Skip to main content


Showing posts from February, 2021

Life After Gravity - Patricia Fara ***

Patricia Fara has a way of making history of science different by looking at what may be a familiar topic from an unexpected angle. In this partial biography of Isaac Newton, dealing with his time in London, she takes this approach with mixed success. The best thing is that we see more of this time in Newton's life, which tends to be dealt with relatively quickly in standard scientific biographies, as his focus was primarily dealing with the Royal Mint and the Royal Society. That the word 'royal' appears twice here is no coincidence, as we see a picture of a new Newton emerging, getting away from his near-monastic scientific life at Cambridge to become a more social creature, with a distinct interest in keeping in with high society, including the royal family. Perhaps the most interesting thing for me was the way that Fara brings in a topic that I've rarely seen mentioned in Newton biographies - slavery. Newton might not have been actively involved, but the slave trade

A New History of the Future in 100 Objects - Adrian Hon ***

Adrian Hon has taken the concept of the successful BBC radio series 'A History of the World in 100 Objects' and imagined a future version of this, looking at dates from 2020 to 2079. Hon makes it clear in his author's note that this is intended to be informative fiction rather than futurology, but the reality is that all futurology is fiction, and it's inevitable to read this book as much in the vein of futurology as pure science fiction. Certainly the New History shows the futility of futurology as anything other than fiction, since the 2020/2021 examples have no reference to the pandemic - which is particularly ironic as object number 10 is an automated courier, first used to take something to a market, which is demonstrated in Wuhan. To begin with, I really enjoyed the entries. (They can't really be referred to as objects because many of them are events, people or documents, rather than actual objects.) The first, for example, really brings out the power of the

A Song for Molly - Jeremy Bernstein ***

This is quite probably the strangest popular science/maths book I have ever read. There have been a good few attempts to combine science writing with fiction, as A Song for Molly does. It's a great idea, but from the results I have seen so far, extremely difficult to do well. What Jeremy Bernstein does is different from anything I've seen before, and in some aspects works very well. Let's start with what I love about this book. Every now and then I have lunch with the varied collection of individuals who once made up the Lancaster University Christmas University Challenge team. We're a very different bunch, and the group includes brilliant raconteurs. The lunches are a delight, in part because of the way the conversation ranges far and wide. There is a similar joy in Bernstein's range of interests as his book skips from the ideas of Wittgenstein to the attempts to decipher Linear A/B, from Cantor's ideas on infinity to game theory. It really feels like sitting

Psychology and Inscape

Louise Carey is author of the science fiction thriller Inscape . she has co-written two novels for Gollancz, The City of Silk and Steel and The House of War and Witness, as well as a graphic novel, Confessions of a Blabbermouth for DC Comics. She co-runs the Dungeons and Dragons blog Tabletop Tales. Louise lives in Welwyn Garden City with her partner. When I started writing Inscape , I was studying Psychology at Oxford Brookes University. Some of the theories I was learning about—especially theories about child development and the bond between parent and child—made their way into the book in various shapes and forms. Attachment Theory and Bowlby’s Maternal Deprivation Hypothesis Attachment theory is an area of psychology that focuses on infant development, and what young children need in order to grow up into emotionally and psychologically healthy adults. Attachment theory holds that children develop best when they have a secure, stable attachment to their caregiver/s. An attachment i

Cracken at Critical (SF) - Brian Aldiss ****

When I first read what might be broadly called new wave SF, back in the 70s, I assumed a lot of it was difficult to understand because it was very deep. Now I'm a writer myself, it's now pretty obvious that a lot of this impenetrability was down to sloppy writing. While there is some of Brian Aldiss's 1987  Cracken at Critical that seems to have suffered from being written quickly without much editing, the overall book is, nonetheless, impressive. Part of the reason I think it's clever is the way that Aldiss has succeeded in re-using old material to good effect, a boon for the jobbing writer who has to earn a living from his words. What we have here is apparently alternative history science fiction story set in Finland, where Churchill was killed in the 1930s and the Germans won the Second World War. The central character is a classical composer: on the way home from a not-entirely successful symphony premier, he discovers a dead girl's body, which precipitates a d

The Quantum Menagerie - James Stone ***

This is a well-structured introduction to the mathematical basics of quantum mechanics, highly recommended for the right readers. Stone wisely, in terms of introducing the physics, avoids a purely chronological approach, instead aiming to fit together a picture in the way that makes it easiest for readers to get their heads around, building mathematically through the book. Stone does a good, solid job of this. In the book's preface, he tells us 'Books on quantum mechanics come in two basic formats: popular science books and textbooks. By contrast, this book represents a middle way between these formats, combining the informal approach of popular science books with the mathematical rigour of introductory textbooks... The material in this book should be accessible to anyone with an understanding of basic calculus.' The approach and the resultant impact on its audience is interesting. Providing something in-between popular science and a textbook is an interesting concept, but

Fundamentals - Frank Wilczek ****

In keeping with the trend of having seven this or ten that (Carlo Rovelli has a lot to answer for), physicist Frank Wilzek sets out to give us 'ten keys to reality'. As Wilczek explains in his introduction, the aim is to explore two themes: abundance and seeing things differently, with a childlike curiosity and lack of preconceptions. The author also points out that he aims to offer an alternative to religious fundamentalism. As he notes, many of his scientific heroes were devout Christians, and he 'aims to transcend specific dogmas, whether religious or anti-religious'. In essence there are two things going on in this book. On the one hand, each of the ten main sections covers a fairly straightforward aspect of physics and cosmology, though not from the viewpoint of a physical theory so much as context such as space, time, natural laws and so on - in this, it will be familiar ground to anyone who has read a popular science physics primer. But the aspect that lifts Wilc

Kate Greene - Four Way Interview

Image copyright Dia Feli Kate Greene is an essayist, poet, journalist, and former laser physicist whose work has appeared in Aeon, Harvard Review, the New Yorker, The Economist, and WIRED, among others. She was second-in-command on the first simulated Mars mission for NASA’s HI-SEAS project. She holds a BS in chemistry, an MS in physics and an MFA in poetry, and has taught writing at Columbia University, San Francisco State University, and the Tennessee Prison for Women. She lives in NYC. Her latest book is  Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars . Why science? The mystery! And discovery, but mostly the mystery—the questions, the transmutation of a question into something approaching an answer that often leads to more questions. It’s good if you’re curious. A renewable resource.  Why this book? I had to write it so it’d stop taking up so much space in the brain. There were too many strange and satisfying connections between my HI-SEAS experience and the rest of life to ignore.   What’s next

The Rag and Bone Shop - Veronica O'Keane ***

Many people don't realise how recently medicine has come to be scientific. This didn't really occur comprehensively with most areas of medicine until the second half of the twentieth century. The area that has arguably lagged far behind the rest is mental health, where outdated Victorian ideas (such as those of Freud) with no scientific basis have clung on, as if we still resorted to bleeding people to make them better. Although the book centres on memory, Veronica O'Keane shows impressively how the increasing awareness of the impossibility of divorcing aspects of the mind from the physical aspects of the brain make it necessary to have a very different understanding of mental health issues. Often an understanding of physical problems with the brain have been developed from medical cases, and O'Keane takes us effectively and interestingly through some of these cases and the functions of the different parts of the brain relevant to memory and how problems with them can i

The Raven's Hat - Jonas Peters and Nicolai Meinshausen ***

This book promises something intriguing - 'a series of engaging games that seem unsolvable - but that can be solved when they are translated into mathematical terms.' Such a title succeeds or fails on two key aspects of that promise - are the games engaging and are the mathematical solutions comprehensible to the general reader. Before getting into the detail, I must say that I loved the illustrations by Malte Meinshausen, featuring characters that are an endearing cross between a raven and the old 'Spy vs Spy' illustrations in Mad magazine. As will become clear, I do have some difficulty with the content as far as the general reader is concerned, though some will definitely find it interesting. Are the games engaging? I'd say mostly not. The first, which features hat colour guessing, is the most so, as it's just about imaginable playing it as a real game. Similarly, there's a magic trick involving a pack of cards that feels as if it could just about be usab