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Showing posts from August, 2021

10 Short Lessons in Time Travel - Brian Clegg ***

Time travel, as Brian Clegg reminds us in his first chapter (sorry, first lesson), was a popular fictional subject long before it found its way into mainstream science. That it did is largely thanks to Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which is a notoriously abstruse area of modern physics. So it’s no easy thing to produce a popular-level book that really gets to grips with the serious science of time travel, and it’s to Clegg’s credit that he achieved just that in his brilliant How to Build a Time Machine (aka Build Your Own Time Machine)  ten years ago. This new book is rather different, approaching the same subject in an altogether more lightweight way. Appropriately enough, it’s part of a series called ‘Pocket Einstein’. But the fact that Einstein keeps cropping up in it  – with topics like quantum entanglement and Einstein-Rosen bridges as well as relativity – is largely coincidence. Other titles in the same series include Artificial Intelligence and Renewable Energy , whi

Rogue Moon (SF) - Algis Budrys ****

This is arguably the most amazing science fiction novel of its period. Written in 1960, it was surely shocking at a time when the big SF sellers relied on characters that were so wooden and stock that they would have regarded Pinocchio as a real boy. It's not that Algis Budrys did away with those stock characters - we still get the obsessed scientist, the bitter hard-bitten antihero, the vamp and so on - but what he does with those characters is unprecedented. The underlying premise of Rogue Moon has been reused by Hollywood quite a few times. It effectively crops up, for example, in The Prestige , Source Code and Edge of Tomorrow - one of the main characters repeatedly dies. In this case it is because a mysterious alien object found on the Moon kills everyone who enters it. An attempt at a solution is to use a (newly developed) matter transmitter to make two copies of a person, one who goes through the object and dies, the other of whom is still on Earth. The Earth copy somehow

The Hydrogen Revolution - Marco Alverà ***

The idea of using hydrogen to aid our move to green energy is gathering pace. At one point it was described primarily as a replacement for petrol in fuelling cars - though Marco Alverà does mention this still as a possibility for some vehicles, the far bigger picture is for hydrogen's role as a potential replacement for natural gas and as a means to store energy to enable to it to be transported from solar-rich locations, or to hold energy for use at time when renewables aren't delivering, such as in winter in many European locations. Despite portraying the seriousness of climate change's impact, Alverà is relentlessly upbeat about the capability of hydrogen in sorting out our problems. It ought to be said upfront (and perhaps isn't explored enough in the book) that Alverà is CEO of an energy pipeline company that is moving into hydrogen in a big way, so to say that he has a potential conflict of interest is, if anything, understating things. This doesn't mean that

How to Talk to a Science Denier - Lee McIntyre ***

Anyone who has friends in the US probably has at least one who could be described as a science denier. Lee McIntyre offers us the intriguing promise of delivering 'Conservations with flat earthers, climate deniers and others who defy reason.'  There are certainly elements of this present, which is when the book really comes alive, but the problem for the reader is that (not entirely the author's fault) it doesn't deliver on that promise. The majority of the book, which doesn't involve such conversations, but rather McIntyre's pondering on the matter, seems often to go round and round in circles on the difficulty of doing anything about science deniers' beliefs. Unfortunately, though McIntyre does get to speak to flat Earthers, he fails to meet any climate change deniers (frankly, he doesn’t try hard - rather than go to a Trump rally, for example, he accesses a self-selected group from a mining community). Similarly his idea of going to a Whole Foods store t

The Awakened Brain - Lisa Miller ****

Publishers are like sheep: once a couple of books on a topic do well they follow in droves, and at the time of writing, the flock is thundering down the path of human brain books. These really have got distinctly samey - but Lisa Miller does something entirely different with The Awakened Brain , which despite being very much on the familiar topic of a link between an everyday concept and mechanisms in the brain gives us two real innovations. Firstly, this is a book, as the subtitle describes it, on the psychology of spirituality. Specifically, it describes how having a spiritual belief (religious or not) has a significant effect on the brain, particularly in the ability withstand or recover from depression - this, Miller (a professor of clinical psychology) points out is a hugely timely discovery when depression, and pharmacological treatment of it, seems to be significantly on the rise. Secondly, this is as much a memoir as a science book - it contains significant details of Miller

Asteroids: Clifford Cunningham ***

Why is someone going to buy a glossy, large-format book with the one-word title ‘Asteroids’? The obvious reason is that asteroids are a hot topic these days, both as the destination for several recent space probes – including high-profile sample return missions Hayabusa 2 and OSIRIS-REx – and with a multitude of ongoing searches for near-Earth objects (NEOs) that may threaten a devastating collision with our planet. If you’re anything like me, those are sufficient incentives to pick up a book like this – and, if you’re anything like me, you may be disappointed with what you find inside. It’s not that those topics are absent, but they’re deeply buried in historical material the reader is likely to find much less exciting. Clifford Cunningham, on the other hand, quite clearly does find this material exciting. A historian of astronomy who’s specialised in asteroids for over 30 years, his discussions of, say, the discovery of Ceres and the coining of the term ‘asteroid’ draw heavily on his

Ruabon (SF) - Karl Drinkwater ****

Karl Drinkwater has been busy adding novellas to his Lost Solace series to fill in different aspects of the story. This contribution works well - it has all the elements that make it a useful addition. Firstly, it ties strongly into the main series novels in a very clever way. Secondly, it's pretty well all action. There can be a danger with backstory-type novellas that they meander rather than carry a narrative thrust, but that's not the case here. And finally, there's a strong thread of AI, which is so central to the Lost Solace series. The central character here, Ruabon, is a cadet in a system relatively recently absorbed into the overarching society that features in this series. In a classic SF move (see, for example, the recent novel Artifact Space , where a midshipman briefly has to take charge of a massive starship), the cadet ends up calling the shots when things get really difficult. There are some clever twists in Ruabon which would be too much of a spoiler to

Ten Days in Physics that Shook the World - Brian Clegg ****

Joining the host of books with a number in the title, Brian Clegg's Ten Days identifies key dates in history when a theoretical or practical breakthrough in physics would lead to developments with a significant impact on our lives. It's a nice format as it gives an opportunity to put the idea into context - for example, providing other world events that happened in the same year - and it gives the reader a chance to discover more about the individual(s) involved as human beings, not just as scientists. There is a good mix of familiar names - Newton, Faraday, Curie and Einstein, for example - and of more obscure contributors, like Clausius, Kamerlingh Onnes, James Biard and Vint Cerf. Of course, like any other 'best of' type of selection, it's possible to argue about what should and shouldn't be included. We don't get the origin of quantum physics, for example, although there are several 'days' where the discovery is quantum related, so perhaps that

Secret Worlds - Martin Stevens ****

An often-intriguing exploration of animal senses - both those familiar to us and (arguably most interestingly) those outside our human experience, such as the detection of electrical and magnetic fields. In each chapter, Martin Stevens gives us a wide range of examples of a particular sense in everything from spiders to bats, from naked mole rats to platypuses. I have to confess I enjoy a good surprising science factoid - and there are a good number of these. I particularly liked the discovery that some bats' echolocation sounds are so loud that, if we were able to hear them they would be louder than a pneumatic drill (my comparison - he tells us the decibel level). The book's only real failing is suffering from the biological science writing trap that was underlined by Rutherford's infamous dig 'all science is either physics or stamp collecting.' Although there are plenty of places where Stevens explores why something happens, there's also an awful lot of catal