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Showing posts from September, 2020

Niall Deacon - Four Way Interview

Niall Deacon is an astronomy researcher and writer, and lives in Heidelberg, Germany. His research focuses on failed stars called brown dwarfs and giant planets orbiting other stars. His first book Twenty Worlds tells the story of planets around other stars. Why science? I’ve always been someone who loves finding things out. When I was a kid I used to love reading non-fiction books, atlases, books about flags or football stadia etc. I’ve just transferred that to working in science because science is a collection of ways of working things out. There’s just something really exciting about rolling up your sleeves and trying to interpret a dataset, trying to find out what it says about the Universe. Why this book? There were a few themes that came together writing this book. The first was that I wanted to write something that covered as wide a range of exoplanet science as possible. I’ve spent years sitting in seminars and conferences listening to talks about lots of amazing science. I wan

Rite of Passage (SF) - Alexei Panshin ****

It has been so common for science fiction novels to have a female protagonist that it can come as a bit of a surprise when there's a male central character, but back in 1968 when Alexei Panshin wrote this coming-of-age story, it was an unusual feature. We meet Mia aged 12 and follow her next few years on a ship originally designed to transport colonists to new planets, but since the destruction of the Earth acting as interstellar traders in technology to the low-tech colonists. The focus of the book is the preparation for and experience of the rite of passage that provides the title. Fourteen-year-olds are dropped on a hostile colony world for 30 days. If they survive they become adults on the ship. It was interesting to re-read the book after recently watching the TV show The Good Place , as these are the only two works of fiction I can think of where ethics and moral philosophy play such a front-and-centre role in a drama. (Interestingly, although literary fiction tends to look d

Mage Merlin's Unsolved Mathematical Mysteries - Satyan Linus Devadoss & Matthew Harvey **

The authors of Mage Merlin's Unsolved Mathematical Mysteries don't seem to quite know who it was written for. The title and the general theming around Arthurian legend pitches it at an audience of children, maybe even young teenagers. However, the content is anything but aimed at that audience. The book is a collection of unsolved maths problems very loosely fitted to the idea of it being a collection of questions asked of the great wizard Merlin. From such a description, or a flick through the pages, you might think that this is some kind of puzzle book for you to solve, but this isn't the case. Rather, it's a collection of relatively mundane (if esoteric) questions which despite the efforts of hundreds of years of professional mathematics we still haven't solved. With sixteen mysteries in all there is a wide selection of different kinds of problems. For example the first question is: 'Can you cover a 201x201 meter square using six 100x100 meter squares (witho

What is Life? - Paul Nurse *****

Ever since the success of Carlo Rovelli's Seven Brief Lessons in Physics there has been a fashion for short, smart-looking small hardbacks which almost always have a number in the title or subtitle. Paul Nurse's new (and first) book fits in perfectly as an attractive little number with the subtitle 'understanding biology in five steps'. Such books fall into two broad categories. Some (like Seven Brief Lessons ) are little more than expensive collections of a handfuls of woffly essays. But some - and What is Life? is a good example - manage to pack a surprising amount of content into an informative, readable bite-sized chunk, easily consumed on a commute or at bedtime. Nurse makes no secret of the fact this is not a very original title, echoing amongst others quantum physicist Schrödinger's vastly influential book from the 1940s. However, what Nurse does here is quite different. Each of his five steps is a major component to understanding the nature of life

The System - James Ball ****

The internet, whether via the web or services making use of the network such as email, is a huge part of most of our lives, both at work and socially - never more so than during the 2020 pandemic, when video meetings and remote working have proved so useful. In this insightful book, James Ball takes us under the surface of the internet to see the parts of it - both good and worrying - that we aren't usually aware of. We start with some history, featuring an interesting interview from Steve Crocker, one of the architects of the original network. The background and technology is a topic that deserves more depth of coverage (I can recommend the book  When Wizards Stay up Late to get the full picture), but it isn't the main focus of The System . After that introductory material, Ball takes us into the competing worlds of those who provide the physical network that connects us to the internet and those responsible for the software running on it. Where in the UK, such networks typica

Tales of Science Fiction (SF) - Brian Ball (Ed.) *****

This short story collection from the 1960s, mostly featuring 1940s and 1950s stories, looks unpromising. It was published by Penguin's defunct young adult imprint Peacock, and with its clunky title and unimpressive cover it looks like a waste of space on the bookshelf. But it contains what are simply some of the best science fiction short stories ever written - for any age of reader. Although inevitably one or two feel a touch old-fashioned, on the whole they've aged incredibly well and have very little to suggest just what classics they are. Stories include Arthur C. Clarke's Hide and Seek , in which a spy in Mars orbit in a spacesuit attempts to evade a battle cruiser, Robert Heinlein's Life-Line , exploring the impact on society of a device that uses the concept of the block universe to predict an individual's precise time of death, Paul Ernst's invisible attacker in Nothing Happens on the Moon , John Christopher's poignant Mr Kowtshook about an alien at

Twenty Worlds - Niall Deacon *****

This is a truly entertaining and informative book, but the reason I’m giving it the full five stars has as much to do with the refreshing novelty of the author’s style as anything else. There’s novelty in the subject-matter too – the wide variety of recently discovered exoplanets orbiting other stars – but even so this is the third book on the topic that I’ve read. The first two were a lot less fun to read, and (without naming and shaming the authors) it’s worth a brief diversion to explain why. The first author was a university professor with a vast knowledge of the subject, who seemed determined to convey the entirety of that knowledge without stopping to think whether it was interesting or necessary for a general audience. The second author – another academic – took a different but equally tedious approach, with a plodding chronological account that focused as much on the dull routine of the scientists involved as on their work. Niall Deacon doesn’t make either of those mistakes. He

How to Drive a Nuclear Reactor - Colin Tucker ****

How To Drive A Nuclear Reactor does exactly what it says on the tin. The book is a general overview of nuclear reactors. From the basic principles that make them work through to what buttons to press in what order (and of course how and why they can go wrong). Nuclear power could be a good step on the path to a greener energy future, but there is a lot of understandable fear. This book can give some idea of what an incredible feat of both science and engineering one of these machines is and, hopefully, make anyone reading it feel far more comfortable about them. The book presents information about everything, almost down to the literal nuts and bolts, giving you a near complete understanding of how a nuclear works. From putting in the fuel to getting out the power and down from the control panel to the construction material. Everything you could ever want to know is here. By the end you'll likely feel ready to walk into a control room and get started (do not try doing this, nuclea

Food and Climate Change without the hot air - S L Bridle ***

My first impression here was that S L Bridle was going to have to work very hard to recover from the subtitle, which is painfully inaccurate. (Spoiler alert for those who don't like suspense - thankfully, the book is a lot better than the subtitle.) The subtitle reads 'Change your diet: the easiest way to help save the planet.' Firstly, the planet does not need saving from climate change. A good  number  of species are put at risk by climate change and human civilisation could be severely traumatised, but the planet will be just fine. It's gone through far worst in the past. Second, changing diet isn’t easy. Not at all. As Bridle makes clear, one longhaul flight has the same impact as a whole year of food consumption, while even a shorthaul flight contributes a similar amount of greenhouse gasses as the change that could be made by a transformed diet. It's much easier to not take one flight than it is to change several meals a day. (Of course it's best to do

Ingredients - George Zaidan ***

Is processed food bad for you?  That’s the big question that George Zaiden seeks to answer in Ingredients: The Strange Chemistry of Plants, Poisons & Processed Foods . Of course, since this is a book, and not a tweet, the answer is a little more complicated than yes or no. Taking a broader look, the book explores the things that we put into (and onto) ourselves when we eat, smoke, or use sunscreen. Zaidan seeks to explore not just whether these things are good for us or not, but how we know whether certain ingredients are harmful. I really appreciate Zaidan’s dissection of the scientific method, and how we learn about the effects of various chemicals. He goes through the benefits and shortfalls of various types of scientific studies in even-handed and easily accessible ways. I also enjoyed his commentary on the way the press presents nutritional findings. You often see things like 'Coffee causes/cures/prevents/worsens cancer' and Zaidan goes through where these ofte