. From the opening few pages where we are plunged into a dogfight in space, readers are sucked into an adventure that doesn't let up. The previous novel was slow starting, but got to be a real page turner in the last few chapters - here, the need read on is relentless from the very beginning.

Apart from not needing to introduce the main character Spensa and go through the process of reassembling her find of a unique intelligent ship, which runs through the first half of the original novel, what really makes this addition to the trilogy so much better is it dispenses almost entirely with the juvenilia. Spensa may still be a teenager, but she spends the majority of the book away from her friends and what results is a much more mature piece of writing. It can still be read and enjoyed by younger readers, but it works far better for the older reader by effectively …