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The Idea of the Brain: Matthew Cobb *****

Matthew Cobb is one of those people that you can’t help but admire but also secretly hate just a little bit for being so awesome. He is professor for zoology at the University of Manchester with a sizable teaching load that he apparently masters with consummate skill. He’s a scientific researcher, who researches the sense of smell of fruit fly maggots; I kid you not!  He’s also an attentive and loving family father but he still finds time and energy to write brilliant history of science books, three to date. His first, The Egg and Sperm Race, describes the search for the secret of human reproduction in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and is one of my favourite history of science books, on the period. His second, Life’s Greatest Secret is a monster, both in scope and detail, description of the hunt to decipher the structure and function of DNA that along the way demolishes a whole boatload of modern history of science myths. The most recent, and the subject of this review, is

The Search for Life on Mars - Elizabeth Howell and Nicholas Booth ***

From the book’s enticing subtitle, ‘The Greatest Scientific Detective Story of All Time’, I was expecting something rather different. I thought the authors would kick off by introducing the suspects (the various forms life might take on Mars, either now or in the past) and the kind of telltale traces they might leave, followed by a chronological account of the detectives (i.e. scientists) searching for those traces, ruling out certain suspects and focusing on others, turning up unexpected new clues, and so on. But the book is nothing like that. Continuing with the fiction analogy, this isn’t a novel so much as a collection of short stories – eleven self-contained chapters, each with its own set of protagonists, suspects and clues.

Some of the chapters work better than others. I found the first three – which despite their early placement cover NASA’s most recent Mars missions – the most irritating. For one thing, they unfold in a way that’s at odds with the cerebral ‘detective story’ na…

Patricia Fara - Four Way Interview

Patricia Fara lectures in the history of science at Cambridge University, where she is a Fellow of Clare College. She was the President of the British Society for the History of Science (2016-18) and her prize-winning book, Science: A Four Thousand Year History (OUP, 2009), has been translated into nine languages. An experienced public lecturer, Patricia Fara appears regularly in TV documentaries and radio programmes. She also contributes articles and reviews to many popular magazines and journals, including History Today, BBC History, New Scientist, Nature and the Times Literary SupplementHer new book is Erasmus Darwin.

Why history of science?
I read physics at university, but half-way through the course I realised that had been a big mistake. Although I relished the intellectual challenge, I was bored by the long hours spent lining up recalcitrant instruments in dusty laboratories. Why was nobody encouraging us to think about the big questions – What is gravity? Does quantum mechani…

The Big Ideas in Science - Jon Evans ***

The starting point of a review like this has to be to congratulate the author on his achievement, Jon Evans, because getting all of science into one relatively short book is a massive (and thankless) task. Although inevitably the result is a fairly hectic dash through the material, with limited space for subtleness, Evans manages to make the experience readable and has a light touch that is effective without becoming too simplistic.

There is only one reason this book doesn't get four stars - it's not the quality of the writing but rather the selection of the contents. Of course, there is bound to be plenty of stuff missed out - how else could you get all of science into 269 pages? But the balance is strangely skewed. Chemistry is pretty much omitted, though aspects of chemistry occur under other headings. But for me, the real problem is that physics is really under-represented. It's interesting to use Jim Al-Khalili's recent excellent physics summary title The World Acc…

Stormblood (SF) - Jeremy Szal ****

Practically all the action-based SF books I've read in the last few years have had female protagonists, so it seemed almost odd to find Stormblood taking us into the world of Vakov Fukasawa, a male former soldier, bio-enhanced using 'stormtech', an addictive substance that gives the user added strength, self-healing and courage in return for becoming more aggressive - sometimes uncontrollably so. However, it didn't take long to get swept up in Jeremy Szal's fast-moving story.

Part of the development in the story is finding out more about what stormtech actually is (a revelation that sets us up nicely for a sequel - it's not really a spoiler to say it's alien DNA, as it's on the book's cover), but a lot simply involves Fukasawa taking on his demons, fighting to stay alive in the face of an increasingly imposing set of enemies, and trying to extricate his brother from a drug-smuggling ring that proves to be far more than it first seems. Initially, Fuka…

Erasmus Darwin - Patricia Fara *****

Patricia Fara has written a number of accessible history of science titles in the past, for example Science: a four thousand year history and Sex, Botany and Empire - but they have been conventional, if readable, academic titles. In her book on Erasmus Darwin (finally making it into paperback after eight years), she subverts the genre, along the way making it the most enjoyable relatively heavy-duty history of science book I've ever read.

Fara claims in her introduction that her approach was inspired by reading Lolita on a train: one of Humbert Humbert's thoughts inspired her to ponder the nature of history and how the process of uncovering what happened in the past differs from the straight line narrative we usually read. As a result, Fara draws us into the unstructured process of discovery, where new, sometimes serendipitous, findings can send the writer off on a whole new tack.  (I say 'claims in her introduction' not in a negative way, but because Fara does warn …

Ainissa Ramirez - Four Way Interview

Ainissa Ramirez is a materials scientist and sought-after public speaker and science communicator. A Brown and Stanford graduate, she has worked as a research scientist at Bell Labs and held academic positions at Yale University and MIT. She has written for Time, Scientific American, the American Scientist, and Forbes, and makes regular appearances on PBS's SciTech Now. Her new book is The Alchemy of Us.

Why science?

All children start off as scientists with their perpetual curiosity about the world. Long ago, I was no different. I was an inquisitive little girl and loved science because it was a way of understanding my surroundings. But as an adult I have come to understand that the importance of science is not solely because of the answers it provides, but because it offers a much needed forum for asking questions. Asking questions is a critical skill we need in our society today, in order to best shape it. 

I have come to this belief because we live in a world where new discoverie…

The Dark Side of the Sun (SF) - Terry Pratchett ***(*)

Terry Pratchett was a great writer of humorous fantasy novels, but not everyone knows he tried his hand at straight science fiction before starting on the Discworld books. I had a real problem rating this book - I really need to be able to give it four stars for ideas and three for quality of writing.

Pratchett takes us on a whirlwind trip (there's probably not more than about 50,000 words in the book, but he packs a huge amount in) around a future universe where there a few humanish species (plus intelligent robots and a couple of strange entities like a conscious planet that acts as a bank), living in the shadow of a much older, mysterious disappeared species known as the Jokers, who left behind vast, incomprehensible monuments. The central character, Dom Salabos, is about to take over his planet-wide family company... except first he has to survive increasingly frequent attempts on his life and to discover a destiny put in place by his father.

To get the less positive bits out of…