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Showing posts from March, 2022

The Sloth Lemur's Song - Alison Richard ***

Despite the title, this is not a book about the sloth lemur's song (as Alison Richard admits, we don't even know if this extinct animal did sing), but rather a combination of a story of a personal love for Madagascar with a chronological trip through Madagascar's geological and biological history and prehistory. What shines through here is Richard's deep passion for Madagascar and the book really comes alive when she relates personal experiences. Notable, for example, was the description of a walk involving passing through a location crammed with leeches. We are told that 'By the thousand, they looked like a waving lawn' and a colleague 'pulled 80 leeches off one leg and then stopped counting'.  There is lots of good stuff in here, but some parts of the content, notably when dealing with areas outside Richard's own field (for example geology and the history of grasses) didn't truly engage the reader. I also found the structure haphazard - I'm

Plato's Labyrinth (SF) - Michael Carroll ***

This is an interesting contribution to Springer's innovative 'Science and Fiction' series, which includes both SF novels and non-fiction books about science and science fiction. It is Michael Carroll's fourth contribution to the series that I've read, preceded by On the Shores of Titan's Farthest Sea , Europa's Lost Expedition and Lords of the Ice Moons . As with its predecessors, there is an interesting 'now the science part' at the end, covering wide ranging topics - in this case from quantum physics to palaeontology. Carroll has improved on the previous book - each novel seems to step up a notch from the last. By far the biggest advantage this title has is in moving the setting to Earth - Carroll's writing works better here than in hypothetical outer planet moonscapes. In fact, the first part of the book works so well I was entirely ready to give it four or five stars, but there were a couple of issues as I continued to read that dragged it

Star Power - Alain Bécoulet **

This book was a disappointment - more on that in a moment. The aim is to give us the picture of the development of nuclear fusion as a power source leading up to the latest and best incarnation of a fusion reactor, ITER. In principle, fusion offers us the best option to balance out the variability of wind and solar - an on-demand energy supply that is green and doesn't produce the same level of nuclear waste as fission. But the timescales are mind-numbing. Fusion energy has already been in development for over 60 years. ITER, a project that was first conceived 34 years ago is expected to fully operational by 2035 with experiments continuing for 20 years. This would take it to 67 years from first conception. And ITER isn't even a prototype for a working power station - that's the next stage. In part, Alain Bécoulet does give us a picture of why things have taken so long - because, for example, handling the lively, ultra hot plasma at the heart of a magnetic confinement react

A World of Women (SF) - J. D. Beresford ****

The MIT Press series 'Radium Age' introduces us to science fiction from the sometimes forgotten period between pioneers such as Wells and Verne and the pulp era. This was relatively easy to do with the introductory collection of short stories, Voices from the Radium Age , as the SF short story was already a fairly polished form by then, but many of the novels of the period were turgid - finding one that is both illustrative and still readable must have been something of a challenge. Although A World of Women has its tedious passages, it is nonetheless an eye-opener. Of course, the editors must have thought they had struck gold when they saw what it featured - a pandemic (described as a plague) that starts in China then spreads relentlessly around the world. There is particular resonance early on with Covid, when John Davys Beresford gives us a debate between the economics of staying open to the world and the potential benefit of closing borders immediately. But there is one hu

A new (free) way to subscribe to all Brian Clegg's online writing

Thank you to the over 1300 of you who currently subscribe to . I'm trying out a new way to subscribe (still for free) to all my online writing - I'd be grateful if you could give it a try and see if it works for you.  Just go to  and sign up with your email address. You will then get notifications when I publish new pieces online, not only in this blog but also in a range of other places from  Nature  and  Chemistry World  to my  personal blog Now Appearing . You can also take a look at anything I've published previously there. If you like the new approach (which provides a digest if there's more than one post, rather than separate emails for each article) it's best to unsubscribe from my mailing list at if you are already signed up to avoid duplication. But if you'd prefer to stick with your current subscription, that's fine - it won't be going away. Feature by Brian Clegg

Supernova - Or Graur ***

A solid entry in MIT Press's pocket-sized 'essential knowledge' series, introducing supernovas. (The author would not like my use of this plural: he sniffily comments that 'although "supernovas" is sometimes used in popular media, it is seldom used by astronomers'. This is because 'nova' comes from the Latin - which it does - but perhaps it's worth pointing out we are writing in English, not Latin.) A supernova can be one of several different types of collapsing/exploding stars: Or Graur gives us a good deal of detail on current best ideas on the different ways a supernova can form and behave. Along the way, we are introduced to the history of our noticing supernovas, the role of star remnants in distributing the heavier elements across the universe and how astronomers use supernovas as standard candles to measure great distances (amongst other things). Graur is unusually flexible for an astronomer here, allowing that dark energy is based on d

The Psychology of Time Travel (SF) - Kate Mascarenhas ****

In some ways, time travel is a mainstay of science fiction - one of the key tropes, even though it's a technology that is never likely to be made practical. However, a surprising amount of time travel fiction (think, for example, of practically all of Dr Who ), simply uses time travel as a vehicle to get to a particular time without exploring the convolutions and complexities that the time travel produces. I suspect this is often because it's difficult to present a story laden with time paradoxes without the reader losing track.  Certainly many of the best attempts, such as Heinlein's All You Zombies , have been short stories that limit the potential for confusion. Plenty of kudos then to Kate Mascarenhas for giving us a novel that really plunges into time travel up to its elbows yet remains easy to follow. In general I don't like books where the reader keeps being switched to flashbacks and flashforwards - it quickly becomes irritating. Yet even though practically ever

Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid - Thor Hanson ****

There have been many books on climate change, but Thor Hanson's quirkily titled contribution takes quite a different tack - it's about the impact climate change has on species and how they respond through moving, adapting, evolving or clinging on to a remnant of their original habitat. This could have been a dull and worthy catalogue of doom, but Hanson's personal and chatty approach gives us a more balanced insight - sometimes it's a relatively good news story, though there is no doubt that remarkably small changes in climate can have a noticeable effect on the local flora and fauna, and in some cases, with nowhere to go and limited ability to adapt. this will lead to species being wiped out.  The impact of climate change is illustrated through a whole host of different species. We meet marmot-like pikas and Joshua trees, dovekies and anole lizards (the 'hurricane lizards' of the title, which feature in a bizarre experiment involving a leaf blower to test how t

Voices from the Radium Age (SF) - Joshua Glenn (Ed.) ****

I was a bit suspicious of this collection of science fiction(ish) stories from between 1905 and 1931, mostly because of the way it is framed by the series editor, Joshua Glenn. The implication is that this is proto-science fiction bridging the scientific romances of the end of the nineteenth century with the so-called golden age of SF from the 30s to the 50s. However, this seems extremely artificial to me. The likes of Wells and Verne were, without doubt, writing science fiction. Denying this because the label hadn't been invented yet is like claiming there weren't any scientists before 1834, when the word was coined. However, that's just a distraction, because there are some remarkable stories here that are well worth encountering. Inevitably they tend to have a certain flabby wordiness, typical of the period, but that doesn't prevent them from being interesting, all the more so because they had less of an existing genre history to build on. In a couple of them, I have

Racing Green - Kit Chapman ****

It's a perfectly reasonable assumption that a book about a topic you (and most of the world) have no interest in will be uninspiring - and for me, motorsport is on a par with watching paint dry without the aesthetic content. However, David Sumpter's Soccermatics had proved to me that it was possible to take a similarly boring subject and make an enjoyable popular maths title based on it - so perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised that I enjoyed Racing Green . In part, this is down to Kit Chapman's skill as a storyteller. I often moan about a lack of narrative in popular science books - this book oozes with it. If anything, there's almost too much. Where Sumpter gave us quite a bit of detail on the maths of the 'beautiful game', Chapman gives fleeting glimpses of the science and technology involved in this most technical of sports, sometimes with no more science content than a shampoo commercial. Even so, I can forgive that for the range of technologies