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Showing posts from August, 2022

Tomorrow's Parties (SF) - Jonathan Strahan (Ed) ****

I've read several of MIT Press's science fiction short story series 'Twelve Tomorrows' (for example, the original Twelve Tomorrows  book and Make Shift ), and this is probably the best of the lot.  The stories here are described as featuring 'life in the Anthropocene'. Strictly, this is just the era when humans have had a significant impact on the environment, but has mostly been taken as life following catastrophic climate change. Despite this dystopian context, the idea (hence the 'parties' of the title) was to 'take rational optimism as a moral imperative, or at least a pragmatic alternative to despair.' I'm not sure that rational optimism is the prevailing emotion, but there are a couple of excellent stories here, plus two more that have superb ideas, despite being heavily flawed. There are probably only two clunkers, one of which was so boring I had to give up on - but that's par for the course in an SF story collection. The real sta

Nomad Century - Gaia Vince *****

At risk of saying what everyone else is saying, this is a really important book, because it's covering something that hardly anyone seems to be thinking about, but that has a huge impact on our future. It's not really a climate change science book - for that you'd be better off with something like Bill McGuire's Hothouse Earth - it's more about the politics and economics of dealing with a huge impact of climate change will have - mass migration. Arguably this means it isn't really a science book at all (anyone who thinks economics is a real science either doesn't know what science is, or doesn't know what economics is). However, because the impending crisis is driven by a scientific issue, and has to respond to scientific forecasts, I think it's worth thinking of it within the popular science canon. What Gaia Vince does very powerfully is show how the changing climate is going to force humanity into large scale migration, with most likely well over

Planting Clues: David Gibson ***

The pedants amongst us have to start by raising an eyebrow at the subtitle (supertitle?) 'how plants solve crimes'. Plants do not solve crimes - people solve crimes. What was intended was more 'how plants are used by forensic scientists to help them solve crimes' - but I suppose that's not so snappy. In theory, this should be a page turner as a book as it combines science with real-life drama. We're told a fair number of true crime stories where plants have been used as vital evidence. But, unfortunately, David Gibson does not have a flair for storytelling and it all comes across as rather flat. It doesn't help that there's such a focus on US law, with only passing references to Europe/UK - and most puzzling of all, on a regular basis a story will start with something like 'In 1997, Merle and Nicky Merlaue (not their real names) bought waterfront property...' Why don't we get their real names? Presumably the court cases are a matter of public

Soviets in Space - Colin Burgess ***

I grew up in the 1960s and 70s when human spaceflight – one of the most exciting of all endeavours, in my (admittedly biased) opinion – was progressing at a headlong pace. There were only two players in those days, the United States and the Soviet Union, and the information available was distinctly asymmetric. The nerds among us might have wanted technical specifications and high quality photographs of all that gleaming space-age hardware, but we only really got that on the American side. Soviet news releases focused much more on the lives and personalities of the cosmonauts, and their spectacular achievements in space – particularly if they were world firsts. In essence, that’s what Colin Burgess provides in this book, updated for a new generation of readers who may not even have been born when the Soviet Union disintegrated 30 years ago. Bookended by a historical introduction and forward-looking final chapter, it’s a chronological mission-by-mission account of the Soviet space progra

Bill McGuire - Five Way Interview

Bill McGuire is Professor Emeritus of Geophysical and Climate Hazards at University College London, a co-director of the New Weather Institute and was a contributor to the 2012 IPCC report on climate change and extreme events. His books include A Guide to the End of the World: Everything You Never Wanted to Know and Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Volcanoes. His first novel, Skyseed – an eco-thriller about climate engineering gone wrong – was published in 2020. He writes for many publications, including the Guardian, The Times, the Observer, New Scientist, Science Focus and Prospect and is author of the Cool Earth blog on Substack. Bill lives, runs (sometimes) and grows fruit and veg in the wonderful English Peak District, where he resides with his wife Anna, sons Jake and Fraser and cats Dave, Toby and Cashew. His latest book is Hothouse Earth: an Inhabitant's Guide . Why Science? They say write about what you know. I am a scientist, so

Existential Physics - Sabine Hossenfelder *****

If I had six stars to give this book, I'd do it. Sabine Hossenfelder's first book for the general public, Lost in Math , showed just how much some aspects of theoretical physics were based on maths-driven speculation. That was arguably one for the science buffs only - but in Existential Physics she takes on questions that really matter to all of us. Many of these questions hover on the boundary between science and philosophy - but this is no repeat of a book like Hawking and Mlodinow's unimpressive  The Grand Design , which attempted to show that we no longer needed philosophy or religion because science can do it all. Rather, Hossenfelder manages to show where science can tell us things we didn't expect... and where it does not give any helpful contribution to answering a question. Delightfully, these answers are not at all what you might expect. For example, Hossenfelder makes it clear that the various 'how did we get from the Big Bang to here' theories, such

On (SF) - Adam Roberts ****

This early Adam Roberts novel, is coincidentally, the third SF book in a row that I've read with teen protagonists. Tighe is a teenage boy (he's described as younger because his civilisation uses 20 month years) in a primitive society, inhabiting a strange world where everyone lives on ledges in a vast wall that appears to be thousands of miles high. Primarily by accident, Tighe gets to experience different cultures on the Worldwall, as well as the terrors of war and some evil, oversized insect life. Eventually we (but not he, because he can't grasp it) get to discover what is really happening. I won't give the game away here (though the cover image gives a hint). There are strong similarities contextually with Christopher Priest's Inverted World. That novel is also set in a location that seems to depend on strange physics - in the case of Priest's world, one where the Earth appears to have taken on a hyperbolic shape and a city has to be moved all the time to

The Premonitions Bureau - Sam Knight ****

Not everyone would class this as popular science, but it concerns an attempt to take a scientific approach to paranormal abilities - notably premonitions (aka clairvoyance) and as such, it fits the category. Writing in the typical dramatic storytelling style of a US magazine, Sam Knight brings to life the remarkable tale of the work of two British figures from the 1960s. The central one is psychiatrist John Barker, with a supporting role given to newspaper and TV science reporter Peter Fairley. Barker had a long interest in extra sensory phenomena - the story takes off when he was inspired by a number of people claiming to have foreseen the Aberfan disaster (which terrible tragedy Knight covers movingly). As a result of the Aberfan premonitions, the pair were responsible for London's Evening Standard newspaper setting up a long-running experiment in the form of 'The Premonitions Bureau.' Aware that the Aberfan predictions were only reported after the event, and hence flawe

David Latchman - Interview

Professor David Latchman, CBE, is a leading UK academic and author of a number of science titles, currently holding the position of Vice-Chancellor of Birkbeck, University of London.  As Vice-Chancellor, Professor Latchman is the chief academic and administrative officer, and has been responsible for the development of the university since his appointment in 2003.   Professor Latchman serves as Chairman of the trustees of the Maurice Wohl Charitable Foundation, an organisation dedicated the empowerment of the Jewish community through education, employment, medical advancement, and welfare. He also serves as a trustee of the Maurice and Vivienne Wohl Philanthropic Foundation, as well as a number of other committees centred around education, and scientific and medical research in the UK and Israel.  This interview is for National Book Lovers' Day (August 9th). Why should books be important to us? Books have always been a big part of my life, and for many reasons. My love for them sta

The Curious World of Science: Simon Flynn ****

Simon Flynn, whose career has transitioned from book publisher to science teacher, is surely ideally placed to put together what feels (surely intentionally) a little like a science book equivalent of one of those Victorian cabinets of curiosities. This chunky volume consists of a set of short, illustrated articles covering a very wide range of science and maths topics. One moment we're reading about the classic Monty Hall problem, then perusing Darwin's infamous list of pros and cons for getting married. Some of the historical detail is delightful - I was really interested, for instance, in the time when Leicester Square was home of scientific entertainment - first Lever's museum of 'Natural and other Curiosities' and then the amazing Royal Panopticon of Science and Art which featured a 100 foot fountain in its foyer - it looks incredible and it's so sad it soon disappeared. This book is a supercharged version of Flynn's 2012 The Science Magpie - while pro